v: The Business of Belief (Young Crowley Learns A Lesson)

and every time you think you're lookin, you're just lookin back...

The tokenized utility marker has been a tool of local trade for nearly as long as transactions have been formally ritualized by the human animal, although its role as an arbitrating appendage of the state would come tens of thousands of years after its initial pre-historic introduction. As state powers centralized, they were slow to recognize the value of a controlled currency; the benefits of its functions were not immediately apparent to the leadership castes, who couldn’t yet square the solidity of their nation’s economies with their own tenuous grip on power.

But as as the kingdoms in the heart of the pre-Silk Road Western world coagulated into institutional nation-states, creating emergent localities of concentrated commerce, the coin’s usefulness as a magisterial stand-in became undeniable; so much so that those states began to tie their very worth to their tender, by imbuing it with their mark. The result of that seemingly simple act of prescribed franking would have consequences that were wide-ranging, far-reaching, and profoundly unintended. 

The earliest examples of state-backed coinage can be found in the kingdom of Lydia, a prosperous empire seated in what is today the Turkish province of Urik. In the sixth century BC, the Lydians produced a centralized currency known as the Lion Coin. These were small, thick ovoid pellets, made of a plentiful local ore known as electrum, and franked by the golden-maned mark of the Lydian state via a simple mechanical press, in a process known as ‘stamping.’

The Lion Coin may have been a far cry from the mass-produced, highly-stylized composite-metal wafers we know today, and poorly suited to the efficient design of the coin slot. But that stamp mark was a sign of the shared cooperation of a society, and regardless of how compelled that cooperation was from on high, it was still a symbol that sought to literalize such fancies as standardization and trust on a cultural scale.

Its tremendous efficiency quotient quickly became self-evident; the ease with which formal tender mitigated the inherent tension of ambiguity which had vexed commerce since the dawn of intra-tribal trade was hard to comprehend. It turned out that humans actually craved the safety and violence implied by the mark of the state.

Culture-wide acquiescence to that centralized force was truly what replaced the nebulousness of unregulated transactions in the ancient world, resulting in the final formalization of the sort of structural behavior necessary for large-scale empires to assemble. Cash money could thus be approached as a primitive digitization into a kind of overarching collective consciousness; an industrial revolution in the mind, further binding us to the machines that would soon utterly dominate our lives.

Profound efficiencies beget exponential consequences, after all: as the technology of the state-backed currency spread throughout the west, it began clashing and melding with its eastern counterparts, spontaneously generating whole new economic vacuums in which to decompress. The vibrancy of this rapid expansion spurred the logistical distribution of technological innovations across a host of civilizations at a heretofore impossible scale and speed. 

It was this homogenization of international partitions that allowed for the creation of the Silk Road itself, as localized trade arteries sophisticated into prescribed circulatory networks of shared economic understanding. Once established, the Road’s sinuous reach and ubiquitous approbation played a key role in the global development of metalworking and machining; in effect, the coin was improving the efficiency of its own design by spreading the benefits of its utility.

 Over the subsequent fast and busy centuries, the machinations of the covetous human mind facilitated the coin’s expeditious maturation, and as its dominance intensified, so too did its physical aspect. State numismatics quickly moved on from those early days of press-stamped beads; processes of minting emerged that further improved and standardized the coin’s contours. Soon, the token settled into the shape of a flat, round, ridged metal disc: perfect for carrying, perfect for exchanging… perfect for slotting.

from a clown's lips to god's ears

I’m surrounded by bins full of shimmering gems and stones, buffeted by rows of flowering rocks with translucent stalks and crystallized blooms, which refract and reflect the intense beams of light pouring forth from a gridded rig of projectors directly above us. 

For a couple of long beats, I’m stunned by the dazzling cacophony of intense color, as my eyes adjust from no light to, apparently, all of it. As I avert my gaze, the sudden throbbing fades and my wits return, and I quickly put together one of the two places we possibly could be at the moment. I glance around to make sure there are no decorative torture devices nearby, and their absence means I can rule one of those places out for sure. 

Nah, there’s not much doubt; we’re definitely in the crystals aisle at L’Exuse’s, the Inner Skirts’ primary occult superstore (ever since Principia Arcanus got swallowed whole by the Haunted House and just… didn’t come back.) I’m not a stranger to this place, and although I wouldn’t call it one of my haunts, It’s always easy to quickly identify it by its overarching gimmick: a high, dark ceiling with a projected star map that simulates the night sky over different magickal moments in Reality history. 

Also, the fifty solid feet of crystal product stacked six rows high on both sides helped give it away, probably.

Right now on the shimmering overhang, according to the ambient store info being Pushed onto my feed, it is midnight above London on April 30th, 1900, during the Battle of Blythe Road, where an over-eager, wet-eared Alister Crowley goes to spiritual warfare against a grumpy, gatekeeping W.B. Yeats, and ends up either completely humbled or clearly victorious, depending on the source. 

This is, to me, a super fun little story about callow youth and cynical age that is as ridiculous as it is actual, but it’s one of those trivial things I tend to infodump at someone, only to watch their engagement chemically drain from their body. So honestly, this being on the ceiling when I come in feels aggressively on-purpose. Who in the hell else could it be for?

We once again collectively give ourselves a little stretch after yet another gymnastic endeavor, and I remember to put a tally on the counter. “You really brought me to your magic shop?” the Kid says, with an exaggerated yawn, and you can really hear his visceral rejection of the letter ‘k’ in the word.

“Yeah, I came this way to torture you. Not because it was the quickest route or anything. Y’know, because I’m really going to put effort into purposefully bringing you to a place that’ll further inflame your hatred of people enjoying things you don’t understand.” Picky grabs the grate that got knocked out in our hasty exit, and crawls under a shelf of sparkling geodes to replace it. 

I only kind of believe her. While, as I mentioned, this isn’t a hang-out of mine, I’ve spent time here mainly because she has; some of her friends work here, as did she for a minute; not to mention her tempestuous relationship with the owner (both endeavors ended at roughly the same time.) 

So I’ve done my time in this place, browsing weird shit mainly, and I really do have no small fondness for it; it’s somewhere I can reliably come, if I ever find myself in the Skirts cruising for my pinball fix, to do some free reading on delightful esoteric nonsense.

 Anyway, there are definitely a couple possible reasons beyond annoying the Kid that we’re specifically here, and I’ll be able to narrow our present trajectory down pretty quickly, depending on who I see hanging around. For sure, though, trolling the Kid with this place is at least a solid benefit for Picky, even if it isn’t her primary motivation.

“Look, I understand this bullshit as much as any of you,” the Kid says. “I like bullshit! Different bullshit, though, not this corny trash. Like, real, useful bullshit.”

“Oh, do go on about the real, useful bullshit you like, and how it makes you better than anyone in here,” Picky says, brushing the dust of the Backstage off of herself as best she can, with middling success. “Or, you know, please don’t.”  

I take a moment to give myself a wide stretch of my arms, and then breathe deep and slow for a moment in an attempt to center myself after that burst of physical activity, which used to be a less damaging endeavor, if the creaks and pops that echo out of my frame are any indication. Nothing like watching yourself disintegrate in real time.  

Picky sort of swings her arms around a little; she’s already pretty limber from her previous wind sprinting. The Kid, meanwhile, is now stretching as if he’s preparing for a marathon, deep lunges and calf extensions and shit. Feels a little late for it, but I suppose that kind of thinking is too dismissive of what may be to come.

The Kid isn’t really what you’d call “in shape,” but he actually was, for a while; his vestigial dedication to physical fitness is left over from his rightward sojourn; at some point I believe he was doing something called “Werewolf Crossfit” and no, that isn’t a bit, that’s a real life fitness-to-fascism thing that existed in the really real world. He still claims to be pissed off that it turned out to be more about the fascism than the exercise.

It’s a quiet afternoon in the back of the magick-themed box store; that is to say, a fairly normal one these days, outside of some high holidays and when the hot new charts come out. The salad days of the Drop occult market are mostly past, and the parts that are still thriving lack a sophistication that I must admit the cynic in me finds unfortunate. But then again, the kids being into different bullshit than the adults is how things are supposed to go, right?

 Still, although it’s a sparse crowd, there are signs of human presence; a couple small clumps of folks congregate both ways down the aisle, and there’s a low but distinct murmur of multiple conversations happening around us, injecting some welcome positive external energy into our ambient environment.

The front of the store radiates an evanescent enthusiasm, but its sightline is currently obstructed by a row of towering book stacks that loom just past our aisle, beyond the head-height rows of glimmering product. Over the other shelf, I can see the tops of the heads of a few more folks, browsing the retail dead zone in the back of the store, which generally only happens on what qualifies for busy days around here.

An artfully dour couple, dressed in slender matching black, the arty kind more than the pure goth sort, are the closest humans, artfully ignoring us and dourly perusing the shelves, ten or so meters up the aisle. To be honest, I’m a little jealous: they make crystal shopping look urbane as fuck. 

“Point of factual evidence,” the Kid says, finishing up his stretches by performing an ostentatious, arm-stretched twirl, as if surveying the whole of the domain, and finding it lacking. “We’re in a crystal aisle.”

“Crystals are pretty,” Picky replies, beginning to stroll leisurely down the row, her eyes casually browsing the merchandise.

“We are in a goddamn crystal aisle where the different powers and rays and energies that the crystals emit are listed on the goddamned bins.”

“You’re laying that out like some kind of grand gotcha in and of itself, and it just isn’t,” Picky shrugs, giving me a kind of roll of her eyes, which I guess is supposed to elicit sympathy, but really just signals that she’s going to engage him, oh joy. As if two materialists debating the merits of spiritualism is going to be anything but irritating, or a third, weirder materialist could really bring much to the proceedings. “It’s ha-ha and “kind of” true, but it doesn’t really damage anyone’s underpinnings of belief. It’s an observation from a position of unearned superiority.”

“I guess thousands of years of mechanical and philosophical development count as unearned, if you’re the kind of person who thinks shiny things have more power than non-shiny things,” the Kid says.

“Well, I’m the kind of person who thinks that shiny things do, in fact, have more power than non-shiny things, because it’s a demonstrable facet of the human condition.”  With a final stretch, Picky starts moving briskly down the row, necessarily walking on her tiptoes to get a studied look into the rest of the store, bolstering my suspicions about our present errand. “There’s a whole fucking row of shiny things right here that suggests human imagination finds some distinct value in the power of the shine.”

“If we’re not even going to pretend to be talking about the same thing, we probably shouldn’t attempt this clownish parlay,” the Kid says. “You know when you say “power” that it’s not what I’m talking about; you’re talking about chi or some bullshit, you’re talking metaphor and hollow belief, I’m talking about actual kinetic energy that can be observed and measured.” He thumps his fist into his palm for effect at the end of his sentence, which seems to alarm the couple as we stroll past them, although their dour glances of concern are still pretty arty and cool.

“We’re actually both using metaphors to describe purely indescribable phenomena, as you know as a language scientist, but let’s grant you that point,” Picky says. Her voice is now echoing through the cavernous twilight, and I can feel the eyes of the whole back end of the store start to cast glances our way. “The energy you’re talking about, your linguistic platform that you understand as physics, is absolutely testable, quantifiable, or at least, it should be…” 

Before the Kid can object, Picky waves him off. “Nah, you fucking know what I mean, I know physics is “real” so get off my back on that one, my fuckin’ point is, understanding the cause-and-effect rituals that have been developed over the long years has allowed for the technological wonderland of splendor known as the future, where we may or may not presently be. Congratulations, you worship one of the more powerful magicks, the one that ritualized so profoundly that it went on to become ‘science.’”

“Can we please not with the “science is a kind of magick” discourse?” the Kid whines. “I think it totally undermines your argument anyway, you’re basically pointing out the truism that ‘astronomy comes from astrology.’ But only one of those things is science.”

“Only one of them is currently science, which shows the fluidity of the definition of words, and reveals science to be merely a kind of process.” Picky says. “Magick is an explanatory crucible that contains processes like science and faith. It’s a blanket term for a methodology of understanding, not a belief structure that contains some binary ‘real’ or ‘unreal’.” 

The shimmering glow fades as we exit the aisle, and pass through a set of thick wooden beams built into the wall like a door frame, lacquered in a plastic red, designed to look like a torii gate. Once we’re through this portal, our eyes have to adjust to the flickering dimness and solemn, stony stares of the statuary hallway. 

suffer the children, suffer the boat

Enter the coin slot.  A solemn, solitary portal that exists to quickly ensnare and starkly arbitrate the concentrated truth of the tender it bears. Its design, constricting and yet discerning, is dictated, like so many portals, by the evolutionary demands of the artifact it must accommodate. And as an embodied totem of the worship and praise humans tend to afford efficiency, the coin’s diva-like demands are profoundly extensive.

  When considered in conjunction with the absolute partition that immures its mouth from externality (the coin door), as well as the fortified vault into which it empties its robust purchase (the coin box,) the coin slot denotes a formalized transition into what we might refer to as the Borgian pathetic; a learned technological helplessness that inevitably cedes power to the latest labyrinthine technologies of wealth extraction and digital grift. 

The coin slot is nothing less than a deeply-worshiped (and thus holy) aisle of condensed human mysticism. It is a church row that traverses the fuzzy entanglements of economic theory: doggerel Kensian naivety or the unmitigated cruelty of the Chicago School, and reduces all of it into pure material value via the terminal persistence of irrevocable extraction. 

The coin may be the instigator of our inherent slouching toward circuit and away from bone, corralling trade into state-approved lines of fiduciary engagement and removing local influence disengaged from a centralized economy. But it is the expediency of the coin slot that removes the need for more than a single person to be present for any given transaction.

The partially-automated bartering that the coin slot offers is an efficiency that heavily favors mechanization, a prophecy of least resistance that serves to fulfill itself. For although both parties in the transaction have gained, the human’s gain is transitory. The machine’s function is inherently focused on asset concentration; and in a reflection of empire’s natural parasitic drain on its peripheral territories, the coin slot feeds on and eventually exhausts the humanity of those it appears to offer succor.

Machines are crafty like that.


The air in here, among the stoic reckoning of a hundred dead gods, is thick with the perfumed scent of the incense bundles that smolder in dull bronze sconces, cast to resemble human hands, that line the soot-caked inner wall. In between the incense holders are similar hand fixtures, only these are gripping onto ornate bronze lanterns that shimmer from within with an indiscernible flame.

The outer wall flickers with the soft luster of what might be a couple hundred statues; visages of brass and jade, iron and granite, tin and cement, sitting in neat rows on receding shelves, depicting icons of various religions, beliefs, and philosophies. They vary wildly in dimension, from a few inches to nearly life-size (do human dimensions apply to divine beings? Anyway…)

There’s a section dedicated to the pagan gods of the early West (mainly the Norse and Roman pantheon but shout-outs to my girls Brighid and Nematona, representing,) as well as a few Hoodoo and Vodou figures, of course segregated together (at least I know the difference between High John the Conqueror and Baron Samedi by now,) totem fetishes of the Pacific islands, assorted Catholic iconography with a particular focus on Mary (although writing it out, that feels deeply redundant…) a gilded Satanic shrine to Baphomet, which stands practically arm in arm with three different Christs, none of them Christ. 

In fact, seated in the famous sensory-deprivation-three-monkey pose, are the statues of Horus (blinded), Krishna (deafened,) and who I think is supposed to be Zoroaster, but who’s excessively round cheeks, phony looking beard, and general too-wide eyed countenance while he plugs his gullet from speaking, give him an uncanny look that always strikes me in a different funny way.

“Orson Wells, during an early Sunday matinee, late in his life and the life of the Mercury Theater, when it was running out of money for a proper beard budget, holding in gin vomit during the last five minutes of Agamemnon,” I say, after considering him for a moment.

“Wells was, like, thirty when the Mercury disbanded,” Picky notes. “And still pretty svelte. Definitely not sober, though, I’ll grant you that.”

“Well, we’re all using our imaginations right now, Picky, so let’s just… do that,” I sigh. “Just let our little mind rules go, and imagine the fun world that I created with the power of my latent dreaming.”  

Picky scrunches up her face as if she’s really making an effort at something, and holds it there for about fifteen seconds, complete with very annoying, nasally hum that somehow warbles between bass and falsetto in a spectacularly obnoxious way. “Nah,” she says finally, with an exaggerated relaxation of her spine.

“He looks like Vince Vaughn ate John Favreau, and Chef Favs got stuck about halfway down his throat,” the Kid offers.

Thus Choked Zarathustra,” Picky finishes. “So money.” Thus satisfied, we continue.

The rest of the hallway, indeed it’s vast majority, is devoted to the Eastern gods and heroes, the kind of iconography that Westerners so often find to be picturesque curiosities with which to line their orientalist warrens. There are so, so many Buddhas: seated Buddhas, reclining Buddhas, warrior Buddhas, hell Buddhas, plainly adorned Buddhas of the Theravada tradition, Mahayanan Buddhas with their colorful flourishes, some Tibetan bodhisattvas with terrible, beautiful visages, mixed in with various Hindu deities of greater and lesser acclaim (with an over-representation of Ganesh and Shiva, based on a quick trunk-and-arms count.)

“Ok, if we could return to the argument I’m currently crushing you in, I got you dead bang; you can’t just go and dilute rhetorical meaning to such a degree that there’s nothing left for me to argue with,” the Kid shrugs. “If “magick” is just a blanket term for modes of human behavior, as you claim, it is still a thoroughly dualist one, that validates the unreal as much as the real. Fancy it up and philosophize it all you want, it’s still a belief system that gives as much aid and comfort to bullshit as it does reality. Ergo, it is functionally useless.”

“Love when you code-switch from ‘Hard Science Facts Are Literally The Only Thing’ to ‘I Sort Of Understand the Difference Between Dualism and Non-Dualism, So Metaphysics Do Matter, Actually.’” Picky snorts. ““Especially when you follow it up with a categorical statement about a hard line between what’s real and what’s illusory.”

She takes a sliver of smoldering incense from one of the holders. A replacement stick slides up from a small chute in the wall, and  a tiny, impressively articulate mechanism that looks something like a Zippo crossed with a school bell folds out of the index finger of the hand-shaped holder, gingerly lighting the stick and then snuffing out the flame; the stick sizzles into a slow cherry burn as it quivers into place.

  “The Drop is a nation of mystics, and there’s nothin’ anyone can do about it, except maybe grift off of it,” the Kid says. “I just find it stunning that someone as supposedly clever as yourself continues to stand up for one specific kind of magical thinking, when you rail constantly and violently against almost any other kind.”

“Knowing it’s all bullshit is the starting place, not the stopping place,” Picky says, coming to a stop in front of a particularly striking bronze-and-gold visage of Maitreya, the future Buddha.  She crouches before it and whispers something inaudible, then places the incense at the seated statue’s feet. “The path you’ve gone down may technically be ahead of the unquestioning zealot, but it’s a philosophical dead end.”

“See, this is one of my favorite of your nonsensical arguments,” the Kid bristles. “That somehow your form of unbelief is more “advanced” than mine because it stans for false realities.”

“It’s certainly an argument you aren’t interested in engaging in, although I don’t know if it’s because you reject it ideologically or you just don’t understand it,” Picky says, rising from her reverent crouch and moving purposefully toward the hallway’s exit: a curtain of gently tinkling charms and beads.

The Kid makes a face in her direction, and when she vanishes into the curtain’s proximity with a chime and a jingle, he picks up her incense stick and places it three statues down, in front of the nightmare bodhisattva Vajrayani, looking ready to eat the whole world for his singular, eternal pain, per usual. He then enters the curtain with me trailing right behind, and we pass from the stifling, hazy stillness of the hallway, back into the comparatively gentle, buzzing cool of the main room.

We’ve made our way to the primary reading area, a pleasant, open space with several long mahogany tables, intricately carved in the sort of runes and symbols you’d like to see on a big ol’ table in an occult bookstore: pentacles, knots and wheels, triquetra, ornate words of power splashed among finely-detailed leaves and branches. The legs of each table terminate in rich carvings of fur-capped hooves.  

“It’s a super old argument, Picky,” the Kid says, catching up to her as she strides on, heedless of our speed. “It’s a “my ignorance trumps your knowledge” appeal to pseudo-authority, and it always feels hypocritical coming from a supposed empiricist like you. I dunno how you can claim to reject this bullshit on a fundamental level but still treat it like a puzzle box that occasionally dispenses wisdom if you finesse it into the right configuration.”

“Yes, because the way I “reject” this bullshit is not by “knowing better” but by incorporating diverse systems of thought and belief into my ideological and philosophical frameworks,” Picky says. “It’s by acknowledging that what you and I know of as “wrong” are constructs, in and of themselves, and that every mode of belief reveals another form of truth that I can then add to my body of knowledge.”

“Sure, maybe, I guess,” the Kid practically spits.  “And it also injects a whole bunch more bullshit into it.” 

The seven or eight people quietly reading in this area (I can’t get an exact count because I’m too embarrassed to look at them directly) are still mostly pretending to ignore us, but their visible annoyance is getting hard to hide, and frankly, I do not blame them. The two femme cats playing chess nearest to us are the most direct, flashing us synchronized dirty looks before returning their attention to the board. 

Next to them a wild-eyed, pink skinned young man frantically and compulsively lays out tarot cards in neat rows in front of him, pulling from a ridiculously overstacked deck. From his hyperactive, dissociated state, it’s pretty easy to see that he’s very freshly manifested, and likely more concerned about the crushing ennui associated with sudden existence than two hollering loudmouths.  

The rest of the readers are doing their best, it seems, to pretend to ignore us, but I can see the tell-tale shuddering of rapidly growing anxiety in at least two bodies in my peripheral vision.

“The bullshit would be the problem if I didn’t have a mind fully capable of discerning wheat from chaff,” Picky says, her tone now more measured and half as loud; she must have picked up on the vibe. “But I do.  I have a wheat-chaff separating machine up here on my shoulders and…” here she motions around her gut and lower back. “…and here.”

“I’m really pleased you’re actually debating theory of mind with me,” the Kid says, now louder and showier. He’s also clearly picked up on the vibe, and is responding in his way  “And also that your brain is in your ass and stomach.”

“I mean, it is, kinda, this is my point. The absolute language that we use to think and speak, it hems us in, so that we think “brain” is only in the head rather than in the entire nervous system, just like you think “truth” lies only in your disbelief.” They move into the circular fire pit in the reading area’s center, while I linger at the tables, as if physical separation will keep me from being blamed by these increasingly shaking, teeth-clenching strangers for the disturbance. 

The fire pit is surrounded by eleven high-backed, velvet-lined chairs, which sit about twenty feet away from the pit’s black onyx cobblestone safety ring.  Like the tables, which match the chairs in ostentation if not exact style, they’re festooned with intricate esoteric carvings, but thanks to their proximity to the fire, they’ve been slightly singed and charred in a manner that gives them the mottled appearance of burnt, tattooed skin. The fabric that lines their upholstery, a deep burgundy in headier days, is faded and frayed to a light pink in the places it isn’t singed and black, and much has been burnt clean away. 

The condition of these once-proud thrones, the way they’ve been left to go to seed in a way that almost complements the dour interior design, is a reflection of the store’s general state. Its run down nature fits the aesthetic enough that the owner has generally tried to play it off as a design choice rather than an economic one, but that kind of scheme only passes for so long, and this place is definitely on the tail end of that particular con.

  “Truth doesn’t lie anywhere except the reality of a collapsing wave function,” the Kid says. They’re still going at it. I don’t know why I would expect them not to be.

“Please don’t undercut your weird scientism by bringing up quantum entanglement,” Picky replies.  “I know you can’t explain that shit without making it sound like magick.”

“Yeah, I can’t explain something like magnetism to you, period, because the mechanisms defy simple analogy, but that doesn’t make it magic. ”Spooky action”, whether you observe it at a distance or locally, is still an observable event, and produces data that can be untangled if you have enough perspective.”

“What do you think? You think we’re too ignorant to understand magnetism?  Think we lack the perspective to understand advanced physical concepts?” Picky calls out to me as she approaches the open stone pit in the center of the circle. The roaring fire that crackles within it is purely AR, and almost always is these days; it actually can function to produce real fire, as the scorch marks everywhere can attest to, but the operation of the ventilation system is expensive, and the fire itself requires the kind of wood that the Maker rarely seems to produces anymore, and when it does, the material is now rare enough to have real value, which means it just gets stacked up next to the rest of the expensive junk in the immense furniture mounds of the White Room.

I try to triangulate my response, or indeed figure out if I need to say anything, as I glance to my left, to see an open book on the table next to me.  It’s a slender, simple volume, almost inconspicuous, I couldn’t even tell you why I glanced at it.

I quickly absorb the three lines of text on the page:  

“Chapter Five (cont.).

”Many words lead to exhaustion. 

It is better to center on the true essence within.” 

All right. This is all beginning to feel a little fucking calculated.

"more to come" on an elephant's ass, you're probably better off not seeing it.

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