Thursday, November 3, 2011

Chapter 8: The Bark of Nephys

One of the iconic moments of Dante's Inferno is a scene where he and his guide, the Roman poet Virgil, embark across an ocean of damned souls in a small boat.

When I knew that I would be writing a story set in the afterlife, I decided I had to put my characters in a small boat, and that the voyage would have to deal with the doubt and peril of the afterlife.

Don't try to look for too close of literary parallels.  I'm not sure that the characters of Maggie, Nephys are in any way analogous to Virgil and Dante (to say nothing of Hiero!), just try to enjoy the little nod to one of my favorite pieces of literature.

(As always, the previous seven chapters are available.  Here are the links for the previous excerpts: The New Prologue, Chapter One – which was the old prologue – Chapter Two, Chapter Three, Chapter Four, Chapter Five, Chapter Six & Chapter Seven.  And you can download the whole book for FREE, this week only.  Details here.)

Chapter Eight
The Bark of Nephys
After all that screaming, the trip back to the necropolis in the skiff seemed eerily silent. The air was still and stagnant, and even the movement of the boat could not seem to stir it. Nephys was in the back, tired, and poling the boat forward. The woman sat dejectedly in the middle, her palms in her lap, her eyes vacant, near catatonic. Her head hung limply to one side, without focus. She had passed from panic, to despair to outright horror in the space of half an hour. Now she was just numb. Nephys felt it too. Only Hiero seemed to be happy, bouncing lightly on his mismatched feet in the prow. It had been a veritable smorgasbord of negative emotions. Nephys figured Hiero had been well fed on the outburst. It had been a lot of screaming.
“Vicious little imp,” thought Nephys. No wonder he went looking for these souls.
And it was a bit of luck too. Horror was an entirely different feeling than despair. The sound of her screaming had cleared away the approaching shades like a foghorn. Then there was the wreck. Ten minutes into the screaming fit, the tree and wreck had sprung to life. It pulled up its roots, which turned into a giant chicken leg, grew batwing ears and hopped around on the single appendage, a grotesque, metal, tree monster clanging its hood and trunk like a mouth on either end. All that horror had given birth to a monstrous new imp. The sight of that had guaranteed another ten minutes of screaming alone. For a moment, it looked like it might turn on the three of them, but Hiero brandished his knife at it ferociously with honks that sounded suspiciously like “Mine! Mine!” It stormed off and was probably halfway to the wastes on the other side of the swamp by now.
The silence after the screaming was so profound that when she finally spoke it surprised both Nephys and Hiero.
“I had hoped someone would be waiting for me,” she said quietly.
Hiero turned to look back at Nephys and then just snorted dismissively. Nephys grimaced at him, but said nothing.
“It’s not like I was expecting a whole big family reunion or anything,” she said after a while longer.
“Fhwerpan?” Hiero tooted querulously. She paid him no mind.
“…or checkered tablecloths spread on the grass…and water fights…and grandparents, or noodle salad, but you would think there would be someone waiting for me.”
She breathed in slowly and took a pause. She drew her knees up and hugged them to her chest, resting her chin on them.
“Verroooont?” Hiero gave Nephys an odd look. Nephys just shrugged and pushed the skiff forward a little faster.
“I guess I was really na├»ve.”
There was another long pause. Nephys said nothing.
“Is this…I mean…is this where…bad…people…go?”
Nephys had been dreading this question. Sooner or later any spirit that made it this far asked that question. People in the living world were obsessed with judgment and validation. Nephys’ grandmother had told him that his heart would be weighed against the feather of truth and that if his heart wasn’t lighter than the feather, it would be eaten by a monster. Nephys’ uncle had told him that was nonsense. He was a soldier and had survived many battles. He believed that Mithras, who had slain the Bull of Heaven, had protected him, and that he would not abandon him at the end, but there was no Mithras here.
Whatever Nephys had believed in life, he couldn’t remember exactly, he just knew it wasn’t this. There was no judgment, no condemnation or sermons when souls passed through the gates of Erebus. Kings, paupers, saints and sinners; they were all the same. They were only catalogued and measured and passed on – they weren’t even told where to go. A few asked directions, which the Children of Limbo would be happy to give them, if they had any, but it didn’t matter anyway because all paths led to equally displeasing places. Once catalogued, the souls were not anyone’s concern. Some lingered, others wandered. Some went to the pits of punishment to the South, some disappeared into the wastes to the West and became shades or lost souls. Others just ceased to be at all. Most faded away or disappeared eventually, to where exactly, no one really knew. Nowhere, probably, Nephys guessed.
Nephys realized he should say something to her.
“No,” he began sympathetically, “this is where everyone goes.”
Everyone?” she said gingerly.
“Everyone,” Nephys replied.
Her face tightened as if suppressing a sob, but then she remained silent for a long while as Nephys directed the skiff across a rare section of open water. Black lotus blossoms floated beside the boat and the way became easier. They were getting closer to the edges of the city.
After a long while she spoke again softly.
“Is it all like this? I mean…isn’t there anywhere…with any warmth or light…it’s just that…after all the stories…” she trailed off.
Nephys understood how she felt. Expectations for the afterlife were very high; it was hard not to be disappointed.
“Well…” Nephys began trying to say something positive about his home, but couldn’t think of anything, “Yes, it’s mostly all like this,” Nephys gulped. It hadn’t seemed quite so bad yesterday, but after this morning, the weight felt heavier than it had in centuries. He started again…“Once there were nicer places. Not as nice as you imagine, but …nicer.”
“Really?”
“Yes.”
“How so?”
Nephys sighed, “Well, once…long ago…the city was much bigger and brighter. There were orchards and springs. There was even a school of philosophers.”
“Philosophers? Really?”
“Oh yes, some of the greats: Aristotle, Menephis, Nasruddin, they all organized it.”
“They were here?”
“Oh yes, they were all here. Epicurus was the most disappointed by the existence of the afterlife, but Diogenes thought it was the perfect ending to a cruel joke.”
“You met Epicurus?” she asked incredulously. She was distracted now, which was better, so Nephys continued.
“Yes.”
“You took lessons from him?”
Nephys sighed through his nose, which was the closest he could come to laughing anymore. “No…not really. I heard Seneca give a few lessons, he lasted longer than most, but I mostly stayed away.” Nephys paused. “Our kind, I mean the Children of Limbo, weren’t supposed to mix with the others.” The woman didn’t answer, so he continued.
“Well, in their day…they piled the ruins of the old city up higher until it made a hill, an acropolis, and there they built their temples and stoas, gathered the people, shared ideas, even played music, but that’s all gone now. Some even managed to grow trees and plant fields, and for a while, there were farms all around the city and laughing and pleasure, at least of a sort, here in the afterlife, but it was only a pale echo of the world above. They gave it a name…they called it…”
“Elysium,” the woman whispered.
Nephys almost smiled. Not many souls knew the old names anymore. “If there were ever a golden age here…below…that was it.”
“What happened to it?” she said softly.
“It fell apart.”
“Why?”
“Everything falls apart,” Nephys said flatly, “That’s just the way things are.”
“Yes, but what about all those great thinkers? Where did they all go?”
“They’re still here…out there…somewhere. Maybe.” He shrugged. He didn’t really know. He just knew that no one had seen them in ages.
She huffed an angry sigh. “And the fields? What happened to the fields, the gardens; where are they now? The Plains of Asphodel should at least have asphodel flowers shouldn’t they?”
There once had been fields of flowers, asphodel and narcissa and daffodils, the flowers of forgetfulness. Nephys looked around, he wasn’t certain exactly where the old gardens and fields had been, they were all flooded now. “Somewhere around here I guess.”
“Here?” She said quizzically. “Under the water?”
“Yes.”
“Well, …I mean…how did that happen, what of the river Acheron…I mean the stories, is that all true?”
Nephys was impressed. This woman knew more about the underworld than most spirits these days.
“The Acheron is gone,” Nephys said flatly, “Once it ringed all of Limbo, but it over-flooded its banks long ago. This marsh is what’s left of the fields of Asphodel and Elysium, other than the small part surrounding the city and the ruins of the acropolis.”
“But…” she began then stopped. Nephys could tell she was confused. To be honest, it didn’t make much sense to him either, so he gave the pole a strong push that set the bark on a long glide that would give him time to contemplate without working.
“The people on your side…” he began, “There must be quite a lot of them now.”
“Billions,” she said.
“We could tell. An awful lot of them have been coming down. More people on Earth, means more dead down here…only things here work differently than things up there.”
“How so?”
“Up there, dreams, memories, hopes and feelings, they all seem real, but you can’t touch them, they’re not…real, not really there…but down here…” Nephys paused, he needed to give the bark another push through the brackish water.
“Down here?” she prompted him.
“Down here…those are the only things that are real.”
She was silent, but Nephys went on.
“When you die, all those dreams, feelings, emotions; where do you suppose they go?”
“Down here I guess.”
She was starting to understand.
“The River Acheron, its water, it was the well of those feelings, those dreams. That was the source of its waters…but…”
“But?” she interrupted.
“But…” Nephys continued, “More people means more dead, more dead means more departed dreams and feelings, more departed dreams mean…”
“More water.”
“Exactly. The River Acheron overflowed its banks long ago, sometime after the Black Death, and it hasn’t receded much since. Oh, the tide of the river had always ebbed and flowed, but from that time on, it just kept encroaching on the land.” Nephys pushed the bark and paused again. After a while the woman started again.
“What about the Ferryman, what’s his name…Chiron? Is that real too? I mean…you’re not him…are you?” She turned around to look at him, then turned back to look at Hiero, who was wheezing faintly in smug laughter. Whatever her vision of the ferryman, it must not have been a thirteen-year-old boy and a possessed bagpipe.
“Him? Oh, he left long ago. Couldn’t keep up with the traffic. To make the passing easier, we knocked over the remains of the city and filled in the gap between the city and the gates of Erebus. Now, instead of a ferryman, there is a broad path of rubble…oh, and the charge is free now, so I guess that’s an improvement.”
He tried to smile at her, but she wasn’t looking. That was fine because he was certain he hadn’t done it right. There was another long pause, and Nephys could start to see the faint, dim outline of the tombs and docks on the edge of the city which, with his poor eyesight, must mean they were getting close.
“So, that’s your job down here…recovering lost souls in the marshes?”
Hiero made a series of panting, punting sounds that sounded like chortling. Vicious ol’ windbag.
“Um…no…not really,” Nephys stated nervously, “This is more of a hobby…really.”
“A hobby?!” she sounded a little indignant, but it subsided. “So, what do you do down here?”
“I’m a scribe,” Nephys stated with some pride.
“A scribe? What do you scribble?”
Nephys was a little insulted by the word “scribble,” but let it go.
“Everything. The underworld is more than just the well of human souls.”
“Really?”
“Oh, yes,” Nephys explained, “Books, works of art, treasures of knowledge, when it passes out of human sight, it comes here and is made real, just like your…” he was about to say “car,” but decided not to for fear it would remind her of unpleasant things. “Well, any book or piece of writing. But it doesn’t last forever, it fades over time, just like the…”
“People?” she said suddenly interrupting him. Then she got very still. Nephys hadn’t meant to say people, but it was true enough, so he let it slide past him. He gave a few vigorous prods on the long pole and guided the bark towards the docks.
“Well, someone has to record it permanently, in indelible ink, forever in the houses of the Great Master.”
“Great Master?” she asked querulously, but there was something odd in her voice, as if she already knew the answer to her question.
“Yes, the only deathless one here. Death himself.”
“Hmmph.” She snorted. “So no noodle salad or picnics, but Death is real? That’s just great.” She folded her arms across her chest. “I suppose he’s a fright, isn’t he?”
“I don’t know.” Nephys looked for a good spot to dock. The dock was cluttered with broken and half-sunken vessels, and he didn’t want to lose this one after having taken care of it for so long. “Almost, no one ever sees him. He lives deep in a sanctuary in the center of the city, and even then he is always covered in shrouds – at least that’s what they say.” Nephys pushed further down the docks; he was too far from his house here and needed a closer spot to moor the little boat.
“So, just you?”
“Excuse me?” Nephys was having a hard time squinting and talking at the same time and he wasn’t about to use his Death Sight again today.
“Are you the only scribe?”
“Oh no, there are thousands.”
Another awkward silence filled the small boat punctuated only by the bored “pharnt” of Hiero.
“Do you like it?”
“Like?” thought Nephys. “Like” was not a word he would use to describe anything in the afterlife, but it was better than a lot of jobs. He hated greeting new souls, which made him wonder how he kept letting Hiero drag him off on these trips, but now that he came to think of it, he did like it, it was interesting.
“Well…I get to read a lot, and I learn a lot of things.”
“Like what?”
“Well, languages…”
“Which ones?”
“All of them, I guess…”
All of them?”
“Well not all of them, there are a few dialects that have no scripts, so I guess not those, but certainly all the others.”
“Really? You know every written language there is…on Earth?”
“Well, I can’t speak them all, but I can read pretty much all of them. That’s how I learned how to speak English.”
“You don’t just come by that naturally being dead?”
“Oh no, being dead doesn’t teach you anything.”
The woman “hmmph’d” again. She was certainly coming to believe from experience that death taught you nothing. Nephys continued. “Learning is pretty much the same here as it is on Earth, but of course, you do have more time on your hands, so there’s that.”
The woman looked at Nephys over her shoulder, then faced front again. Nephys could tell she was trying to place Nephys’ country of origin by his features and dress.
“Well you speak English very well.”
Nephys wanted to say “Thank you,” but it felt awkward.
“Where did you learn to speak it?”
“Excuse me?”
“What book? What book taught you to speak English?”
“Well, there was Samuel Johnson’s dictionary, Shakespeare of course, Heller, Salinger, Judy Bloom, all the greats, but my favorite was Huckleberry Finn.”
“Really?!” She turned around to face him and he nodded at her in confirmation.
“So there is a copy of Huck Finn in the library of Death himself?” she asked.
“In indelible ink that will still be vibrant when we are all forgotten shades.” Nephys said somewhat proudly. Then he adopted a formal air, cleared his throat and looked up at the vast, empty overhang of clouds or cavern roof.
“ ’We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made or only just happened.’ ”
He looked up at her and tried to smile again. It wasn’t the best recitation, but she smiled a little and turned back around. That seemed to cheer her up some.
“We had a hard enough time getting the school library to stock them,” she said, and then under her breath, “Rotten fascist censors,” before starting up again, “Maybe this place won’t be so bad after all.”
She let her knees relax and stretched her shoulders, but then held the pose as if a thought had just dawned on her mid-stretch.
“And if everyone’s here, maybe I can find…,” She paused. Hiero traded nervous glances with Nephys, “maybe I can find my mother.” She said it in a hushed tone.
She paused for a moment and wrapped her arms tighter around her shoulders as if to comfort herself with the possibility. Hiero turned around and uttered up a “BARNT puuuuTHANNTARF!” Hiero was right. He had to stop this.
“Um. You…you shouldn’t do that…”
“What?”
“You shouldn’t go looking for your dead relations.”
“Why?” she spat out.
“It never works out like you think…”
“Never works OUT?” she was yelling now, “What do you mean?! If they’re here I can see them, right?”
“Yes, but…”
“Does someone prevent you from looking for them?”
“No…but…”
“Then why can’t I…”
He cut her off short this time, “Because they won’t recognize you!!” he finally yelled at her. Then he got near deadly silent and whispered hoarsely as if trying not to be overheard, “No one recognizes each other down here. It’s this place…it makes you…forget…after a while…the only thing you can hold onto anymore is yourself… it’s the only thing you have the strength for…and when the ones who are still alive come after you…you…well you won’t recognize them either.”
She went silent and turned around slowly and drew her knees up and hugged them to her chest tightly. Nephys saw an empty dock not far ahead and pushed the bark towards it. Then she started sobbing softly.
“Fwheen! Markan FWhooooping FWHEEN!” Hiero bleated out exasperatedly.
This was going from bad to worse. The shades were not as common here near the edges of the city, but they were still not safe yet. Hiero turned around and began bleating angrily at her, but it made no difference; her crying went from low sobbing to uncontrollable heaving. Hiero brandished his butcher knife near her, but it had no effect. She ignored it and went on crying.
“Please!” Nephys implored, “you can’t…you really have to stop…not here!” He tried to interrupt her sobbing with no luck. Hiero was banging his head against the bottom of the boat, droning out a “PORNT!” with each hit. Instead of trying to stop her, Nephys decided to get the boat to the dock as soon as possible.
Just then, a mist erupted from the black water. In less than a second, it formed into a shade, an indistinct shape of a human, grasping; it reached out for the woman. It was between them and the dock, blocking their way, but Nephys decided to make a run for it.
“BUUUUFFFARNT!!” bellowed Hiero.
Nephys pushed hard on the pole and aimed for the dock. The shade drifted right toward them, the woman stopped sobbing and looked out in sudden shock as the thing reached for her. Nephys managed to narrowly miss most of the shade as the little bark sped on by, but it still reached out and grazed the arm of the woman who immediately fell down in the bottom of the boat shivering in a state of shock.
Hiero was there on the edge of the boat letting out a stream of minor chord profanities that blasted most of the remaining mist away, but the second the woman fell silent the mist had lost its hold on her sorrow and began to dissipate on its own.
The bark was heading fast towards the rotten dock. “Hold on!” Nephys yelled. The bark hit the dock hard. The bow cracked and the little boat immediately began taking on icy, black water. Hiero stabbed the dock with the knife-wielding hand and its three black, spidery fingers, and used the other three limbs to hold onto the prow and keep it steady while Nephys dragged the woman out of the sinking boat onto the crumbling dock and then, finally, the shore.
It was a hard struggle, but Nephys managed. He looked around. There were no shades. The one that had lunged for them had dissipated once the sobbing stopped. Nephys looked back just in time to see the little bark slip beneath the shallow water.
“No more adventures for a while, Hiero.”
“Flubbit.” The little bagpipe uttered dejectedly, then flopped down on the ground and deflated almost entirely.
Nephys jerked the woman up to her feet and shook her. Fortunately, she wasn’t too much taller or heavier than him. Her eyes rolled back into her head and, for a moment, she looked like she had been in Limbo forever and gone blind herself, but she slowly came to and blinked.
“Ungh,” she said, agonizing, and raised her left arm gingerly to look at it. It obviously ached her terribly. Nephys had been touched by a shade once. It was like plunging an arm into ice water for minutes and it felt numb and tingly for hours afterwards. Where the shade had touched her, the arm was deathly pale and the fingertips were even shiny, blue-black, like Hiero’s. Already, however, the color was starting to return.
“What happened?” she said.
“You touched a shade.”
“A shade?”
“Yes!” Nephys stated impatiently. “A walking husk of a soul that feeds on pain, misery and bitterness. It came because of YOU! It came because of your crying. You only just survived because your light is strong.”
“My light?”
“Yes…YOUR…” Nephys stopped. He was becoming angry. This was not helping things. Even though he desperately didn’t want to, he closed his eyes and gazed at the crystalline world for just a moment. He opened his dim eyes and began calmly.
“Look around you. There is no sun, no moon, no stars, only faint fire and lanterns. Most of the light you see here comes from other souls. When that light goes out, you become one of them.” Nephys gestured back towards the swamp. She looked shamefaced, like a little child, and Nephys went on.
“Emotions here are real, more real than we are sometimes. The Greeks called it the psyche. The Romans called it the Anima. My people called it the yib, but whatever you call it, it’s the heart flame, the soul, the spark of life. It powers everything. Anger, Hate, Fear, Sadness, they all feed off the heart flame. They are real. More real here than in the world above. And if you don’t control them, then bad things happen.”
“Bad things?” she said flatly.
“Sadness, bitterness, misery, all of that… attracts the shades.”
Shades,” she said, but it wasn’t a question, “Living shadows.” She said it like retrieving a faded memory.
            “Um…yes,” Nephys said a bit surprised by her reaction. “The Greeks called it the skia, my people called it the sheunt, but whatever you call it, the shadow is whatever’s left after the heart light has gone out, they lose their akh.”
She looked up at him.
            “You know, their higher selves?”
She said nothing. He could tell she still didn’t understand. He tried again.
“They lose their nous, their sense of self. Once the flame is gone, the shadow is the only thing left. It consumes them. They’ve lost their minds, their very essence. All they are is sadness and misery. Those lost souls are consumed by their final moments until that’s all they are anymore. That’s why they are attracted to sadness and despair.” Nephys looked out over the swamp and shuddered. The shades terrified him.
“What about anger?” she asked in a distant voice.
            “Anger?…Well, anger attracts worse things,” Nephys replied.
Worse things?”
“Yes.”
“Like what?”
“Like him.” Nephys pointed to Hiero who was sitting in the dust repeatedly stabbing his knife into the ground dejectedly. “Only they won’t be content just to suck you dry until you’re an empty shell. No, they’ll leave you conscious enough so that they can extract their daily full measure of pain out of you.” She looked at Hiero and he flicked his barbed little tongue at her and hissed like a cat that had been stepped on. “That thing, that crazy, bat-eared, giant-chicken-leg tree, metal death-cart monster, out in the swamps, remember that? YOU made that happen. It probably took a small part of you when it left. Your horror brought it to life, and if we hadn’t taken you away, it would have been after you for all eternity.”
She looked down like a whipped dog, but Nephys had to finish.
“So, if you want to go on, if you want to hold on to your flame as long as possible, hold on to what little is left of you, then emotions are forbidden. You can’t be angry, or sad, or happy…”
Happy?!” she interrupted at last, somewhat indignant at this new restriction, “Why can’t I be happy?!”
“Gwarnt,” snooted Hiero in derision. She really was clueless.
Nephys thought for a moment then it struck him, “Do you remember what I told you about Elysium?”
“Yes.”
“Do you want to know why it fell apart?”
She nodded meekly.
“It’s because they burned themselves out. We only have a little flame left here and anything out of the ordinary burns it up faster. They wasted their afterlives building, thinking, working out the perfect formula for a three-act comedy long after everyone had forgotten how to laugh. Some come here and try to live like they used to, but it doesn’t work down here. They burn up their lights creating things, making things happen, and soon they’re just a shade or worse. If you want to last…if you want to make it…you have to control yourself. Make the light last as long as possible. Remember who you are and say your name to yourself 10,000 times a day…because without that, you just won’t be you anymore.”
There was a deep stillness and even Hiero fell silent. Then she nodded weakly once.
It had been an eventful morning. It was already getting late, not that there was any objective way to tell time, but the streets of Limbo were already empty; the children had passed up to the scriptorium to begin the day’s work and to the gates of Erebus to relieve those who had catalogued the thousands that arrived by night.
“I have to go to work. You should stay here. I will come back for you tonight. You can stay at my tomb…I mean house.” He didn’t want to panic her. “Hiero, here, will show you the way and look after you.”
“BUH-PlaaaaaarrGANTKPH!!” Hiero almost dropped his knife.
“No arguments, Hiero.” And, for once, the diseased sheep’s bladder stopped it’s bleating. Nephys turned back to the woman.
“I have to go, but I will return, I promise, just go to the house and try…” he chose his words carefully, “to stay calm.”
Nephys got only five steps away when the woman called out after him.
“What’s your name?”
He stopped and turned around slowly. “Nephys,” he replied.
“Neth puss?” she tried to pronounce it.
“No, Neph-ys,” he tried to say more didactically. He was well aware his name hardly existed amongst the living, and no one spoke his language anymore. No one ever got the “pf” sound right.
“Nep-fus?” she tried again.
“Close enough,” Nephys replied.
She paused and looked away and then looked directly at him. “My name is Maggie. Maggie Miller.”
He nodded and almost turned to go when she called out again.
“If you hadn’t come out there to get me, I would have turned into…into one of them, one of those shades, wouldn’t I?”
Nephys shrugged and then nodded yes.
“Thank you,” she replied.
Nephys felt flushed for a moment. No one said “thank you” here. Things were what they were and that was that. Nephys glanced nervously from side to side and didn’t know what to do or say. The woman shifted her position and straightened her back, raising her chin a little, and stuck her hands into her back pockets. Suddenly, a subtle transformation came over Maggie Miller. She looked sterner, and if there were any trace of sadness in her left, Nephys couldn’t see it. She suddenly reminded him of what he hoped his mother must have looked like – dark-haired, beautiful but mature, resolute yet comforting all at once.
“Well, you best get along, Neppy,” she said suddenly, “I’d hate to think we’d lose some timeless classic because you didn’t get to work in time to copy it.” When she said that, Nephys suddenly wanted to stay, but he turned and walked down the dim, grey, sepulchral street. As he turned the corner, he heard Maggie Miller talk to Hiero, “Well, you bloated, little sack of nightmare fuel and flat notes, let’s see how bad this place really is, shall we?” The frustrated little bleat that came from Hiero after that was the most priceless sound Nephys had ever heard the evil instrument play and it buoyed up Nephys all the way to work.




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