Aphelion Issue 252, Volume 24
July 2020
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Voyage to Immortality

by John LaCarna

The ship had accelerated at one g for a year by its internal clock, now, and reached the target velocity beyond 99% light speed.

It had been programmed to maintain that rate for three years in its course along the great circle, and then begin a year’s decelerating return to Earth--to an Earth three hundred years older than when the ship was launched in AD 2101.

Etienne Boudreaux left his chamber and walked about the expansive common area to orient himself to the gravitational change. The ship’s acceleration had provided the gravity to that time, but then after a moment of weightlessness, the giant doughnut-shaped structure began a rotation designed to simulate Earth’s gravity through centrifugal force.

The other passengers also emerged from their rooms, adjusting without much difficulty. The simulation on Earth had prepared them well. All had been in a hypnagogic state after the launch, rousing only for planned intervals, to reduce the subjective duration of the trip, and it seemed that only a few days had passed. Each had received the optimum level of exercise for his or her age and physical condition in programs of choreographed movements during the periods of arousal.

Boudreaux surveyed his fellow passengers, fourteen in all, including himself. Quite a variety. Most were elderly, as might be expected, in their eighties and nineties, but a few younger ones were on board. One man, Anderson, was in a wheelchair, and another, Morton, was blind. No doubt, they hoped to benefit from 25th century medical technology.

Others had no apparent disability, such as Nicole Washington, the nurse, who volunteered to care for the health needs of the travelers, and the astronomer, Sarah Michaels, an attractive woman in her sixties. She was on this trip, Boudreaux supposed, to explore the unknown, the same reason she had chosen her profession. There was even a priest, Father Jerome. Did he come along to get closer to heaven?

Boudreaux smiled to himself. The others were probably wondering about his own motives, but no matter what, they all shared a common goal--to achieve immortality.

“Maybe I’ll meet my Uncle Edmond,” said Anderson, spinning his wheelchair around to face the group. “He was frozen. Cryogenics. Maybe his way works too.”

Father Jerome smiled. “I suspect you don’t get a frozen body revived by going forward three hundred years, but backwards over two thousand years--back to Jesus.”

All the travelers laughed, Anderson along with them.

“Well, time to break out the champagne,” said Father Jerome. The priest took two bottles from the craft’s capacious cooler and cradled them in a bucket of ice.

“You’ve got an interesting name, Mr. Boudreaux,” commented Father Jerome as they prepared for the celebration. “Are you originally from France?”

“No, I’m from Louisiana--born in Grand Isle. Both my parents spoke Cajun French, though.”

“Grand isle? Great fishing there,” said the priest.

“Well, we moved to New Orleans when I was twelve. Actually, you might say I’m a fisher of men”

“Oh, I didn’t know we had a fellow member of the cloth aboard.”

“Nope, we don’t,” said Boudreaux. “I was a cop.”

They both laughed.

“I was Chief of Detectives of the NOPD,” said Boudreaux.

Father Jerome watched Boudreaux heft the heavy ice-filled bucket unassisted and place it on the round titanium table.

“You know, Mister Boudreaux,” the priest said, “you’re a relatively young man of, maybe, fifty…”

Boudreaux nodded. “Fifty two.”

“Well,” continued the priest, “during all the time we’ve been together, you’ve never mentioned what’s wrong with you.”

“Wrong? Nothing!” said Boudreaux. “Nothing’s wrong with me, except that I’m human.”

“What do you mean?”

“Do you have to have a special reason? I just want more time, that’s all. More life. The Biblical three score and ten’s too short to do everything I want to do.”

“I guess everybody has a list of things they never got to do,” said Father Jerome. “But what specifically were you speaking of?”

Boudreaux leaned back in his chair, hands clasped behind his head. “Well, to begin with, there are a great many places in the world I haven’t been, and many I want to visit again--Paris, Florence, Venice… And I want to learn languages--I’m already pretty well fluent in French, Spanish, Italian and German, but I want to know Russian and Chinese and Japanese and Swahili. I want to read the Greek and Latin classics in the original, and get deep into mathematics, and learn the piano and the violin.

“And I want to race sports cars, and take flying lessons, own my own planes--jets, and restored antique World War II Mustangs and Spitfires.”

He laughed and waved his hand. “I could go on forever.” He realized what he’d just said and smiled. “Maybe I will go on forever.”

The company, which had been nodding assent during this recital, smiled along with him.

“Maybe we all will,” said Morton. “But some of that stuff--travel, auto racing, planes, take money as well as time. I hope our special deposits are continuing to compound.”

“After three hundred years, we’d all be omeganaires,” said Boudreaux. “But that’s too much to hope for. Naw, we’ll probably have to start over.”

“That’s fine with me,” said Anderson, “as long as I have time to make more.”

“Hopefully, medical science will have discovered a “cure” for aging by A.D. 2401,” said Father Jerome. That'll give us all the time we want.”

The priest lifted a huge, elaborately decorated cake out of its box and placed it on the table. He inserted and lit a single candle.

“Well now we've reached a major milestone along our journey,” he said. “Here, Miss Teresa, why don’t you do the honors.”

Miss Teresa, a diminutive, sparrow-like nonagenarian, looked at him quizzically. “Has the Angel of Death come?”

“No, Ma’am, Miss Teresa,” said Nicole Washington. “There’s no Angel of Death. Father means for you to blow out the candle, if you will.”

The little woman did as asked, succeeding on the third attempt. The company applauded.

“Yes, most fitting,” said Morton. “A first birthday. A milestone toward a new life.”

“In any event, there’s no turning around now,” said Father Jerome. “The die is cast.”

The priest then addressed the astronomer. “Dr. Michaels, Mr. Boudreaux has named places on earth he wants to visit. I guess you have places in the universe you want to go to and see first hand instead of through instruments.”

The astronomer gave a short little laugh. “Well, actually, Father, I'm just along for the ride. Want to see how far mankind will go in three centuries.”

“But Father, how about you?” said Boudreaux. “It would be interesting to know why you’re with us. You’re delaying your entrance into heaven, aren’t you?”

Father Jerome smiled. “As the old song goes, ‘Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.’ Especially to die slowly with Alzheimer’s.”

This revelation quieted the group except for Miss Teresa. “You’re ga-ga too? Never would’ve thought.”

Father Jerome chuckled. “I would’ve expected to go ‘ga-ga’ in a few years, Miss Teresa. Now, well, we’ll see what this great u-turn in space brings us.”

“You know, it’s kinda sad,” said Dr. Michaels, “that nobody who sees these flights off and remains in the present--that is, in their present--will ever know for certain how they turn out, and those of us who make the flights can’t communicate with the past. So the scientists and technicians sending folks like us to the future are forever testing hypotheses and never observing the results. What do philosophers make of that?”

“Who knows,” piped up Miss Teresa in one of her moments of lucidity. “Let’s pop the corks.” After a startled pause, the group of travelers burst out laughing.

“I’m glad she’s off that morbid Angel of Death stuff for now,” whispered Nicole Washington to Father Jerome.

They gathered around the table and began to open the bottles of champagne.

“We’re going to need another couple of bottles,” said Father Jerome.

“Here,” said Nicole, going back to the freezer. “There’re some more in that small box.” She emerged with two more bottles.

The nurse and Morton popped the corks. When all had filled glasses, Father Jerome raised his high and said “A toast! To the future!”

All raised their glasses in unison and drank.

First, it was the oldest of the company--a man named Shaw. He drew in a strangled breath and fell to his knees, then teetered over to the floor.

The nurse rushed over to him, but then found that gasping, falling people surrounded her. The whole floor was covered with writhing bodies.

Shocked voices called out “What’s happening? What the hell’s happening?”

“My God, they’re dying! They’re all dying!”

Miss Teresa shrieked, “The Angel of Death has struck!”

Then, with eerie suddenness, all those fallen were silent and still.

Nicole felt Shaw’s carotid pulse, and then performed chest compressions. She shouted “Anyone who knows CPR help somebody!”

All those standing--Boudreaux, Father Jerome, Sarah Michaels, Morton, and even Miss Teresa--performed first aid on the nearest victim; Anderson wheeled over and virtually fell on a lady and began to administer compressions.

At the nurse's direction, the seven unaffected travelers continued CPR on the seven fallen for over a half hour, but at last, having obtained no results, they lay back, exhausted.

“It was hopeless from the start,” said Nicole. “They’ve been poisoned. I’m sure it’s cyanide.”

“Good Lord,” said Father Jerome. “How did cyanide get into the champagne?”

Boudreaux’s face was set hard in a scowl. “To state the obvious, it was murder!” he said grimly. The detective picked up two plastic stoppers from the floor and examined them closely, first with naked eye, then with a small magnifier he took from his pocket.

“Yes. Puncture marks top and bottom. A hypodermic needle was driven through the stopper. That’s how the cyanide got in. It was injected.”

He then examined the stoppers from the two bottles that had been taken from the small ice chest.

“No puncture marks. That confirms it. We seven were saved by dumb luck. The killer didn’t know about those two extra bottles, or didn’t think they’d be used.”

Nicole dashed out of the area.

“Where’s she going?” yelled Anderson.

“To check her medical supplies,” said Boudreaux. “See if any hypodermics are missing.”

The nurse returned, looking rather relieved. “Whoever did it brought their own hypodermic. All mine are still locked in my case.”

“I expected that,” said Boudreaux. “He had to bring his own cyanide. He came prepared to administer it, but no use turning the ship upside down searching for the hypodermic. He’s had a year to get rid of it through our waste disposal vent.”

The nurse began ministering to the survivors. Anderson was shaking--needed sedatives and had to be moved out of sight of the bodies. Father Jerome, Morton, and Sarah Michaels were pale but pulled themselves together to help clean up. Besides the nurse and Boudreaux, only Miss Teresa was relatively calm--Boudreaux wondered if the old lady fully realized what had happened, that her Angel of Death had actually appeared in full force.

The small group worked quickly. The seven bodies were given Last Rites by Father Jerome, placed in body bags, and disposed through the hatch designed for that purpose. Some deaths had been anticipated in the five-year flight.

“How could a killer have known ahead of time that some of the glasses wouldn’t be poisoned?” asked Nicole. “Did he plan to kill himself?”

“Not necessarily,” said Boudreaux. “He could’ve faked drinking the champagne.”

“Yes, the poisoner might be alive--might be one of us,” said Father Jerome.

Each of the seven survivors--except the murderer-- had to make a deliberate attempt not to cast suspicious glances at the others.

“What could possibly be anybody’s motive in doing this,” Nicole wondered.

“Motive, hell!” shouted Anderson. “He’s just nuts!”

Miss Teresa looked at Boudreaux. “Well, you’re the cop. What’ll we do?”

Boudreaux smiled grimly despite himself. “Good question, Miss Teresa.” All looked at him.

“Well, the first most obvious thing is to all keep in sight of each other. All stay and sleep in the common area. We’ll have to set up beds here.”

“We need to make arrangements about using the bathroom,” said the nurse. “I assist Miss Teresa and Mr. Anderson.”

“I think it best you have a third person with you,” said Boudreaux. A man for Anderson and a woman for Miss Teresa when practical, but we do what we have to do in this situation. In fact, wherever we go and whatever we do, we do it in threes. At least three people together all the time. That way the murderer will always be outnumbered two to one.”

“That’s assuming there’s only one killer,” said Morton.

“It’s hard to believe two of this group are lunatics in cahoots,” said Boudreaux. “But nevertheless, we need to all stay together as much as possible.”

“What about food and water?” asked Anderson. “We can’t trust they’re not tampered with.”

“Our food’s in sealed cans,” said Sarah Michaels. “But the killer could have tampered with the water tank.”

“Well, it’s a choice of death by poison or by dehydration,” said Father Jerome. He strode briskly to the tank, filled a tall glass with water, and drank it down.

Everybody held their breaths. After a minute, the priest smiled.

“I feel fine. The water’s O.K.”

They all exhaled.

“We need to keep the tank under observation at all times,” said Boudreaux. “Good thing it can be viewed from the common area.”

“Don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m gonna pass up our great series of naps on the way back,” said Morton.

“Absolutely,” said Boudreaux. “For all of us to go to sleep at the same time would be asking for it. We need at least three awake at all times.”

“Damn,” said Nicole. “I pray to God the killer’s one of the dead.”

“Amen,” said Father Jerome.

* * *

The only one who slept soundly that first night after the massacre was Miss Teresa, and the old lady appeared to sink deeper into her own world as time passed.

The group followed their plan of vigilance--everybody wary of everybody else. No one could conceive of any possible motive for the killings. They were dealing with the irrational.

But as time passed without incident, the travelers became complaisant. Although they stuck to their routines, they began to consider it probable that the murderer had killed himself along with the others.

“After all, who could it be?” said Father Jerome. “Which of us would have anything to gain by these murders? Look at us! A police officer dedicated to protecting the public, a nurse who attends to the infirm, an astronomer dedicated to the exploration of the universe, a visually impaired man who seeks to regain his sight, and a nonambulatory man who seeks to regain the use of his legs.”

“And a priest dedicated to saving souls,” added Boudreaux.

“Yes, and also to saving his own mental faculties,” said Father Jerome. “No, I’ve got to believe the murderer’s dead.”

He was to be proven tragically wrong.

The sudden, terrible end to the mystery came forty-five Earth-days after the first deaths.

The nurse was assisting Anderson in the bathroom with Father Jerome and Morton standing in the hall outside the door. Boudreaux, Miss Teresa, and Sarah Michaels were left together in the common area. Boudreaux, who had slept only in catnaps since the murders, leaned back in a cushioned chair and dozed. He dreamed of a ghostly figure slowly drifting toward him. Then it stood before him, a specter draped in wispy white.

His eyes popped open.

“Miss Teresa! You scared the living hell out of me.”

“I know who it is,” she said.

Boudreaux rose halfway out of his seat. “Who? The murderer?”

“Yes. It’s the Angel of Death. A cherubim of God.”

He settled back down, sleepily. “Oh. OK, Miss Teresa, if you say so.”

“No, I’m not out of it. Not at this moment, anyway. The murderer really believes she’s an angel sent to Earth by God to guard the Tree of Life.”

Miss Teresa suddenly looked wildly about her. “Where is she? Where did she go?” She looked at the doorway to the bathroom area. “Oh, my God! Wake up, you fool! Stop her! She’s going to kill them!”

And at that instant, crashing noises and screams of terror burst from the hall. Boudreaux sprang to his feet and dashed through the doorway.

Father Jerome lay on the floor, looking up at Boudreaux, popeyed, with mouth agape. Then Boudreaux realized that the priest was lying on his stomach--only his head was turned completely around to face backwards. His arms were twisted in impossible angles, broken in several places.

Anderson was sprawled against a wall, his wheelchair overturned on top of him. The nurse and Morton lay stunned, piled together on the floor.

But what seized Boudreaux’s attention was the figure standing in the center of her area. It was Sarah Michaels, but the astronomer had undergone a transformation. Her face was Satanic, or was it angelic as Miss Teresa had said?

Boudreaux grabbed for the tiny Seecamp .32 caliber pistol in his ankle holster, but the woman sprang and threw him against the wall, where he lay dazed. The gun flew off into the doorway to the common area.

Sarah Michaels smiled a demon's smile. “You shall not have the Tree of Life. It is my Father’s will that you all return to dust.”

She pounced on the detective and clutching him by the neck, she lifted his body off the floor.

Then the sound of shots filled the area. Two bullets drilled into the woman’s back and she dropped Boudreaux. Two more shots sent blood spraying from her torso. Sarah Michaels turned to face the figure of Miss Teresa standing in the doorway aiming Boudeaux's gun at her head. The last two rounds hit her in the face. She collapsed and lay still.

Boudreaux looked at the old woman in astonishment. “Where the hell did you learn to shoot like that, Miss Teresa?”

She grinned. “I served three years in the Army, Mr. Boudreaux. Was awarded Marksmanship Qualification Badges for rifle and pistol. That was a long, long time ago, but I can still shoot.”

Nicole Washington and Morton got up, shook themselves off. The nurse checked Anderson over and helped him into his wheelchair.

“I thought what little eyesight I have left was fooling me,” said Morton. “What got into that woman?”

“I’m not sure what the hell happened, myself,” sobbed Nicole. “I saw Father Jerome talking to Dr. Michaels, who was saying something about saving the Tree of Life from mankind. I thought they were just arguing about religion, but suddenly, she shouted, ‘What kind of man of God are you? You’re with Satan!’ and grabbed him by the neck. Mr. Morton and I tried to pull her off him and she flung us across the room. I crashed into Mr. Anderson, knocking over his wheelchair.

“And… You can see what she did to Father. I guess she was what Miss Teresa was trying to tell us all along. The Angel of Death.”

* * *

And so the sole survivors of the fourteen that had started the voyage, the cop, the nurse, the blind man, the man in the wheelchair and the old lady, all now in a sort of combat numbness, did what had to be done. They disposed of the body of Dr. Sarah Michaels, and after a brief ceremony improvised by Miss Teresa, they bade farewell to Father Jerome. “He recognized the Angel of Death and tried to save us,” said Nicole, “and he drank the water before anyone else could volunteer. This was a good, brave man.”

“The bravest of the brave,” said Morton. “He not only gave up his life, but his chance for immortality.”

They then gathered around Miss Teresa to hear her story.

“I was baptized Sally O’Brian. Teresa is the name I assumed after St. Teresa of Avila when I took my vows in the Neo-Carmelite order.

“I became Mother Superior of a convent in Long Island. Sarah Michaels was one of the novices there. She had taken the name of Sister Michael the Archangel. She seemed to be extremely devout--I assumed she was praying when she mumbled to herself constantly. She fasted often.

“Then I made a terrible mistake. One of our number, Sister Bernadette, a woman in her eighties, was a diabetic, required daily insulin injections.

“I asked the home care nurse to train Sister Michael the Archangel to administer the treatments. We had a policy of caring for each other as much as possible to limit intrusion by the outside world.

“Sister Michael seemed to take to her duties enthusiastically, keeping the old lady clean and comfortable, and I assumed she was administering the injections. When Sister Bernadette's condition began to deteriorate, I thought little of it. After all, she was old and ailing.

“But the doctor seeded puzzled after one of his weekly examinations. He took me aside and asked 'Sister, is Sister Bernadette receiving her insulin regularly?'

“I had to admit I wasn't monitoring it closely. I was just taking for granted that Sister Michael the Archangel was fulfilling her responsibilities.

“He said 'We need to move her to a hospital. Frankly, it looks like she hasn't been getting her insulin.'

“As the doctor called an ambulance, I heard a sound from outside the door, a faint step. I went to the door and opened it. There stood Sister Michael the Archangel with a strange little smile on her face. Without a word, she walked away.

“I didn't have time to confront Sister Michael then. I prepared Sister Bernadette for transportation to the hospital and rode with her in the ambulance. Sister Bernadette's condition improved dramatically within a few hours of treatment.

“I knew then that Sister Michael hadn't been attending to her duties. I took a cab back to the convent and confronted her. What she said was puzzling.

“ 'I'm doing what God placed me on the earth to do, Mother Superior. Sister Bernadette was not meant to be kept alive by man's intervention.'

“I said 'Not meant? Who are you to decide who's meant to live or die?'

“She smiled and answered, 'Who am I? Can't you see? I am the one appointed by God to guard the Tree of Life'

“Without another word, she went to her chamber, packed a suitcase, and left on a bus. To where, I had no idea.”

“But you did run into her again?” asked Boudreaux.

“Yes, twenty-five years later. On my sixty-fifth birthday, I decided to leave the convent. A few years later, when I was taking courses at Columbia, I saw her again.

“I was enrolled in a class in astronomy where several prominent astro-physicists were invited as guest lecturers, and there she was, Sister Michael the Archangel, now Dr. Sarah Michaels, lecturing to the class.”

“Did you let on that you recognized her?” asked Boudreaux.

“I didn’t need to. She recognized me and followed me out after class. We faced each other in the hallway and she said ‘Good to see you again, Mother Superior.’

“I told her I’d left the Order to lead a secular life.

“She said, ‘And I left the Order to lead a spiritual life. I study the stars for an overriding purpose. This knowledge helps me in my mission.’

“I asked ‘What is your mission?’

“She said ‘I’m doing God’s work to protect the Tree of Life from mankind.’

“I asked her what she meant, and she answered, ‘After Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, God said “Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever.” Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the Garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken, and so He drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the Garden of Eden Cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.’

“'I am the successor of those Cherubim, Mother Superior. I was appointed by God to protect the Tree of Life from mankind.'

“This puzzled me. I asked, "But what are you talking about? Where is the Tree of Life now? How could man violate it?"

“She said, 'The fruit of the Tree of Life is in every hospital, Mother Superior. It is in every medical research facility. Any attempt to prolong life unnaturally is an attack on the Tree of Life, and now, space travel will soon allow mankind to distort time itself. Their science must be stopped. It's gone far enough. Too far, in fact.'

“Then abruptly she walked off.”

“And you never heard from her again?”

“Not directly, Mister Boudreaux, but I’m sure you are aware of the rash of deaths of medical researchers and other scientists in the past few years. Each was on the verge of some breakthrough in promoting human longevity. Authorities considered the possibility of some connection even though they happened all over the country.”

“Yes, they decided most were copycat…” He slapped his temple. "Come to think of it, most of them were poisoned! Cyanide!”

“Yes, Mr. Boudreaux. Same as we had here, and a few were killed by brute force. Broken necks and crushed skulls. The investigators had formed a picture of the murderer of these as a great, powerful man, possible a professional wrestler or martial arts fighter. They underestimated the great physical power that a crazed delusion can give.”

“So you believe Sarah Michaels was responsible for those killings.”

“I have no doubt of it, Mr. Boudreaux. She equated any scientific progress in extending life with eating the fruit of the Tree of Life.”

“Did she recognize you here?” asked Nicole.

“I’m sure she did,” answered Miss Teresa. “I guess seeing my demented state, she didn’t consider me an immediate threat. She would’ve done me in eventually. She would’ve done us all in. She was a cherubim with a flaming sword guarding the Tree of Life. She became an Angle of Death. ”

* * *

The exhausted group then allowed themselves to go into the series of planned prolonged slumbers with periodic rousings for the remainder of the voyage.

As the Earth grew near, the ship’s alarm alerted them. They arose--Boudreaux, Anderson, Morton, Miss Teresa and Nicole Washington.

After showering and dressing, they gathered in the common area. Miss Teresa looked like a fairy godmother in her light green summer dress. Nicole was sparkling in a white blouse and blue slacks. The men wore light khaki jumpsuits.

“Well, we’re all dressed suitably,” Nicole said. “If things come out as planned, it’ll be summer on Earth when we land. The summer of 2401.”

“Well, you ladies sure look sharp,” said Boudreaux. “We ought to make a good impression on the people of the twenty-fifth century.”

“I wonder what they wear,” said Miss Teresa. “Maybe they go naked.”

“Back to Adam and Eve, eh Miss Teresa?” chuckled Morton.

“Well, we can hope the world has turned back into a Garden of Eden,” said Anderson.

The ship vibrated and a deep droning sound was heard as they landed on Earth.

“Here goes,” said Boudreaux. “We’re about to find out. Will it be ‘So I beheld more than a thousand splendors,’ or ‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.’?”

The hatch slid open.

A company of twelve youthful people dressed in brilliant white scrubs stood facing them with broad smiles.

One woman stepped forward.

“Welcome back home,” she said. “I'm Dr. Rogers, and to anticipate your first question, the answer is yes, medical science has now developed effective treatments for virtually all health conditions, including the effects of aging, but first, we need to get you oriented. You're going to experience one hell of a jet lag.”

Then she looked puzzled as she surveyed them. “We were expecting more. Where are the others?”

The travelers exchanged grim glances.

“Well, Ma'am, it's a long story,” said Boudreaux.


2015 John LaCarna

Bio: Mr. LaCarna is a former probation officer, mental health counselor, and social worker who lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He published a variety of fictional and non-fictional pieces in magazines and newspapers through the years, including news stories, features, editorials, reviews, short stories, poetry and photographs. His science fiction novel, The Laughing Man, and a collection of his previously published short stories, Tales of Madness and Murder, are available on Amazon Kindle. He authored an educational text, Build Your Vocabulary Skills!  A Quick and Easy Method, published by The Graduate Group, which is also available on Kindle.

E-mail: John LaCarna

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