The Man From Empire

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Kusaan del: It means 'finger of fate'. When it points at you, do you step up, or do you quietly step aside?

Life in the Empire has finally settled down. The last of the ston rebels have taken amnesty, and re-joined civilization - or have they? A massive terrorist attack kills millions and the trail leads the investigator straight to a remote world with no known Imperial contact - a world known to its inhabitants as Earth

Book One of Rediscovery, a 'tight' trilogy of novels plus a sequel, set in the Empire of Humanity, where ships move millions of light-years in quantum time, medical technology can keep you young and healthy indefinitely, and unshielded planets can be destroyed almost without noticing, but people are still human - or a little bit more

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the opening of my work in progress, tentatively titled "The Price of Power". It is a sequel to The Invention of Motherhood.

Ilras, quit trying to squirt your sister with ketchup. The inverse square law is on her side.

But mom! I'm just trying to teach her defense! Meanwhile, baby Imtara giggled in delight at frustrating her brother's dastardly plan.

Dear, even if she was asleep, she'd have plenty of time to wake up and divert the stream. She's well past that drill. All you're doing is giving the dogs a mess to clean up.

Ilras didn't realize it, but his sister had ally. Esteban, the oldest at six Imperial years of age (4 Earth), scooped together a good-sized dollop with matris, stealthed it with a buffer of matra and brun, and flung it at his younger brother. I usually expected better behavior from Esteban, but under the circumstances, I let it slide.

Splat! It caught Ilras right on his jawline. No fair! Ilras cried indignantly, then had the awareness to look bashful when I gave him the mental equivalent of a cocked eyebrow. Ilras wasn't ready for the drills Esteban was doing yet, and Esteban had just made use of that fact to slip a counter-attack his brother wasn't ready for under his defenses. Given the impetus of an older brother who wasn't above using his advantages, I suspected Ilras would learn quickly.

Meanwhile, Mischief, our English Cream longhair miniature dachshund, gave a plaintive whine that she'd been deprived of her snack, most of which was now plastered across Ilras' face, and looked expectantly at Esteban for a replacement. Her name really was doubly appropriate; we ended up calling her Miss Chief about half the time. How she knew Esteban was responsible for her deprivation, I don't know, but no replacement was forthcoming. Scarecrow, our chocolate and tan shorthair male, gave a muted but pre-emptory bark informing us he wanted ketchup, too. We were at the table; we studiously ignored them.

I felt a muted thunk as Tina, my assistant, slid us into the control plug of my latest contract, followed a few seconds later by a datalink message of control verified, ready for Vector. I'd chosen Tina for the job because she was my niece and already a fully qualified insystem navigator, but despite my hopes after six years nearly constant exposure to the kids, she hadn't gone operant yet, so I still had to do all the Vectoring. I relieved her, re-computed the Vector for confirmation, performed it, verified position, and (because our next pickup was in this same system) transferred the helm back to her for insystem maneuvering to our next job. It had taken all of six seconds, and I'd still had a couple of para to keep the peace at the dinner table.

Mama, how long until we can play with baby Alden? Ilora wanted to know again.

About three more weeks, honey, I told her. Truth be told, despite all the advantages of being a Guardian, I was ready for my last pregnancy to be over. Next time, I would plan on one child, two at the most. But I really had only myself to blame - I could have just used artificial gestation for Esteban, same as everyone else, and then most of the Empire wouldn't have known about the advantages of operant mothers carrying operant children themselves. I'd introduced Alden to his older siblings on several occasions, but most of the time, kept him swaddled away where only I or Asto could interact with him. Since Asto was a First Corporal, assigned as executive officer of a squadron of Planetary Surface troops out in Ninth Galaxy, that didn't happen as often as any of us liked. The rank was an almost exact match to Brigadier General in the old US Army; a squadron was 14,400 combat troops plus their support staff of roughly another 3600.
Alden, for his part, wanted out into the great wide world. It took two of my para full time to keep him occupied and learning, and he still wasn't satisfied. Can I play with Ilras and Esteban, Mom? It was tempting to just blow off the last three weeks of this pregnancy, knowing any physical defects could be fixed later, but neither I nor Asto was ready to experiment with Alden's emotional development. The Empire had tens of thousands of years of evidence children were more able to deal with the world after a full gestation, even in an artificial womb. Neither of us wanted to experiment more than we'd already done with our own children, carrying them naturally as I'd done.

Dinner was just about over, winding down with chocolate ice cream for everyone, when Asto told me, It's official!

Children, some news. Your father is getting a new assignment. He's going to be a Staff Corporal assigned to maintenance and repair in Indra System! We're going to go live in the Residence, where he can be home every day!

Why is he getting demoted? Esteban wanted to know. Staff Corporal was a four grade drop, although two of them were staff grades, out of the line of command.

Because he's transferring to a space unit. You always transfer from Planetary Surface to Strategic Space or Tactical Space at a lower rank. He'd be expected to absorb an entirely new set of protocols; but a maintenance and repair assignment meant he'd henceforth be eligible for direct transfers or promotions within either of the space-borne branches.

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Meal concluded, the same private escorted us back to more hours of waiting. One more operant inductee joined us, and then the same Trained Private came in with an operant Staff Private. Addressing us, he said, "This is Staff Private Ugatu," gesturing at the Staff Private, "He will be escorting you to your training facility and turning you over to your unit Instructor. Follow his instructions." Why was a lowly Trained Private instructing us to obey a Staff Private, several grades higher? Because staff ranks were not part of the chain of command. Yes, a Staff Private was senior to us, but wasn't normally entitled to give orders, to us or to anyone else. Technically speaking, if we obeyed an order from a Staff Private without such an instruction, we'd be responsible for the consequences. "There are reasons for everything the Imperial military does," Parnit had explained over and over. "You might not understand or even agree with those reasons. You might think they are pointless, even counterproductive. The reasons are never explained, for reasons that won't be explained to you, either, at least not until you achieve your first staff rank. But every single one of them has been field tested and cross-checked over thirty square (75,000+ Earth years) of successful operations covering an incredible volume of space and situations too varied for you or even me to imagine."
The Imperial solutions were definitely different than the ones the US military had employed. My older sister married a Navy Senior Chief, so I thought I understood what sorts of things to expect. I was wrong.

"Grab your clothing bags," he said, "Form a single file line starting here. Follow me. When we get to the ship, move aft to the cargo section. First one in, move to the left side of the ship and all the way back, one to a seat, fill that side then fill the right in the same manner. Place your bag under your seat and strap in." Asto and I were third and fourth in line; if it was a standard cutter we'd be sitting together in the two front left cargo seats. If we were headed for a different type of hull, we'd have been given different instructions. Destroyer hull seating was in front-facing rows, like an airliner on Earth. I didn't know of any Starbirds able to seat eight or more, and their cargo section wasn't separate from the flight deck.

We didn't walk; it was more like a trot. It wasn't a difficult pace to keep; about eight kilometers per hour. No, they weren't trying to march us or wear us out, yet. Maybe fifteen minutes later (twenty-five Earth), we came to the edge of a landing field that looked like it could land an assault cruiser or fifty, as the white pavement stretched at least a kilometer in each direction. There were actually three assault cruisers I saw, as well as sundry other craft, but our destination was a cutter, landed in 'belly down' mode near our edge. Think of something shaped like the old NASA shuttles, roughly thirty meters long by twenty-six in wingspan, with no rockets on the rear.

The first woman in started to move left in the cargo bay, Ugatu barked out, "Ship's left!" and she corrected her mistake, moving to our right. I didn't see what difference it would make, but my opinion didn't count. Ugatu hadn't said anything abusive, from his tone of voice I gathered he didn't think we were worth it. It wasn't quite a standard cutter, as there were two rows of six seats each facing each other across the cargo bay, as opposed to the more usual four per side, at least on the models I'd been in. There was still plenty of room, and it meant Asto and I were actually close enough to hold hands. The last man in line was left all by himself on the right side of the ship, all the way in the back. I threw my bag under my seat and pulled out the star-shaped five point harness that would be recognizable to most Earth pilots, if different in the details. I strapped myself in and put on my passive waiting face.

No, there wasn't a passenger's telemetry feed I could access. I tried both with my datalink and via telepathy, and was locked out both times. Ugatu came into the cargo bay, looked straight at me and said, "Stop trying to compromise my piloting! You're cargo! You will be told what you need to know!" I hunched down a little in apology, and responded, "Yes, Sir!" The Technical term ang was actually sex-neutral and translated as "person who is my direct superior" but in English, "sir" captures the feeling better.

They want us off-balance for now, love, Asto cautioned, accept the situation. Things will need to change later.

I know. Parnit had shown us evaluation criteria, both for passing training and for promotions. To say they didn't reward robots or blind obedience was an understatement. Then I saw what Asto was doing. Thanks to auros, perception, and a knowledge of onboard systems, he was able to build up a picture of what the cutter was doing without a feed from the control link. The advantages of more practice and being a stronger Guardian. He would have shared, but I wanted to be able to do it for myself. It was a horrible confusing mass of data, so I started with propulsion. We were still on the ground, but not for long. With Asto's help, I found I could follow enough of what the propulsion system was doing. Then I realized what this implied - Guardians could issue control instructions to Imperial vessels without having piloting authorization!
Yes and no, he said, there is crosschecking built into the system. I could probably issue a control instruction, but it would get cancelled as soon as the pilot realized the ship wasn't doing exactly what he told it. After that, he would go into interference mode. Didn't EnIlas make you practice that?

I remembered something about it, Once, I told him, it slows reaction and makes you repeat everything.
Exactly. And if I managed to master that?

Enforced approval. Then feedback loops. All intended to increase the advantage of the authorized pilot over the interloper.

Would this keep someone good enough from over-riding your control?

No, but someone that good could take you over and directly force you to relinquish control. And the pilot could be enlisting other crew to aid in defense of the ship.

That was the story with Imperial technology and their abilities, over and over again. It wasn't that the safeguards would absolutely stop such interference, it was that they would put all of the advantages they could on the side of the legal pilot. The only circumstance where I envisioned the control interference having critical effects was combat - and Guardians strong enough to make that sort of difference were too valuable to waste for that trivial a gain.

A few seconds later, I watched instructions to the impellers spike as weight fell away. Evidently, we were making this trip with shipboard gravity on "enforced null". Roughly three seconds up, the Vector system pulsed, but I didn't have enough capacity left over to monitor ship's sensors. I asked Asto if he knew where we were, and he said, "Yes. Only one system looks like this," as he shared the view with me. I saw an image of a large sphere, all but totally enclosing a star - Couldn't see them from here, but I knew there were small gaps near the poles. We were at Sharanna.

The ship's Impellers started up again, then the Vector Drive pulsed again. Asto shared the new picture - we were inside the sphere now. Nothing too unusual; I'd done it myself on many occasions as there wasn't an outside spaceport convenient to my dog farm, but one assumed that a major military facility would be built with port facilities in mind. Maybe they were, and a cutter was simply too small to make it worth mixing it up with massive capital ships. There was roughly a half-million to one volume and mass disparity between this ship and a size four capital ship, which in turn was the smallest of the cargo carriers in common use.
The impellers spiked again. Ugatu was bringing us in hot. Evidently he was on a tight schedule of some kind. The impellers were only a little below maximum power. Suddenly, we reversed, flipped end for end and the impellers flared all the way to their limits. Outside, my perception could feel atmosphere rushing past, thickening fast, scattering sonic booms through the atmosphere of Sharanna. He cut power to just a couple gravities as we dropped subsonic. My perception wasn't strong enough to feel the ground yet, but I didn't think we were very high.

Ten seconds later, we grounded with a thump-KLANG. Harder than I liked to put my ships down, but with a full hull charge, I had no reason to believe Ugatu had endangered the ship or anyone in it. Weight returned as the impellers went dormant. I stayed buckled and so did Asto; nobody had told us we were getting off here.

A few seconds later, Ugatu came back into the cargo bay and did just that, "Unstrap yourselves and grab your bags. Follow me out in reverse order to how you came in. Welcome to Sharanna Military Reservation Twentythree, the Empire's newest initial military training facility for Guardians. You'll be here until you pass or they allow you to quit."

The lone man who'd been on the opposite side of the ship followed him out first, followed by the left side from front to back, reversing the order we'd loaded in. We debarked on a much larger landing field, with many ships of varying sizes from Starbird all the way up to convoy craft at least, and it was just that I didn't see anything bigger, not that I was certain it wasn't there. First, we trotted at the same speed away from the ship as we had in approaching. This area of Sharanna was a lot cooler and less humid than Fulda or even Sumabad; maybe the equivalent of five degrees Celsius outside. Cold enough for natural state humans to be uncomfortable, and you could feel a hint of rain in the air. Classic towering cumulus and cumulonimbus clouds occupied a good slice of the horizon, approaching rapidly, and you could see the rain approaching. Overhead, the clear sky was rapidly turning to grey. Once the weather got up steam here, it could really move fast and grow powerful enough to make a joke of any Earthly storm. Imperial construction was tough; people just didn't go out when storms were bad. Sharanna was a completely artificial environment, so unless there was an intentionally created barrier, storms could travel millions of kilometers, alternately waxing and waning the whole way until they did run into something that stopped them for good. Kind of like the Great Plains states, or the oceans of Earth, times a thousand or so. My dog farm was in the prevailing wind-shadow of Band City with its massive ten and twenty mile high arcologies spreading across a swath a million kilometers or more in any direction, and no major sources of storms between the city and the farm. I gathered that this place was not so sheltered.

Another operant was waiting for us, a woman in a uniform like none I had seen before. It was Imperial forces field uniform, but with a large white tabard over each shoulder, like enlarged epaulets, as if she were staff, only more so. On each, an insignia of rank the size of my hand was emblazoned, about four times the normal size. It was a private's circle of rank, split by a horizontal white line. Below the line was purple, as in a Senior Private, above was green, as if for a Team Private. "This is Instructor Jereya," Ugatu told us, "She will take you to your barracks and your training units." Then without further ado, he headed back for the cutter.

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I announced myself to Helene and she invited me into her studio. She was working on a voice project for someone else that day; she put it aside and sat with me. "The first question I have to ask, Grace, is how territorial you are about the dog business?"
"If it would get me the people I need to help Earth, I'd sell the dog farm tomorrow. I can make more running cargo around the Empire than I can in the dog business, and be home every night."
"Well, perhaps you ought to do precisely that. My husband has a pair of older size two capital ships that really aren't economical any longer. They've been sitting in a holding yard for years. You should be able to put Interstitials in, maybe even pay an on-board cargo handler. Agree to rent space in the hold to anyone who wants. Class two capital ships have external racks for nine small cruiser auxiliaries, as well as internal space for smaller craft. Inoperants can make sublight runs within the system on impellers. If you simply hold your fees to something the consortium can pay, that would solve most of the problems."
"That seems like it might have merit, but the real point is to get strong Guardians who can fight demons. My satellite has found a jopas, two spraxos, and several nephraim, none of which I'm confident of facing alone."
"Not all operants are Vector pilots, let alone Interstitial pilots."
"I know, Helene, but how many will be interested in Earth?"
"All you can do is ask."
True. Without the Empire behind it, this whole thing was purely voluntary. On the other hand, I didn't have to choose by the method of taking the first eight people - or eighty - who ask. I could explicitly reserve slots for operants willing to fight major demons. Class two capital ships might have been small by the standards of current commerce, but they were over three hundred fifty meters in radius - nearly one hundred million cubic meters of which was cargo capacity. By comparison, the largest cargo ships on Earth are around seven to eight hundred thousand cubic meters. I wasn't certain every stray dog and cat on Earth would fill a hundred million cubic meters. On the other hand, with an internal system for moving stasis boxes, it would make it easy for dog people to bring back a stasis box at a time, and each participant could have boxes and hold volumes marked for their individual use. "Is anyone likely to volunteer just for a demon hunt?"
"I'd say it's likely. There's a lot of bad feeling towards demons over their part in the Interregnum. If I wasn't raising two small children, I might volunteer myself."
That was a shock. Helene was the embodiment of a dignified lady artist. Then I remembered Anara telling me how she used to have two other children, and I realized I didn't know how many other close friends and family she might have lost. Figure every Imperial citizen old enough to have lived through the Interregnum was a good candidate to volunteer, and that included a large proportion of the strongest as well as all of the most experienced Guardians. For the first time, I really understood that learning about history second-hand was a poor substitute for the experience of those who lived through it. "What if I were to simply upload my satellite log?"
"You might have to promote it a bit, and add a location. Perhaps you might have to promise transportation. But the response that would surprise me the least is veterans of the era start recruiting on their own. Everyone lost people they cared about. I was extraordinarily lucky in that I, my husband, and four of my six children survived. By comparison the Baryan lost twenty out of twentytwo adult members and all of their children and spouses, the M'Dorna lost fourteen out of fifteen adults and all their children and spouses, and depending upon your interpretation, ten or eleven of the Great Houses were completely exterminated. The Council actually had a survival rate greater than the Imperial population at large. More than half of all Imperial planets were completely destroyed or sterilized, none kept even half their old population alive. Nobody got through the Interregnum unscathed, and the demons were the enabling factor. Most survivors of the Interregnum don't think we've done anything like even the scales yet. Many will drop anything they can to give them a chance at demons."
"So a two prong strategy, one to recruit volunteers for an assault, one to recruit fellow dog sellers. What is the advantage of the other dog sellers?"
"One person, isolated as you are on Earth, is a lot easier to kill than an ongoing presence. Even if you're the only pilot for the consortium, the other members will have someone who checks on them if they don't return."
So if there were a dozen of us on Earth, killing one of us didn't help them. With Asto behind me, it wouldn't help them even if I was alone, but they'd know it wouldn't help them if I wasn't alone. "Thank you Helene. Am I going to be able to thank Scimtar in person this evening?" She communicated no, so I continued, "Please also tell him thank you for me?" and started to take my leave, but she interrupted me.
"One more thing, Grace. My husband said it's time you had a refresher. I've made reservation for you with the family arms people tomorrow from nineteen zero to twentysix."
Well, dang. I had had plans for tomorrow - it was the only day I'd get in the Empire before I had to head back to Earth. A day and a half here was roughly six days there. Neither she nor grandfather can force you, love, Asto sent, but it really would be a good idea. The skills decay without use. So I agreed, and then took my leave.

These are the highest echelon of officers within the Imperial military. The biggest distinction is that they are specifically trained and expected to make decisions regarding the destruction of planets and major habitats, and whether it's an intelligent or beneficial thing to be doing under the circumstances. Once again, staff ranks are not in the chain of command.

Colonel Candidate insignia: white star on black background. This is the only rank in the commissioned range that is in chain of command but does not have a specific command assignment. This is a trainee rank, assigned to a more senior commander.

Colonel insignia:purple star generally the operations or executive officer of an army group

group colonel insignia:green star commander of an army group of 60^6 combat troops plus support elements, In terms of precedence, the rank is equal to but after a civilian Tertius; all higher ranks have precedence over a Tertius

staff colonel insignia:white star on white This is a staff rank

first colonel insignia:red star on black background. Generally the operations/executive officer of an Alliance of three army groups

Alliance colonel insignia:gold star Commanding officer of an Alliance 3 * 60^6 combat troops plus support elements

Master colonel insignia:blue star Operations/executive officer of a System of 4 Alliances

System commander insignia:2 purple stars Commander of a System of 12*60^6 combat troops plus support elements. At this grade, the command pyramid becomes steeper. Generally, from this point upwards, an officer is promoted into command, and then when they are believed to be ready for the next grade, given an in-grade assignment as executive/operations officer of the next command echelon up, commanding several officers theoretically equal in rank to them.

Staff commander insignia:2 white stars on white is a staff assignment

Commander insignia:2 green stars Commander of a System Group of 5 systems, or 60^7 combat troops plus staff elements. In terms of precedence, this grade is equal to but after a civilian Quartius

Tour Commander insignia: 2 red stars Commander of a Tour of three System groups, or 3*60^7 combat troops plus support elements

First commander insignia:2 gold stars Commander of a Tour Group of four Tours, or 12*60^7 combat troops

Strategist commander insignia:2 segmented white stars on white This is the last and highest ranking staff assignment possible

Sector Commander insignia:2 blue stars commands a Sector of five Tour Groups, or 60^8 combat troops. In terms of precedence, ranks with but after a civilian Quintus.

General insignia:3 gray stars commands a Sector Group of three Sectors, or 3* 60^8 combat troops

First General insignia:3 purple stars commands a Subprefect of four Sector Groups, 12*60^8 combat troops

Prefect General insignia: 3 green stars Commands a Prefect of Five Subprefects, or 60^9. In terms of precedence, ranks with but after a civil Sixtus

Group General insignia:3 red stars Commands a Prefect Group of three Prefects, or 3*60^9 combat troops

Master General insignia:3 gold stars Commands a Subquadrant of four Prefect Groups, or 12*60^9 combat troops.

Quadrant General insignia:3 blue stars Commands a Quadrant of five Subquadrants, or 60^10 combat troops. Ranks with but after a Civilian Septimus

FInally, we get into what the Empire considers Flag Grades, officers important enough to have an influence upon the entire military of the Empire. They ranks still go with specific command assignments, but the number of combat troops actually commanded can vary significantly. These ranks are:

Commodore insignia:White triangle on black

Senior Commodore insignia: purple triangle

First Commodore insignia: green triangle, commanding roughly 60^11 combat troops, ranking with but after a civilian Octus

Admiral red triangle

Senior Admiral gold triangle

Supervisor blue triangle The Seniormost military officer in the Empire. Ranks with but after a civilian Nonus

The beginning of this book is more than mildly confusing, even contradictory in places, but it does manage to introduce the story and the setting without a massive infodump. There are a lot of plot threads left hanging, or begun and simply left, but I don't consider that necessarily a bad thing. Real life is messy like that, and there are sequels.

The characters mostly do what they do for reasons that make sense to the characters. There are really only two minor characters who seem to have their actions dictated by 'my character card says I'm evil.' There are a few character actions that don't make sense, but they are mostly ignorable.
The story is a little light on over-arching plot - it seems to be in the nature of a prequel, developing characters for later use. This is the main reason I'm giving it a seven out of ten rating, instead of a higher one. By Amazon standards, a four star book. The fact it took me a couple of weeks to finish is not a reflection of the story, but rather my limited free time.

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It was a World Tree.

Not the entire world of Migurd, but there was a gigantic tree connecting the surface far below us to the entrance to Aescalon. It might as well have been a World Tree, as bent and gnarled as any jeebroak on the windswept Plains of Judgment on Nexus, but still challenging most mountain spires for height. The tree was massive, far bigger than the aperture we'd just transited, even at its crown at least twenty times the height of a man in thickness. It was drenched in mud and soil and pebbles and rocks of all sizes, anywhere there was anything resembling a horizontal surface, and the course of a river ran downwards from here, perhaps all the way to the surface two ithirds beneath us. The riverbed was largely dry at the moment, but I had no doubts that it could become a raging cataract on almost no notice. Everywhere, lesser trees rose from its rough, almost corrugated bark; bushes and lesser plants down to mosses and lichens clung where-ever there might be moisture. Pools formed where the bark and the dirt or mud allowed. Loose rocks and gemstones lay where they had been swept by the latest flood. Birds and small animals went about their business, unperturbed by our passing. The air was alive with the sounds of alpine forest, birdsong, the buzzing of insects, and the occasional chittering of rodents.

As we exited the transition zone and real gravity returned, I re-activated my cart's anti-gravity. It was returned to normal function, but I took just enough weight off the wheels to minimize the effort I needed to pull the cart. Haraldsson might be oblivious to the fact that my cart was now much easier to pull; but he'd have to take notice if the wheels stopped turning. I wanted to blend in as much as possible for now.
"There are often storms here around Ygg," he said, playing the role of tour guide "We've gotten lucky today. There are usually clouds, and sometimes the wind gets so fierce you have to hang on for your life. Occasionally, even Ygg must break in the face of the storms. Every year, someone gets blown to their deaths when the place they chose breaks off."

But the storms that tested Ygg, also fed it. Everywhere the vegetation was the verdant green of well-watered plant life, except where riots of colorful flowers in every possible combination obscured that green covering. I wondered that the toxic stew of metals and other elements and the compounds they could form hadn't poisoned everything from here to the plains far below, but evidently Ygg and its inhabitants had been here for a long time. They had quite likely evolved to incorporate the witches' brew into their biochemistry, which explained why the animals I saw were completely unconcerned about our presence.
As a purple squirrel-like rodent popped up and chittered at us, its fur tinted by permanganate, Jarl Haraldsson confirmed my hypothesis. "Don't eat any of the plants or creatures of Ygg. Even if they look edible, they're poisonous. Nobody knows why. We can share rations with you if you require." He was solicitous with a purpose - he wanted my knowledge of how to handle the diligar, or as much of it as he could use.

I could have told him why the life here was poisonous, but he wouldn't have understood. "I accept, and will share in my turn if the journey has not ruined my food," I told him.

There was a wide road along the great trunk, down the tree by the circuitous route offered by the tree. Now that we'd walked a little way, I'd had a chance to observe that there was a mountain beneath us, the detritus of all that had been swept off Ygg built up on the plain. Periodic glimpses informed me that a town or city covered most of that mountain. I didn't know if Ygg itself was the first of its kind, or if it had periodically toppled and been replaced. Perhaps as we descended, I'd discover that Ygg was several trees twined together. I was actually getting curious. As noted, this place broke all the rules we thought we knew.

One conclusion that I found strongly supported by evidence: however aged and enormous, Ygg was vibrantly alive, and being nourished by the strange energy that I'd noticed in the waters of Aescalon, which tickled half my operant senses with its seemingly boundless energy. It was therefore plausible that Ygg had been here a long time, possibly even geological time, constantly replenished by the power it was being fed. Ygg may have been ancient, but it was green and growing, verdantly alive and healthy.


What if the Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court was a real wizard?

Alexan is exiled from his home for reasons of politics and health, sent to a primitive locale to guard against the misuse of the massive power coursing through the fabric of reality. He discovers that he is what the locals call a wizard. Unfortunately for him, there are many other wizards and even gods connected to this power, and they tend to be unfriendly to those they fear might rival or replace them - people such as Alexan.

And what about this demigoddess that keeps popping up with obscure hints about her divine curse?

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This had to be pared drastically to keep the story rolling, but this is the full paranoid passage from a point in the story where the metaphorical Yankee is still in his metaphorical Connecticut. The passage in the finished novel is about a quarter this length.

For now, the most urgent need I had was still a body. I could create an embryonic cell and force mature it as fast as I could convert the mass energy. Two bars per second wasn't close to my limit, I was just charging that slowly in order not to overshoot whatever my total capacity was. In fact, there was no reason to put off beginning a body any longer.

I started with the DNA and began working out. Every atom of the DNA had to be individual and perfect, or it wouldn't fit into the DNA codons pairs. Guanine matched only cytosine, adenine matched only thymine, building the rungs at the same time I built up the rails, of the double helix of DNA, one strand at a time.
When the DNA was completely built into the twenty-three pairs of chromosomes, carefully building what was known of the operancy genes into the material, then I moved on to the rest of the chromatin, building up the building blocks of protein so that there would be reservoirs already in place when life began.
Then I moved to build the nucleolus, and the rest of the nuclear structure of the cell. This could go faster because if one atom was out of place, it didn't spell disaster later on in development. Once the nuclear membrane was finished, I moved out to the endoplasmic reticulum that would be the cell's manufacturer of proteins and lipids, the major difference being whether that part of the structure was studded with ribosomes.

Mitochondria, microtubules, filaments, centrioles, lysosomes, Golgi apparatus, cytoplasm, and dozens of other cellular structures I built up slowly, carefully, before finally building and sealing the cellular membrane, finishing the construction of the cell. The cells of an operant human body were very different from cells of a body that wasn't. Operants augmented themselves for speed, control, strength, and most importantly, mental augmentation for speed, acuity, and intelligence. The changes would decay if not maintained, but operant parents were able to do even better for their operant children, changes which would be maintained their entire life. Necris translates as healing, but includes much more.

At last, a touch of mentis, 'reserving the spot' for my own soul. The universe abhors a vacuum, and I was building this cell for me, not for whatever random soul the universe saw fit to install. Nonetheless, I didn't want to enter the body completely, because if it wasn't operant I wasn't certain of my ability to escape. Finally, I released the stasis I'd held it in, and let life begin.

Gently, I began pushing the embryo to develop faster, feeding it from my store of mass energy, which was only now starting to approach an apparent plateau at just above a square. I realized that I could have multiple storage batteries of energy, and all that a second cell would require was the dedication of one of my para to its maintenance. I had plenty of para, so I began a second cell immediately and increased my draw for the moment. Now that I had an idea what my capacity was, there was no point prolonging the draw process. I upped it to one prime per second, shunting most of it to the second cell while topping off the first.
It was also about then I was notified that a package was waiting for me at a nearby public portal. It was only a few ifourths away in the same building, a distance easily walked in a few minutes, but I wasn't in a position to leave my embryo at the moment. I suppose I could have placed my creation in passive stasis, but I didn't want to. I wanted to know if what I had built was developing into an operant body that I could use.
Meanwhile, my primary energy battery had topped out at about one square twelve total mass energy. I decided devoting a second para to power storage meant I could store still more power, and altered the destination of the power I was drawing appropriately.

It took another half hour before it became apparent that the body was not resonating with my operancy as it should have if it were an operant body. There just wasn't any help for it but to destroy the body, a sudden shock of pain running through the mentis link I'd created as the converter dissolved its mass. Nothing operants weren't trained to push past, but the soul link would cause pain to me if it was inflicted upon a linked body.

Well, now was as good a time as any to pick up my package. I walked the eleven ifourths to the portal, identified myself at its package kiosk, and as soon as I'd entered the validation code a small cube, ten isixths (Earth: 11 cm) on an edge. Given that my perception stopped at the surface, it had to be a stasis cube. On the plain wrapping paper around it, the word "yours" was written, quotation included. Other than that, the only markings were a routing from another such kiosk not far off. I used matris to flip the off switch, momentarily allowing my perception to sense what was inside. A small tissue sample, a 3600 of cells or so. I then immediately re-engaged the stasis field.

Whomever had sent me the sample wanted me to believe it came from the human I was patterned after. But I had a thought not to use them for my new body. Why? Because it was possible I'd fail to protect my genetic pattern perfectly, and a sensor that caught my former pattern could be far more threatening than one that caught some completely unknown pattern. The Empire didn't keep precise up to the minute reports of how many citizens it had, but the number was well in excess of a thirteenth (130 times ten to the 21st power). It would take any computer, even one of ours, some time to decide that a genetic pattern was previously unstored, during which time I'd be able to move, and given fuzzing of my event line, make it very difficult for pursuers to catch me. Given a couple minutes' head start, I'd be effectively uncatchable. If whomever was looking for me was looking for me thinking I'd be in a body with the genetic pattern from the cube, then not being in such a body would be an advantage.

As soon as I'd teleported back to my room, I began work on another body, building it up from individual atoms to the cellular level just as I had the first one. But it only took three para to build a cell, and only one to nurture it to a faster maturity. I had plenty of para, so I chose to start building another embryonic cell as soon as the previous cell was complete. The only drawback was that I could only bind my soul to one body at a time, but that seemed to be a small drawback.

It is to be said in my defense that mentis was far and away the least used of our mental disciplines. I knew my skills with mentis were inferior to my other skills. I didn't know why. If asked, I probably would have speculated that the person I was patterned after had simply not practiced those skills as much. It did seem to be the sort of thing that would only see occasional use at most. It's not every day you create a body for a self-perpetuating energy field from scratch. Particularly since there wasn't anything about self-perpetuating energy fields anywhere in publicly searchable data, it seemed likely the subject had never come up before.
It was about this time that my third battery started approaching plateau. I reduced my energy draw from the siphon and decided that the roughly three square worth of mass energy I had stored should be plenty, especially in light of a diminishing returns phenomenon I'd noted. The second battery had reached capacity at just over one square; the third had been in the neighborhood of fortynine prime. I wasn't certain binding another para to energy storage would be worth the likely increase.

As I was forcing body number two through accelerated development, I was already preparing embryonic cell number three, building it up from the DNA outwards like I'd done with the first two. The repetitions were getting faster with practice, but I there was a limit to how fast I could accelerate development past the critical point where an operant body would resonate with my abilities. Too fast, and I would create errors in the coding, errors that would perpetuate and replicate. Let it get too far, and it was more trouble than pushing the accelerated development.

When I finished embryonic cell three, I began developing it without much of a second thought, really, and began forcing its development as well as body two's, while beginning to build a fourth embryonic cell. No, I wasn't bound to it via mentis, but I could take it over later if it was operant. I had a deadline, whether I intended to get out of the Empire or not, as failing to do so would likely trigger conflict with whomever was pretending to be my brother, even if he actually was my brother. My first attempt at a body hadn't been operant, despite the fact it should have been according to the best theory I had. I needed all the time I could get to allow my operant body to grow and mature. After I made a body that actually was operant, that was.

While I was building embryonic cell number four, I asked myself, "What benefit can I get out of the tissue sample that was sent to me if I don't use it?" The answer came to me: if it was indeed from my original, I could use it to obtain information about that body's history. Auros, spak, matra, and kored could be combined to give me information on my original, if the sample was indeed from my original, just like investigators with a crime scene. If not, it would give me information on whomever it was from. I thought it likely I'd be able to determine whether the history of this cell sample matched my skills and what knowledge I retained sufficiently well to determine whether it actually was my original.

I don't know what caused me to not to begin cell number five. I finished cell number four and released the stasis, beginning life, but by then body number two was approaching the point at which the resonance test for operancy would be definitive. Besides, it seemed like three staggered processes was enough to be managing at one time. So I decided to wait, a decision for which I'm grateful.

Body number two failed the test for operancy, so I dropped it into the converter. There was a flash of pain as the first time, not anything like unbearable but definitely indicative that there was a verifiable link between body and soul. Again, nothing that the Empire hadn't known for 3600s of years, since the first operants began experimenting with their abilities. Proving the existence of the soul was one of the first changes to human society we'd wrought. I started cell number five at that point.

Body three was definitely developing faster than bodies one and two had. So was body four for that matter. They were cooperating better with accelerated development than the first two bodies had. Three and four were still tiny little things, three about the size of a finger joint, four about the size of a fingernail, but they were taking the energy and materials I was feeding them and developing much faster. Body three had a working nervous system before cell five was complete. It was ready to test for operancy.

The test was positive! Body three resonated! I had my new body!

Or so I thought. The first indication I had of an issue was when my mentis push to take over this new body took ten times more power than I was expecting it to. Then when it succeeded, it felt like I was being hit with an insubstantial but palpable flood of all the vile, disgusting, decaying slime in the universe. It was revolting on the level of my soul, and then the little body went into anaphylactic shock. The cells froze, the membranes between them swelled up to twice the previous size, and the tiny body died before I could even begin to meaningfully heal any of the damage. Another flash of pain as it died, but I was still overwhelmed by the rancid soul-slime generated by what I'd done.

If there was such a thing as sin, I'd just maxed out the meter. That the error was due to being unaware of what I was doing was small consolation. Damn! It felt vile. If it had been possible for me to explosively vomit in reaction, I had no doubts I would have, no matter how good I was at controlling my body. But since I didn't have anything in my non-existent stomach, I was spared that indignity. The body was dead, and it was still my soul was swimming through a sea of putridity. I managed to get the poor little thing into the converter, and the quick flash of pain as the body was destroyed felt at least a little bit cleansing. Slowly the vile taste of everything around me diminished. It was still enough to make me hate myself.

Well, damn.

That hadn't worked out like I hoped. To have success in my grasp and so unforeseeably ripped away was discouraging. I was an adult, I'd get over it. But it was frustrating. Also, I'd done something horribly wrong - murdering an innocent soul for my own benefit, when a little more patience, working more slowly, would have prevented the abomination I'd committed. Also, I'd have had my operant body if I'd simply had that small amount of patience not to let life begin until I was ready and able to take possession of it.

I wasn't about to repeat my mistake with body four. I checked with mentis, touching the new life as lightly as I could. Yes, there was another soul in there. Since I wasn't going to repeat my mistake with another innocent, I might as well not have bothered creating it. Instead, I stashed body four in the stasis box provided by my alleged brother, simultaneously extracting a small sample of a couple sixties of cells from what he'd sent me.

The backwash of my mistake with body three gave me a strong reason to understand why the discipline of mentis was less developed than the others. There were powers in the universe stronger than gravity and subtle enough to forestall all attempts to identify them directly. When a simple mistake gave rise to something that made it that clear you'd done something the universe didn't like, a rational person would not be eager to work any mentis that might result in such a reaction.

Cell five was ready to begin life. I bound it to me with mentis and began accelerating its development. But now I also had a template that I knew would come up operant, so I began creating a duplicate of body three's genetic structure in cell six while I forced body five through development as fast as it could comfortably go. Once complete I held cell six in stasis. There was no point in creating any more cells, because I was certain cell six would work, but if body five worked first, I'd have what I needed faster.
It took about an hour to get body five to the point where I determined that it wasn't operant. So I disposed of body five, bound cell six to myself, and began forcing body six's development along. Now that I was certain was going to get what I was after, I was more conservative, taking more time than I had done with any of the other bodies.

Having nothing else to keep my para occupied, I figured now was as good a time as any to find out about who I was. Spak, aided by auros, matra, and kored would give me a history of what I had done and who I had been. Or the history of this tissue sample anyway. I'd have to figure out whether it and my skills were a good enough match to believe.

The first thing I discovered - with perception before I even engaged my back trace of the event line - was that there were some non-human features to the cells. They appeared to have something to do with an ability to generate and store energy, and others I wasn't certain of. All of the primary genetic material was human, but something else appeared to have been added as well. This was allegedly from my original. Was my original not quite human? Was he augmented in some way that other operants - even ultsi - were not?

The second thing I discovered was that the past of the sample was being obscured. It wasn't part of what I was obscuring; I could have gotten past that. Someone else was obscuring the past of this person. I went back two days - still obscured. There just wasn't a need to obscure that far back, and it had to be using a lot of energy to do it. I went back two additional days, and the obscuration faded. Not only did the obscuration fade, my doubts vanished.

The tissue sample was from the Emperor himself. And yes, that was me - sort of. My skills matched his, but when I added mentis to the mix of skills tracing the event line, my soul didn't.

The Emperor's soul was old and complex, as you'd expect. He was known to be three square ten (11,400) or thereabouts; considering he (and evidently I) was ultsi, the highest degree of operant, the soul I observed in him fit those parameters. Mine did not; it was comparable with the souls of newborn ultsi, but I knew far too much for that. Something had to have happened to either him or me, but the soul I had was brand new.

So here I had a fourth part to the mystery of what had happened to me: What had happened to cut me off from the Emperor's soul? It was believable he'd be able to create something like a self-perpetuating energy field for an independent consciousness, being one of the strongest and best integrated operants in the Empire. Not everything found its way into public data immediately. But there couldn't be many who could, and they couldn't have created very many like me, or someone would have encountered one and put it into public data. It was only a matter of cranking numbers.

The discontinuity between the two souls might explain my peculiarities of memory - why I still knew about generic information and skills, but had no personal memories. The more I thought about it, the more likely it seemed. Personal memories and personal deeds and experiences were tied to the soul - they shaped almost all of it. But a skill or a generic piece of information wouldn't be. Memories of child rearing were conspicuous by the absence, even though the Emperor had children. Public data said he'd been married for nearly a square and a half, but those memories weren't there either. I could tell you anything generic you could ask for about raising children, even raising ultsi children, but had no memories of any specific events in the emperor raising his children. I could tell you about making at least a reasonable success out of a marriage, but I couldn't have told you a single thing about the relationship between the Emperor and his wife. I couldn't have even told you what she looked like or what her name was without getting into the public databases.

But there was no known way for souls to split off like mine obviously had. I wasn't denying the evidence of my senses; it had obviously happened. I was trying to reconstruct what had happened so it explained my other questions. Both the Hypothesis of Leasts and the skills I'd inherited from the Emperor agreed. Attributing something to coincidence was most likely the result of dangerously lazy thinking. Especially where the Fifteen Families were concerned.

One thing I knew: Whoever had sent me the message and the money and the tissue sample, they were right. I did need to leave the Empire. The Emperor couldn't afford for my existence to be known. If our commonality became general knowledge, it would create problems for him. For all I knew, my supposed 'brother' was the Emperor himself, who understood the situation I was in but needed to insist upon me leaving the Empire, and the fewer connections between him and I there were, the better for both of us. Matter of fact, better for him if he killed me, but he obviously hadn't.

I left the question of 'why not?' for later. Body six was ready for resonance testing to confirm operancy. But instead of confirming operancy, the resonance test failed. Body six wasn't operant, in defiance of every reasonable expectation!

The easiest hypothesis was that I'd made some kind of mistake during fabrication. Either I'd misremembered my original creation, or I'd made a mistake during DNA creation. Fortunately, there was an obvious test for that. The same test that had given me the history of the tissue sample could verify my accuracy in re-creating the genetic code for body three. Since body three had been operant, if the code was identical it stood to reason that body six should have been operant as well.

However, the spak of body three showed no errors in the construction of the code for body six. I was thorough - it was the same right down to the lipid templates. If the genetic codes were the same, it had to be something else. Right now, the only difference I knew about between the two was that six didn't have a fully bound soul. Or perhaps it wasn't the right soul. Perhaps there was something of the divine in the determination of operancy.

Whichever it was, I didn't have unlimited time here. I was on the Emperor's sufferance as it was. He was in the much stronger position, and even if it came down to a duel, I was certain he'd be much stronger than I was. In his position, I couldn't have afforded to grant someone who might be my equal this much indulgence.

I had an experiment available to me to check. I opened the stasis cube, extracted body four from storage and began accelerating its development. It took me an hour, but at the end of that time, there was no doubt. There was a soul within body four, and body four was operant. I extracted a cell from the three isixth body (3 cm), and augmented it into an embryonic cell without changing any of the template. I replaced body four within the stasis cube, bound the new body to me with mentis, and began to accelerate its development like all of the previous efforts. While I waited, I extracted a couple sixties more cells from the tissue sample of the emperor. This process was going to be a little more involved, because I had to cross-check to make sure the genetic codes were without error. Living cells have mutations, mis-copies of genetic information from several different sources. Even those of operants. We could fix them if needed, but it wasn't generally a good use of resources to continually monitor all the billions of cells in a human body for copy errors. As the template for a new organism, however, I had to be certain what I was creating was the same as the person who had been my pattern.

The method for that was old when the first operant was created, twentyeight square ago. One copy will likely have errors. Compare two copies and where they differ, you have to somehow deduce which one was correct, and if you didn't have an outside reference, your error rate would be equal to the same base error rate. You might guess right in half the cases, perhaps a little more, but with twice as many chances for error, there would be twice the number of errors. If, however, you compared three copies, and unless you had the same error happening the same place in two of the copies, you had an excellent chance of determining what the correct pattern for the code was. Make it five copies, and your model eliminates most of the few errors that might remain at three copies.

I compared the patterns between fifteen cells. At that level of error checking, it was all but certain the code was perfect. The mathematical model put the probability of any uncorrected errors under an ifortieth. You don't get more certain than that in the real world.

By the time the cell copying the Emperor's genetic makeup was ready, body number seven (the one copied from body four's code) was ready for resonance testing. As I expected, it failed, despite being a copy of an operant body. There had to be a soul or mentis related reason why body six and body seven were not operant, because it wasn't anywhere in the genetic code. The two leading hypotheses were that the soul wasn't fully bound into the body, or that the wrong soul was bound into the body.

I did not want to end up fully bound to a non-operant body. That would be bad; almost certainly fatal. Such a body might become operant later, or it might not. More important though, if I were fully bound into a non-operant body, I didn't know what the result would be. I might not be able to escape the binding, whether back into my current state or into another body. I might not be able to use my operancy. I might not even be operant any longer. Given my situation, none of those possibilities was good. If I couldn't use my operancy, my new body wouldn't be ready to travel before the Emperor's deadline. He'd be able to extinguish me as easily as thought, and there was nothing I could do to stop him.

I dropped body seven into the converter, and the flash of pain further burnt the miasma still lingering from what I had done to the innocent in body three. Before I allowed body eight, based on the emperor's tissue, to begin life, I carefully split the cell into two, then built both back up. I reserved body eight for my own soul with mentis, keeping its identical copy cell nine in stasis, just shy of the point life was ready to begin.

I had an hour or so ahead of me with several para free to think while body eight developed. So why hadn't the Emperor killed me already? Compassion was the only thing that made any sense, and I couldn't see someone who'd fought the Outsider Alliance for nearly three square (10,800 years) risking an civil war that could kill billions if I decided to challenge him after I got a body. Were our roles reversed, I'd have killed me without hesitation. Especially since I wasn't technically 'alive' yet. A self-perpetuating energy field like I was could obviously be sentient and have a soul, but I wasn't alive in any biological sense of the word.

Perhaps the Emperor didn't know? That didn't make sense. How could he not? He had to have been the one that created me. Knowing that creating things like me was possible, I could think of at least three different ways to try to do it myself, but for any of them, creating a version of someone else would be like drilling into their mind and looting it. Invasive, painful, and if you somehow got past those challenges, it would cause their mind to fail its own integrity checks. Maybe it could be done to a non-operant. I didn't think there were any humans strong enough and integrated enough to be successful on even the least powerful and skilled operants, and the Emperor was one of the most powerful and best integrated operants ever. Even if one of the powers of the universe was somehow motivated enough to bend all of their abilities to the task, I didn't think it would work on the Emperor, and I couldn't see such a power doing that. The powers kept a low profile. When they got involved, it was subtle enough that even auros augmented humans didn't see the evidence for years. Since it was impossible to create me without his knowledge, the Emperor had to know I existed.

Maybe the Emperor had created me, but now someone else was watching me, claiming to be my brother? That one made a little more sense. If an ally, they wouldn't want to destroy a potentially valuable agent. If an enemy they wouldn't want to risk the Emperor's anger for destroying me until they were ready. Now that I knew who I was, I could get the Emperor's attention directly, and they wouldn't want that. Furthermore, direct confrontation would be risky. I might be weaker than the Emperor who had provided my template, but I was still strong, even for an ultsi. Except for YokNos himself, I couldn't think of a rival family operant who was likely to win a duel with me. Not at their publicly known power, anyway.

One thing I was certain of. Whoever it was had me completely under their control. Otherwise, he never would have risked contacting me. Furthermore, it was getting to be more difficult obscuring my event line from potential enemies. If I couldn't move, I had to keep obscuring my event line back to when I'd arrived, and that was more than a day at this point. But if I moved, I had to make certain that my alleged brother could still figure out where I was, because if he thought I was trying to evade him, I didn't think I'd live through it.

And no, body eight wasn't operant. If I had infinite time and infinite resources, I'd never have done what I did next, but my situation was such that not taking risks meant I was going to run out of time. I'd been given twentyfour days, not forever. If I didn't take some risks, my 'brother' would kill me when I missed the deadline, and I decided this route was my best chance at creating a body. I set the room's converter on a slow drip production of an organic 'soup' I could use for building blocks with minimal energy expenditure, then I destroyed body eight, and fully bound myself into body nine, just before I released stasis on it.
It was a tight balancing act. Once in, there was no going back, and no drawing more power until and unless the body was proven operant. I had to have enough reserve to hold myself through the development process. Once that energy was gone, it was gone. If I had enough in reserve and decided to destroy my body, maybe I'd be able to survive. But I might not, too.

Once fully bound to the body, there wasn't anything to do but accelerate the maturity and hope. The universe had shrunk down to my new body and the organic soup around it, which I was using to develop the body according to its template as fast as I was able to do so efficiently.

However it became obvious within a few minutes that my new body was operant.

Which was a very interesting datum, if one was of the opinion biology was everything. Body eight had been demonstrably non-operant. Body nine, genetically identical, was operant. But body nine had a tightly bound soul, which body eight had lacked. Bodies three and four also had tightly bound souls, while body six and seven had not. More experimentation was definitely required, if ever someone else was in the same position, but preliminary results were that the presence of a soul somehow made operancy at least a possibility, while the absence of one precluded it. There were likely other factors, like how good of a match the soul was for the pattern. That was why I'd chosen the Emperor's pattern, as his soul was operant with that pattern, and my soul had to have at least some similarities or it would not have been matched to an energy pattern that had previously matched the Emperor's. That was the largest reason I had chosen to use the Emperor's genetic pattern despite the fact that doing so would make me easier to find.
Courtesy of my operant body, I was able to tap into the siphon again to fill up my energy reservoirs. My body was barely an isixth (roughly 1 cm) length, but operant was operant, and my skills hadn't left me. I fed mass into development as fast as the cells would absorb it. Within another hour, my body was nearly three isixths in length, another hour after that, eight isixths (9cm). I was running about six days of normal development per hour, a ninety to one ratio. At that rate, it would take me about three Imperial days to get to normal human development at birth, and after that, things could proceed as fast as I could add mass.


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