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Two-and-a-half meters wide. Five meters long. Twelve men.

          Joel did the mental arithmetic. There was just over a square meter each, with enough oxygen to last them 36 hours. He looked at his watch and set the alarm. Twelve minutes had already passed. It felt like longer.

         “How much longer?” It was their shift supervisor, Stevens. He paced up and down the length of the relief shelter, his mouth twisted.
        Another man, Singh, sat at the far end of the shelter, jabbing the touchscreen monitor with a finger. “It’s still rebooting,” he said. “The quake must have knocked the power out.” 

        “What about the landline to the other shelters?” Stevens’ voice was clipped, already strained. 


        A wave of agitation and anxiety rippled through the men. Union reqs limited the number of miners in one area at any given time, to limit casualties and ensure safe numbers at each relief shelter. In the event of a power outage, they were supposed to be able to communicate with the other shelters through hardwired connections.
        Joel shifted in his hard foam seat. His brother sat three men down from him. He was shuffling a deck of cards. Joel knew it was to keep his hands busy.


        “They’ll get here when they get here, Stevens,” said Joel, trying to keep his voice light. “I was in one of these back in ’09 when I was working for WFX. Yeah, the air starts getting ripe after a few hours with all of us guys but we’ve all done the training. You may as well take a load off, sit down.” 

        Stevens said nothing. He only continued to pace and chew his lip.

        “How long?” It was McGrady who asked. “When you were at WFX.” 

        “About eight hours, give or take.” 

        “Closer to ten,” said his brother, Max. “That wasn’t a cave-in either. That was Hazchem.”

        “Hardhats on, vests on,” said Stevens. “We need to be ready to leave when comms are up and running.” 

        “Leave? Didn’t you see all that rock out there? We’re not leaving. Not unless someone comes to get us.”

        “Irikawa’s team is the closest working group to ours,” said Stevens. “We need to raise them on comms. Try the system again, Singh.”

        “I am, it’s not –” 

        “Fucking try it again!” 

        Stevens’ strangled shout may as well have been a gunshot in the pod. He licked his lips, aware that the others were staring at him. It had only been twelve minutes.

* 6 hours * 

        Stevens had stopped pacing. He sat at the far end of the pod, closest to the door. His arms were crossed, his foot bouncing up and down. Singh had rebooted the comms as many times as he could but it was no use. There was no contact with the outside world.

        Joel tried his best to keep the mood light. They played poker and blackjack, keeping tabs on scraps of paper. Joel lay down his hand, a straight flush and a smile plastered across his face. But the others saw it, the tremble in his fingers.

        The hours marched on.

        Some of them tried to sleep. But the air conditioner whirred and the CO2 scrubbers droned and the fluorescent lighting strip above their heads hummed.


        There was nowhere to look. Everywhere Joel turned, he saw only the faces of scared men looking back at him. Deep down maybe they were still little boys, afraid of the dark and locked away in a metal box, hundreds of meters below the surface.

        In the absence of anything else, every sound was amplified. Every rustle of clothing, the chewing of nails, the tap tap tap of booted feet. The dull beating of Joel’s own heart in his ears. Even the walls of the pod, once a stark, sterile white seemed to sour to a sickly yellow as Joel stared at the unending blankness of them.

        Slowly, the walls began to inch closer.

* 12 hours *

        Joel looked at his watch. It was 3 a.m. He shut his eyes, temporary relief from the recycled air. Most of the men were trying—and failing—to sleep in the hard foam seats, bundling what little they had to spare behind their heads as makeshift pillows.

        Boredom and restlessness took their toll. There was little talk. Each man had withdrawn into himself, jealously guarding what little space they had to themselves. Half-lidded eyes tracked each movement, a growing sense of distrust building.

        McGrady was awake, kneeling in the center of the walkway. Joel realized he was praying, or something like it, his lips moving soundlessly.

        “What’s going to happen to us?” 

        McGrady’s voice was quiet, barely more than a whisper. It wasn’t clear who he was talking to.

        “We’ll go hypoxic,” said Stevens. His lids slowly opened, a strange light in his eyes. “The carbon dioxide in our blood will slowly poison us. We’ll start feeling dizzy, we might start forgetting things, we’ll find it hard to move. We might start thinking those bad ideas in our heads, the ones we don’t say out loud, that they start looking pretty good.”

        “No sense in worrying about it,” said Joel, his voice clipped. “Better off saving your breath.”

        “That’s if we’re lucky,” continued Stevens, shutting his eyes once more. “You might have a seizure, or your brain might just switch off, comatose.”

        McGrady stopped praying.

        Joel looked across to Max. His eyes were fixed on the aircon. Something was stuck between the plastic folds of the vent: a dancing black thread. One more appeared next to the first, then another and another. The threads shifted and crawled further from the folds. Then, a head and a fat, swollen body followed.

        The spider was probably no bigger than the back of Joel’s hand, legs splayed in full but it sent his stomach churning; this outside presence, violating their isolation. Joel’s face flushed hot as it began to inch forward. He pressed his back into the foam seat but he had nowhere to go. Suddenly, its spindly legs stopped probing. It seemed to Joel to be looking directly at him now, its
orb-like eyes glowing.


        He considered taking off his boot. He imagined squashing it beneath his heel. Before he could, it scuttled along the outside of the aircon and slipped between the lip of the unit and the steel wall, disappearing from sight but not from thought.

He looked at the others. No one but Max had seen it. He settled back against the foam seat and closed his eyes, trying to ignore the sensation of the skin on the back of his neck crawling.

* 18 hours * 

        “What if something’s happened up there?” 

         It was Teller that spoke. The night had come and gone. It was 9 a.m. Halfway to no air. The milestone was not lost on the others. They were all awake, bleary-eyed and faces drawn.


        They turned to look at Teller, who had remained quiet until now. He was leaning forward in his seat, his elbows propped on his knees, biting his nails to the quick.

       “Like what?” 

        “McGrady, don’t encourage him,” said Joel. “Teller, shut the fuck up and go back to sleep; you look like shit.” 

        “I don’t know, man,” said Teller. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this. It’s been too long. No comms, no nothing from the surface.” 

        “Teller.” It was Max this time. His voice cut with warning.

        “This is some end of days shit right here,” Teller continued, standing. He began to pace, his boots thickly pounding the rubber walkway. “W-W-3. A nuclear apocalypse. Or maybe an asteroid hit the fucking Earth. What if there’s nothing left up there? What if we’re waiting for nothing? What if no one’s coming!”

        “Sit down,” said Joel, when Stevens remained quiet.

        Teller paused in his tracks. He looked almost shocked to find himself standing. He turned, his eyes scanning the walls of the pod. “It’s like every time I close my eyes, the pod gets smaller and smaller,” he said, his voice barely more than a whisper. “I can feel them, the walls, getting closer.” 

        “Sit down,” repeated Joel, standing eye to eye with the man. “This is me asking nice.”

        “Prick.” Teller blinked slowly, as though waking from a dream. He dropped, almost collapsed, into his seat. His face twisted and he began to mutter to himself. Joel stayed standing. He placed his palm flat on the cool roof of the pod. Above, in his mind, he saw destruction, devastation. He swallowed hard, his throat raw.

        There were 18 hours left. 18 hours before they would slowly suffocate to death, while their blood poisoned them from the inside and they died, beating their hands bloody against the walls of the pod. Acidic, gnawing panic began to bloom low in his gut.

* 21 hours * 

        “The way I see it,” Joel began, choosing his words with care, “we’ve got 12 men and we’ve got 12 handheld CO2 scrubbers. One each. That will buy us an extra hour for each man –”

       “Or one man an extra 12 hours,” someone murmured.

        “—but that won’t do us much good sitting in here.” Joel straightened his aching back. “We should send out teams in shifts. Three to a team, four teams. One team goes out, 30 minutes. Recon any escape routes, any survivors or rescue efforts. When the time’s up, you come back and the next team goes.” 

        “That only gives them 15 minutes before they need to head back,” said Singh. “Moving rock is slow business.” 

        “Regs say we have to stay here,” said Teller. “We should stay put. That’s what you said, Joel. That’s what all the fucking signs in the cafeteria say. Right, Stevens?”

        Stevens said nothing. He didn’t even look up, instead he rocked back and forth on his heels slightly, his knees tucked to his chest.

        Joel looked back at Teller. “You got any better ideas?”

        No one spoke.

        “McGrady, Singh and Roberts, Team One. Teller, Boxwood and Lopez, Team Two. Me, Stevens and Max will be Team Three, leaving Chen, Halabi and Phillips as Team Four. Any objections?”

        Quiet again. Max stood, giving his brother a small nod. “Any volunteers to go first? No? Okay, me, Joel and –” 

        “I want to go,” said Singh, standing up. “You’re not the only one with family. If we can get to the next shelter, I can try and raise comms, radio back here. If it’s empty, we can spread out our oxygen, even bring some others across, help buy us some time.”

        It was a smart idea.

        Joel nodded. Singh, McGrady and Roberts all stood, sliding their hardhats onto their heads and shouldering their reflective vests. The others muttered among themselves as Team One prepared. Joel handed Singh a small Tuff-box.

        “Remember,” he said, leaning in close. “We might not be the only ones alive, but we might be. We can’t assume anything about the other shelters. The priority is finding a line to the surface. This is not a rescue mission, it’s an escape plan.”

        Singh hefted the box. “What have we got?” 

        “Four flares,” he said. “Rope, crowbar, water and radio. And one scrubber each. Leave anything else: we need speed.”  

        Singh glanced over his shoulder. McGrady and Roberts said their goodbyes, their voices quiet and clipped.

Joel led them to the door and cycled the lock.

        “If you get out, remember, the sudden increase in oxygen can be just as dangerous,” he said. “Take it slow. You might spasm, you might not remember what happened. You might even see things that aren’t there.”

* 23 hours * 

        The air conditioner hummed, then whirred. It was the first sign of it struggling. A smell had begun to seep into the pod. Not the usual dusty dryness they were accustomed to, but something organic and earthy, like the forest floor after rain.

        “How long has it been?” 

        Joel stood by the door, his arms folded across his chest. He silently looked down at his watch. He said nothing.

        “Too long,” said Teller.

        “Maybe they’ve found someone,” said someone in a whisper. Lopez, maybe. “Or got to the next shelter but comms are still down.” 

        “Maybe they’ve run off with the scrubbers,” said Teller. “Maybe they’ve left us to die.” Joel ground his teeth so hard they creaked.

        “Do we send out the next team?” Lopez again. 

Joel stared at the door. Beside it, the circular void of the porthole mocked him. He wondered what benefit there was to install it, maybe to give them some sense of hope that they could see beyond their metal tomb.

        When he spoke, Joel’s voice was hoarse. “We need to give them more time.”

        The air conditioner whirred, groaned and then returned to its low hum. But that same smell remained. Whatever it was cycling from the outside, it was becoming stronger.

* 28 hours * 

        They never came back.

        Whatever hope they had disappeared, along with Team One. The others had no intention of leaving now. The small bursts of excited, hopeful chatter had died away. Instead, they had returned to morose brooding. The temperature inside was rising, the air conditioner struggling to keep up.

        “We shouldn’t have let them go,” said Teller. “Three scrubbers gone, and for what?” 

        “We’ll go,” offered Joel. “Me, Max and Stevens. See if we can find them. We can’t just sit here.” 

        Teller stopped and looked over his shoulder at Stevens. The supervisors’ eyes were wide open. They were red and raw, the tiny red capillaries had burst, worming their way across the whites of his eyes. Teller turned back to Joel, his face twisted with derision. “Stevens isn’t fucking going anywhere, man. Take a look at him!”

        “All the more reason we need to get him out sooner rather than later,” said Max. 

        Teller stepped toward Max, medallions of sweat collecting on his forehead and lip. “We’re not wasting any more scrubbers.”

        “Are you going to stop us?”

       Joel stopped only an inch away from Teller. The others looked on in tense silence.

        Teller exhaled heavily and shook his head before stepping away. Joel silently let out a breath and let the muscles in his shoulders and arms relax. He watched as Teller stepped over to the open Tuff-box with the other scrubbers and picked one up from its foam packaging, inspecting it.

        “Sorry,” he said.

        Teller pulled the metal ring hard, igniting the iron powder inside and then pulled at the join, attaching it to the mask. Oxygen began spewing out into the pod instantly.


        Joel and Max both leapt forward. Teller was already at work on the next scrubber. Joel’s hands closed around his shoulders and chest, while Max tried to wrestle the scrubber away. Teller kicked backward, sending Max sprawling into the other men.

        Teller twisted, sending an elbow crashing into Joel’s jaw and then his eye. The skin split and began to balloon instantly from the blow. Joel stumbled back, one hand cupping his brow. It came away with bright red blood. Joel growled and leapt forward, looping one arm beneath Teller’s armpit and to his neck, the other wrenching at Teller’s face.

        With a strangled cry, Teller fell to the ground with Joel beneath him, the third scrubber hitting the floor. Joel pushed the other man away, trying in vain to fit the clasp back over the join. The air hissed and wavered from the join until it was silent. Empty. 

       “There,” said Teller breathlessly, pushing himself to stand. “That’s an extra three hours I just bought us. Did you want to thank me now or later?”

        The world darkened. Joel didn’t remember standing or the words that tore their way out of his throat. He didn’t remember what happened next. There was a blur of movement, shouting, then screaming and finally, silence.

        Teller was on the ground, flat on his back. Joel stood over him, his breath coming in ragged gasps.

        “Get up,” Joel hissed. The world came back into focus. “Teller. Get up.”

        Teller didn’t move.

        Joel knelt beside him. He pulled at the man’s arm. Nothing. His eyes were open but unblinking. Joel’s stomach twisted. He tried turning the man’s face this way and that. Joel’s hands came away red. A trickle of blood had begun to pool at the back of Teller’s head. He must have struck it against the hard rim of the door’s handle.


        Lopez and Chen came forward as the First-Aid trained workers, their eyes darting between Joel and Teller. It took them less than a minute to confirm. 

        Lopez licked his lips. “He’s dead.”

* 30 hours * 

        Teller had bought them three extra hours.

        It proved futile. Lopez tried rebooting the comms, the hardline, everything. There was no contact. They sat in an uneasy silence, trying to ignore the body of Teller sitting among them. It was also Lopez that deemed him a safety hazard, sprawled on the walkway. He went on to say that Teller had tripped and died already; they didn’t want anyone else to go the same way.

        Joel had no doubt Lopez pronounced Teller’s death an accident for his own sake. He didn’t care. He was past caring. He had taken Teller’s body and placed him in one of the corner seats, furthest from the door. He took his vest and a jacket left by McGrady and covered his face and torso, a flower of blood blooming on the fabric. His feet were splayed out, twisted on an unnatural angle. Joel couldn’t help but think of the spider and its probing legs.

        Despite there being fewer of them, the walls were so close among them now that they had to shut their eyes to avoid the blank stare of the white, cold steel growing larger and larger before them.

        They were dead men, entombed. Silent, unmoving, barely daring to breathe.

        Someone moved, a shift and rustle of clothing and gear. Joel opened his eyes. It was Stevens. He had said nothing, even since Teller. His shaking had stopped. His face was pale but calm. His mouth was set in a firm line, grim and determined. 

        Joel looked across to the other men. Their eyes were tracking Stevens, who pushed himself to standing. He cast his eyes over the others without seeing them and turned to the door. He placed his hand on the latch and cycled it. He swung it open and walked out.

        Time seemed to stretch out as they watched him leave.

        They leapt to their feet and rushed to the door, except Joel. Someone closed it behind Stevens, cycling the lock again. They tried to peer out through the porthole. They might have caught a glimpse of him, the reflective strips of his vest lighting up from the strobing amber lights on the outside of the pod. It was fleeting. The gloom beyond swallowed him and then he was gone.

        “Did he take a scrubber?” 

        “No,” said Joel. “He didn’t.” 

        “We need to go after him,” said Lopez.

        Joel turned to them. They were all looking to him. “He’s not trying to leave,” he said. “He’s going to go face it alone, on his own terms. Let him go.” 

        The others looked at each other. One by one, they returned to their seats, their heads bent low, waiting for the end to come.

* 34 hours * 

        “We gotta get out of here,” said Joel, scratching at his cheek. They had to shave every day on shift so their ventilators could make a perfect seal. Now, his beard was growing back in and itching. 

        “We got nowhere to go, Joel,” said Max.

        “I am not dying in here,” he said. He cast his eyes behind Max’s shoulder. “I’ve got a family. You’re my brother. We always said we would stick together.”

        “What’s the plan?” 

       “Teller is dead,” he said. “We’ve got six scrubbers left. That’s three hours each.”
        “We can’t leave the others to die.”

        Joel looked over his shoulder. On the other side of the pod, huddled close to Teller’s body were the other five, their heads bowed close together, as though in some clandestine scheme. Boxwood, Lopez, Chen, Halabi, and Phillips. Their eyes were vacant, staring listlessly with bovine-like apathy. Broken men.

        “They’re dead anyway,” said Joel. “Or they will be if we don’t push forward. They’ve still got a few hours left, more once we’re gone. But I am not spending one more goddamn minute in here just waiting to die. I’m going out there. Are you with me?” 


        Max was silent for a long time. Joel thought he might refuse. The recess of his jaw flickered with indecision. Then he nodded.

        Joel slapped him on the shoulder. He pulled open the Tuff-box and looked at the remaining scrubbers. It would be cumbersome and heavy to take three each. He picked one up and strapped it over his shoulder. He turned to the others.

        “We’re leaving,” said Joel. “We’re taking the last scrubbers and we’re leaving. We’ll find a way out, or die trying.” 

        He expected resistance. Like animals driven into a corner, for them to bare their teeth, their survival instincts driving them to do terrible things. Lopez opened his mouth as if to speak. He closed it again and nodded. He turned back to their huddle of doom.

        Joel turned to look at Max, who inclined his head. No reason to waste time.

        They shouldered the rest of the scrubbers, slid on their hard hats, and switched on their headlamps. Max cycled the lock and swung open the door. Joel turned on his heel and looked at the other men one last time.

        Lopez spoke now. “Come back for us.” 

        Joel inclined his head. They all knew it was a lie but he said it anyway. 

        “You bet.” 

* 36 hours * 

        They found Team One not long after.

        It was McGrady they saw first. His hands were still clutching the crowbar that was used to smash Singh’s mask. Singh wasn’t far away, the broken ventilator beside him. His skin was pale, blue. Suffocated.

        Roberts was a little further along. He had tried to get through a vertical opening in the tunnel. They only saw his boot hanging limply from the crack in the rock, caked with dust. He must have gotten stuck, his arms jammed up against his sides, his air slowly running out.

        With the toe of his boot, Joel flicked open the Tuff-box Singh had taken. There were still two flares left. The water and rope were nowhere to be seen. Joel pried the crowbar from McGrady’s stiff fingers and took one flare, and handed the other to Max.

        That McGrady and Singh had turned on each other was obvious. Why, Joel and Max couldn’t say; they didn’t have time to speculate. They had used two of the scrubbers already. Cycling to their third and final canister, Joel and Max exchanged glances. No words were needed.

        The passage beyond was ridden with debris. It was slow, exhausting work, picking their way through the labyrinthine fallen rock and earth. Where there was once enough room to drive heavy machinery through, the tunnel had become barely wide enough for them to walk side by side. The steel mesh bolted into the rock had been the only thing stopping the tunnel from caving in completely.

        Max’s headlamp died along the way, its light stuttering to nothing. If Joel’s followed, they would be left in the impenetrable blackness. Joel’s skin grew clammy with the thought.

        They came to a dead end. Earth and rock had erupted through the bloated metal caging, barring their way except for a narrow, circular shaft about waist high, no wider than their shoulders.

        “I’ll go first,” said Max, letting the empty scrubbers slide off his shoulders and hit the ground. They were nothing but dead weight now, something to get snagged on the rock.

        “Wait,” said Joel. He paused and shuffled on his feet. “If I don’t make it out of here, look after them for me.”

        “If you don’t get out of here,” said Max with a smirk, “then I’m marrying Laurie. That girl could use a good husband.” 

        “Man, shut up and get in there.”

        Max smiled but hesitated all the same, looking back at his brother.

        Joel nodded and squeezed his shoulder. “I know, man. Me too.” 

With that, Joel knelt beside the opening, his headlamp lighting up the shaft. Max clambered inside, grunting. On his belly now and his hands by his side, he pulled himself along, until his entire body disappeared inside. He reached one hand out, feeling as he went.

        “Okay,” called Max. “Come on in.” 

        Max was always the lighter of the two. Joel’s shoulders scraped rock no matter how he positioned himself. They crawled into the dark, their breath hot and close. The rock was unforgiving, pressing down on them from all sides, unmoving, impermeable, biting, scratching. Joel pushed down the panic and scrambled forward.

        “Wait,” Max called suddenly. “I’m at a dead-end.”
        Joel looked up, the cone of light from his headlamp falling on his brother. “Just push through,” said Joel. “That looks like a fissure, right there, by your hand.”
        “I’m pushing Joel, I can’t get through.” 

        Joel paused. There was an edge of terror in his brother’s voice he hadn’t heard before. He looked down at the air gauge. Their last hour was almost over.

        “Here, I’ll slide the crowbar up to you,” said Joel.

        “Joel, no, I won’t be able to –”

        Joel’s headlamp flickered, plunging them into momentary blackness.

        “I won’t be able to get the right leverage. We gotta turn back.” 

        “Turn back?” Joel yelled. “Check your gauge, we’re not –”

        The lamp flickered again, longer this time, before it sprang back to life. Max breathed hard, his chest rising and falling quickly. Too quickly, Joel thought.

        Max’s feet began to kick and squirm.

        “Max, just fucking wait a minute –” 

        Just like that, the blanket of dark returned, consuming them. Joel swore and slapped his headlamp. Nothing. Nothing but the sound of the two brothers breathing. Then, something else. Max was moving again, shifting his position.

        “Joel, there’s something,” he said, his voice shaking, barely a whisper. “There’s something touching me, I think.” 

        “Max? Max!”

        Max screamed. The rock gave way suddenly, a rending, cracking, and grating of stone, deafening.


        Joel scrambled forward even as the rock continued to tumble. Where his brother had lain suddenly was open. He fell. He tumbled downward, over and under until his world was nothing but a swirling blackness, no up or down. At last, he finally came to a stop, the air knocked out of him.

        Air. Air!

        Joel reached up and touched his face, searching, his heart pounding in sudden panic. His mask had come loose during the fall. But he could breathe. A small breeze touched his neck, the backs of his hands. But with it came the smell. The same smell from the pod, but stronger. Here it was a reek. A deep, rich organic smell, like rotting waste. He sucked it in all the same, like a drowning man, letting it fill his lungs, savoring the rush of oxygen coursing through his body. He threw his head back and laughed.

        Then, Joel’s head began to swim and pulse angrily behind his unseeing eyes. He looked around him. All was darkness. He had a sense of something, of being in some vast space, the air flowing around him.

        “Max?” He whispered. There was no reply.

        His hands groped inside his vest, his fingers finding the smooth cylinder of the flare.

        The light blinded him. Like a raging fire, the flare spewed a flickering cone of red from his hand, sending stuttering shadows fleeing from his feet. He lifted the flare higher, above his head so he could see. Like a curtain of black encircling him, there was no end to the darkness in every direction, so vast was the chamber he found himself in.

        Far away, he could not quite see, but rather sensed something like monumental pillars beyond him. The sputtering flame made them almost appear to move, to shiver and shudder in the light. He blinked his eyes closed, hard and shook his head. The rush of oxygen. It must have been.

        Joel looked directly above him. The shivering columns seemed to meet in the darkness above his head, in a blackness thicker than night. He could almost make it out, outlining some gargantuan body, supported by massive, arched legs.

        Slowly, the stars began to come out, their lights twinkling into existence, as if by some trick. Joel let out a shaky sigh of relief. He had been hallucinating. He had found the way out. He was on the surface, in the dead of night, the stars shining down on him.

        But something inside told him he was wrong, as much as he wanted to believe. These stars didn’t twinkle, instead they seemed to glow, red as the light of the flare in his hand. As he looked at them, the orbs looked back at him. Not stars he thought, but eyes. Their look was one of hunger.

        One by one, the lights blinked out of existence. Then came a great rustling and the air shifted again, the uncountable young clinging to the belly of the gargantuan thing above him scuttling down her great legs towards him. The flare began to sputter and die.

        Joel took a meaningless step back: there was nowhere to run. He looked dimly down at the watch on his wrist. The alarm had begun blaring: 36 hours was up. The things began to screech as they rushed forward, the terrible sound melting into the shrill chirping of the alarm on his wrist until it became one cacophonous symphony. The light from the flare went out and he was plunged into the dark. 



Thirty-Six Hours

Patrick Axford

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