Category Archives: Writing

“The Nice Guy”

“Can you help me with my bike?”

He was white, balding underneath his Cincinnati Reds cap. Tall, taller than me, and pretty big. Doughy, but under that muscular, strong, the build and mannerisms of someone who worked for a living. His smile, glasses, the bib overalls, his easy manner all made me think I could be shaking hands with someone who was asked to play Santa every year at a church party or the local volunteer fire department Christmas celebration.

“Sure. Give me a minute.”

“No rush.”

After finishing the post-breakfast, camping rituals, I ambled over to his site. He was alone, sleeping in small, white-sided camper pulled by a half-ton, red Chevy truck. The Kawasaki was strapped down in the bed of the pickup. Everything was immaculate, no stains, no grease, no accumulated dust. With little trouble, we unloaded the cycle. He smiled again.

The smile doesn’t reach his eyes.

“Thanks.”

It’s like when you’re talking to someone, and there’s a … tic, a tell, something that exposes him as a liar. He’s not right.

“No problem.”

Or not. Whatever.

Later in the day, I saw our neighbor leaving. I was digging through the car for a towel when he rode off on his motorcycle. The bib overalls had been replaced with a deep blue jumpsuit, like you might see on an industrial worker or the pest control guy. He also wore his helmet, big brown boots, a backpack and black motorcycle gloves.

He looks like a serial killer.

I laughed to myself and returned to the search. I didn’t think again about my little joke until evening when our neighbor returned, looking just as spotless as when he left. As he cut the engine and parked, he gave me a wave. I waved back.

Maybe he really is a serial killer.

I waited, knowing sanity would soon overtake me. Yet …

He’s got a trusting face. Not that all serial killers have that. I mean, Gacey, Bundy, they had personality, that trustworthy vibe.

He took off his helmet, hanging it from one of the grips. Then he disappeared into the camper.

Everything’s so clean. Too clean. It’s weird. It’s a dirtbike with no dirt on it. A camper that doesn’t look like it’s been camping. A truck that’s six, seven years old, and it looks like it’s showroom quality. No dirt, no tar, no grass stains … no DNA, no fingerprints, no evidence.

A light flashes on in the camper.

The jumpsuit pretty much covers him head to toe. I wonder what was in the backpack? Lunch? First aid kit? Ropes and duct tape? I guess it’s not unusual to wear gloves to drive, especially on a cycle. But he had them on when we unloaded …

A campground light glints off one of the Kawasaki’s mirrors.

My prints are the only ones on the bike! Oh my God! I’ll be the suspect once the police find the body …

Crickets. The campfire pops and crackles a few feet away.

Ridiculous. It’s just a dude camping. You’re drunk. Go to bed.

In the morning, he approached me again, asking for help to get the bike into the truck. I agreed, and walked together to the pickup.

He’s wearing gloves. Going to accuse him of being Ed Gein?

We pushed the bike quietly and gently up the homemade ramp into the bed of the truck. I held it still as he strapped it down. He carefully stepped off the bed on to the blacktop of the short driveway, and reached out a hand, smiling.

“Thanks.”

Really? This is the guy you’re obsessing over.

“Yeah. You’re welcome.”

I reached out and shook his hand. He gripped it firmly, matching my gaze. I saw something, something that really did scare me. The look of the triumphant predator, a deep, burning hunger sated, a clean getaway.

My next visit was to the bathroom, to wash my hands.

Because only because you can’t really scrub your soul.

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Robinson-Heinlein mix natural in ‘Variable Star’

The idea of one writer picking up the pre-planned novel of an author who has passed doesn’t sit easy with me, and, I would imagine, with most readers. It’s just not going to be the same as it would have been had the original writer run with the concept, and sometimes those gaps or failings are going to be glaring. Plus, it feels disrespectful to the work of the dead artist.

Unless, apparently, you are Spider Robinson taking over a Robert Heinlein project. In which case everything comes up roses.

Heinlein wrote the notes and outline for the book Variable Star in 1955, got distracted by other work and never came back to it. After the death of Heinlein’s wife, the notes were found by Heinlein’s children, Robinson was offered the chance to complete the project, and Variable Star hit bookshelves in 2006.

It’s really a terrific mix of the two authors. Orphaned teen Joel is ready to set out and become a musician, gets his world rocked by his love interest that jump starts a massive identity crisis, and instead jumps on the first spaceship he can find to travel light years away to be a colonist on a previously unsettled planet. If you’ve ever read any Heinlein, you know it isn’t that straightforward. The requisite Heinlein oddities and twists are all there. There were even moments where Robinson truly captured Heinlein’s voice, and those times usually left me laughing.

What’s great about it is that Robinson, while staying very much true to Heinlein’s story and style, is also able to add his own touches that really round out the work. One example that strikes me is when Joel starts to have a mental breakdown and is forced to seek counseling. Heinlein had a more brusque style, I think in part generational and in part the natural outcome of a writer who was trying to crank out product to feed his family. Plus, I think Heinlein tended to get excited about the concept and was less into creating nuanced characters of great depth, because that wasn’t what he was about. Robinson adds a sensitivity that Heinlein probably wouldn’t have, creating sympathy for Joel as he tries to find his way after having his world rocked. In other chapters, where there is less action and more of Joel figuring out who he is and what he is or should be doing, Robinson’s hand is felt similarly, keeping the story interesting as well as letting it move at the leisurely pace someone on a long spacecraft voyage would be operating at.

If you’re a Heinlein fan and you have any doubts, don’t. Yes, it’s not a Heinlein novel in the purest sense. It’s a collaboration, and because of that, it’s a beast all its own. But what a beautiful beast it is.

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“The End and The Beginning”

Writer’s note: My parents brought this to me a few weeks ago, a story I wrote as a 17-year-old high school senior that earned me an “Excellent story 98” from my senior composition teacher. I submit this to you with no edits. Another note at the end will address a few other things.

“The End and the Beginning”

Darkness. The sun rises in the early morning mist. A shadow approaches. Shades of gray. The shadow forms a man. Breath appears in the chilly air. Thudding of feet on the tarmac. The man is close. Details can be seen. Dark hair and dark eyes show a face that has grown old before its time. A young man who has seen more than many men two times his age. Dressed in blue denim and black hightops, the clothes are dusty and worn from much walking. Many road and many days make a man hard and old.

Isaiah. The name given to him years ago. A last name he cannot remember, and does not want to. In the real world, names do not matter. Only faces. Deeds. The deeds he has performed are known to many, and feared by more. Relationships are a casualty in this line of work. Besides, who will trust him if they know his craft?

On an Arizona road to another job. Usual payoff, usual risk. He carries his equipment on his back, the equipment of a man who knows death. Up ahead is a sign. “Calhalda-1300” it reads. He has arrived.

A small town. Here to fill the gas tanks for passing travelers in the desert. Small mines outside of town. The bread and butter of a western community. There, the place he was looking for.

He entered the store. Musty. Dark. The community gossip center, also known as the general store. From condiments to condoms. Isaiah smiled grimly.

“Can I help you stranger?” There was an unfriendliness and suspicion in the voice that only years in an isolated community can foster.

“I’m looking for a Mr. Jonathan Roberts,” replied Isaiah. “Would you know his place of residence?”

“Well, I would probably know because I am Johnny. Who are you?” replied the proprietor.

“I am Isaiah. You sent for me,” he answered.

Johnny’s face went white. “I didn’t expect you quite so soon. I guess it’s for the better. She needs you. Come with me.”

Johnny led Isaiah through the back of the store. Isaiah noticed the large array of goods. With only a sixty watt bulb to light the way, he had to be careful of the supplies in the aisle.

They reached the back and began to ascend some stairs. As they reached the top, Isaiah noticed how dark the apartment appeared to be, not only in terms of lighting, but also in terms of decoration. The walls were all painted a dark blue, possibly black. There were also many crucifiction scenes adorning the loft. Those were not the typical christian (writer’s note: I didn’t capitalize Christian, thus the 98 instead of a 100 from Ms. Spencer) scenes, but seemingly more graphic.

At the top of the stairs, the turned right and entered a small bedroom. In the bedroom, darkness again. The smell of death. And there, on the bed, lie the woman.

She was probably in her early sixties. Not that it mattered. Cancer had eaten away at her body and soul. Now she was just an empty shell of a formerly vibrant woman. Now she wanted to die. That’s why Isaiah was here.

“Hello, my dear, ” a week voices asked from the bed. “Who did you bring with you?”

“It is him, love,” squeaked Johnny.

“Then let us get it over with so that I may meet my maker,” she said. “I have been waiting many days, you know.”

“I’m sure you have, ma’am,” replied Isaiah. “Shall I begin?”

The woman nodded. Isaiah set his pack on the floor and opened it. The sound of the zipper penetrated the room, bringing a grimace to Isaiah’s face. He withdrew a small pack and opened it. He took out a syringe and inserted the small dose of cyanide.

Isaiah then walked to the bedside. “My dear woman, if you have anything to say, you should say it now.”

“Johnny, come here,” the frail woman commanded. As Johnny knelt by her side, she said, “You know this is for the best, don’t you.” Johnny nodded as she continued, “We will see each other again on the other side, my love. Now kiss me and leave.”

Johnny gently kissed her cheek as tears streamed down his face. He gripped her hand for the last time, stood up, and head bowed, left the room.

“Don’t worry, ma’am, there won’t be any pain,” Isaiah said as he inserted the needle.

“Son, after the pain I’ve been through, it wouldn’t matter anyway,” replied the old woman.

Isaiah injected the poison, and sat for five minutes as her breathing slowed and finally stopped altogether. He then threw his pack over his should and went down stairs.

*****************

Euthanasia. Mercy killing. Whatever the name, not matter how grim the job, he would be there. The silhouette of the stranger began to disappear in the distance. No one liked the job, but it relieved the pain of many a person and brought peace to a soul which had not known peace in a long, long time. The shadow of the man was now gone, but the man himself would never, ever be forgotten.

Writer’s note: I re-wrote this piece a year later for my freshman composition class in college. The stranger then rode a motorcycle, went a to a private home and not a store, and I think I spent more time describing the condition of the home and the old woman. And yes, I I’m reasonably certain received an A on it as well, but I don’t have a copy of that revised piece.

As for what was going on with my 17-year-old self that prompted this dark short story, I have no idea. Probably the two issues I felt strongest about at the time were freedom of speech (I did my senior composition research paper on Broward County’s (Fla.) attempt to censor the 2 Live Crew) and homosexuality, when I was a much more Christian, much less enlightened, gay-hating individual (grew up and got over it). So I’m not at all sure where this statement on euthanasia came from.

All in all, I think, for 17, not bad. I cringe at some of the dialogue choices, now I would have added a bit more suspense to the stranger and his purpose, and I don’t think I would have added that last paragraph, but that’s a much older, somewhat wiser writer’s opinion.

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‘Wytchfire’ a worthy jumping off point for Dragonkin trilogy

Do you have what it takes to carry Knightswrath?

Do you have what it takes to carry Knightswrath?

What I didn’t like: That list is fairly short. I’d have preferred to speed up the earlier parts and get to Lyos, the city that is the main setting for the latter half of Wytchfire and one of the key cities in the land of Ruun, but I’m not the author and it doesn’t hurt the narrative. My only real concern is that the dialogue seems a bit too Midwestern, which you’d expect from a guy that grew up in Iowa. Not a huge beef, admittedly.

What I liked: I thought Michael Meyerhofer did a nice job of both adhering to the familiar tropes of fantasy while creating his own realm and mythology. Including the Codus Lotius – one of the seminal texts of the Isle Knights – as an appendix was a nice touch (“He who waits for the gods to tell him to move will, in time, grow roots”) and helps give context for what the Knights should be aspiring to achieve. The She’lai, a group of mutated magical beings sprung from the race of Sylvs, may be his best creation. A group of the She’lai internalized the magical power of extinct dragons in an effort to prepare for the battle to control Ruun. One such She’lai, affectionately know as “The Nightmare,” singlehandedly brings down the walls of city after city before a siege can ever be conceived, a group of twelve She’lai surrounding it to magically harness its power at all times during battle. Meyerhofer’s nicest trick, though, may have been occasional references to a race known as the Olgryms, monstrous, gigantic creatures that don’t show up until the epilogue, but who will clearly be players in the battle for Ruun. Wytchfire is a solid jumping-off point, and I look forward to seeing where Meyerhofer goes from here.

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What if an alien told you God’s existence could be scientifically proven?

Not a bad premise for a novel, right?

Robert Sawyer’s Calculating God starts here, with an insect-like alien named Hollus landing outside the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, walking in through the front door and asking to see a paleontologist. The first paleontologist to answer the call is Thomas Jericho. There starts a relationship built on the bones of animals dead millions of years that ends four hundred years in the future on a space craft near the remains of Betelgeuse after it has gone supernova.

Where does God fit in to this story? When Hollus meets Jericho, she explains that her people, the Forhilnor, humans and another race, the Wreeds, are the only three forms of intelligent life currently in the universe (that they know of), and that all three have something very important in common. Each of their planets has has had five extinction level events, all that the same time in their individual histories. Meanwhile, all three races are at similar points in their development. Jericho is stunned. He asks Hollus if they have an idea as to why this would be possible. Hollus’s answer: God.

Jericho can hardly believe what he’s hearing. And thus begins the real thrust of Calculating God, the give and take between Jericho, an athiest dying of cancer who is bitter and resistant to the idea of a God that would allow that to happen, and Hollus, a serious scientist with more than a little humanity of her own.

What makes the give and take in Calculating God so fascinating is the science. Sawyer is willing to admit the holes in evolutionary theory, of which there are a few. For example, the idea that everything evolves slowly over time to come to where we are today isn’t necessarily entirely accurate. In many cases, there seem to be evolutionary jumps, possibly mutations, that advance the process significantly. Is that the hand of God, guiding development at key points in the evolution? Or is it chance, the chaos inherent in nature?

There are other examples. Hollus notes that water is the most unique liquid in the universe and, without it, there would be no life. All life comes from water, and for water to exist, specific conditions must be present that are also necessary for the development of life.

Or what about Jupiter? Part of the reason life has had the opportunity to develop on Earth is that the gravitational pull of Jupiter sucks in most of the space debris that would do our planet harm. Doesn’t that indicate the presence of an intelligent designer protecting its creation?

As an agnostic, I found Calculating God compelling. Much of Hollus’s pro-God argument is based on the delicate, statistically near-impossible things found in nature that, if something were altered by just a percentage point or a degree, would mean that life as we know it would not be possible. It’s the threading of biological, chemical and physical needles that really gives support to the idea that, to make these things happen, there needs to be a steady hand on the wheel. And that hand may be God’s.

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The uncertainty of ‘Monster’

This is one helluva book cover. Bravo.

This is one helluva book cover. Bravo.

When I’m in the library, I’m usually there looking for something specific. But while I seek what I know I want, I try to keep my eye out for something I don’t know I want. Which is how I stumbled upon A. Lee Martinez’s Monster.

The premise is goofily brilliant: Monster is a human “cog,” a muggle who sees and remembers magic. So much so that he went to magic school to become the equivalent of a multi-dimensional pest-control professional or “cryptobiological containment expert.” Instead of traps and poisons, Monster has to rely on magic, and in his case, runes are his favorite weapon. Monster also has a unique physical feature: He changes color (usually) when he loses consciousness, either via sleep or being knocked out. And when he changes color, his power changes as well. For example, when Monster is blue, he’s virtually invincible.

There’s a girl as well. (There always is, isn’t there?). Judy’s life is a mess, with odd, destructive things always happening around her, problems she is blamed for but isn’t responsible for … or at least she doesn’t think she is. After a group (herd? flock? gaggle?) of yeti invade the supermarket she works at, she meets Monster, and the tale unfolds from there.

It’s a terrific set-up. There are plenty of funny situations, and the secondary characters – Monster’s girlfriend from Hell, his paper man sidekick, the hippie grandmother villain and more – are a hoot. Martinez has some real vision when it comes to his creation and how he uses a vast catalog of fantastic creatures is something to behold. And yet …

Somehow Monster is lacking something. It was a fun read, no denying it. But authors I thought of who have had success with similar sci-fi/fantasy tones, such as Christopher Moore and Neil Gaman, their work sticks with me afterward. I find myself thinking about the exploits of the Other Mother or the Emperor days afterward. Nothing from Monster stuck with me like that.

Again, this isn’t to say Monster is bad. It just didn’t resonate at the depth other books from the same genre have for me. I’ll definitely check out Martinez again, in part because I had fun with Monster, in part because I wonder if I’ll connect more with other works in his catalog.

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‘Serpent of Venice’ not quite the splash ‘Fool’ was

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If I could use but two words to describe Christopher Moore’s Serpent of Venice, I would choose these: Dragon shagger.

Serpent of Venice – a mish-mash of William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and Othello, with some of Edgar Allan Poe’s Cask of Amontillado tossed in, as well as cameos by Marco Polo and, yes, a dragon – marks the return of the titular fool Pocket from Moore’s Fool, itself a sendup of King Lear. Pocket is classic Shakespeare, loud mouthed and bawdy, a bastard runt with royal blood. Along with his even more obscene puppet, Jones, the monkey Jeff and Drool the moron, Pocket bribes, cajoles and fights his way through the powers that would doom both Othello and Shylock, committing heinous fuckery at every turn.

There’s a lot to like here. Moore is weaving a lot together, so the book rarely drags or is uninteresting. Pocket is still the star, even when he’s not, a ridiculous thorn in the side of Venice society. The dragon sub-plot provides some menace, and Othello and Shylock both come off a bit more believable than in Shakespeare’s works.

The problem? Not enough Pocket. He drives Fool, the ultimate antagonist plotting and pitting forces against each other for his own gain and for the pleasure of watching the fallout. In Serpent, Pocket is much more part of the ensemble. When he is in the midst of the action, the book is never funnier or more compelling. When he is not the center of what’s happening, Serpent loses its spark a bit.

That said, it’s worth the read. Moore has made a delightful, bawdy, laugh-out-loud mess of these classics. I’m sure Shakespeare would approve.

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‘Quantum Thief’: Is the juice worth the squeeze?

In any heist situation, it helps if you have wings.

In any heist situation, it helps if you have wings.

In The Girl Next Door, when Kelly asks Matthew if the juice is worth the squeeze, he wants to know if Matthew is ready to face the repercussions of his actions, and if those repercussions are worth the end result.

With regards to The Quantum Thief, I ask the same question with a slightly different meaning. Is the juice – the reward of finishing the complex, fast-paced novel – worth the squeeze – the fact that the complexity is almost mind-boggling in the early chapters of the book?

Part of the brilliance of The Quantum Thief is its speed. The Mars-based heist perpetrated by scoundrel/thief Jean Le Flambeur at the behest of the Oori warrior Mieli is grand, fun and brilliant. It’s hard not to get swept up in it.

Actually, I take that back. It is kind of hard to get caught up in it. Know what a gevulot is? Tzaddikim? Sobornost? You won’t, at least at first. And author Hannu Rajaniemi isn’t big with the explanations, instead expecting you to go along for the ride and figure it out as the novel unfolds.

An appendix, glossary or something would have been nice, akin to what was added to the end of A Clockwork Orange. A reviewer over at the Speculative Scotsman admits that while normally he hates that sort of thing, he’d have been consulting it throughout the entirety of the book.

In the end, the juice was worth it for me. I found it to a be a simultaneously confusing and fun experience, and I look forward to reading Rajaniemi’s next tale of Jean’s exploits.

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Will I continue to walk with the ‘Dead’?

Our plucky band off survivors just keeps on plucking.

Our plucky band off survivors just keeps on plucking.

Lots of spoilers. You’ve been warned.

Instead of “those who arrive survive,” how about “slowly but surely”? Because that both describes the trek to Terminus and seasons 2-4 of The Walking Dead.

Harsh? Maybe. To their credit, the Walking Dead folks know how to create a cliffhanger, both at their mid-season break and at the end of the season. From the execution of Carol’s zombie daughter to the fall of the prison and the death of Herschel, the minds behind The Walking Dead hit the big notes big. Rick finally getting back into kick-ass mode after being so lost for a season and a half was terrific, and I look forward to seeing what happens next fall.

Maybe.

Season 4 was an exercise in frustration for the most part. I was willing to forgive slow starts to both Seasons 2 and 3 because AMC had excised significant portions of the writing and producing staff each time. The death of zombie Sophia in the middle of Season 2 was awesome, but preceded by a lot of twiddling thumbs. At that point, Walking Dead was starting to remind me a lot of the worst of Lost: Two people isolated in some beautiful setting, saying deep, serious shit while staring off toward the horizon.

But, again, the turnover behind the scenes, the knowledge that these people were kind of being thrown into the middle of a hugely popular show, it all made me be patient, even if I was a bit on the annoyed side.

The problem is there is no such excuse for Season 4. There was no purge, no turnover. There should have been an amazing plan for the whole season heading into it, not just a nice start, terrific middle and gripping – if abrupt – end. All of that Governor background in the fall, what exactly was the point of that? We knew he was a selfish, brutal (and possibly slightly mentally ill) guy with a taste for blood and power who never really even believed in the possibility of peace. Were we supposed to believe he’d soften up with his new “family”? Because if so, that wasn’t sold very well. I never bought into it. It played like wheels spinning in snow, a waste of screen time for a character who the Walking Dead folks then proceeded to kill. Not that I have a problem with that, but if you’re just going to kill him anyway and not really make him integral in any part of the future show except the execution of Herschel, then why bother with the lame, useless back-story?

When The Walking Dead returned from Christmas break, we got more background and less plot and action. Michonne had a family, and it broke her heart when they died? Name one character who doesn’t have the same back story. Daryl was a dipshit redneck before the apocalypse? Gee, who would have guessed that? Rick isn’t sure what to do next? Been there, done that. Glen and Maggie love each other? Sweet, but no value added. And in between we get plod, plod, plod, plus a few characters added who, at this point, aren’t very interesting or are already dead.

Really, the second-to-last episode of Season 4, The Grove, where Carol is forced to make another hard choice, is far superior to either of the two that follow it. The second-to-last was another mildly interesting episode that’s sole purpose was to reunite Glen with Maggie. The final episode starts with serious intensity, then watch it crumble to pieces as Rick, Carl, Michonne and Darryl practically run into Terminus without a thought, followed with a display of automatic weapon fire so hokey and poorly choreographed that I’m reasonably certain it was stock footage from The A-Team, and – finally – one great, final line.

Is it worth it? It has been, to an extent. I guess the real question is will The Walking Dead be worth it moving forward? That, I’m not so sure about.

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Sometimes, it’s hard to move on with an author

I recently read W.A.R.P.: The Reluctant Assassin by Eoin Colfer. It was a bit of a disappointment. It’s not that it’s not a nice piece of Y.A. fiction. The story is unique and interesting, the villain Albert Garrick is a powerful and nasty mix of Michael Myers and Fagin, and the story displays Colfer’s trademark humor.

And yet … I love me some Artemis Fowl. I’ll take Artemis over Harry Potter any day of the week, and twice on Tuesday. The characters of Artemis’s world – LeP Captain Holly Short, the massive Butler, Foaly the centaur, Julius Root, the most awesome thief ever in Mulch Duggums and the titular sociopath himself – are immediately fully realized and adapt and change throughout the series in realistic, thoughtful ways. The villains are crafty and crazy, the adventures are a hoot and Colfer isn’t afraid to go dark.

The problem is nothing else I’ve read from Colfer – W.A.N.D.,  The Supernaturalist, The Wish List, Half Moon Investigations – has that same … spark, for a lack of a better word. The books are well-plotted, the characters are unique, and Colfer’s a funny dude. But there’s something about Artemis that separates that series from the rest of Colfer’s work.

Does that mean I’ll stop reading Colfer? No, because even an under-cooked book from Colfer is 75% better than anything else out there. It’s just frustrating to not make the same connection to his other work that I made immediately to Artemis Fowl and his cohorts.

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