The Liner Notes: “Bindings, Seen and Not”

First off, a note on my year out (as we’re into May and well into the mid-year), this doesn’t mean I’m not writing. Far from it. It just means I’m not publishing, mainly because I just can’t financially or psychologically do it right now. I also have nothing I’m ready to let go yet, much less get professionally edited. I’ve not even sent out a short story yet, despite writing quite a few. This is basically just me being a little fragile at the moment so I’m focusing my sights on what I feel like writing, as opposed to a schedule which will just put pressure and stress on me.

Remember: stress + pressure = mania.

Oh and I’m horrible to myself as well, in terms of the pressure I put on myself, the limits I aim for. So I need the time.

So far, so good.

You’re probably wondering: Asha, why is there a pic of Moleskines on your post header? I found the shop in Covent Garden and was very good but stationary is my thing, my one joy. But, they’re actually here to segue nicely into the Liner Notes for my current WiP which is all about a bookbinder living in a segregated and very technologically focused society.

Currently called “Bindings, Seen and Not” it refers both to the bindings in books, artfully hidden by endpapers, skill and straight lines, but also the state of things in Taborin, the city where this story is set. Ironically, due to the fact Maxov is biologically an intersex/third gender Ubani, a progenitor, he’s effectively a member of an enslaved minority. Society uses ‘it’, the Ubani use ‘they but some, like Maxov, actually identify as one gender or another, hence his pronouns. Anyway, as he notes in the text, he can see his bindings the Directorate has placed on his people which gives him infinitely more power than most would think:

Technology could change words on the page, you could with print as well, it was just a lot more obvious and harder to ignore. Even the Ubani pretended to be blind, sometimes, to keep themselves and their culture’s existence, safe.

They were all bound in knots, except the Ubani—chattel to sterile families, passed like pieces in a game—who saw and felt theirs every day. Rough against their skin, too tight. He pitted the others, the remnants of old Atridia, because their bindings were ribbons so fine, so soft, they didn’t notice the hangman’s noose around their throats.

I do actually know how to book bind, I learnt the basics a few years ago and, thanks to YouTube, have been learning more advanced techniques. This is mainly due to my stationary fetish and my on-going love of Midori (most notebooks are staddle-stitched and easy enough to make). The story itself is triggered when Maxov’s days running a ramshackle emporium of old and mostly illegal books is interrupted.

 The story itself is triggered when Maxov’s (who’s in his late seventies at this point and very gruff expect for those he likes) ‘adopted’ daughter, Usaki, comes in and asks him to spirit away some incriminating letters and journals left to her son by his mother (Juran and Reshi Elaspe of The Fractured Era) by sending them on the Ghost Road, the progenitor-only escape route off-world and seeing them placed within the Ubani Archives. He accepts because the letters, from Juran’s biological male and female grandparents, are pre-Singularity, but also because Usaki asks and offers to pay the toll herself: by writing down her life story for preservation in the Archives. Eventually, someone else will add in the rest, how she lived, how she died, who will remember her.

So he makes her a book in which to record her story and, as he does, finds himself remembering his own past as well. He was born before the Singularity and given male gender after the pogroms and the nationalisation of Ubani and the introduction of a licensed lottery that saw the Ubani become surrogates to fertile, well-adjusted and connected, families. Good genes were welcomed, undesirables denied children and so weeded out. The Ubani themselves, referred to as ‘progenitors’ by the state, are forced into rotation, have their first child (always a progenitor) stolen from them as a life lesson and are moved from family to family, birthing sons and daughters before being dragged to another posting. Eventually, they just end up on the societal scrap heap. Just as Maxov found himself and decided to look opportunity in the face and rely on his community and himself.

Right now the story is a combination of a historical worldbuilding info dump and bookbinding porn (as in writing very descriptively about how to make a book, not literal porn). From endpapers, bone folders and signatures to binding and materials. I’m trying to evoke the emotion of a different kind of creation and it’s refreshing, actually, to focus on the enduring quality of a well made book, not just the words inside it.

As a bonus, this is the video which inspired the story:

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The Liner Notes: “One Quiet Night”

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Last year my friend Shannon was staying with me while she looked for places in London. Being Canadian, the capital was calling her like a moth to a flame, I was like that once too, even if I didn’t go into the city much until my final year at uni and after. Anyway, for fun, we invited around two geek friends of mine, Mel and Kris, for a night of pizza and board games. I didn’t even know that was a thing until Shannon got me playing them. Now I’m a huge fan of Cards Against Humanity on principle because it is the perfect adult game, mainly because it works better the more you drink.

Yeah, it got pretty rude towards the end.

Anyway, we also played Pandemic which Shannon had previously introduced me and a somewhat sceptical Uni too. It’s a lot more fun when you have two more players and I’m totally for anything involving viruses and extinction level events (this is what I get from reading far too much Seanan McGuire). One of the cards, titled One Quiet Night, stuck with me (Hi, Pandemic folk, please don’t sue me!) and thus was my story born.

I wrote “One Quiet Night” in second person because I wanted to really get readers stuck in the story, setting it in an unnamed town near to where I live. It focuses on an unnamed single mother who’s daughter, Carly, has caught a new strain of flu which is, literally, killing humanity not that my protagonist has completely realised her daughter is dying. Then the phone goes out and she can’t figure out why. Oh and her elder son, Brandon, isn’t all himself either.

This story is so British it’s almost painful. That was half the point as I’m aware most readers won’t be; the British words like ‘mobile’, ‘GP’ and ‘101’ are going to confuse the heck out of people, thushopefully—heightening the tension. Added to that the isolation, which is straight out of every horror story ever, is particularly poignant. Especially when the protagonist realises she’s not the only one watching her child die to a disease humanity simply doesn’t have a cure too.

I remember when H1N1 and swine flu were things; there was never that much panic buying, at least not in my little town but everyone was almost painfully aware—exacerbated entirely by Twitter and Facebook—that something foul was in the air. That’s where the rest of this story came from, even though back then at least there was no real danger, not if people were smart (and people so seldom are).

Here’s the cover I designed for it (I think the image is gorgeous and totally fits the story which is contemporary but also sci fi):

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As a reminder, here’s the blurb:

It only takes one quiet night for humanity to die …

Everyone expects zombies and nuclear fire to herald the destruction of the Earth but the end, at least in this tale, comes much more quietly. Your daughter is sick, the entire world is dying, and there’s nothing you can do. 

Yes, you

Step into the shoes of a single mother whose daughter doesn’t just have a simple bug but is one of millions afflicting with a terrifying virus which is quietly decimating humanity.

And you’re not the only one watching her die.

Oh and you can go preorder the book (which is out 1st May) by going here: smarturl.it/Mosaics2

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The Liner Notes: “Washed Up Upon the Shore”

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Ever since I discovered the compelling and lore-rich Bloodborne, I’ve been on a Lovecraft kick. I’m not a fan of his views or the man himself but the cosmology fascinates me, as does how other people have taken the mythology and made it their own. Case in point: I absolutely love Ruthanna Emrys’ The Litany of Earth; that’s the kind of mythos story I’ve always wanted to read and news of more Aphra Marsh books coming next year really excites me. As does The Old Hunters DLC recently released for Bloodborne (see here, here and, most importantly, here).

The only story I ever actually liked out of Lovecraft’s collective fiction was The Shadow of Innsmouth (which is also why I love The Old Hunters and the corpse of Mother Kos. Litany also focuses on what happened to the people of the town after the government bombed the sacred Old One reef and put them into camps far from the ocean). Dreams and the Old Ones go together but it was the lure of the sea which interested me. Plus I wanted to do something fantastical and secondary-worldy.

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The key for me was the idea that the sea is the gate to immortality. My protagonist is a man living in a seashore village who has an otherworldly connection to the ocean, it calls to him and he is receptive. His village has a spirituality revolving around the waters; the dead are sunk beneath with pearls beneath their lips as payment, their bodies becoming part of the ocean environment and they are also aware of a culture mirrored beneath the waves; once there was a town where there is now only underwater ruins with creatures living within.

The Faith of the Sea has the status of a minor cult but by the end of the story is a mainstream religion. Balem, my protagonist, is a priest when it is a cult and by the end of the story it’s one of the greater faiths that move over the land constituting the Twilight Empire. The Empire is minor in this story but it’s ruler the Empress Caisha is not, not is she quite as she appears and only certain people can see her with unclouded eyes and a mind able to survive the revelation.

Worshipping the sea is, as a concept, not new. It’s one of the primal forces of life, like fire and the seasons. A couple of years ago, while in Japan, I went to Teramachi (translated as ‘Temple Town’) in Kyoto and just wandered. There were a number of temples and a couple of shines but one took my interest because the kami being worshiped inside was this beautifully carved wooden octopus. I snapped an image of it because it struck me as beautiful in a weird way, octopi are about as alien as sea life can get and it sat in my brain, asking what else could live under the ocean on a world that isn’t quite Earth.

And what else drifted through the heavens.

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I quite enjoy writing secondary worlds, world building is after all my thing and I’ve always found the dark depths of the sea to be disturbing, unknown and dangerous. I also wrote this piece in second person as I wanted it to be really immersive and just a little bit creepy even though the narrator is referenced as male. My other issue is I tend to write passive characters. This is probably because I’ve spent much of my life unconsciously being like that and am now making an effort to be much more active; Balem lies to get into the entourage of the Twilight Empress and as the great monarch herself says:

“I do not punish honesty but I don’t forget liars.”

 I love that line, I think it’s my favourite of the entire story.

“Washed Up Upon the Shore” went out on submission this week, I have high hopes for it so here’s hoping it sells.

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The Liner Notes: “Infinity Girl and the Shadow”

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This actually started out from a very specific question relating to a rewatch of Sailor Moon Crystal (apologies for the anime screengrabs) and re-reading the manga in Japanese to help make my language skills not so rusty. Sailor Moon was how I learned Japanese, because I was eighteen and magical girls were cool. Plus the manga’s simple language and furigana helped, as did the size. I used to work in a kitchen and had an apron with two pockets. I’d keep the English Tokyopop translation (hahahahah!) in my left and the original Japanese edition in my right.

Yes the translation was crap but the idea basically survived and it did help (now I’ve switched to Japanese computer game streams, Dark Souls and Bloodborne, mostly). The early 2000’s were, however, a much more analogue age and there were two Japanese books stores in London that would accept my Student Loan money to feed my burgeoning addiction.

But, anyway, back to the question. Excuse the long, rambling, fangirlish and roundabout way we get to it.

Usagi (the main character) was Princess Serenity in a past life, heir to the moon kingdom known as the Silver Millennium, who fell in love with the heir to the Earth, Endymion (yes it is based on the Greek myth of moon deity, Selene, and human shepherd, Endymion). With the second arc, we’re introduced to her future self Neo-Queen Serenity, monarch of Earth who kicks arse and is awesome. I adore both princess and queen forms of Usagi’s alter-ego but NQS literally performs miracles and has all the grace, age and power Usagi lacks.

Within the mythology of the manga, Usagi gets her throne because of her past life (though this makes little logical sense as she’s reincarnated as a human, Tsukino Usagi, not a White Moon princess). As part of the storyline Usagi, Sailor Venus and Chibiusa—who has the full and surprising name of Usagi Small Lady Serenity, ChibiUsa literally meaning ‘Little Usa(gi)’—travel to the future, 3oth Century Crystal Tokyo.

There Usagi is informed that she became Queen after giving birth to ChibiUsa around the age of 22. ChibiUsa is like 904 years old and all the humans of Earth are now functionally immortal upon reaching adulthood because of a mystical crystal which serves as the series’ McGuffin/awesome-looking magical power source.

Unsurprisingly Usagi is like ‘OMG I got to have SEX with Mamoru!!!!!!!!’ (Her reincarnated, destined-to-be husband).

My question was not ‘Cool, Usagi got to be Queen’ but how. I mean like, literally.

Did she have ChibiUsa and then declare, to her civilian family (who are never mentioned outside of 20th century Tokyo) that she was now ruler of the planet? Was there a coup? Did the other senshi forcibly help her take over? Did the UN just go: ‘Sure random Tokyo woman, go nuts, the Earth is all yours’. Did she use the Silver Crystal and perform miracles/brainwashed the planet’s population? Did all the Japanese TV/newspaper coverage and the Guardians’ wins against Queen Beryl, Metalia, the Black Moon Clan, Wiseman and Black Lady, Pharaoh 90 and Mistress 9, the Dead Moon Circus and Sailor Galaxia, finally teach all of Earth’s governments that Sailor Moon’s ultimate self could keep the Earth safe?

(Though, in the manga, NQS admits she lost most of her power as a Guardian when she ascended the throne.)

How has rankled me. I’d love to think given NQS’s benevolence and her posse of planetary guardians, plus cats, that it was a peaceful transition but the writer in me much prefers some kind of coup d’etat. Not bloodshed but not compliance either.

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So I started writing my own magical girl story about a Latina girl in a US school who becomes the saviour of a planet (complete with merchandising and hard-core PTSD). Tara Morreno is a kid in high school who also happens to be an old enough soul that the Fates have co-opted her into serving as saviour of the planet against a succession of more powerful foes.

Except this is a story in the vein of Madoka Magica, not Sailor Moon, meaning when Tara turns up to school with bruises and a black eye, her best friend Esme thinks she’s being beaten by a family member, her dead-beat father who left when she was small.

She certainly doesn’t think her best friend is fighting against a Dementor-like monster that is leeching the life from a parallel dimension in order to digest the Earth in chunks. Esme has her own role to play in the story because Tara is also, in her civilian life, a gay teen who has deep, unspoken feelings for her best friend. Esme is the one thing that keeps Tara going even when she’s so close to walking away from her life as Infinity Girl or dying in the middle of battle because she’s just not strong enough.

And that’s where I kinda forgot the question and this story became about Tara and Esme, being a magical girl where those wounds leave a mark. This is definitely an origin story and the start of a series of tales focusing on Tara’s adventures and the various creatures trying to take over the planet.

This is going to be fun.

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The Liner Notes: “Sun Glass”

By Chi King (Huangshan, China (YELLOW MOUNTAIN/LANDSCAPE)) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Chi King (Huangshan, China (YELLOW MOUNTAIN/LANDSCAPE)) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

I’m in the processes of working on a redraft (the fourth) of a rather epic story called “Sun Glass”, it’s a secondary world story focusing on a civilisation based on ancient China. Except that the people live on a planet with three moons and a population of shadowy creatures called demons—the native species—who appear at night and do not like the humans one iota.

When I started the story I knew several things for certain:

  • Humans came to this world from somewhere else, aka Earth, documented in a semi-mythicised text called The Annals of the Arrival. But enough time/generations have passed for this to become near mythological.
  • The ‘demons’ were the native inhabitants of the planet, who dwell in the dark and the shadows and are capable of taking partial form as smoke-creatures with coloured, jewel-like eyes.
  • Magic, encapsulated around arts and crafts, words and meaning, exists and the moons of this world can enhance magic.
  • There are specific clans and castes who teach children how to forge a magical weapon from a meteorite or how to capture a spell in glass.
  • Humans either have magical talent or they don’t.
  • The hardest of these professions are the glassweavers, a protective form of magic that shields people from being attacked by demons.
  • Hu Xia, my MC, is a glassweaver of some skill who became one thanks to personal tragedy. She’s also spent her life pretending to be her dead brother, Jin, in order to learn her art.
  • The demons are getting stronger and more bold; no one knows why or how to stop them.
  • Xia must stop them. Because reasons.

This story was unabashedly inspired by TV. I was watching Kevin McCloud’s series on making his man-shed which involved making his own glass, the process captivated me (as does any hobby involving hot things, danger etc). The process was literally magical and thus was Hu Xia born. The story opens with her crafting a magical totem made of glass to protect her village from the demons.

I knew I wanted to set this in a Chinese-based secondary world because, like Japan, ancient China lends itself perfectly to magic. Add in a sci fi angle and a secondary world with a crux focusing on magic and off I went, building a world which included lost villages, angry demons and (though it’s never stated) genetically-engineered sentient unicorns. Oh and, once, there were dragons too.

This is one of those stories where, as I write it, I’m mentally reminding myself I want to submit it to a certain place, in this instance I have the market’s submission guidelines open so I can review them as I go, things like word counts and genre. I’ve got a list, helpfully provided by my crit group, of places if my first choice isn’t successful which helps because I tend to be very narrow-minded and focused when it comes to submission. I want to sell it to X, it doesn’t mean they’ll take it.

This story has been a beast but it reminds me a novelette I think I beta-read for Mary Robinette Kowal a couple of years ago called “A Fire in the Heavens” which was essentially about a journey and this discovery of the unknown. The entire time I was writing “Sun Glass” I couldn’t stop thinking about this story, even though there’s no connection whatsoever with my pseudo-Chinese society on an alien planet. No MRK’s story feel’s epic, even if it’s just over 15k in length and the world was so vibrant, so strange.

I gave the third draft to my crit group a month ago and then, in the wake of their ever so helpful comments, literally pulled the story to pieces and added in what I call a Viola subplot (Yes, guess what I studied for my English GCSE). It actually fit well with the cultural feel of the story and turned Xia into a very active character (something I’ve been having problems writing) which has pleased my beta readers muchly. I can’t help squeeing every time one of my trusted crit group tell me they love something, even if it also means (because they’re good), I have a page by page list of things to fix or clarify.

I can’t help squeeing every time one of my trusted crit group tell me they love something, even if it also means (because they’re good), I have a page by page list of things to fix or clarify. Now I just have to go through, clean it up, check for typos, remove a few over-used words and wait for a rejection so I can submit it to Market No. 1. That’s tomorrow morning in Starbucks and my first coffee accounted for then.

That’s tomorrow morning in Starbucks and my first coffee accounted for then.

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The Liner Notes: “Le Cirque de la Nuit”

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Circuses are not my normal subject matter but “Le Cirque de la Nuit” came to me in their weird dream about a person who was seeing a woman named Medea in the mirror. I knew Dea was able to take control of the (male) person whose story I was watching and that she was a member of a strange, supernatural circus.

Then I found this song and everything fell into place. This was no mundane troupe but something existing on the edge of a much-changed world where people fled the cities and tried to reinvent lives that had, prior to the Apocalypse, been so very different.

As the story was drafted the week after we lost David Bowie, I knew he had to appear in this story, specifically in his guise of Jareth, the Goblin King. And so the mysterious Ringmaster wears furs and feathers and plays with glass spheres, delighting the children in the audience. He’s a force of nature but cares for those accepted into his troupe, animals and humans both. Sometimes the troupe takes people will skills and, other times, they are all that’s left for the broken souls, like my main character, Jessie.

Death was an important part of the plot, as was this sort-of future world where the barriers between life and death aren’t as solid as they were originally. Something bad happened to the world vaguely connected to cities and technology, and now people exist in hamlets as far from civilisation’s heart as possible. I could see people living in make-shift homes with no heating or lights, with candles and furs and even seeing things like hoodies, the remnants of a dead and cursed world, as being something to be avoided just because they came from a dangerous place.

Except the world, with bandits and unnatural seasons, is even more dangerous than it ever was before our world came to an end.

I didn’t want this to be a straight sci fi story so we have the Night Circus of the title, which appears and moves from place to place pretty much on it’s own whims. They have a menagerie of fantastical creatures, from a mermaid to a unicorn; the centerpiece is a beautiful lion called Le Roi (French for “The King”, named in honour of a Facebook acquaintance’s cat who is named in honour of the Sun King himself). Sometimes new creatures appear, seemingly willed into existence by the imagination of children, like a phoenix egg waiting to hatch.

The point is, this isn’t our world. The only semblance of normality can be found in the Midway where there are food and games and sellers who will trade items or scrap. Jessie is haunted by her son and husband, who wander the area almost on a loop that is based on the last night she was with them.

Except she’s not there.

Jessie is now a marionette, a Puppet in the circus’ troupe of acrobats and Dea is her Puppeteer, the true dancer but who is also disembodied and so needs Jessie to perform. At the same time Jessie just wants to get back to her family, despite Dea’s protestations that her family will come to her if she’s patient. Jessie, of course, she wants to fight for her family and to return to her old life.

But of course, where’s the story in old lives?

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The Liner Notes: “Irezumi”, Shinto and Failure

 

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I wanted to start writing about my processes when writing a short story, notes about ideas or links to things which inspired me to do the writing. I’m calling this series The Liner Notes in homage to the booklets which came in CDs with the lyrics and, now and again, notes from the composers/bands about what inspired the album in the first place.

I’m in the middle of writing a short story called “Irezumi” (刺青 which is used as a word for Japanese tattooing but actually translations as ‘stay’, referring to the way the ink used lingers permanently under the skin). The title is a double entendre and the story is one related by a master tattooist about the time he met a woman whose tattoo, of a bamboo forest, mysteriously began appearing one night.

I started off this story knowing several things:

  1. It was narrated by a tattooist in Meji era-Kyoto (who refuses to give his name but is third in his lineage and took the first character for his artistic name, Hori—, from his own master) in the middle of a country-wide the clamp down on his art.
  2. A woman comes to him with a mysterious tattoo (in her case a grove of bamboo saplings on her ankle) that appears to be getting bigger by the day. She says it’s not something she had done but rather appeared one morning and has been growing since.
  3. The reason why had something to do with the period of modernisation known as the Meiji Restoration (or Meiji Ishin) when Japan thought modernisation was cool and so tried to catch up to Europe as far as possible, banning samurai from carrying their swords (in effect: taking from them their souls), clamping down on irezumi and wearing European clothing rather than Japanese dress.
  4. The narrator visits a blind seeress, an itako, in some obscure village who explains what’s going on.
  5. The narrator fails in his task to help the woman with the mysterious tattoo.
  6. The world is irrevocally changed but the change also forces a new status quo.

I know the theme of this story is sacredness and the narrator’s failure in his task. The image above is a torii gate made of stone which I snapped while in Japan, that rope represents the start of sacred space (it’s called a shimenawa or 七五三縄). Anything can be sacred from shrines to rocks and trees (called yorishiro/依り代), you can tell because there is typically shimenawa surrounding the object. But what if a person is sacred?

Of course, Shinto has a concept for this which works beautifully for the story: yorimashi (憑坐) (the second of which is the same character as the one in miko (shrine maiden/巫女) BTW. Yorimashi are basically kami vessels or god-stolen/occupied bodies and this is the crux of the story, as is the concept of purity and divinity.

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The thing about writing this kind of fiction, I’ve discovered, is no one is going to shout at you for writing historical fiction. I’ve always shied away from this genre, convinced someone was going to decry my fiction for errors. It’s not about getting every detail correct, more about creating a convincing world and Japan I know enough about (from going there and nearly a decade specialising in all things to do with the culture) that I can do that.

Some of my favourite parts of Japan involved randomly wandering around Shinto shrines, washing my hands and mouth in the fountain like the one here, mostly while cherry blossom fell around me. Shinto is a religion of purity and sacredness but both can be found and adopted, anything can become a kami and anyone can see the spirits existing in nature around us. I figure, though tattooing involves blood (something normally verboten due to the impurity) the art itself, the healed product, that can be a sacred thing, a meditation on life and a lifelong reminder of something important to the person being tattooed.

Now that is sacredness right there.

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