World Apart

By C.J. Connor All Rights Reserved ©

Scifi / Action

Chapter 18

Resurrection, second chance,

Enjoy the freedom while it lasts,

Back into the fatal game,

Foiled plans and grenade blasts.

“Ahhh,” he groaned, rubbing the center of his back before rolling over and sitting up, two metal slugs falling silently from their burrows in his body armor. Aric winced in pain and continued his futile attempt to rub it away. It felt like he’d been hit with a sledge hammer. He could already feel the bruises forming beneath the skin: deep bruises all the way to the bone, not the kind you get from a slip and fall. He was definitely glad he’d taken the time to grab a flak jacket from one of the soldiers in Fire and Brimstone.

Where he sat, amongst the wood, everything was cool and quiet. The air was still, no breeze, moving only with the sounds of chirping birds and small animals scurrying through the underbrush. The gunfire had ceased. He’d been asleep for at least a couple hours, evidenced by the parting sun that set upon the horizon, now prepared to sink into the hills.

When that Calrian had first shot him, he’d believed that he was dying. He’d lain face down upon the grass, his eyes closed and his mind at peace with the coming death. For minutes, it was like this: dark and lonely, no voices, just far-away gunshots and the whoosh of his breaths spreading across the grass in his face. When that coldness never came, nor the weakness nor flashbacks, he abandoned the idea in hopes that death was not on its way. His weapons had spent all their ammunition and his knife was lost in the bushes nearby, so he’d stayed down to play dead and let the retreating enemies pass without conflict.

He rose to his feet, now, and spent a minute in the shrubs before giving up the search for his missing blade. Dusk had set in, and the sunlight was fading to darkness: that time of grey twilight when the colors dull and the world appears to move more slowly. The vegetation no longer resembled flames upon branch. Their brightness recessed, now, to the quiescent glow of smoldering ash. The trees stood silently about him, rank upon rank until they dwindled away into crepuscular fog.

It was significantly cooler than it had previously been, but the mist upon the air floated with the day’s warmth, ethereal drifts kissing his skin with unfelt lips and then dispersing and retracting away. Only the most immediate of features were clear, but Aric discerned from which way he’d come and the direction in which he had to move. The Calrian base had surely been captured, so it was there that he would find the remainder of his battalion.

Aric moved steadily amongst the dark pillars of the jungle, a welcomed casualness about his step for there were no bullets at his back to usher him forward and no prize in the distance to coax him to sprint. In time, the nocturnal creatures emerged from their homes, and the sounds of their feet, and their grunts, and their growls bid him quicken the swinging of his unarmed hands. The insects, too, came out with the night: the kind with six wings, and six legs, and 60 teeth. They radiated a pale green, their numbers forming clouds of light in the dark like hovering lamps of the mystical wood. As long as his sweat stayed at bay beneath his skin, the bugs would not chase him and bite him to pieces. He stayed ever mindful of those emerald lights, prepared to sprint if their spherical formation drained toward him like a prowling snake.

The minutes passed, and the sun finally fell deep enough into the earth that its farthest reaching rays could no longer touch the land. Up ahead, the trunks stopped abruptly in a line, and the air beyond their procession lingered brightly in the glow of Centrum’s neighboring worlds. Aric burst beyond those external trees and felt an instant freedom from the oppressive air and the darkening canopy. A hundred feet away, a wall stretched across the field in both directions. Three lookout towers loomed within sight, two at the wall’s ends and one at the center.

He took a mere 10 steps before the spotlight in the center tower careened to cast him in its illuminating gaze. The clanking of a rifle’s frame echoed toward him in the night silence. The man on the other end was invisible behind the blinding white light. Aric shifted nervously and reached an open palm to shield his eyes. The Arthians better have seized control of that base, because he was not prepared to lend himself for some trigger-happy Calrian guard’s midnight target practice.

“Stop where you are,” the voice commanded. Aric looked down at his feet, which had been firmly planted for the last 10 seconds, and then looked up again with an irritated expression on his face. “Identify yourself.”

Aric crossed his fingers and hoped the words he was about to share fell upon friendly ears. “Private Trent of Arth,” he shouted. “I landed earlier with the others.”

“Where have you been then, Private Trent?”

“I was attacked. I’ve been unconscious for the last couple of hours.”

There was a pause, the static of a CB radio breaking the hush. The soldier was checking the name with an officer on the other end. A minute passed before he spoke. “Okay, Private. Go to your right and round the corner. There will be a gate. They know you’re coming.”

“Okay, thanks,” Aric said, cringing with the sharp pain that shot up his spine with his first step. The stroll was a quiet one, and Sergeant Mauler’s stern face and cold, but sincere, “Glad you made it, kid” was the extent of his welcoming party. Beyond the gate, there stood a small building—or at least what remained of it—a hundred yards away from the main complex. Its exterior was charred and smoking, sending wafts of matte blackness into the already-dark night sky.

“What the hell happened there?” Aric asked.

“It was blazing when we got here. We assume the Calrians had some sensitive materials in there that they didn’t want us getting our hands on, so they lit the whole place up.”

Aric nodded, his mind engrossed with speculation. What secrets did their enemies keep? What was so important that it required igniting an entire building to hide? A special weapon? Plans of attack? A game-changer in the war, perhaps?

He eased his thoughts as they approached the main compound. Tall iron doors loomed at its front, cool to the touch as they parted with his push. It took him only a few minutes to discuss his whereabouts with General Stoops, and then he was provided a tasteless meal and directed to his place of sleep for the night.

The next three days were a welcomed hiatus from the war and the violence. Aric was assigned guard duty, responsible for making laps along the wall during the day and hanging out in the barracks during the night. Fortunately, the fighting had allowed for a sense of brotherhood to form amongst the convict soldiers. Their interdependence in surviving the tour on Centrum was a glue that overpowered even the most bitter of rivalries, and for Aric, that meant less of the trouble that had gotten him thrown into The Pit back at camp. His worries were eased by this fact, but not removed.

He walked on someone else’s ground, slept in someone else’s bunk, ate someone else’s food, and stared out across what had been someone else’s land. They had taken it all, and the previous owners were certain to be resentful. They were certain to come back and fight to reclaim what was theirs. It was inevitable. But when? The suspense gnawed at him.

With every passing day, the odds of attack seemed to increase, and the air grew thicker with a feeling of impending battle. People would surely die, and none of those destined souls yet knew of their destiny. Would he be one of them?

It took five days of nothing for General Stoops and the other officers to realize that maybe something was up. Maybe the Calrians were hurting. After all, they’d fought on two fronts and lost numerous soldiers just days before, at the hands of both the Arthians and the Fraquians. Maybe they were recuperating: trying to regain morale, figure out their next action, determine their most hated enemy of the two.

At first, the consensus was to strike the Calrians once again, while they were weakened, and confused, and unsuspecting. This was the obvious next move, and maybe for just that reason, they decided against it. Intel reported that the Fraquian base in the North had taken a bit of a beating at the hands of the Calrians. Although nearly repaired, the fortification still presented some weakness for exploiting, and its supply of soldiers had not yet been replenished since the attack. Taking the base would be a crushing blow, especially if they could capture General Glaskgow in the process. Arth would show that it feared no one, and that it would pick them all off one-by-one until victory was theirs, not just in the battle but in the war. The darkness of night would be their ally, and ASAP was the time frame.

*****

The wind hissed in his ears, and Aric closed his eyes. His eyelids made the world no darker. His hair was short, but it rattled nonetheless beneath his helmet, pulling at the roots as it tried to catch the air and slow his descent. Clouds were much wetter up close and not quite so warm and fluffy. These ones were thin, but still very real, slapping him with whips of water, forcing his eyes to clench and teeth to grate beneath the stinging of those fractured seconds of passage. When he broke through the bottom side of the clouded layer, the air grew some color. Past his feet, the leafless trees spread like a field of thorns far below, catching the light of Arth to glow a vibrant blue. His vest began to beep furiously, so he pulled the yellow string at his waist and gasped as his chute burst forth from its vessel. His body jolted in response, but his throat seemed to stay its course, stopping at the soles of his feet where his nervous gulps proceeded to pulsate.

The solid grey-blue of the distant ground broke in black spots as the chutes of the others opened around him. In seconds, the orbs besieged the night sky, dispersing as they floated silently upon its unseen currents. Aric watched in awe as his fellow soldiers descended like drifts of pollen.

They were one with the sky: probably nothing but empty space to those below. He reached over his shoulder and felt the barrel of his rifle at his back. They weren’t pollen drifts. They wouldn’t be making the Fraquians sneeze or giving them runny noses and itchy eyes. There was something worse in store for them.

Two cords dangled from his chute, and he tugged at the left one to bank left after those before him. They were headed toward a clearing in the forest below where the barren trees parted left and right and the spreading mud looked like a gaping hole. The descent was smooth and unrushed. It took another few minutes before the approaching ground and the blur of the forest made his true speed apparent. When grass blades began to whip at the soles of his boots, Aric pumped his legs in full sprint. Gradually, he slowed, the soft earth beneath him grasping at his feet in aid.

Throughout the clearing, men were silent as they detached their parachutes and gathered them at the forest’s edge. After concealing the pile beneath undergrowth and fallen limbs, the Arthians moved across the clearing and sifted their way into the trees.

Aric’s earpiece coughed suddenly with static. “Everyone halt once you’ve passed beyond the tree line.” It was Captain Meyers—the man in charge of the assault—broadcasting over the communal frequency. Aric shuffled a few feet into the leaves until his legs were encircled by the prickly stems of the underbrush. “Lieutenants, round up your platoons and radio me when you’re organized. We’ve got scouts on vorseback already deeper in enemy territory. They arrived before we did and should be returning soon with some intel.”

“Roger that, Captain,” replied another voice.

“Roger.”

“Roger.”

There were three platoons of 40 men each, so they’d come with some decent numbers but nothing epic. Feet began to hustle all about, so Aric plugged his left ear with a finger to hear Lieutenant Krebs’ command:

“My men of Second Platoon, mass at the far left. Sergeants, gather your squads ASAP.”

Aric shuffled to the left as others barreled past him to meet with their respective platoon. Up ahead, the dark silhouettes of soldiers clustered in confusion. As he neared, he made out Lieutenant Krebs’ grimy mustache stretched across his upper lip like a chocolate smear.

“Find your squad leader, Private,” he said forcefully.

“Trent, over here!”

Aric turned to his right where Sergeant Mauler stood with a waving hand and the rest of the Black Squad already assembled about him. He hustled to join, and Mauler said something into his headset that didn’t play on Aric’s end. A few moments of standing with the others and then his radio coughed once again.

“All right, soldiers. This is Lt. Krebs, so listen up. We’re awaiting the captain’s orders, but let’s get organized in the meantime. We’ll be advancing in diamond formation. Black Squad will take point, Red on the left, Blue on the right, and White bringing up the tail. Assemble around me now.”

Aric and the nine others of his squad, including Mauler, didn’t need to move. They were already the deepest in the forest.

“Keep your eyes open. Stay quiet.” As the other squads of Second Platoon arranged themselves, Mauler shared some words of encouragement. “Remember your training. This ain’t no fuckin’ game.”

Aric squeezed the grip of his rifle in one hand and, with the other, brushed the ribs of his grenade-lined belt. His vest pockets were full and heavy with spare clips and his brand new knife was secure in its case on his right thigh. He was prepared, at least materially. In fact, he thought that maybe, for the first time, he was mentally prepared as well. It was time to forget everything that worried him and everything that mattered in the world and the life outside where he now was. He wasn’t hungry. He wasn’t tired. He wasn’t homesick, or depressed, or happy, or afraid. He was ready to survive, and that’s all he needed to know.

He scanned the faces of Black Squad: a group of men he barely knew and had yet to fight beside. Did they feel the same as he did? Were they prepared to fight till the last bullet, and the last blow, and the last drop of blood? Was death as unacceptable of an option, and as empowering of a deterrent, as it was for him? He hoped so.

Past the heads of his teammates, farther within the forest, a rustling came like heavy feet in quick bursts of impact. Aric parted the crowd and raised his rifle. The others turned and did the same. It was dark in the wood, but the trees were bare of leaves and the light of Fraq trickled through in blue beams and spread. Aric could only see 50 feet or so ahead, and in seconds, a dark figure materialized at that distance as a great silhouette nearly 10 feet tall. A Fraquian? Aric’s finger tightened on the trigger.

“I’m one of you,” a voice rang out. “Don’t shoot.”

Aric let his finger relax but didn’t lower his weapon quite yet. As the man neared, the confusion at his height faded with the materializing features of the carnivorse on which he rode. The beast was massive, trotting on legs like trees that gripped the mud with three toes each. It could be stealthy with those bare feet, tiptoeing and sneaking on the prowl. Its face stretched out and ended in two large nostrils that huffed rising fog in luminous wisps toward the treetops. Its hair was short and black, barely visible except for where Fraq’s light reflected in bowing crescents. Its eyes, too, were dark, but gleamed every now and then when they caught light at the right angle. It could see them all just fine.

“Where’s the captain?” asked the man on vorseback.

“He’s over there,” said Mauler, pointing.

“Okay, thanks.” With a pull of the reins, the man moved off in a hurry.

His haste must have rubbed Mauler the wrong way. “Private, should we be worried?” he said after the man. He wasn’t heard. “Goddamnit. Okay men, I want everyone on a knee with their eyes toward the enemy base.”

Aric lowered himself to the earth, the moisture of melted snow soaking through his pants to chill his leg. He stared off into the darkness with the butt of his rifle nestled in his armpit and its barrel aimed downrange. The breaths of his teammates hissed around him, sending clouds to drift in his peripherals. After a few minutes, his arms began to tremble with the weight of his gun. He started to lower it but fought the urge and brought it back up again. A second of rest could potentially cost him his life, and he wasn’t having that.

“Striker Company, listen up.” Aric jumped at the crackle of his radio. “This is Captain Meyers. The scouts have returned with news that the woods are clear for three kilometers in the enemy’s direction. Once we’ve covered that ground, their base should be visible in the distance. At that point, we’ll assess the situation and plan the attack accordingly. We’ve only got a few hours of darkness left, so we need to move it.

“We’ll sweep the forest as a single unit. I’ll travel with First Platoon in the center of the formation. Second Platoon can stay where it is to the left and Third Platoon to the right. Unless there is a direct and imminent threat, no one fires unless I’ve given the okay. If movement is seen, alert your platoon leader and then me if need be. Otherwise, keep your radios silent and your voices at a whisper. I don’t need to tell you that surprise is our greatest weapon. Let’s go. Move out, men.”

With the passing of his words, the faint shuffle of feet through leaves began to resound from off to the right.

“Black Squad, take us on,” said Mauler.

Aric and the others rose from their knees and marched into the forest’s depths. The layer of sweat on his face cooled as he moved, each step bringing with it a light breeze. A distant humming reverberated from the woodland’s insect population, pulsating, it seemed, like a security alarm.

“Damn, those things are loud,” someone mumbled.

“It’s good though,” replied another. “I like it. Makes me feel like I don’t have to be so damn quiet.”

“Oh yeah? Makes me feel like the Fraquians are gonna know we’re coming.”

Aric nodded without looking back. He felt both ways.

Other than that short bout of dialogue, Black Squad moved in silence at the head of Second’s diamond formation. Every direction looked the same, and the arrows of their compasses were the only things that told them they weren’t just wandering aimlessly. It was an hour before the lights of Fraq’s northern base began to show dimly through the trees far ahead. Judging by the faintness, it was probably another 500 meters at least, but they were close enough to think about stopping their advance for preparation.

“Sergeant,” Aric whispered into his headset, “this is Private Trent up front. I’m starting to see the base up ahead. I’m not sure if the captain has noticed yet, but this might be a good place to stake out for the time being. We shouldn’t get too close until we know what we’re doing.”

“Copy that, Private. I’ll pass the message on to Captain Meyers. For now, keep moving, but slowly.”

“Roger.”

Aric grinned after speaking. Roger? Did he really just say that? Straight from the movies: that’s where he got that. Apparently, though, the movies hadn’t misled him. Although he’d not been taught the appropriate military lingo, somehow it just felt right. Shit, if he was going to be a soldier, he might as well try and talk like one, right?

A thud like a rock striking a tree sounded suddenly to his left, and Aric turned just in time to see a grenade hit the leaves and roll into hiding beneath a clump of weeds. He dove to his right and screamed in midflight:

“Grenade!”

The explosion came fast. Even through his closed eyelids, Aric could see the bright light of the flames, feel a burst of heat, hear the whistling of metal shrapnel cutting the air above his head. Mud and debris pelted the surrounding trees and fell from above in a transient hail. Aric’s ears chimed, a pulsing high pitch overwhelming the sounds of his teammates’ cries. Almost simultaneously, other blasts echoed from far off to the right, the thunder of their sounding barely fading in the night before the staccato racket of gunfire began.

Aric rolled behind a nearby trunk and looked out toward the others. The treetops flashed like strobes, each gunshot sending a flare of white that revealed the Fraquians scattered upon the branches. It was an ambush. They’d known the Arthians were coming. Aric clenched his fists. Those fucking bugs!

He poked his rifle from behind his cover and let a stream of bullets fly blindly toward the treetops. All around him, soldiers were firing, falling, screaming, some in anger and the less fortunate in agony. Lead rained down all along their formation, but Striker Company wasn’t closing their eyes and sticking out their tongues. They sent that rain right back where it came from, and bodies fell down the second time around.

Behind him, Aric heard the familiar sound of heavy strides and spun to catch the growing figure of a carnivorse sprinting to pass beside him. Its rider slouched limply upon its back, slipping gradually with each foot’s impact until finally falling like a wad of entrails into the underbrush. Aric rose and ran to intercept the beast, his heart pounding in his chest as loudly as the gunfire behind him. As the two drew near, he noticed a small boulder in the grass and used its face to propel himself atop the creature’s burly back. He soared right on over and would have found himself upside down within a bush if not for the saddle’s protruding handle that brushed along the underside of his leg and allowed him means of grabbing hold.

The muscles of the carnivorse’s shoulders surged beneath, rattling him within the pit of his seat and threatening to throw him free. He reached frantically toward the reins, but they swayed from his fingers, losing themselves amongst the thick hair of the creature’s neck.

Aric’s thighs and lower back began to burn and cramp as his muscles tried desperately to steady his torso and maintain his place upon the beast. While beginning to fall, he finally managed to grasp the leather strap and pull it roughly to drag himself up. With his forceful yank, the animal’s head whipped back and its front legs reared up in sudden terror, nearly tossing Aric to the earth.

As the carnivorse lowered back upon all fours and settled its panic, the final gunshots boomed out in the distance and died against the surrounding trees. Aric pressed the button on his headset for the Second Platoon’s personal frequency.

“Sergeant, are you all right?” No response. “Sergeant Mauler, are you there?” Nothing. Aric felt cold. He stroked his ride’s mane to calm himself. It didn’t work.

“I’m here.” It was Mauler. He coughed and grunted, exhausted breaths sending static into Aric’s ear. “Is this Trent? Where are you?”

For once, the man’s hard voice filled Aric with relief instead of tension. “Yeah, it’s me. One of the carnivorses was escaping during the fight and I thought it’d be wise to grab it. I don’t know why. I’m farther into the forest now, nearly at the edge I think.”

Suddenly, the explosion of a pistol round pierced the air: one, two, three shots. The clip’s twelve remaining bullets drummed in quick succession. Aric stared after the noise, but it was hard to trace with all the reverberation.

“Okay, Private,” Mauler began quickly, “one of ’em is still alive and he’s headed your way. Get to him before he can reach the base and alert the main army that we’re still alive out here. Use your gun if you have to, but you’re up there by yourself, and that might be best kept a secret until we can join you. If you can take him out without drawing attention, that’ll be best for you.”

“Roger that, sir,” Aric replied, unsheathing his knife from its holster with a shrill twang. “I’m on it.”

He rested the blade upon the carnivorse’s back and whipped the reins with his other hand: a technique he’d once again learned only in the movies for he’d never ridden before. The animal jolted forward, the acceleration pushing him to the very back of his saddle. They whooshed through the forest, the pounding of tri-toed feet upon the earth jarring him every second, the blur of passing trees eliciting the fear that they would soon bombard with one. Thankfully, his ride could see in the dark. Aric placed his faith in that fact and let his fear depart, posturing up in his seat to stare forward where the haze of motion stuck out against the unmoving woods.

It was the fleeing Fraquian, passing in mid-sprint between the wooden pillars of the forest and then leaping his way across a narrow gorge. Caught up in his own escape and the obstacles before him, he hadn’t yet noticed Aric on vorseback to his left. The trees ended a mere 100 meters or so up ahead—and the base probably another couple hundred farther—so the soldier wasn’t quite in shouting range, but getting there quick. Aric knew this was the man’s mission. He galloped onward, learning forward and low as if doing so would usher the vorse to speed up.

He gained ground quickly, 20 meters out at most when the man finally saw his pursuer and yelped in panic. It was a race now. Aric approached from the side and behind, his eyes in dead stare at the man’s mouth, which could open at any moment to compromise his company. He raised his armed hand so that the knife was horizontal to his right and ready to slice the Fraquian’s neck. He caught up, the vorse’s front feet beating the earth just behind the man’s heels, both of them in full sprint. The soldier began to grunt in panic, preparing, Aric could tell, to release a cry of warning. He wasn’t going to get to him in time.

“Hel—” the man began, but suddenly faded away with a sickening yelp as the carnivorse, accustomed to chasing furry prey, chomped down upon his tender throat. Aric leaned over to watch as the vorse’s clenched jaws hoisted the monstrous man from the ground. He pulled the reins and the animal came to a halt, dropping the limp soldier to the mud before continuing to gnaw at the bleeding flesh. Gurgles and coughs came faintly for a few seconds before finally ceasing as the soldier succumbed to the blood loss. Aric shivered.

“I got him, Sarge.”

There was no response. That’s when the heat at his back became suddenly salient, and upon looking up from the vorse’s feast, there shimmered a soft orange glow upon the tree trunks ahead. Aric turned to look back and the heat of the fire smacked against his cheeks. It was an enormous blaze, spreading far from left to right all along the ranks of his company, undoubtedly intentional and fed by some kind of previously-planted fuel.

Screams began to echo from the area.

“Go, go, go!” someone yelled.

“Everyone fall back!” the captain screamed through the radio.

“The flames are surrounding us. There’s nowhere to go,” said someone else.

Aric’s heart jumped in his chest, sending a surge of adrenaline from his spine toward his fingers like a fire of his own. He needed to help. The vorse wasn’t budging as it continued to eat, so he jumped from his saddle, sheathed his knife, and rushed toward the mayhem. As he neared, the heat grew more and more intense until finally he realized he couldn’t get any closer. It was definitely not a normal fire. It was much hotter. He tried to move farther in but felt as if his face was charring black and his uniform would, at any second, burst into flames.

All he could do was run left along the boundary of the heat, looking in at the frantic soldiers of his company as they fought to escape. Some were already burning heaps on the forest floor. Others were running in terror with flames about their entire bodies. They would join the heaps in moments. Aric felt his insides tearing with confusion and anger. He wanted to do something but couldn’t. It was like an itch he couldn’t scratch, but much worse. Hell is probably something like this, he thought.

Up ahead, he noticed a white light floating like a star through the trees. It was headed toward the base. Without thought, he bid chase, soon realizing that the source of the light was some kind of weapon in the hand of a fleeing Fraquian. The crackling of the fire and the screams of his fellow Arthians were loud enough that he could sprint—and even pant open-mouthed—without being detected.

In seconds, Aric was upon the enemy, still unnoticed as they neared the edge of the woods. Just before the man could clear the final trees, Aric kicked the Fraquian’s feet together in mid-stride and sent him tumbling to the leaves. Impressively, the soldier rolled back to his feet with the momentum of his fall, but Aric was instantly beside him, his rifle pointed, his mind fighting his heart’s desire to blast a crater in the man’s face without word. A few feet ahead, the Fraquian’s weapon—a sword of some kind—rested in the midst of a pile of burning leaves.

Aric clenched his jaw in rage and squeezed his rifle with every finger but the one upon the trigger. “Did you start that fire?”

The Fraquian held his open hands in front of his face as if they would protect him from the bullets. Although big, he looked young. He trembled and didn’t speak.

“Did you start that fucking fire?”

The soldier was mute with fear. He simply nodded and tightened up, preparing to take his punishment.

“Do you know how many men you just killed?” Aric shook his rifle with each word, breaths of rage bursting from his nose like steam. He was about to explode. “I should kill you where you stand.”

He prepared to shoot.

“But he doesn’t stand alone.” The words came from Aric’s back, and with them a blade that slid from nowhere and kissed his neck with a firm touch. It was sharp, not drawing blood but as close to doing so as possible. He winced and lowered his rifle. The fire-starter’s face of doom relaxed into one of relief. Aric felt like he’d been stabbed.

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