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Mercy Lynch told Sally, Thank you. For everything.

Shed already said the rest of her good-byes, though theyd been few: to the other nurses, a couple of the doctors, and to Paul Forks, whod worked beside her for six months and would have guessed why she was leaving, regardless.

No one had mentioned her departure to any of the patients. It was better not to, shed decided. Shed seen other women leave before, going down the rows and receiving impassioned pleas, promises of future remembrance, and the occasional marriage proposal; and she wasnt interested in any of it. Shed learned, by watching other employees come and go, that it was best to simply leave at the ordinary time, and fail to return.

If she made any declarations, shed cause a scene.

If she merely went away, it would probably be days before any of the bedridden men noticed. They had their own problems and pains to distract them, and the absence of one nurse out of thirty meant little to most of them. Eventually someone would look up, scratch his head, and wonder, What ever happened to Nurse Mercy? and then Captain Sally would say, She left. Last week. At which point, the invalid would shrug.

Mercy figured it was easier to ask forgiveness than permission. Theyd forgive her for leaving. But they might not give her permission to go.

Sally was different, though, and she understood. She lowered her voice, even though they were in the womans office and there was no one lurking nearby. Im glad youve got your widows papers, and the scraps of Union pension. Thatll take you most of the way, I expect. Their moneys worth more than ours.

Mercy said, Maam, if anyone sends for me here, youll give them the address in Waterford?

Of course I will. Did I forget anything? Youve cleaned out your bunk upstairs . . . and youve tucked away the nursing papers, I hope? My recommendation letter will mark you as one of ours, and thatll be good for the first legs of your trip, but theres no telling what youll find out West.

She promised, Im going south, then up the river and west. I have a plan.

Youd better. Its a long trip, darling. Ill worry for you, and pray.

Mercy hugged her. Then she made one last walk through the first-floor ward, past the entry to the ballroom, out through the corridor that would take her through the kitchen, and into the backyard grounds . . . so that no one but the staff would see how she carried a suitcase and a large shoulder bag stitched with a distinctive red cross. The suitcase she was taking had come with her from Virginia; the other one had been the property of the hospital, so she was leaving it behind. But the shoulder bag was a gift from Captain Sally. In it, Mercy carried the basics of her profession, as well as her papers, her money, a few small books, letters, pencils, and other useful objects that made her feel prepared.

At the curb to the side of the Robertson house, she stood squeezing her luggage and wondering where to begin, and how. The entirety of her planning process amounted to little more than what shed told Captain Sally.

But first things first: She went to the Western Union office.

The clerk at the counter took the envelope with her fathers message and read it, and while he perused the marks, Mercy said, I need to send a message back. To . . . to Sheriff Wilkes, I guess. Wherever this telegram came from. I need to tell him that Im coming.

The small man in the striped vest peered at the paper through a pince-nez and told her, I can certainly do that. And Im sorry to hear about your father, he added politely.

He quoted her a price, which she paid from the cash that Sally had offered, an immediate severance payment, plus a bonus. And with the help of the clerk, she composed a response to send back across three thousand miles.


She couldnt think of anything else to add, so she watched while the clerk transcribed her message and placed it into a box on his desk. He explained that the telegraph operator was out of the office, but that when she returned, the message would be sent out across the lines.

Mercy thanked him and left, emerging on the street again with her bags in hand and an intense nervousness in her heart-a steady fear that this was the wrong thing to do, and her father would probably be dead by the time she arrived, anyway.

But itll be an adventure, she said to herself, not so much believing it as clinging to it.

Slinging her pack over one shoulder, she stepped down off the Western Unions wooden porch and into the street, where she dodged one speeding cab and leaned backwards to avoid a lurching wagon. In the distance she could hear shouting, and warnings of incoming something-or-others headed for the hospital; she heard Robertson above the din, and her chest ached.

She should drop this ridiculous mission.

She should go back, where she was needed.

Even if she made it all the way West, and even if she made it to her fathers bedside, would they know each other? Her memories of him had distilled over sixteen years, down to blurs of color and a rumbling voice. When she thought of him, if she tried to push aside her anger at his leaving, she could recall glimpses of a wide-shouldered, brown-haired man with arms as thick as logs. But she remembered little of his face-only a scratchiness, from when shed rubbed her cheek against his.

Maybe, then. Maybe shed know him.

But would he know her? Itd been a lifetime between knee-high childhood and Robertson nurse. Shed grown several feet, to a height that was just shy of quite tall for a woman, and the corn-tassel blond hair of her youth had grown to a darker shade that was closer to unpolished gold than to baby yellow. The willowy limbs of her formative years had given way to a frame that was sturdy enough for farm work, or hospital work. She was not dainty, if in fact she ever had been.

She hesitated at the edge of the street, recoiling from the traffic and wondering if she shouldnt go back to the office to send another telegram to let her mother know what she was doing. But then she came back to her senses and resolved to write a letter and post it from the road.

Always easier to ask forgiveness than permission.

On the street corner, a little boy in ill-fitting pants cried out the daily news. He hefted a stack of papers up like a Roman shield and declared the latest known troop movements, wins, losses, and points of interest. Yankees rebuffed at Nashville! he declared. Maximilian the Third calls for Texian investigation into missing peace force!

She took a deep breath, picked the appropriate direction, and got walking. The boys bellowing voice followed her. Mystery surrounds northwestern dirigible disappearance in Texas! Terrible storm strikes Savannah! Rebs take heavy losses in Bowling Green!

She shuddered and kept moving, four blocks past the narrow three-storied hotels and boardinghouses and the wider, lower shapes of banks and dry goods stores. On the steps of a big white church stood a man with a big black Bible, urging people to come inside and repent, or join him for fellowship, or some other thing in which Mercy was not interested. She stuck to the edge of the crowd and ignored him, and did her best not to look at the giant steeple the color of bone.

She passed another set of churches, lined up shoulder to shoulder with one another despite their dogmatic differences, then came to a stockyard, then a large foundry populated by soot-covered men in clothes filthy with sweat and tiny burns. One of them called out to her, opening his mouth to say something dirty or childish.

But when Mercy turned his way, the man closed his mouth. Pardon me, Nurse. Maam, he said upon seeing her cloak and the cross on her satchel.

Consider yourself pardoned, you lout, she grumbled, and kept walking.

Im sorry, he said after her.

She didnt answer him. She adjusted her bag so the cross was more visible against her shoulder blade. It was not a foreign emblem, or a Yankee emblem, or even a Confederate one. But everyone knew what it meant, pretty much, even if once in a while it got her mistaken for one of those Salvation Army folks.

In the distance, over the tops of the mills, factories, and shipping warehouses down in the transportation district, she could spy the rounded, bobbing domes that indicated the tops of docked dirigibles.

Before long a sign came into view, announcing, RICHMOND REGIONAL AIRSHIP YARD. Beneath it, two smaller signs pointed two different directions. PASSENGER TRANSPORT was urged to veer left, while MERCHANTS AND CARGO were directed to the right.

She dutifully followed the signs, head up and shoulders square, as if she knew exactly where she was going and what she needed. Another sign pointed to ROWS A amp; B while one next to it held another area, indicating ROWS C amp; D. But finally she spotted something more immediately useful-a banner that read, PASSENGER TICKETS AND ITINERARY. This banner was strung over a wood-front shack that was shaped like a lean-to, with no glass in the windows and no barrier in the front except a cage like those used by bank tellers.

The nearest available attendant was a crisp brunette in a brown felt hat with an explosion of colored feathers on the side. Mercy approached her and said, Hello, I need to buy passage west.

How far?

How far west can you take me?

The woman glanced down at a sheet of paper Mercy couldnt see. That depends.

On what?

On a number of things. Right now, the war is the number one deciding factor in precisely how far you can travel. Weve had to trim some of the northernmost lines, and redirect traffic south.

Mercy nodded. Thats fine.

The clerk said, Good. Because as of this morning, Charleston, West Virginia, is about as far west as were going along our present estimated longitude. Were trying to reroute anything headed for Frankfurt down through Winston-Salem or Nashville. But Nashvilles a little uncertain right now, too.

Recalling what shed heard from the young crier, she said, Theres fighting out that way?

Thats what they tell us. The clerk pointed at a miniature telegraph set.

While Mercy stared at it, the fist-size device hiccupped and spit out a long thread of paper covered in dots and dashes.

The clerk explained, Latest news from the fronts. It comes in filtered through headquarters.

What does that say? Mercy asked.

It says Nashvilles still uncertain. Sometimes they update us like that, and its useless. Anyway, you want to head west, and you never said how far.

I hope to wind up in Washington-all the way on the other coast. But if I understand it right, you can only get me to the river.

The clerk didnt ask Which river? because everyone knew that the Mississippi was where everything stopped. She pursed her lips thoughtfully and then said, That is correct, and you can pick it up at Memphis. It ought to be safe enough, that far down from the border skirmishes. If you can get to Fort Chattanooga, you can hop a train there, and make it the rest of the way in no time flat.

That sounds fine. It sounded terrifying, but she swallowed the lump in her throat and stood up straight.

Having now gleaned enough information to begin pressing the protuberant buttons in front of her, the brunette woman peered down at her console as she spoke. It wont be a straight flight, you understand. Im going to send you through Winston-Salem, and then down to Charlotte, and then over to Fort Chattanooga. She looked up from the buttons and said with a note of apology, Ordinarily Id send you down through Knoxville instead, but you know how it goes.

Oh, yes, Mercy said. I know how it goes.

Thisll add another hour or two to the flight, but its safer in the long run, and it wont cost you any more. Here, let me stamp you out a ticket, she offered, and something pinged in readiness behind the counter. The clerk braced herself and pressed hard on a lever, using almost her full weight, and a punched card popped up through a slot between the buttons at her waist level.

Mercy traded some money for the ticket, and the clerk pointed toward Row B, Slot Two.

The airship yard was laid out much like a train station-at least, that was Mercys impression. She took a seat near the end of the row, where she could keep an eye on the airship comings and goings, but also watch for the dirigible that would carry her down to Tennessee. It hadnt yet arrived, but she could gather much about it from the other passenger ships that came and went while she observed. All of them were minimally marked, with names like Papillion, Helena Mine, and Catie James. Most had a label across the rear that marked them as CIVILIAN TRANSPORT, to differentiate them from the military ships.

According to everyone who kept track of such things, travel by air was infinitely safer than travel by train (what with the bandits and rail pirates), and even safer than simple carriage (given the highwaymen and unscrupulous checkpoints between regions and war zones). But when the Zephyr drifted into Row B, Slot Two, Mercy felt something in her chest clench with anxiety.

It moved so quietly for something so big; it docked with nothing but the tug and stretch of hemp lines and the creak of metal joints settling, then finally the clack and lock that affixed the great machine to the pipework dock. When the claws were all fastened and the hull had quit bobbing like a childs toy in a tub, a seam along the hulls underside cracked and then descended, followed by a folding set of stairs that tumbled down like a dropped accordion.

Down these stairs came the handful of passengers from Raleigh, if Mercy had overheard correctly. None of them looked bruised, battered, frightened, or otherwise shaken by their experience, though several were visibly relieved to have earth beneath their feet again.

Mercy tried to take this as a good sign.

The Zephyrs captain descended last. He was short, wide, and younger than shed expected, and seemed cheerful as he met the teams of maintenance men who greeted every new arrival. Mercy lingered by the benches with her five fellow passengers-to-be as he discussed the hydrogen levels and how they were holding, and how much of a topping-off he needed here in Richmond. When his landing duties had been completed, he wandered over to his next batch of passengers and introduced himself with a round of handshakes and a tip of his hat.

Captain Curry Gates, at your service, ladies and gentlemen, he said.

Mercy was one of only two ladies present, and the other woman was elderly, accompanied by her equally aged husband. Another two passengers had arrived when the airship came to port, bringing the total number of riders and crew to nine.

Itll be about two hundred miles to Winston-Salem, where well stop for more fuel, then another seventy or so to Charlotte, and not quite three hundred more along the Tennessee line to Fort Chattanooga; then on to Atlanta for our final stop. Does that sound right to everyone? Check your tickets, and make sure this is the ship youre looking for. The next one on this route wont be along until tomorrow.

While he spoke, the remaining two members of his crew were descending behind him, toting equipment and inspecting the work performed by the dock crew, making sure everything satisfied their personal standards. Then they stepped to the side of the ship and behind it, where they began gesturing to something down at the end of the row.

Mercy craned her neck and spied the thing they motioned toward the ship.

It moved on a narrow rail that ran the length of the dock between the rows and was roughly the size of a small train engine, with a taller, rounder shape confined by riveted bands of metal. It looked like a great steel-crusted loaf of bread, and it came up on the Zephyr smoothly, with only the soft ratcheting sound of segmented wheels on a carefully fitted track. A series of hoses was toted in a rear compartment, like a caboose. The men on the dock unfurled the hoses and locked one end onto the metal canister, one end to some port on the backside of the Zephyr. The biggest man present-a tall fellow in an undershirt, with arms like an ape-climbed up to the top of the canister and turned a valve there, which prompted the hose to puff like an elongated marshmallow as it unloaded the canisters contents into the ships tanks.

One of Mercys fellow passengers leaned toward her and said, Hydrogen.

She replied, I know.

Its a marvel, isnt it? he pressed, until she turned to regard him.

He was well dressed, and the details wouldve betrayed his foreign origins even if his voice had not. The shoes were a brand and shape Mercy rarely saw; likewise, his suit had a cut that was a few lines distant from contemporary American styles. His hair was dark and curly, and his hands were long, soft, and unmarked-they were the hands of a scholar, not a man prone to labor.

Mercy said, A marvel, sure. Were living in an age of them, arent we? Practically swimming in them. She turned again to watch the dirigible refuel.

You dont sound too pleased by it.

By what?

By this age of marvels.

Mercy looked his way again and he was grinning, very faintly. Youve got me there, she told him. Most of the marvels Ive seen are doing a marvelous job of blowing men to bits, so youll have to pardon me if, if . . . Something large clicked with the sound of small arms fire, and she gave a little jump.

You view these marvels with some trepidation, he finished for her. Have you ever flown before?

No. Surrendering to the demands of politeness, though somewhat reluctantly, she tore her attention away from the ship and its tanks long enough to ask, What about you? You ever been flying before?

A few times. And I always consider it a grand adventure, because we dont have such ships yet in England-at least, not in the numbers one finds here.

Is that where youre from?

More or less, he said, which Mercy thought was a strange answer, but she didnt ask about it. He continued. But I understand ships like these are becoming more common in Australia these days, as well.


He nodded. So progress must come easier to nations of such tremendous size. Thousands of miles to be traveled in any direction . . . its not so surprising that newer, more comfortable methods of long-distance travel might become more commonplace.

I doubt it. Its a side effect of war, thats all. These ships were first built for the fronts, but the damn things cant go more than a few hundred miles without refilling, and they cant hardly carry any weight at all.

If he minded her profanity, he didnt say anything. Give it time, he said instead. The technology improves every day. It wont be long before people are crossing from coast to coast in machines like this. Or greater machines, built on a similar template.

People already go coast to coast with them, but its all merchants moving goods here and there, not people. Did you see the armored dirigibles earlier? The ones that came and went from the commerce docks?

No, I only just arrived.

Theyre war machines, and there are only a handful of them-for a real good reason, she informed him. The hydrogens as flammable as the devils knickers, and that dont work so good with live ammunition flying all over the place. Not a month after the first dirigibles took to the front, antiaircraft guns were up and running, shooting them down like carnival balloons. She was parroting someone now, and she wasnt certain whom. One of the soldiers at the hospital? One of the doctors?

But theyre such impressive instruments. And armored, like you said.

Yeah, but the more armor that covers them, the less weight they can carry. The trade-off makes them a losing bet on the field. Though I heard from one of the retained men that a CSA dirigible was stolen a few years ago, and that people sometimes talk about seeing it out West, flown by a pirate and outfitted for his trade. Maybe itll be the frontier pirates, after all, who will show the East how to make them into proper riding vessels.

Pirates do tend to be an innovative lot, he murmured. By the way, I fear I havent introduced myself properly. Im Gordon Rand, lately of the good Queens service, but recently discharged to my own recognizance.

She almost responded with Vinita Lynch, but instead opted for, Im Mrs. Lynch.

Mrs. Lynch? He glanced at her hand, which was covered in a tight leather glove and therefore hiding the wedding ring she still wore. Its a pleasure to make your acquaintance. He took her hand and gave it a perfunctory kiss.

She let him do it, then reclaimed the hand and asked, What business of the Queens takes you west, Mr. Rand?

I believe Im going to write a book, he informed her. And the subject matter takes me west. It might take me farther south later on, and maybe even into Mexico, if time and health permit. But we shall see.

Mercy gave him a noncommittal, Hmm, and gazed again at the ship, which heaved gently back and forth in its moorings as bits of luggage were loaded up through a rear hatch with a retracting ladder.

The indefatigable Mr. Rand asked, Keeping an eye on your bags?

No. Im holding my bags.

Traveling light. Thats an admirable trait in a woman.

She was on the verge of saying something rude when the captain came strutting by like a fat little game hen in his tailored uniform.

My fair passengers! he addressed them, opening his chubby arms to indicate the group. Ive just been informed by headquarters that well be taking off in less than a quarter hour. If you would all be so kind as to board at this time, find the seat thats marked on your ticket, and make yourselves comfortable. If you have not checked your luggage for rear-well storage, then please stash your items at your feet, or secure them in any empty seats that might present themselves. Were traveling at only two-thirds capacity today, so there should be plenty of room for everything.

Oh, this is so exciting, the older woman cooed in an upper-class accent that Mercy thought might come from farther east, maybe on the coast, or maybe she only thought that because the womans companion was wearing a jacket that reminded Mercy of an ocean trade. But she wouldve made a bet that they hailed from Savannah, or Charleston.

Exciting! repeated the husband, who was entirely too thin for his clothing. He rattled around inside it when he took his wifes arm and let her lead him over to the accordion stairs.

Mercy couldnt shake the impression that the poor old gentleman wasnt all there. But his wife was still plenty sharp, and she guided him to the places where she wanted him.

One by one they filed aboard the craft, Mercy refusing to allow Mr. Rand to help hoist her baggage up the stairway, and the little old man babbling happily to his wife. The other two passengers, a pair of students from Atlanta named Larsen and Dennis, were working their way home to family after studying in Richmond for the year. On the way on board, the captain asked one of them if hed learned anything interesting, and the baby-faced lad said something about how very fascinating he found the war. Mercy assumed that he found the engagement fascinating because hed never be bound to fight it. A clubfoot interfered with walking, stair-climbing, and even settling into a seat. Hed never be drafted, even in the Confederacys darkest hours of desperation.

His seat was next to his scholarly friends, opposite the aisle from Mercys. He gave her a shy smile that might have been less earnest if shed removed her gloves.

Mr. Rand was forward a few rows, to the nurses idle relief. The elderly couple sat behind her. Two of the crew members fastened themselves to a belted rack built into the dirigibles interior walls, at the rear of the craft; the remaining donned another hat and joined the captain in the cockpit-presumably to serve as copilot, or first mate, or however these things worked. Mercys curiosity was dampened by her nervousness, and by the frittering patter of artillery fire she could swear she heard, even from inside the ship.

Something about the look on her face prompted the lame student to ask, Maam?

And she replied, Do you hear that? Or is it only me?

Hear what?

That sound, like gunfire.

Mr. Rand turned around to meet her eyes, barely, over his shoulder and over his seat back. Dont worry about that sound, Mrs. Lynch. Its the sound of a pneumatic hammer working on rivets somewhere. Were miles from the nearest fighting, you know.

I know, she said without conviction.

Captain Gates made a rambling, chipper series of announcements over a speaking tube that was all but superfluous. The passenger cabin was so small, and so close to the cockpit, that he couldve simply turned around and given his announcements in an ordinary speaking voice and everyone wouldve heard him just fine.

He concluded by informing them that, The claws have been unlatched, the tanks are topped off, and our course is set. Were ready for takeoff. With that, the sounds of machinery aligning, clicking, adjusting, and correcting filled the chamber.

But then the lifting of the ship was accompanied by a strange silence, as if all that preparation had been for something imaginary. And now nothing was happening at all, except the belly-moving rise of the ship as it drifted vertically above the trees to dangle below the low-lying clouds.

Mercys stomach lunged in slow motion, along with the sway of the craft. She placed one hand there as if to hold her belly in place, and gripped the arm of the seat with her other hand. She wasnt going to vomit. That wasnt in the cards. But she could hardly bring herself to look out the round portal to her right, at least not for the first few minutes. She gave it only the barest glance until the ride seemed secure and steady and she was convinced that Captain Gates wouldnt kill everyone on board with an incorrectly pressed button or lever. Then her gaze slipped sideways to the reinforced glass and she peered down and out as far as the curve of the ship allowed. Below, the trees shivered in the breeze and the people at the airyard grew small, as small as mice, and then as small as beetles.

Were flying! declared the old man.

Indeed, love, said his wife.

The students tittered to each other, quietly whispering and pointing out landmarks below; and for a moment, Mercy wondered what was wrong with the one who appeared able-bodied. Why hadnt he been fighting? Why had he been studying in Richmond? Half the schools were more than half empty. The study of anything but war had become a tricky thing, almost a socially prohibited thing. Still, someone had to read the books, she figured. Shed never been much of a reader herself, but she wouldnt begrudge anyone else the privilege. God knew the Confederacy needed doctors and military tacticians as surely as it needed mechanics and oilmen, engineers and pilots. Rationally she knew that no one learned these things spontaneously, and that few people even learned them as apprentices. But still, all the young men shed known for the last few years had been soldiers, and rarely anything else before or after.

As the Zephyr continued to fly without incident, Mercy relaxed enough to close her eyes from time to time, even dozing off. She only realized the ride was changing when the dirigible settled in Winston-Salem for a fuel refill.

The captain told them they were welcome to stay aboard or disembark in the Carolina airyard, so long as they returned to their seats within half an hour. The students and Mr. Rand did just that. But the elderly man was asleep with his head on his wifes shoulder, so she remained.

Mercy decided to stay, leaning her head against the cool surface of the window and watching and listening as a tank on a rail just like the one in Richmond approached, docked, and began the hissing pump of hydrogen into the tanks above their heads.

When the students climbed back aboard, they were chattering, like always; their patter was a background hum, blending into the whir and wheeze of the gas flowing from tank to tank through the rubber-treated hoses with heavy brass fittings.

Mercy ignored them, leaving her eyes closed until she heard one of the students say, . . . farther south, around Nashville by a wider berth.

She blinked to awareness, enough to interrupt and ask, The troops?

Beg your pardon, maam?

The troops? Are you talking about the troops?

Dennis, the one with the unmarred feet, was a brunet with watery blue eyes and a young mans mustache. He told her, We overheard a bit, thats all. Theyre saying the Yankees have made a push to the southeast, so well have to fly out of our way to dodge a battle. I almost hope we dont, he added, and the words were tickled by a flutter of excitement.

Dont talk that way, Mercy said. We end up over a battlefield, and were all of us dead as stones.

What makes you say that? he asked.

She shook her head, either sad for him or amazed that he simply didnt know. Before she could answer, Gordon Rands head popped up into the cabin, followed by his torso and a trailing string of gossip.

The fightings going on clear out over the Appalachians, thats what theyre saying, he contributed.

Mercy said, Jesus.

The young brunet wanted to know more. Do you think well see fighting?

To which Mr. Rand said, We wont see any, or well all see entirely too much. Mrs. Lynch is right. The moment this little passenger rig brushes up against a hit or two of antiaircraft fire, were doomed.

Your hearing must be quite remarkable, she observed, since he hadnt quite been present when shed made her observation.

He beamed, and in his near lisp of an accent he continued, I wouldnt worry about it too much, if I were you. The captain is presently taking note of the very latest telegraph information from the front, and hell adjust our course accordingly. I have the utmost faith in this. In fact, so utmost is my faith that I plan to stay aboard and ride on to Fort Chattanooga in the civilized comfort of this very fine ship.

Thats confidence for you, piped up the old woman, with enough cool sarcasm to surprise them all.

The captain rejoined them before anyone could comment further, and he led the first mate back to the cockpit while urging everyone else to be seated. He mustve heard something of their conversation himself, for as he got situated he said, It seems as if youve heard about the movement in the front. I want you all to know, its to be expected, and its something we deal with regularly. Theres nothing to be concerned about, for Ive got the freshest of all possible coordinates right here. He indicated a slip of paper covered in dots, dashes, and someones handwriting. Well leave within the next five minutes and have you all safely in Fort Chattanooga within a few hours.

With that, he donned an aviators hat and a pair of goggles that were largely for show. He waved at the two crew members whod latched themselves against the back wall, signaled to the passengers that the ship was ready to disengage, and flashed a big thumbs-up before smiling and taking the controls.

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