• Published 27th Nov 2019
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Hour of Twilight - Starscribe

Twilight Sparkle was Celestia's chosen heir, and under her rule Equestria was destined to prosper. But then her friends passed, as mortal ponies always do, and she was left to rule alone. The years were not kind to her after that.

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Chapter 35: Auriga

Star couldn’t say how long she slept aboard the not-train and not-airship. Probably at least a day, with how long she’d been fighting sleep to keep working. But if anywhere was going to be safe from Geist’s reach, it would be aboard a Devourer vehicle speeding far away from the Harrow. It was hard to imagine doing any better.

But then she woke, and they were still moving. That put some limits on how fast they could be going, given she knew how long to expect travel to the Immortal City to take.

She dragged herself to the little bathroom, and spent a few minutes staring at the thing she guessed was a Devourer shower. She probably would’ve been amazed to find such luxury in something so small, if she hadn’t spent some time living with the rebellion in the Undercastle. But building things with Darktech was part of what made the Devourers so dangerous.

Sunset Shimmer waited outside the bathroom, watching her with unblinking eyes. The smell of preservative solution hit her nose like a punch compared to the Devourers and their fragrant soaps.

“I didn’t want to bother you,” she began, shifting nervously to one side so the saddlebags faced her. “But I think this thing is running out.”

It probably was, Star realized. At least two days had passed since she first charged it, maybe three. She nodded, stiffening at the drain she anticipated. “Sure, Sunset. It would be easier if we can find other unicorns to help with this down the road. But I can do it.” She reached down, and nearly pulled back from opening the satchel. It was a death sentence every time she did it, nevermind everything else she’d done to betray the princess.

She opened the side, exposing the spell’s ancient machinery. The glow was feeble, and fluid pulsed sluggishly through the filters. “You could tell?”

Sunset nodded gravely. “It feels like getting tired, except you can’t sleep. No spirit to touch the dreamlands, I guess. It’s probably related to giving up our cutie marks, but that was never my area. Ask Starlight.”

Star wasn’t sure who that was, and focused her attention on the spell. Windbrisk appeared in the hallway, watching silently. But he didn’t interrupt, and Star managed to finish her spell.

Her horn flashed, then she stumbled back, breathing heavily. She leaned against the wall for support, and in so doing felt what she should’ve already realized. We aren’t moving anymore.

“Much better.” Sunset reached around, levitating the armored case closed. “Thanks, Star. I don’t remember ever feeling tired when I served the princess, but… I don’t remember very much of anything. I think… I was proud, of everything I’d done. But that could be something else.”

Windbrisk cleared his throat. “The human wants to talk to you,” he said. “We’re close, she wants to come up with a plan.”

“A plan,” Sunset repeated. “For the Immortal City? So you all still don’t have a clue what you’re facing? That’s fantastic.”

And you do? Star brought up the rear as they returned to the not-ship's central living area. Ellie Landon already sat at the head of the table, which was covered with images. Images of the Immortal City, as though taken by a passing pegasus from above the highest clouds. An incredibly detailed map.

“I hope you had a chance to rest,” she said, without looking up. “We’re going to need everyone at their best to crack a hard target like this.”

“I thought that was why we brought her,” Windbrisk said, flicking his tail back towards Sunset. “She can fool the Unification Army, letting us walk right in.”

Sunset settled down on the other side of the map, her movements formal and crisp. “That’s true, I can fool the Unification Army and get us in. With the possible exception of the demonic horror bent on destroying all life on Equus, which would probably set off some red flags.” She looked back at Landon timidly. “Err—no offence.”

The human’s expression was unreadable, though Star couldn’t have said if it was something about all humans, or just because she was a soldier. “We do not want to harm any of you. If we wanted a war, we could’ve left you to your own devices. There was no need to give you a ship, the Rogue would’ve destroyed the resistance when she arrived. Our actions do not lead to the conclusion that we have any hostile intention towards you.”

“Unless you don’t think you can fight any of us on your own,” Star said, joining the table. She kept her voice level as she spoke, there was no need to start an emotional argument right before beginning a dangerous mission. But she wasn’t going to throw away everything she’d ever known without at least investigating it. Why would Twilight bother lying about the dangers of the Devourers? Something had to justify the horrors she inflicted on Equestria. “Hypothetically, I mean. You could be trying to pit us against each other so we waste resources and we’re easier to fight. Rebellion vs ponies, ponies die either way.”

Windbrisk eyed her, sitting down just out of reach. “If you believed that, why did you do so much to help them? Wellspring didn’t force you. You could’ve run away whenever you wanted.”

It would’ve been easier to answer if it was just him. But the others would be on their mission too, so avoiding the question probably wouldn’t help. “I’m not saying I think they’re really out to kill everypony. But I spent my whole life in Concord. There’s good historical evidence we fought Devourers before. They tried to kill everypony long ago. There are some artifacts left over from back then.”

“The Umbra,” Sunset Shimmer whispered, voice cold. “When Alicorn magic failed. The skies turned black, poison rained, earthquakes shook the foundations of cities. If you listen, you can still hear the screams.”

There was deadly silence in the car. Windbrisk and Star watched Landon. Her expression was impassive. She wasn’t trying very hard to deny it, though.

“Look, I’m not the one to explain all this. I’m going to do my best with five minutes, and you all are going to cooperate with our mission, okay? It doesn’t matter if you hate me—you all agree the world is better off without a sociopathic dictator running it. So whether you believe me or not, you should be willing to fight beside me. If I can’t get that promise, we’ll scrap this whole thing. My people can go back to high orbit, and sleep a few decades while we wait for another shot. Can yours?”

Only Sunset was brave enough to answer. “I won’t promise to help you if this is the first step in killing everypony. But don’t try to lie to me, Landon. I was there. I saw the old princesses die. You can’t tell me you didn’t try to wipe us out. Without Twilight, you might’ve gotten your way.”

Landon sighed, reaching down one side of the table. Star stiffened in horror, preparing a reflexive shield spell—but instead of a weapon, she tossed something flat onto the table between them. A screen, showing Equus from above. Except it was the planet as she’d never seen it. It didn’t look so much like a green and blue ball of life as a metal sphere, with layers out in overlapping sections that passed slowly over one another. Only very rarely did openings appear, giving her a brief glimpse of ocean or rocky continent below.

“Ask Kondrak if you want someone to get all philosophical about this. He could give you hours about the deep sins of humanity and all the ways we create our own hells. But fuck all that, here’s the short version:

“Long time ago, this planet was all humans. Something bad happened… I don’t know what, but everyone knew the world was gonna die. We saw it coming a long way off, like centuries off. We prepared. Lots of people left, some dug real deep holes to hide in, some tried to stop it. But some—the smartest ones of all—built a machine to fix things once it all went tits-up. We didn’t have the time to get very specific with that AI—far as I know, we just told it what we wanted the world to be like, and told it to wake everybody up when it finished.”

Windbrisk nudged her with one claw. “Is that what they taught in Canterlot? Devourers came around before us?”

She nodded, remembering those ancient skulls preserved in glass. “Before us. The princess thought we had ancestors from then too. They were bigger and stronger than we are, more harmonious and purer. But they’re the ones who made the Devourers.”

Landon laughed. “If you mean horses, that’s hysterical. But let me finish. Figure out if you’ll believe me when I’m done, if you want to. Point is, the thing that ran this huge machine was called the Governing Intelligence. Smarter than anyone who ever lived, with the scans of the best terraformers and engineers and scientists all churning away on the problem. I don’t know what the hell it was thinking, but the solution it came up with was you. Well… after thousands of years of doing other things. After that it made you. Well…” Her eyes briefly settled on Windbrisk. “I don’t know if it designed you, you seem more emergent. But I’m not a biologist.”

“Made us,” Sunset said, her voice flatter than Landon’s. But she did have a thousand years of practice acting like an emotionless killing machine. “You expect us to believe that? And… I guess it’s okay if you kill everypony, since you made them first? You’re just… taking it away again.”

“No, no.” Landon fidgeted in her seat, digging something out from beside her. A knife, longer than anything a pony would use. Sunset jumped to her hooves, sliding away from the table. Windbrisk scooted away, eyes going wide. Star remained where she sat. A knife couldn’t hurt her, not while she had the magic to push it away. “Chill out you two.” She set it on the table, handle facing Star. “I know you won’t believe me. If we’re going to have a working relationship, you need to know I tell the truth. You need to be able to trust when I tell you to do something, and not be wondering when I’m going to betray you, or lie to you.”

She spread her arms, grinning wider. “Star, your name was? Could you please use your magic to stab me with this knife. Lift it up and gut me. Or try and throw it, either way.”

“Because it won’t cut your uniform?” Sunset didn’t sit down, but at least she hadn’t attacked. Then again, she didn’t have a weapon of her own. Whatever Kondrak had done to heal her, he hadn’t left her with the standard Lightlance. “We won’t be fooled by magic tricks.”

Landon groaned, unzipping her uniform right down the middle. She pulled it away, exposing her chest. There was another set of garments under there, probably supports for the grossly oversized mammaries weighing Devourers down like bulbus weights. “Right here,” she said, tapping her bare skin with one hand. “Stab me, Star. I’ll be fine, promise.”

“I would be too,” Sunset Shimmer said. “Don’t bother, Star. It doesn’t prove anything. Except maybe that the Devourers are undead. That does begin to explain how the leader knew enough to help me…”

Star levitated the knife up into the air, testing the weight. She brought it closer, then jammed it down into the table. It dug straight through the map, grinding against the metal table before she stopped pushing. “Not enchanted,” she said. “Or a trick.” She spun it back around, facing Landon. “Are you completely sure about what you’re asking? You want me to stab you in the chest?”

“With your magic, yes.” She let go of the shirt, lifting a free hand between herself and Windbrisk. “Before you say anything, no I don’t want you to attack me with your claws or bite me. We aren’t invincible, that’s not what this is. Just watch her.”

Windbrisk sat back down cautiously. But he hadn’t ever seemed as afraid of her as Sunset. “Maybe you should aim for her arm instead, Star. If this doesn’t work, we don’t want to kill the ride back by mistake. Our new allies wouldn’t be happy either.”

Star nodded. “Hold out your hand.” Landon obeyed, looking serene. Star had seen crazy ponies before, unafraid of violence. But few creatures could face pain like this without even a hint of fear. She thrust forward with the blade, aiming for Landon’s hand.

A wave of terrible nausea washed across her, shattering her concentration and making her flop sideways in her seat. She hacked and coughed, fighting back bile rising from her throat. She probably would’ve lost her breakfast if she’d eaten something. She heard the others shout, Sunset’s voice louder than Windbrisk’s—but she couldn’t make out the words.

Star sat up slowly, wiping slime from her mouth with the side of one leg. “W-what… what the hell was that?”

Sunset’s eyes were on her, intense. “It was an evil spell, right?” she asked, leaning in so close her formaldehyde breath made Star feel like she would start coughing all over again. “I think I remember these. Some kind of… evil curse they wore.”

“There’s no curse,” Landon said. “The thing you call magic, I couldn’t do if I tried. You’re interacting with machines built specifically for you—my body doesn’t respond.” She sat back in her chair, zipping up her shirt. “It was part of the design. The same machines that make your magic work won’t let you use it against humans. Well… that was the theory. Obviously your princess has proven it wasn’t an insurmountable goal. You can try again if you want, Star. Just… please, only use magic. If your friends grab that knife and stick it in me, I’ll bleed and die the same as you. It only works on magic.”

Star lifted the knife again, and her stomach clenched reflexively. She fought it, and in a few seconds the pain passed. It hadn’t taken her magic away. She twisted the knife back through the air, pointing it towards Landon. This time she calculated her spell, charting a path to throw it into her arm.

The spell fizzled, and she slumped forward to the table. The knife clattered limply beside her, and words screamed into her head, booming over and over. “Force vector denied. Force vector denied. Force vector denied.”

“That’s probably enough.” Landon scooped the knife off the table, holstering it on her belt. “Don’t push too hard, kid. I’ve seen a unicorn fry his brains crispier than a chicken sandwich trying that for too long. It will kill you before it works.”

Windbrisk slid along the bench beside her, resting one claw against her back. Star relaxed, letting the strain of the failed magic fade. A little blood trickled down her nose, spreading the taste of iron in her mouth. She felt disoriented, but other than that…

Was the Iron Lord protected the same way? She’d never tried to kill him, but come to think of it Discord had been the one to cut into him. He had no magic anymore, so his claws did all the actual work.

“The Governing Intelligence made you all to rebuild the planet for us. Think about it for a second: ponies are split in three groups. Ground ones rebuild the biosphere. Flying ones clean the air and stabilize the weather. Your magical ones organize and repair the infrastructure. Great plan, except for one thing.”

“We fought back?” Sunset asked. “When your ‘intelligence’ was through with us, it tried to wipe out Equestria. But we weren’t going to curl up and die for you.”

“Well yes, but actually no.” Landon sighed, folding her arms across her chest. “None of us wanted to kill you, pony. We didn’t want you to exist in the first place. But the Governing Intelligence didn’t care about lives. It made you smart probably because that was the fastest way to do its job. It didn’t care that you’d made something of your own in our dead world. It didn’t care about your lives, because when we made it there was only one kind of life that mattered. Otherwise, you guessed right. You finished terraforming for us, and it was time to get our planet back. The intelligence tried to get rid of you and make room for humans.

“That’s when you didn’t want to die. I don’t fucking blame you. I’d fight too.”

“Your kind did fight,” Sunset muttered. “Against us. I may not remember much, but… I remember being up there. We were up higher than any pegasus could touch, fighting an evil in the sky. You seemed just as happy to kill ponies as your machines.”

Landon made a dissatisfied sound. “Now you’re talking about my grandparents. Ordis Mundi—they didn’t know what any of the machines were doing. When ponies showed up to kill them, they didn’t know why. Your princess murdered women and children like animals. They didn’t come to hunt you—they fought for their lives, and they lost. The Hippocrates got away, but nobody else did. We’ve got the recordings to prove it, too. When we get back to the Hippocrates, come with me to the archives and I’ll show you. If you’re okay watching the Rogue’s army killing kids.”

Sunset finally fell silent, looking to Star in desperation. “Your magical senses haven’t dulled like mine. Is there really no curse on her, protecting her from magic?”

Star could barely focus, but she didn’t need a spell for this. She could already answer. “There’s no magic coming from her,” she said. “I can’t feel anything.”

“I’m sure you’re telling the truth,” Windbrisk declared. “The Iron Lord didn’t know anything about ponies. The longer he lived with us, the more he showed his ignorance. I spent a long time in his company, and never smelled a lie. But… how can we work together, Landon? If your ruler demands that you kill every creature, that sounds like the tyrant stumbled into a truth in all her atrocities. We really can’t coexist.”

“Except for two things.” The human held up her fingers. “One, we don’t give a shit what the Governing Intelligence demands. It controlled us because most of us were asleep. I don’t have any problem sharing the planet with you guys. You’re cuter than most of the people I know. Also, your princess killed the Governing Intelligence, so we don’t have a leader anyway. Closest thing we have left is Kondrak, and you’ve met him. He’s a doctor first—doesn’t like killing anyone. He saved her.” She nodded towards Sunset. “Even though we had nothing to gain and would likely only waste irreplaceable medical resources doing it. The only reason you can think to be upset is the implant we put in your skull. Helping you think and all, after the Rogue deep fried your brains.”

“So Devourers—humans, want… what, exactly?” Star asked. “Ponies serving you, the way we were created?” Even saying those words made her sick. It couldn’t be true, obviously. Even if she still couldn’t hit Landon with any magic. If she gave it enough time, she’d probably figure out some other explanation.

But she hadn’t yet.

Landon shook her head. “There’s a homicidal dictator flying her earthmover around murdering all the sleeping humans we buried. Emergency shelters—there were thousands of them once. Now who knows, maybe none. We’d settle for having somewhere to live again, without worrying about invasions. You ponies keep doing your thing, and we do ours. After being hunted to extinction, your standards get really low.”

It sounded so reasonable when she put it like that, except of course that she admitted to wanting to kill the one person Star had grown up worshiping. “Do you think…” she began, voice tentative. “Do you think maybe the princess never knew? Like… this whole thing could be a misunderstanding. If she knew that humans didn’t want ponies dead, that it was just the machine… the fighting could just be over.”

It wasn’t Landon who answered, though. Windbrisk gestured at the map, new hole and all. “Star, maybe that was true centuries and centuries ago, but the princess you know is evil. She does to hippogriffs the same thing humans tried to do to ponies. She’s no better than their machine. I think if there was any chance of changing her, it died centuries ago.”

“She lied to me,” Sunset added. “I’m not ready to believe that ponies were… machines built by an evil computer. But otherwise, I agree she’s the one we should be fighting. Look what she did to me. Look what she does to thousands of ponies. No offence to the hippogriff, but you’re lucky she only kills you. At least she didn’t turn your corpses into puppets to murder more of your friends when you were gone.”

Windbrisk looked like he might argue, but then he just turned back to the map. “We agree we’re fighting for the same thing,” he finally said. “Sunset, you said we don’t know what we’re up against with this place. Tell us what we’re up against.”

The rest of the day passed without much fanfare for Jamie. The princess hadn’t given her any assignments, nor had she warned her about more upcoming torture. She took the opportunity to explore as much of the castle as she could.

Whether she was searching for weaknesses they could exploit while attacking the place, openings to escape from—or just getting to know her new home—Jamie didn’t know yet. Some combination of the three?

At least getting out and exploring the palace meant she wasn’t alone—every part of the building was packed with creatures, many of which dropped everything when she approached and tripped over each other to make her feel welcome wherever she went.

The castle did have a spa, enough to make even Persephone’s facilities seem impoverished. There was a banquet hall on standby at any moment, ready to satisfy her with any meal she required. She could go basically anywhere in fact, except into Twilight’s personal tower, or underground into the place Basal just called the “dungeons.”

“There’s nothing worth seeing down there,” she said, steering Jamie away from a spiral staircase. There were no guards on this one, no sign at all that she wouldn’t be allowed. “How about sports? There are lots of activities to do, you could pick one of those!”

She might’ve accepted doing something else, but using “sports” as an argument certainly didn’t convince her. Yet when she took another step towards the stairs, this time her escort finally seemed to notice. Armor shifted as they readied weapons. None spoke, but maybe they couldn’t. Or maybe the threat was supposed to be enough.

Jamie took a step back from the stairs, and they relaxed. “Maybe you could just tell me what’s down there? What’s not worth seeing?”

She spun slowly back around, hoping to catch a useful look at the guards. But the robot-people showed no sign of aggression, or even interest in what they were saying. Maybe they couldn’t understand the conversation.

“Like I said.” Basal nudged her shoulder, pushing her away from the stairs. “Nothing interesting. The spells that keep Concord running are under the palace. If somepony with lots of magic and not a lot of training went down there, they could damage something—knock the city out of the sky without even meaning to.”

“Oh.” She blushed, ears flattening. “Is magic that dangerous? Am I going to hurt people with…” She looked up, eyes settling briefly on her little stub of a horn. Without the help of a mirror, she could only really see the tip emerging from her mane. She could probably hide that with a little creative hairstyling. She’d have to let her mane grow out a little more.

“Is magic dangerous?” Basal’s eyes widened in obvious disbelief. “That’s an interesting question from an Alicorn. How can you not know?”

Crap. Jamie hurried past her, choosing a random direction. “Forget I asked, Basal. I’d rather not focus on all the things I’m terrible at. Believe me, if we went down that road, we’ll never do anything else.”

The soldiers fell into line behind her, before Basal had even started moving again. At least she hadn’t chosen another forbidden direction. She’d have to keep an eye out for other ways down. Anything severe enough for the guards to stop her probably led to a way out, if she explored it thoroughly enough.

Jamie skidded to a halt as the ground under her hooves began to rumble. Distant cracking and grinding sounds grew louder, until every other sound in the palace was covered up. She turned, wobbling slightly on her hooves as she looked for Basal. “Uh… please tell me I didn’t just sink the city by thinking about it. Magic isn’t that powerful, is it?”

Basal shook her head once, apparently unaffected by the noise. “No Jamie, the city’s not sinking. We’ve just settled into position to dig deeper, instead of scraping away at topsoil. Bedrock is a lot louder, that’s all.”

The soldiers didn’t seem to mind the noise either, though there wasn’t much of anything that seemed to affect them. Her ears perked, pointing her towards a nearby fork. The noise came from everywhere, though it was the loudest by far in that direction.

She set off, breaking into a trot. She slowed for a moment until she was sure the soldiers were keeping up. She didn’t want to make it look like she was trying to escape. “Why does Concord do this?” she asked, as soon as Basal appeared beside her. The changeling flew to keep pace, her transparent wings buzzing into a little green blur. “Are you mining? It seems needlessly destructive.”

Basal looked away. “If you’re asking the reasons for the princess’s choices, those are beyond my understanding. I’m a humble insect, not fit to stand in her presence. She might choose to illuminate you if you ask.”

Jamie slowed, as much because she was annoyed as because of how much louder things were getting. She recognized this hallway, she realized. This was the castle’s hollow, central chamber, where her quarters floated over a chasm. Of course she should’ve expected it to be the loudest—that hole had to serve some purpose.

“Come on, Basal.” They weren’t the only ones in the hallway, though nopony else dared interrupt her. Jamie didn’t have to worry much about keeping her voice down with the low thunder-rumbling of rock splitting, and the grinding not much further away. “Ponies must have some idea about what it’s for. Are you not allowed to guess?”

“N-no,” Basal sighed. “But it would be a guess. Nopony knows for sure, and if I was wrong—you might repeat my mistake to the regent.”

And she would blame you for it, Jamie finished for her. Right. “Between us, then,” she promised. “I know you’re just guessing and you could be totally wrong. What do ponies guess it’s for?”

“It’s well known the least-harmonious creatures live underground,” Basal explained. “Diamond dogs are greedy and shallow, unable to care about anything but themselves. There’s changelings, which… used to be that way. Before the princess and the Exemplars reformed us, long ago. Then there are the, uh… Devourers.” She twitched nervously as she said it, as though she expected someone to hit her.

Jamie didn’t. Humans. “So Concord is trying to kill every settlement that might be hiding underground? Wipe out resistance?”

“There’s no resistance to Harmony,” Basal snapped, so fast Jamie was sure every word was memorized. “All creatures accept the regent’s divine rule.”

“But maybe it wasn’t always that way,” Jamie prompted. “So Concord flies over the whole planet, digging down…” Most shelters weren’t even five hundred meters down. Even the best shelters only went down a kilometer or so. But if Concord can get through more than that, it’s stronger than the worst tornadoes.

“You’re asking the wrong creature,” Basal said, stiffening again. “The regent can explain, if she wants to.”

Jamie didn’t go to ask her, even if she could’ve. She followed the sound a little further, where her tunnel opened up into the gigantic chamber of the palace.

Her own floating quarters were still there, though the rooms that weren’t in use had all risen to float much higher, up near the ceiling.

There was no railing, but Jamie approached the edge as close as she could, both wings spread even though they would do her almost nothing if she slipped.

A faint purple glow shone down from overhead, getting darker and darker as it approached the ground. In that light, chunks of stone larger than light rail cars came, rising through an almost liquid sea of sand and gravel and dirt.

Most of them didn’t reach the palace level. Stone rose up towards Concord, becoming briefly transparent as it approached—then continued on past the edge of the field to plummet away.

The loudest noise she heard wasn’t from the city at all, it was the ear-splitting crack of stone striking the ground.

A few rare chunks did continue up into the space the unused rooms had vacated, and Jamie’s stomach turned as she saw them.

Rusty metal sheets, parts of brick walls, half a market stall. That had been Jamie’s favorite place to eat in Hollow Shades, with veggie wraps that almost tasted fresh.

As she watched, stone monuments began to rise up through the foam, paint blasted away in random patches from the dirt and collisions. The Exemplar monuments from outside the Hall of Justice. Did that mean…

It wasn’t just structures that had been broken by the terrible force of Concord’s touch. Half a pony floated up past her, one eye still frozen in the horror of death. It was soon joined by others. There was the factory lead who had taken Jamie for her first job. Here an elderly old stallion who wished her good morning every time she passed him, regardless of the time of day.

Jamie collapsed, clutching her gut as she lost her banquet-style dinner all over the floor. She coughed and spluttered, gasping for breath. But just looking away didn’t hide the viscera from her mind.

“It’s terrible, I know,” said a voice from overhead. A single feathered wing rested on her back, as gentle as one of Shy’s hugs. “The lives we must sacrifice to keep Equestria safe are unacceptable. When we finally find the enemy requiring such terrible things, we will extract vengeance for everyone.”

Twilight loomed overhead, a few feathers burned and body covered with blood and bits of half-melted metal.

Is this when you let me die with them?

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