Episode 5 -- Sauveterre's Respite
Courier 7 moved on inertia alone, under the blue light of a gas giant. Neither Talasea nor Isaac/Isabeau saw any of that. They had dived in the depths of their ship to perform routine repairs. Courier 7 did not require complex maintenance -- its systems were simple and streamlined -- but the crew still had to go glue loose things from time to time. Bubbles and her little zero-gravity djinn drones was perfectly capable of handling it but Isa and Talasea liked to keep in physical touch with their ship. They both considered that it could, one day, save their life to know the innards of their vessels in person. Isaac/Isabeau contorted to slip in the interstitial spaces separating the battery cannisters from the engine itself. They always felt a bit ill-at-ease when they had to hang around the SMES emplacements, aligned like little tungsten soldiers in their carbon composite nets. It wasn't fear, not quite. Merely concern. Between the superconducting toroids and the metastable nitrogen tanks, this section of the Internationale was a bomb waiting to happen. Though Isaac/Isabeau knew that this concentration of energy sources was in fact a safety measure, allowing for the ship to be purged of all its dangerous compounds in one go, the pilot couldn't shake the idea that they were somersaulting through a minefield.
Isaac/Isabeau's shoulder radio crackled.
"Hey, Isa, how are you down there?"
"Fine, I guess. You know how much I love superconducting batteries. Wait a sec, I'll have to use my stylus. Goggles on."
Isaac/Isabeau stabilized themselves in microgravity and lit up their laser stylus to seal a small hole in the auxiliary cooling system. Laser styli were a pilot's best secret trick. The size of a pen, they emitted a focalised laser beam on adjustable wavelengths. By switching the tips, the operator could turn the stylus into various tools. A round tip created a lamp. A sharp tip a blade, a large tip a short-range sweeper...and with the beam at full power, one would get a soldering appliance. Isaac/Isabeau pulled the trigger of their stylus. A bright light gleamed on the protection goggles, then the pilot recoiled to admire their work. Tali drifted closer to Isa, coming from the hallway that circled around the engine.
"Is it repaired?" asked the Irenian.
"I think. Bubbles, can you put the cooling system back online, please? Minimal power. I don't want it to..."
Bubbles reactivated the auxiliary coolant pump. Something clicked and Isaac/Isabeau covered their eyes as a small transparent stream of cooling oil was ejected at high pressure from another hole, just a few centimeters away from the freshly welded area.
"...spurt on my face. Very well. What are these pipes made of? Lace?"
"That's what I have been saying from the beginning. The problem doesn't only lie in the pipes, there's also an issue with the coolant pump and the pressure it's applying on the circuits. Bubbles, can you check the pressure sensors again?"
"Overpressure or not, coolant pipes are not supposed to casually break like this. Especially considering it only happens in this specific part of the circuit."
Bubbles' bird suddenly appeared on a wall, displayed by passing drone.
"If the problem is with a specific pipe, we can just bring it offline. All our cooling circuits are twice redundant, and even three times around the SMES units."
"I still don't like it. Why is it so fragile?"
"No idea. The pipe is made of organic compounds printed on demand. Printings may sometimes not be perfect. A station like Rainwater can produce tens of thousands of ship parts per year. Statistically, we might very well have a defective part."
"I'll change the whole circuit."
"Isa, it'll take you hours and we have a delivery to make. Don't worry. I told you, the coolant pipes are redundant. Come on, Isa, what do you think they're doing on cargo ships, with thousands of kilometres of coolant pipes? When a circuit breaks, they switch to an auxiliary system and they forget about it until the next scheduled maintenance."
"I can't leave a broken pipe in my ship!"
"And why not? It's an auxiliary coolant pipe, not even a main one! Besides I don't even know if the pipe itself is the problem. Maybe it's the pumps that are over-pressuring it."
"I have to fix it."
"No you don't. I need you to pilot that ship and you aren't going to manually check every single micropump. I have djinns for that."
Isaac/Isabeau sighed and folded their laser stylus.
"Yes, yes, I know Bubbles...but I have to fix that pipe."
"You aren't going to do anything."
"You know what happened last time I neglected to repair something that, and I am quoting you directly, could wait?"
Silent fell in the hallway. The AI's avatar blinked. Talasea gave Isa a distraught stare and, finally, Bubbles shot an answer back.
"Damn, Isa. You very well know that one more laser emitter wouldn't have changed anything to our fate. We were lit up by a missile, for the stars' sake! The Distant Shores did not have the capacity to intercept it, even with its laser grid entirely intact. An exploration ship simply does not have the firepower for this. You know it. I know it. Everyone knows it. So shut the fuck up. Thank you."
"I'm working. Not listening. Shut up."
Isaac/Isabeau didn't answer further. They drifted away from the wall, against the hull section that separated them from the engine that hummed in their back. Isa removed their glasses and rubbed their eyes, as if waiting for tears that would never come. Talasea floated towards them, putting their hand on the pilot's shoulder.
"Hey," whispered the Irenian, "hey, hey, hey. It wasn't your fault, it wasn't mine, it wasn't Bubbles'. Now don't say anything and give me a hug."
Isaac/Isabeau obliged with a detached smile.
The Internationale dives through the atmosphere of Sauveterre's Respite at high speed. A plasma sheath trails behind. Bubbles is nervous. Atmospheric re-entries are by far the harshest events Courier 7 can be submitted to. There are so many things that can break, melt, explode and immediately kill the crew -- Bubbles doesn't want to think about it. But she can't not think about it, because she *is* the Internationale. However, she is also a vegetal AI and she can think in parallel. Thus, Bubbles grabs that thought, relegates it to one of her mental hallways and slithers towards vastly more interesting ideas. In a corner of her mind, the simulation of the Distant Shores' last seconds keeps running on a loop. If she was certain they'd withstand it, she'd show it to Isa. She'd force the pilot to admit they are wrong. Because here is the truth, or at least the truth as reconstructed in her virtual world and as far as she's concerned, there is no difference. The Distant Shores detected the incoming missile thirty-seven seconds before impact. Even if all the laser emitters had been active and ready to target the projectile, the laser grid would have had no chance of melting enough material to destroy or send the missile astray. The mathematics are cold and merciless. The logic is crystal-clear. Nothing could have saved the Distant Shores. Nothing. Bubbles finds this strangely reassuring.
The Internationale stops shaking. The plasma bubble spreads like a flower in the dying wind. The descent nears its end.
Isaac/Isabeau had learned piloting on a small prop plane, taking off and landing on post-apocalyptic runways in the desolate plains of Old Europe. Their first view of space had been through the canopy of a hypersonic vehicle launched on a parabolic trajectory above the Indian ocean. Even if their daily job was now fundamentally different, they had kept this taste for planes. Vertical landings with a rocket drive had always felt abnormal. The sentiment always came back, regardless of the years. To vertically land the Internationale, with only a few tons of metastable nitrogen to avoid a flaming disaster -- that was troubling. Talasea, a spacer through and through, always found Isaac/Isabeau's opinion amusing. The pilot, after all, was precisely known for the accuracy of their vertical landings. Even on the harsh terrain of Sauveterre's Respite, with powerful cross-winds, Isaac/Isabeau only deviated from the target designated by Bubbles by twenty-two centimetres. Once the ship was properly secured, Talasea ran through the landing checklist and Isa closed their eyes.
"Everything alright?" asked Talasea, intrigued by their silence.
"Listening to the wind," whispered the pilot, smiling.
The Irenian had never really paid attention to the sounds of the rain and wind, contrary to Isaac/Isabeau. She was it as the luxury of an Earth-born person. This time, however, she lent an hear. The breeze ran around Courier 7, whistling against the ship's superstructures. It was hot and powerful -- the wind of a planet with a real atmosphere, unlike Silene and Al-Bayda. Isaac/Isabeau opened their eyes again after a few minutes. They stretched, then left their seat.
"We need to go. I'm sure Bubbles wont appreciate us leaving the Internationale in the wind for too long. The dust must play a number on the outer hull."
"The Internationale is a sturdy ship and was made for this," answered the avatar, "but I appreciated the sentiment regardless. What worries me more is that I can't appear to link up with the coms station for which we have priority packages."
"How original. Tal?"
Isaac/Isabeau always felt strange when stepping foot on a planet for the first time -- yet, Sauveterre's Respite wasn't an unknown world. It had been the first planet to be discovered in the Five Suns. Seventy years prior, the Laniakea Expedition, led by Elodie Sauveterre, had reached this small temperate world lost in the Perseus arm. After five years spent cataloguing Sequence stars, this planet sure had felt like a haven, thought Isa. Yet, Sauveterre's Respite wasn't a very welcoming world. Here, at the heart of the main continent, the external temperature neared forty degrees Celsius. Isaac/Isabeau left elongated footsteps in coarse sand, made from the shells and fish cartilage of a recently diseased ocean. The planet's parent blue giant filled a third of the sky. Three suns occupied the rest. Their light left a peculiar impression on Isaac/Isabeau's cheeks, like blood drops falling from the sky. Talasea sighed. Once again, she wished for the blue waves of her dear Pleiades. Vast mesas spread towards the horizon, separated by deep canyons old rivers had carved millions of years ago. Sauveterre's respite was a dying world. Its moisture levels slowly went down with each new, ever-closer orbit. Elodie Sauveterre's landing site, near the poles, had targeted one of the planet's last forested areas, but this coms station lived in the desert. The region's dominant lifeform was some kind of orange lichen, living in the crevices of limestone slabs emerging from the desert.
"It's funny," commented Talasea on the radio, "this lichen is an invasive species."
"Yes. It's a local subspecies of Vyirangan golden lichen, accidentally imported from Sauveterre's ship seven decades ago. I don't know what niche it occupies, but I'd wager it's been empty for quite long."
"That, or our lichen hunted down another species by accident and damaged a dying ecosystem even further."
"It's possible. It's even possible that our little Caloplaca Vyirangana becomes the last surviving species on Sauveterre's Respite in a few million years. What happens, happens. Alas."
The two mailpersons stopped at the edge of the mesa where an old automated landing pad had welcomed Courier 7. The coms station was located just below; a broken elevator and steep stone stairs led to the canyon. The outpost was made of a few vehicle hangars, a farming dome, a bunker and a large ground-to-space antenna. It was named STATION SIX. Isaac/Isabeau tapped their radio.
"Looks empty. I don't even get an automated answer. The address is correct, though."
"Yeah, I know, I have checked it three times. The coordinates are accurate but the packages were sent from the Earth five years ago. Many thinks can happen in half a decade."
Talasea observed the outpost with her binoculars. The gas giant's light gleamed on the antenna.
"It looks empty. But empty doesn't mean abandoned. A few vehicles are still in their hangars. The farming dome is out of service but the plants aren't all dead. I see a crane above the hangar. Seems quite unstable."
"And the antenna?"
"The structure looks intact still but it's obvious the parabola doesn't work any longer."
"What's the outpost powered by?"
"I see no solar panels nor windmills. A small fission reactor, I suppose. No dice on active cooling circuits, even in infrared."
Isaac/Isabeau took a little firefly drone from their belt and let it fly down the valley. The miniature machine deployed its transparent wings and glided towards the canyon. The pilot opened a VR window on their helmet to keep tracking the camera feed from the drone.
"Ground radiations are at planetary baseline. The station wasn't abandoned after a nuclear accident. I don't see any other contaminants either."
"Are we going down?"
Isa nodded. They were perhaps overstepping their role as mailpersons but the Five Suns weren't their only allegiance. As retired Starmoth Initiative explorers, they couldn't leave a good mystery standing.
The descent was slow and difficult -- there was no other way but the stairs. The cliff shielded them from the wind and someone had left a rope to be used as an improvised railing but the path was still precarious. Bubbles assumed control of the firefly drone and used it to mark the stairs, examining them to determine if they could bear the weight of Isaac/Isabeau and Talasea. Whoever had carved these stairs had used high-quality mining equipment -- probably a cutting laser. Despite the wind, the dust and the radiation from the three suns, the stairs allowed Isa and Talasea to reach the bottom of the valley.
Isaac/Isabeau touched free ground first, their breath short and their knees painful. Talasea followed.
"You alright?" asked Isa.
"Yes. Why wouldn't I be?"
"You used to be afraid of heights."
"Yes. Before the Distant Shores was destroyed. Since then...I don't know. That fear disappeared like the others."
Isaac/Isabeau considered the elongated shape of the Internationale, whose tip emerged from the edge of the cliff.
"Hey, Bubbles. Can you see us from your nest?"
"Indeed. I can even light you up with my laser grid."
"Please don't. I enjoy my eyes."
The mailpersons cautiously approached the buildings. The ground beneath their feet was made of bone dust.
"Station Six. That's a weird name. Neither the Initiative nor Algorab use such identifications. It might be a generic name, but we already found a Station Four on Al-Bayda and a Station Two on Silene. If it's a local custom, we'll have to ask the Postmistress."
Talasea stopped by the main hangar. She ran her hand around the main airlock, prying solidified dust from the hull with a sampling hammer.
"Yes. That airlock was burst open. I see traces of explosives around the hinges."
"What kind of explosives?"
The Irenian unfolded her laser stylus and vaporized a sample under a multispectral camera to analyse its compounds.
"Cordite, or a derivative thereof. Mining charge, perhaps. Not military, in any case."
"Could the locals have done this themselves?"
"Maybe, but why for? No, I think it's an intrusion attempt. An old and successful one."
Isa couldn't argue against Talasea. They entered the hangar together. There was room for two large six-wheeled rovers. One of them had been neutralized -- tyres pierced and engine destroyed by an improvised charge. The second rover was gone. Isa didn't see any tyre marks pointing outside. The vehicle had maybe never been here, or had been gone for too long to have left any trace of its presence. The rest of the hangar was filled with second-hand equipment that left no clear indication as to the function of Station Four. Empty batteries, laser diggers, observation drones. Nothing of note. Isa found the hangar's inner doors at the top of a flight of metal stairs. Flicking a switch did not provide any light. The complex was even out of battery power.
"So?" asked Bubbles while the mailpersons cautiously moved through the hallway leading to the main building.
"Nothing," answered Talasea. She was but a torchlight in a pitch-black night.
"Looks like the place was properly abandoned but it doesn't really match with the explosives used on the airlock. The commons have been emptied, save some furniture and emergency rations. And you Bubbles? See anything we might have missed?"
"No. I have a few sparse infrared signals but nothing of note. Probably a few still active heat exchangers. Can't you try to find a terminal or something?"
Talasea had already reached the administrative section perched above the atrium.
"All personal computers and lecterns have been destroyed," commented the Irenian, "and I am intrigued. On the one hand, everything's been pulverized with hammers and crowbars. Primitive. On the other hand, whoever did this knew exactly where to hit. The hard drives are unusable."
"No network access?"
"I just get empty login pages. The main server is offline."
"Can you patch me through?"
"No way I'm connecting you to the mainframe of a potentially compromised station, Bubbles."
The radio switched to another channel. Isaac/Isabeau, one floor below, had found something that had made their voice crackle.
"Please, do NOT tell me you have found a corpse."
"Not exactly. Transmitting."
Isa shared the view from their firefly on the Talasea's virtual space. The Irenian saw a wall pierced by a circle of impacts, surrounding what looked like a trail of dry blood. There was no body to be found but it made little doubt that the projectiles had reached their target.
"Someone was either killed or grievously wounded here. I see traces of blood pointing towards the rover hangar. The body was removed after the shootout."
"What kind of ammunition was used?"
Isa was surprised by Talasea's serenity in the face of their discovery. They tried to pry one of the projectiles stuck in the wall, to no avail, and could only sample it with their laser stylus.
"Looks like a kinetic fléchette or maybe a caseless bullet. I can't be more precise."
"Other traces of combat?"
"Yes. Six circles of impacts in the commons. Same projectiles and the bodies were also removed each time. I can't find any impact without debris and traces of blood. Looks like the shootout was pretty one-sided."
"Unsurprising. That station feels more like a scientific outpost than a paramilitary bunker. I fear the crew was just slaughtered."
"There must be a way to identify the station!"
"How so? Administratively speaking it's just a mailbox. We are fifty thousand lightyears away from the Earth, on a planet that follows no regulations except those of a commune whose seat of power is an entire star system away. This station could belong to anyone. A vehicle hangar, a space to ground antenna, a farming dome, it could be anything but I'd bet on a scientific outpost. There isn't enough mining equipment for a resource operation, no signs of military presence and the hydroponics section is too small to be an actual attempt at settling this world."
"And who would strike an independent research outpost?"
"Come on, Isa. Knowledge is dangerous, always has been. That's why organisations like the Starmoth Initiative exist. Without a communal safety net, an isolated research station is at the mercy of anyone who finds it more practical to steal a discovery rather than actually make it."
Isaac/Isabeau climbed up the stairs to link up with Talasea on the upper floor, leaving the battle-ravaged commons behind. While the Irenian didn't look alarmed, Isa had spent enough time with her to notice that her entire body had tensed up. She wasn't at the stage where she'd start actually worrying, but she was preparing to.
"Think Algorab could have attacked that station?" asked Isa. It was an idle thought. They didn't actually believe it -- what would have been the point? Algorab wasn't a band of thugs.
"You've already seen Algorab operations, right? They don't look like this. The airlock opened with improvised explosives, shots scattered around the targets. It's the job of amateurs. Criminals, not spec ops."
"I agree, but I also don't see thugs remove the bodies like this. It's too much work."
"You have no evidence the station's inhabitants are dead."
"Then why evacuate the people you just wounded."
"I don't know. Remove evidence. Interrogation. Sow doubt regarding their ultimate fate."
"Why not just destroy the station?"
"It's much harder than to pop an airlock open. You don't blow up a station with improvised explosives. Speaking of airlock, any idea what's behind this one?"
Talasea put her hand against the heavy armoured door that barred the hallway on the first floor.
"The antenna, I assume."
Isaac/Isabeau carefully opened the door -- it wasn't locked. The attackers had used the same cordite charges to destroy the hinges. Talasea entered first. Her laser stylus flashed the square walls of a maintenance room. A thick beam of fibre optic and alimentation cables. They had been cut clean with a pair of industrial pincers. Wherever they caught the light, the fiber optic cables reflected it like a miniature kaleidoscope, cloned a million times.
"That's the main link to the ground to space antenna. Clean and radically effective work. The whole system is completely neutralized, without having to deal with the hassle of destroying the parabola. And it will likely be as hard to repair than a busted antenna."
"Wait, if the fibre optic cables are accessible, I'd like to try something."
Talasea woke up her e-ink lectern and opened a virtual machine on it. She then reached for the beam, trying to get a connection with the station's networks. To her own surprise, it succeeded. Using the lectern's battery as an improvised power bank, she managed to put an auxiliary server unit under power. The attackers hadn't destroyed this one -- an involuntary omission, surely.
"Let's see...I don't have much. Of course I don't have access to the station's logs. Oh, interesting. Looks like they scrammed the reactor. It was completely unplanned, they removed the rods like brutes. It won't start back again. It will have to be replaced."
"Why not push the reactor into meltdown if destruction was the objective?"
"It is very hard to meltdown a modern fission reactor. Besides, the result is the same regardless, as far as the station's usability is concerned. Between the antenna and the reactor, that place will require several months, perhaps a year, to come back to any sort of normal operation. You see, Isa, you don't need to blow an outpost up to destroy it."
"Can you get anything on the research they did here? Or the owners?"
"Nothing solid. One thing is clear, though. The file architecture and naming standards don't belong to Algorab nor to the Starmoth Initiative. Looks like independents. I don't know. There aren't that many organisations capable of building an outpost in the Five Suns, but that's still quite a lot of communes and cooperatives with that capability."
"And the research?"
"They were studying Sequence ruins on Sauveterre's Respite."
Isaac/Isabeau gritted their teeth. An isolated station getting attacked by unknown thugs, on a terminally isolated planet, fine. These things happened. By that point, a century and a half after the beginning of the third space age, Isa couldn't but consider independent explorers as cheaters. They did not follow any rules or guidelines -- especially when it came to the ethical aspect of their discoveries or the scientific value of their studies. And because these cheaters did not enjoy the protection of great interstellar organisations, it wasn't surprising that they would attract the attention of other people, equally ignorant of the law. Isaac/Isabeau didn't feel like they had any right to involve themselves in such matters. But if Sequence ruins were involved...now it was different.
There was an aura of death around the defunct empire. And the privileged few who had seen it from up close like Talasea and Isa knew that it wasn't only because there was nothing left of it but ruins.
"Tal, tell me, can you access to station's inventory? I'd like to know what kind of stuff they had in there. The hangar might have not been the only storage area."
The Irenian sifted through her VR windows and shot back at Isa.
"Nothing interesting. Lots of drones, which means the station didn't have many permanent inhabitants, but we already know that. Two mining djinns for archaeological digs. Five remote sensing drones for GIS purposes. And a security drone."
"What kind of security drone?"
"Spider model. Lethal weaponry. Loaded and ready for deployment. These independents were waiting for someone."
"So why didn't they use it to repel the attackers?"
"No idea. Perhaps they didn't have time to activate it. Or...hell. I have a problem. The drone just started up. Target-seeking mode, free fire engaged, all safeties off. And I can't stop it, neither can I register us as non-hostile. Isa! It's coming towards us, it saw my local network access port! We're out!"
The Irenian ripped the cord out, splashing the nearby wall with sparks. Isaac/Isabeau kicked the door open and Talasea rushed outside.
"To the right!" yelled the Irenian as she bolted down the stars. They heard the spider drone before they saw it. Heavy, metallic steps clicked on the ground, following a mechanically accurate rhythm. Steel rain before a storm would start, thought Isa before finally seeing the drone. The machine intercepted them by the kitchen. It moved with the supernatural grace of a well-tuned combat machine. Its eight legs practised a shaking, accurate and frenetic dance. The spider shot immediately, without even making sure it had a clear targeting solution. Six kinetic fléchettes impacted the wall, two centimetres above Isa's head. Talasea brutally pulled the pilot to the side and ordered them to run towards the hangar door. The spider drone followed and fired a longer, more accurate burst. One of the fléchettes pierced through the wall between the commons and the hangar, ricocheted against a pillar and ended in Isa's thigh. The pilot grinned in pain. Talasea caught her companion and dragged them outside. Somewhere behind the mailpeople, the drone clicked. Slug thrower jammed.
Isaac/Isabeau stumbled in the dust. The fléchette had cut a perfect hole through their leg. The exosuit burst an artificial vein open to drown the wound in painkillers, disinfectants and coagulants. The pain was maintained to an acceptable level -- for now -- but Isa was losing a lot of blood. The spider drone rushed through the hangar door. Its slug thrower rattled, unable to unjam itself. Two nightmare weapons now hung from the sides of the drone. Close combat blades, gleaming like bones under the sun. Isaac/Isabeau watched in horror was the drone got ready to strike. The sabre teeth of an ancient tiger. What a last sight, they thought.
"Close you eyes and look at the ground!" yelled Bubbles on the radio.
Courier 7's laser grid activated a second later. Bubbles could only have one third of its emitters face the spider drone and the two hundred metres of atmosphere between the ship and the station were enough to scatter the laser beam to the stars and back. The Internationale's laser grid was made to vaporize debris and interstellar dust, not to engage war machines. However, Bubbles did not aim for the drone's armour -- she knew she did not have the time to damage it. Instead, she focused the beams on the crane that oversaw the hangar, cutting through the cables keeping the counterweight in place. The crane seemed relieved of being finally allowed to lower its guard. It collapsed on the hangar, trapping the spider drone between the bent airlock and the dusty ground. The machine tried to break free. Its actuators whined, to no avail. The spider finally gave up. The blades burrowed in the dust. The camera blinked and went offline. Silence fell on the canyon.
Talasea opened her eyes again and rushed towards Isaac/Isabeau who had managed to drag themselves towards the closest wall.
"Bubbles! I'm going to need your medical drone!"
"Sending it right now. Isa? You're still with us?"
A low-pitched voice answered. Isaac/Isabeau was still conscious but half-lost to the painkillers.
"I'm here. Hey, Tal, what's that? I see lights in the rock."
"Calm down. Breathe, slowly."
"No, no, it's not the painkillers. Look at the cliff."
Talasea turned to the side of the canyon. Thousands of lines carved into the rock had lit up. Geometrical shapes filled the night over three hundred metres of naked limestone. A raindrop in the night. Isaac/Isabeau felt a dark blade rummage in their spine.
"Pleiades," cursed Talasea, "those look like vegetal structures. Like lichen. The light scattered from the laser might have activated them."
"These symbols look like Sequence ideograms."
"That is the case. The central shape is a stylized portrait. The square below it is a capital cartridge. The abridged name of a Sequence Sovereigns."
"And...how is this one named?"
"I don't know them, but I can try to decipher the name. Let's see. Water, descended from above. A discharge of energy, within an atmospheric cloud cell. I..."
"The Queen In Storms. I don't know, that's just the name that spontaneously came to mind."
"That's a beautiful name."
A raindrop fell in the dust.
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