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Quig stepped over the corpse of the boarding craft captain as he made his way to the craft's command console. The boarding craft had pierced the hull of the Chutoi's storage bay, and only its specialized atmospheric shield projectors were keeping everyone from being blown out into the vacuum of space. Quig admired its control panel; it was an impressive bit of engineering.

"They put up less of a fight than I expected," said Striker One from the storage bay as he wiped the blood from his hands with a tunic he had torn off one of the dead slavers.

"That's because they keep underestimating us," said Sahara.

"I don't know about that," said Cobryn. The pilot leaned against the bulkhead as he held an emergency medpack against the laser wound in his thigh. "They estimated where I was pretty accurately."

"You know what I mean."

Striker One said, "Just because we beat one boarding party doesn't mean we're safe yet. Or have you forgotten that our engine is dead, our life support is failing, and there are still two warships out there filled with slavers and gun runners who hate us?"

"I haven't forgotten."

"Then what's our next move?"

Sahara shrugged. "I'm open to suggestions."

"I have one," Quig called back to his comrades. "Piercing our hull didn't damage this boarding craft at all. It looks like we could use it to return to its mother ship."

Cobryn didn't look pleased. "Are you crazy? The Fenris is full of slavers!"

"Exactly. They're slavers. They're expecting their craft back with slaves in it," said Quig. "Only, if we're not slaves, we'd have the element of surprise in an ambush."

"I like it," said Sahara. "Let's take the fight to them."

Striker One asked, "What about Bronson? He's still on the Fenris. Do we think we can overpower him?"

Quig smiled. "I have a plan for that. You see, according to the craft's log, this is just one type of boarding craft the Fenris carries."

He turned on the boarding craft's tight-beam communication array. "Boarding craft Hound's Tooth calling Fenris. We could use some help here. Can you send Bronson over?"

"I don't think that is wise," said Striker One.

The radio crackled to life. "I was hoping you'd ask. I'm on my way, Hound's Tooth."

"You are crazy," said Cobryn.

Quig snapped the radio off. "The Fenris's other boarding pods are one-way trips. Bronson will be expecting to fly back in this." He hopped off the pilot's seat. "If you can manage to fly this thing with one leg, Cobryn, I suggest you get ready. We're not going to have a lot of time after I start the overload on the Chutoi's power core."

"I think Quig is my kind of crazy," said Sahara as she and Striker One began helping Cobryn into the boarding craft.

It was almost a shame to blow up such a nice ship, Quig considered as he hustled down the corridor to the Chutoi engine room. But all things came to an end. So long as it wasn't his end, Quig could live with that.

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Cobryn knew he was a great pilot. All pilots thought that of themselves, of course, but Cobryn knew that he really was. He could have flown for one of the galaxy-wide conglomerates if not for all the red tape that came with those types of jobs. Filing debriefs and sitting through human resources cross-species dating seminars didn't have anything to do with flying. Sure, those jobs came with great health benefits, but they were boring. Cobryn just wanted to fly.

Although, right now, the prospect of health insurance seemed pretty enticing.

"Dammit, I need more speed," Cobryn urged.

Quig barked a laugh as his tiny clawed fingers danced over the bridge's engineering console. "The power core has taken so much damage it's a miracle I've still got life support working. This is as fast as you're going to get."

It wasn't fast enough. The Chutoi shuddered as another another energy blast slammed into her hull.

Cobryn looked at the many, many warning lights blinking across the pilot console. It was almost hypnotizing. Minimal thrust, pitch and yaw control... he might as well be flying a rock.

"There go the last of our shields," Sahara complained. "I'm open to ideas here. Anyone got anything?"

"We've done considerable damage to the Garbools' flagship," said Striker. "More than I would have anticipated, honestly. However, the three Wolf Pack vessels have us surrounded and are closing the net. If we cannot outfly them—"

"I'm doing my best," Cobryn snapped. What he didn't say, what he knew everyone else already knew, was that his best wasn't going to be good enough.

The radio crackled to life. "Crew of the Chutoi, this is the Wolf Pack Fenris, Bronson speaking."

"I really hate that guy," mumbled Striker.

Bronson continued, "Don't worry; we're not going to shoot you out of the sky. I want you alive. I intend to make you my personal slaves."

"Death first!" shouted Sahara.

"He can't hear you," said Quig. "The microphones lost power minutes ago."

"Is slavery really the worst option right now?" Cobryn asked. "Death seems so... final."

Again, the Chutoi shuddered as the Fenris's gravity beam seized her. This proved to be the last straw for the power core. Its insulators shorted out, and the core's remaining energy was discharged as electrical feedback through the ship's systems delivering a nasty, numbing shock to Cobryn's hands.

"I suggest we prepare to be boarded," said Striker.

Cobryn rubbed his pained hands. Yes, he sure could go for some of that corporate health care.

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Sahara leaned back on the bench and allowed herself a moment of self-satisfaction. Haze was pleased with their successful raid against the Wolf Pack slavers, and despite herself, she was pleased he was pleased.

Haze's computer-modulated voice continued from the speaker. "The remaining members of the Wolf Pack assumed the attack came from the Garbools and destroyed their primary weapons factory in revenge. And just like that, the once unassailable Three Families have been brought to their knees. There is only one more thing to be done...."

Sahara frowned at the sudden silence. "Did we lose the connection?"

"Not on our end," Quig answered from his seat beside the communicator. "The line is still open. Haze just stopped talking."

"Mid-sentence? That's not like him at all," said Striker. "His communiques always sound almost as though he is reading from a script."

"I've got a bad feeling about this," said Cobryn.

So did Sahara.

Haze returned. "I'm detecting ships tracking to your location. They appear to be.... Yes. It's the Families: Wolf Pack and Garbool ships. They must have tracked you somehow. They'll be at your headquarters within minutes. You must get out of there. Now!"

"This is very, very bad!" said Cobryn. "The Chutoi is no match for Three Families fighters."

In his irritatingly calm manner, Striker asked. "Should we stay here? The bunker is protected from direct bombardment."

Sahara started gathering her gear. "The bunker might be, but the Chutoi isn't. Haze is right. If we don't get out of here quickly, we're sitting ducks waiting for the Families to overrun us."

"Where are we going to go?" asked Quig, as he packed his drone.

"We'll worry about that when we're airborne."

The truth of the matter was that Cobryn was right: the Chutoi was a transport, not a fighter. It was slow and weak. If they were forced into a direct confrontation, they might as well be flying a coffin.

But as Sahara and the others hustled to the landing pad, she couldn't shake the feeling that Haze knew more than he had said. If everything had gone so well and the Families were really on their heels, why were the Wolf Pack and Garbools working together again? How had they found the bunker safehouse? And what was Haze's last task?

If by some miracle she survived this, she'd be sure to ask him face to face.

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Cobryn watched helplessly from the control booth window as Bronson stepped over Striker One's limp body and faced Sahara. The Wolf Pack lieutenant wiggled his finger at Sahara in a "come hither" gesture. Sahara shook her head in refusal. The roaring crowd was eating it up.

"Do something," Cobryn urged.

"What?" asked Quig.


Quig's claws flew across the console, and Cobryn was relieved to see the arena floor around Bronson begin to rise, trapping the lizard man. Sahara hustled over to Striker One and began helping him to his feet. The crowd's roars faded and quickly returned as boos.

"You better hurry up and release the slaves from their pens," said Quig. "I don't think we have long."

Cobryn had already identified the slave pen master control, and it didn't take a computer genius like Quig to figure out which button freed them. It was helpfully labeled "Do not press this it frees the slaves!" Cobryn pressed it.

It didn't take long for someone to notice.

Somewhere outside the control room, an alarm went off. The Wolf Pack spectators began to flee the stadium, forgetting about Bronson, Sahara, and Striker One in their haste to confront a slave uprising. Cobryn didn't give them good odds: slaves outnumbered Wolf Pakers on this asteroid ten-to-one. The only way they could regain control was through the computers in this control booth.

"I've opened the arena doors for Sahara and Striker One," said Quig as he moved to the exit. "That's all we've got to do. We can meed the others at the ship and get off this forsaken rock."

"I'm right behind you," said Cobryn. He turned to the console Quig abandoned. Cobryn knew a thing or two about computers himself; if he could lock the computer down, the Wolf Pack was doomed. Fortunately, the computer system was idiot proof.


Cobryn gleefully pressed the "Y" button and was rewarded with a smiley face and timer counting down from five minutes. Once the countdown was complete, the computer would only be useful as a doorstop.

Quig was long gone by the time Cobryn got to the door. The sounds of combat and death screams echoed through the corridors, but the path leading out to the ship hanger looked clear. Cobryn punched the air in celebration. After the Corona's Light, it felt good to be ensuring the death of the right people for a change. Take that, slavers!

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Quig tapped the shoulder of the Wolf Pack thug standing in the aisle beside him in the stands. "Excuse me, but I've got to get by you."

"What? Now? Why? Bronson's in the arena, and they trapped that murdering bitch between the floor tiles. The fight's just starting."

"Yes. It's very exciting. Even my bladder is excited."


Quig sighed. "I've got to take a piss."

"Why didn't you say so?" The thug finally moved out of his way, and Quig hustled out of the arena into the corridor. It was just as Haze had said; with everyone watching the fight, no one was watching the corridor. Even the thugs who usually stood guard outside the arena control room were gone.

Quig had almost finished setting up his defense drone to cover the hall when Cobryn finally arrived.

"Sorry about that," said Cobryn. "They wouldn't let me out of their sight until I lied about using the restroom."

"Great minds piss alike," Quig said.


Quig waved dismissively. "Don't worry about it. Do you have the keycard to the door?"

"Right here. I haven't tested it since I lifted it off that drunk last night. I hope it still works."

"We're about to find out." Quig drew a flashbang grenade from his pocket. "I'm ready when you are."

Cobryn nodded and inserted the pilfered card. The door unlocked and slid open automatically. Reflexively, the two control room operators turned to look and were immediately blinded by the flashbang. Cobryn rushed in and snapped slave manacles around one of the operators' wrists. Quig pointed a laser pistol at the other.

"Lower the floor tiles. Let Sahara out."

"I can't do that."

Quig pressed the laser's barrel against the operator's neck. "Wanna say that again?"

"N-no. But I don't have the controls to the floor. He does," the operator said, indicating his manacled partner.

Quig risked a glance out the booth window into the arena where Bronson appeared to be giving Striker One quite the beating. "We don't have time for this," he said, and brought the butt of the gun down on the operator's head, knocking him unconscious. Cobryn mimicked the action with his own pistol on the head of the manacled man, and Quig moved to look over the control console. As he would have expected in an arena run by idiots, it was pretty self-explanatory. He punched a few buttons and the floor began to lower, freeing Sahara. Not a moment too soon, from the look of it. Striker One was bleeding badly and had fallen to one knee. The crowd had begun chanting for Bronson to kill him.

"Do something," Cobryn urged.

"What?" asked Quig. His mind had gone blank. All he knew at that moment was that he desperately needed to pee.

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Striker One paused to enjoy the sensation of the spectators cheering for him. Technically, they were cheering "Tiny Dong," the demeaning nickname the Wolf Pack slavers had given him while parading him naked from his cell to the arena's pre-fight armory. But Striker One wasn't programmed to be hung up on semantics (or the comparable size of his excretory system's external organ).

He looked down at the defeated elf lying in a pool of blood. The elf was still breathing, of course. Reasoning that they couldn't sell dead slaves, the Wolf Pack insisted that arena combatants not kill one another. That's why Striker One was fighting only with battery-powered battle gloves. The pool of blood didn't belong to the elf but its former companion, a dwarf. Sahara had broken the rules and blasted the dwarf into a red mist with an overcharged laser pistol.

"I hadn't meant for that to happen," said Sahara in her own defense.

Striker One knew Sahara was ruthless, but in this case he believed her. She wouldn't let her blood thirst jeopardize their mission. "You did what you had to do to defend yourself. That little guy hit hard."

"I hope the Wolf Pack sees it that way and still sends Bronson in."

"I'm sure they will, though I doubt he'll be in any mood to pull his punches."

Sure enough, when the loudspeaker announced the arrival of the next combatant, it was the eight-foot tall reptilian Wolf Pack lieutenant who entered the arena.

"Hmm. He doesn't look so tough," Sahara lied.

Striker One sized up his competition. The combatants in the first three rounds—aside from the now-deceased dwarf—had proven surprisingly underwhelming. Could Bronson really be that much tougher? They didn't even have to defeat him, only distract him long enough for Cobryn and Quig to free the other slaves. How difficult could that be?

The lizard-man flexed his clawed fingers around the hilt of his giant sword. "I'm sure you know your master's contract says that if you beat me, you get to go free," he said with a deep, sibilant voice. "What you may not know is that no one beats me. And I'll tell you why: I cheat."

At his words, the floor of the arena shifted. Formerly flat ground shot up ten feet, creating a wall around Sahara and sequestering Striker One with Bronson.

"But I don't want you to think that I'm a monster," said the Wolf Pack slaver. He dropped his sword on the ground. "Go ahead. Take the first hit."

Striker One didn't hesitate. He landed a right cross in what should have been the lizard-man's solar plexus. If it hurt the giant as much as it hurt Striker One's fist, the android might have a chance.

Bronson smiled a toothy grin. "My turn."

The spectators went nuts.

Striker One dug in his heels and wished Cobryn and Quig godspeed.

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Sahara's skin itched underneath the manacles binding her wrists. If she was more fancifully inclined, she might consider this was the universe's way of punishing her for sending an entire starliner of passengers and crew into the sun just to cover up one (sell-deserved) assassination. But she knew better. The universe didn't care who lived or died. Only the most ruthless survived.

Beside her, Striker One tested his own set of manacles. "I'm starting to think we've made a mistake."

"I'm no happier about this than you are, but Haze's plan to free the Wolf Pack's slaves is sound. Only slaves fight in the arena, and only winning fighters get a match against Bronson. And if we can get Bronson to enter the arena...."

"Yes, yes," the android said with uncharacteristic impatience. "We will get Bronson into the arena. What I meant is that we may be recklessly endangering your life. You are no combatant. It should be Cobryn in this cell with me, not you."

"We need Cobryn free to fly us out of here if things go wrong." She didn't really believe this. If it came down to that, she could fly a ship well enough to escape the Wolf Pack's asteroid base. But Cobryn had flatly refused even to consider participating in arena combat, and Sahara hadn't wanted to push the point. She knew the others were still angry about what she had done to the Corona's Light. They hadn't agreed that its destruction had been necessary collateral damage. War often required sacrifices, and Sahara was willing to make them, which was why the others had accepted her as their leader in the first place. If she had to take a few punches to win back her team's confidence, so be it.

As if the mention of his name summoned him, Cobryn and Quig emerged from the corridor and approached their cell. They weren't alone.

"These are my combatants," Cobryn said to their companion, a Wolf Pack thug wearing a garishly ugly purple jacket.

"Don't look like much," said the thug with a shrug.

"Makes two of us," said Sahara.

"Hey," Cobryn shouted. "You watch your mouth, bitch!"

Bitch? Sahara gave him a glare. Cobryn winked back. At least someone was enjoying this.

The thug ignored the outburst. "The standard rates apply. In exchange for allowing your slaves to fight in the arena and prove they're worthwhile fighting stock, the Wolf Pack gets twenty-five percent of their sale price."

"Agreed," said Quig with a quick nod. He handed the thug a datapad. "Here's your signed contract. When do we get a fight?"

"Tomorrow afternoon."

Sahara was nonplussed. "You mean we have to spend the night in this cell?"

Quig smiled widely. "Looks like it. Bitch."

It was going to be a long night.

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Quig had never cared much for philosophy, and he certainly hadn't lived a squeaky-clean life, but this mission was making his fur tingle. He forced himself to watch as the scanner tracked the plasma torpedo to its target before reporting his latest morbid success. "Scratch the last escort. That's two more lives lost."

"We wouldn't be able to outrun them on departure," Sahara said by way of justification. "It had to be done."

Maybe it was necessary, Quig conceded, but did it have to be done by him? He'd spoken out against her original plan to fly the Corona's Light into the sun on the grounds that too many relatively innocent people would be killed. Yet somehow, in her newer, "kinder" plan, Quig had ended up with all the deadliest tasks. He suspected that wasn't an accident.

First, in deference to his superior programming skill, he had been assigned the task of using the bridge computers to modify the security droid protocols, which had undoubtedly resulted in some crew fatalities. Then, ostensibly because only he had the necessary talent, he had been required to alter the ship's life support system to flood Eye One's state room with toxic gas, killing Eye One as well as his butler, chef, secretary, and bodyguards. Finally, with Cobryn busy preparing the Chutoi for departure and Striker One confirming Eye One's death, only Quig was available to rejoin Sahara on the Corona's Light's bridge and eliminate the fighter escorts. That was what, at least a dozen sentients dead by his hand now? He was legitimately a serial killer.

He reminded himself that their goal was the dismantling of a system-spanning criminal organization. If some people had to die on the way to that greater good... well, it was a rat-eat-rat galaxy.

Sahara interrupted his gloomy thoughts. "Before we depart, let's teach these dogs a lesson they won't forget about crossing the Wolf Pack. Jettison a suite."

Quig moved to the abandoned captain's station and found the sequence that would fire Eye One's luxury state room slash escape pod. A moment later, he felt the floor vibrate slightly as he triggered the pod to fire away from the superstructure. Trapped by the sun's gravity, all evidence of how Eye One had been killed would soon be burned away. No one would be the wiser that he was killed by a small band of freedom fighters....

Except, Quig realized with a start, someone would surely realize that the occupant of the only pod launched was one of the solar system's most influential criminals. That someone was sure to kick over every anthill on every planet until they found who was responsible.

Quig thought fast. But what if Eye One's wasn't the only pod launched? That just might work.

No one wealthy enough to afford a suite on the Corona's Light could be truly innocent. Quig triggered the launch of two additional suites. One he chose at random; the other was occupied by the man whose name appeared on their invoice for nabanas. Anyone who imported that much fresh exotic fruit across the galaxy for his personal consumption deserved to die.

Sahara grabbed Quig's shoulder. "What are you doing? I said jettison just one!"

Disappointed that she hadn't understood his intentions, Quig snapped back, "You wanted it to look like that dumb Wolf Pack killed Eye One by accident, didn't you?"

Sahara glared at him, her irritation made more obvious by her twitching antenna. She flicked her eyes sideways; Quig followed her gaze to the captain and the rest of the restrained bridge crew he'd forgotten all about. He gasped at the realization of what he'd done. They must have overheard what he said, and Sahara would never let them live to repeat it. Quig had gotten so good at killing, he could even do it accidentally.

"Go," Sahara ordered coldly. "Tell the others we're leaving. I'll clean up this mess myself."

Quig obeyed meekly. His saluted the Corona's Light captain and crew through the closing elevator doors, knowing he would be the last person outside that room to see them alive.

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Sahara watched over Quig's shoulder as the ysoki hacked the elevator controls. She knew a thing or two about computers, but Quigs proficiency was still impressive. He was a useful guy to have around when you needed to take over an entire luxury starliner.

"Success," he chirped. "I now have access to bridge level."

"Great." Sahara opened the box she was holding and dug through the disgusting nabanas within to withdraw a laser pistol and a couple of flash grenades. "Let's pay them a call."

When the elevator door opened onto the bridge, she tossed the grenades. In the ensuing confusion, Striker One grabbed the captain in a bear hug. His loyal crew surrendered without so much as a fight.

"Captain, you have a problem," said Sahara. "Namely, me. You've got a garbage scow full of the filthiest, richest pieces of trash in the solar system. We've come to make them pay for their crimes against humanity. Tell me, have you ever heard of the Wolf Pack gang?"

"The W-wolf Pack? Slavers? Here? We don't w-want any trouble," the captain stuttered.

"Too late for that. But I'm feeling generous today. Keep cooperating with us, and we might let you live." Turning to Quig, she asked, "How are we doing on security?"

Quig looked up from the computer at the captain's station. "I've removed the crew from the white list."

The captain's eyes went wide. "They'll be treated as intruders. They'll be shot on sight!"

Sahara would hate to be that officer in the cargo bay right now. "Maybe this will teach you to program your security droids to be a little less trigger happy against stowaways."

After finishing tying up the bridge crew, Cobryn had moved to the communications array. "I've disabled the ship's transmitters. We're running silent here now."

"Oh! You should see who's in the passenger manifest," Quig chirped. "Especially on Deck A."

Sahara knew he was speaking in code. Eye One's suite must be on Deck A. She nodded. "Fine. Move all the automated security droids to Deck A, then get yourself to engineering."

Next, carefully avoiding the use of Cobryn's name, she directed him, "Go back down to our ship and be ready. When we leave, we'll be in a hurry."

As Quig and Cobryn left the bridge, the captain summoned enough nerve to ask, "What are you going to do with my ship?"

"It's Wolf Pack's ship now, darling. If I was you, I'd be more a little more focused on what you stand to lose personally, if you know what I mean." She cocked an eyebrow at Striker One, and the android gave the captain a not-so-friendly squeeze.

There was nothing to do now except wait for Quig to do his job. In the meantime, Sahara had time for games. Mind games. "Tell me captain, have you ever thought about how much your life is worth? Have you considered how far you're willing to go, what you're willing to do, who you're willing to kill to get what you want? To survive? I have...."

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Cobryn opened the ship's coms system. "Starliner Corona's Light, this is the shuttle Chutoi making a scheduled delivery of nabana fruit for one of your guests."

"Chutoi, we've been expecting you. Please follow the docking beacon."

"Roger," Cobryn replied. He snapped the microphone off and reached across the piloting console to set the autopilot to the beacon's signal. He was thankful for the assistance. This close to the sun, he'd had to close all the windscreens and fly by instrument alone, which was something he generally preferred not to do. Cobryn hadn't become a pilot just to let computers do all the work.

Sahara leaned back into the captain's chair. "Remember, everyone, we're about to interrupt the vacation of some very rich and powerful people. The only way we're going to emerge from this safely is if we protect our identities scrupulously."

"What does 'scrupulously' mean?" asked Quig.

"It means we need to be very careful. If anyone finds out we're not just deliverymen, we need them to think we're working for the Wolf Pack."

Cobryn said, "It won't matter who they think we're working for if we fail to kill Eye One."

Sahara sighed. "Look, if that's all that's important to you, we could still go with my first plan."

Striker One shook his head firmly. "No. We must keep the killing to a minimum. Otherwise, we're no better than the families."

Cobryn chuckled at the android's naivete. "Who says we're better? Sure, they're liars, thieves, and murderers, but last time I checked, so are we. The only difference between us and them is scale."

"Let's keep it that way."

"Fine. Plan B it is, then," said Sahara. "But if anything goes wrong..."

"It won't," said Quig.

Technically, the decided course of action was plan C. The second plan suggested had been Cobryn's idea to drug the nabana shipment with sleeping draughts then give away free fruit to the entire crew. Sahara had judged that plan "unreliable," claiming they couldn't be sure the crew would willingly eat the fruit. Cobryn suspected it simply wasn't bloodthirsty enough for her.

Cobryn turned his attention back to the piloting console and watched as the autopilot brought the ship gently past the fighter escorts into alignment with the starliner's docking bay. Taking back manual control, he skillfully piloted the shuttle to a rest inside the Corona's Light.

An officer and two security droids were waiting for Cobryn by the time he walked down the Chutoi's loading ramp, nabana in hand.

"Permission to come aboard?" Cobryn asked, offering the standard courtesy when boarding a vessel.

"Permission granted," said the officer. "Your delivery is expected on D Deck."

Cobryn smiled congenially. "Great. It won't take us any time to unload. In the meantime, would you like a complementary nabana, sir?"

"I'd love one, thank you." The officer took the offered fruit and bit into it guilelessly. "What kind of person turns down a nabana?"

What kind of person indeed?

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To be continued...


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