F e b r u a r y   2 0 0 5

Guest Writer

by Edward Morris Jr.

e sat together at the morning's end, my earnest young friend and I, and talked of science fiction while we barred the door and waited for the bombs to start falling.

Outside my wide, white suite, chaos reigned supreme throughout the sordid rooms of the Chelsea Hotel. I was tempted to go out and fire my .38 into the ceiling as a warning shot, but on further thought I determined that might not be so good.

I have no love for flatfoots, especially in hysterical times when it's every crumb for himself. Today met and far exceeded the latter conditions.

Early this morning, just after my new friend had come to call, two explosions rocked the five boroughs. Dust was falling in the streets like snow. My fellow New Yorkers and I had witnessed scenes such as we had believed were never enacted outside the covers of pulp magazines.

Two mere office buildings, whose destruction threw the country into mortal terror. One ludicrous instant accentuated the brutality at home and abroad forever, stole the ground from unborn feet forever and made widows and widowers. Forever. The whole thing could have been avoided. But now there was no telling whose axe would end bloodiest.

I didn't even assume this thick-walled hotel to be safe. Diego Rivera's graffiti on the bathroom walls might well next be seen by some future archaeologist in an unfathomable later age.

But more than likely not. We were all hysterical. More than ever, it was time to shut up and pay attention to what was really around me.

When I was stuck for an idea before, I used to just sit in the lobby all the time and watch people coming in and going out. That day I was afraid to, even if I didn't have the boy's company. The naked city's entire atmosphere held the colorless no-smell of death, sucking us all down in a black funnel toward an unknown lurking fear a thousand times more vivid than the kind the young Lovecraft writes of so well in "Astounding!"

But I could not let any of this show.

Phil poured himself a fresh knock of Ilse's vodka into a cracked water glass on the coffee table, hunting around for the bottle of Coca-Cola. It was on the floor by his foot. After a moment, he saw it and smiled his odd, impish smile.

"Impish" was the word for the kid. I say "kid" advisedly. He was 21. But since I quit school and embarked upon my meteoric career, going to and fro and walking up and down in the world, I felt like an old and jaded man of 25.

Phil's sparkling eyes and animated manner put me in the mind of a freckle-faced boy with a string of bullheads. But his face was kind and unhappy. He had red writer's calluses on his index and middle fingers. His hands themselves were funny, oddly expressive, the hands of the old man I already felt myself to be.

Cute kid in that odd way that appealed to me. But I had not pursued the matter of his sexual orientation. I was up to my ears at home and did not wish to further complicate my life with another "relationship."

He offered me the vodka. I declined. We had smoked a stick of tea when the news first came on. The tea came on faster. I had no further need of refreshment at the time.

Phil was dressed like a hipster, insofar as the khaki pants, white undershirt and beat shoes of wandering. Those student shoes had marched out from Peoria, Peoria, hurrah, just to meet his hero.

Me. Ha. I am not T.S. Eliot nor was I meant to be. I am a scorpion crawling on the steps of the Word, riding the cold shoulders of giants with barely time to look around. I cast my lot with the kids and made more money than I ever dreamed of ...

Writing things that were safe. Marketable. Harmless escapist fantasies. But now there was evil loose all over. Something was telling me to take a step back.

I couldn't tell this baby writer that, though. I barely understood the feelings myself, except at some primal biological level that the dead sticks of words could barely touch.

"You deal with all these fertile myths." His voice, too, was wise beyond his years; a booming treble chest-voice that paused in thought a lot, drawling and Midwestern. "The self-made man breaking the rusty cage of Civilization. Very American."

I snorted. "For those who were meant to find it. I have nothing but contempt for stupid humans. I don't even see them, you know. My world is a lot less populated than yours is, Phillip, and to my way of thinking it's still too crowded."

Young master Phillip José Farmer, as his marked-up typescripts broadcast him during our initial correspondence, laughed so hard that vodka and Coke sprayed out of his nose. I offered him my handkerchief. The unused one from my lapel pocket. He looked at it as though it were the Shroud of Turin and wiped off his face.

"Thank you. Who did you read when you were getting started?" He took another swill to clear his sinuses, then grimaced.

I cast back my mind to that horrible boys' school and reached for the package of Player Navy Cuts on the end table at my right hand beside the armchair. "Mmm. H. Rider Haggard. She." I shivered with delight at the memory. Phil grinned.

"And do you await your Egyptian lover?"

"She went out to cop a paper from the pharmacy. I really hope she comes back in one piece." I sighed, popping a match on my thumbnail. The stump of my pinky had been aching all day. "Lover? That is at issue. And a yenta, anyway, not Egyptian."

He saw the look on my face and deftly resumed his former tack. "Who else?"

"H.G. Wells. 'The Star.' 'The Patent-Medicine Man.' All his books, too. The blessed Hugo Gernsback. Twain's 'Letters From the Earth.'" I paused. "Oswald Spengler, nowadays. Thomas deQuincey. This Count Korzybski's 'Theories of General Semantics.' No matter what you read, my boy, you find things you can use. That's the beauty of what we do. We waste no part of the animal."

Phil beamed, exhaled a long vodka breath and put his drink back down, his dark, tea-bloodshot eyes losing their sparkle and retreating in time.

"I remember finding a copy of your story, 'The Baron Says These Things,' in 'Amazing Stories.' Do you know Gernsback?"

"A little. He's so busy all the time, especially nowadays with the movies. Hard man to nail down. Did you know that the Baron was the original model for John Carter?"

"Sorta figured."

He glanced perfunctorily at the window, but the concierge's lackeys had put boards up. Hopefully just for the day. Under its long expanse, the new Philco with the shortwave-television glass built-in had been shut off for a while to cool down, by mutual consent.

"But ... yeah. I could see it. Wow."

"I wrote the first draft of that at Los Alamos Ranch School for Boys." I shuddered. "During my expulsion. I was 13."

"Poor guy. What for?"


"Oh." His mouth shut with a snap. "I can't imagine how difficult that must have been for you."

"What?" I nearly dropped my cigarette. Phil shrugged.

"Could be worse. You coulda done 18 months of hard time, like Oscar Wilde did. Poor guy. I bet he had 10 more books in him as good as 'Dorian Gray.' At least you ..." He wasn't certain of how to say it. "... at least you keep your private life out of the papers."

"Me and J. Edgar."

As soon as I said the name, Phil looked startled. "Don't worry," I told him. "I've met him. We have an understanding. I keep my mouth shut ... so does he. I'm stoned. You never heard that."

"Heard what?"

We were both doing pretty well at the levity thing. Phil had been a little shell-shocked at the news. I was simply disgusted. I expected something like this to happen. Mr. America has buggered the world for two centuries without so much as a reach-around. What do we expect other countries to do when we keep kicking them?

I shook myself, returning to the moment. "Tap your ash," Phil suggested gently.

"Oh, yeah."

I glanced toward the open door of the bedroom. At the desk in there, the Westinghouse still hummed its vibrating, soundless hum.

The concierge had seen the monstrosity and fussed about the power capability of the wall sockets in my room until I finally found the fly-specked manual at the bottom of my briefcase: "White-Westinghouse Hyperion Word Processor!"

The big bold letters blared above a color-tinted photo of a smiling society matron standing by the square bubble desktop unit with its automatic press-type feed tastefully placed full of a roll of paper beside it. It did save some time, but its Storage Recorder feature was a kludge of a thing whose reels were always snapping. What won't they think of next?

I tapped my ash in the ashtray where it sat on the end table at my right hand, atop a pile of my own wretched typescript. That one was a partial chapter banged out three nights before in a rattling whiskey-and-bennies El-train ride on my writing machine. Crazy old Joe Gould had been down at McSorley's in the Village and behaving himself for once. I bought him a pint of porter. And he told me a story.

Phil saw me looking at it. "New world to conquer?"

I shook my head. "It's an embarrassment. Blueballs of the mind. Makes me feel like a schoolboy."

Out in the streets, the crowd noise reached a bit of a lull. One window shattered. That was all. Phil took a deep breath.

"May I ... that is, if ..."

I lifted up the ashtray, passed the pages across to him and reached for the vodka.

"Herein lies my pain. Tell you in a minute."

"Did you get stuck somewhere on it?" he asked, not looking down. "Sometimes, you know, if you just go for a walk, it comes to you, and–"

"Too little time. Even before today. There's ..." I couldn't finish. "My writer's block has two horns."

I poured two fingers of vodka straight. My writer's block had brought that bottle with her a few months ago, and plenty more where that came from. For every yin, a yang.

Phil shook his head. "All the more reason to fight your way through it. Even when you're blocked, you can still write about the lethargy and depression."

He was already talking like an English teacher. He'd told me earlier that they gave him a writing scholarship at school. The kid would go far.

"True enough," I shrugged. "I've pushed myself so hard to get here I still don't know how it happened."

"I'd give anything to have your problems," he chuckled. "I'm still trying to find my voice."

My fist clenched on my glass. I gesticulated. "I'm still trying to find out what words are, how they become images when written down, how to make them really represent things, not just repeat them. But this ..."

I swallowed, amazed to find my eyes burning with tears. "The romance of a soul astray came on me like a black wind through the bones. I have the whole routine in my head. One good first chapter. But I don't ... know ... how ..."

He held up one young-old hand. "Just like one of those new cybernetical computers," he told me. "You just type in the question, put your feet up and wait."

For a long time, Phil sat and sipped his drink and read out loud. He read like Mortimer Adler, precise and musical and somehow subtly comic. I listened, wincing at spots and smiling at others.


I heard this story from an old mariner with paresis. He would collar hapless strangers on the London streets and make with the seagull act and the silo full of corn for anyone dumb enough to stand still. But in his more lucid moments, I could see the man he had been. The tale he told in his latest such moment has haunted me ever since.

The more I imbibed that night, the more sense he made at the time. I return in sobriety to piece together the kernel of truth at the heart of his yarn. My own incredulity has led me to doubt my own senses, to wonder whether that night actually happened.

"Britith we are, Britith we thtay," he repeated as a kind of punctuation mark at points in the telling, slopping his glass on a moldy ledger stamped with the seal of the Colonial Office. The story might be true, or not. I wasn't there. Certain names have been altered to protect the innocent or guilty or vice versa mutatis mutandis as the case may be. The yellowed pages of a dead man's diary that crumble apart like snow at my touch dovetail perfectly with his ledger notes and rambling, often incoherent yarn.

I give you the story now from shoals of further research notes heaped across the floor and tabletop of my sordid rooms in Chelsea. Believe it or put it aside. Soon I will venture to the Dark Continent to find out for myself. Anyone who cares to may find out with me.

The old swabbie told me that a good while back, a titled English nobleman, Lord Greystoke, John Clayton, was charged with a peculiarly delicate investigation on the west coast of Africa for the Crown. Kaiser Bill had sent in the Wehrmacht combine to slaughter darkies for ivory and rubber far up the Congo. The loyal subjects of the Crown thereabouts said that the poor bloody kaffirs were held in virtual slavery and after a few years we won't stand for that, will we, old chap?

But why Lord Greystoke was sent is of little import. John Clayton never got to Abuja.

hil set the pages down and thought a while. "Trust your instincts, Bill," he told me. "I need some time to let that sink in. But it ..."


He stood. "I think if you work at it, this one will be as good as 'Under the Moons of Mars.' Hell, maybe even better. Can I see if the news is back on?"

"Have at it."

He crossed the room, knelt before the Philco and clicked all three dials up to high.

The screen glowed into slow, flickering life on a ringing sound and a series of concentric circles. Phil jumped.

"Bill ... what ... is it gonna blow up or something?"

I shook my head dismissively. "It's that Emergency Broadcast System. That Civil Defense rig they have coast-to-coast. Not a New York channel at all–"

He looked at me as if I were speaking Arabic. Then the ringing stopped and static washed the picture into view.

The president was looking at us on the small glass box, sitting in his wheelchair at a clearly mocked-up hearth in a clearly mocked-up Oval Office. I've seen better stage sets from Adolphe Menjou, I thought, but held my tongue. Behind the hearth, drop cloths and Secret Servicemen were everywhere.

Phil's eyes were glued to the screen. I wondered what he was thinking.

"I pledge to you the American people ..." Prexy's speech was slurred and his hands shook. He stirred uncomfortably in his chair. (The Parkinson's was getting worse since the last time I'd seen him.) His cold, nasal South Chicago rasp came across with an odd, ringing echo on the Philco's speaker-horn. "... that those responsible for this heinous act of violence will be found and brought to justice. September 11, 1939, is a day. That will live. In infamy."

"All right, Mr. Burroughs who bears my name," I muttered. "Bare it all the way, for all to see. Pay it all back." I threw my drink at the television. It missed. Phil seemed unfazed.

"Goddamn it. I knew we should have lit out for Mexico. With her bankbook, we coulda lived like a couple of czars. Now–"

"It feels like safety is gone forever," Phil agreed. "But wait. Wait and see."

I barely heard him. "Don't know why I even brought my damn paranoid Boston marriage on wheels back to America in the first place. The whole planet is drifting to random insect doom."

Phil sighed. "And the military's probably keeping most of it secret. No doubt they fear to alarm the public."

"America was never safe."

We sat silent for a time, listening to my second cousin's sea of rhetoric. I wondered where my wife was.

Phil had mentioned "Under the Moons of Mars." She'd approached me with a cheaper German edition of it at that awful fag cabaret in Berlin, brandishing a pen and murmuring, "Darf ich um ihr autogramm, bitte?" Dressed like Marlene Dietrich in a sharp-as-hell cutaway, short dark hair slicked back, monocle and cigarette holder and the whole bit.

She looked like a boy. My heart had caught in my throat like a cock in a zipper. Of course I'd signed it, muttering, "Oh, that old thing. Have a seat, my short rib."

I'd never have been so flip had I but known that Ilse Herzfeld Klapper was a Russian countess on the lam. But she took no issue. We closed down that cabaret and then two others. She was as awestruck as Phil was now to be drinking with the famous American science-fiction writer.

Sometime during that long bar-crawl, I agreed to marry her for convenience and get her the hell out of Berlin. She admitted both her Judaism and ... the rest. She also offered me a sum of money that was more than I got for the first three Barsoom serials put together.

Deep in drink, she told me in return that she would be my muse. I fired back one of my favorite dirty limericks:

A pansy who lived in Khartoum
Took a lesbian up to his room.
They argued all night
Over who had the right
To do what, and with which, and to whom.

"You're supposed to be a faggot," she told me in bed the next morning in that adorable polyglot accent. "But you fuck like a pimp."

I said nothing at the time. But I had seen God all that night in the flash bulb of orgasm. My body had betrayed me, and Reichian walls hid the knowledge from her sight after she seemed to laugh it off the next morning when we were waiting to get the papers put through.

I still didn't know about having ever, ever fallen in love with a woman after that horrible incident with Tom and the maid when I was little. I hoped Ilse would never find out about this before I was ready.

She became my amanuensis, my sounding board, traveling companion and main critic, just for getting her past the clutches of that mad dog who was closing down all the cabarets – the mad dog Uncle Ivy was working for – as if nothing else could shame me more about my family. Last I heard anything of Ivy, he was in Berlin, too, making films for the Reichstag. Ivy's queer, too. Old family curse. But we still don't speak.

Ivy introduced our itinerant cousin Ed to John D. Rockefeller. I blame him for this whole mess. He more or less got Ed the job.

Anyway, Ilse and I became something like roommates, or two inseparable high school girls. Whatever worked at the time. That was my view. Before we met, I'd blown through most of my royalties traveling Europe. There was still the trust fund, but I didn't touch that any more unless I had to.

Even thinking about the trust fund made me think about St. Louis. Goddamn tourist trap and Dante's Inferno all rolled into one. The president's hometown. My ass. He was from Chicago, and then lammed around and got to be mayor of some orange grove out in California at first.

Made a lot of friends at Standard Oil even before Grandpa Bill invited our itinerant distant relative out to the Show Me State to save his nose-diving business.

Now they call it International Business Machines, IBM for short. I call it my hometown being crammed sardine-can full of eggheads and richies. On his radio show, Philip Wylie called it the "Silicon Delta." Now everyone calls it that. They built an automat where Mom's beloved antique store used to be at Cobblestone Gardens.

"Progress," I muttered. "Hah. I made my own way. Keep your blood money. I spit upon your White House, you goddamned alcoholic just like the rest of that side of the family–"

Phil was writing something in a little Blue Horse notebook he'd brought with him. He barely looked up. I was thinking offhandedly about going over to the Village when the dust settled, to see my old school chum Kells Elvins for a bit of the love that dares not speak its name. I could put the kid onto Herb Huncke in Times Square for a free writer's tour. No harm done.

But I knew that even in a lukewarm shower with all four on the floor, I couldn't be there with Kells. I'd only be thinking of Ilse.

What a day. The door banged open. Ilse stood there with her satchel hanging from her bony shoulder, wearing my coat. She looked washed out.

"Army Air Corps got two more planes coming in," she said. "Heard from the paperboy. Who's your boyfriend?"

He blushed. "Uhhh, just a fan, ma'am. Phil Farmer. Are you Countess–"

"Ilse." She cut him off in her wonderfully laconic way. "Pleasure. Bill, all I could get were some morphine Syrette tubes. You don't know anybody else?"

"For the thousandth time, no." I grew irritated. "Joey was just some guy I knew from the neighborhood." I jerked my thumb at the television where President Edgar Rice Burroughs continued his emergency fireside chat.

"... which the Fuehrer still denies. J. Edgar (hic) tells me that the aeroplanes which leveled the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building at nine o'clock this morning were in fact Japanese Zeros, fanatic deserters from one unit of General Tojo's kamikaze, or Divine Wind. The Jap believes that destroying his target with his own plane guarantees him entry into Paradise. He ..."

Phil was looking into the other room. "May I?" He pointed. "I just want to see it."

I nodded, following him, Ilse at our heels. There was a blank cassette-reel threaded into the guts of the Hyperion. A white glare that was not light spilled from the vent in the back.

"All I can think of," I looked at Phil, "is the 'Sorry, Sir' letter that bitch Linda at McCall's wrote me for 'Living Dead.'"

Phil snickered. Ilse frowned. "You lost me."

"This whole ... damn ... day ..." I droned in a funny voice, "is too grue-some and downbeat a storrry for us to consider at this time, my dear. Can't you give us anything a little cheerier?"

Phil was looking at the words on my screen, the same ones he'd read in the parlor.

"I take your point," Ilse said neutrally and padded back out there to turn off the Philco.

"Hell's to pay." I was up on a stump now and I knew it. But something in me couldn't shut up. "And guess who gets all the contracts to make the bombs? Cousin Ed and IBM, that's who. America is about to commit biological suicide right when we should be going after Adolf My Boy." I thought a moment. "He's smiling now, isn't he? Cousin Ed, I mean."

"Uh ... yeh? A little," she called back, uncertain. The sound of cousin Ed's voice died away. Mine could not.

"He smiles for them as he kills. Smiles are the foundation of beauty. He should have been the writer, not me. That man could talk a transvestite hooker out of her g-string," I shuddered.

"He never uses brutality when prolonged crime will do more damage. Seems like he just hates people so much he wants to degrade us beyond all possible recognition. Sending monkeys up into space to search for new forms of depravity. He's here to go."

"Hah." Ilse came back in and put one hand on my shoulder, looking at the big white block letters on the tiny bubble screen. "Everybody knows what they're doing to the Juden. Does your president, may God forgive you your blood, do anything? Does the pope? Nobody. Prexy's your fuehrer."

"Careful." I wagged one finger in mock admonishment. "Don't say that too loud or they'll put a pill between your ribs, mark my words."

"That's what I love about you, Bill. You're always so cheerful."

Ignoring her, I opened the side panel of the machine and adjusted the wheel hydraulic regulator. Phil was watching over my shoulder, fascinated. I could see his own wheels turning in his head.
Taking notes again.

"He'll bypass freedom and attack us," the kid muttered in that great radio voice of his. "The news has gotten around, he knows it, and he feels humiliated. I'm feeling you, Bill. Umm ... this is an incredible machine. I've never seen one."

"Don't give my hyperactive child sugar," Ilse told him sternly. "Bill, you paid how many hundred'allas for that? Tch. Better you should have a secretary who can use a Dictaphone. You'll never replace the human variable. Just like you said with that great story about Princess Dajah, you know–"

"Dajah Thoris was based on you, my short rib." I stood and looked around the room, brooding. "I welcome all new technology. I–"

"Based on me?" Ilse cocked her head and put a hand over her heart. "Oh, Billy. I think that's the sweetest thing you ever said."

"Sorry, dear. Still upset."

"We all are. What's eating you?"

I cocked my head.

"Civilized men are more foolish and cruel than the beasts of the jungle. That's what's eating me! Only a change of venue insofar as the chessmen and the whole damn board may yield any hope of survival."

"Shah, Dostoyevsky. Such doom and gloom. We'll see." Ilse looked at me for a long time.

"Have it any way you want." I spread my fingers in a shrug. "We've been borrowing trouble since the damn Treaty of Versailles. You know just as well as I do–"

Ilse shook her head rapidly. "Bill, there's no need."

"No. While I sit here and write fucking children's books."

I made an inarticulate sound of rage and turned my face away. "Every citizen of this country is as much a party to whatever follows as though we plotted it and carried it out ourselves!"

"Things can't be that bad," Phil told me. "So this world never turns out the way we think. So what?"

I flapped my hands. "You're not helping! You don't understand! I– ARRGH."

"Should I go?" Phil looked toward the parlor.

I got ahold of myself. " How long you in town?"

"Tuesday." He grinned. "You play poker?" Love shone through in his eyes, fan-love for the myths of the ages. I was humbled and awed. Ilse sat her satchel on the desk and began unbuttoning her men's overcoat.

"Do I?"

"Good. Then you can learn how we skin people in Illinois. Tomorrow?"

The Ugly Spirit in my head would not stop squawking. It was getting hard to hear. I nodded, trying to say something. But Philip José Farmer was shaking his head immediately.

"I know that look. Tomorrow, Bill. Thank you."

"F-f-for what?"

"Tell you later. Now get to work."

"Phil, you–"

But he had already scooted after his notebook. I heard the door slam, and then his graveyard whistling in the hall.

"Whether you're Samuel Goldwyn or Joe Doaks," Ilse said, looking at the floor, "you didn't start the game."

"No ..." Something was moving me. I could taste it in my heart. "But once in a while, you actually see ... what you're ... eating."

"You sound like T.S. Eliot."

"You always say that."

I sat down at the word processor, rolled up my sleeve and reached for the battered old black satchel. "No amount of sophistry ... can change what's about to happen, but ... we can face it."

I removed my belt and tied it around my arm.

"Schatzi, you'll get sick if you–"

"I've read Jack Black. No worries. I know this routine."

Concerned, Ilse sat down on the floor and hovered beside me. I tried not to admire the undone buttons of her shirt, the line of her thigh, the wet ornate shape of her mouth as she licked her lips. Looking away, I moved like a man in a dream, flicking a vein to bring it to the surface.

"Guess I could hit that one."

I slid the needle home like a wasp sting, squeezing the morphine Syrette slowly and carefully. Just a bit, not the whole thing ... just ... little more ... Yes. Withdraw. Now hand it to her. The belt, too.

As I bent back toward the keyboard, even breathing became delightful. Consciousness felt like leaning back into a warm tub.

But the window in the other room was Lovecraft's horrifically darkened opiate-prophetic glass. Outside it, everything was still wrong.

"Thermodynamics has won at a crawl," I muttered along to the clattering of the ivories. "Science fiction balked at the post. Christ bled. Time. Ran. Out."

lse Klapper Burroughs froze rapt on the floor, fascinated by this new outburst. Different words flickered into light on the screen. Something about feeling the heat closing in.

In the black mirror of the screen, between the lines, she thought she could see across the oceans that separated Bill and Ilse, New York and America, Hitler and Burroughs ...

Far out and away, with a little perspective, Ilse beheld a little boy on Mars with his arm around his mother's shoulders, pointing toward the diseased green star of Earth in their red sky.

Looking to an alien world with hope.

But when it came to what to hope for, history was silent. It was there that any supposition vanished from her eyes and from her knowledge of the deeds of all men.

"So silly ..." the expat countess muttered to herself, remembering the previous night's dream as she expertly skin-popped the remainder of the tube.

She was so scared of the chemistry between them. They danced around the edges of it every day.
Men had hurt her very, very badly. In her latest nightmare, Silly Billy had been drunk, tried to shoot a glass off her head and missed. One day, perhaps she could overcome her fears.

She wanted to believe that he really loved her, but couldn't risk the great life they had as roommates. In birth throes at the word processor, her husband threw back his head and voiced a wild and terrible howl. Nice to see he was unblocked. Maybe he could finish the apeman piece as well.

Ilse decided in her heart of hearts that she wanted to stick with this one.

Something told her she would soon know.

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