Part 11

"Sit and pivot, seems simple enough," Lieder reasoned. "Then what?"

"Well…" Justus pondered for a moment. "Until it's configured to your preference, it will assume the default template. By default, all manners of interface are enabled, and while I'm sure several are intuitive, you may want to disable optical input until you're practiced with it."

"Optical input? I can really control it with my eyes?"

"Yes, it's been a standard feature for as long as the Peerage has been in power. I've been assured that voice and hand interface were quite common in your era, but to my understanding, optical control was far from common."

"Unreliable and gimmicky, is what I'd have called it then. It had its place, mostly for paralyzed people, but it definitely wasn't integrated into any of our regular household appliances."

"It's quite intuitive, but if you're unaccustomed to it, you'll find yourself far from your intended course in no time. You must develop specific blinking habits, you see."

"Something I'll practice when the other kids aren't around, thanks for the warning." Lieder felt like he could guess how the system worked.

"You say 'kids' quite often, and while I find it's an endearing colloquialism, I must caution you that it is no longer in common usage."

"What, the 'kids' don't call themselves 'kids' anymore? How blasphemous!"

"Blasphemy…" Justus said dreamily. "My, what a rare word! I might not have recognized it without the Lexicon's help! You must explain the mythos that this situation blasphemes to me."

"I was being pretty facetious, but I can do that to an extent. Anything else I should know?"

"Not really, all but one of them are old enough to have Lexicons installed. I think they'll find some of your mannerisms peculiar, but not so much that they'll immediately suspect a circumstance as extreme as yours."

"I feel like I'm pretty practiced at avoiding unwanted attention."

"This is us," Justus pointed to the next door on their left. "Is there anything else you feel like you want to know before going in?"

"Nah, I'd have made due even without your advice, though I do appreciate your efforts."

"Not at all, it was as informative for me as it was for you. Let's dive right in, shall we?"

Lieder nodded, and Justus flicked his finger against the panel next to the door.

"Apologies for the interruption, students," Justus began even before the door could complete its split-second ascent into the ceiling. "But I have added another pupil to our roster. Please welcome Carl Orionne Lieder to our Reverence branch of the Interpretive Precepts Establishment."

As Lieder followed Justus into the room, he surveyed his surroundings. Three of the four walls were bare and plain, free from anything that might provide a distraction. The final wall, opposite the entrance, projected a faux-transparent image of Reverence as seen from that side of the building. He noted that the image had been altered to drastically dim the sun's brilliance; he could stare directly into it without feeling any discomfort.
As he'd heard Justus mention, there were thirteen students in the room: seven adolescent males, five adolescent females, and one very young boy; no younger than eight, but not older than eleven.

"Wait, we all know we're in Reverence." A boy near the center of the room was frowning in contemplation. "Are you saying he's new to the academy, not just moving up from another class?"

"Yes, he comes from a delightfully foreign background. Please accommodate him as best you can!"

Most of them were occupying furniture that matched Justus's descriptions. There were differences between each, some stark and some subtle, but these details were aesthetic or preferential. All of them fulfilled the same function, and all of them resembled a hybridization of a vehicle cockpit and a high-end computer desk. An uninformed Winkle would probably guess that they'd walked into an arcade.

The front end always contained a primary display, though this was hung at differing levels depending on the individual's height. More varied were the trays of buttons, sometimes unified to resemble a keyboard and sometimes separated to flank the student in a position just ahead of their armrests.

Supported posture, number of displays, even the style and functionality of the user interfaces; each seemed endlessly customizable. The stations were positioned in a grid, with several cubes of identical semi-transparent material filling in the blanks between occupied desks; Lieder concluded that these boxes were unused computers, retracted in order to save space.

"We have a surplus of empty consoles, Lo-" Justus started to say Lieder's title, but caught himself. "-Lieder. Please take whichever you prefer."
"Most obliged," Lieder thanked, slowly switching his gaze to meet the eyes of each person that looked his way.

Around half of them seemed to be gawking at his clothes as he walked towards a vacant console with no direct neighbor; the girls seemed more surprised and amused by his choice, while the boys smirked or sneered disrespectfully.

There wasn't a common theme to their clothing, a fact that puzzled Lieder. He couldn't ascertain any one feature that could represent the elevated status of the Peerage, and while many outfits seemed outlandish and alien in their design, many wouldn't have seemed too out of place in his era.

An enormous, muscle-bound boy's clothing seemed to be breathing; the shoulders expanded and contracted, and with each exhalation, a complex system of veins bulged outward all along the attached form-fitting jumpsuit.

The bookish young woman next to him wore a sweater vest  with a silky undershirt and long skirt. As Lieder boggled over the contrast of her normalcy next to the muscular boy's conspicuousness, she politely raised her hand.

"Marquess Preceptor, if you have a moment?"

"Certainly," Justus replied, smiling as he approached her.

Lieder turned his attention to those that were staring at him, analyzing as he continued his slow amble.

A couple of the girls smiled and confidently maintained eye contact as he passed over each; one averted her eyes and giggled as he looked her way.
The pre-teenage boy seemed awe-stricken by Lieder, curious to learn more but too mesmerized to act. Lieder expected he would have to be extremely prodigious to be here among people that were older by almost half his own age.

One adolescent boy looked at him with unmistakably analytical eyes. This student was unique in that he wasn't operating any of the consoles; merely lounging on the edge of a retracted one. There was a small, token smile on his face, one subconsciously worn but carefully practiced to put his subject at ease while he studied them.

Lieder chuckled when the boy maintained this expression, even through several seconds of Lieder's eye contact. This one had made it clear that he was exceptional. Lieder made a silent guess about his field of study.

A livelier, obnoxiously handsome young man was smirking at him, the words he traded with his various neighbors obscured by the chorus of laughter that constantly permeated around them.

It seemed this group was quite an exclusive clique, probably not so dissimilar to those stigmatized in Lieder's old high school. He was hardly surprised that such a thing still existed, even in such a supposedly-prestigious establishment; this was how the average
juvenile mammal behaved.

The students that weren't staring at him had quickly returned to their work after Justus's introduction, though Lieder suspected that the despondent, dark-haired girl near the center of the room had probably not even noticed their entrance. He frowned a little, hoping the source of her depression wasn't too powerful for her to overcome.

He arrived at his targeted console, a block towards the back on the transparent wall-side  of the room. Nobody was directly adjacent to him here, but it was still less isolated than he would have preferred.

There was a circular plate cut out near the back-center on the top side of the cube. Lieder bent his legs and slid until his seat was on this portion. Shifting his weight onto the cube, he swiveled his feet to rest on the front of it, completing the 'sit and pivot' maneuver that Justus had recommended on their way to the classroom.

The process by which the cube transformed was very similar to the furniture he'd watched morphing earlier, but this was the first time that the majority of transformation wasn't partially obscured by the occupant's body.

The semi-transparent material began to melt around his legs, which sank as though he were sitting on the edge of a pool of quicksand. True to this metaphor, the sound it made resembled a shifting mixture of sand and tiny glass beads. Rather than him truly sinking, however, the particles were actually climbing out from under him, crawling over one another to reallocate more structure toward the front and sides of the console.

The grains of material seemed sentient, intelligently coordinating to lift the next tiny individual to its position then locking it into place with its neighbors. In a manner of seconds, the tiny robotic components had inclined his legs to an angle similar to that of most of the other students, erected a support for his back, and formed the base of the device's monitor and interface trays.

Lieder casually but carefully leaned to the side, inspecting the machinery under the chutes molding around the bottom of his legs. An array of folding pantograph supports lay underneath, toned to a point that his weight would not cause them to collapse, but with the natural muscle-movement that accompanied such motions, the mechanism allowed him to stretch or adjust his weight without fighting the chair's more rigid shapes.

Milliseconds after fully-forming, the screen was alight with text and diagrams, welcoming Lord Carl Orionne Lieder and prompting him to customize the layout of his workstation.

Even though he'd chosen a cube without telling Justus or anyone else of his choice, the system had known the name of its occupant. With the frequency of these occurrences, Lieder could finally be certain; his DNA, and thereby his presence, was monitored everywhere it went.

His hands drifted slowly towards the 'interface tray;' he read each box and inspected any corresponding diagrams, glanced at the touch-screen keyboard and tested his theory of how an 'optical interface' might work.

As he suspected, his eyes were acting as a mouse; after a couple of improvised commands, he overrode the default, and a circular cursor appeared to indicate the precise spot of the screen his eyes were focused on. Flitting his gaze about, he discovered that blinking served the same function as clicking did on a mouse. Amused, he tried blinking twice in rapid succession on an icon he assumed to be executable; it opened a small confirmation dialog.

He focused on the word 'cancel' and blinked, which closed the window. He smiled, amused; despite undergoing a mass 'Exodus,' a rebuilt society still defaulted to the click-versus-double-click standard of his era's PCs. He wondered if winking one eye might distinguish between a left- and a right-click.

Empowered by his experimenting, Lieder began to replace the default settings with his own preferences; he enabled all forms of interface, brought the tray closer to his chest, and adjusted his seat and leg rests to make his knees bend naturally. By checking a box and altering the number in another, his backrest sharpened to an angle much closer to ninety degrees, and a pair of armrests extended from behind to connect with the interface tray.

Curious, Lieder glanced around the room. By far, his posture was the most rigid; most of the students were so far reclined that they might as well be lying on a bed. Even in his time, that posture was understood to be healthier for the back, but Lieder was convinced he couldn't do any work that way.

Even though this new body hadn't, he'd spent years stuffing himself into the cold concrete corners of various installations or alleyways before sleeping. He couldn't explain how that foreign memory could affect this body so much, but he somehow knew that, were he to assume the recommended posture, he'd fall asleep within an hour of work. The mixture of horizontal orientation, comfort, and several minutes' time seemed as potent as any tranquilizer for him.

He noted one other option available to him, but opted out of changing it. He wondered how often Justus might regret the fact that students could toggle the directional speakers off; while on, sophisticated devices could deliver sounds to specific ears as precisely as any headphones. When turned off, the entire class would be subjected to all the sound effects and music that could be playing on that specific workstation; knowing that the option of a directional speaker was available, that situation would be as insulting as it was annoying.

"Stagnation," the center student of the cliqued yawned loudly. "I'm bottlenecking over here, is everyone else as ready for a break as I am?"

"Again?" Justus straightened and turned towards the boy. " How many times do I need to show you the statistics, Waldemar? At this rate, I'm going to have to ward over you for the next forty years."

"It seems profoundly unlikely that we'll need a new settlement by then, doesn't it? I see no harm in taking my time."

"Or wasting everyone else's?" Justus grumbled, returning his attention to the student that requested it. "I still don't understand why your parents aren't trying harder to convince you to seek a delegate position."

No response came; only a chorus of small thumps and sliding noises.

"And are the rest of you changing the course of your curriculum to match Waldemar's? I wasn't aware that the Bouwmeester family had so great a need that they could employ all of you."

"Don't worry so much, Marquess." A female voice suggested dismissively.

"Who's worried? I think that's the problem, the ones that should be are the ones that are forgetting who won't be as kind in their reviews as David was."

"That's why you're a Marquess and he's just a Baron, right? We're lucky to have you as an example, aren't we Marquess?"

A few suppressed snickers rippled through the group.

"I know where you're going with that, Waldemar, and I'm warning you now, don't go any further with it."

"Apologies, Marquess, my statement was only meant to be taken as it was worded."

Lieder had already grasped most of the rudiments of the system's browser; it was all very intuitive. He had no idea whether or not the conventions were named similarly to the systems of his day, but he'd already improvised his way to some kind of search engine.
Somewhat uncharacteristically, Lieder had not decided on where he would start his search yet. Part of him had assumed obtaining the ability to educate himself would be more of a trial. He hadn't considered the possibility that he could almost literally just Google his way to enlightenment.

That fact was a peculiar one; this method was the one he'd always used in the past. Why had he subconsciously disqualified it?

Remembering Justus's reference of the different inputs, Lieder tested another form.

"Winkle." He said softly.

The screen transitioned instantly, now showing a summary of search results and list of contents. Lieder had been correct; he could operate it with his voice, too.
There are 16,240,899,830,638 instances of the word 'Winkle.' These results are currently sorted by frequency of usage. Upon indication, they can also be sorted by: relevance, date, source, and context.

Though the analogous 'links' to the individual results were notably more compact and differently styled, each result had summaries and examples of the links' contents.

As he had suspected, 'Winkle' was seeing immeasurably more usage now than it had when it was mostly associated with Rip van Winkle. Still, many of the people he'd encountered didn't recognize it immediately.

He skimmed through some of the result summaries.

…by this Winkle's account, she was a steadfast Christian, meaning she believed a man named Jesus Christ was a divine being. When other Winkles in the study were asked, they provided different accounts of this man, but unanimously agreed that he had definitely existed. The Tombs refuse to offer their opinion, which is hardly a surprise, but if he was an insignificant portion of Winkle lore, why deny a request for comment? Perhaps it is evidence that they have acquiesced the global requests and have continued to research the ancestry of the Peerage through Winkle account; further, perhaps this Christ is a pivotal clue in determining the identity of the first Lord!

…Winkle claims that his status as a Sapient was a mistake. The man was tested by reputable Preceptors, who determined that this Sapient Winkle did, indeed, outrank an overwhelming majority of similarly-aged Peers in his cognitive aptitude. Though heightened intellectual aptitude is, by itself, considered to have a coincidental or lesser-correlative relationship to Peerage status,  Winkles have inspired a profound increase in scrutinizing…

…don't understand your dilemma. My Winkle is as respectful, accommodating, and hard-working as any of my other Sapients. Remember, Sapients are not slaves; simply lower class, and if you treat them like slaves it's only natural that a Winkle would notice the injustice more than…

He should have guessed that the majority of hits would be news stories, message boards, or blogs. These were informative, but was this where he wanted to begin?

"I am beyond eager to know, my worthy Peer, what are you doing that has you so immersed?"

Lieder glanced at Waldemar, noticing for the first time that his workstation was surrounded by the stranger's flock. Some were perched on the vacant workstation cubes, while others opted to stand in the surrounding aisles, but all of them stared mischievously at him.

"I'm solving a puzzle."

"Oh, good. That's quite an interpretive activity. That's what we do here at Interpretive
Precepts, you know; for instance, I am desperately trying to interpret why you would glorify those S-T's with your occupation."

A murmuring snicker rippled through his companions.

"There are mysteries that are worthier of your attention," Lieder replied, careful to remain polite. "I've been told that I'm somewhat difficult to gauge, so I had hoped these would help alleviate that situation."

This wasn't an environment he wanted to create hostility in. It was in his best interest to put some effort into avoiding excess attention. Besides, these were just children;
Lieder hated mismatched contests. Competition without challenge was asinine.

"Oh, what a simple concern. Ah! Apologies, I meant to say honest. Honest concern."

Their laughter was a little louder this time, and more blatantly condescending. It was clear that he had meant 'simple' in a connotation similar to 'stupid,' 'menial,' or perhaps 'low-class.'

Lieder smiled patiently, closing his eyes as he summoned a merciful attitude. He thought of some memories of people that impressed him; of events and performances that he considered praiseworthy.

"Ah, I see what you did there," Lieder replied, turning his slight smile towards the boy. He rotated his shoulders slightly to give him a better view of the applauding-caricature animation that looped on his chest. "Well-played."

Waldemar's brow flinched in slight surprise. He glanced between Lieder's face and T-shirt, obviously noting that Lieder's somewhat deadpan expression defied the emotion his S-T's conveyed.

"Whoa, you really are remarkably opaque." Both Waldemar and his crowd seemed to shift in disposition. "Maybe the S-T's aren't so poor a choice after all."
"Appreciations."

"Certainly. We'll let you get back to your puzzle."

"Appreciations, best of luck with yours."

They filed away, chatting lightheartedly. Lieder sighed, a breath that was virtually silent and invisible. He enjoyed teaching some people certain selections from life's harsher lessons, but indulging that hobby on a child would be too sadistic. So long as he was the only target of their derision, he was comfortable with being an object of their mockery.

Alone again, he turned his attention back to his research.

He wished he'd taken better inventory of the questions he was dying to ask. Why had he been awakened? It wasn't a question the school could answer. What proof did the Peerage have of their entitlement over Sapients? He was a medical degree away from being able to provide counter-proof, and he doubted that becoming a geneticist should be his first priority. What had happened to the world while he'd been sleeping?

By itself, it was too big of a question. He needed to adopt the assembly line before building an automobile; he'd need to break that question into the smallest pieces possible and try to prioritize from there.

Since his digitization, a series of events had culminated in the mystery known as 'the Exodus.' He could try to brainstorm scenarios from the name alone, but in the end, he couldn't be certain until he gained access to the history that the Tombs were hiding.
This probably wasn't a good start.

He'd have preferred to be chronological, but to be purely so was far-disqualified. There were plenty of 'big picture' items he was intensely curious about, but it was hard to isolate any that were imminently relevant to his situation.

Was the world still divided into individual nations, or did the Peerage span the globe with its brand of government? Was that the role of this 'Assembly' he'd frequently heard reference of? Were Regency and Dispensation universally accepted as the only worldwide currencies?

He was gaining a new respect for the developers of school curriculum as he browsed into less familiar subsections of the database. The amount of work it must have required was astonishing, and it wasn't something that might be made less impressive if it had been completed by a larger team; this kind of collaboration couldn't be easy.

The menus were intuitive, but also provocative. This second feature was somewhat of a problem, if he considered time to be a constraint. Each selection was inviting, no matter how simple or irrelevant other people might perceive it to be.

Culinary Arts, Delegation and Leadership, Energy Ethics, Geotechnical Engineering, Mediatory Procedures, Nanite Engineering, Sanitation; all of the categories seemed to pique his interest, and it took a small measure of control to keep himself from perusing each in alphabetical sequence. He would be able to spend years sorting through this information before becoming disinterested. He had a remarkable lack of any deadlines to worry about, but he still felt the need for some semblance of efficiency.

Lieder wasn't sure how long he'd been reviewing and deliberating the mammoth list of options, but it was long enough that the small figure standing nearby was beginning to feel discomfort in his legs.  He had nervously shifted his weight between his legs several times before Lieder noticed the motion.

He glanced to his side to see the sole pre-teen child of the class staring at him nervously, eyes widening when he noticed Lieder finally looking his way.
Lieder let a gentle expression settle over his face, nurturing a reassuring disposition as he smiled.

"Hey there, little man."

The muscles throughout the boy's body relaxed, and his returning smile was wide with relief and excitement.

"Hello, my elder Peer! Apologies, if I'm disturbing you…"

"Not at all." Lieder was amused with the boy's well-disciplined courtesy. "You look like you're curious about something, is it a something I can help you with?"

"Oh, no. I mean, yes, but it would be rude of me to approach you only for that kind of curiosity's sake. I'm supposed to- that is, I want to offer friendship before I just probe about however I please."

Lieder suppressed the urge to laugh. The boy had recited this rule as if it were his personal mantra. It told Lieder a lot about him, even though their correspondence was limited to this infant encounter.

The fact that he was so much younger than the other students meant that he had obviously advanced through the curriculum at a much faster pace; either he had chosen an easier specialty or, more likely, his intellect was far above average. This would almost inevitably breed pragmatism in anyone, and this boy seemed to personify the word; it was likely that his parents had lectured him repeatedly over his social interactions.

Lieder had known many people like this through his lifetime. He had come to like the type.

"That's very nice of you, I'd love to be your friend. Friends share, so since we are friends, I'd be happy to share anything you might happen to want from me."

"Well, the big question I have is about where you come from," the boy started. "You seem a little different than the others, and also a little younger. As was stated by the Marquess, you seem to come from a very different settlement."

"Yes, that was accurate," Lieder confirmed, simultaneously pondering how he should answer his question. Should he assume that he'd need to educate the boy on what a Winkle was, or give a half-joke answer like he might to an adult?

The prospect was too intriguing for Lieder to not explore.

"I come from what I like to call the 'Ninja Turtle Generation.'"

"Ninja Turtle Generation?" Miraculously, the boy's eyes somehow managed to widen even further. "I've never heard of that. Is that an alias? Is there any other name I might recognize?"

"There are other names, most certainly, but that's the problem. There's so many that I don't know which ones to reference!"

"What is a Ninja Turtle? Is that some rare subspecies?"

"Oh, Ninja Turtles were very rare. In fact, there were only four. Well, maybe five, depending on who you ask…"

"Astounding!" The little man was giddy. "So they were a mutation that didn't take to future generations?"

"Oh, definitely, the story is very clear on that. The Ninja Turtles were mutants. Also teenagers."

His face fell, a change of expression that was almost heartbreaking. "It's only a story?"

"Yes, I'm afraid so, but don't be sad! It was a very good story, all of my friends and their friends and their friends' friends loved it."

"What does ninja mean? I'm not old enough for the Lexicon."

"A ninja is a kind of covert agent and a master of martial arts."

"Oh, they know the Martials' arts? I didn't know the Martials employed artists. Regardless, how could turtles know them, what kind of mutations did they have?"

Lieder had heard some references to the Martials; he assumed it was a family name, and was beginning to suspect that they acted as a form of military or police.

"They were enormous, human-sized with arms and legs. They had two toes on each foot, and on each hand they had two fingers and a thumb. Plus, they were fully sentient and could speak English fluently."

"Turtles with phalanges?!" The boy quivered. "Bipedal, and verbal communicators?!"
Lieder smiled. "Pretty awesome, right?"

The boy simply nodded, too stricken by the thought to speak.

"If you're curious, I bet you can learn a whole lot by researching what people have been calling me around here," Lieder explained. "They call us Winkles."

"Winkles. Like wink with an l-e?"

"Precisely. Before you go, though, can I ask you a couple questions?"

"Absolutely!"

"Have you made friends with a lot of the people in this class."

"Yes." The boy's tone  sounded somehow reluctant, but he didn't hesitate.

"I'm assuming Marquess Preceptor is a good friend. He seems very exceptional."

The boy grinned and nodded enthusiastically. "I like the Marquess very much!"

"Me too," Lieder agreed. "What about…"

Lieder extended his arm, drifting his fist in the direction of his gaze as he scanned the classroom. He settled on the enormous body-builder boy towards the front of the class, pointing his index finger at him.

"Him?"

"Yeah," the boy replied casually. "He's a friend."

"And him?" Lieder was pointing at Waldemar.

"Yes…" the boy drew the word out and his expression became uncertain.

"Him?" Lieder pointed to the boy that had been watching him since his arrival.

"Yes." The boy answered confidently, smiling.

"And lastly, her." Lieder pointed at the brooding brunette, who was staring into her lap.

"Yeah!" The boy was enthusiastic again. "She's not feeling well lately, though. At least, I think. Maybe there's just something she's having a hard time figuring out."

"Sometimes one of those two scenarios will bring the other about, huh?"

"Yeah." The boy's speech was becoming more consistently casual as the conversation continued. "I find that they often do for me. Probably always."

"Me too. Thanks for your help, little brother. Can I get your name?"

"Ah, apologies! That was supposed to come first!"

"Nah, I'm not the type that cares about that kind of thing. You can tell me whenever you feel like it."

"Maximilian Savant. You're Carl Lieder, right? I sometimes forget the middle name when people have three, apologies."

"Not at all. It's Orionne, but Carl's the only one you need to remember. That's the one I like to go by."

"Thanks, Carl! I hope you find fortune from your studies."

"Same to you, Maximilian."

He waved as he headed back towards his seat. Lieder's smile remained. The name fit the boy well.

Lieder hoped Waldemar hadn't been excessively cruel to the boy; so long as it was barely enough to make Max want to keep his distance, Lieder could forgive him.

He pondered for a moment. Young 'behavioral sciences' would probably approach him next.

Returning to his research, Lieder immediately decided his priority should be politically scientific in nature. History, civics, contemporary anthropology, law; these were all relevant to his anxious curiosity.

He was still pondering over what objective he should go after, but it occurred to him that he didn't need to shy away from the big questions. Even if his goal wasn't something the school could bring him to by itself, it could prepare him for the people that could take him the rest of the way. The school was just another worker along the assembly line of his solution factory.

Someone had ordered his revival, and the Tombs had managed that. He didn't have nearly enough information to determine whether or not a Tombs had been the instigator, or if an outside client had purchased the service. Still, if anyone did, the Tombs had all the information, so the Tombs were what he would research.

Their history, their procedures, their friends, their enemies, their communications with the public, and, most importantly, what they omitted from those communications.

He knew a category in which he could find information on all of these factors. It was an area he found endlessly amusing when disconnected from it, but  infinitely repulsive when dependant on it. Inevitably, the amount of information would be massive, and bits of it would always contradict other bits, but at least everything from conjecture to fact would be recorded with verbose detail.

That's what 'Economics' as a category was.

Lieder palmed his forehead and shook it slowly; with his eyes closed, he didn't notice that the cartoon on his S-T's was actually mimicking this gesture in perfect sync.

The End

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