Published in Overland Issue Print Issue 198 Autumn 2010 · Writing / Main Posts Dog's Life Tim Richards To: Dr Magnus Verde, CEO, Axcel International From: Astrid Mirch, Marginal Films I’m puzzled by your decision to deny availability to Axcel’s film and photographic archive. Since the technologies being investigated are now, effectively, public domain, you should expect the public to be cynical about appeals to commercial confidentiality. Though it’s our wish to remain open-minded with regard to the efficacy and conduct of your researches, obstructive behaviour will, inevitably, have implications when forming a narrative viewpoint. While you stress that your organisation has nothing to hide, your actions could hardly be more hostile to the notion of full disclosure. Marielle Hunsbrugger in your Sydney office has threatened legal action if we reproduce private/‘unauthorised’ images of Axcel’s experimental subjects. I can only repeat my previous view that such measures will be counterproductive re: public confidence in your operations, and I implore you to follow the (more sensible) path of candour. Yours, Astrid Mirch Dana: We became a wealthy nation because we got smart. That meant learning to do things ahead of the pack and selling that knowledge. Knowledge economies have to take risks … Staying alive means taking risks. Ed: The Axcel reps impressed us with their honesty. Their people said, These are the dangers, these are the benefits to Australia, and here are the likely benefits to yourselves. Weigh it up. Dana: They were totally frank. This was cutting edge technology. When you have people dashing about close to sharp blades, you’ll have mishaps. Astrid Mirch: You took their metaphors literally? Dana: We never felt Axcel were being deceptive or trying to foist something on us. They gave us time to make up our minds. We knew what we were getting into. • Michael: Kellie wanted girls. Kellie: Two girls. Now we have one of each. Felicity’s seven and Luke’s four. AM: And your elder boy was named after Michael? Michael: That’s right. Kellie: This is hard … We’ve never spoken about it. AM: Take your time. Michael: We have photos, but the company doesn’t want us to show them to you. We weren’t meant to take them, but everyone did. Axcel’s fine with that, so long as they’re not published. AM: What’s your relationship with Axcel now? Do you still feel like you’re part of the organisation, or just people who once worked for it? Kellie: Oh, Axcel’s still a major part of our lives. This house … The shares gave us a security we never could have had otherwise. AM: Did you understand what you were taking on? Michael: How could you? No one knew what to expect… Kellie and I aged twenty years in the eleven years Michael was alive. Kellie: We’d hoped to have some time together before starting a family. We were twenty-one when we got married, and ready to go out teaching. And we wanted to travel. But this struck us as a huge opportunity. We could do something for our country. And there was the house and the shares. Michael: We got to experience life in a very intense way. That’s the one thing Axcel promised … Kellie: They were right about that! We knew we’d still be young enough to start a proper family afterwards. We could have Michael for the organisation, and then the property and money would give us a head start. Michael: The doctors and scientists were genuine people, incredibly supportive. If there was a problem, we had experts to go to … We wish we had that support with these two. AM: Was Michael your child or their child? Michael: He was always ours … We understood our responsibilities, and it wasn’t easy being his parents … He had a hard life … But he was our boy. Kellie: We loved Mick. Michael: Much as you tried to hold back, you couldn’t help it. AM: But you knew that their interest in the experiments was military? Michael: Not to begin with. When we found out, it seemed obvious. AM: Did you resent that? Kellie: We worried about what we were putting him through, but there was no point resenting anything. The project was about furthering our knowledge, and once it did that, there’d be unlimited possibilities. Sure, the military applications were their paramount concern, but the Axcel people weren’t going to close their eyes to other applications. • To: Rachel Ingram, Marginal Films From: Astrid Mirch R, I need you to clarify the legal situation re: photographs and illicit home videos – seems perverse to make a documentary about time lapse reality if we can’t illustrate these concepts. No shortage of this material. Subjects’ reluctance relates to their original contracts with Axcel. A • AM: You haven’t had more children? Ed: We never really wanted to have children. Dana: Not a conventional family. AM: Did that affect your relationship with Philip? Ed: Not at all. We adored Philip. But we understood the purpose of the experiments. The acceleration program was about hot-housing a standing army. Philip was designed to live fast and die young. If you let sentiment intrude, you’d foul the scientists’ findings, and everything he experienced would be wasted. Dana: We had a duty, and we respected that duty better than some other couples. The doctors told us to be loving and involved, but not to cosset the boys, or do anything that might add stress to their lives. AM: Were you concerned about being seen to be cruel? Ed: Us, personally? No. We worried that the experiments might be cruel, that the boys were being put through too much. Dana: We never thought that we were cruel … Philip had a complete life. His life was very different to the lives we lead, and it was often hard to imagine how he understood life. But trying to make sense of those things was the whole point. Ed: It could make you dizzy … AM: What was the most difficult thing? Dana: College … Ed: When Philip was taken away to the academy. AM: At two? Dana: Just before his second birthday. AM: Which was what in terms of his physical development? Thirteen? Ed: The same as dogs. Each year Philip aged as much as we do in seven. AM: Did he seem like a thirteen-year-old boy? Dana: Physically? He was big and strong. He’d started shaving and having wet dreams. He went through puberty at twenty months. Earlier than the others. AM: Emotionally? Dana: There were issues. He knew he was different. Philip saw our surprise and alarm … In some ways, their world moves terribly quickly, but in others, the slowness is excruciating. Ed: Philip coped okay. Better than most. • To: Will McAllister, McAllister & Marr Investigations From: Astrid Mirch, Marginal Films Will, would you please see what you can find about a BERENSON or BARON or BARRAND, James Henry, believed to be living in the inner eastern suburbs of Melbourne. Age circa 80 to 100. Word has it this JHB was a participant in a shadow scheme where age-acceleration was halved. Has either ‘escaped’ or been given (services rendered) permission to live out the rest of his days in the community. Treat this with utmost discretion. May be our only chance to speak to a participant. A • Fiona: I kept a diary while Eric was alive. Re-reading it now, it makes little sense. His time keeps confusing my time … The parents were the real subjects of the experiment. Absolutely. They were testing our capacity to adapt, seeing whether dealing with these boys would overwhelm us with a sense of our own mortality. Eamon: It did. I couldn’t settle for three years after he died. Imagine how chilling it is to see your son as a frail eighty-three-year-old … I was thirty-six or thirty-seven then, and it was like, Take a deep breath, you’ve still got the best part of your life ahead of you. Fiona: We’re not over it. We’re better than we were, but we’re still fucked up. We’d planned to have other children. It’s something we always meant to do. But now, it’s like, hey, not yet, we’ve both been through something massive. Eamon: You’d think the money would compensate. There’s no compensation. Fiona: You give birth to a normal, beautiful boy. At ten weeks, he’s beginning to talk and walk. At fifteen weeks, you start toilet training. He’s eating, always eating. Has the energy of seven boys. Runs till he drops, then sleeps like a dead man. At eight months, he’s reading, at nine months, he goes to school. Just after his first birthday, you’re teaching him to ride a bike. Eamon: And growing the whole time. I’m not kidding. You could hear his bones stretch. Fiona: The voice breaks, wet dreams, smelly underarms … all that stuff when he’s twenty-one months … And that’s the easy bit. You can find a way to assimilate those things. Eamon: Before we knew it, the organisation carted Eric off to boarding school, and we could only see him every term break, which was – what? – ten weeks for us, but a year and a half for him. Fiona: You’ve just got used to being parents, and your son’s a man of twenty-one … Eamon: Physically … But in their heads, the boys were all over the shop. Clinging to their one or two perfect Christmases and birthdays … And blaming you for the shit they’re getting. Fiona: They know what’s going on. They know that they can’t have children, that they’re being kept away from girls, though no-one ever tells them that girls will be off limits till science is finished with them. Eamon: Make the mistake of getting seriously ill and they’ll have your organs cut out before you can blink. Fiona: Astrid … You’re a mum. Can you imagine being twenty-seven and having a four-year-old son who looks twenty-eight? The way that fucks with your brain? Eamon: Eric was angry. We’d let him down. Fiona: I know what you’re thinking: These two are well taken care of. What are they whingeing about? They barely saw Eric between the age of two and seven. But not a minute passes that you’re not thinking, What have I done to that boy? Eamon: And what is he doing to us? Fiona: And, don’t forget, I’d be seeing Eamon in Eric. Physically, they were so similar. Through Eric, I’d see Eamon ageing. In six months, our son went from having a full, thick head of hair to having virtually none. Doctors said those six months felt like three years to him, but I don’t believe that. Eamon: Altering growth rates and life expectancy and the intensity of your life experience doesn’t mean that all your perceptions of time will automatically fall into line. Fiona: Tell me what I was like when I was a little boy. This is a nine-year-old, who looks and moves like a sixty-five-year-old man: Tell me what I was like when I was little. By that stage, I could hardly remember. It went so fast … And he’d beg you to sing one of those songs … Eamon: ‘Bananas in pyjamas are coming down the stairs …’ Fiona: And he’d cry and cry, and bail-up in his room, singing the songs … Nothing can compensate you for going through that. Not when you love them. • To: Astrid Mirch, Marginal Films. From: Will McAllister, McAllister & Marr Investigations A, no hits on BERENSON/BARON/BARRAND, though a BARRETT, James William, aged 86, died at South Yarra eighteen months ago. Neighbours describe a wealthy, nervous man, sometimes visited by younger women, possibly escorts. Also regularly visited by a couple, late fifties, who were introduced as daughter and son-in-law, but fit parent profile. BARRETT is said to have aged rapidly in the four years he occupied a ground-floor apartment, this consistent with your understanding of a subject hot-housed at fifty per cent. Will continue to seek information re: visitors. Alex has recently met an informant who can put us in touch with a former Axcel doctor, previously WILKINSON, Michele Therese, now living under an alias. Wilkinson is said to have been prominent in policy formation and program assessment at Axcel International for ten years prior to acrimonious departure. Both intermediary and subject request (substantial) remuneration. Doctor would also require strenuous guarantees re: identity protection. Await further instructions. Will • Kellie: They’re torn in two. Is the world too slow, or are they moving too fast? For them, the world seems so permanent. Yet they have this nostalgia for everything they’ve lost. How could you build an army from young men so desperate to cling to their lost youth? Michael: Mickey was highly strung …You expect people to gather wisdom as they grow older, to mature emotionally. Mick went the other way. Kellie: He was determined not to be mature … Maturity was the enemy. Michael: The denial of sexual intimacy was tougher for them than it would be for normal boys. Their passions are that much more intense. Kellie: And Mick’s memory couldn’t cope with the information he had to take in. Michael: Even as a kid, he was vague. Like he’d been smoking dope. But his brain was broadbanding information, and chemical changes and fluctuating emotions. Kellie: Mick was so spaced. You’d have to tell him everything three or four times. Michael: He could deal with it. But he didn’t want to. Whenever he got the chance, he’d be reading The House at Pooh Corner, or doing scribble patterns with pastels. Kellie: We didn’t know how to help him. Michael: They call themselves ‘sea monkeys’ … Add water and they spring to life. No time to get bored with them before they’re dead. Kellie: Mickey hated anything old, anything that had been there for generations. Banks, public buildings. And he hated how songs on the radio would never change. They’d keep playing the same songs for what seemed like years at a time … Always the same fucking songs. He hated cricket. The idea that people could be so cavalier with time … Michael: Queues … Kellie: Queues sent him ballistic. Michael: Now, with Felicity and Luke, it’s agonising. Everything seems so slow. We have to stop pestering them, trying to rush them on to the next stage of development. Kellie: It’s messed up our sense of time. We’re emotionally confused … Are we giving them too much attention or too little? • Dana: We’re out of sync with the rhythms of nature. AM: You personally? Dana: Yes, that’s what acceleration exposes … The danger of rushing nature, of competing with time, as if time and nature are in some way separate from, or outside us … I’m sure the experiments proved the opposite of what the scientists wanted. Ed: These hot-housed boys are exactly the kind of soldiers you don’t want in an army – distressed, anxious, impatient, full of unpredictable energies … Dana: Homesick … Ed: Everything’s always being lost to them, but home is permanent … If you can’t hold onto time, associations become important. Dana: Which is counterintuitive … These boys can expect their parents to be alive all their life. So you’d think they’d feel more secure, that the world around them might seem too constant. Ed: They’d be a disaster as soldiers … How would you motivate them? The last thing Philip cared about was making a better world or protecting values. So far as he could tell, nothing changed except him and his friends. The future? Fuck it! • To: Astrid Mirch, Marginal Films From: Rachel Ingram, Marginal Films. Agree that Wilkinson is crucial. Conditions are okay, but her terms are not. US$100k is way too high. Offer Aus$30k and go no higher than 50. If that proves unacceptable, we may need to look at co-production arrangement. R • Eamon: The boys are trained to think quickly and decisively. They know intuitively that delay, or failure to act, has long-term implications … Which is fine in theory. They do learn quicker than normal boys. They’re not as distracted by shifting environments. But that doesn’t mean that they’re comfortable or efficient … The boys were so spaced-out! That’s what the scientists underestimated. Growing up fast is hard work … Suppose hot-housed soldiers go into combat with a conventional army. They’re engaged for three weeks … Well, you’d want to be close to victory by then, or have back-up resources, because your boys will have aged five months in that time. Fiona: Life’s so intense. They find it difficult to reflect. Reflecting on their experience is agony. Eamon: I wouldn’t doubt that Axcel obtained useful data … They’ve onsold the information and the technologies for a fortune. But did it do the participants any good? Were those boys ever happy? … I don’t think so. Fiona: Everyone needs to belong. We need to have a sense of belonging to a particular moment in history, and of that history being crucial to something much bigger still. AM: A continuum. Fiona: That’s right. To feel part of a continuous history … For them, the past’s a slippery eel. Eric knew that he’d never have any investment in the future. Not beyond a sense of personal sacrifice. He was only worth what he was worth to other people. Eamon: He saw death charging at him like a road train on the wrong side of the freeway. Fiona: When he was thirteen months old, Eric broke his leg. Broke it in two places. A normal boy of eight or nine might have been laid-up for eight weeks, but Eric’s leg was healed in ten days. What sort of miracle is that? It’s amazing. Think of the advantages to a fighting force … But, if a superior said something that hurt Eric, the hurt stayed with him. He might age twenty or thirty years, but he’d remember any emotional wound like it was yesterday. Eamon: Imagine a vast army of Erics clutching their teds and singing ‘Twinkle Twinkle’. AM: Did Axcel offer you psychological counselling? Eamon: It was mandatory. Fiona: Brainwashing. Eamon: No. They meant well, but what could they know? Everything they said was made up on the run. They weren’t trying to cause harm, or to make us suffer, but their business was information gathering. AM: Are you surprised that you’re still together? Eamon: As a couple? Yes. Fiona: Yes and no. We thought about a fresh start … But there’s Eric. Who would he have to honour his memory? And how could you ask someone who hadn’t experienced it to understand what it was like? That’s why the parents are still so loyal to Axcel. They put us through hell, but at least Axcel knows what we went through. • To: Astrid Mirch, Marginal Films From: Dr Magnus Verde, CEO, Axcel International We believe that you have been in contact with a former employee of this organisation, Dr Michele Wilkinson. Be under no illusions, Dr Wilkinson was dismissed for medical reasons after a sustained period of erratic, paranoid behaviour. Her testimony will have no value. Further, she is bound by agreements that prohibit public comment. No film containing Dr Wilkinson’s explicit or implicit critique of our operations could hope to survive legal challenge. Yours, Dr Magnus Verde To: Astrid Mirch, Marginal Films From: Rachel Ingram, Marginal Films The lawyers share your view that Verde’s threats are bluff. Of greater concern to me is AI’s knowledge of our intentions. Avoid direct communication with Wilkinson until certain that her new identity can be safeguarded. Alan suggests that you employ a second crew not au fait with the purpose of the Wilkinson interview. Your comments? R To: Astrid Mirch, Marginal Films From: Will McAllister, McAllister & Marr Investigations A, I’m satisfied with Wilkinson’s bona fides. Motives are more questionable. Threats to her person should be treated seriously. Axcel has a reputation for not tolerating hostile ex-employees. While the aspersions they cast on Wilkinson’s mental stability are tactical, you should proceed with caution and scepticism at every level. Will • Robert: Max was difficult. Ahead of his group intellectually, but socially he swung between extremes: affectionate or icy, passive or ecstatic. Volatile. Caroline called it an emotional memory deficit. Max could never recall where he’d left you emotionally. You could be torn apart, dreading to see him the next time, and he’d reappear, behaving like an angel, unembarrassed by anything that went on previously. It didn’t register. Or Max would forget about the really great time you’d had together and go straight for the throat. AM: Did you feel responsible? Robert: Caroline said we had to accept that Max might have been like that even if he hadn’t been hot-housed. AM: I meant the question more specifically, in terms of your personal responsibility for the way Max turned out. Robert: Did I feel responsible for his troubles? … Of course I did. AM: Did you ever feel a bond with him? Robert: Getting close was hard. I defy anyone not to be scared of Max and his moods. I was scared for myself and Caro, scared for him. You couldn’t connect with Max. He expanded and contracted. His mother knew I couldn’t handle it. AM: Did you mention your fears to the doctors? Robert: Yes. Something was seriously wrong. I thought the boy should be removed, to be closely watched and helped. AM: And they refused? Robert: His mother did … She thought his troubles would ease, and it would all be over so quickly anyway. She loved Max. AM: And you found them? Robert: They were in the living room. He’d raped her before strangling her with the belt from my dressing gown. Then he shot himself with a pistol he’d smuggled off base. Max was two-and-a-half … Or seventeen, depending how you look at it. AM: How did Axcel handle it? Robert: They were devastated. AM: Did they warn you against speaking about it? Robert: They knew they didn’t have to. AM: Meaning? Robert: They knew they didn’t have to. AM: And they’ve kept you on a stipend since? Robert: Yes. • To: Will McAllister, McAllister & Marr Investigations From: Astrid Mirch, Marginal Films W, as promised, Robert put on a show. I smell a rat. How is it that Axcel have kneecapped anyone tempted to supply photographs, and suddenly this bloke wanders in from nowhere to tell his horror story? Your view? A To: Astrid Mirch, Marginal Films From: Will McAllister, McAllister & Marr Investigations A, like you, I have suspicions, but I am suspicious about all the couples who’ve made themselves available. Axcel has been out to subvert the process from day one. Take nothing at face value. W • Ed: One thing I didn’t mention … Philip liked art. That was unusual. Most of the boys hated paintings and photographs – anything that slowed down normal reality or caught it for posterity – but Philip loved films and photographs. Dana: Some doctors said you should let the boys watch subtitled films at five times the normal speed, but Philip didn’t need to, so long as the images were powerful, or poetic. Ed: The photographs he liked best had bridges and staircases in them. Dana: Any space designed to be moved through. AM: You worked at Axcel International as a doctor and administrator? Michele: That’s correct. I was there for ten years and four months. AM: Starting after the main acceleration program had already commenced? Michele: Well, Axcel’s always starting new programs. The official position – that there’s been one program – is a lie. AM: Under what circumstances did you leave the organisation? Michele: I couldn’t accept the secretiveness … so they sacked me, then tried to have me illegally detained. AM: In a mental institution? Michele: Yes. AM: Axcel say that using your testimony would damage the integrity of this film. Michele: What else could they say? It wouldn’t be hard to find doctors who’ll say that I’m mad. Not when there are billions of dollars at stake. AM: Do you suffer from a mental illness? Michele: So it’s mad to want the truth told? Is that what you’re getting at? • AM: Can you ever remember meeting a medical administrator named Michele Wilkinson? Ed: No. AM: A doctor with that name? Ed: No. AM: Would it be possible for a doctor to have a long-term involvement with the acceleration program and for you not to have met them? Dana: Possible. But not likely. • AM: None of the people we’ve spoken to – parents of boys in the acceleration program – remember dealing with a Dr Michele Wilkinson … Michele: They’re parents supplied by Axcel to serve their interests. If Axcel doesn’t want people to speak, they don’t speak. If Axcel needs to invent parents for the sake of clouding the picture, it does that. This company’s defending a massive investment. AM: Some of these parents have been explicit in their criticism. Michele: Critical of the acceleration program. The acceleration program is just one of many parallel research programs … Look at the pattern. Axcel leaks reports that they’ve been conducting hot-house experiments. The public is horrified. Then new rumours begin to circulate that the purpose of this research is military rather than scientific. More public outrage. Terrible stories of jittery boys living a shocking existence. Mental breakdowns, premature death, suicide and murder. A madhouse. Then rumours start up that the whole thing is about organ farming … Next, the same organisation that’s been generating these rumours starts questioning the integrity of the informants. When none of the stories hold, Axcel’s opponents are said to be extravagant fantasists. Everyone breathes again. But then another rumour emerges that Axcel’s sold a technology to the US military that allows a moderate, humane acceleration … something closer to a horse’s life than a dog’s. And even as the company starts leaking these stories, they begin new waves of controlled subversion … Two-thirds of what Axcel leaks to the public is absolutely true, but it’s only a tiny portion of the total truth. AM: To your knowledge, were the acceleration programs inhumane? Michele: Never by design … But Axcel scientists will try anything. Open slather means side effects and malformations. The suicide rate among parents and boys was huge. Even parents I would have called greedy and heartless struggled with what their boys went through. AM: So why would a decent doctor agree to become involved in something like that? Michele: Assisting the generation of military fodder? AM: Yes. Michele: None of the scientists who worked at Axcel were doing research for the military. Of course, we understood that you can’t limit the applications of the knowledge you generate, but the acceleration project was peripheral to what most of us took to be the main game. AM: Being? Michele: Deep space exploration. NASA pays the big bucks, not the US military. Axcel’s about developing a new kind of human being to travel into the furthest reaches of space. The Dogs were just a blind. The Dogs enabled us to anticipate parallel issues that might arise from slow-mo development of humans in a zero gravity environment … The real aim was to create tortoises. Low-energy human beings with slow heart rates and slow metabolisms. We expect them to be able to live for 250 years in atmospherically modified environments. AM: Atmospherically modified? Michele: They’re raised under gravitational control. AM: So they never leave the control chamber? Michele: No. The boys thrive in that environment, but they’d die the instant they left it. They’re not aliens. They breathe oxygen. They eat food … Remember the albino cave goddesses in the old Saturday matinees? Take them out into the sunlight, and they’re doomed. Tortoises are like that. AM: How old are these subjects now? Michele: The project’s in its twenty-third year, so these kids would be four or five … We expect them to have artistic sensibilities, to have a very different sense of what’s important and what’s trivial. It might be another seventy years till they’re ready to go into advanced mission training. AM: You’re still sympathetic to this work? Michele: I am … I didn’t leave because I disagreed with the objectives. I hated the secrecy. All the commercial confidences and tricks and subterfuges. Why couldn’t we be proud of what we were doing? Things go wrong. They have to. That’s the nature of high-risk enterprises … But it’s time for the broader populace to face up to the things done on their behalf behind closed doors. These kids, they’re time capsules … Imagine what it would be like if we could speak to someone who knew Thomas Jefferson, someone who had direct, personal experience of life in 1790. AM: But the tortoises won’t have that. They won’t have direct experience of anything but an artificial environment till they’re shot into space. They’re more like high-tech chimney sweeps than ambassadors for humanity … Michele: We had qualms. What sort of people would we be if we hadn’t? … But if the public can be made to appreciate the shortcomings of artificial intelligence, and the absolute necessity to explore space, it can be educated to a level of acceptance about how crucial these programs are … Axcel’s ruses are unnecessary. AM: How can we know that everything you’ve said today isn’t disinformation generated by Axcel? Michele: You can’t. AM: And while we doubt the other versions, we should believe yours? Michele: What I’m saying is the absolute truth so far as I know it. If it’s not the truth, I’ve been deceived. AM: That’s the thing. These clarifications keep taking us further into the labyrinth. Michele: You’re right. People will choose what they want to believe … But let me tell you this, I’ve seen the resources Axcel and NASA have pumped into the deep space program. If all that’s a blind for something else, then we should really worry. AM: Was your work with Axcel the reason you never had children? Michele: Children? We’ve all had children. Every time you pull on a coat, or a pair of shoes … I mean, what are you getting at? Is that some sort of trick question? Tim Richards Tim Richards has written numerous stories and teaches at Box Hill TAFE and RMIT. More by Tim Richards › Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places. If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate. Related articles & Essays First published in Overland Issue 228 10 November 202311 November 2023 · Subscriberthon 2023 On the final day of Subscriberthon, Overland’s most important members get to have their say Editorial Team BORIS A quick guide to another year of Overland, from your trusty feline, Boris. I liked the ginger cat story, though it made my human cry. I liked the talking cat, too, but I’m definitely in the “not wasting my time learning to talk” camp. 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