Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Backyard Well

Prologue
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The king had come to steal. Years of meticulous planning had gone in choosing the place. The king couldn't afford to be seen or let people in the vicinity know of the activity. It had taken days to build the tunnel so as to get a handful of the treasure. The kingdom would have only few thousand years left if this mission failed too. A deep pinkish glow as the king moved gave the tunnel an eerie look. A powerful vaporizer, carrying the king, carved a cylindrical path. The silencer wasn’t needed so deep into earth, the king was just being over cautious. The vaporizer was ingeniously built to store and use the energy of the very material it consumed, thus making it portable.

As the king neared the outer core of earth, the vaporizer began slowing down and created a heat shield around. A thin coating of vacuum outside the heat shield allowed the vaporizer to plunge into the outer core liquid. The king then switched off the auto-pilot mode and maneuvered the vaporizer to stay close to the surface of the outer core. The vaporizer performed quick experiments on the sample collected through specialized pores all around the vehicle. Sheer relief and excitement overcame the king on studying the composition of the molten liquid - iron and nickel, as expected and much needed for the kingdom. Collecting as much the container could hold, the king retracted the vaporizer off the outer core and changed back to auto-pilot.

The king was woken up by the vaporizer as it approached the surface. The entrance was locked from inside which could be opened only by the king or the vaporizer's muzzle. It was bright and sunny outside. The king cursed the lapse in concentration. Anyone around may observe the vaporizer flying to reach the king's main transport vehicle, which was hidden miles away in a hillock's cave. The king had chosen the dense forest as an extra insurance. Now it had become an obstacle in not allowing the king to ride instead of flying. After long thought, the king decided it was safer to hide the vaporizer below the forest floor and wait for darkness.

But fate decided to rob the king of glory at the last moment. The king was killed by another king.


*****************************************************
More than thousand years later
*****************************************************

To tell or not? The question gnawed him every time he was with Soumya trying to solve a bug in the code. Lately, without him being aware consciously, he would purposefully delay identifying the error. Few glances at the code would often give him the hint. Feigning innocence, he would look at Soumya and ask questions he knew the answers for. And he would watch the way her hair fell over her shoulders, what shape her earrings were, color of her bindi. Sometimes he would try to memorize her voice. All the while nodding his head to look inconspicuous. After solving the issue, he would be back sometime later to check if the issue really went away. Though it made him look stupid, he would do it again and again just to glimpse Soumya's smile and the way dimples formed on her cheeks. He sometimes wondered if Soumya deliberately created issues to be with him. And would almost immediately dismiss the thought, they were working on the same project after all. Whatever Soumya's feelings were, he thought, his college professor deserved his gratitude for making Java fun to learn.

*****************************************************

The alien was sure that it had arrived at the right spot. The place looked completely different to the visual evidence it possessed. Yet, there was no mistaking that the secret entrance to planet's core was somewhere nearby. Finding the exact location of the entrance and getting the molten liquid was of paramount importance. The alien though had been working on a sinister plan. And for that, some research was necessary. Before leaving the spot, the alien marked the place with a co-ordinate locking device to be used from the mother ship.

*****************************************************

Naveen was a typical professional in a reputed Indian software company in Bangalore. Initially, like most of his colleagues, he worked enthusiastically for the first three years of his job. And then the boredom started. He found it difficult to find enough motivation to work other than as a means of earning for his living. He tried various activities including previously unthinkable dance classes. And none held his attention for more than a month. Countless time he had contemplated changing his job but his own lack of confidence and laziness would stop him. Choosing a different technology field was no option. He never took that extra step to come out of the shell. And worse, reading books had become boring.

Yet, Naveen would day dream of breaking the shackles of routine boredom. He would picture himself traveling, gaming, writing break-through software, finding the mysteries of the backyard well, Bermuda triangle and what not. Some days, deep in thoughts, he realized and hated the mechanical feel of his life.

All that changed when Soumya joined his team six months before. She became his sole reason of motivation in office. He spent most of his free time in planning elaborate ways of asking her out. Desperation led to foraging the net and reading romantic books for ideas. But facing her in office, only work related questions would come out of his mouth. He consoled himself that he was at least talking work related topics without stammering or raising suspicion. A dream got him excited briefly where he had defeated an alien attack by hacking their spaceship control. He waited for an opportunity to talk about it with Soumya.

*****************************************************

Blending in an alien planet was easy for this extra-terrestrial visitor. As luck would have it, it was evening when the alien had arrived and an almost full moon was hidden firmly behind dark clouds. Aided by a black coat hidden by high frequency light shield and camera to make the alien transparent, the only issue was to avoid bumping against things. Being small in size, that wasn't so difficult either.

To find about the planet's people, mind control was its easiest option. Having made a decision to torture people, it felt easier for the alien to break rules. It looked around for someone alone. Spotting a dog barking in its direction, the alien wondered if the invisible shield wasn't working and immediately took hold of the dog's consciousness. Soon the alien realized that the creature wasn't the type of species it was looking for.

Observing the surrounding for a while, the alien was soon able to distinguish people from motorized vehicles. Rising high above the ground to avoid getting in the way, the alien started looking for a lonely individual. Its first victim was a college girl who was heading to an internet cafe.


*****************************************************

It was Friday evening; Naveen was alone as his room-mates had left for their hometowns to enjoy a rare three-day holiday. Naveen was stuck behind as he had forgotten to book train ticket 120 days in advance. Back ache and neck pain that came free with using computers made bus travel painful. Naveen had decided to stay back and continue refining his plan of asking her out. But now he wasn't in good mood. One of those useless training courses had kept him away from his cube the whole day.

Taking his mobile and headset, he went to the terrace and sat in his favorite dark corner facing a mango tree in the backyard. He first started flipping through photos of Soumya and then listened to conversations he had recorded secretly during the debug sessions. Just then, the full moon crept out of clouds. The sudden light made Naveen pause the recording and hide his mobile as if his parents had discovered his secret. The guilty feeling lingered and he stood up to watch the backyard - a favorite pastime during power cuts in the evening. The mango tree and an old unused well nearby seemed to blend perfectly with his melancholic mood. The full moon's light prompted Naveen to check out on the well. He hadn't opened its lid and peered down for more than a month now.

*****************************************************

After the girl had come out of the cafe, the alien released her from its hold and erased memory of the encounter. Though it wasn't a fool proof procedure, secrecy wasn't that important at the moment. The alien had learnt a good deal about the place, people and even managed to pin down few historical details using the internet.

The alien took control of another person - this time a middle aged man wearing a strange cape with black blades on the sides heading to watch a movie. The movie and internet would come in handy for the alien later, but cause pain too.


*****************************************************

The well never had had water according to the landlord. It was atleast 20 meter deep and 2 meter in diameter. The bed of the well was covered with dead leaves, twigs and other garbage accumulated for ages. Inscriptions like Lord Shiva's lingam and other vague, tattered symbols on the well's outer wall made it look like a historical monument. There was a hint of steps inside the well from the way some stones protruded. The landlord had only bothered to cover the well with lid and used backyard as USP while advertising the house for rent. Naveen and his friends had certainly fallen for ‘2 BHK independent house with backyard in Bangalore!’

Peering into the well, Naveen wanted to reach the base, remove the litters to see if any treasure was hidden. Often, they had debate whether to ask an archaeologist to shed light on the inscriptions. Naveen had even photographed every angle of the well including the inner walls. But like other things, he didn't go any further. The moonlight didn't reach the bottom of the well, so Naveen closed the lid soon and sat on it. He then took his mobile to play a song. Soumya's sweet voice filled his ears and he remembered that he had paused the recording in haste. He wished longingly that she was sitting beside him right now, under the shade of moonlit mango tree, holding his hands and talking through the night. Almost immediately, his subconscious mind reminded that he had forgotten his weekly update. Cursing the training courses again, he went in to send the mail.


*****************************************************

The alien had enough of mind control and decided to return to the mother ship. Having established the planet's usual sleeping pattern, the alien and its comrades set about testing their invention. To their collective dismay, the device didn't work. After much analysis, the alien gave up and decided to get the molten liquid instead. The device can be repaired and the planet revisited later for revenge.

The alien reached the backyard of Naveen's house, the black coat making it invisible to human eyes. It was well past midnight, but the alien was being more careful now that the device had failed. After checking around, the alien was about to dig a hole when a new possibility occurred to it. Deciding to gamble one last time, the alien moved inside the house. Gently probing for living beings, it narrowed to Naveen. Making sure that Naveen was asleep; the alien conducted an experiment with him. Within minutes, the alien was buoyed by the results and now knew a way to make the failed device work.

*****************************************************

Naveen was contemplating between watching movie and playing games. He decided the former and searched through his movie folder which occupied more than 150GBs. From animation to action movies, he had a movie for all moods. Science fiction sub-folder was chosen tonight - his favorite by Spielberg - E.T.

He got so engrossed in the movie that he did not notice an unusual activity going on behind him. A strange bluish white glow distracted Naveen. He looked back immediately but nothing was amiss. He shrugged and continued watching E.T. The scene was Elliot searching in the night when everyone else was sleeping. At the same time, images started flashing in his mind. He felt as if he was dreaming. For a moment he lost consciousness and when he opened his eyes he was lying face down on the floor. He had an uneasy feeling of someone having ransacked his brain. His body shook; hands dropped the mobile and grabbed water bottle. Opening the bottle cap seemed to take an eternity. The sweaty palms did not help. On laptop, Elliot was leading E.T. to his bedroom. Naveen looked around carefully but nothing registered. Slowly he got up and took his mobile. He was about to call his mother when the bluish white light reappeared. Naveen stood transfixed as he watched an alien emerging from the light source. His instinctive cry would have drowned that of Elliot's sister but for the fact that his voice had failed him.

The alien was purple colored and looked like a large, smooth spherical lump with no apparent facial features or arms or legs for that matter. It glided towards Naveen and stopped just in front of him. Naveen was still rooted to his spot when he heard a voice in his head. It was the alien.

The alien repeated - "Hi there. How are you?" and added "Just think what you want to reply. I will understand"

Naveen took a while to grasp the connection. It is a telepathic link.

"Exactly"

"Whattttttt. Oh yeah you can understand what I think. Oh, bloody damn great. I feel excited and nervous at the same time"

"I mean no harm, I am here to help you" reassured the alien.

"Well... that's great... that's just very great. I can understand what you want to say and you can understand whatever I think. And what to do mean you want to help me?"

"I can help with your boredom as well as with Soumya"

"So, you know my problems too. Is there anything you do not know? For instance I can call the authorities and hand you over?"

"You think you could do that?"

"Oh yeah, why not? I can show you." But he could not move.

"See, now you understand me"

"What have you done? You said you are here to help me."

"It is just a precaution. Remember that dream you had some days back? You defeated aliens by hacking their mother ship"

Naveen took a while to realize what it had said. He had been patting himself for the feat even though it was a dream. To think that he wanted to gloat about it to Soumya!

"You planted that dream?"

"Oh yes, it served our purpose"

"What do you mean ‘our’? Are there more of your lot here?"

"No, currently I am the only one here. You will soon meet the others". The alien admonished itself for the slip and made a note to be more careful.

"All this is too much for me to comprehend. Let me free of the bindings, it is uncomfortable"

"Well, you first need to have full faith in me and I should be satisfied enough that you would do as I say"

"Whoa, you said you are here to help me"

"Well, that doesn't come free you know. Do we understand each other now?"

"Let me think over it. Wait. You would anyway know what I am thinking right now isn't it?"

"You can be rest assured, I do"

"Great. Bloody damn great."

The alien then released Naveen from its hold and asked him to sleep.

"How can I know you wouldn't do anything?"

"Do you have any choice?"

Naveen shrugged and failed in trying to sleep. His thoughts were not his own anymore. The alien sensed his uneasiness and gently helped him to sleep.


*****************************************************

After an hour of deliberation, Soumya decided that it was the perfect opportunity to call Naveen. She could easily pretend that she was stuck whole day trying multi-threading on applets. If he could advice, she can work during the weekend and avoid a deadline slip. And if things went well, she could then continue the false pretence and meet him next day. As she searched her contacts, however, she realized that Naveen didn't have her number. He had given his contact number all right, but hadn't asked for her number! Doubt seeped in her mind. What if he really was only helping and not gaping at her during the debug sessions! She tried recalling every meeting and couldn't decide one way or the other. What one minute ago was a playful gambit now unsettled her. She finally mustered up the courage and called Naveen. He couldn't attend the call. A torturous weekend stared at her.

*****************************************************

The sense of occasion overwhelmed the alien. So many ifs played in its mind. If only the Universal Trade Commission had agreed to help them with the molten iron & nickel liquid, so many missions would have been unnecessary, the great king would still have been alive. If only their attempt at getting the molten liquid from their own Sun had succeeded or indeed their own planet's core had it. If only their planet had more natural resources for trade, they could have bought from other planets. If only machines hadn't mimicked their mind reading and control capabilities. If only the great king had not gone alone on the previous mission. If only the cursed people of this planet had not killed their king. If only they had invested in technology long before, they could have had sophisticated devices of their own and not depend on UTC’s mercy. They had to wait years even to come to this planet again. Oh the horror of their great king having to disintegrate on this cursed planet.

Being on brink of their existence had finally given the alien freedom to do its will. First this cursed planet will pay for its deed. And in doing so, the planet would not only solve their power issues, but give them their first technological marvel. UTC will then have no option but to reopen trade. That would require going through the truth test. Not a problem. The fools only tested whether people were killed. There are better ways to take revenge. And that reminded the alien to get back to work.

Reaching the old well, the alien checked the surroundings again. The king's black seal glowed being in the vicinity of the seal's twin. The alien decided it was safe enough to descend into the well instead of digging another hole. Using a new vaporizer with the same muzzle pattern of the previous mission, the alien unlocked the safe at the bed of the well. As was known from last contact with great king, the vaporizer was still there. The molten liquid had however solidified rendering it as a worthless metal lump. A video recorder storing everything the great king had seen was still intact. The alien decided to view it later – there were far more pressing things to do.


*****************************************************

Naveen woke from a dreamless sleep. As he opened his eyes, the alien glided towards him. Now that adrenaline of last night had receded, he had flurry of questions to ask.

"How did you come, where is your spaceship?

"Teleporting"

"You mean beamed down?"

"Sort off. So when are you ready to start working?"

"Whoa. Am not your servant. And I have lot of questions to be answered"

"Ok, hurry up"

"How are you able to understand my language?"

"Well, it is the other way around. You are speaking my language"

"Huh?"

"You see, I imparted my knowledge to you which is easier than me trying to understand yours. And by-the-way you are just thinking not speaking"

It was all confusing for Naveen. He couldn't think privately, he was 'thinking' not talking with the alien and what was he supposed to do?

"Well, I will tell you all about it"

Oh goodness me, sighed Naveen.


*****************************************************

"How are we going? Where are you taking me?"

"The same way I came. You will understand the place better with your eyes"

"You sure it will be safe for me? I won't get blown, no?"

"Relax; this mode of transport is as simple for us as is walking for you"

Naveen could only nod his head and tried to keep his head blank and await the proceedings.

"Good" replied the alien.

*****************************************************

The alien stayed still for sometime as if waiting for the right moment. The alien's body color turned from purple to green. Satisfied, the alien then made contact with mother-ship to beam them up. Naveen's mind was tempered with to induce a deep sleep state. The alien’s complexion was back to purple. Gliding towards Naveen, the alien stopped a few inches from him. It then proceeded to form a bond with Naveen extending the purplish color around him. The alien looked around the room for the last time. The purple bond turned to deep blue and then bluish white before disappearing completely, leaving pitch darkness behind except for the faint glow of screen saver on the laptop.

*****************************************************

"I think you promised me to show around your ship", retorted Naveen as soon as he saw the alien gliding towards him. His head had been throbbing like hangover when he had woken up. It was a while before he could think clearly. He realized that a long time must have passed since he left the house.

"Yes, but work first", replied the alien, who was seemingly alone with Naveen.

"You hijack me here and then order to work without any preamble". Naveen was starting to get irritated and wanted to forget all this as a nightmare.

The alien suddenly turned bright red, causing unbearable pain to Naveen. But almost immediately the pain disappeared and purple glow returned on the alien. The alien eased Naveen to sleep, thought for sometime and woke him up again.

"What was that?” asked a still shocked Naveen.

"It’s time that I tell you something". The alien paused for a second or two. "Your city - what was known as 'city of guards' then, killed our king when we had sent it on a peaceful mission of trade. Sending the Head of State was our custom on all previous occasions, not anymore - thanks to your foolish warriors bent on destroying any foreigner. Our tradition forbids mind control before establishing peaceful communication. Wish that rule hadn’t been made. Our greatest king could have easily controlled the entire army - but he mistook the advancing spear as a way of greeting." Streaks of red light bounced off the polished walls. "It’s all changed now - our tradition that is. For more than 200 years, around 1100 years in your city, we created a device - on which you are going to execute the experiment. Yes, indeed, the time has come for you to save your planet". The alien seemed peaceful again as the purple glow was back.

Naveen took long time to comprehend the enormity of what the alien had just said - via the telepathic link ofcourse. Recovering a bit, he said - "Save the planet? The way you got angry, I thought you were planning to destroy us"

"Aha, we cannot destroy your planet. Our trade with other planets will get affected"

"I see. But I still don't get how I fit here"

"What do you make of this room you are in?"

Naveen looked carefully around and drew a blank.

"I forgot you cannot see things shielded by high frequency waves. Never mind. You are lying down on a specialized bed which is the most important link for the experiment. I am going to put you to sleep again. And then you will dream"

Before Naveen could ask anything, he was asleep.


*****************************************************

Naveen saw himself as a kid going to school eating a guava. The guava was delicious and Naveen was hopping as he ate despite the heavy bag. He had eaten half the fruit when a crow bigger than him snatched it, gulped the guava and started pecking on his head. The focus shifted to Naveen's crying mouth which started to grow uncontrollably large before the scene changed swiftly. Naveen was back at college. It was midnight; he and his friends were trying to scale the hostel wall. As his turn came, he felt a powerful arm pulling him down. The arm suddenly withdrew, changed colors, became soft and then slapped him. Naveen turned to see his mother crying. His mother's features freckled, hairs whitened, the face dissolved and changed to Soumya. His father and colleagues appeared. They cut his hands and started beating her with his blood oozing arms. Naveen couldn't bear the sight and shut his eyes tightly to blank away all thoughts.

Soon he became aware that it was a dream, the memory of previous day flashing across his eyes like a fast forward movie clip. The recollection made him anxious - what if the alien had simply goaded him to a false sense of security and actually trying to destroy the planet! Must be the case, nightmare is no way to save a planet. This train of thought which happened in a fraction of a second, created a blur in the dream. Naveen immediately realized that somehow his self awareness must have caused a blip in whatever device the aliens were using. He then felt a nagging voidness and disorientation about himself. Perhaps the alien was no more controlling him. Memories surfaced from his previous alien dream. Before he could collect his thoughts further, he was woken up violently.

*****************************************************

Naveen was choking to death before he felt the pressure ease. Purple and red streaks of light bounced off the walls. There followed a long silence.

"How dare you spoil the experiment" began the alien in a manner that felt like thousands of speakers shouting inside Naveen's head. "You have destroyed beyond repair our first scientific invention. No matter though, the damage is already done. Using you, we imposed the dream on every person you knew. Each night they sleep, the nightmare will return and start spreading to each person they knew. Recursively, everyone will eventually experience it. You are a programmer, you know how powerful recursive function is.” A sound played in Naveen’s mind like self satisfied laugh. “The beauty of it all? The nightmare is specialized individually. I simply used memory as argument to the recursive function"

After another minute of silence, the alien continued "We cannot kill you people directly. In days to follow, the nightmares will become unbearable. You will kill yourselves. My only regret is losing the device. I should have learnt from your previous dream"

*****************************************************

Naveen was back in his room - his mind twirling like a volcano about to burst. Golden streaks of Sun's rays filtered through the window and shone on the spot Naveen had landed. The electronic watch on his table showed that it was Sunday morning. The laptop was playing a screensaver of whales moving in and out in varied directions. His mobile phone was ringing. With a pang, Naveen thought his mother might have been trying to call him all day long yesterday. He staggered as he moved forward to pick the phone. It was an unknown number. The ringing stopped before he could attend the call. He checked the call log to see if his mother had called. No she hadn't. But the unknown number was logged multiple times. Hunger and exhaustion gnawed his senses. He sat before the laptop and thought if he should update his facebook status. "What's on your mind?" - if only he could describe that. The VLC player had finished playing E.T. The movie didn't hold the fascination anymore; he felt revulsion at the thought and turned off the laptop.

For a while he sat dreamily, both legs on chair in a fetal sitting posture, rotating the phone in his hands, wondering if the events since Friday evening truly had happened to him. A thought struck him and he turned on the television. Browsing through the channels, he didn't see any mention of nightmares or aliens. Perhaps it was too early to come in news. He didn't know what to do now. Sleep wasn't an option fearing he might dream. Without realizing of having reached a decision, he picked the phone again and intended to call his mother. Seeing the unknown number in call history, he pressed the call button on impulse.

*****************************************************

A group of green aliens, shaped an irregular sphere, assembled in front of the purple alien.

"Did you manage to get the molten liquid?" asked the king, successor to the great pinkish purple king.

"Yes", replied the leader of the group. "Our great king's tunnel was still intact and we didn't face any issues. We closed the lid on the way back and covered it with garbage. Should we search for the great king's spaceship before we leave?"

"I doubt it would have survived. Besides I tried to locate it with the king's seal and it didn't show up in the vicinity. The great king might have hidden it far off. Let’s leave the damned place. I have already sent a message to prepare for our landing"

"As pleases your Majesty". The group leader left the room with his troop.

The salutation reminded the alien of the video recording. It first wanted to see how the great king met his death. That the great king had died was not in doubt. The king's seal changes to black almost instantaneously. The curiosity was to know how the planet's people had managed to go past the great king’s metal shield. The video was fast forwarded to the point where the great king left the vaporizer and went alone outside the secret entrance. It was dark and the king seemed to be assessing the surrounding with a glow-light. As the king turned, there was a fleeting glance of a large mouth with sharp carnivorous teeth and golden mane before the video blurred and went blank.

The alien had no tears to shed. But the remorse it felt would have melted most hearts. It was too late to change anything.

An invisible spaceship made its way out of the solar system. The king felt elated for finally having molten liquid desperately needed for the survival of its planet and a hope to someday correct its mistake.


*****************************************************

Still holding the phone in front of his face, Naveen waited for the call to be answered. Glimpses of the nightmare returned. He shuddered remembering the guava incident; he was all of three years old then. How he had run crying to his mother. Then he felt better recalling how his mother had consoled him in her arms. He rued having not booked the train ticket. He could have been at home right now eating mom's delicious breakfast. Even bus travel would have been better than experiencing a traumatizing encounter with an alien. A female voice broke his reverie. Mother? No he hadn't called her and the voice was softer.

"Soumya?" Naveen dreaded it was something to do with the nightmare.

"Great! Phew. He recognizes me! Here I am unable to stop thinking why you are not picking my call for a day. And last night I had this weird dream, where you refused to acknowledge me. We were in a park and you were talking to another girl and..."

"Hold on. That was not my doi..."

"No! You hold on! Oh, why am I getting angry whom you talked to in a dream? Chuck the dream. I don't know how you feel about me, but after last night's dream, I can't bear the tension. Do you have... do... do you like me?" Soumya breathed again.

"What?"

Soumya didn't reply.

"You there?"

"Answer my question. You are so good answering my doubts in office. Why not now, on phone?"

"I... “ Naveen couldn't bring himself to say the words he had wished to say for so many months.

"Come on two more words. Hold your breath and say it."

Naveen couldn't believe his change of fortunes. His dream girl was his and only minutes back he had come back from a horrible experience.

"Wait a minute" Naveen blurted out aloud.

"Can't wait any longer"

"No. I mean hold on. You were telling about the dream, what all happened?"

"Oh, come on. You are spoiling my mood. I know you like me, why don't you just say it?"

"Ok baba, I like you. I liked you from the day you asked me your first doubt. Now answer my question"

"Couldn't you have said it with more enthusiasm?"

"Please try to understand. This is important."

"What can be so important? Lemme remember where I left. Ummm... ya, you were talking to that girl and then I saw my worse childhood experiences and many times you got mixed in the characters, always torturing me. I got so angry on you before the scene changed dramatically. There were aliens warring with our planet and you defeated them by hacking their ship. I woke up after that and couldn't wait to call you first thing in morning. Now you have called and talking with me. Oh, I am so happy!"

Naveen thought perhaps the alien had erred with the device, or its understanding of humans wasn’t as thorough. The recursive function might die quickly after all. Knowledge of aliens may change the perspective for better, just like how astronauts see and feel the world differently from space.

"Can we meet today?"

*****************************************************

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