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Chapter 58

Harry Lefferts was so distracted by the news coming over the radio that he almost lost control of the vehicle. The road down which the column of APCs was racing, Harry's in the lead, was very far from a modern highway. The coal truck's front tires hit a huge pothole and Harry hastily fought the sudden skid.

Mike held his breath but didn't say anything. Once he was sure that Harry had the vehicle back under control, he leaned forward and returned the radio to its bracket.

"So the town's okay," he sighed, with some relief, but not much. And that little relief vanished almost instantly. In truth, Mike had not been too concerned about the town. Between Dan and his police force, and the fact that the town's residents were heavily armed, he had expected the enemy to be driven off readily enough. Grantville had become a seventeenth-century German version of a Wild West boom town. The Croats had simply discovered what the Dalton gang or any number of old American outlaws could have told them: "Treeing" a town is a lot easier said than done.

Harry echoed his worried thoughts. "What do you think about the school?"

Mike rubbed his face. "I don't really want to think about it. They don't have many weapons. And even if they've blocked off the entrances like we were told, that still won't hold off the Croats for more than a few minutes."

Silence followed. Halfway between Eisenach and Grantville, a column of APCS drove to the east. All the men and women in those vehicles—crammed with every soldier who could possibly be fit inside—were silent. There was nothing to say. The fate of their children was out of their hands.

* * *

The horde of Croats milling around on the parking lot south of the school was bellowing like a herd of enraged bulls. Enraged—and terrified. Many of them were already dismounting, and the rest were frantically trying to force their horses away from that hideous window.

For a time, they had tried to return fire. But it was hopeless. Twice they had managed, by sheer weight of hastily "aimed" pistol volleys, to drive the terror away. But destruction returned, almost at once. Four rounds to a magazine, fired as rapidly as James could reload. And while the school only had two rifles, there had been plenty of ammunition.

Crackcrackcrackcrack. Crackcrackcrackcrack. Like Death, wielding his unstoppable scythe, reaping men with each sweep like so many fistfuls of grain.

A few of the Croats, by now, understood that the murder was being rained upon them by a demon. A monster taking the form of a girl. A pretty one, too, to make the horror worse. But not many. Those Croats who were foolish enough to spend time studying the window usually died within seconds.


As he kept reloading and swapping the rifles, James Nichols was almost in awe. Abstractly, he could understand what he was seeing. The girl had trained for the biathlon, after all. The emphasis in that sport was on short-range shooting, not long-distance. And there was an absolute premium on firing quickly and moving to the next target. But the doctor still knew that he was in the presence of something truly special.

Julie Sims' face held no expression at all, beyond concentration. None. She was completely in the zone. A pure killing machine. At that short range, even shooting rifles she had not sighted in, she never missed. Not once.

To James Nichols, watching, it was almost like a religious experience. An angel had materialized, and declared every man within a hundred yards to be hers by God's will.

The scythe swept again. Crackcrackcrackcrack. The angel of death reaped and reaped.


Coming out of a side road, the bus careened onto U.S. Route 250 just behind the last fleeing Croats. They were approaching the eastern outskirts of the town. The school was two miles away.

Dan had already used a shotgun butt to smash out the front window on the opposite side from the driver. "Step on it!" he commanded. Then winced.

"Hallooooo!" shrieked Hans, shoving the gas pedal to the floor. The bus surged ahead, rapidly gaining on the Croats.

"God help us," muttered the police chief. He braced himself in the stairwell of the bus and brought up the shotgun. Behind him, Gretchen stood ready with another. Behind her, perched in their seats, all the German police recruits had their own shotguns ready.

Seconds later, the bus came within range and Dan fired. Another angel of death began sweeping its scythe.


Hans was forced to slow the bus while he steered around—and over, often enough—the bodies littering the highway. But he was able to speed up again soon. The panicked Croats had now left the highway and were desperately trying to escape the terrifying machine behind them.

Those who fell off to the north side of the road made their way to safety. The area there was wide enough to allow them to escape. But those who drove their horses off the south embankment found themselves in a death trap.

Buffalo Creek paralleled Route 250 not more than thirty yards away. As soon as he saw the road was clear of corpses, Hans stepped on the gas again. Within a minute, the bus was pulling alongside the mob of imperial cavalrymen pounding along the bank of the creek, looking for a ford.

By then, Dan and Gretchen had a recruit positioned in every window on the right side of the bus. At Dan's command, the recruits started blasting away with their shotguns. The Croats were driving their horses much too fast—along treacherous ground—to even think of returning fire with their wheel locks. And there was nowhere to escape.

Hans slowed down again. The bus rolled up the road at thirty miles per hour, while the recruits poured slugs and buckshot into the Croats stumbling their horses down the creek bed. The result reminded Dan of a photograph he had once seen; old, sepia images of buffalo herds slaughtered by hunters firing from a train.

Now desperate, the imperial cavalrymen drove their horses into the creek and tried to force their way across to the wooded hills on the opposite bank. But there was no ford here. True, since the Ring of Fire the water level had dropped considerably, but Buffalo Creek was still more in the way of a small river than a stream. A number of Croats drowned in the attempt, as did an even larger number of their horses.

Dan let them go. It was plain enough that these enemies had been whipped senseless. They had no thought at all beyond making their escape. He was much more concerned for the school, still a mile away.

"Step on it!" he commanded.

Hans did; Dan went back to muttering prayers.


A large number of Croats had finally pushed their way into the narrow space between the buses and the front wall of the building. They were packed like sardines, but at least here they were safe from that incredible rifle in the upper window.

It was the work of but seconds to smash in all the windows of the cafeteria with pistols and sabers. A moment later, the Croats surged into the school building.


Captain Gars led the charge up the slope toward the school, Anders Jönsson by his side. He could see hundreds of Croat cavalrymen milling around in apparent confusion.

"Not too late," he grunted. He grinned at Anders. "Good, no?"

Then, waving his saber: "Forward! Forward!"

Behind him thundered the battle cries:

"Gott mit uns! Haakaa päälle!"


Some of the imperial cavalrymen wasted time searching the kitchen. But most of them poured out of the cafeteria into the vestibule. From there, led by subofficers, they began fanning out.

Some of them charged down the corridor leading to the technical center. But they immediately encountered an obstruction. Other Croats, by now, had smashed their way into the glassed-in walkway between the school proper and the tech center. Within seconds, they were trying to force the door into the center itself.

Trying, and failing. The door had been blocked by the simple expedient of backing a fork lift against it. Outside, the imperial cavalrymen slammed their shoulders into the door with futile fury.

The cry went up: "Find a battering ram!"


Other Croats charged up the stairwells leading to the classrooms on the upper floor. They could hear the shrieks and screams of frightened children coming from above, and knew that their target was finally within reach.

But at the top, they encountered barricades and men armed with pistols and revolvers. Flurries of gunfire erupted—sharp crack versus the boom of wheel lock.

One of the schoolteachers was shot in the arm. Ed Piazza, firing over the barricade with his pistol, was also struck down. A heavy wheel-lock bullet punched between two filing cabinets and ricocheted into his chest, shattering his ribs and penetrating a lung.

Instantly, Melissa was kneeling at his side, desperately trying to staunch the flow of blood. To her relief, Sharon Nichols pushed her way forward carrying a first-aid kit. Between the two of them, they fought to save Ed's life while yet another schoolteacher took up the pistol and entered the bloody fray at the top of the stairs.

The battle was brief. The gunfights, again, were entirely uneven. The Croats coming up the stairwell were in the open, completely unprotected, and the disparity in rate of fire was impossible to overcome. Wheel-lock pistols took even longer to reload than arquebuses, whereas the schoolteachers were wielding automatic pistols and revolvers.

Soon enough, the Croats retreated to the vestibule, where they vented their frustration wherever possible. A dozen Croats charged into the library and began smashing the furniture, the computers, and spilling the books. Others visited the same wreckage on the administration center. Still others, in the vestibule itself, went at the huge display case lining the west wall. Smashing glass instead of skulls, spilling athletic trophies instead of blood, and carving photographs instead of faces.

Other imperial cavalrymen, meanwhile, had been slamming shoulders and boots into the wide doors on the northeast side of the vestibule which led into the gymnasium. They could see through the cracks of the doors, and knew that their prey awaited them beyond. But the doors were too solid to push through.

Again, the cry went up: "Find a battering ram!"


Julie spotted the motion of the oncoming new cavalry at the same time as she heard them shouting. Something about those battle cries seemed familiar to her—quite unlike the screeching of the Croats.

But her mind was entirely on her shooting. She had a fresh magazine in the rifle. Julie brought the iron sights to bear on the huge man leading the charge, and started to squeeze the trigger.

Stopped. There was something—

She lifted her head and peered. Julie's eyesight, as might be expected in a sharpshooter, was phenomenal—considerably better than 20/20.

"Jesus Christ," she whispered. "I don't fucking believe it."

The corner of her eye caught motion. A band of Croats—perhaps ten in all—had also spotted the new threat and were charging to meet it.

Julie swung the rifle. Crackcrackcrackcrack.

"Switch!" she squealed. James had the other .30-06 in her hands within seconds. The angel of death went back to the field, reaping with a fresh scythe.


Desperately, Anders tried to drive his horse ahead of Captain Gars, in order to shield him from the oncoming Croats.

No use. The captain always rode the finest horses in Europe.

The madman! cursed Jönsson.

Captain Gars raised his saber, ready to strike. "Gott mit uns!"

The first rank of charging Croats was suddenly hammered aside, falling from their saddles like so many dolls. Neither the captain nor Jönsson understood what had happened. They had heard a sound, like a great tearing of cloth, but did not recognize it as rifle fire.

No matter. Other Croats were upon them. Captain Gars matched saber against saber in his usual style. Sheer strength and fury smashed aside his opponent's weapon and then, in the backstroke, took the imperial cavalryman's arm off at the shoulder. The arm fell one way, the Croat was flung off the saddle to the other. He would bleed to death soon enough, never recovering from the shock.

Anders, as always, began with his wheel locks. Four of them he possessed; one in each hand, two in their saddle-holsters. He used them all in the first few seconds, desperately trying to protect Captain Gars from the Croats encircling him.

The wheel locks now fired, Anders dropped them and took up his saber. There was no time, in this furious cavalry melee, to reload and crank the firing mechanism on the clumsy weapons.

Captain Gars struck down another Croat, then another. His powerful blows fell like the strikes of an ax. But he was almost surrounded now.

The great tearing sound ripped through the sky again. And, again, Croats were smashed off their saddles. Anders could see the blood erupting from their chests, and suddenly understood that they had been shot in the back.

From above, somewhere. His eyes ranged up, and immediately spotted the window. The window, and the figure standing in it.

Anders, unlike the captain, had good eyesight. When he understood what he was seeing, he lapsed into blasphemy.

"Jesus Christ," he whispered. "I don't fucking believe it."

Next to him, in the sudden pause in the action, Captain Gars grinned savagely. His eyes swept the scene, taking in what he could. Which was not much, given his myopia.

"It goes good, eh?" he demanded.

A broad smile spread across the face of Anders Jönsson. "Very good, Captain Gars. I believe an angel is watching over us."


Upstairs, Julie squealed again. "Switch!"


In the years to come, the Västgöta would speak with awe of Captain Gars' final charge against the Croats. Like a Titan, he was, smashing aside the savages like so many toys. The Finns, more superstitious, would claim that his saber had become a magic sword—striking down enemies long before they were within range.

The Lapps kept their opinion to themselves. They were only nominally Christians, and had found that it was unwise in the presence of devout Lutherans to speak too freely of their tribal spirits. One of which, quite obviously, had ridden the captain's shoulders that bloody day.

Only Anders Jönsson and the captain himself understood the truth. Anders, because he had seen the angel for himself; the pious captain, because he recognized her handiwork.

"Gott mit uns!" he bellowed again, resuming the charge. And, indeed, God went before him. Slaying every Croat who stood in the captain's way, as if a mighty hand shielded him from harm.


The vestibule was so jammed with cavalrymen that it took a full minute to haul the awning support into position. Then, shrieking curses and commands, another full minute to clear a space for the impromptu battering ram.

Finally, the ram went to work. Boom. Boom. The doors began splintering.


When the bus was a hundred yards from the driveway leading up to the school, Croat cavalry began pouring down the slope.

Away from the school. As if they were panicked.

Dan leaned forward. "What the hell—?"

An instant later, he was shouting new orders. Gretchen saw to it they were carried out. Police recruits were again perched in the windows, their shotguns and revolvers in hand. Screaming with unprofessional rage, they began their new slaughter.

When they reached the driveway, Hans almost overturned the bus making the turn. But he never lost his good cheer. "Hallooooo!" he shrieked, driving the bus straight through the horde of imperial cavalry pouring away from the school. He crushed several Croats under the wheels and almost overturned the bus again, driving over the corpse of a horse. But the recruits were back at the windows in seconds, blasting away on both sides, wreaking havoc and carnage. Gretchen, in a fury, slammed open the rear window and started firing her automatic at the Croats fleeing toward Route 250 and Buffalo Creek. She only missed twice.

Once he reached the parking lot on top of the slope, Hans slammed on the brakes. Dumbfounded, he stared at the scene.

Equally dumbfounded, Dan stared with him. The entire area in front of the school was a cavalry battle. Bands of Croats were engaged in a desperate struggle with bands of other soldiers. Saber against saber; wheel lock against wheel lock.

The police chief had no idea who the other soldiers were. But he didn't care. He could recognize an ally when he saw one—and his allies were winning.

"Shoot the Croats!" he roared.

As if his voice were a signal, all of the Croats still on horseback in front of school suddenly broke. As it happened, they still outnumbered their Swedish and Finnish opponents—by a considerable margin—but it mattered not at all. Captain Gars' hammer blow from the rear, coming on top of their own frustration, had broken their spirit. Within a minute, leaving hundreds of dead and wounded behind, the imperial cavalry was in full rout. Many more men died or were crippled, spilling from horses driven too recklessly down the slope.

They were sped on their way by gunfire from the bus, but not for long. With Dan leading from the front, and Gretchen driving from the rear, the police recruits stumbled out of the bus and began racing for the school entrance. It was obvious enough, just from the sounds of shouting, that there were still enemies within.


Captain Gars and Anders, with dismounted Västgöta and Finns following, moved down the narrow space between the line of buses and the side of the school. There were still dozens of Croats in the cafeteria, but none of them were looking at the broken windows. They were all piled against the door to the vestibule, eagerly awaiting their chance to join the charge into the gymnasium. From the splintering sounds accompanying the booming battering ram, the slaughter was finally about to begin.


Inside the gymnasium, Jeff stood alone in the middle of the floor. He hefted the shotgun in his hands, staring at the big double doors. The doors were starting to splinter, and he didn't think the lock was going to last more than a few seconds.

Len Trout was still finishing the task of shepherding the students onto the upper rows of the tiers of benches. Only one set of benches had been lowered: the one against the north wall of the gym, farthest from the doors. The principal had crammed as many students as possible onto the top rows. A line of the oldest boys was standing guard on the lower benches, armed with nothing better than baseball bats.

"All we can do," muttered Trout. He turned and strode to the center of the gym, taking position next to Jeff. He levered the slide on the automatic and checked quickly to make sure the safety was off.

"All we can do," he repeated.

Jeff said nothing. He couldn't think of anything to say that wouldn't sound melodramatic and corny. So he decided to spend these last moments of his life simply thinking about his wife, and hoping that their unborn child would enjoy the world as much as he had.

The lock on the door gave way and the doors slammed open. Murder poured into the room, shrieking death and destruction.


"Gott mit uns!"

Captain Gars' battle cry signaled the attack. With the captain and Anders leading the way, the Västgöta and Finns surged through the windows into the cafeteria.

The Croats still in the cafeteria were caught completely by surprise. By the time they spun around, Captain Gars was upon them, like a grizzly bear savaging his prey, with another roaring at his side. Between them, the captain and Anders cleared a path to the door. The Croats who fell away from that berserk saber charge were swarmed under by the captain's soldiers.

"Gott mit uns! Haakaa päälle!"


"That's it, Julie," said Nichols, handing her the rifle. "You've got a fresh magazine. The rest of the ammunition is gone."

Julie leaned the empty .30-06 against the wall, seized the other, and charged for the door. By the time she got to the corridor, she was already shrieking her own battle cry.

"Make way! Make way! Goddamittohell—clear a path!"

In her frenzied drive through the mob of students and teachers in the corridor, Julie did not actually use the gun butt to hammer herself a path—though the claim would be made afterward, by students knocked down by her charge. But the truth was quite otherwise. A hundred-and-forty-pound cheerleader was simply doing an excellent imitation of a fullback twice her size.

James followed. For all his concern—he knew the damned girl was heading back into action—he couldn't restrain a smile. Then, as he neared the end of the corridor where Julie was frantically clambering over the barricade at the stairwell, he caught sight of Melissa's pale face and the smile vanished.

She saw him at the same time. "Oh Jesus, James—hurry. Ed's been shot!"


"Get those fucking buses out of the way!" bellowed Dan Frost. When he saw Hans squirrel into the lead bus through a broken window, he cursed under his breath. That bus was the one which Jeff had planted directly in front of the school's main entrance.

"Not that one, Hans! It's blocked by the others."

He started toward the bus, pointing with his finger to the ones further down the line. "You gotta move those others first before you can—"

Hans had his own ideas about how to move a bus. His theory leaned very heavily on kinetic energy, and gave short shrift—no shrift, actually—to repair costs. Half a minute and much wreckage later, the bus pulled away. The entrance to the school was open.

Croats began pouring out, desperate to escape the furious charge of the Swedes coming through the cafeteria. But by the time they emerged, Dan and Gretchen had already formed the police recruits into a new line, standing to one side, shotguns reloaded and ready, leaving an apparent path to freedom and safety.

It was a firing squad, for all practical purposes. Of the hundred or so imperial cavalrymen who managed to get out of the school building before the Swedes and Finns cut them down, less than half ever made it out of the parking lot.

When the firing ceased, Dan and Gretchen led the police recruits into the school. Tried to, at least. But there was no way to force themselves past the men who now filled the vestibule. Captain Gars' Västgöta, those were, still following the madman.


Coming down the stairs, Julie met four Croats coming up. The Croats were not even looking at her. They were coming up the stairs backward, frantically trying to fend off twice their number of Finns.

The scythe swung—crackcrackcrackcrack—and her way was clear. The Finns at the bottom of the stairs, gaping, simply moved aside. There was something inexorable about the way the young woman came down the stairs, trampling over the bodies she had put there. Christianity was more than nominal, among Finns, but they still retained memories of their pagan traditions.

No man in his right mind will stand in the way of Loviatar, Goddess of Hurt, Maiden of Pain.


Jeff blew the front rank of Croats into bloody shreds. Rate of fire. At that range—less than fifteen yards—the heavy shotgun slugs punched through the light armor of the imperial cavalrymen as if it were tissue paper.

Frantically, he started reloading the shotgun. Len Trout stepped in front of him and leveled the automatic. Again, the Croats charging into the gymnasium encountered that incredible rate of fire.

But Len was no marksman. For all his courage, he was not an experienced gun handler. Half his shots missed.

Five Croats went down, true, even if three of them were only wounded. But there were still more than enough to drive through the hail of pistol bullets. Less than a second after he fired the last shot in the magazine, the first saber cut Len Trout down. A head wound, bloody but not fatal. But the next saber slash almost removed his head entirely, hacking halfway through his neck.

Trout's killer died himself, then. He and all the men at his side. Jeff's shotgun was reloaded and back in furious action. Rate of fire. Clickety-boom, over and again, coming so fast it sounded like thunder.

And now the shotgun was empty, and it was over. Jeff still had a full magazine's worth of ammunition left in his pockets, but he would never have the time to reload before the Croat sabers arrived.

The first Croat charged up, saber held high. Jeff went to meet him. The Croat had time to be amazed at how quickly the big man in front of him moved, before the butt of the shotgun shattered his jaw.

A saber cut into Jeff's right shoulder, knocking him to the floor of the gym. Instantly, his entire arm and side were soaked with blood. The muscle was cut through to the bone. Only the tough leather jacket had kept that sword stroke from amputating his arm entirely.

Half-dazed by the shock, Jeff stared up at the man who had slashed him down. Snarling, the Croat raised the saber again.

Then, to Jeff's amazement, the Croat's head exploded. Cut in half, rather, by a saber which descended like the hammer of an ancient war god. The Croat was driven to his knees. A twist of the powerful wrist holding the saber broke the blade lose from the skull and cast the victim aside.

Jeff found himself staring at a huge man, grinning down at him. Immense, he was. Tall, broad, heavy as an ox. His pale blue eyes, peering down over a powerful nose, were gleaming like glacier ice.


Captain Gars led the charge into the gymnasium, still roaring his battle cry. Anders was at his side, roaring the same. Not half a step behind came dozens of the Västgöta and Finns. Walls which had once rung to the sound of cheerleaders' slogans now shook with the fury of the Northmen.

Gott mit uns!

The captain himself cut down the Croat who had been about to kill the young American on the floor. Then, standing over him like a protective idol, he bellowed commands to his soldiers. It was the work of less than fifteen seconds to drive the rest of the Croats to the rear wall of the gymnasium.

Led by Anders, the Västgöta flooded the area in front of the tiered seats, protecting the students. At the captain's command, his Finns moved forward against the enemy.

At the end, the surviving imperial cavalrymen—perhaps twenty in all—tried to surrender. They received the traditional Finnish terms.

Haakaa päälle!


Julie and Gretchen reached the broken doors of the gymnasium at exactly the same time. Dan Frost was a few steps behind.

As soon as she saw Jeff, Gretchen raced to his side. By now, several of the students trained in first aid were clustered about him, removing his jacket and staunching the wound. Gretchen forced her way through, knelt, and cradled his head in her lap. Weeping as she had not wept in years.

"S'okay," her husband mumbled. He even managed a wan smile. "S'okay, sweetheart—honest. Nothing but a little flesh wound." Then his eyes rolled up and he fainted.


Julie stood in the doorway, staring at Captain Gars. Her eyes seemed as wide as saucers.

The captain was also having a wound tended to. Nothing major, to all outward appearance. But at Jönsson's insistence, the captain had removed his buff coat and blouse. His upper body was bare and exposed. Very pale-skinned he was, with a carpet of blond hair on his chest. Thick muscle bulged under layers of fat.

"You see?" he grumbled. The captain pressed the heavy flesh aside, exposing the cut along his ribs. The gash was shallow, and perhaps three inches long. Plainly enough, it would soon be nothing but a minor blemish on a torso which was already heavily scarred. Captain Gars seemed utterly oblivious to the blood soaking his hip.

"It's nothing," he insisted. Anders sighed with exasperation and handed him a scarf. The captain pressed the cloth against the wound.

Motion caught his eye. Captain Gars turned his head and squinted at the person coming toward him. When the figure finally came into focus, he grinned.

Julie covered the last few steps in a rush. A moment later, equally oblivious to the blood, she was hugging the huge body of the captain fiercely. Much like a chipmunk might embrace a bear.

The captain seemed startled, at first. Then his fierce warrior's face softened. After a few seconds, he was returning the embrace. A bit gingerly, at first. Afraid, perhaps, that he might crush the girl in his arms. But then, as he felt the muscle beneath his hands and remembered the sheer force of her spirit, the embrace grew warm and tight.

"Iss all right," he murmured, in his thick and awkward English. "I not bad hurt."

Julie's head popped up from his chest. Craning her neck, she glared at the captain.

"You could have gotten killed!" she squealed. "What are you—crazy?"

"Yes," stated Anders gloomily. "The captain is a madman. It is well known."


When Rebecca came into the gymnasium a minute later, Julie was still hugging the captain. And still chastising him for his reckless folly; loudly, and in no uncertain terms. Captain Gars himself didn't seem to know how to handle the situation. Apparently he was a man unaccustomed to being scolded. But Anders Jönsson and all the Västgöta were grinning from ear to ear.

Finally! Someone to call the madman to his senses!

Rebecca burst into soft laughter. Dan Frost, standing next to her, was frowning with puzzlement.

"I don't get it," he hissed. "Does Julie know that guy from somewhere? They say his name's Captain Gars."

Rebecca choked off the laughter. "Oh, yes. They've met before."

She stared at the immense man in the center of the room. Her own eyes softened.

"What a lunatic," she murmured. "He has not done this in many years. Not since he was a young man, according to the history books." Again, she laughed.

Dan was scowling fiercely. "I still don't—"

"Captain Gars," said Rebecca. "To the best of my knowledge, he is the only king in history who ever actually did it outside of fable. Travel in disguise, I mean, assuming the pose of a simple soldier. The books claim that he scouted half of western Europe in that fashion."

The police chief's eyes widened. His jaw sagged.

"Oh, yes," chuckled Rebecca. "Captain Gars. Gustavus Adolphus Rex Sueciae."



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