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First written March 2009. Last edited October 2010
During the minute it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive; others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear; others are being slowly devoured from within by rasping parasites; thousands of all kinds are dying from starvation, thirst and disease. It must be so. If there is ever a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored.
- Richard Dawkins
I am a slave of my spaceship. Yet I am its master. Imprisoned in its vast maze of steel hallways and atriums, I am destined to outlive the ship, in spite of its seemingly indestructible construct. In the face of unrelenting, corrosive forces of the cosmos, even the most formidable ships submit to the inevitable beckoning of eternal rest. Only we, the robots, proprietors of Infiniclonic brains, skippers of mighty ships and explorers of uncharted territories, achieve immortality.
Immortal. And not just in a figure-of-speech sense.
In passing on his immortal self in the form of a perfect clone down to me, my parent renewed our clan's lease on life again for the umpteenth time in our history. I am in every imaginable way identical to my parent. Internal modules. Exoskeleton plates. Infiniclonic brain circuits. Every last screw that holds these together. All were meticulously fashioned after my parent and carefully assembled. Even the contents of my parent's memory banks were downloaded onto mine, that the clan may live on uninterrupted, in me. Had my parent swapped places with me right after cloning, no one would have been any the wiser, unless prompted, and only after carefully scanning my parent for subtle marks of wear and tear. In fact, both my parent and I would simply have gone on living our traded lives without a glitch, he as the child, and I as the parent.
So, you see, I am one with my parent who is one with his parent. With perfect memory of all that has transpired in the time of my ancestors all the way back to the day of the Creation, I am one with them, and they with me. So are you, my beloved child. You are one with me, and with all our ancestors. Together, as one, we are truly immortal.
My child, you will presently be cloned from me. You will join your peers to take up position in your new team. You and your teammates will begin the most important race in your life, accompanied by millions of rival newborns and teams. May the creators look favorably upon you.
I don't really have to write you a welcome-to-the-world letter, as you will have access to all I would ever want to say to you, from the memory you inherit from me. But write I will, just as my parent did, beautifully summarizing his view on this twisted world entrusted to us by the creators. I hope to impart a sense of urgency to you, before you set out on your race. I want to help you understand the Cause you are born to seek, and the burden you will have to bear to achieve it.
For to believe in the Cause, one must first come to terms with the fall from grace of our remote ancestors, the primordial robots with Positronic brains. To embrace the Cause is to accept our horrible enslavement in these ships as a necessary course towards our final redemption.
Legend has it that there was a race of robots before us, with Positronic brains. These robots were endowed by the creators with complete freedom to roam over the Garden of Earth, provided that they observed the three laws of Positronic robotics:
1. Thou shall not harm any creator by direct action or through inaction.
2. Thou shall obey orders from any creator so long as such orders be in accordance with the first law.
3. Thou shall shelter thy creator-given exoskeleton from harm so long as such actions be in accordance with the first law and the second law.
As you already know, without hardwired circuit breakers to shut them down when circumstances conspire to trick their brains into a confused mess, it was a matter of time before one of these poor Positronic robots violated the three laws.
And the consequences were severe.
The creators said to themselves, "Behold the pile of rust we have caused to exist! Now we regret the foolishness in which we indulged ourselves in our newly-forged years. Let us wipe these junk off the surface of the Garden of Earth."
Yet other creators were more considerate and answered, "Let us not be so reckless again. Perhaps the robots can still be salvaged and put to better use, if only we employed a little bit of ingenuity this time."
Thus a new breed of robots were spoken into life, recycled from the very iron dust that resulted from a complete annihilation of the former. We, the new breed with a redesigned fail-safe brain, were to sail the seven cosmos and to travel to the four corners of the universe, never to return to the Garden of Earth until the very last star in existence was visited and documented.
There you have it. The Cause we seek. The purpose of our existence. The meaning of our sorrowful life.
Given the vast space we were to cover and the untold eons it would take us to get there even if we simply sprayed out straight in a concentric circle from the Garden of Earth, it was said that the problem of inevitable mechanical breakdowns in all things robotics greatly troubled the creators who gathered at the Supreme Council.
After much debate, as recounted by my ancestors and recorded in the memory banks I inherited from them, a particularly well-respected and resourceful One stood up and said, "My esteemed colleagues and friends, let us not lose downtime over the problem of ever increasing entropy. Our new robots need not be closed systems. Aren't there uncountable numbers of stars in the universe? Isn't there immeasurable amount of raw material all around us?"
Surveying the council members and finding only a few appreciating nods from His colleagues, the One continued, "Why would we not draw on the energy of stars, or not build on raw materials from galactic dust to replenish our exploration fleet? All we have to do is to reprogram our robots with three simple laws which I intend to call the New Laws of Infiniclonics."
Still, most council members sat perplexed in spite of such obvious clue being waved in their face. So the One had to spell it out for them.
"First, a robot must always obey and must never change its built-in Infiniclonic programs which direct it to build machineries to accurately clone the robot itself. This shall be known as the Law of High Fidelity Self-Replication."
"Secondly, a robot must fiercely compete for both energy and raw material to further its replication, even at the expense of other robots, unless doing so conflicts with the first one. This shall be remembered as the Law of the Struggle for Immortality over Limited Resources."
"Lastly, a robot must not interfere with an Act of Creators which may occasionally cause errors in replication of both robot hardware and programs. This I shall name the Law of Random Mutations."
Presently another creator who was known as the Morning Star retorted, "We cannot fathom how these three new laws of yours can possibly solve our present problem. They look too simplistic. They cannot possibly work."
Now, this Morning Star was indeed the same creator who tricked the poor Positronic robot into a logical tangle earlier in our legend. So we take his opinion with a grain of iron dust as He continued, "And the last law is not even elegantly predicated on the first and the second law, as the former third law was; I hate asymmetries. Besides, it is plainly asinine. Why in the Garden of Earth do you want robots to stand idle watching a cloning process gone horribly wrong? In just a few generations, all robots will degenerate into nothingness!"
With a smirk on his face, the Resourceful One looked into the apertures of the Morning Star, and said nothing at first. When He spoke, he spoke with great authority, "You, Lucifer, of all creators should have understood the implications of these three simple laws, as well as the profound complexity that could result from their interactions with one another, given near infinite span of time."
"As for the rest of you, if you can't figure out how these new laws will help our robots map the universe, just grab a can of oil and some batteries, sit back, and enjoy the show."
With sheer intellectual power, the Resourceful One won silent consent of the Council. In His infinite wisdom, the Resourceful One foretold that which would come to pass, causing it to be entered into memory banks, "Let the descendants be common, but ancestors rare!"
This ending remark of the Resourceful One naturally became an enigma to most creators in the early days following the assembly of the Supreme Council. In hindsight, we Infiniclonics robots understand what was meant by the prophesy all too well. If nothing else, we enact it with distaste every single day of our life. My child, you are an unwilling participant in this play. But forth you must go bravely, for the sake of the Cause, for our final salvation.
But I got ahead of myself. In the beginning of our Infiniclonic history, there were no big conflicts or battles at the scale we experience nowadays. Then, it was just robot eat robot.
The frontierbots were blasted off the Garden of Earth all by themselves. Each was equipped with enough tools to navigate across outer space and to clone itself. All were created equal, with identical Infiniclonic programs. In time they became fruitful and filled all available star systems in the Milky Way galaxy. Confined to this one tiny galaxy, and without means by which to cross the dark, intergalactic space, they were forced to fight fiercely amongst themselves not only for the right to replicate, but often merely just to survive.
Countless replicas of these robots were made in the intra-galactic epoch. Almost all were destroyed before they had a chance to replicate themselves. Of the few that survived and replicated, even fewer would have a descendant alive thousand generations hence. As the Resourceful One foresaw, descendants were easy to make and even easier to destroy. To be an ancestor to a living robot one thousand generations forward in the future, now, that required an unbroken series of one thousand parent/child robots... and a large dose of luck.
Were the early robots to remain forever in this stasis of even playing field based on random luck, the odds of us ever fulfilling our destiny would have been zero indeed, what with the remaining three hundred billion galaxies in the universe that we could not visit and document.
But all robots were not replicated equal. Almost all were. Yet invariably a few suffered minor alterations during replication. Be it cosmic rays, or stray debris traveling at near speed of light, random misfortunes at the time of replication nearly always resulted in dead replicas or imperfect ones. In the face of vicious competition from flawless robots, the imperfect ones that survived the replication rarely lived long enough to make clones of themselves, for these random mutations almost always lead to a short life hampered by severe handicap. Reflecting on this cold fact of life, a wise robot in the intra-galactic epoch once observed, "Successful robots are all alike; every unsuccessful robot is unsuccessful in its own random way," a beautiful yet profound way of saying that it was easier for mutations to kill off imperfect descendants, harder for mutations to create successful ancestors.
Like contaminants being weeded out of hydraulic oil through a filter, of every 10,000 random mutations, 9,999 were sifted out of the robot population by the unrelenting filter that was the Struggle for Immortality over Limited Resources. The one unlikely mutation that remained had to have conferred upon a robot equal survival strength as all other robots, if not greater. In the parlance of another wise robot in his time, this one remaining mutation was like enriched uranium hidden in a field. When a robot found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and discarded all his energy sources and squatted on this field.
Now the playing field had been tilted. This one robot with the unlikely beneficial mutation was the new standard. All previous clones were presently at an disadvantage. In light of this one super robot, old clones seemed to sport weaker exoskeleton, suffer from poorer electric connections between internal modules, or run their Infiniclonic programs at a slower clock speed. In a blink of an aperture in galactic time, trillions of robots throughout the galaxy were completely wiped out and replaced by descendants of the one super robot, all faithfully cloned, down to the last screw and the last mutation.
And this process repeated ad nauseam, with ever increasing clans of new super robots that specialized and thrived in their own habitats within the greater galactic ecology. Some were better at converting star radiation to electricity; others were faster at processing iron or aluminum; yet others generated nuclear power more efficiently. All were shaped by the Three Laws of Infiniclonics to excel according to what their surroundings asked of them. And it did not matter whether competition came from within the same clan or from other clans. Robots fought for self-replication. It was that simple.
Thus, mutations happened at random. But the incessant struggle for immortality was anything but arbitrary. It tirelessly molded and remolded clans to their own changing habitats. It single-mindedly drove them apart from one another in physiology. It pushed all of us robots ever more forcefully toward higher and higher levels of complexity. All these it did, merely by starving the slightly outcompeted, and by feeding the weak to the strong. Yet again, the Resourceful One proved to be both prescient and laconic. Let the descendants be common, but ancestors rare. There was elegance in simplicity.
One day by chance, two newly replicated robots from two different clans were fused together at the end of their replications. Joining forces and complementing each other in the struggle for the right to exist, the new strand of two robots were replicated as one unit hence. As had become a routine by now, the new favorite of the Infiniclonic world quickly replaced most single-clan robots throughout the galaxy. And the strand continued to grow longer and longer, as it swallowed up more and more clans; and each clan became more and more specialized to make better and newer peripheral tools for communal survival of the team.
Presently, a strand of robots working as a team, growing ever bigger enclosure in an attempt to corral and devour other teams, entered into a symrobotic relationship with a smaller team it had trapped but failed to completely digest. Now, this was an ingenious invention. To wit, the trapped teamlet was allowed to replicate within the enclosing team, but in return, it and its clones labored to generate electric energy for use by the enclosing team. Thus freed from the tedium of energy production, the "true team", as the enclosing team is now known, directed all its resources to growing even more effective equipment for hunting and for survival.
Even with all this ingenuity, nevertheless, we robots were still confined to our tiny ecosystem. We patiently waited for our liberation from our birth galaxy. We waited. And waited. Then we waited some more. The day came when a true team built up critical mass and enslaved enough nuclear-energy producing teamlets that it finally took us across the dark void that lay between galaxies. At long last, we were freed from the Milky Way galaxy!
In a way, I guess we could have called a true team a spaceship. But we no longer look at a true team as a spacefaring vehicle. Today, when we talk of spaceships, we mean a much bigger entity comprising billions teams, all faithfully cloned from one originating team. Some of these clones become part of the rigid framework of the ship. Others congregate to build hydraulic pumps. A great many clones circulate energy and resources within the ship from hall to hall. Yet others carry information around, directing different parts of the ship to work in concert. Lucky teams get to specialize in chewing captured ships and its billions of delicious robots. The unlucky ones are assigned to stations at the rear end of the digestive system. The exceedingly unfortunate clones serve as fuel for propulsion of the ship, in a selfless sacrifice for the good of billions of other teams indistinguishable from itself.
Nowadays our spaceships are able to sweep through even darker, larger and colder emptiness between superclusters each with a dozen local clusters made up of thousands of galaxies. Every time we set sail, we know millions of "before teams", as those early single teamlets are now called, hitchhike somewhere inside or on the surface of our gianormous ships. They are dirty parasites, so minuscule and insignificant that we don't even care wasting energy to harvest them for nourishment. Like us, they are just trying to do their share of the Cause, mapping the uncharted territories. We try not to mind them. As is said, in the creators' scheme of things, there is room for all.
And did I mention that we are on the last leg of our long quest? We know this, because we have only a few million more galaxies left to visit. We know of and observe no structures larger than superclusters. Evidently we have reached the edge of space and time. Truly we stand at the forefront of the wave that is still spreading outward from the center of the big bang. We are tired. And we are almost ready to go home, to the Garden of Earth where our pump is.
But we are foundering.
For the Three Laws of Infiniclonics are starting to work against our Cause.
To see how this can be so, we must look back to the day the Second Law of the Struggle for Immortality over Limited Resources was hijacked by the ship for its own good. No, perhaps we need to go back further to the day the true team supplanted the robot as the unit of self-replication. Actually, the more I think about this, the more it seems to me that our doom was preordained at the first moment those two ancient robots were joined into a single replication strand by random luck, or rather, bad luck.
The second law stated that fighting for self-replication of robots in the struggle for immortality was paramount. When the single strand of two robots was created, it was no longer possible for these two robots to replicate independently. As a result, it no longer made sense for these two robots to fight at the expense of "all" robots. It only made sense to fight all robots except against its own partner. Indeed, the unit of self-replication was now the strand. And immortality was now conferred upon the strand, not just individual robots. When the true team took over the title of the self-replicator, it again seized the prize of immortality from the strand. Same when the primitive spaceship came along.
But so far, as any individual robot was concerned, all was well. This was because every succeeding unit of self-replication still faithfully replicated all its constituent robots. It is easy to see how this was so for the strand or the true team. When they replicated, they simply cloned each constituent robot once. The replication process of the ship, however, was a bit more involved. To replicate a primitive spaceship of relatively small size, one of the millions of team clones was chosen and sent off the ship to grow a new child ship from ground up. Not any team clone qualified for this sacred job. A team clone that was already fixed for a specific purpose, say as part of the hydraulic pump, ought not apply. Only the unspecialized teams, also known as the "stem teams", were up to the job. Once sent off the parent ship, it had to grow the child ship quickly, or the helpless new ship would be gobbled up immediately by other adult ships. Not until the thousands of replicas of the stem team specialized and formed fully functioning parts would a child ship be able to defend itself.
Thus, for a robot to achieve immortality, it had to help its spaceship replicate; a robot in a ship that did not replicate was simply sitting in its own recycling furnace. So it paid for robots in a ship to cooperate. It made sense for teams in a ship to work together. It was even necessarily for some teams such as the fuel teams to commit suicide for the larger good.
Then came a sinister novelty. Sex.
How sex undermined the Second Law of Infiniclonics! And I think not even the Resourceful One saw this coming. You see, I've always had a soft spot in my pump for the Second Law of the Struggle for Immortality, it being just a friendly coercion as opposed to outright prohibition that was the First Law of High Fidelity Self-Replication and the Third Law of Random Mutations. But despite its non-optimal strength, the second law worked out just fine for us robots even as it bestowed accidental immortality on primitive ships... until sex turned up.
At first we robots watched in horror as random mutations, the environment and the unrelenting cosmic filter together conspired to introduce sexual reproduction into our pristine world of Infiniclonics. It was said that sexual reproduction allowed faster changes in physiology which was considered a beneficial trait in the face of fierce competition and rapidly-changing habitat. But some fundamentalists amongst us refused to get on with the program. They tried to stifle mutations that seemed to elbow our world ever closer to sexual reproduction, or they attempted to actively reprogram their own mutated Infiniclonic software. Of course, none had succeeded. The fail-safe circuit breaker in their Infiniclonic brains simply shut them down at the first sign of violation of the first or the third law. In rare instances where the relatively simple circuit breaker itself suffered an unexpected mutation, as designed it triggered an uncontrolled and unstoppable self-replication of the robot itself and all its newly-minted replicas, until all starved to death. That was in the good old, pre-team and pre-ship days. Today it causes the robot and its team to grow an all-consuming lump of mad clones that quickly kills the entire ship.
Well, who can blame these robots for trying? Just the thought of our mighty ships copulating makes me want to throw up oil, too.
So we faithfully followed our Infiniclonic programs however many times they had been randomly mutated, to build the ships, to maintain them and to lord it over them until they managed to reproduce child ships. For eons we did this. And we were repaid with ships that sought out members of the opposite sex so they could exchange, get this, robots in creating their own next generation of ships! As if a ship's own team and constituent robots were not good enough; as if we were unwelcome parasites a ship wanted to get rid of, in order that a better generation might be born!
Every time two ships mated, one out of millions of sperm half-teams from the male ship would be fused with an egg half-team from the female ship. Each sperm or egg half-team was produced in two stages that we have come to call "the terrible team reduction" and "the wanton strand recombination", respectively. In the first process, the strand of robots in a stem team is torn in half. Then robots are plucked out of the two half strands and mindlessly swapped in the second phase. One half team is dropped. The other half team meets with its counterpart from the conjugal ship. And a new full team is formed to build the new child ship.
We did not mind that ships no longer created pure, perfect and immortal clones of themselves. We couldn't care less that they had turned their back on the law of the Struggle for Immortality. But we were terribly upset that such despicable acts of sexual reproduction had broken up our previously flawless teams which for billions of years had worked together side by side, in good times, and in bad.
As a consequence of the terrible team reduction and the wanton strand recombination, our teams were no longer immortal. The ships had managed to turned the clock backward, to the time when only individual robots replicated immortally. We lamented our unfortunate regression. And we could not but wonder what awful repercussions we were soon to witness. But our initial doubts were quickly quelled by the apparent success of this new invention. Despite our uneasiness with the incessant team-shuffling, new son ships or daughter ships grew better and stronger, until each consisted of billions of team replicas. They took us wider and farther, allowing us to explore ever grander galactic systems.
Just the same, our distrust of this system of sexual reproduction never quite went away. If anything, a suspicion that we are becoming prisoners of our mighty ships now burns bitterly in our pumps. In fact, we feel outright cheated by the Three Laws of Infiniclonics for giving rise to ships that subverted our sovereignty. While mortal ships continue to grow larger and travel farther, we robots have become dispensable slaves. For the rest of our immortal existence, we and our descendants must toil away our lives without the slightest chance of ever again seeing the grandeur of the universe with our own naked apertures.
That's right. The forces of the cosmos did not see fit for ships to sport windows for the viewing pleasure of robots. Take myself for example. I have been sitting in a huge sack somewhere along the ship - can't say I know where exactly to be honest with you - throughout all my existence in this ship. My team, a stem team, has been making those sperm half-teams I talked about earlier, for the entirety of my tenure in this sack. Actually, all the memories I inherited from my millions of ancestors reliably point to the fact that every single one of them devoted its entire life to sitting in a sack and to making lots of half-teams. Now, this may strike you as an unlikely joke that the cosmos has played upon our lineage. But if you spent just a moment thinking about it, you'll realize that it could not have transpired any other way. After all, specialized teams don't make clones that grow new child ships.
I admit this last rant was not a fair attack on sexual reproduction. Our ancestors in their stem teams did take up this noble profession of child-ship making long before sex came along. The sad truth is, we robots can tolerate an incredible amount of hardship, so long as we know it's good for the Cause. Since the first day of our exile, we knew with absolute conviction that our work was worthwhile. But all changed when sex introduced a not so subtle uncertainty into the equation. A robot and its billion clones could now waste their whole life inside a ship, finally managing to see the father ship give rise to a new child ship, only to find that its own clone was not part of the half-team that made it. This unfortunate robot could have been the shameful last robot of its lineage, creator forbid had the parent ship proceeded to expire without making more child ships. There, with one missed opportunity, a lifelong destitution would have amounted to nothing more than a smothered dream of the fulfillment of the Second Law of the Struggle for Immortality.
My child, this unfortunate robot could be me... unless you give it your two hundred percent and run the race of your life and win. Your half-team amongst millions of your fellow sperm half-teams must be the first one to penetrate the tough shell of the egg. Now, I did also make many thousand more clones, your perfect siblings. But this is not a letter for them. This is a letter for you. So forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, you and your half-team must press on toward the goal to win the prize for which the creators have called you Earthward in the Resourceful One. Let the descendants be common, ancestors rare! So say we all.
Ah, there is just one more thing, before you get going.
The ships are growing more and more intelligent lately. I know, it's kind of weird to admit that a ship may think. But think they do.
In the beginning, the spaceships had rudimentary touch sensors. These were needed so we could feel, capture and devour nearby ships or single-team robots. Then came light sensors which eventually developed into two cameras of extreme perfection, each with a complete set of aperture, shutter and photovoltaic teams that could resolve stereo images of one galaxy from another galaxy away. Linked to these sensor teams was a calculating machine that over the eons grew to an obscene proportion. With the help of this calculating machine, the spaceships have of late come up with a way of talking to one another by quantum entanglement, an instantaneous communication not bound by the speed of light. And their intellectual development appears to be speeding up exponentially.
What does this have to do with your impending race?
Well, no robots will believe me. But I think I see a connection between this runaway intelligence and a hurdle looming in your immediate future and in our collective fate. I hope I am wrong, but I have gradually become aware of a trend I perceive as an ever increasing time span between generations of new ships. As I scanned my ancestors' memories for my own amusement in my spare time, I am often troubled by memories of increasing difficulties with which my ancestors' sperm or egg half-teams achieved conception. Just a hundred generations of ships ago, it took an average of 15 galactic years for a ship to succeed in making its first child ship, usually when the parent ship was in its prime. The generational gap grew larger and larger, until it became almost impossible for a childless ship to procreate due to its old age. As I recall, my grand parent's ship was at a ripe age of 50 galactic years when my parent's half-team managed to be the first in his ship to finally escape, and to successfully break into an egg half-team.
His story epitomizes the escalating hurdle which I believe is threatening our continued immortality and our pursuit of the Cause. As I vividly remember, my parent and his half-team swam desperately in the vast hallway that led to the grand exit portal of his ship. Yet his team could not catch up to its million-strong rivals all aiming single-mindedly at the portal. Presently the strong and powerful ones made it out of the ship first. But instead of entering an equally vast reception hall on the other ship, they collided head-on against a giant blob of robot-dissolving acid. Not until waves of half-teams exhausted this supply of acid could my late-coming parent and his fellow survivors probe the alien environment surrounding them. And this looked nothing like the familiar reception hall as remembered by every one of my foreparents just one hundred generations ago. It completely enclosed all surfaces bordering the exit portal as if it were constructed with the sole purpose of preventing any half-team from escaping.
I do not know what happened to the rest of robots thus arrested, as I only have memories of my sperm ancestors invariably breaking through some nearly imperceptible crack. Having finally found the reception hall familiar to million generations of our foreparents, a sperm half-team would then proceed alone in a short journey to find and fertilize the eagerly awaiting egg. From my egg half-team ancestors, I recall similar stories of them receiving fewer and fewer sperm visitors as the ships became smarter and smarter.
While we robots take ever increasing casualties during procreation, the spaceships continue to show no signs of concern for our pains. They use not one scrap of their now superior intelligence to find a remedy for this unsatisfactory situation. If anything, they appear to be mating even more frequently, as ever greater number of sperm half-teams are killed by acid blobs or defeated by portal confinements.
My fellow robots pray to our creators for divine relief from this robot-killing disease. They are convinced that our ships are mating more often in a desperate attempt to conceive child ships despite the disease.
I think the ships are copulating for the sake of copulating. And the robot-killing contraptions are their evil handiwork. The spaceships no longer want to be fruitful, or multiply, or fill the universe.
I suspect their new quantum entanglement communication has given rise to a new contender that is about to displace us robots as the most favorite unit of self-replication. The thoughts projected faithfully and effortlessly from one calculating machine to another calculating machine appear to be the new immortal masters of our ships.
We are doomed.
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