‘Avatar on the Belts 1: Tartaros’, William J. Piovano

Illustrations © 2008 Cécile Matthey

 [ The Spoon, © 2008 Cécile Matthey ] Oil and blood. I have both on my hands. They say I should not get blood on the conveyor belt wheels—it crusts and has to be scrubbed off. They say I shouldn't get oil into the wombs. The women are replaceable, but like the wheels they are an asset.

I wipe my hands on my apron as best I can, leaving a smear of dark red over the previous crust. It's my fifteenth hour of work, two more to go. My legs ache, even though I'm sitting on a stool. A single grimy light bulb under a copper cone hangs perfectly still a few feet over my head. The conveyor belt rolls on before me, top side sliding left, carrying with it the impregnated women in their black metal chairs. Hundreds glide by, all the same blur of naked female, until the belt finally stops.

My next task sits before me, eyes rolled back and white with anesthesia. Her wrists and ankles are shackled to leave her in almost spread-eagled position, her legs slightly bent. It is the optimal position for giving birth. All these women are about to give birth.

I pay no heed to the swollen mammary glands, or to the dilated hole which oozes with clear fluid. These women are cogs in the factory wheel, like the groaning pulleys and the steaming engines, and I should not look at them in such ways. I barely pay any heed to them anymore, until the crown of the baby's head juts out from between their legs, at which point I have to ease the newborn out. With the mother unconscious, even drugs cannot force the miracle of life all the way. A miracle, yes—someone wrote that, once. I can't see the miracle, though.

I see an unknowing mother. A bastard baby.

Left and right the identical process occurs for a million—ten million, a billion?—different and yet identical women, all splayed out with swollen bellies ready to be popped; like hens they are plundered, laying eggs of flesh and surrendering them on birth. The lighting is poor, and the conveyor belts disappear into the darkness. Nobody knows how far they stretch. Or how high. Above and below me, on the other side of grilled ceilings—or floors, depending on how you look at it—the vague shadows of other belts criss-cross to form a gradually fading canopy of assembly lines, their rolling wheels and pulleys droning a regular march which never misses a step.

It so happens that this day, with this particular woman, I do look up at my current woman, for no reason whatsoever but the random sweep of my gaze. With my hands outstretched, feeling blood and other liquids, I frown at her drunken visage. Her eyes are open, distant, too distant for sight. The lolled head stretches the skin of the cheek into a fishhook smile, as if she were thinking back to fond memories.

This could be my mother, I think. Why I'm thinking such a thing, I don't know, but it makes sense. The same black eyes—I noticed mine in water reflection once—and ink-black hair; her skin is tinted brown (rare in this world of tungsten filament spotlights), and the jaw closes a slender V into a pointed chin. We've been taught some genetics, mainly for explication of the Protein, and it's obvious to me how we could be linked. By genetic inheritance, I mean.

My mother is on one of these belts. I know that. Everyone's mother is. But nobody knows how many women there are, just like nobody knows how many men there are, or where this factory begins, and where it ends. Not even the Red Men, I think. I always tell myself that someone, somewhere, must know. It doesn't matter. They'd never tell me.

The baby slips wet and screaming into my prepared hands. I follow the procedure, the four-step procedure which has taken up eighteen hours of every day of my recollected life. Sterilize the baby. Close the woman up. Test the baby for the protein. Deliver accordingly.

With all trained workers, the job becomes second nature, like scratching your head. But this time I am too aware of the woman, and therefore of the baby. My hands move without orders, bathing the small speckled creature in the tank of green lukewarm water. I almost drop the slippery thing. For the first time in a long while, I'm fumbling. The green water purges the baby of mother's blood and engine oil. I don't know what that green water is, or what it does. Likewise with the Protein test gun. People don't ask questions in this place, because they know that, at best, they won't get an answer.

As the baby bathes I sever the umbilical chord and sew back the gaping wound. Some women don't survive the births. It always angers the Red Men when one dies, because the belt has to be paused. It is not our fault when it happens, though; we just do what we're told. I find it ironic how new life is the most common cause of death.

This woman here is alive. Does it even make a difference, I wonder? Sometimes the babies themselves come out dead. Then I feel sadder, for the babies are denied any chance at all.

I take special care with the sewing, something I've never done before.

"Mother," I whisper to myself, peering at her inanimate pile of pale, flabby flesh. And if this was my mother, then this baby would be my… I glance back at the tank, the wriggling creature therein. My Sister.

The test gun is a small hand-held device with a triangular screen, fronted by a needle. I press it into the baby's side, hopeful, and wait the ten seconds needed for the scan. She screams in protest, tiny face corrugated, but her fatty limbs can only slosh the water around. The gun buzzes negative, its screen goes black. In thirty odd years—more or less, I've lost count—I've only discovered one child who was protein-positive. You see, that's what they want. The protein-positive children, those who are born with that unique Protein. They are the ones who get placed on the special belts, to be brought Outside.

As I sit there with this baby in my arms, glowing with the phosphorescent green, the belt wheels off again. No time to ask more questions. What if she was my mother? She's gone now, and even if she survives another pregnancy implant, I'll never see her again. That I know. The baby, however, is still here.

To my left and right, for hundreds of stools, my co-workers have already left their batches on the correct belts. Females on one, males on the other. There's the damaged specimens belt too, and the barren females. And, of course, the protein-positive. That belt is empty today, as always. Nobody even bothers to check it anymore. Three years ago a tank of the green fluid actually did slide by, and I remember everyone wheeling to stare at it in awe. Like a massive diamond being carried past the miners, towards the surface. A glimpse, a promise of what you might find.

My sister wails some more in my arms.

I swivel on my stool, pick her up and hold her out. The round beginnings of belts roll away into nothingness, each stretch of black cross-sectioned grooves promising a radically different destination. I hesitate. I can't help but think of my one-eyed Brother.

It started with my dream. I stood in the line, faced with the one bright prospect of my day: food. Only three men were left in front of me, three anonymous shaven heads. A hundred or so behind me. Far to the left, the conveyor belts continued their spinning delivery, relentless. I had never seen them stop, ever. The Red Men probably wish we were like them, unfaltering machines. Someone told me—though at the time I didn't see how they could have ever discovered this—that there were always people working on the lines. When one group slept, the other worked. It made sense, for pregnant women can't wait. And men, like us, need more than just engine oil.

When my turn came at last, I held my bowl up in one hand, spoon clenched firmly in the other as if someone might steal it. Such fear was not entirely unfounded, for the floors were steel grates, and those gaps could swallow a dropped spoon faster than you could scramble for it. Most people did not have their spoons anymore, ate with their heads in their bowls, like beasts. I still had mine, and I guarded it with my life, feeling it to be the last thing that kept me human. Porridge splattered into the bowl, gushing out of the ladle brown and wet like diarrhea, but it smelled and tasted good and I was digging into it before the second scoop landed. It energized me like nothing else—except Aphrodite, but I had not met Her yet.

I didn't enjoy my porridge much that day, however. The man in the bunk below me had died, just a few hours before. A short man, with almost no hair (come to think of it, maybe that had been his disease). Either way, I woke to find two Red Men dragging his limp body away. It was not his death that bothered me, as much as what it reminded me of: another man had lived in that bunk below me, years before, and his death had truly troubled me.

I remember how his thick bushy eyebrows used to curve down when he spoke, his neck crane forward as if vicinity might drown the heresy of his words. He spoke to me only once, but every word is tattooed to my memory.

I woke, one time, to find his gnarled hairy fingers grasping at the edge of my cot, his face hovering before mine with a tinge of madness.

"There is something you must know, before I'm gone," he whispered. A barely audible whisper, but in the vast caverns of metal every human sound was a scream.

I didn't move, feeling his breath hot and humid, the eyes a battle of wisdom and insanity under wrinkles filled with dust. He spoke again, then, and did so for a very long time. He told me of things which should not have been spoken of. The Outside, and the people who held the Protein. And he gave me the answer to a question which in these tombs of steel should have been the only question, and that which nobody had ever ventured to ask: why all this?

When he finished, his hands were white and shaking with the effort of his stance. "Do not forget," he told me, before sliding back under and onto his cot. I did not move during my three hours rest, frozen shocked, until I heard the Red Men come and take him away. His feet raked against the grate floor, but he was not dead yet.

It was the only time I ever saw the Red Men up close, their every part draped in crimson plastic, faces masked by square helmets of the same color. And in their hands, the metal sticks which in time I learned to fear and despise. That night, as I watched them take him away, my gaze had held curiosity, curiosity fuelled hot by information the Red Men did not know I had. Curiosity, and a little dread, for I knew this was a secret I wasn't supposed to know.

Despite my brooding mood, I licked my bowl clean and took great care to stash my spoon back inside my tunic. My body, reinvigorated by rest and fuelled by the meal, marched forth to another shift of work. My mind lingered, however, mulling over the wild-eyed man's account. Over the repetitive years, I had let myself forget his words, but they were now coming back to me. A steel pipe, the squirt of oil on the conveyor wheels; every detail—no matter how absurd—invoked something indirectly. It was unfortunate that this other man had to have been dragged off in a manner so reminiscent to the wild-eyed one. Had he, perhaps, come to know of the same secret?

Many hours and more anonymous births later, I lay in my cot like everyone else, staring at the curve of the mattress above me, running a finger over its fertile belly. I felt lonely with my knowledge, and lonely with myself. I considered the man's words, that which he had claimed was the truth, and found it hard to believe. There was no proof, easily a madman's fancy.

Sleep claimed me, and I drifted into one of those rare moments when you are aware of the dream. There was a circle of dim light, and around it only solid dark. Illuminated in the midst were a thousand shaved heads, shiny like mass-produced plastic. I think I was one, too, and when I looked down my hands were young and un-calloused. Unsettling, to say the least, but I was surprised to discover that my own will could bring me out of it all. I left, and let the normal dreams take over.

The following day, standing once again in line to receive my porridge reward and thought of my loneliness, it struck me: we were all so similar. We did differ somewhat, of course; tall or short, bony or muscular—not clones. But we were all men, equally clothed, with perfect shaved heads and no errors. Not a missing finger, leg, or arm. Natural clones, if you will. The deformed babies were placed on different belts, always had been—a handicap to a man was a handicap to the system—and those maimed during the shifts never returned to their posts, their stools filled by another shaven man in identical brown linens.

The wild-eyed man had been right about that, then; our masters wanted us to be as similar as possible. I attributed to such monotony, for some reason, the cause of my loneliness.

I decided to remedy.

When I returned to my post, shuffling mutely through the silent ranks of co-workers, I kept my hand under my tunic, holding the spoon which I usually left inside a hole in my mattress. Shifts were always a chore, but for the first time I eagerly awaited my first woman, my first task. I tapped my knee impatiently with the spoon as hundreds of specimens slid by, open and prone and ready to be plundered.

The belt stopped, leaving a dark-skinned woman to materialize before me. Her hair covered her face, the hanging jaw leaving a gap for some strands to stick inside her mouth. Her eyes were closed—a rarity. Maybe the woman was dead, and they had forgotten to remove her. Peering forward, I made to poke her exposed leg. A convulsion racked her, and I yelped and almost fell off my stool. I then noticed it was not her but the baby, struggling to ram its way out of the womb. Prodding into the slick tissue, I began easing its passage, meanwhile glancing over my shoulder to check if any of the Red Men's attention had been drawn by my unusual noise.

Everything but the births and the cots was unusual in this place, and therefore suspicious. Routine and similarity, I reminded myself, routine and similarity.

I held the baby in my hand and picked up the spoon. The Red Men are constantly watching. Everyone says so. But that day (and in many of those to come) I proved to myself that they were not all that attentive. They have many to supervise, after all, looking down from their hanging cages, pointing their hollow metal sticks in our direction. They must have taken my rash motion as an accidental slip of the baby. A blunder of blood and oil. On the spoon, there was only oil.

I stabbed.

Babies scream, they always do, as loud as they can. When I put out my brother's left eye, he could wail with no greater agony. I'm sure he would have, if he could, perhaps even stabbed me back. Mine was not a brutal gesture, or heartless—on the contrary, it was an act of love, and I delivered it with a strange joy and stranger guilt. I set my Brother in the green water, purified him, hoping the liquid would clean the wound, and without ever glancing at the belt-for-imperfections, placed him on the healthy line.

The next few months I ate with my hands. The spoon, crusted with my Brother's blood, I carried with me at all times, but I never washed it. No longer did I leave it in the mattress. More afraid than ever of having it stolen, I held it under my tunic, and when asked of the secrecy of my right hand I made accusation to chest pains. Some—those who worked in my vicinity and ‘knew' me, so to speak—shook their heads when I said so. Pains usually mean disease, and after disease there is only the Red Men and the dragging of feet on the grates.

I had no pains, of course, only the cold reminder of my Brother pressed against my chest. I knew I would not be able to find him for at least ten years, if not more. I had been a small boy when the Red Men had first set me to work on the belts, but I can't remember exactly when. It is a vague memory, and all preceding it is utter darkness. More worryingly, I didn't know if they would let him live. He was maimed, devoid of an eye—obvious enough as a flaw. Somehow I trusted that others like me would be dealing with him, merciful people, and not the Red Men. We pale shaved ones do not care for the efficiency of the system, as long as we don't hinder it.

A long time passed after that, mainly uneventful.

The first year groaned by, marked by premature enthusiasm. Every day I sat in my stool and delivered. Mostly perfect babies, some male, some female; some imperfect; none protein-positive. I thought about the Outside, about the wild-eyed man's words and the truth of our world. If what he had said was true, then I needed my Brother.

My Brother.

For years he was the first thought in the morning and the last one before sleep. The promise of his discovery was all that kept me focused, motivated… kept me sane. Was he alive? If so, where was he? How long until I should start searching? I didn't even know if they'd set him to work within miles of my position. What if they set him to work right above me, or below me, where I could never wander? Again, hope offered the most unlikely answer.

Another year, watching the days drip away slow and thick like molasses. The enthusiasm cooled, routine settled in more firmly. Womb's blood and engine oil filled my life again. This was followed by another year, and yet another. There came periods when I forgot completely. It took a long time, for there is nothing to distract the mind in this monochrome existence, but time is the most patient enemy. Repetitiveness dulled my brain down to the most basic animal functions. Slowly I came to understand why the older men spoke or reacted so seldom.

Paradoxically, it was habit which saved me, making me reach for my spoon, my bloodied spoon, and I would be reminded that there was a reason for enduring.

I contracted a fever at one point, but forced myself to the stool nevertheless, day after day. The sickness worsened, angered by my refusal to rest. Those who rested beyond their designated hours never returned. At my stool, I hallucinated, seeing the women talk to me, and the babies being born without eyes. During sleep I dreamt of the Red Men coming to drag me away, and the others in their cots watching my feet rattle on the grate floor. The remnants of such visions in my sweaty wake-ups were all that pushed me to my seat. Somehow, I survived it.

Hundreds of thousands of babies were delivered by my hands in those years. Only one mattered to me, growing old somewhere in the unknown darkness. The spoon had lost most of my Brother's blood by then, so I had wrapped it in some fabric torn from the cot mattress. I felt the steel shape through the rough texture, picturing the lifeblood. I held it close to my chest while sleeping, a mummified memory, and pictured what my one-eyed Brother would look like when I found him. That way, sometimes, I would dream of him instead.

Those were the good nights. Most nights were not.

Shivering in my cot from exhaustion or hunger or fear, I peered out into the immense darkness beyond the perimeter. A solid wall of black where the combined cones of lamplight could not reach. I knew there was something beyond there. There had to be. Soon I would have to venture out and see for myself.

To keep myself resolute, sometimes, I would whisper to the spoon, reassuring it that I had not forgotten, and that my Brother's bloody sacrifice had not been wanton.

Sometimes I would read to it.

Ah, the books. The books were old, so very old, faded covers—if covers there were at all—clinging over jagged-edged pages, all falling out of their spines where the glue had gone as brown as the paper. They were delivered to us, and it was the same man who distributed them every time. One could hear his metal trolley, stacked high with volumes, rattling on the grate floor long before it emerged into the light.

I would wake in excitement every time I heard those wheels, at times with so much enthusiasm I ended up banging my head against the mattress above me. Climbing down, I rummaged through the collection with child's glee. Sadly we were allowed only one volume at a time, and I was one of the few who actually read the book he had chosen. Some held the tomes like talismans, to banish boredom perhaps, but never bothered to open the pages, embracing them instead like an offspring, or a balm against their cough. When my own reading was done, I would eye with bitter envy those square paper teddy-bears.

Whether the Supervisor handed books out as kindness, or to keep us under control, or even to send us a message, I never understood. I got many answers from my books, but none from the trolley-men. Over the years, many have pushed the book trolley, but none have ever returned a word in response to my questions. Where do these books come from? I would ask. Who gave them to us? All I got was blank stares. Two unblinking eyes under a shaved head. Until the day one of them coughed, or tried to, and the light of the bulb above me shone into his mouth to reveal a stump in place of a tongue, wickedly torn from its root. I never questioned them again.

The trolley-men came often enough—but for me not often enough. Being allowed only one volume at a time, I chose slowly and read slower. I'd read to the spoon, leaving it on the pillow, like a father easing his child into sleep with a bed-time story. It became the most cultured spoon ever smelted, lectured on the philosophy of Marxism, quantum mechanics, the miracle of Ford's industrialization, and ancient mythology. In truth, little of it held any real meaning to me. The complex terms, the idea of human discussion, sharing of power and wealth, were all alien on my tongue. Why would anyone share their spoon, or want something in exchange for their work on the belts? Each word was a tag on an invisible object, with the tag itself written in some foreign language. Did anything in my world or my mind actually improved, by reading, one might wonder? I must admit, at times the act became no more than habit.

The history of the Gods, however, fascinated me particularly. After some old volumes on Egyptian polytheism, I had come across a large black book called Theogony by one named Hesiod. It was a long-winded chronicle of Gods, very different from the Egyptian ones. According to Hesiod everything started with nothingness, with the Chaos, and out of it came the elder Gods, the Protogenoi; Gaia the Earth, Tartaros the Abyss, Eros the Lust, Aither the Light and some others. And though much of it was incomprehensible, the idea of all-powerful creators frightened and excited me. I thought the creature responsible for this place, all its unending and non-stopping belts, must be one of those primordial beings, a Protogenos. Then I thought differently. For all the power our creator had, it could not directly control me, or the belts, or any aspect of reality. If it could, why would the wheels jam and need oiling, or the light bulbs burn and force pregnant women and potentially protein-positive babies to be discarded?

No, the Gods were something more.

Such mythology became part of my routine, as I learned of their lives, loves and hates. What fascinated me was how similar they were to us mortals, despite their greatness. Until one day I happened on a passage chronicling Zeus' ascension to the kingship of the heavens, done so by an alliance with his brothers Poseidon and Hades. I had no grand plots to engineer with my Brother, and he himself was unaware of my existence. Nevertheless, the tale forced me to shut my book abruptly and turn to the spoon. The time had passed.

"My brother," I said, "I think it is time we found you."

So did my search begin.

I could go nowhere during my shift, of course. The Red Men were always watching, always threatening with their hollow metal sticks. Everyone feared them; the fact that we did not know what those sticks actually did, made them all the more frightening. But during my hours of rest-time and food, I was free to wander where I pleased. For decades I had milled around my work area by the belts, or lain in my cot to stare at the darkness which surrounded us, wondering what I would see if only there had been light, everywhere. And so that day, instead of blowing on strands from my mattress and wondering what I'd do if all the bulbs went out, I struck out into that unknown territory. For the first time in my life, I wandered.

The first few meters were the most frightening. I thought I was headed into pitch darkness, feeling my way with nothing but my fingers, eyes blind and nostrils filled with the stench of blood and engine oil. After pretending to rest on the floor, I rolled under the first belt and flattened to stillness. It had taken me a lifetime to make this first move, and while it did not take quite as long to make the second, I'm do not remember it being a quick decision. No Red Men appeared to drag me away, no hollow sticks pointed at me. I crawled forward a bit more, slipping around the legs of the belts, peering up at their undersides which at some point would swivel round to become the tops once again.

Creep. Crawl. Obstacles of steel holding up the occasional roof. Some belts moved, others didn't, and here and there I saw green water tanks moving overhead, the blurry shapes writhing within. I alternated dragging myself on the grates, fingers twined in the metal mesh, and lying on my back to take hold of conveyor belt legs. And as I made my way deeper into this new world, my eyes grew accustomed to a dimmer illumination which I had never noticed in my sector. A sort of ambient lighting originating from everywhere and nowhere. It was enough for me.

For the first time, I saw above and below. Identical, a criss-crossing of conveyor belts looping and hopping over each other, transporting the green water tanks and their passengers. Green and white shapes riding the scaled rubber backs of steel snakes. Above me I could distinguish the silhouettes of the metal webs, hear the hum of their engines and the shuffle of their rolling wheels. To see my own world from such perspective, understand my miniscule role in the vastness, was at once awe-inspiring and utterly terrifying. If anything, I garnered an even greater respect for the Gods. Fear clutched at my throat, and I forced myself to keep mental record of my path.

It might be fascinating to explore a new world; I remember some people saying so, in the books, eager to dive into the uncharted lands. Looking back, I think their worlds held greater variety than mine. Walking a mile, in their world, brought you somewhere new, from one God to another. In my world, a mile left you with the same million empty eyes peering at you, one from each hole in the metal grates, and the breathing of our only God, a dead silent thing whose lifeblood was black and used to lubricate the belts. Five miles, ten miles; it made no difference. Nothing changed. I had no blank explorer's maps to chart, and wouldn't have needed them.

Until at last I saw new people.

It came to me slowly, the tungsten-filament bulbs shining strong even from a great distance, like lighthouses in the storms of Argos. It became my goal to drag my aching body in their direction. When I reached the last belts, those forming the perimeter, I squinted out and saw a sector similar to mine. More shaved heads and linen tunics, but new faces nevertheless. In a place where belts ran into infinity, such minor changes still painted a whole different landscape. I had discovered new land, and it brought a thrilling rush into my veins.

I still had a few hours left, I knew. My sense of time was well honed, having counted the minutes of my shifts for years, in wait for my rest time when I could read my books. I also knew that the Red Men did not monitor us as closely when the shift ended. Half-knew, half-hoped.

Once again, it took no short span of time to build enough courage. For my Brother, I thought, to find him! I rolled out and stood, faking nonchalance. Nothing happened, nobody stared. Some distance off, a line had formed for porridge collection. I strolled my way down, past the porridge queue, all the while keeping an eye open for a one-eyed man. A cyclops, certainly unmistakable. I found nothing. Pressed with time, I retreated.

Creep. Crawl. The fear of not finding my way back. I had been gifted with a wondrous sense of orientation, but the path had been long and highly similar at every turn. The panic gripped me, at one point, when I reached a point of no remembrance. I was saved by the Red Men, ironically, for peeking up over the belt I saw one of their high-hanging cages far to my left. I knew I was close to my sector, and the cages only hung above and around the populated areas. A few more agonizing minutes and I was back, almost running back to my cot to plunge into the deepest relief.

The next few days I dared not strike out again. I had been lucky, that time. What if I did get lost? Would I starve, or be hunted down? Or worse? My fear kept me pinned, and not even the spoon could fight such a rational worry. Fate, however, had different plans in mind.

I was reading more on the almighty Gods, imagining their Mount Olympus as vast as (for surely nothing could be vaster than) this place. Not as dark. The Gods dwelt in a place with much light; I knew it somehow. And as I pondered such thoughts, I came upon the tale Theseus and the Minotaur. I drew instant parallel between the walls of Daedalus' labyrinth and the cobwebs of conveyor belts texturing the floor in every direction. Most intriguing was Theseus' use of a ball of thread to find his way back out of the maze after having slain the beast. The woman Ariadne had given him the idea, and I found that book in my hands to be my own Ariadne.

At last I'd have some use for all the threads of the mattress.

The final string was thin, but I trusted it would hold. I had it wrapped around my spoon, for easy unwinding. Armed with a concealed ball of thread, I made my second foray into the lonely lands of darkness and humming belts. With the string to mark my path, I trusted myself to quicker movement, and soon discovered a new sector a similar distance as the last one.

Every other day I would move out, unwinding to my destination, and then carefully rewinding with the thin white thread to lead me. On the days of rest I would take a short time to reinforce the string, and elongate it for deeper exploration.

Different areas had different rest periods, I realized, and as a result I was forced to limit myself to certain zones, or peek into people's cots. Entering a working sector was not an option. When the shift was on, everyone had to be working, and a stray man would surely attract the Red Men's attention. The last thing I wanted was attention, my feet dragging on the grate floor.

And so every other day I'd search, search for my Brother the Cyclops. Weeks and months wore this routine into my bones and my body, slowly but surely, began to feel the toll.

Until one day I saw Her.

Next chapter: Avatar on the Belts 2: Eros

© 2008 William J. Piovano

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