In Service to a Goddess|
Copyrightę2006 by Ed Howdershelt
Note: I'm not going to re-introduce everybody.
Read my other ISTAG books before starting Book V.
Like I told the cops; she'd just stopped by my sidewalk table at Cafe Marseilles and asked me the time, then started across the street. I didn't know her, but I wish I had, because -- if for no other reason -- I'd be pleased and honored to tell anyone who'd listen about her last moments on Earth.
Watching the Israeli cops, fire, and other emergency personnel mill around the bus stop across from the cafe, I was amazed at how much damage one strap-on bomb can do.
The big red and white tour bus was riddled with holes. All but two of its windows were gone or shattered and it listed to the right because all of the tires on that side were flat.
Fifty or so men, women, and children on some kind of day tour had been waiting within the terminal lounge and had started filing out the glass double doors to meet the bus.
My eyes had been on the thirtyish brunette who'd asked me the time as she'd crossed the street toward the terminal. She'd kept herself fairly fit, though not the level of fitness you see in aerobics. Her tan was the kind you can't get in a tanning booth and it looked damned good on her long, shorts-clad legs.
She'd suddenly stopped cold in the middle of the street, glanced both ways as she'd dropped her two shopping bags, and then she'd sprinted like a track star directly at some guy coming out of the bus terminal bathroom alcove.
He'd looked up from fumbling with something in his left hand and seen her just before she'd slammed into him with a loud scream and driven him backward into the concrete alcove and out of my line of sight.
There'd been a bright flash, an explosion louder than any I'd ever heard in a war zone, and the block wall directly across the outdoor walkway from the alcove had seemed to fly apart before a twenty-foot section of it collapsed.
The amount of damage in the immediate vicinity was flatly phenomenal. Car and building windows as far as a block away were missing or shattered. A big aluminum 'no parking' sign near the walkway now looked like a colorful cheese grater due to shrapnel punching through it.
My table and others near it had been knocked over by a concussion wave. Window glass littered the sidewalk and people were screaming and yelling in what seemed like three or four languages. I reflexively checked myself for damage, got up, and circulated among them to see if I could help.
Half a dozen people had been injured, but nobody seemed to be in critical condition and a few people who looked as if they knew what they were doing had begun tending them with napkins, strips of tablecloths, and whatever else came to hand.
That's when a cop grabbed my arm and gabbled at me in Hebrew far too quickly for me to understand more than a few words. I asked him to talk slower.
A man in his fifties looked up from holding a napkin compress to a woman's arm and said, "He wants your papers. Someone told him you were the last person to speak with the woman who ran across the street."
Nodding, I showed my passport and said, "She wanted to know the time. I told her and she headed toward the bus. Those two bags in the middle of the street are hers."
He translated for the cop, who was writing down my info. That was a good sign. If a lone cop is taking notes, he doesn't consider you a dangerous suspect.
After a few more questions, the cop gave me a card along with my passport and moved on. I looked at the Hebrew I couldn't read, then looked at the guy who'd translated.
"It's an instruction card," he said, "It basically says you're to stay here until someone has taken your report." Returning his gaze to the woman's arm, he added quietly, "I have three of them."
Emergency vehicles arrived and authorities took over the scene. Another cop who was talking with a fireman glanced in my direction and I held up the card. He pointed at another cop and sent him over to me. Fifteen minutes later, with the help of the man who'd translated for me before, I was free to go.
As I turned to thank my translator, the wall and roof of the bus terminal's walkway collapsed on two firemen and I ran over there to help dig them out. They were shaken and bruised, but not seriously hurt. I looked toward the alcove, but a section of the roof had completely covered it.
Another fireman thanked me, but rather insistently took my arm to lead me out of the debris. All I was able to make out was "... our sort of work. Not for civilians..."
Yeah, fine. I went with him beyond the taped-off perimeter the cops had set up and took a last look at the devastation, then walked down the street to the beach.
Two blocks later, a strong presence to my right made me look in that direction. It got stronger, so I stopped to really examine the area and saw a blonde woman leaning on a second-floor windowsill of some stucco-walled building.
Her impassive gaze met mine and I studied her face. Maybe thirty, plus or minus a few years. Nice features. No smile, just the sort of mildly interested expression you'd see on someone's face as they examined a unique rock or seashell.
On general principles I smiled and gave her a little wave, then headed down stone steps carved out of the rock that had formed the low cliff at the edge of the Mediterranean Sea.
Sitting on a bench near a snack wagon, I pondered what to do with my last couple of days in Israel. I didn't really have a fixed schedule; I'd seen what I'd wanted to see and didn't really have a good reason to stay.
That same sense of presence returned, this time directly behind me. I turned to see the blonde descending the stone steps in jeans and a white blouse that billowed a bit in the breeze. She stopped at the snack wagon and chatted with the guy inside, then headed in my direction.
A few feet from my bench, she stopped and studied me for a few moments, then asked, "Did they send you to find me?"
I stood up and looked her up and down once. Tall, blonde, fit as hell, apparently, and generally gorgeous in her own right, but something told me not to try a glib answer on her.
Shaking my head, I said, "Nobody sent me here. Care to join me? I'm trying to figure out where to go next. By the way, you speak English very well."
Making no move to sit, she said, "Yes, I know. Next?"
Sitting back down, I replied, "Yeah. Next. I've been here two months. Saw what I wanted to see, and I'm not quite ready to head back to the States, but there's nowhere else over here I really want to go."
Joining me on the bench, she asked, "By 'over here', should I take that to mean 'the Middle East'?"
"Yeah. And Europe. Been there for the last couple of years. Don't have much interest in seeing Asia again, so I'm kind of running out of places to visit."
After a few moments, she asked, "So you're just a tourist on a two-year holiday? Do you expect me to believe that?"
I chuckled, "You can believe whatever you want, ma'am. Won't matter a rat's rump to anyone but you."
Leaning back on the bench, she said, "You don't look very much like a tourist, you know." Reaching to pluck at the sleeve of my green Army shirt, she said, "You look as if you're dressed for work. What kind of work do you do?"
Again meeting her gaze, I replied, "At the moment, from everything. There's nothing I really want to do."
Her hand fell away from my sleeve. "I find that hard to believe."
Shrugging, I said, "Believe it. I write a bit now and then, but that's more for my benefit than anyone else's."
"Are you published?"
Fishing one of my Abintra Press cards out of the rain-proof plastic baggie in my shirt pocket, I handed it to her. "Yes. Feel free to drop by my website."
Reading my card, she said, "I may do that," then she looked at her watch and said, "It's been nice talking with you," as she stood up.
I stood up as well and said, "Thanks for the company," then she turned and headed for the stone steps.
Watching her fine figure as she stepped away across the sand, I felt a sense of loss. No, not loss, exactly; more like an opportunity missed. But an opportunity for what? She hadn't seemed too interested in me other than why I might be visiting her neighborhood.
From above came the sounds of an argument. I looked up and saw a man and woman yelling at each other on the walkway in front of the parking area near the low cliff. The man yelled a last time and left the woman standing there, then I heard a car start.
People do stupid things when they're pissed off. In this case, he gunned the engine and put the car in reverse without looking behind, then rammed into a van passing behind his car.
Apparently trying to correct matters, he put his car in drive and gave it too much gas. It plunged over the curb and through the low concrete wall lining the edge of the cliff.
As the car teetered on the edge of falling, I muttered something like, "Well, shit," and flew up there to shove the car back a few feet into the parking space.
The guy in the car stared at me in open-mouthed shock and his bikini-clad ladyfriend had a similar expression. Glancing around, I didn't see the blonde anywhere, but other people were approaching.
Leaving the errant driver and his beach bunny friend to their own devices, I flew back to my hotel, landed on the roof, and tried the stairwell door.
It was locked, of course. Israelis were nothing if not security conscious. Looking over the side of the ten-story building, I saw nowhere to hop down without being seen.
Since it didn't really matter if I was seen because I wasn't staying anyway, I hopped over the edge to land in the rear parking lot and walked into my hotel past half a dozen people who seemed somewhat startled.
When I got to my room, I started gathering stuff to pack and realized I was wearing my last semi-clean shirt, so I decided to do laundry in the basement washers I'd discovered on my second day there.
Wadding everything into a hotel trash bag, I headed downstairs with a stop for change at the lobby. While I waited for my coins, I again felt a sense of presence nearby, but didn't see the blonde or anyone else who looked capable of evoking that sensation.
That sense of being watched came and went a few more times as I did laundry and watched the news on the TV in the corner of the laundry room. No point in being concerned about it; it could have been hotel security making the rounds. I'd met one of their security people; she was a tubby, fiftyish woman with a quick smile, a cheerful personality, and a small 9mm pistol in a shoulder rig under her hotel services jacket.
Some time later, I was in my room, putting stuff in my backpack to be ready to leave in the morning, when someone knocked at my door. I opened it to find the blonde from the beach and simply held the door open for her as I gestured her into the room with a flourish.
After a moment, she strode in past me and looked around as she said, "I called some... friends... about you. They've been wondering where you'd disappeared to."
Hm. The Israeli cops had me on file from two rescue incidents and the bombing and the State Department tracked passport records, to include hotel stays and such. I also kept in touch with April, Sara, and Doris on a fairly regular basis. If anyone had a valid reason to know my whereabouts, they'd have been able to find me fairly easily.
I closed the door without locking it and asked, "Your friends, ma'am?"
Eyeing my stuff on the bed, she remarked, "Don't sound so surprised that I have some."
"I'm surprised that they might give a damn where I am."
Looking up, she said, "They didn't, until I asked about you. Did you know there's almost nothing on file about you?"
The blonde went back to examining my stuff as I mentally linked with Doris and asked, 'Got a minute, cop lady?'
She replied, 'Sure, what's up?'
Letting her see the blonde through my eyes, I asked, 'Got any idea who she is?'
'No. Should I?'
'Guess not. I'll try April and Sara. Later, ma'am. Thanks.'
April's response to seeing the woman was a surge of shock that made me ask, 'What's the matter?'
In a flat tone, April replied, 'Ed, if she's who I think she is, be careful. Be damned careful. We don't know where she's been for the past forty years.' I felt her link out as she almost yelled, 'Sara!' and Sara joined our link.
You can feel someone turn pale over a telepathic link, and if you aren't careful, your empathic reaction will parallel theirs. As an echo of Sara's shock washed through me, of course, the blonde turned to face me again.
She saw my reaction and seemed somewhat concerned.
"Are you all right?"
"Um. Yeah, I'm fine, I think. Do you have any idea how beautiful you are?"
He left eyebrow went up, then she gave me a peering, piercing look and replied simply, "Yes. I'm told frequently. Are you sure you're all right?"
Nodding, I walked to the bureau to retrieve my coffee mug and sent, 'So who the hell is she, please?' to April and Sara as I took a long sip.
April said, 'If it's really her, her name is Shalina. Nobody's seen her since 1967. She just disappeared, Ed. She didn't return from a mission. Everyone thought she'd left Earth. Ed, we're on our way. Keep her talking until we get there.'
'Shalina,' I replied, 'Okay, now what is she? A convertee? She wouldn't look that delicious after forty years unless...'
'No,' said Sara, 'She's one of us. Oh, hell, more than that. She was sent to Earth in 1758 to deal with one of the first Aktion incursions in this sector.'
Blink. Stare. 1758? Damn! She was holding up pretty goddamned well for a little old lady. Her peering gaze continued. I sent the ladies, 'Okay. Enough for now. Thanks,' and dropped the mental link.
The woman asked, "Why are you staring at me?"
My automatic response was, "You're gorgeous, ma'am."
She didn't buy that for a moment. I'd imagine my expression hadn't matched my words very well.
Stepping to within a couple of feet of me, she said in a quiet, ominous tone, "I want to know why you're here. Now."
Setting my coffee down, I draped my arms across the top edge of the tall bureau and replied, "Well, ma'am, it's like this; I'm here because I'm not somewhere else. That's all there is and it's the truth. And I didn't come here looking for you, if that's what you think."
She snapped, "Yes, that's what I think."
Her left hand flashed out and grabbed my right shoulder in what would have been a truly crushing grip if I hadn't been converted. Her right fist cocked back as she prepared to say something else. I didn't give her a chance to say it.
Lifting my legs, I planted both feet in her gut and shoved. She was pushed back several feet and the look of total surprise on her face let me know she hadn't in the least expected me to be able to do that. Her surprise morphed to rage.
When she launched herself at me, I sidestepped just a bit, got a grip on her left arm, twisted it up and tripped her at the same time, and wound up kneeling on her back briefly before I hopped up and backed away from her. She was back on her feet almost instantly.
"Either listen to me or leave," I said, "Just go the hell away, okay? I know what you are and I'm just a convertee. I didn't come here looking for you and the lady who converted me knows I'm here. If you bust me up, I promise she'll be on your trail for real."
Although she'd looked ready to come at me again, she heard my words and froze, eyeing me like a prizefighter.
"No convertee can do what you just did."
"This one can. I taught Tai Kwon Do to a lady like you. Her name is April."
Shaking her head, she snapped, "I've been watching you. You've contacted no one since I met you at the beach. You never went near a phone and you don't have a radio."
"Yeah, but I had to use my passport to check in and I had to show it to the cops today. She may get here too late, but she'll damned well get here."
She seemed to be calming down a bit as she asked, "Where's April now?"
"Damned if I know, but she and Sara work out of a lab in New Mexico, and you know they can be here in minutes. What's the problem, lady? Why'd you come at me like that?"
Eyeing me tightly, she replied, "Never mind. Maybe I made a mistake. Or not. Why haven't you asked me who I am?"
"Maybe because you didn't seem very friendly?"
Shaking her head, she growled, "No games, damn it. Do you know who I am?"
"Yes. I think so, anyway. Shalina. Missing since '67 and presumed to have left Earth. So what? Stay missing if you want. As far as I know, they've been getting along fine without you."
Looking ready to pounce again, she snapped, "If you didn't come here looking for me, how do you know my name?"
Linking to April and Sara, I met Shalina's gaze and held out my hand. "Touch me," I said, "Take my hand."
Suddenly very cautious, she replied, "Oh, I really don't think so. Given your training, you might..."
"Might what?" I cut in, "Might what... that you couldn't handle? Don't tell me you really think I could take you down again now that you're ready for something like that. Just touch my fingertips. Any contact at all's good enough."
"Good enough for what?"
"You'll see. If you have the nerve to touch me, that is."
Looking truly pissed, Shalina sighed her irritation and reached to let her fingertips touch mine. As soon as we made contact, April almost shouted through our link, 'It is her! Shalina! Don't hurt him! He...'
Her eyes big and her mouth open, Shalina yanked her hand back and retreated a few paces as she hissed, "What... what the hell are you?!"
Shrugging, I said, "Like I said, a tourist."
"You know what I mean, goddamnit!"
"Yeah, okay. April, Sara, Doris, and I can talk to each other. Anytime, anywhere."
"Doris?! Who the hell's Doris?!"
"Another convertee. How about taking a breath and calming down a bit, ma'am? It's just a form of communication."
Through our link, April said, 'We're almost there, Ed. Just hang on another minute.'
Hang on? What did she think was happening?
'Yes'm. Hanging on, ma'am. The room door's unlocked. No need to break it down.'
"Shalina," I said, "My friends are worried about me. Why? Did you do something before you disappeared?"
Her eyes turned hard. "Everyone thought so, and I couldn't prove I didn't."
"Uh, huh. Could they prove you did?"
"There were witnesses. Nobody would listen, so I... didn't return to the office. Some of the witnesses died violently or simply disappeared. They thought I had something to do with that, too."
Shrugging, I replied, "Yeah, that's how people tend to think. But we could probably fix that. All you'd have to do is show us your memories of whatever happened."
Shalina suddenly grew alarmed and glanced first at the door, then the open window. Screaming "NO!" she launched herself at the window, but April was already coming through it as Sara opened the room's door and darted forward.
Not five feet from her starting point, Shalina was taken down by April and Sara in a thrashing tangle of arms and legs. They hit the floor hard enough to make a dent in the stressed concrete and I quickly moved to try to grab some part of Shalina as the struggle continued.
Sara yelled, "Ed, get back, dammit!", but I reached for Shalina's left ankle and shoved her pants leg up enough to put my fingers on the bare skin of her leg, then opened a link and used a trick I'd learned from a lady named Stella Warn.
With an overwhelming level of insistence Stella had taught me, I commanded, 'Everybody FREEZE!'
All three ladies stopped struggling and stared at me, so I hurried to continue, 'Let her show us what happened. She says she didn't do whatever it was. Shalina, think about what happened. Take us through it.'
There was some mild panic and confusion in Shalina's mind for a few moments, but April and Sara were in the link, too, and they weren't about to let go of her.
April sent, 'Yes! Show us, Shalina! Please!'
After a short time, Shalina seemed resigned to her capture and took a deep breath as she stopped her struggles.
Glancing between April and Sara, then up to me, she thought, 'You can really hear me this way?'
'Yup," I replied, 'All you have to do is think about what happened. That'll show us your memories like a movie.'
She still looked skeptical as hell.
I said, 'Hey, we're talking now, aren't we? Come on, lady! If you're really innocent, how can it hurt to show us what really happened?'
Instead of answering, Shalina must have simply taken us back in her memories. It was like being there, seeing through her eyes and experiencing every sound and sensation. I found myself looking at a lobby. People lay on the floor in positions too uncomfortable-looking for them to have been alive. Further along the hallway I passed through an archway and saw that description and warning signs above the international symbol for radiation were in French.
The words read, 'Centre d'Etudes de Valduc'.
April said aloud softly, "It's the Valduc nuclear weapons facility near Dijon."
Also aloud, Shalina said, "Yes. I answered an emergency call about an armed break-in."
Further down the hallway was an open door. Through it I saw a man slumped over a desk. A dark-haired woman wearing a lab smock over a blue dress hunkered in a corner of the room, crying her guts out.
As I approached the woman, something dropped over me and I felt a sickening weakness. I barely had time to realize it was netting of some sort and that it contained gold before something slammed into the back of my head.
Reeling, but not out, I saw the woman stand up and laugh as she stepped forward to hit me several times with blinding speed and strength almost on a par with mine, then she shoved me and someone behind me pinned my arms.
Barely conscious, I was dragged down the hall to another room, where they stripped off my uniform and the woman put it on, then she put on a blonde wig.
As the man held me captive in the hallway, the woman quickly kicked in the door, trashed the room with her bare hands while apparently searching it, killed two men from an adjoining office who tried to stop her, and ripped open the big vault door at the rear of the room.
She went into the vault and came back out holding two metal canisters, then approached me and set the canisters down so she could take off the uniform. Once she again wore the blue dress and smock, she hit me several times. Everything seemed to dim gradually, then went black.
I woke to find myself surrounded by armed security guards, two of whom aimed odd-looking guns at me. I was again wearing my uniform and my hands were cuffed behind me.
Someone had put a man's heavy gold watch on my left arm above the elbow and there were slim gold bracelets on my wrists. I could feel rings on all my fingers and my hands were heavily taped together, probably to keep the rings in place.
I was still dizzy and disoriented. I had trouble walking as they took me to a holding room, tied me to a wooden chair, and questioned me.
When I tried to tell them what had happened, one man angrily spat at me and asked if I thought they were fools. He pointed at a camera in a corner of the room and said six men had seen what I'd done.
Questioning became interrogations that seemed to go on forever. The gold made me violently ill, but they didn't care and the rat-faced little man in charge kept coming back for more. Tired. Sick. Started losing consciousness in the middle of interrogations and the skin on my arm was blotching from continuous exposure to the gold watch.
I managed to snag the watch under a sneaky pervert guard's belt buckle when he rubbed himself against my shoulder and told me some of the things he'd like to do to me.
Lunging up and heaving him at the wall with all I had left, I nearly lifted him off the floor before the watch band broke. Felt a little better immediately, strong enough to shoulder the guard into the wall, but not hard enough.
He got up and aimed his rifle at me as I sat down to work my hands under my legs and bring my arms up in front of me. I raised my hands to protect my eyes.
A bullet hit the handcuffs and one side broke open before I grabbed the guard and hit him twice, finally putting him down. Dizzy as hell. Staggered against the chair and fell. Realized I may have actually killed the guard. Didn't seem to care.
Starting to feel better with the gold off my arm. Clawed at the tape with the hook from the handcuff. Some of it came off my left hand, some of the rings still stuck to the tape. Fingers were swollen; couldn't get all the rings off, so I start clawing at the tape on my right hand.
Guards burst into the room. One shoots and his bullet ricochets and hits another guard. Four men between me and the door. They can't shoot, so they don't seem to know what to do. More tape comes off as I head toward them.
The guards pile onto me and we struggle. More tape comes off. I hit the guards and peel them off as they go limp. Soon only one left, a kid about twenty. He's scared as hell and aims his pistol, but can't seem to pull the trigger.
But once I turn my back on him to walk to the door he works up the nerve to shoot. The first bullet hits me in the middle of the back. Hurts like hell and jars me into the door frame.
I turn and the second shot hits my arm where the watch had been. Agonizing pain. I look down and see my own blood for the first time in my life. When I look at the kid, he shoots again. The bullet hits my neck, then the wall. Kicks up plaster dust.
"One more time," I growl in a voice I've never heard before, "And I'll kill you."
We face each other for a long moment. He drops the gun and it falls on one of his friends. When it hits the floor, it goes off and the kid pees himself as he jumps away from the gun.
Turn, head for the hallway. More guards coming. Ripping off the remaining gold rings, I sling them at the guards. They hit the walls and floor like bullets and one of the guards goes down holding his leg.
Two shoot at me. Their bullets skip off me into walls and the ceiling. Some bounce again when they hit the floor. The men stop shooting and back away as I walk past them.
More guards at the lobby. More shooting. Feeling much better now. Look at my arm. No more bleeding, pink tissue sealing the gash. Fountain in the courtyard. It's dark outside. I stand in the fountain and let the cold water wash over me for a while as I watch people gather at the lobby doors.
Bastards! Assholes! The rat-faced guard leader is coming out of the lobby with one of those big-barrelled guns. Aims it at me. I send some heat at the middle of it and his hands are smoking when he drops it.
The gun turns in the air, lands on its back, and goes off pointing between his legs, but misses him. Big shell blows the hell out of the lobby doors. Guards fall, others scream, some have hands to faces. Probably blinded by glass. Gold dust billows, but the wind is behind me. Good thing I didn't let him shoot at me with that thing.
Still too weak to fly. I step out of the fountain walk to the parking lot, find a red Renault-16 with keys in the ignition. Drive away wondering why no cops or military ever showed up. Smash past the aluminum bar at the checkpoint on the road to the facility.
Don't get far before I'm sick again and find out why. Throw up twice on the side of the road and the second time I heave up more gold rings. Don't remember swallowing them, but I wasn't conscious half the time. Felt a lot better, but wondered if there are any more in there.
Try to levitate and stagger into the air. Slow flight west until I see a big farm. Land and follow power lines to look for a circuit box, find one at the corner of the barn. Big bar fuses. Manage to work one loose and out, then stick my fingers into the grips and feel the juice surging up my arms.
Soon sick again. I let go of the circuit to kneel and throw up two more rings. Stand up and lean on the wall as I charge some more and study the rings on the ground. Wedding bands, their designs worn down a bit.
Someone's idea of a way to make sure I couldn't get rid of all the gold during interrogation? If so, big mistake. Works better on the outside. I cough a laugh and glance at my healing arm as I think, 'That watch sure worked well enough.'
What seems like only moments later, a yelp and a cold spot on my leg wakes me. A dog is backing away, shaking his head and pawing at his nose. It probably sniffed at me and got shocked.
With a low growl, the dog lunged at my calf. The moment its mouth made contact, it began spasming uncontrollably until it shook free and lay at my feet. Still breathing, at least. Broken teeth and some charring inside and around its mouth.
I studied the dog and couldn't seem to care about it much. Pulling my fingers out of the fuse holders, I took stock of myself. Still a bit weak, but a lot better than before.
My head had cleared, or at least I thought so. Lifting into the breaking dawn sky, I headed for Paris, but suddenly didn't feel it would be a good idea to show up there. Instead, I went home and set up my Dictaphone, hooked myself up to my own charger, and dictated a report as I fed on two-twenty current.
The more I said, the less believable my story sounded, and as I neared the end of my report, I decided to avoid the office until I could contact someone there and find out what was going on.
Noises in the street interrupted me and I looked out the window. Two men were approaching the front door on the walkway. I spotted more men surrounding the house to each side. I finished my report quickly and went upstairs to pack a few things as the doorbell rang.
Apparently Shalina fast-forwarded, because the next memory she showed us was set in a small town in the mountains. We saw her dial a pay phone and she introduced herself to whomever answered by another name, then asked to speak to Miss Evelyn Russell.
Russell realized immediately who she was talking with and used Shalina's alias when she gushed, "Oh, my God! It's been ages since college! Are you free for lunch?" and so on. A meet was set 'at that cafe where I met Julian' and Shalina fast-forwarded us again.
A smiling brunette woman handed a newspaper across the table as she chatted about some guy named Julian's preference for oddly flavored coffees, then said, "It's good to see you again. I was worried when you dropped out of school."
Shalina answered, "But I left you a note. On the coffee table."
Shaking her head, Russell replied, "I never got it. They cleaned out your place and re-rented it. I don't know where they took your stuff."
"Doesn't matter. There weren't any heirlooms."
Looking at her watch, Russell said, "Well, back to work. It was nice seeing you again. We really must keep in touch."
After goodbyes and watching Russell drive away, Shalina sipped coffee as she studied the neighborhood for signs that anyone might be following Russell. Some minutes of that passed before she stood up, picked up her shopping bag and dropped the newspaper into it, then walked away.
Fast-forward again. She took an envelope out of the folded paper, tossed the paper in the trash, then opened the envelope.
The note read, 'You're wanted for seven murders and theft of nuclear components. Do NOT come back to the office. Sauder is either one of them or working for them. Colonel Danon has orders to capture you at all costs to include killing you, and he was issued two of the captured rifles. I don't think he's an Aktion, but he will follow orders.'
Standing up, I took my hand off Shalina's leg and broke the link, then went to the bureau for my coffee mug.
"Damn," I said, "Now I feel as if I need to sit down and charge up for a while, too."
All the ladies looked a bit green at the gills as they began untangling themselves.
Shalina sat up, scooted back until she could lean on the bed, and looked at me as she asked, "What now?"
Pointing at April and Sara, I said, "You'll have to ask them, ma'am. I'm not in charge of anything."
April said, "As I recall, the plutonium was recovered, but the murder cases are still open."
"I recovered and returned it," said Shalina, "I followed rat-face for days until he finally made contact with the woman who stole it. He drove to a warehouse office in Lyon one night. After some talk, she led him into the warehouse and left him impaled on a forklift blade."
There was a knock on the door and I waved at the ladies to get into the bathroom as I yelled, "Be right there!" then went to open the door.
Two guys in hotel jackets stood in the hall. One of them looked past me into the room as the other asked, "Sir, have you seen or heard anything in the last ten minutes or so that sounded like an explosion?"
It had only been ten minutes? Oh, well. Meeting the guy's gaze, I said, "I heard some kind of a really loud thud, like a helluva lot of weight hitting the floor or something. You think it was an explosion? Are you evacuating the hotel? Do I have time to finish packing?"
Raising a hand, the man said, "No, sir. There have been no orders to evacuate; we're just trying to locate the source of the sound. Can you tell us where the sound came from?"
I gave that some thought, then offered, "Well, I was standing in front of the bureau and it sounded as if it came from in front of me." Turning myself as if standing in front of the bureau again, I pointed ahead and said, "I was definitely facing that direction when I heard it."
The other guy pointed at my stuff on the bed and asked, "You're preparing to leave early?"
Nodding, I said, "Yeah. There's nothing else I want to see here and we have beaches back in the States."
Referring to a sheet on his clipboard, the guy asked, "You had no trouble with our laundry facilities?"
"Wow. You guys are really on top of things around here. No, I just put in money and the machines worked fine. Wish the TV had an English channel, though. The news was all Hebrew."
He rolled his eyes and gave me a confidential look as he replied, "Well, it is our national language, you know."
The other guy grinned with him and I grinned, too, as I replied, "Over half the people I've met here are Americans."
That removed his grin. They excused themselves and continued down the hall as I closed the door. As I turned around, the bathroom door cracked open a bit and Sara asked, "Can we come out now?"
"Sure, lady. Where are we going from here?"
As they filed out, she asked, "Why leave at all? You have the room for the rest of the day."
"But someone down the hall is going to point those guys back this direction shortly. Someone that way," I thumbed over my shoulder, "Already sent them this way. Nope. I think we ought to split before I get charged for the dent you ladies made in the floor."
April chuckled, "They'll just bill your card for the damage."
"No card. I paid cash and I'm outta here, ma'am. If they call me about it, I'll tell 'em to bill the lab."
Sara said, "Let's let Shalina decide where to go."
Shalina gave her a fisheye look and asked, "To do what?"
Shrugging, Sara said, "Lie on a beach. Talk some more. Find a way to get those charges against you dropped."
"Just like that, you believed me?"
I said, "Vivid memories are damned hard to fake. They're a lot more than just pictures."
April nodded and shuddered at the same time.
"Yes, they certainly are. It felt as if that gold was..." she took a breath and said, "Ed, I'll call the hotel later about the damages. You check out and meet us on the beach."
Saluting, I responded, "Good 'nuff. Be right there."
The ladies flitted out the window. I finished packing, then headed downstairs, got my change, and left the hotel. When I reached the stone steps, I saw the ladies standing in the surf and headed down to the bench where I'd first talked to Shalina. Rolling up my pants legs, I wandered over to join them.
April said, "It's about time you got here."
"I walked, ma'am. Didn't want to attract undue attention by flying out of the lobby, you know."
Two guys walking by studied April and Sara rather intently, but didn't stop to chat. A kid on a boogie board skimmed by, and people who might be his parents were approaching.
I said, "This place gets some traffic. Might be better to take things somewhere a little more private."
Sounding a little suspicious, Shalina asked, "Such as..?"
"Your place is right up the hill, isn't it? That window I saw you leaning out of earlier?"
Looking at all of us in turn, Shalina said, "No, I'd like to be able to go back there. That is, if I'm not going to be arrested."
Shrugging, I said, "I don't see how arresting you would accomplish much. They got the plutonium back and nuke plant guards having all that gold on hand made it pretty obvious the Aktions set you up for a fall. What happened after whatsherface killed rat-face in the warehouse?"
Shalina asked, "Do you want to see it or just hear it?"
"Both," said April, "But hearing is good enough for now."
Nodding, Shalina said, "I followed her. She drove to a nearby farm, met two men, and switched to a black Mercedes. I followed them to the coast, where they boarded a sport-fishing boat in Martigues. Once they were a few miles out, I landed on the boat and snapped off their radio antenna, tapped out the two men on the upper deck and set the auto-pilot due south at five knots, and waited. Another man came up from the cabin almost immediately. I tapped his skull as he appeared and waited some more. The woman came up the steps next, and she had one of those gold-guns."
Taking a breath, she said, "I tried heating it, but she just laughed and continued up the steps. When she aimed it at me, I flipped the hatch cover over. It hit the barrel, the gun went off, and the shell flew back the way we'd come. The woman dropped the gun and jumped straight up through the hatch cover to grab me. She was only about half as strong as me, but she'd had some excellent training and it was all I could do to contain her. Then she did something that threw me completely off balance and managed to grab the hatch frame to pull us down the steps, where she broke free and grabbed another of those damned guns off a bunk."
Shuddering, Shalina said, "I saw her finger move on the trigger and launched myself straight up. The shell hit my foot and exploded as I burst through the upper deck. When I was a few hundred feet up, I circled the boat to see if she'd come out, but she didn't. My foot and leg were in agony and coated with gold powder, so I flew into the water ahead of the boat and kicked hard to get rid of the gold. When the boat reached me, I lifted enough to look through a port hole and saw nothing but gold on the glass. I flew above it and tried to see through the hatch, but the lights were out. There was gold powder all over the rear deck and the wheel area above the cabin. Men were waking up on deck and one of them went below, then came out shaking his head and waved at one of the others to help him. They moved three suitcases up to the rear deck while the other man inflated a rubber boat and put a motor on the back of it."
She stopped again and looked around once, then sighed, "What the hell. I decided those people were too damned mean to live. One of the men started the little boat's motor and they slid it off the deck with him and the suitcases in it. I flew down, broke his neck, tossed him out of the boat, then moved it farther away and watched the big boat sink. One man went down with it. The other tried to swim for the raft, but I kept it out of his reach. I recognized him from my interrogations. He finally sank and didn't come back up."
After a few moments of silence in our little group, I shrugged and said, "Well, horror of horrors. Some bad guys bit the dust. Or gnawed water or whatever. Couldn't have happened to a more deserving bunch. Now tell us about the suitcases, ma'am."
Shalina's moderately horrified expression almost matched those of April and Sara and I rolled my eyes at them.
"Yeah, yeah. Gimme that look and get it out of your systems, then let's get on with the story, okay?"
Another moment passed as the ladies glanced at each other, then Shalina said, "The plutonium canisters were in two of the suitcases. The third suitcase contained almost three million dollars. I took the plutonium to Dijon, left the suitcases in a train station locker, and called the police about them. I kept the three million for expenses."
As we all began walking in the surf, Sara snorted, "Expenses, huh? Three million bucks would have gone a long way toward expenses back in 1967. You must have planned on living pretty well."
"Not really. I've needed much of that money over the last forty years. I've given some away, too."
"The money's not important," I said, "Why did you stay gone so long, Shalina? There must have been a dozen..."
Shalina interrupted me with, "I just did, okay? Something about that incident made me question everything. Everybody. All of a sudden I wasn't sure about anything anymore. I tried to call the office a week later and they said Evelyn had called in sick. I watched her house for a couple of days, but she didn't come home."
With a deep sigh, she said, "That weekend they found her in the river ten miles from Paris. When I called again, some guy named Purdue was running my office, which didn't make any sense because the office only existed to screen and support my missions. I watched the place for a while and saw a woman who looked almost exactly like the one on the boat go there every day for a week. The following Monday the sign on the door was changed. An import business moved into my offices."
I muttered, "Oh, hell, that's just classic."
"Did you check out the import business?"
"Of course. They brought things into France from China. I saw their crates at Orly."
"Still remember the name of the outfit, ma'am?"
Her gaze narrowed. "Yes. Having your world yanked out from under you does wonders for your memory."
Linking to Doris, I had Shalina tell me the name and asked Doris to run a background on it.
She linked back a few minutes later and the ladies and I stacked hands before I said, 'Okay, we're ready. Go ahead.'
Upshot: the import company had been a front for a French intelligence branch. After a year of operation, it was sold on paper to another outfit, also a French intelligence front, which in turn sold it to a legitimate importer to clean the trail. Like I said, classic. Also thoroughly unimaginative.
I said, 'Now check out the top half-dozen customers, ma'am. Bet you find that one of them went out of business after a fire destroyed all records just after the last sale.'
Her droll reply was, 'I know the routine, Ed.'
'Oh, yes, ma'am. I'm very, extremely sorry, ma'am.'
'What you are is a pain in the ass.'
'Oh, never, ma'am. I don't play that way.'
Sara laughed and Shalina snickered. April was about to say something when Doris said, 'Got it. Fifth biggest customer's fire was the very day of exchange. Now how about telling me what all this is about?'
I looked at April. She nodded and sent, 'Shalina's been found. She's innocent of all charges. Stand by one.'
'Who's Shalina and what was she charged with?'
'You'll see. Ready?'
Gathering herself, April sent her memories of Shalina's memories to Doris -- and in the process, to all of us. We again relived her experiences in 1967.
After a few moments, Doris said, 'I thought I felt someone else in the link. Shalina, are you there?'
'Yes,' said Shalina, 'I'm here.'
With considerable controlled emotion in her words, Doris said firmly, 'We're going to fix this,' then she dropped the link.
Shalina looked startled as we let our hands separate.
She asked, "Why'd she quit? Or drop out, or whatever?"
Sara answered, "She probably needed a Kleenex. By the time we get to the lab, she'll have every bit of info available concerning that case and trails to follow for more info."
"Trails? To find what, after all this time?"
As if she couldn't believe the question, Sara replied, "To find evidence to clear you, of course!"
Shaking my head, I said, "That's a given. I think she wants to know where things'll go after that, ma'am." Turning to Shalina, I asked, "Could it be you'd rather not be active again?"
Giving me a sidelong glance, she allowed, "Maybe. When I was in the thick of things, I never had more than a day or two off for decades at a time. Hell, I didn't have a life of my own beyond being Earth's only Protector. Everyone told me I was indispensable, but it's funny as hell how when I disappeared, it only took a week or so to get another one here."
Glancing at April, then at Sara, she added, "And now there are two. Or are there more?"
"Just two," said April, "Are you saying you won't come back with us? Work with us?"
Raising a hand in protest, I said, "Hey, she's a little old lady who'd already spent two hundred years in the harness before she was framed. Give her a break, ma'am."
The 'little old lady' speared me with her gaze and I gave her a weak little grin. "Just tryin' to help, ma'am! Don't hit me!"
After a moment, she said, "Like hell you were," then she looked at us as a group and said, "I need some time to think about this. He's half-right, you know. I served on two other worlds before Earth and I was born in what was 1510 here on Earth. Are either of you even a full hundred years old yet?"
"Ninety-one," said Sara.
"One-oh-four," said April.
"Day-um!" I exclaimed, "Four hundred and ninety-six? And you still look like some kind of beach bunny?! Wow!"
She sighed and snapped, "Do please shut up, will you? We adults are trying to have a conversation."
"Oh, not fair, ma'am. I'm not exactly a kid anymore, either."
"You aren't even sixty. I saw your police passport stats." Giving me a droll look, she turned to April and said, "He had to be almost fifty when you converted him. Isn't that still contrary to general policy except in the direst circumstances?"
Rolling her eyes, April sighed, "I knew someone would bring that up someday. Yes. It is. But there were... extenuating... circumstances, Shalina."
With a raised eyebrow, Shalina replied, "Oh, I'm sure. What extenuating circumstances, if I may ask?"
Sara grinningly piped up with, "He killed an Aktion beta with a pocket knife about two minutes after he met her."
Shalina's raised eyebrow became an expression of amazed disbelief as she turned her gaze on me.
"It's true!" chirped Sara, "And that's not all. He..."
April raised a palm to stop her and said, "Easier to show than tell. Ed, would you make us all another link?"
"Well, gee, I dunno, ma'am. I don't want to have to tell Shalina not to salute."
Shalina barked a soft laugh. "You shouldn't worry too much about that possibility."
Sara snickered softly, "But you might in a minute."
When I held out a hand, the ladies stacked theirs on mine to form the link, then April sent her memories of the night we'd met. Something had slammed into her back and knocked her out of the night sky hard enough to make a twelve-foot crater in the concrete roadbed of I-30.
I suddenly jumped into the crater and she grabbed me by the throat, then realized I wasn't an Aktion and dropped me as she scanned the sky.
Hearing a noise behind her, she turned to see me charging up the slope at a bulky Aktion soldier with an energy rifle. I threw a handful of dirt at his face and grabbed the weapon, then did my best to avoid the muzzle and do some damage when I couldn't get the rifle away from him.
When he prepared to slam me against the ragged edge of the crater, I climbed up and over his back and landed on my feet behind him with my folding knife in my hand. The Aktion soldier turned and I rammed my knife up and into his throat, then we slid into the crater and I kicked at the knife to drive it up into his brain.
The Aktion died and I rolled away and just lay there trying to draw a decent breath and remain conscious as April stood over us with a sense of total amazement. The last image she sent was a close-up of the knife, then she dropped the link.
Our hands fell apart and Shalina just stared at me for a few moments until I asked April, "You've never really let me know what I was up against that night, have you?"
She grinned and shook her head. "No."
"Should I want to know?"
April laughed, "Oh, probably not."
"That bad, huh?"
"Oh, yes. That bad. Worse, really."
Nodding, I said, "Well, okay, then. Maybe some other time."
Reaching to tap the knife on my belt, Shalina asked, "Is that the knife?"
"May I see it?"
I pulled it out of its belt case and flicked it open, then handed it to her butt-first.
She took it and studied it for a moment, then said, "It doesn't have a spring. How do you open it like that?"
Taking the knife and closing it, I said, "Like this," and flicked it open again.
Shalina took the knife, closed it, and tried twice before it flicked open for her. She did it again a couple of times, then handed my knife back and stared at me again for a moment before looking at April.
"That was quite something, but it doesn't explain... oh. Yes, I suppose it does. He thought he was protecting you."
April nodded. I held up a hand and said, "Wait a minute. This has been bugging me for years, April. That guy had a GAR rifle. He might have had to shoot you two or three times to put you down, but..."
She shook her head. "No. Sorry. I'd have incapacitated him before he could get a second shot."
"You're sure about that? Absolutely sure?"
Her manner was firm. "Yes. No doubt at all. Sorry."
Shrugging, I sighed, "Well, damn. Oh, well. At least I tried to save your gorgeous ass, ma'am."
April laughed, "Yes, you did."
Turning to Shalina, I said, "I was an ex-mercenary. I'd seen too much and done too much and I tried to settle down in Dallas. Couldn't talk about where I'd been or what I'd done, partly because it was all classified in one way or another and partly because it was plain damned gory in spots, so I ran a little short on small talk at parties. Tried a few jobs. Nothing suited me. Everything about the civilian world seemed trivial as hell. I was on the verge of going back to Africa when April fell out of the sky in front of me."
Shalina's eyes narrowed slightly in a questioning manner, but she didn't ask, "Where's all this going?" She knew.
"You know how that is, ma'am. What it feels like. I couldn't even let myself get into a bar fight. Somebody might've gotten killed, and it likely wouldn't have been me. Saying the wrong thing about where I'd been could have put me in prison. I ran into a few people who knew me and my past, but I was never stupid enough to think they were there by coincidence. They were keeping a loose eye on me, half-expecting trouble. I'll bet you have some people like that in your life, too; maybe even those 'friends' you mentioned checking with about me."
Her expression never changed, but her eyes reacted, her pupils dwindling to pinpoints briefly as she softly growled, "Get to your point, please."
"In a minute. When I joined up with April, I threw myself into things as my conversion developed. Learned a lot in a hurry about why she and Sara are here. Learned a lot about my new self. Got really involved with it all for a while. Then a few things happened and I started feeling constrained. Some things about the way things were done began to bug the hell out of me. I decided to leave the program and... excused myself."
Sara chortled, "You 'excused yourself?' What an absolutely lovely way to describe that moment! Ed, I believe your exact words were, 'I'm getting the fuck out of here!'
"Gee, thanks a lot for the clarification, lady."
She cheerily replied, "Just trying to help."
Looking thoughtful, Shalina said, "Maybe you did. Ed, are you still outside the program?"
Nodding, I replied, "Yup. Well, sort of. I drop by the labs now and then to schmooze and catch up on things, but unless the ladies call me to help with something, I'm on my own."
Grinning, Sara supplied, "He's a sleeve card."
April snorted, "More like a wild card, usually. But we find him fairly useful now and then. Is that what you're taking the roundabout way of getting to, Ed? You're suggesting we make Shalina our ace in the hole?"
"If she's willing, yes. Clear the books as much as possible and bring her up to speed on things, then turn her loose. She can be on tap for emergencies."
Shalina irritatedly snapped, "I just love the way you people are planning the rest of my life for me."
Oops. Well, it was fixable. I held out my hand to her and after a questioning look and a long moment she took it. April and Sara took my other hand in theirs and I sent our feelings to Shalina without words or pictures.
Her lips began to tremble and tears welled in her eyes, then ran down her cheeks as she coughed slightly and croaked, "I... uh... I didn't..." She shook her head and started again.
Her hand fell away from mine as she said, "I didn't understand. I'm sorry I snapped at you."
"No sweat," I said with a grin, "Women are always snapping at me. I've almost gotten used to it."
She choked out a laugh, then took a deep breath and sighed, "Okay. I'm in. But if I want out again later..."
I shrugged and grinned at April and Sara as I said, "I can see two excellent reasons to doubt that'll happen. And wait'll you meet Doris."
Coming toward us on the beach were two overly-muscled guys in their thirties. I first took them to be gay because of the way they were almost shoulder-to-shoulder constantly as they laughed and talked. They altered course to intercept us and stopped a few feet away.
We started to go around them, but they moved to get in our way and one of them yelped, "Hey, Papa! How about introducing us to your friends?"
"Last chance, guys. Get out of our way."
"Last chance?" He laughed and nodded toward the ladies as he said, "We just want to meet your girlfriends, Papa. Or are they your daughters? Is that why you're acting tough?"
Looking at the ladies, I asked, "What about it? You interested in meeting a couple of arrogant jerks today?"
Sara shook her head without comment. April gave me one of those 'you have to ask?' looks and rolled her eyes. Shalina said, "No interest at all."
Looking at the guys, I said, "There you have it. Get lost."
As we started past them again, one grabbed my shoulder and said, "We don't like you, Papa."
Remembering the panic-stricken dog I'd rescued from the rubble of a house fire in Spain, I summoned up the vivid memory of the dog's pain and terror as I reached to touch the guy's arm and sent those emotions flooding into him.
He couldn't get away fast enough, falling on his ass in the surf and crabbing away from me with a look of complete and utter terror as he screamed, "No! No! Get away!"
His friend looked altogether stunned at this turn of events and -- once he'd overcome his shock -- grabbed the front of my shirt and cocked a fist as he yelled, "What did you do?!"
I said, "Just this," and touched his forearm, sending another copy of the dog's pain and terror into him.
He released me instantly and made an impressive leap backward to land on his buddy's legs and stumble in the surf, but he didn't go down. He stood panting as if he'd just run a mile as he gave us a big-eyed stare.
We walked past them without incident, and a few paces farther, Shalina chuckled, "Well, that was something to see. What did you do to them, Ed?"
"I remembered everything I picked up from a dog I saved from a house fire. Terror, shock, pain, all of it. Then I sent a copy of that into each of those guys. Wanna see?"
Sidestepping, she grinningly yelped, "Hell, no, I don't wanna see! Can you teach other people to do that?"
"You mean like gorgeous super-blonde other people?"
"Did you think I meant anyone else?"
"Well, no, not really. Just wanted to be sure, ma'am." Looking at April and Sara, I asked, "Have either of you learned to do that yet?"
April replied, "I certainly haven't. I'm not sure it's something that can be learned. We can initiate links through Ed to talk with each other at apparently any distance, but he's the only one who seems able to directly send and receive other peoples' thoughts and emotions."
Shalina asked, "How do you... 'initiate'... those links?"
Shrugging, Sara said, "Any of us can just think about a link and it happens. Ed seems to be some kind of central point. We haven't really figured out how it works."
"How do you know he's a central point?"
"Because we can't seem to link to each other directly. And believe me, we've tried."
Glancing at Sara, Shalina asked, "How did you come to be able to communicate with each other that way?"
Seeing Sara chew her lip and blush is such a rare occasion that I wished for a camera as I chuckled. Sara gave me a sharp look that turned into a narrow glare, her blush even deeper than before as she glanced at April.
April stifled her own chuckle and said, "We shared an... experience. That's all I can think to call it. When it was over, Doris, Sara, Ed, and I were bound together somehow."
"Must have been one hell of an experience."
Laughing softly, April replied, "Oh, it was. Yes, indeed."
Sara muttered, "It wasn't something I'd want to go through again, that's for sure."
"Not that part of it," I said, "Definitely not. But what about the last part of it? When we all came together? That was the part that really seemed to create the bond."
Yeah, I heard what I'd said even as I said it. I'd only meant 'merged', but... I mentally winced as I anticipated Shalina's response. She didn't disappoint me.
Acquiring a rather startled expression -- perhaps even a shocked expression -- she glanced around us and hissed, "You all came together?! What the hell were you doing?" Glancing around again, she laughed softly, "And if you ever decide to do it again, please count me in!"
That comment led me to wonder how she'd handled forty years of limited companionship. I turned to April and Sara and asked, "Have any convertees turned up in the last forty years who weren't accounted for in some fashion?"
The ladies seemed to give that some thought and glanced at each other with slight headshakes before April answered, "I don't think so, and if I understand where you're going with this, I'll add that none of Shalina's convertees have reported any contact with her since she disappeared."
Shrugging, I asked, "Would they have? Convertees are known to be pretty loyal. Everyone seemed surprised as hell when I wandered off on my own."
Her left eyebrow arching, April said, "Yes, you were rather unique. There tends to be a very low AWOL rate."
"So what happens to them when their golden goddess disappears? Given the types of people I've met who've been converted, I'd pretty much rule out ritual suicide."
That made Sara bark a laugh. "No, that's pretty unlikely. As a rule, they affiliate with the new Protector."
"A rule, huh? Guess I didn't get the memo. Anyway... how many convertees did Shalina have in '67 and how many showed up for roll call when April arrived?"
April replied almost instantly, "Eleven. Eight joined me within days. Two more by the end of my first week here. Another was on the Russian-Chinese border; it was a month before the news reached her. She called in and I visited her rather than risk her cover. There were no others on record."
She delivered her last line with a look at Shalina, then asked, "Have you made any since you disappeared?"
Shaking her head, Shalina replied, "No. None. I couldn't take the chance. He might have done something and exposed us both."
So she preferred men? Kewl! April caught my grin and gave me a narrow look, but Sara grinned back. They knew what I had in mind for Shalina.
I pointed to a bench just ahead and said, "Maybe we ought to sit down. I'd like to show you something more than you've already seen, Shalina. It might come as something of a shock."
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