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Chapter One

Rural Lewis County, Washington state, Sunday, September 20th

First Sergeant Fletcher spread the map on the hood of the Humvee and wondered where the gang might be headed.  

The screen door of the nearby log home squeaked as Deputy Philip exited. He was only twenty-four years old and, Fletcher was sure, had not seen many murders. The door squeaked again as Private Spencer, his skin deathly pale, followed the deputy out of the house.

Back cover of Braving the Storms, by Kyle Pratt

“Anybody alive?” Fletcher asked.

Philip shook his head, took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “An older man and woman are inside, both dead. The gun safe is open, but empty, except for this logbook. It lists eight rifles and three pistols by make, model and serial number. It looks like the gang tortured the husband, probably to get the combination of the gun safe, and then killed them both.”

“How long have they been dead?”

“Two days, maybe three. The gang could be anywhere by now.”

The corporal walked up. “There’s no gas in the car or tractor. The gas caps are off so, I’d guess the gang siphoned it.”

“How much fuel do we have?” Fletcher asked.

“The gas cans are empty and none of the tanks are full. We have enough for today, but we’ll need more soon.”

Fletcher didn’t want to turn back. “They’re animals. I don’t think they know we’re hunting them, but if we don’t find them quickly, they’ll figure it out.” He drew a circle with his finger. “All the attacks have been in this area. We’ve been checking homes, farms, motels and such, but they could be camping somewhere.”

“They would need shelter, water and a place off the road where they can hide,” Philip said.

“There’s a hunting lodge here.” The pale private indicated a location on the map. “It was owned by a rich guy, but since he was from Los Angles….”

Fletcher nodded. Los Angles was nuked by the terrorists on the second day of attacks. The owner of the lodge was probably still in the city when it was destroyed. He looked at the deputy. “I think we should check it out.”

“It’s the best idea I’ve heard today.”

Front cover of Braving the Storms, by Kyle Pratt

“Private round up the rest of the men and let’s move out.”

While the squad of soldiers returned to the two Humvees, Deputy Philip tried to radio in the murders, but heard only static. “We’re out of range.”

Fletcher looked south. “The direction we’re going will keep us out of radio range. Do you want to head back to Hansen and report or—”

“No,” the deputy said. “I’ll drive to here.” He pointed to a small town on the map. “I know that’s in radio range. I’ll report in, get more gas and meet you at the lodge.”

Fletcher nodded and turned to the soldiers nearby. “Okay. Let’s saddle up.”

Two Humvees headed into the mountains south of Randle, while the deputy drove north toward the highway.

Since Private Spencer knew the location of the lodge, Fletcher had him drive the lead vehicle while he sat next to him with the map. Trees lined both sides of the road as they climbed into the Cascade foothills. Some of the land was national forest, some was owned by timber companies. Occasionally a house came in view. As they passed a meadow the first sergeant spotted a man, woman and several children baling hay and loading it on a horse drawn wagon. Perhaps they moved here thinking this was a safe place to raise a family. It probably is safer than most cities. He chuckled inwardly. We used to think the world wasn’t safe. We had no idea just how unsafe it could get. He sighed studied the map.

A few minutes later Spencer said, “That’s the turn off. It’s about two miles up the gravel road near the top of the hill.”

The audiobook cover of Braving the Storms, by Kyle Pratt

“Stop here.” Fletcher had the drivers block the narrow road with the Humvees. The two squads hiked on either side of the private lane through a forest of mammoth trees. The sun was low by the time they approached the lodge. Just out of sight of the building, Fletcher took one squad and circled toward the back.

From the edge of the forest he observed the building through binoculars. It was a large two-story log structure with a wrap-around covered porch. Ancient fir and cedar trees surrounded the structure some less than a yard from it. Two pickup trucks and a Mustang were in a gravel parking lot on the south side. The only sound was the occasional chirp of a bird and the rumble of a small engine. He assumed it was a generator. Using the binoculars, Fletcher checked every door and window in view, but detected no movement.   

When the soldiers were in place, covering all sides and avenues of escape, Fletcher shouted. “You’re surrounded by the military. Under the Martial Law decree I’m ordering you to come out with your hands up.”

Only the rumble of the engine could be heard in reply.

“Come out now or we will use force to enter.”

The engine putted along without concern.

Crouching along the tree line the first sergeant moved and checked the last few windows. No one looked back at him. As he continued toward the backdoor the sound of the engine grew louder. Clearing a line of trees he spotted the generator under a carport-like structure. Next to it was a propane tank.

Looking at one of the soldiers he said, “Shut the propane off. Kill the generator. I’m going through the back.” He pointed to Spencer. “Have you been in the building before?”

“Once, years ago.”

“Congratulations, you’re our expert. Is there cover inside that backdoor?”

“Ah, there was a bar at the back. You know, where they served alcohol, but I was young and didn’t spend much time there. I think it was near the door.”

Fletcher frowned at the lack of intel. “Okay, you follow me. Everyone else keep watch. If anyone shoots at us, shoot back.” Then he sprinted to the back steps like an Olympian. As he put his weight on the first step it creaked and he cringed.

The generator, stuttered, backfired and died.

Silence reigned. Fletcher glanced at the rear windows, but saw no movement. Perhaps those inside didn’t hear him over the generator. “You’re surrounded by the military. Come out with your hands up. That’s an order under the Martial Law decree.”

Nothing moved.

He inched up the groaning steps toward the back door. Reaching the porch he smelled death and worried that this wasn’t the hideout of the gang, but more victims.

Behind him the steps creaked again. He glanced sideways as Spencer crept up behind. Pointing he indicated the private should cover the door. Fletcher turned the knob. I wish I had a stun grenade. He threw the door open and darted behind the bar.

Spencer followed.

All Fletcher could hear was his own breathing and buzzing of flies. Slowly he looked over the top of the bar.

The smell of death filled his nostrils.

He scanned the room. An oversized couch was against one wall. A large rug filled the center of the room. Pictures of hunters with deer, elk and bear dotted the walls. Several stuffed game trophies hung on the far wall on either side of a large stone fireplace, but nothing threatened or even moved. “Have the soldiers out back come in this way,” he said to Spencer. “Let’s clear the building.”

With his gun at the ready, Fletcher checked a door behind the bar. It led to a short hallway.

Spencer shouted from the porch, “Guys, in through this door on the double.” He stepped back in.

“Check out this hall.” Fletcher nodded his head in the direction.

The private coughed and spit and then disappeared through the door.

The first sergeant continued out around the bar, deeper into the room.

Four soldiers ran in, one after another. Several gagged and scrunched their faces as they entered.

Spencer joined them from the rooms behind the bar. “There’s an office and storeroom. It looks like a lot of booze is gone. The safe is open and empty, but no people.”   

Fletcher directed the four who had entered to check out the east end of the building in pairs. “I’ll stay with Spencer and clear out the west side.” He then continued to the far end of the bar. As he moved away from the windows the room was darker. He thought about having someone restart the generator, but rejected it.

The smell of death and decay was stronger now. An alcove was off to his left. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, Fletcher detected a shape.

Snapping his gun in that direction the first sergeant shouted. “Hands up! Come into the light. Now!”

Nothing moved.

Spencer stood a few feet away with his weapon pointed into the darkness.

Carefully Fletcher paced forward. With each step his view became better. A man sat in the corner.


Chapter Two

Library Park, Hansen, Sunday, September 20th

Major Caden Westmore sat on the tailgate of the pickup as he read the last paragraph of the report. It’s coming and there’s no way to stop it. He slapped the folder down beside him and pressed his hand on the cover as if to hold the danger within. He was glad he was healthy and maintained the youthful assurance that he would remain so, but reason told him the future was uncertain. If the data in the report was correct millions would die in the coming months. He wished Dr. Scott had waited to tell him until after the Harvest Festival.

The year had been a hard one: Six cities obliterated by nuclear terrorism; the Chinese claimed they came to help, but it was a power and resource grab; amidst the turmoil the dollar collapsed; hunger and civil unrest grew. He spent much of the year battling gangs, terrorists and other Americans.

The cold winter became a hungry spring, and then the long summer of work and waiting until the harvest. Thank God it had been a good one. There was hope that those who remained would survive the coming winter.

Music, smoke and the smell of barbeque drifted over the parking lot. His stomach growled. He inhaled deeply and smiled. More than one fatted calf had been sacrificed for this celebration.

Loudspeakers boomed the voices of children singing.

“Over the river and through the wood,

To Grandmother's house we go.

The horse knows the way

To carry the sleigh

Through white and drifted snow.”

Like the smoke that wafted to and fro, his thoughts now floated back to the Nebraska Medical Center report. It contained many medical terms that he was unfamiliar with, but when she handed him the report, Dr. Scott had summarized it in three words: “It is spreading.”

He looked across the parking lot toward Library Park. During the year he had come to know many of the people who lived in and around the town of Hansen. Together they had struggled through fear and tragedy to this day of hope.

Dr. Scott was still nearby, talking with his sister-in-law Sue as both women admired the baby.

“You want a beer?” Lieutenant Brooks, his XO, shouted from a nearby stall as he held up a bottle of homemade brew.

“Maybe later,” Caden replied.

Brooks took Lisa by the hand and the two disappeared into the crowd.  

The grins that everyone displayed hid a multitude of tragedy. Brooks had been shot and nearly died. Caden’s brother Peter did die from radiation sickness after the Seattle blast. That left Sue a widow.

Zach and Vicki crossed the parking lot smiling and holding plates of food. Six months ago their mother tried to kill herself…did kill herself, but it was a slow, lingering death.

“Over the river and through the wood

To have a first-rate play.

Hear the bells ring,

Ting-a-ling-ling!

Hurrah for Thanksgiving Day!”

It was only September, but it was a day of thanksgiving. The crops were in and food stocks were the best they had been since the panic of the attacks. Caden struggled to smile.   

Maria walked up and looked at the folder. “What’s that?”

Not wanting to spread the depressing news from Dr. Scott sooner than he must, he said, “Just a report on Dr. Scott received on upcoming medical issues.” True, but vague enough to hide the facts.

She sat beside him and for a moment he enjoyed her company in silence.

Maria leaned against him. “Remember when I said I didn’t want to marry you because I had to?”

Caden nodded wondering where this might go. “You said you wanted to know you didn’t have to marry me…that you could walk away.”

“Right…ah…well, I think this is that day.”

“Are you saying you’ll marry me or you’re leaving?”

She shoved his shoulder. “Don’t be silly. I’m saying, if you still want to, I’ll set the date and we can get married.”

Caden glanced at the folder beside him. Perhaps it was best to enjoy life to the fullest. Then if the pandemic predicted in the doctor’s report did devastate the region, or some other tragedy occurred, he had lived life to the fullest and without regret. He leaned over and kissed her. “When is our big day?”

The children’s voices drifted toward them once again.

“Come to the feast,

There is room at the table,  

Come let us meet in this place.”

*               *               *

 Sheriff’s Office, Hansen, Sunday, September 20th '

“Are you kidding me?” Sheriff Hoover nearly shouted the words. “After everything else, now we have a pandemic?”

“It’s a natural consequence.” Dr. Scott sat in the chair beside Caden.

“Natural?” Hoover walked over to the window. “Why is this natural?”

“With hundreds of thousands of people still in FEMA camps, refugees living rough where they can, malnutrition, latrines and poor hygiene…we’ve already seen dysentery in the local camps and Hepatitis E in southern California and Arizona. New strains of influenza were reported earlier this year. Under those conditions, it was only a matter of time before a pandemic strain of flu emerged.”

Caden rubbed his chin. “What we really need to discuss is how to deal with it if it hits here.”

Hoover looked at the doctor expectantly.

“It is spreading. It’s only a matter of time before it gets here.”

“I have lots of threats that are already here,” Caden said. “Tell me what I need to do if this threat materializes.”

The doctor sighed. “Normally, the CDC would be working on a vaccine, but Atlanta was one of the cities the terrorists nuked. The University of Washington had a good medical center, but Seattle…well, you see the problem. The Nebraska Center is trying to organize a study—.”

“What can we do?” Caden asked.

Dr. Scott shrugged. “Avoid contact with infected people, wash your hands with soap and water, avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.”

“I’ve been hearing that advice for years,” the sheriff said with a shake of his head. “It never stopped the flu before.”

“And it won’t stop this one,” Dr. Scott said. “But you asked what we could do.”

“Don’t touch my nose?” Hoover was incredulous. “Wash my hands? That’s what I can do?”

Caden rubbed his chin. Suddenly very conscious of how close his hand was to his mouth he dropped it to his side.

“What about antibacterial soaps… will they help?” Hoover asked.

“Those soaps kill bacteria, but they don’t kill viruses like the flu.”

Caden snapped his fingers. “I’ve heard of medications that help when you have the flu. What about those?”

“I’ve had the antiviral medications on my requisition list for months.” She frowned at Caden. “You’ve never been able to get them from the supply depot.”

“They may not have them the next time either, but I’ll keep checking. Give me a list of those medicines and I’ll see what I can do.”

*               *               *

Westmore Farm, Rural Lewis County, Sunday, September 20th

More concerned about the possible pandemic than he cared to admit, Caden stepped into the house.

“Good, you’re here.” Maria crossed the living room and kissed him. Still face-to-face she said, “Did you have your phone off?”

He fumbled in his pocket. “Ah…yes…I guess so.”

She shook her head. “Are you trying to avoid finalizing the date?” She grinned.

“For the wedding? No…no, just busy.”

Sarah, his mother, came down the stairs. “Oh, good you’re home. We’ve got to go.”

“Go? Where?” Caden asked.

“The children are singing at the church.”

Of course the children were singing. The Harvest Festival was going on all weekend and all over town. The schedule of events had been printed in the paper, announced on radio and in every church in the county. This was to be the happiest time since before the first attack. He looked at Maria. It was the happiest time, but it was mixed with the knowledge of what was to come. He forced a smile. “Let’s go.”

His father stayed behind to work on the tractor engine and keep watch on the farm, but the rest of the family surrounded the SUV.

Maria strapped Adam into their only car seat as his mother, sister Lisa, and Sue with baby Peter, entered through other doors.

With his mind on gangs, lawlessness, war, hunger and a possible pandemic, Caden drove toward the church.

From the front passenger seat Maria looked over her shoulder at Sue. “We need to get another car seat.”

“I know. I’ve been looking, but there haven’t been any in the stores since the attack.”

I haven’t seen any in the library market either,” Sarah added.

Maria shook her head. “Not since Caden got the one for Adam.”

“Huh?” Caden glanced at Maria. “What?”

“Nothing, dear.”

“I think families are holding on to them,” Sue said looking at baby Peter in her arms. “Who knows when you’ll be able to buy something like that, or how much it will cost.”

Caden drove on while the women chattered about many things. Minutes later he wound past groves of old apple trees, toward the white, wood-frame church that sat atop the hill.

Many families walked on the warm autumn day. Others rode horses or arrived in wagons. Hitching posts had been installed along one side of the parking lot, but several horses were on long leads tied to nearby trees.

Driving into the parking lot, Caden glanced at a field to the east of the church. The area was surrounded by a ten-foot chain-link fence. Inside were two large Quonset hut-style greenhouses, along with several backyard versions, and dozens of raised beds. All had been harvested and the earth tilled, ready for winter crops.

As usual, few cars were in the parking lot. Gasoline was expensive, and sometimes unavailable. Although Caden’s position, as area military commander, provided greater access to fuel, it was limited. Still it allowed him to provide some transportation for his family. Cutting diagonally across the lot, Caden turned the corner, and parked in his favorite spot on the west side of the church near a side door.

The Westmore clan strolled into the sanctuary as others flowed in filling it to capacity. After some announcements the children gathered on the platform.

“We plough the fields and scatter

the good seed on the land,

but it is fed and watered

by God's almighty hand.”

Caden found it impossible to enjoy the music. Every cough, every sneeze, reminded him of the doctor’s words. It’s coming and there’s no way to stop it.



Chapter Three

Rural Lewis County, Sunday, September 20th

“Hands up!” First Sergeant Fletcher shouted and stepped forward. His eyes were fixed on the shadowy outline of a man in the dark corner of the alcove.

The shadow gave no response.

“Did you hear me?” he demanded stepping closer. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, Fletcher realized the man in the corner heard nothing. No life radiated from the open eyes. His mouth hung oddly open and his head leaned awkwardly against the wall. On the table before him were bottles of pills and booze. His right hand still clutched a glass resting on the table.

The first sergeant poked the lifeless man with the end of his M4.

The body fell rigid  to the side.

“What happened here?”

Mouth agape, Private Spencer shook his head. “I have no idea.”

The question had been rhetorical, but Spencer’s answer reflected the first sergeant’s own confusion. He grabbed his flashlight, but the beam quickly faded. “Do you have one?” He asked waving his.

The young man approached with eyes fixed on the body. “Yeah. Here.” He held out the light and advanced no farther.

Fletcher took it, knelt by the dead man, and poked and pulled at his shirt looking for fatal injuries.

Spencer stepped closer and placed a hand over his mouth and nose. “I don’t see any wounds,” he mumbled. “It looks like he just died.” He pointed to the bottles. “Did he commit suicide?”

Fletcher picked up the empty container. “It’s some sort of medication, but I’m not sure what.” He looked at the body. “I’ve heard the suicide rate is up, but why come all the way out here to kill yourself. He might have just been sick.” Leaning a hand on the table, he stood.

A door swung open behind them and both spun around with weapons ready.

“Just me, First Sergeant.” Corporal Franklin said. “We found two bodies. No gunshot or stab wounds that we could see. They’re just dead.”

“How well did you check them?” Fletcher asked.

“We lifted one—with a broom, and checked under. No blood.”

“How did they die? A suicide pact?” Spencer asked.

Fletcher doubted it, but had no answers. “Corporal, get the others from out in front. Station someone at every exit and on all four sides of the building. The rest of you come with me, we’re going to finish searching this place. And maybe find some answers.

The first sergeant marched down the hallway with Spencer behind. The stench of death grew with each step. Coming to a door Fletcher turned the knob and threw it open. He entered leading with his rifle. In the room stood a bed without sheets, two chairs and a dusty dresser. Everything appeared undisturbed.

The room across the hall was much the same.

Farther along the smell of death hung heavy in the air.

Bursting into the third room, Fletcher nearly puked due to the stench that grated his nose and tongue.

Spencer stepped in then stumbled back out, gagging as he did.

Two bodies lay side-by-side on the bed. A cloud of buzzing flies circled like a sky full of vultures. The nearest body had long dark hair and was curled into a fetal position. Her eyes were closed. It was hard to tell now, but she appeared to be in her late twenties.

 On the far side of the bed was the bloated body of a man in his thirties or a little older. His bulging eyes seemed to stare into the heavens in fear.

The first sergeant paid them little attention.  

A pistol lay ominously on the nightstand by the man. Not wanting weapons loose in the building, Fletcher grabbed it, withdrew the magazine and slipped them both in a pocket.

Along the far wall was a dresser. Jewelry and cash lay in piles on top. On either side rifles and shotguns leaned against the wall. Fletcher examined a Winchester .270 with scope, a .308, and a Remington 12 gauge. 

After nearly a minute of gagging at the door, Spencer entered. “I don’t know how you do it First Sergeant. This room reeks of decay, puke, and—.”

“Do you have the serial numbers for the stolen weapons?”

The private retrieved a paper from his pocket then returned his hand to his mouth and nose.

After checking several guns Fletcher nodded. “These are stolen. We found the gang hideout.” He looked at the two bodies on the bed. “But what happened to them?”

“I sure don’t know First Sergeant, but could we figure it out somewhere else?”

Glad for the excuse to leave the room, the Fletcher smiled. “Help me move these guns.”

When the search was done, the soldiers assembled on the front porch of the lodge to assess the situation.

“Seven bodies total, all but one in bed, and not a mark that we can find on any of them.” Fletcher shook his head.

“How long would it take for bodies to stink like this?” a private asked.

 “Five days maybe,” the first sergeant guessed.

Spencer shook his head. “More like three or four in this weather, but the first body didn’t smell nearly as much, indicating that he was probably the last to die.”

Fletcher cast him a questioning glance.

“I like to read crime novels.”

“This is like some horror movie,” one private said.

Fletcher agreed, but said nothing. The sun had disappeared behind the trees. Long shadows covered much of the forest. He knew they didn’t have enough fuel to make it back to Hansen. Since Deputy Morris hadn’t yet returned with fuel, they would need to set up camp for the night. Fletcher explained it to the men. “So it looks like we’ll spend the night here, by the dead bodies and the creepy lodge in the dark woods.”

Spencer cast a nervous glance at the lodge. “If it’s okay First Sergeant, I’ll sleep outside.”

“That smell isn’t going away any time soon. I think we’ll all be sleeping outside tonight,” Fletcher said with a smile. “Corporal Franklin, have a couple of soldiers drive the Humvees back here. Set up a perimeter watch and have someone retrieve the MREs. The rest of you load up the bodies in bags and take them out back.”

When the Humvees were parked on the north side of the building and a fire crackled in a nearby pit, two soldiers brought lawn chairs. Everyone not on sentry duty sat in a circle around the fire.  

“Coffee would be nice right now,” the corporal said as he finished his MRE.

“Or some marshmallows,” a young man said staring at the fire.

“You know what I miss the most?” Private Spencer asked.

“Your mama?” Another replied.

Spencer tossed a cup at him. “Football. The season should have already started.”

Nods and murmurs of agreement circled the fire.  

“We should start a team. We could play against other units,” one private said.

“What do you think First Sergeant?” The corporal asked.

“I think I’m going to get some sleep.” Fletcher stood, grabbed his rifle, a tarp, and a sleeping bag and strolled away looking for soft ground.

*               *               *

The first sergeant awoke with a start. Someone knelt beside him.

With a finger to his lips Private Arnold whispered, “Movement in the woods.”

A limb cracked.

Fletcher turned in that direction.

“It’s probably a deer or elk,” Arnold said softly, “but it’s moving closer.”

“You were right to wake me.” He stood, grabbed his rifle from where it leaned against a nearby tree, and then stared into the darkness.

For a moment only the breeze could be heard. Then another snap came from the woods.

That’s too noisy to be a deer. Could it be an elk or maybe a bear? They quietly roused the others. Fletcher ordered most of the men back into the lodge, others would guard the Humvees. “You two are with me,” Fletcher whispered. “One of you stay on my left and the other on the right. We’ll move forward cautiously. Let it come to us if we can. Got it?”

They nodded.

“Okay, let’s see if we can spot the noisemaker.”

They moved through the forest with care until coming upon a large fallen tree. There they waited using the trunk as cover.  

Snap.

An owl hooted.

Silence.

Crack.

Fletcher was sure whatever moved toward them did so deliberately, as if attempting to approach unnoticed.

Fletcher stared into the darkness. Could the noisemaker be human?

He rested his M4 on the old trunk and pointed it at the sound. For nearly a minute they listened and waited.

From behind a tree a shadow moved, or was it his mind playing tricks. No. About thirty feet ahead something moved.

“Freeze!” Fletcher shouted. “Put your hands up!”

“Don’t shoot!”

The voice sounded familiar. Fletcher shined his flashlight in that direction. The beam quickly faded. “Morris? Is that you?”

“Yes! Hold your fire.”

The two other soldiers shined their lights.

Fletcher stood. “Why in the name of heaven were you sneaking up on us?”

“I wasn’t sneaking up on you. I was sneaking up on the lodge.”

“Huh?” He shrugged. “Why?”

“Because when I went to report the crime at the other place and get gas we thought there might be a murdering gang staying here.”

The first sergeant laughed. “Okay. I guess that’s a good reason. I’m glad we didn’t shoot you.”

“Yeah me too,” the deputy said.

“The criminals are behind the lodge.” Fletcher pointed.

“You captured them?”

“No.”

Morris looked confused.

“Walk with me and I’ll try to explain what we found.”

*               *               *

Rural Lewis County, Monday, September 21th

The aroma of bacon and eggs brought Fletcher from a restless sleep.

Hearing the crackle of fire he rolled his head to the side. About forty feet away Deputy Morris and two soldiers cooked breakfast.

Morris banged a spatula against a pot. “Who’s your favorite deputy?” he shouted. “I brought bacon and eggs back with me. Come and get it.”

Fletcher’s head pounded in protest as he sat up. Every joint ached like he had been in a fight—and lost. He dismissed it as the result of age and sleeping on the ground. The bacon smell curled up his nose and turned his stomach. Holding back a wave of nausea he gritted his teeth.

Nearby, Private Arnold rolled from his sleeping bag and stood with the speed and posture of an old man. Lurching forward two steps he fell to his hands and knees and vomited.

Fletcher struggled to focus his thoughts. Cold sweat beaded his brow. “What’s happening?”

 

 


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