The Willow Society

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Chapter 48

Chapter 48

Taylor awoke with a start, confused, not sure where he was or how he'd got there. As the room came into focus he rubbed at his eyes, yawning. Familiarity returned and with it calm. He was alone. Winston was no longer asleep at his desk and no one else was around either, Yawning into his hand, Taylor checked the time. It was close to noon. Yawning a third time, he wondered if should look for the others or check the datamining. A whoop of girlish joy sounded from down the hallway towards Myth's lab. Taylor got up to investigate.

He made a mental note to call his mother as he made his way towards the lab. The doors lining the hallway were closed, save one. Bright light streamed out of the open door to the lab, lighting up the hallway. Another whoop of excitement, this one not as loud as the last, but still loud. As he walked into the lab he knocked lightly on the door to announce his presence.

“Oh!“ Myth said, startled, from behind her bench. She clearly had not slept at all, she rubbed her nose on her sleeve and pointed animatedly at the device, partially autopsied, on the bench before her. “I've figured it out!“ Myth beamed, “Well mostly. I think. See this...“ she pointed to a nodule on the bottom edge, which she had opened, and a bundle of wires which lead to it. Taylor nodded. “It's a transmitter, right? Except it doesn't transmit an intelligible signal, not really, it's like noise, but on the level of brain waves, I mean. See?“ Myth smiled again, wiped her nose. “And this?“ she pointed to something else. "I mean, I was thinking? Why would you want to send noise? No one would engineer this and let this kind of noise and interference exist by accident. They did it on purpose! And why on the level of brain waves? Brain waves don't penetrate far, they're too weak. I mean some people think they go further, but that's mostly pseudoscience or nonsense, I mean, maybe there's something we don't see or notice about brain waves, but really, it seems unlikely. No one can say for sure, I guess, but...“ Taylor coughed. Myth smiled goofily.

“Sorry. The point.“ She snickered. “Well, this second nodule forms, of all things, a feedback loop with the first nodule and a third source.“ She said this with a heavy dose of significance.

But Taylor goggled at her, still groggy, and slightly confused. “Yeah, so why transmit brain-level interference waves on a feedback loop? I know this is gonna sound mad crazysauce, but hear me out! Pod people! I mean not really pod people of course, there aren't any pods, and no alien things directing the show. You really need aliens for it to be pod people in the normal sense, right...?“ Myth laughed.

Taylor coughed again. “Myth...“

She widened her eyes and bit her lip. Her eyes were frantic suddenly, far more than her usual self. Is it from not sleeping or just too much excitement? To much caffeine maybe? It would be rude to ask.

“Um. OK. This device, it interferes with brain waves, sets up a feedback loop with someone's brain and then transmits electromagnetic signals – RF - into this receiver here.“ She pointed at another set of wires vomiting out of the device. Taylor nodded to show he understood, which he somewhat did, but his face was skeptical. Is she serious, though? It was hard to tell, it sounded like base science fiction, the kind of thing you'd see on a SyFy original movie. Myth was undeterred. If anything Taylor's skeptical look only seemed to encourage her.

“Yes! Right!“ she said, “So why would a device do that? I think whoever made this is, well, is programming people! They use this device to interface with someone's brain and if they disrupt it enough they can throw off the brain's magnetic field...”

Taylor looked at Myth, still skeptical, his mouth twisted doubtfully. “Myth...“ he started, but she waved him off.

“I know, I know. But I mean, listen, no, just listen!“ she said when he tried to cut her off again. “It's not like it takes control, what it does is sort of erase, temporarily, or maybe dull would be a better way to describe it, it dulls a person's ability to make independent decisions, makes them very, very open to commands or suggestions. What I can't understand is why there is a voice modulation chip, usually that would just be handled concurrently by the processor, but there's an entire chip which seems to only deal with encoding incoming voice audio.“

Taylor had all kinds of problems with her explanation, not the least of which: how could one distinguish commands from separate people? And why a feedback loop? Wouldn't that make any instructions disappear almost as quick as they were absorbed? When he asked Myth these questions she looked troubled, shrugged and smiled, almost devilishly. “I need to test it on some...” Myth paused, a look of concentration taking over her features. Taylor imagined a light bulb popping up over her head.

“Taylor! That's it!” Myth said. “How could they distinguish commands from separate people! That's what the independent voice processing chip is for!

Taylor sighed. “No. I didn't mean. Myth. Whatever. Testing that thing on a person is a bad, bad idea.“ Myth sighed, picked up a pair of probes for her voltmeter, prodded the device and looked longingly at it. “I don't know, Myth. Maybe if we researched some more... thought it through better. Either way this doesn't help us figure out who that guard is, or why he's after us, and yet doesn't seem to recognize us...“ As he was talking it dawned on him, like a slap in the face. Myth picked it up as, faster than Taylor; a smile, expectant and excited bloomed across her face.

“Taylor!“ She breathed heavily, “But it does! The guard is under someone's control! Someone is USING this device to control him, make him do all of this! That's why he doesn't recognize us!“ But she frowned. Taylor wasn't far behind her. It made a strange sense, but was an even scarier prospect than what they were already facing in a menacing guard with a gun and violent streak. If Myth was right, they might be up against some faceless, nameless person with the power to control others using a device the size of an iPhone. Someone with reason and a desire to use that power to provoke, if not outright harm Taylor, Lou, and other Society members. Taylor didn't need Myth to say it, he was already thinking it, but she said it.

“This could get ugly, and fast.”

“We need to tell the others. Where are they?“ Taylor said, all seriousness now.

“They're not all out there? “ Myth said, pointing her chin toward the HQ while she turned the device over, goggling at it more.

Taylor shook his head no. “I'm gonna go see if i can find them, but maybe you should take a break, sleep some? We're gonna need you if we're gonna figure that thing out...“

“Figure what out?“ Winston's voice traveled from the edge of the room as he came in out of the hallway. He looked rested, but barely awake still. He yawned into a can of soda, before his arms stretched wide over his head. Just behind him came Lou and Izzy. Lou was sweaty, clearly just in from another workout. Izzy was the opposite; svelte and impeccably dressed, in a tight v-neck sweater and skinny jeans. Neither girl looked very happy.

“Taylor your mother called Helen. She was very upset you haven't called or been home yet.“ Izzy said.

Taylor's face went red and he felt his stomach jump at the thought of Izzy hearing about his mother's anger. Winston smirked behind his soda.

“I can't go home. Not yet. Not until we've figured that out.“

“Any ideas, Myth?“ Winston asked.

Taylor and Myth took turns explaining, often cutting one another off, interjecting and adding. But eventually they managed to get it all out. With all the supposition and fragile explanation, it was no surprise the other looked disbelieving. Possibly the fact Myth did most of the talking and Taylor was clearly less than certain had some effect. Even Winston, who normally would have jumped at such a convoluted conspiracy, expressed doubt.

“T. Myth. I dunno...“ he said. Myth's face fell. Taylor pushed that out of his mind. His brain's wheels were turning and Myth's theory was starting to make a lot of sense to him.

“Taylor, Myth, you guys might be a little over-excited from last night...“ Myth's face dropped further as Izzy spoke patronizingly.

Lou said nothing, but her stoic expression seemed on the verge of a frown. Unexpectedly Winston changed tack.

“Tell me how it works, Myth. Exactly how it works.“ he said, but he stared at the device, not Myth. He mumbled, “Maybe they used this thing on Alexander...“ Myth heard. Sensing a coming argument from the look on Myth's face and from Winston's usual lack of notice of her attentions, Taylor had to think quick.

“Maybe there's something in the data dump. We know a little better what to look for now...“ Winston picked up the idea right away. “Good idea, old man. Let's go.“ But no one moved, not until Izzy said, softly, “OK. Let's go.“

Maybe she believes Myth after all.

They moved to the HQ. Everyone gathered around the desk Taylor had worked on the night before. He pulled up the results from his searches. Point and click, Taylor navigated the results window, opened up another internal search dialogue box. “Myth what was on the display screen of that thing at first?“

She blinked at him and tapped her cheek in thought before she said, “Um. WS-308. MobiWiper. I think"

Taylor keyed in the characters as search terms, pressed Enter. Seconds passed and nothing, then a single file popped up. It was named Unknown.doc(5). Holding his breath Taylor opened the file. He sent the file to display on the largest television, so everyone could view it. It was a text document, but as Taylor loosely scrolled through it he saw it also contained schematics, showing drawings of the device. He didn't need Myth's squeal to know she recognized some of it and itched to learn the rest.

“I knew that's what that chip did!“ Myth blurted out. “Hush.“ Izzy said, breathlessly. A hard, impatient look was on her face.

Taylor read the document, earnestly now, the others did the same. Occasionally he would ask if they were ready to scroll. So far, other than base schematics it was mostly a dry description of electrical circuitry only Myth could grasp.

“Right there!“ Winston said and Izzy gasped while Taylor was still reading it himself.

Unit is equipped to deploy on-site mobile wipes of target's temporoparietal junction. Line of sight is currently necessary as obstructions can easily affect dispersion of the magnetic resonance-wave engine, causing interference patterns not conducive to penetration by necessary feedback loop mechanism. Wiped subjects should remain pliable to suggestions spoken by keyed voice for a period between eleven and eighteen minutes depending on power settings of MobiWiper device. Longer duration of signal resilience can be achieved at higher power settings, especially via close proximity or by aligning implanted commands with subject's natural inclinations or predetermined prejudices. Repeated close use of wiper at highest power settings has been shown in-lab to cause noticeable and cumulative side effects; listed in Appendix A. Such use is not recommended, as it may lead to subject behaviors contrary to implanted commands and/or desired goals. Long-term temporoparietal junction control has been lab tested using a cochlear implant with a satellite receiver capable of duplex communication. Side effects of cochlear implant appear to be mild or non-existent in test subjects, especially relative to MobiWiper device.

Use of cochlear implant is strongly recommended for long-term personnel, but implementation is currently rated Director Approval Required.

Note: Acquisition of military satellite codes could establish world-wide network capable of transmission lines in excess of two hundred thousand implants. Obtaining CCOM panel codes is currently priority level Al. Under no circumstances are satellite uplink codes to be transmitted using MobiWiper devices! Such transmissions are not secure, nor encrypted at present and are susceptible to code intrusion.

“Oh. My. God.“ Myth said softly. Her voice was tinged with excitement, eagerness. Taylor was numb, unable to easily process what he had read so quickly, especially in light of what Myth had already deduced.

“This is real?“ Izzy said finally. “I understand some of it, but this technology, is it possible, Myth? Have any of you heard of this kind of thing before?“

The strangest thing was, Taylor had heard of it. Like blocks tumbling in his head, wheels spinning which suddenly stopped and resembled something familiar; he remembered an article he had read months before. “I have.“ He said softly. Everyone looked at him wide-eyed, even Lou.

“What?“ Winston said. “Where?“ At the same time Myth said,”Really? When?“ Lou bored holes in Taylor's face with her eyes, Izzy poised on edge, awaiting.

“When I broke into Willow Prep.“ Taylor mumbled, hesitant to talk about that night. “On Philomena's computer. There was an article she had in her browser history. It was old, at least a few years, I think. The article was called Magnets Can Change Morality or something. I only skimmed it really, but I'm sure I could find it again. I assumed anything she left in her history was pointless or innocuous. The only reason I remember it is because the title caught my attention enough to skim it. Anyway, I remember it said something about that...“ Taylor scrolled up in the .doc file and highlighted some text. “The temporoparietal junction.“ Taylor pictured that night again. His memory called up the screen exactly as he had seen it. He could even remember the green tub of hand cream being advertised in a box next to the article on the web page it came from. Myth looked pleased, smug even, as Taylor spoke. She wiped her nose as well. Of course, it must be vindication to her, confirmation of her assumptions, despite the doubts of the others.

Winston half-smiled, but it was probably reflex. It certainly didn't make Taylor feel better about anything. He was pretty sure Winston was reeling as much as everyone else, a difficult thing to achieve, as the other boy took everything with preternatural ease. Lou's mouth thinned considerably into a tight, lipless line. Izzy's wide-eyed expression looked almost silly. Every few seconds she would give her head a vigorous shake, as if she could somehow toss away what she was hearing.

“We have to get rid of it.“ Izzy said, voice wavering.

“Get rid of it?“ Myth wailed. Lou seemed like she might agree with Izzy, but said nothing. Taylor was about to voice his agreement with Izzy when Winston spoke up.

“This thing is...Guys, it's the most dangerous thing I've ever heard of. Worse than a gun! Iz! Worse than a bioweapon! At least those things just kill! This, it's like it destroys you, everything that makes you who you are; gone, or at least, pushed back. Who knows? Maybe you'd even still be aware, but unable to do anything, a slave in your own mind! Decisions are everything! That's everything we are!“ Taylor was floored. Winston's words were profound and he wasn't used to profundity coming out of Winston's mouth. Even still, Winston had half a smile on his face. “Can we really get rid of it? Knowing what it does? Just throw it in the trash? Who knows where it could end up? Who might find it? We know they're watching us, at least some of us. We should give it to someone.“ Taylor's breath caught. I know where this is going. He hoped he was wrong. He wasn't. “We should turn it over to Alexander, to the NSA.“

Could Winston be so stupid? Is he serious? Winston had repeatedly amazed Taylor, at times, with his level of distrust in establishments, in government as an entity. It was almost a left-wing, anarchist, paranoia with the handsome teen. It was a major reason Winston was such a vested thief, he loved flouting “the Establishment.This has more to do with Alexander herself. Of course it does. How better to impress a woman Winston had otherwise been unable to impress?

Taylor had to say something. “Are you sure this isn't, you know...“ Taylor stumbled over the words. “Your feelings getting involved?“ He hated to call his best friend out like that, it was betrayal, plain and simple, but he had to say it. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Myth grimace. “Even if we could get it to her, can you imagine what kind of questions she'd ask? Do you have any answers?“ Taylor's confidence rose as he spoke and he ended gesturing forcefully at Winston, then frowned shyly, feeling foolish. Winston's face went beet red, whether from anger, embarrassment, or some cocktail of both with a dollop of shame, Taylor couldn't tell.

“If we had some way to get it to her without her knowing it came from us....“ Izzy mumbled. Not her too! Lou's expression remained unreadable. Myth, unable to contain herself blurted out:

“We can't! If we give it to someone, especially the NSA, how can we trust they won't use it themselves? And if we just throw it away, destroy it, we won't know how it works! They might have more! What if they found out we know? They'll use it on us! They could be using them on people already besides that guard! We have an obligation,“ Myth spit the word out, staring Winston down, “to crack it, find out how to beat it! If not us, then who? We can't trust anyone! I barely trust myself with something like this! If even one copy got out...“ Myth wiped her mouth and nose on her sleeve, stared everyone down, a challenge in her small stature and brown eyes.

“She makes sense.“ Lou said, slowly, as if she only came to agree with Myth as Lou spoke the words. Myth beamed.

“I...“ Taylor began, his thoughts circling. He understood Winston's point of view, despite the obvious bullshit inherent in his desire to impress Alexander. Maybe if she were a trusted friend, adult, like Helen... I could agree. But a chill crept up his spine at the very thought. Thinking of what the device could do, not to mention the device they didn't have, the one alluded to in the document: a cochlear implant. That sounded far more insidious. He distinctly remembered the words long-term. He tried to give Winston an apologetic, commiserating look but his friend just kept smiling his banal half-smile. “I agree with Myth.“ Taylor said, finally. Just loud enough to be heard. He faced Izzy as he said it, then Lou and Myth, but not Winston. He didn't want to see betrayal reflected on his friend's face. Taylor was sure Winston would see it that way. Myth gave Taylor a thankful, appreciative smile, it made Taylor sigh.

“So, we can't give it away. Especially not to Alexander.“ Izzy said. Her words were measured. Everyone expected Izzy to make the decisions. Taylor didn't envy her that at all. “But maybe we let Myth do her thing, figure the device out as much as possible, so we know as much as we can about it. Then maybe find some way to neutralize it? Maybe we'll talk about handing it over.“ Izzy stood up and paced. “We aren't prepared to deal with something like this. This implicates the Mayor. It must.“ Taylor hadn't really thought that out yet, but it was obvious now. “And probably TwinStar? All that talk about satellites, and Goldberg just signed a deal with TwinStar, isn't that what they do Taylor?“

Taylor nodded. TwinStar was the largest satellite transmission developer in the country. “Goldberg's gonna run for President. So we have a major corporation with ties to the possible next President, stolen military tech, mind control...“ She showed anguish. “The phrase in over our heads is a wild understatement. If these guys find out we know what we know....“ her voice trailed off.

Taylor was picturing the dead town car driver, and Cory, the hacker from Staten Island. As far as Taylor know the guy had never been found. Taylor swallowed hard.

“We need help.“ Lou said. “Sue-Ann and Isabel could help us. We have to tell them.“ From the looks on the faces of the others, no one, not even Izzy, agreed.

“No.“ Izzy said firmly. “They'll want to throw it away. I know they will.“

Everyone went silent. Lou's suggestion still hung in the air like a poisoned cloud. She did have a point. We really do need help. We are just kids after all.

Taylor hated thinking that way. It didn't make the thought any less true. A word tumbled from his mouth before his mind processed it fully. “Tate.“

Everyone stared, Lou gave with a shrewd look; a tiny twist of the corners of her lips suggested a smile. After a second she gave the barest of nods. Izzy considered longer, but she nodded as well. Myth, clearly skeptical, probably imagining Tate taking the device away from her, said nothing. Winston brightened, nodded vigorously.

“We can tell him what we've found. He knows Alexander. If it's real, if it's what we suspect, he'll know what to do. He used to be in the NSA.“

At the mention of Tate's connection to the NSA Myth looked even more hesitant.

The idea had hardly had time to set in when Helen burst into the room, tripping over a corner of rug and falling into a squishy armchair. She swore gently and brushed her baggy pants off as she stood back up. "Sorry, doves, but the old broads are going to be back soon.“

That got all their attention. Izzy snapped rigid and said, “How soon, Helen?“

Helen blinked at her, tilted her head like a squirrel about to attack a pile of nuts, and said, “An hour, two at most. They just got off the plane.“

Lou's fingers beat fidgety against the arm of the sofa on which she sat. Myth shivered, fear written on her face, though it was likely fear of losing the ability to tinker in her lab, not apprehension of Sue-Ann or Isabel themselves.

“How much longer do you need to sort through that thing?“ Izzy asked Myth.

“I dunno, a few weeks would be nice.“

Izzy turned to Taylor, “How long will you two need to get through all that data?“

“Probably a couple of weeks.“ Taylor said, uncertain. In his mind he knew that was being optimistic. It was a lot of data.

“Can you guys do that elsewhere or does it have to be here?“ she asked.

Taylor could examine data anywhere. Winston had a killer setup at his place they could use. But that would mean likely not being able to see Izzy, except on the Willow Prep newscast, as he hardly ever saw her at school otherwise. So he lied.

“We need to do it here.“ Taylor said, his voice cracking as he said it. Winston snickered at him. The other boy knew exactly what he was doing. Izzy's body language seemed resigned. Tinges of guilt licked the edges of Taylor's mind for lying: she was clearly at war with herself and his lie was contributing.

“I will cover with Isabel and Sue-Ann. Helen if you can help, I think we can keep them away.“ She sounded as if she were condoning the murder of children. Why is she so unwilling now than before to go against her grandmother and Sue-Ann. Had shit just got too real? Was she really that girl? Did she always do everything she was told? He hadn't realized he had spoken some of that aloud until he realized everyone stared at him. Izzy's jaw worked silently before words came out.

“I...” Izzy stumbled, “I have... promised I would not lie to them, that I would not...“ her mouth clamped shut, like it was unwilling to say the words she had been about to say.

“Katherine.“ Lou breathed, almost a hoarse whisper. Izzy's eyes widened and she nodded then looked away.

“Wait? What? Who is Katherine?“ Taylor asked. He looked at Winston to see if he showed recognition, since Lou obviously knew something, but if Winston knew anything, Taylor couldn't see it on the other boy's face.

“I don't know everything,” Lou began when Izzy stared at the floor not speaking, “Katherine is Iz's older sister. She was who started the Willow Society with Isabel and Sue-Ann. She used to live at Chatham, until she fell out with them, I'm not sure over what.“

Izzy still stared at the floor. When looked up, her face was drawn and pale. Taylor struggled, she was easily the most beautiful person he had ever known, even looking stressed and miserable she was compelling, attractive, and lush. She had rejected him, quite vehemently; he knew he should move on, despite his constant desire to impress her. But how?

“Katherine is, or was, last time we heard from her, a CIA operative. She would never admit it directly, but I saw the research Isabel got. I don't know how she got it, but she did.“ Izzy shook her head sadly, “It said Katherine was an assassin. It said she killed people for the CIA, black ops, that kind of stuff. Isabel went ballistic. She felt it was her fault Katherine became... that. She told her it was evil and she had to stop. But Katherine... Katherine didn't like being told what to do when she was younger, much less as an adult. It's why she came to live here in the first place instead of with our parents.“ The last words came out slathered in bitter anger. Izzy sniffed like it hurt.

Lou gave her friendly rub on the arm, a rare commiseration. There was something unspoken there, something to do with Izzy, Isabel, and Izzy's parents. Likely something to do with the reason Izzy lived at Chatham and her parents did not. Taylor had wondered about it before, but it didn't seem the kind of thing you could just bring up. He had assumed Izzy's parents must be dead.

“I don't get it though, why does this... I don't mean to be insensitive. It's just, I don't get why this matters, or how it affects what we're trying to do?“ Winston said. Izzy frowned, and Taylor was sure if she were not as full of poise as she was she might have been snarling.

“Because Isabel and Katherine are all I've ever known, you jerk!“ Izzy said, not quite a shout, but not quietly either.

“And Isabel demands so much, if she thinks I'm becoming anything like Katherine... she blames herself for what Katherine became, because of what they did in the Society together. She never says that, but I can tell! She was very hesitant to let me join the Society at all! That's the real reason I think they shut it down! It started to feel like what it had been near the end with Katherine, dangerous. And if that happens and Isabel tosses me away like she did Katherine, I've got nothing. No one.“ Izzy sounded like she had just murdered those children herself.

Taylor desperately wanted to put an arm around her, comfort her, but he suspected it would only make the moment worse. Izzy sniffled. By the sound of her voice she had just laid bare her worst fear: the thought of having no one. It was strange to see this side of her, she was usually so poised as to seem oddly untouchable. He wanted to say something nice, soothing, but he couldn't think of anything.

“But you'll do it.“ Winston said, oblivious.

“Are you trying to be a total shit? Cuz it's working fabulously!“ Lou snarled. “Either way, quit it!“ Lou squeezed Izzy's forearm.

Something hardened in Izzy. She wiped her eyes, nodded once: curt, crisp.

“No. Lou. It's OK. Really.“ Izzy said, pushing Lou's hand away, poise regained. “This is too important to let fear and anxiety rule me. Yes, Winston; I'll do it. I'll make sure Isabel and Sue-Ann give us the space and time we need. I'll keep them off our backs as best I can.“

Taylor felt elation entirely out of proportion to the moment.

“So what now?“ Taylor asked.

“You and Winston need to go home, for now.“ Izzy said firmly. “If I'm going to convince Isabel and Sue-Ann I need everyone gone, and you, at least, need to handle your parents. That's a complication we can't handle. I can't have them calling Isabel.“ Taylor nodded, realizing he wasn't prepared to face his own fears.

“What will you tell them?“ Winston asked Izzy.

“I don't know yet. I really don't. “ Izzy replied, “I will make it up as I go along. As long as they don't have any reason to suspect, they will not even come in the HQ. They have no reason to, they kept it closed after Katherine left.“ Izzy sounded like she was trying to convince herself as well as the others.

“Alright, so when will we meet up again?“ Taylor asked

“Yeah, it shouldn't be too long, right?“ Winston said.

“As soon as they are gone again, I 'll text you all. We can meet here. If something comes up before, we can meet at Lou's or Winston's?“ Everyone nodded. “Don't forget, all our old phones and emails could be being watched, only use the burner phones!“

Taylor yawned, and stretched. He really wanted to take some time, a few hours at least, and forget all of it, let his mind process, not feel overwhelmed as he currently did. Part of it was being so close to Izzy after her stinging rejection. She smiled at him as though nothing was different. How can she do that? Taylor wished he had someone to talk to about it. Winston was a no-go: he knew less about relationships and love than Taylor, despite being older. Maybe Taylor's dad, Dan, could help, but that would have to wait until Taylor came up with whatever lies he would tell the man first.

“OK. I'm off, good luck, Iz.“ Taylor said,-not knowing what else to say. He felt like he sounded desperate and miserable. To add insult to his voice cracked. He gathered up his things including his plastic wrapped tuxedo, courtesy of Helen apparently. Winston and Taylor made their way out of Chatham House.

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