A Dance for the Fallen

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And now, the nephilim, who are produced from the spirits and flesh, shall be called evil spirits on the earth, And shall live on the earth. Evil spirits have come out from their bodies because they are born from men and from the holy Watchers; their beginning is of primal origin; .... They shall be evil spirits on earth.

--1 Enoch 15:8-10


My bards portrayed the legend of Marduk as an epic battle, wherein the gods held a council that determined that the youngest of them was the only one who could overcome the vicious Sea Goddess, Tiamat, and her appointed tyrant, Kingu. Apparently I laid siege to their forces in a flaming chariot, driven by four of the most magnificent horses, overcoming the duo with spears, arrows, lightening and flames.

Funny how the truth of the flood and the traitor got twisted. Stranger, how my easy victory over a pathetic opportunist could be made to sound so grand. This tale was a favorite among my children. My eldest, Nabu, requested it of the bards each birthday. I have told them the facts, but such things are easily buried by spectacle. The truth is, it is not reality that survives the ages. My people wanted to know they pledged themselves to a god, and so, God I would be.

Unfortunately, the story of my survival is not as fantastic as they wanted it to be. Ramuel and I were in the mountains, when the flood came. Because the mountains marked the border of my mother’s empire, Heaven never needed the flood to rise above them. We could see the waters engulf everything. At night, the first nights, we could hear screams carried on the winds. When that was done, the silence was worse.

Ramuel decided we should keep climbing for as long as rain still fell. Just in case. Shortly after the rains had stopped, we came upon a shelter built by the opening of a cave: the dwelling of a hermit named Haga, who was a resourceful, jolly idiot. Haga never suspected I was royalty, fleeing devastation I had brought upon my people. He called me Mar-Mar, and he, Ramuel and I became the strangest of family.

I was the best hunter, of the three of us; it seems outrunning mountain cats and scaring off bears does well to keep a young prince agile. Ramuel taught Haga and I how to cultivate herbs for healing. Haga taught us how to belch a tune. Admittedly it was less dignified state of existence, but it did keep me from drowning in self pity. Ten years I spent with them, refusing to see what had become of the land I had lost. Eventually, though, Ramuel said it was time for me to move on.

“You’re meant for more than this,” he said. “The son of Ninsun shouldn’t be foraging mushrooms and patching roofs. You’re a man now. Whatever has become of the empire, your future is there.”

Ramuel promised he would take me so far as the nearest village, then we would go our separate ways. He apologized for not being able to go with me further, but he believed that it was a fluke that Heaven had passed over him in the massacre of the angels, and he didn’t want to risk being discovered now. I didn’t blame him. I doubt even my father would have done any different. While part of me did resent Father for leaving without word, I came to understand it as his way of telling me he trusted me to survive--no matter what, I would honor that trust. So I didn’t mourn, when Ramuel gave me one last embrace. I vowed to make my own way.

The reclaimed land of Sumer, called Babylon when I came back down the mountain, was a harsh place. No one knew how to build, anymore. The meager excuse for a village Ramuel and I found was a collection of tents and huts, the people living off domestic cattle corralled in their own filth. Even the land was different, the fertile soil dried to dust. I tried to show them how to store the rain, so that they might grow seeds from the nearby jungle, but they called me heathen and accused me of tempting God’s wrath. Eventually, I was so infuriated by their vengeful tyrant of a God that I told their chief to show him to me so I might throttle him myself, at which point the village banded together to drive me off.

I wandered from one village to the next, enduring the same sort of treatment again and again. I tried to show them another way, a better way; all responded with violence. They did not wish to be better. They had found their answer in fear of their Maker, a fear being fed to them steadily by their King Dumuzi, who claimed to speak for Heaven. Tremble and grovel, they were told. Accept no other way to be. Under this reign, mankind no longer prospered. They were uneducated, malnourished, forced back into a primitive, herdlike disposition that troubled me deeply.

My parents had never told me much of Heaven, where they and their brothers had sprung from; I assumed only that it was a place beyond my comprehension, a higher plane of thought that could not be questioned. Yet if this new world was Heaven’s wish, then I could not allow it. I did not know this God the people spoke of--but if he had caused the flood that had taken my family, then he was not worthy of worship. Nor could he be my parents’ Father, who my mother had always said was disinterested in the minor workings of small lives, who interfered so rarely with even His own children that Mother had not asked His aid when her own life was at stake.

Somewhere along the way, my anger towards the Creator led me to believe that the only beings worthy of worship were those who had taught us: Ningishzida, Semes, Asasel, Bel, my mother and father, and all the gods of the old world who resembled them. I would bring back Anu, Enlil, and Enki, Ninsun or Ninhursag. I would bring back all those lost arts, then reaffirm their purpose with the stories of the gods who had first brought them. Then, the empire would sustain itself, again. They could have the gods they demanded without losing themselves; their fear would dissolve in understanding. They would be saved from themselves.

In spite of these grand ideas, I wasn’t in a hurry to rise against King Dumuzi. This didn’t feel like my land, anymore. Honestly, I didn’t want to be responsible for anything but my own existence. Guilt regarding the flood, my exile, all assortment of things kept me from wanting to pursue my ideals. And so, Marduk the heathen focused on his own survival.

I staked my claim on some uninhabited land and began to till it. The location was ideal, near enough to the river that irrigation would be easy, but far enough from it that I couldn’t be easily spotted by a passing raft. I built myself a home. I grew crops, caught a few wild goats to breed meat, got exercise fending off predators. Traveling caravans saw the smoke from my fire and came to visit, some friendly, some not. The first unfriendly guests had the privilege of having their heads on a spike, displayed around the perimeter of my garden to ward off anyone with similar ideas.

Eventually, the friendlier caravans spread word that I had food to trade. “Trade” being a loose term; I shared what I had with those who needed it. Those who didn’t need it, they could pay. As drought drove more people to follow rumors of my harvest, people came to pitch their tents near my home. Some came to work my fields, until I showed them how to till their own. In a handful of years, I had a village of my own, where they called me Chief. In my village, we worshipped only Ninsun and Lugalbanda--without them, none of us would have had anything to eat.

Being Chief Marduk agreed with me, much more than I would have thought. Young men were always trying to challenge me, so often that it became a weekly contest in the middle of town, onlookers coming to cheer while I benevolently destroyed my opponents. I enjoyed hunting in a group, even if I ended up carrying the most carcasses. Women began to court me, many already partnered, but at that point I abstained. I didn’t want to have any children to my name until there was more than a village for them to inherit.

As fate would have it, a woman’s interest was what changed everything. The children of the village were in a frenzy when a royal chariot arrived from the south, bringing a stranger into our midst. I came to greet them with my sword, expecting only snakes to come from Dumuzi’s city; it fell from my hand when the stranger let down her scarf to reveal her loose locks, and blue eyes.

I didn’t recognize her, at first. So many years had passed since she had kissed me, and having heard tales of what had happened to the nephilim, I never expected to be reunited with any of them. Yet when she smiled at me, relieved and knowing, it brought me back to the palace hall where she had first grabbed my hand.

“You’re a bitch to find, ‘Marduk,’” Erua said, looking down at me.

I couldn’t say anything. A strange instinct would have had me run, but I remained firmly planted. At last, she stepped from the chariot, handing me the reins.

“Is there a place for the horses?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said, remembering myself.

“Good,” she said. “You can lead them there while I scream at you for dicking around all these years.”

And scream she did. Apparently, she had known since the first rumor that it was me. My surviving the flood didn’t surprise her in the slightest, although hearing only some of what she had suffered in my absence, I forgave her for being callous.

She revealed that Tammuz, the angel Father trusted to take his place with the guard, had championed my mother’s betrayal. The nephilim massacre, the destruction of the angels, he considered his crowning achievement. I was appalled enough by this; to hear then that he had the gall to claim Erua and Inanna as his pleasure toys, after what had been done to our brothers, I was enraged. Inanna had never been kind to me, but that did not justify enslavement.

“She likes it, now,” Erua muttered. “She calls him her beloved and she tries to give him a baby. I have to double-lace her tea to stop that mess.”

Of course.

Inanna aside, I couldn’t allow Tammuz’s betrayal to go unanswered. Whatever reservations I had about the responsibilities of a changed empire, I knew it wasn’t any better off in his command. As for a plan, Erua said all I needed to do with dethrone him, and the people would rally around me. After all, I was their only hope of surviving the drought.

“Look at what you’ve already done,” she said, as my villagers broke bread and celebrated the visitation of a queen. “You started with nothing, and now you have more smiling faces around you than the palace has seen in half a lifetime. You were born to be King, Gilgamesh. Stop hiding and be one.”

I took the throne. It was almost disappointing how easy it was, but I can’t say I would have enjoyed a drawn out assault. Loyalty began in Uruk and extended outwards, the acceptance of my claim dependent on how hungry the people weighed with how much they feared Tammuz’s angry God. When I saved the crops that had been blighted and guided others to better use resources at their disposal, my kingship was solidified. Those few who refused to give up their fear of Heaven were driven out, either by force or their own choosing. This wasn’t my proudest moment, but dissent is a poison; I couldn’t allow it to ferment among an unstable populace.

As the seasons turned, the people gaining more faith in the land and, by extension, my reign, I introduced them to the gods that had been lost. Erua and I taught all we knew to the wisest of Uruk, who in turn taught others. Villagers sent their precocious children to the capital to learn writing in the temple of Ningishzida, the pattern of the stars and keeping of the calendar from the house of Anu, there were even stories to be heard from Priests of Ea. They learned once again how to build mighty statues and columns, to mold pottery, to paint their homes. Slowly, Babylon became more like Sumer.

Erua and I were wed. In a way it legitimized my hold over the throne, for many of our subjects knew no reign other than Tammuz’s, my own parents nothing but a myth to them. I wish I could say it was a union of passion, rather than convenience; alas, my feelings towards Erua never much surpassed my adolescent tolerance of her presence. She laid with me first on our wedding night, an event I fumbled my way through quite fantastically. Nine months later, she bore twins: boy and girl, Nabu and Ninna, my pride and joy.

We had servant girls to take care of the twins, since Erua didn’t take much interest in them beyond dressing them in expensive outfits and bringing them about to be praised, but I was often in their nursery. I was in awe of them. Every little thing they did--their first steps, their fascination with paint, the way Ninna liked to hug dolls dressed in blue and Nabu liked to drag around dolls dressed in red--brought me such delight. Erua complained that I slept in their bed more often than hers. I thought of getting them a dog, but in the end, the thought of replacing Enkidu brought me too much pain to bear it.

When they grew older, I missing their toddling, I asked her often for another child. Unfortunately, Erua wouldn’t hear of it. She continued to use her medicines to avoid conception, no matter how many times I had her in hopes of it.

“We have one of each,” she said. “We wouldn’t want our people to get confused.”

In time I might have suppressed this feeling, had I not met Sarpanit. She was a beautiful young woman sent from the western reaches of Babylon to learn weaving from the Uruk’s spinsters. I came upon her during one trip to market, selling cloth woven from the most crimson thread. She said she had brought from her land seeds for a plant that produced the reddest berries, and had planted one in the temple garden for all to use, though only she knew how best to craft the dye. I thought that Nabu, who still adored the color red, might appreciate having such a plant.

Sarpanit took me to the temple so I could collect the seeds. Yet, after I had harvested what I needed, she took my hand and confessed that she had hoped I had taken an interest in her for more than just the berries. Before that, I think I had assumed that Erua and I would be begrudging partners until the day one of us died, our minds never wandering beyond that union. That was how my parents had lived--though their union seemed more complete than my own. At first, I felt guilty for noticing then how supple her curves were, how inviting her breast, how plump were her dark lips. I couldn’t explain why I wanted her nails to rake the markings down my back.

Some carnal instinct awoke in me, as I kissed her in the temple garden, following her lead when she loosed my thick member from my pants and slid me under her skirt. She was the first woman I had that pleased me, that made me want womankind. After her, I no longer saw her as “human,” and me as otherwise. I realized that I was King, and I could have what I wanted.

Sarpanit became my second wife, a title Erua despised until she realized that she could defer to the other woman when she wasn’t in the mood for me. Refusing Erua’s medicines, she bore triplets within the year. Identical boys. She called them Sheshkala, Amarkish, and the last was Lugalme, after my father. All of us realizing now that I sired multiples--and they were big babies--Sarpanit began taking Erua’s medicine.

I loved the triplets. I spent as much time with them as I had with my twins, delighted when it turned out they liked to wrestle, rolling about on the floor like a litter of cubs. I also loved Gamsu, the young nursemaid who took care of the triplets. A year later, she gave birth to blonde, male twins, Zimu and Anuras--surprised as I was enamored, I married her too.

Between my three wives, I was more than content. They were too, it seems, as none competed too greatly for my affection. There was always someone to care for the children, as Gamsu especially loved to spend time with the little ones, whether or not they were hers. They loved her too. It was hard not to: she was always laughing, singing, dancing about. Now with the freedoms of a queen, Sarpanit’s interests expanded from weaving to medicine making, then even to writing systems. Erua enjoyed all the responsibilities of a sitting monarch, meeting with chiefs and soldiers, crafting proclamations. I was able to focus on what I was best at: displays of power.

Without a network of intimidating angel generals, I alone was responsible for ensuring that people believed in my might. That meant I had to be more hands-on than my parents, training Uruk’s soldiers personally, bringing them with me to whatever lands refused to make their contribution towards grain storage or refused to turn over the spoils of their mines. Some humans complained that this was a form of enslavement, but they were being given trade, and food, and education in exchange for whatever contribution a village could provide, which is hardly foul treatment.

Usually if I showed up with enough armored men, that was enough to make a chieftain change their tune. Otherwise, there was bloodshed, followed by a period of armed occupation while they relearned obedience. Harsh as it sounds, I couldn’t allow a developed village to be lost without risking the faith of those who were still loyal. I knew it was hypocrisy, to speak of peace dressed in the blood of dissenters. It was the only method that worked.

It was after Erua bore my second daughter, Kiri, that I began to notice a troubling phenomenon in the rebellious territories. Sometimes, the villagers would begin to rise up against each other without warning, starting small wars that had no cause. When I arrived to answer the problem, I noticed among them a handful of crazed men, babbling the same sorts of things. Yet, there was consistency among them:

“The voices wanted me to stab out her eyes,” one told me, when I had my sword at his throat. “It’s not my fault, the voices wouldn’t stop.”

Another said, “the voices needed my children to die.”

Still another, “the voices want humans to bleed.”

They were mad, this I knew, but that all of them would have the same affliction began to trouble me. They were unrelated men and women, scattered all across Babylon, separated by leagues. There was no great conspiracy hatching, no contamination in their waters, yet the phenomenon persisted. The one that haunted me the most was a man I found stabbing a shard of glass into his own abdomen, chuckling a smile.

“I deserve this,” he said. “The voices were right.”

I posed the phenomenon to the Priests of Anu, who meditated upon dreams and omens. Most could say nothing. One, however, confessed his own dream he had after I reported the first of the afflicted. He said he saw a forest of broken bodies, children wandering, gripping bloody weapons. They whispered, “Nephilim,” “Naphadim,” “Elohim.”

My illness crept upon me slowly. At times I found myself moving in a fog, my head aching, waking at night in a terrible sweat. For years though, the symptoms were mild and fleeting. I could hide it from my children, and my wives.

Erua, apparently dissatisfied with the anticlimactic birth of a single daughter, surprised me by seducing me one night after a long period of disinterest. (Not that I was starved for company, with Sarpanit and Gamsu usually wanting and, I’ll admit to it, my frequent dealings with unattached women in villages I passed through). I think she might even have been jealous of the big-bellied women who often showed up at the palace, hoping they might bargain favors for the sake of my bastards--I never denied requests of food or nightly shelter, but only my wives were allowed to rear their children in the palace. Even so, if they settled in Uruk, I would go to visit with little toys and treats.

In any case, Erua conceived as she had planned, this time birthing another healthy set of twins. Eshda and Shen, she called them, fine playmates for Kiri. Less than two years later, jealous now that Erua had the most children, both Gamsu and Sarpanit came upon me one morning to take advantage of a horny stupor. Once they began to show, I heard there were bets being made on how many babes I had left in their womb.

With more young ones than usual, two of my wives now pregnant, I couldn’t afford weakness of any sort. It was a cruel joke of the universe that then, my illness truly took hold.

It began with the spiders. I began to see them in places they shouldn’t have been--the nursery, the throne room, by my pillow at night. Sometimes other people would see them too, yet sometimes even after I had killed them with my bare hands, people who were in the room with me would claim that there was nothing. They were bigger each time, blacker and more threatening--but I was the only one disturbed by them. Even when they were seen, others shrugged and said, “there are always spiders.”

Other insects began to plague me, no matter where I was. Locusts seemed to go out of their way to land on my clothing, mosquitoes left me riddled with marks, my horse was tormented by flies. Now fearing that this was a trick of my mind, some sort of heightened awareness none could sympathize with, I stopped complaining. Yet no solution could rid myself of the pests, neither oil nor herb strong enough to keep them at bay.

My headaches worsened; I became irritable, even around my young sons. Sometimes the mere sight of them would cause my brain to pound, nausea flaring until I could shut myself into darkness. My advisors told me it was nothing more than the stress of age, but I still had more strength in me than any of my years, my parents’ blood potent with youth. My wives worried, my appetite for them or any woman extinguished. None could say what ailed me.

Then, the voice started speaking.

Gluttonous King, filling the void with women and children. What makes you think you deserve what you’ve stolen?

It was a voice like I had known, so nearly forgotten I could no longer place it. It came from inside me, yet seemed apart from myself, like a presence at the edge of each room I could not escape.

Your kingdom is built on the bones of your fallen brothers. Any one of them might have made a worthy king, before you were born. Because you were born, they died. They scream, and scream, because you were born.

I couldn’t place the voice until I, like my priest, dreamt of the forest. I saw the endless bodies, laid wrapped in their entrails, twisted with decay. Some I recognized as the halflings of Uruk, whose eyes had once followed me with trepidation, whose eyes now were gouged and bleeding. I wandered there, until I found Ohya standing atop a pile of bodies, like he had once stood on the walls of Uruk.

“I won,” he laughed, like the voice in my head. “They let me go home, so I could drown.”

My throat was tight, seeing him dripping with the blood of our cousins, our brothers. He had always seemed so much older than me, but I saw now his youth--a murderer no older than Nabu.

“I didn’t know,” I said.

“I don’t fucking care.”

Then his sickle pierced my gut, Ohya staring me in the eye while he pressed it deeper, until it burst from my back. He gripped my arm so tight it began to bleed.

“I’ve watched long enough. Now, it’s time you pay what you owe us.”

The sky opened up, rain poured down. Covering the bodies, rising up around us until the water grew thick with carnage and soil. We would be entombed together, Ohya and I, as I choked on the sins of my birth.

In my waking hours, I tried to suppress Ohya’s voice. I knew it was the manifestation of my guilt, something I had spent no time confronting, having spent the past twenty years focused squarely on my fledgling kingdom. My wives were not people I discussed things with. Erua didn’t like me to express vulnerability--she called it “unpalatable”--and Sarpanit and Gamsu were delightful, but simple. They were easily lost in conversation, really able to focus on only a handful of things at a time. I knew they wouldn’t understand grief over events that had happened years before they were born, regarding people they could barely imagine. That had all been well, before my past came back to consume me. Now that I needed support, despite family all around, I was alone.

For years I had paid my respects at the temple of Ninsun and Lugalbanda, half earnest. While I knew my father’s promise to me must have some truth, that they could reach me from the veil, I didn’t want to hope. My parents were gone. I had no illusions about that. My people worshipped the memory of them, honoring what they had brought to Earth--but that could never bring them back. I knew this, yet as my torment intensified, desperation drove me into the temple in a new way.

I missed my mother. To be at the feet of her statue, molded by my memory all those years ago, I was brought back into the comfort of her arms. I remembered the sleekness of her long hair, the soft smell of apples and sweets. I crafted incense to suit it, so that it might flavor the air with the warmth of her likeness, bringing me closer to her. Although I could not feel her yet, being in the temple at night helped keep Ohya at bay.

Word came from my spies of a new conflict in the north; I was unable to avoid this responsibility without alerting others to my worsening state. Donning armor like I had once polished for Father, I knelt before my mother’s statue, whispering a now-customary prayer.

“Protect me on my journey, O Ninsun. Watch over my children and their mothers, until I am safely returned.”

I thought the incense might have shifted, assuring this promise. It was enough to ease my fears.

To investigate the situation, I took with me twenty men, who had rode with me many times before. Among them was the spy who had first brought me the news, outlining for me over the long trek the nature of what he had seen.

“It is a growing band of men united under a woman’s banner. They worship a god they call Assur, who they claim founded this land and rightfully has rule over it. The woman who leads them appears to be his Priestess, Astarte. She seems to have a great deal of control over the men.”

We came upon them in a mountainous desert, seeing their campfires in the distance. I was surprised by their numbers, as well as how many bodies had lined the roads to lead us here. They were dangerous, I could see that much--they needed to be removed. The small band I had brought with me wouldn’t be enough, either. I could tell at once that this was the job of an army. But I needed information on them, something that would inform the assault.

I didn’t want to risk any of my men for simple reconnaissance. When they pitched camp, finding shelter behind a cliff to hide their firelight, I donned a dark cloak to hide my paleness. I had scoped a path along the jagged rocks during daylight, which I could climb to a viewpoint of their dwelling without being spotted. I had spent a good part of my life climbing mountains. Even with my age, there was no one in my company better suited for it.

Noiseless, careful, I found my way to the ledge. In the moonless night, the enemy fire was the only light to focus my gaze. They were far, but my vision was powerful--inhuman, I was told, but I had never known anything else. I saw there the woman they spoke of: Astarte, dancing before the fire. Although she was dark, different in her movement, I was chilled to see that she was the spitting image of Inanna, banished years ago.

The resemblance was unimportant, I decided. More important was the behavior of the men around her, some on their knees so that they might taste the dirt kicked by her feet. Their groveling was unnatural--coaxed, I realized, by the chanting I could make out on her lips. She was called a Priestess of Assur; no doubt they called her that because she was capable of some supernatural proof of this “god’s” grace, or else no one would follow her from their homes. That was dangerous. Whatever power she had, it was more than I could summon. Some Priests of Anu were capable of small miracles in their namesakes’ honor, but by no means would I rely on such things in battle; my conflicts had always been decided by Earthly might. I was born of gods, but I was only strong in the wake of men. This, indeed, was a problem.

I left half of my men at this post, to keep an eye on the tribe of Assur and alert me of changes. I promised to return in a fortnight with all the soldiers Uruk could provide, and a plan. But I had none. We journeyed home, as Ohya’s voice plagued me.

The false god has been revealed, he mocked. King Gilgamesh cowers before his grave.

Ordinarily, I did not fear anything. But my condition, Ohya’s voice clawing at my senses, had deteriorated my sense of self. And in this instability, fear took hold. It drove me to my parents’ temple, the night I returned to the palace. Faced with an enemy who had truly harnessed the gods, I had no choice but to bow before mine, begging a miracle.

A miracle came. The snake curled around my mother’s neck, docile, beautiful. It came to wrap around my arm, resting its emerald head in my palm. Even before her voice came, I had begun to weep.

You’ve grown up so well.

She asked me how I had survived, how all this had come to be. I told her, in so many words. As long as I held that little creature, its pink tongue darting out to taste my warmth, I could hear her. That was the greatest gift this world could have given me.

You said you were ill, she asked at last, when I had nothing more to say.

“I am,” I confessed. “Or I may just be mad. I hear the voice of my childhood friend, Ohya, trying to drag me into the grave with him.”

A long silence made me worry she had left. When her love returned, I breathed anew.

You’re not mad. Ohya clutches to your arm, infecting your soul. If you remove him, then your illness should leave you.

“Remove him?” I asked.

She seemed to hesitate, the snake lifting its head, then resting back against my skin.

Give me time. Let me appeal to my brothers for a solution.

“In Heaven, you mean.” I tensed with worry, for Heaven was a word I did not say kindly.

If I must, I will. Your survival means more to me than anything they might do. Please, postpone the battle you fear until I return. One way or another, I will cure you of this parasite. Then, I will aid you against this foe. You have my word.

Relief flooded me, unlike anything I had ever felt. The burdens of years were lifted, supported by the mere touch of a woman stronger than any living man. When I closed my eyes, I could see her there, cupping my cheek as she offered her soft smile.

“Even in death, you do too much,” I said.

I felt her laugh, wrapped around my heart. The snake slithered down my arm, lowered gently to the stone, where it quickly disappeared into the shadows. Her presence faded with it, carried gently on the dying incense. I would trust her. Even if I had had another choice, I would still place my faith in her.

I would return to my wives, prepared to pretend I was well.

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