A Road Not Taken - Part Fifteen

 

Sam took a deep breath and smiled as she sat on a bench in the park across from her apartment building in Palo Alto. It was the park on top of the close proximity to the Stanford campus that had led her to this particular choice of housing. And now she sat back and enjoyed the scent of approaching autumn.

The blonde lieutenant didn't have to worry about ROTC that weekend, a positive point in Sam's book for more than one reason. First, and most obvious, was that she had that much more free time. There was a paper she needed to write for her graduate level astrophysics class she had been looking forward to making a significant dent in. Second, she was hoping to give Daniel a call that night. They'd exchanged letters of course, but it had been a while since they'd been able to actually have a conversation. Third, she didn't have to deal with First Lieutenant Allison Schneider. The woman taught one of the ROTC classes - Sam was only an assistant - and ever since the beginning of the semester a little over a month before had given the impression that she only had the position she did because her father was a brigadier general stationed in Vermont. She certainly threw daddy's name around often enough. Between that and the coy batting of her long dark eyelashes over her dark green eyes and flipping back her shoulder-length light brown hair, it was obvious how Allison was planning on making her way through the ranks.

Sam frowned at the thought. That was exactly the opposite of her attitude, and she hated it when someone made it that much easier to believe that she would do such a thing to further her career. Samantha Carter had no intentions of riding Jacob Carter's coattails through the Air Force, and certainly wouldn't be using her looks or her body to make a good impression either. She was strong enough and intelligent enough to make her own mark in what she knew was a man's world. And she had every intention of doing so. She'd even gone so far as to come out and ask her father not to pull strings on her behalf. Jacob had compromised by saying he wouldn't unless it was absolutely necessary.

The woman could no longer sit still on the park bench. Sam practically threw herself to her feet and began to walk along the paths that wandered in and around the trees. This was all something she hadn't shared with Daniel. She didn't want him to worry over something so trivial. This was just something that happened in the military when you were a woman with a high-ranking relative. She could deal with it. Besides, she didn't want Daniel to think badly of her, to even have the seed that she could possibly act that way. She still thought she had gotten off light after the debacle in the park in El Segundo - well, actually it had felt pretty good, but the idea of it was oh so wrong. She still wasn't convinced that she hadn't proven herself capable of the things Allison Schneider was pulling. And the last thing she wanted was to reinforce her previous behavior.

"Yeah, you know, she's one of the ones who runs the Air Force ROTC over at San Juan University," a male voice up ahead interrupted Sam's thoughts.

"Okay, I know who you mean. Yeah, she's definitely a 'daddy's girl' all right," another male voice responded. Sam's brows furrowed as she stopped in her tracks.

The first man laughed. "And now it looks like she's looking for a new 'daddy' by all accounts. I mean, the way she buddies up with the guys, so willing to 'help' if you know what I mean."

"Has she 'helped' you?"

"Not yet," the original speaker said with a definite leer in his tone. "I don't think it'll be too long before she offers though. I'm on the fast track to a promotion as soon as I graduate in the spring." He paused for a moment. "Maybe I should mention that next weekend," he mused.

Man number two chuckled. "On your way to being a general like her daddy, I see."

"Like I'll let anything stop me. And if I snuggle up to her long enough, I can have her daddy influence my career, too. How else do you think she got to come straight here after graduating from the academy instead of waiting for the usual three years of duty?"

Sam blinked. She had been sure they were talking about Allison, but the other woman hadn't graduated from the academy. She'd gone through ROTC at college somewhere out east. So who were they talking about? She bit her lower lip as a sneaking suspicion began to grow.

"You don't think any 'late night sessions' with her instructors had anything to do with it, do you?" guy two asked, a smirk more than apparent in his voice.

"Maybe, maybe not," was the response. "I'll just have to ask about some 'late night sessions' of my own to find out. Hey, I can find out just how much of a natural blonde she is!" The two of them laughed.

Sam went pale at the last comment, even as the two men realized they were going to be late meeting a friend of theirs for lunch and took off. She was the only blonde female instructor involved with the San Juan ROTC. They weren't talking about Allison - they were talking about her. They really thought she was like that.

How had they gotten such an idea? She'd never made any advances on any of the students. Not only was it against regulations, it was just wrong on so many levels. Sure, she'd been friendly; that was her natural personality, or at least she liked to think so. But was that enough to make those guys think she either slept her way here or pulled the right strings? Didn't they know that the top percentage of each class from the academy had the option of going straight on to graduate school?

Apparently not. And with that realization, Sam sighed, her shoulders drooping. It seemed she couldn't keep people from thinking the worst of her no matter what she did or didn't do. There was a tiny part of her mind that acknowledged that a lot of what she'd just overheard was male bravado in overdrive, but the majority of her mind ignored that point. Sam was a bit busy drawing correlations to El Segundo, which meant she had cut herself off from her main source of comfort - Daniel.

After a few moments of mental self-flagellation, Sam drew a deep breath and let her resolve firm. She'd show jerks like that. She'd scrape and claw her way through the ranks, relying only on herself to do so. And what she needed to do now to further that cause was go back to her apartment and work on that paper. She'd take a short break that evening for dinner and a quick call to Daniel - her emotions completely under control like they should be - then get right back to it. She'd prove she was better than that, than the bimbos like Allison Schneider who gave women in the military a bad name.

Her eyes a hard, icy blue and her posture stiff, Sam marched back to her apartment to do just that.

* * * * * * * *


I swear, some professors live in a world entirely of their own making, Daniel thought one Wednesday night toward the end of September as he stumbled toward the door of his apartment from the elevator. He was working as a teachers assistant that semester for one of his anthropology professors, and the man had kept him in his office for three and a half hours talking about what had happened that day - which was pretty much nothing. Daniel was now tired and hungry and hours behind on three essays he needed to get written for the next day's classes. He hated last minute assignments like that, but such was the price to be paid when trying to achieve a bachelors degree while beginning graduate work toward a doctorate at the same time.

A loud sigh filled the empty hallway as the twenty-year-old fumbled for his keys. He could hear Jack's admonishments about not working too hard echoing in his head. The last letter he'd gotten from the Air Force major, in fact, had gone on for half a page about the subject. Daniel shook his head. And all because of his new job. There was a chance he was going to be able to join a dig in Egypt the next coming summer, and supplies didn't pay for themselves, no matter that he'd managed to get a couple grants and scholarships to pay for graduate school. Jack just couldn't seem to get that.

Daniel threw open the door with one hand, immediately reaching in with the other to turn on the overhead light. Sparks flashed for a moment, but nothing else happened. "Great," the young man muttered, heading over to the large curtain-covered window on the other side of the living room that gave a surprisingly attractive overview of the city. "Guess there's a benefit to a full moon tonight after all."

He was surprised to trip over some things on the floor he didn't remember leaving there, but his eyes were still adjusting to the dark so he couldn't say for sure that anything was out of place. Somehow surviving the trek, he yanked open the shades and turned back around to toss his backpack on the couch. At the sight of the living room and kitchenette, Daniel froze. His jaw clenched and his hands curled into fists. Not again.

The space was trashed. The lack of light from above was due to the cracked glass shade barely left hanging onto one of its supports and the light bulb underneath being smashed, the tiny wires twitching like an insect's antennae from the attempt to turn it on just moments before. The cushions of the couch and chair had been slashed open with a knife and the stuffing spread to the four winds. The small coffee table that had been in front of the sofa was now resting in two pieces on the floor to either side of the window Daniel stood in front of. The actual couch was on its back, one leg broken completely off and another dangling from the upper left hand corner, while the chair had been flipped over entirely, only one leg to be seen still attached and the springs poking out of what should have been the bottom of the seat. The two floor lamps he'd picked up at the thrift shop down the street were in multiple pieces strewn about with the rest of the furniture, and the end table at the far end of the couch that his telephone had rested on looked like a squashed spider, its center stomped to the floor making the legs jut out like the spokes of a wheel.

A glance at the kitchenette showed it hadn't been spared. Pots and pans had been thrown about randomly, the faucet had been torn off the sink - Daniel could only be glad the water had been turned off that morning because the pipes in the bathroom needed fixing - and all his dishes appeared to be shattered and mixed in with everything else. What food he'd had in the refrigerator had been smeared over the counters, walls, and appliances, creating quite an eerie effect in the bright moonlight.

Lastly he looked at his desk and bookshelves. They looked like someone had gone at them with a machete. Books and papers were tattered, torn, and tossed about with abandon. What few pieces of artwork he'd had were slashed, most likely with the same knife that had gone after his furniture. And in huge, sprawling letters, drawn with bright orange paint over the walls and anything that was directly on or in front of them, was the word "geek" as well as the Greek symbols of one of the fraternities on campus.

Daniel took a deep breath and slowly released it. With it went his furious stance, leaving behind only frustrated resignation. He shifted his backpack more securely onto his back and carefully stepped into his bedroom. Ignoring the disaster area it had been made into, the student threw what clothes hadn't been shredded into his duffle bag, which had miraculously made it out unscathed. He gave a rueful half-smirk. It had been a graduation gift from Jacob Carter when he'd gotten his two bachelors degrees and had an embroidered Air Force logo on the side. Apparently the vandals had a bit of respect for the military. Might explain why his bed had been left alone. The duffle had been under it.

A quick check of his wallet confirmed he had enough cash. Daniel then slung the duffle over a shoulder, readjusted his backpack, and walked out the door, locking it behind him.

An hour later, he sat at the table in his hotel room, books and notes spread over the surface, and not a single word written on the pad of paper in front of him. His chin rested in his hand, and his eyes gazed out the window unseeing. This was the sixth time this kind of thing had happened since he'd started at the University of Chicago. The first two times he'd called the police, but nothing was ever really done about it. In fact, he'd gotten teased more than normal when a few people had seen the small write-up in the papers. He hadn't bothered since. He just cleaned up the mess, replaced what needed to be replaced, and made sure that anything truly valuable to him was either in storage or on his person at all times. He may have gotten bugged about carrying his backpack wherever he went, but it beat taking the chance that something irreplaceable would end up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Everything else was only stuff. You could replace stuff.

He had never written either Jack or Sam about the incidences. He didn't want his friends to worry about him. He'd never been in the apartment when the vandalism had taken place - and didn't think he ever would be, since he'd then be able to identify someone to the police - and all in all he figured this was something he should take care of on his own. With Sam in Colorado - well, California now - and Jack pretty much anywhere but Chicago and with a family to care for, Daniel knew they couldn't come running whenever something went a little... haywire in his life. And it wouldn't be fair to expect them to, not that he ever did. He was sure bad things happened to both of them that he didn't know about. That's just the way things worked.

Daniel had promised himself long ago that he would take care of himself. Dealing with the people who did these things, however he saw fit, was one way he'd prove he could. He had a feeling he knew who'd pulled this latest stunt. He'd been the one who handed back the last essay test his anthropology professor had given, and the five members of the fraternity whose symbols had been blazoned across his walls failed miserably. He never got any respect from them in the first place when he ran the occasional class, so it wasn't too much of a stretch to see them blaming him for their grades and acting out accordingly.

The young man squeezed his eyes shut for a moment then reopened them with a new sense of purpose. It was time to stop feeling sorry for himself. He'd dealt with ignorant bullies too many times to count in the past, and it was no different now. He'd finish his essays, call his landlord in the morning before classes and tell him Saturday afternoon would work better after all to fix the pipes, and use his usual clear schedule on Friday to clean his apartment. After that, it would be like nothing ever happened. He wouldn't give any of the bullies out there the satisfaction of anything less.

* * * * * * * *


Jack stared from his hiding place in the surrounding woods after sunset one evening at the end of September as the house he and his team had returned to slowly succumbed to the flames that licked up the outer walls and played along the roof. They'd had orders to arrange the retrieval of the double agent they had planted false information on not four hours ago after receiving a warning that a local underground militia group was going to kill him for selling out one of their top members to the government agents in the area known to report directly to Moscow as well as Bucharest. It was the same reason Jack and his team had been assigned their mission, however the Americans had been under orders to have no contact with their target, leave no trace of their presence, and above all, arrange for the capture of the target alive.

The Air Force major had been less than happy with the orders. After three-quarters of an hour filled with raised voices and any number of repetitions of "with all due respect, sir" Jack gave in to the inevitable and did as he was told, his objection duly noted. This was a man that had double crossed a British agent by not delivering vital information, leading to an Interpol operative and fifteen innocent women and children being killed when a lack of back-up resulted in a terrorist bomb not being found and defused. On another occasion, the false information the man passed on led to five local contacts in five separate locations in Poland being caught by the KGB and tortured to death. Three broke during the interrogations, and any number of operations were forced to be scrapped just in time to avoid public exposure. Who knew how many innocent lives were lost by those missions not being completed? And the good ol' US of A wanted him publically discovered and disgraced by the local authorities, so that he could be quietly "lost in transit" somewhere along the way and brought to them, while still appearing to have satisfied the public's need to see "justice" done.

The militia's just giving him what he deserves, Jack thought as he continued to watch the house burn. The world will be a better place without him in it. Charlie will be better off never having to worry about the kind of threat to his safety this guy represents.

"Major," one of his team whispered softly from behind him, "shouldn't we go back and report this to headquarters?"

"Not yet," Jack replied. "We need to be sure. The last thing we need is Grigorescu to slip away in the chaos."

The younger man shifted nervously, the buttons of his worn vest rubbing against his weapon. All six men were dressed in local attire and armed with Russian AK-47's so they could pass as militia members if they were spotted. "We're not supposed to make contact."

Jack shot him a quick glance over his shoulder that stilled the anxious movement. "I'm well aware of that, Captain. I have no intention of making contact. I'm making sure our target doesn't escape."

"Yes, sir."

It wasn't much longer before a figure silhouetted by the burning building behind it crept away toward the woods. Jack narrowed his eyes as he contemplated the unknown person. "Gibson, are any militia members near where our little friend is heading?"

The youngest member of the team considered it for a brief moment. "No, sir, and they won't be until he's past."

A shower of sparks flared up as a section of roof collapsed inward, throwing out enough light to illuminate the face of their suspect. "Grigorescu," Jack breathed. His eyes went dark and emotionless as he brought up his rifle and aimed it carefully. In one fluid motion the trigger was pulled and the man dropped in the middle of the yard. Luckily Grigorescu's men had been milling around in the middle of an escape from the fire, caught up in loud confrontations with the militia members that had tried to surround the place to make sure their work was done. It was unlikely Jack's single shot was distinguishable from anyone else's. Nevertheless, Jack immediately gestured for his team to retreat.

"Major, he was supposed to be captured alive," the team's 2IC breathed, shocked, as the six Americans slipped through the woods.

"He was about to escape, Tucker. That would have been unacceptable." Jack gritted his teeth as a brief pang of regret for having taken a life flashed through him like it usually did. It was quickly followed by the consideration of all the deaths of innocents the man had been responsible for, and he knew that he'd never have a recurrence of that pang in regards to this kill ever again.

"But... our orders..."

Jack sighed and hoped he could find enough patience for the newest member of his team. "Captain, I used a local weapon. When the local authorities find his body they'll assume the militia took care of him. The false evidence we planted just went poof with the rest of the house, and nobody on either side saw us. No one will know any member of the American military was anywhere near here. Things just needed to adapt to the change in circumstances, that's all. Now, you need to be quiet so we can make this mission a complete success." One hard glare emphasized his last point, and there was no more protest, although Jack could see Tucker wasn't happy about it.

That was fine. He'd come to understand Jack had done what was necessary. There was one less traitor mucking up the works, and the world was that much safer for Sara and Daniel, his parents and siblings, and most importantly his son. He'd do anything to insure a safer place for his son. And with that realization, Jack decided to think a little more seriously about the offer he'd been discreetly presented with earlier that week. A little more specialized training; darker, more dangerous missions... but more impact on the bastards doing the "evil" Daniel had described during his pep talk after Charlie was born. Yes, more consideration was definitely in order.

* * * * * * * *


The seasons moved on as they always did, and the next May Daniel stood in the large auditorium after the graduation ceremony watching the other graduates mill around, mingling with staff and guests. For the first time, no one had been in the audience to see his achievement, his bachelors degree in anthropology. Jack's mother had moved to New York City with her boyfriend/agent to try to tap into a larger market and was doing quite well. Jack's brother Chris had gone to Paris to attend a prestigious art school, and had since met a young lady he was working up the courage to propose to according to Jack. Daniel sighed as he saw Charlotte Lynch talking with a professor. His ex-girlfriend was the only person he'd been close enough to at the university that year to expect to come, although she was there because of her own degree. Their break-up two months previously hadn't been a bad one, but they weren't on the friendliest of terms either. He knew that if she hadn't been graduating herself she wouldn't be there at all.

That thought led to Daniel reaching inside his gown for the three letters he had tucked into the back pocket of his dress slacks. Nodding with a small smile to some of the faculty he knew, the light brown-haired man slipped into a far corner to re-read his well-wishes.

"Dear Daniel,

"Just thought I'd drop you a quick line to say congratulations on an amazing third bachelors degree. I won't be able to be there; I'm caught up in something here at Langley and can't get away. I'll be there in spirit though, cheering for you like you deserve. And because every graduate deserves a present, you'll find one in the package that came along with this letter. Hope you like it. Sam said you were heading for Egypt as part of an archaeological dig - another huge congratulations for that by the way - and I figured you might like to listen to music on the way and in the field. I've been assured by those younger than me that the Walkman is the top of the line and of the highest quality.

"I really do wish I could be there, Daniel. So let me say it again: congratulations. I hope you have a terrific day and a wonderful time this summer in Egypt.

"Sincerely,

"Jacob Carter"

Daniel had to smile. He'd last seen Jacob a year before at Sam's graduation from the Air Force Academy. And ever since they'd all lived in El Segundo, usually through Sam but occasionally directly from the man himself, Daniel would receive small gifts for Christmas, his birthday, and other special occasions such as graduations. They were always accompanied by a short note of praise and a reminder he was being thought of. Daniel appreciated each and every one of them. He shook his head and moved on to the next letter.

"Dear Daniel,

"You know, I was so excited. For once I was going to be able to make it for one of your college graduations, to be there like you were for me at the Academy. But you're not going to believe this. I know it's been a while since I wrote, but I was caught up in an official investigation that's leading up to a court martial.

"Not for me! I just realized how that must have sounded!

"Anyway, you remember the woman I'm an assistant to for ROTC classes at San Juan? Well, Allison was beaten and raped by an ex-boyfriend of hers after she broke it off with him. Seems he didn't care for being dumped instead of the one doing the dumping. I couldn't help but overhear some of their arguments in her office on campus, so I've been summoned as a witness. And of course the trial is taking place the week of your graduation.

"I'm not looking forward to this, Daniel. This is the kind of thing that strikes a chord with every woman in existence, tapping into a primal fear. I can't help but imagine myself in Allison's place. The thought scares me half to death. But I'll be okay; I don't want you to worry.

"Semester-end finals and papers are driving me crazy. I don't know how you managed to pull off two masters degrees at the same time on top of holding down a part-time job. Just one is enough for me. Although I wouldn't mind going for that second one, I don't know what for. But it would definitely be after I finish this one. And I think my mind will need a small break, too. Makes me glad my hair's short. As you know, I used to chew on it when I was trying to work out a particularly difficult problem. I'd have nothing but split ends by this point.

"Enough about school work. I was planning on spending a week in Chicago with you to make up for missing your graduation, but then I remembered you were going to Egypt for the summer. Congratulations again! I think that is so cool that you get to be so active in your chosen field even before you get your doctorate. What an internship! I hope I get to do something as cool for mine, although I am dealing with the Air Force, so my chances are pretty good. Look out NASA, here I come!

"Will I be able to write you while you're away? If so, send me the address. I'll make sure you remember that there are people back home who can't wait for you to get back. We'll have to compare next year's schedules - maybe we can do something for spring break! I would love to go on vacation with you. Let me know what you think of the idea; we can put our heads together and think of something totally out of the ordinary. Maybe somewhere in Europe?

"Oh, I suppose I should wrap this thing up. My papers aren't going to write themselves. (Wouldn't that be great? Talk about a ghost writer...) Be sure to call me before you go, and when you get to Cairo if you can. I'm looking forward to it. Talk to you soon!

"Friends Forever,

"Sam"

Daniel sighed and closed his eyes at the reminder of the reason Sam wasn't there. He'd called her as soon as he finished the letter and found out she'd meant what she said: she was fine, just a little shaken up by the events. She wasn't looking forward to being called to the stand, but would do her duty, "as an officer and as a woman" she'd said proudly. Daniel had a feeling there was something more behind the statement, but didn't want to push. It was just nice to hear her voice. They hadn't talked on the phone since Christmas, and there had been another five quiet months before that. The young man shifted in his seat and opened his last letter.

"Dear Daniel,

"This is probably going to seem rushed, but I don't have a lot of time at the moment for much of anything. I'm in the middle of some more specialized training - sorry, can't go into more detail than that; at least you won't ask any more questions - and I don't get a lot of personal time. But I knew I needed to write to you before you got worried.

"I'm afraid I won't be able to make it to your graduation next month. My training finishes up in a little over a week, and I'm going to be assigned to a new team that has an overseas mission pretty much as soon as they sign me off. I'll be gone for a month and a half, two months. Thus, my inability to be in Chicago.

"I'm proud of you, though. I want you to know that. For getting yet another bachelors degree (don't you have enough of those yet?) and for getting picked for that dig in Egypt. It must seem like you're going home. I hope you get to remember all the good things you had to leave behind, Daniel. I still remember you telling me about what it was like in the desert while you gave me the tour of the museum in Minneapolis. You gave me all these warnings like I was heading off for the sands of the Sahara the next day or something. I've found them useful more recently, but at the time it was just cute watching this six-year-old spout out all this serious adult stuff. And then you asked me all those questions about America, about stuff I'd always taken for granted before. It was just too cute.

"I think I'll cut off the mushy stuff before we both overdose. That, and I'm sure you could use the time to recover from the blush I'm sure you're sporting right now. I really liked the picture you drew of Sara and me with little baby Charlie that you sent for his birthday. So did Sara. We had it matted and framed then hung it in the living room above the television. Charlie really liked the blanket you sent along for him. Is it really a reproduction of something some pharaoh's kid snuggled up with thousands of years ago? That is incredibly neat.

"The kid's getting to be quite a talker - Sara says he takes after me that way. I have to wonder how he's going to take the move. Oh, that's right, I haven't told you about that yet. When I get back from the mission with my new team, I'm going to be restationed at Peterson. That means that Sara gets to move back home to Colorado Springs, where most of her family is. I guess I can handle living close to the in-laws, at least when I'm actually home. Sara and I have had a few fights about the subject, but in the end she knows how important my job is, and how important it is to me. Charlie knows who his daddy is, and I spend as much time with him and Sara as I can when I'm home. Somewhere down the road I'll ease back, I know I will, and then I'll be all theirs. She just has to wait.

"That's enough with the griping. I've got lights out in about five minutes so I'd better finish this up. You be careful in Egypt; that part of the world is just waiting to go up in flames right now. You better realize that I'm going to be twitchy any time I hear about some American getting hurt, captured, or killed over there. Your job is going to be to dig in the sand or whatever else it is you'll be doing then come home in one piece. I mean it. No exceptions. Please, Daniel, stay safe, and let me know when you get home. Good luck.

"Your friend,

"Jack"

Jack was right; the upcoming trip to Egypt would be filled with childhood memories. Daniel was looking forward to spending time in the place where the majority of the events of his early years had happened. Add to that he would be doing the same kind of work as his parents had, and he was practically in seventh heaven. A part of him knew he could never recapture what he'd had, but he'd enjoy the visit very much.

Reading the letters again had the intended effect of making him feel like the people that mattered most to him were with him, at least in spirit, just like Jacob had said. He was still a bit disappointed they couldn't be there, but they cared enough to wish him well. Daniel glanced up at that point as he returned Jack's letter to its envelope and saw Charlotte looking in his direction. She was standing amidst a group of women, a pair of them her sisters if the facial resemblance was anything to go by, and the rest friends of hers Daniel had met during the three months they'd dated. One of the friends, a co-worker at the library where the graduate student had met Charlotte, tried to discreetly gesture in his direction as she said something, a sly smile on her face. Whatever it was must have been amazingly funny, as the whole group started to laugh, Daniel's ex-girlfriend the loudest of all.

What struck Daniel the hardest, however, were the haughty, disdaining looks the comment seemed to inspire the group to shoot in his direction. Ah. They were laughing at him. And Charlotte was laughing the most of all. Apparently things were worse between them than he'd thought. An emotionless mask fell over Daniel's features at that point, and he tucked the letters back in his back pocket. Tucking his cap under his arm, the silently hurting young man walked quietly and deliberately out of the auditorium, his stride firm, his back stiff, and his eyes resolutely avoiding the source of his humiliation. Whatever warmth he'd gotten from his friends' correspondence was gone, and he felt more alone and out of place than ever.

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