Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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 Chapter 41


Once we had clambered ashore, a rather pretty little town was revealed. Since it was no longer a fishing port, it lacked the smell which permeated Reykjavik and the other ports. On the other hand, when we passed the buildings under conversion, I realized that the poisonous vapours of mercury would soon replace the less subtle but more healthful odors of the past.

We practically stumbled on a newly constructed narrow guage railway. This would soon be conveying the ore from the mines in the mountains down to the plant. The last part would consist in getting the refined mercury to the outside world. Mac explained,

"The standard guage railway is supposed to connect us with Reykjavik, but that'll be a while coming. In the meantime, I have a much simpler solution."

It turned out that quantities of the ore would get refined down to almost nothing. Ten pounds of pure mercury is enough to supply a great many instruments. Mercury is shipped in stout steel canisters to preclude the possibility of its getting loose and running all over the place, but, even then, a small ship could easily convey the produce of months of mining and processing. Mac pointed out,

"There's going to be war with Germany almost any time, and the submarine threat'll be much greater than last time. These shores here will be patrolled by German subs, and I certainly don't want my mercury sent to the bottom."

The solution was a curious little ship I had noticed in the harbor, long, narrow, and low, with two tall stacks. Mac explained,

"She was built after the war by a crazy English nobleman with the underwater lines of a torpedo boat and the same engines, Parsons geared turbines. She can do twenty eight knots, but he got tired of terrorizing Thames barges by coming out of the fog at them at speed. I got her for a song. With that speed, and being such a small target, not to mention a real tight turning circle, she's just about impossible to torpedo."

"But she's big enough to carry the mercury?"


"Couldn't a sub sink her with gunfire?"

"We'll have guns mounted here to keep the subs away from the harbor. Once at sea, they'd never catch her."

I remembered our voyage in the tanker and wondered how a modified torpedo boat would manage in the North Atlantic in winter. Mac replied,

"She is an ocean-going vessel. It'll be mighty uncomfortable, but she can slow way down in the big seas when there's no sub danger anyway."

It all reminded me of the early days of the GER. Mac had a million ideas and plans. He was pleased when problems arose because it gave him an opportunity to find such good solutions to them. The only difference was the much smaller scale of the present enterprise and the relative lack of philosophy.

The latter difference was partly explained by the new environment. Philosophy wasn't popular in Iceland, and one tourist brochure Vignis had seen boasted that they had created 'a uniquely unphilosophical society.' Sidonie said,

"When we first arrived here, I went around to the university and asked an obviously academic man to direct me to the professor of philosophy. He replied, in good English, "I don't know him." It was only later that I discovered that he didn't know him because there isn't one."

Mac commented,

"That answer in itself involves a kind of confusion that could only be philosophical. I haven't given up on these people, son."

We next proceeded up a long set of stairs from the harbor to to a narrow paved terrace on which was situated the station. A narrow guage railway which was to go only to a mine hardly needed a station, but Vignis had taken over the former police station and jail for what was really more a cafe than a station. The terrace had been cleaned up, and had been adorned with flower boxes. Vignis said that, as soon as warm weather arrived, she would place little tables on the terrace and serve tea and pastry.

The town proper was up another flight of steps. Vignis and Mac had been occupying one house, and Sidonie one nearby, so that there was a ready-made place for me. On the way, we passed yet another of Vignis' cafes. It consisted of a pretty little Queen Anne cottage, very un-Icelandic, set at the back of a paved courtyard. In front of the cottage was what amounted to a greenhouse with a chimney. She explained,

"The weather here isn't suitable for an outdoor cafe most of the year, but I got the idea in Paris. Their cafes have outdoor tables for good weather, but another set enclosed in a glass solarium stretching across the front of the building. It stays warm even when it's pretty cold, but, here, it's also necessary to have a fireplace. With the fire going, it stays warm and cozy inside even on a cold night with a gale of wind."

Having inspected Vignis' cafe, Sidonie and I were about to go into the house beyond it, our house, when we noticed a man, a few doors down, sitting on the front steps. he was very tall and gaunt, with broad cheeks and hollow eyes, and he was looking intently at his bare feet. I then noticed that his boots and socks were in the street in front of him, and that he was entirely concentrated on cutting his toe-nails. Sidonie cried out,

"There's Cousin Willy."

We approached rapidly. Cousin Willy didn't look up until we were almost on top of him, and, when he did, it was with the bluest eyes I had ever seen. He smiled at me, rather bashfully, and, wire-cutting pliers still in his huge right hand, he stretched it out to me. I shook both the hand and pliers and murmured in an appropriate way.

It seemed to me then and later that Willy wanted very much to do the right thing, but that he had ideas of courtesy that went well beyond the ordinary. I suspect that he thought it insincere to mouth conventional formulas, and that he even had his doubts about words like "hello", let alone "How are you?" or "Pleased to mret you." That meant that, on each occasion, he had to invent something to say. He often said nothing. But, if one wasn't put off by that, he would listen attentively to any remarks addressed to him, and would eventually reply.

It must be admitted that Willy often replied to people's greetings in ways that seemed rather strange. But he was never rude, nor would any reasonable person ever have construed anything that he said or did as an insult.

On that first occasion, he actually said nothing to me, but I was nevertheless convinced that he was glad that I had arrived. After leaving Willy, Vignis and Mac caught up with us. She said,

"I see that you've just met Willy."

Sidonie replied,

"Yes. James made a good impression. Willy likes him."

I asked,

"Does he like everyone?"

It was Vignis who replied,

"No. He's one of the kindest and sweetest people I've ever known, and he's nice to everyone, but I wouldn't say that he really likes so many people."

Vignis looked at Sidonie, who nodded emphatically, and the former then added,

"I thought he'd like you. He's really a very good judge of character."

Up to this point, everyone but Mac had been saying nice things about Cousin Willy. When Mac spoke, saying they were lucky to have him so that there was someone to hold title to the land, there was undeniable amusement in his voice. Vignis picked it up and said,

"Well, of course, there is a way in which Willy isn't quite right. He spent most of his early life in America, and, in that sense, he's at least as American as I am. But his parents, unlike mine, kept their Icelandic citizenship. So he could come back when things didn't quite work out in America."

"What happened there?"

"Well, he was a champion athlete at Cornell, and then a brilliant young scientist at Harvard. He was everywhere known for his eccentiricities. I went to visit him at Harvard when I was about sixteen, and his way of crossing slow-moving traffic in Harvard Square was to run diagonally at cars, put one hand on the hoods, and vault over them."

I asked,

"Did you do it, too?"

"Certainly. I was a free-spirited teenager, and it seemed just the thing."

I could hardly imagine what the motorists must have thought. First Willy, and then a blonde teen-aged goddess, her skirts practically up to her waist, vaulting over their hoods. Vignis then went on,

"But something went wrong later. He had some sort of breakdown, and I think he may have been in an institution for a while. Then, he came back to Iceland, but not to Seydisfjordur, where he had roots. He wandered around, working on the farms and the fishing boats, and mostly went fishing by himself. He was almost drowned many times, but he's very strong and skillful. Then, his parents died and left him enough money to get along on. Now, he works for enjoyment at anything that takes his fancy. He liked the idea of the railway, so he came here with us."

"I gather that his eccentricities don't bother the Icelanders.

"Not at all. There are lots of people here who are odder, most of them not nearly so nice."

Sidonie then led me to our house. While it was sided only with tin, and it was easy to imagine the wind whipping through the chinks, the inside was plastered, and it was actually quite warm. While I knew that servants weren't common in Iceland, I also knew that Sidonie, while capable of an occasional exotic dish, wasn't much for day-to-day cooking.

Fortunately, there was a woman, one Salka Valka, who cooked for us each evening, and then went two doors down to cook for Mac and Vignis. She was an enormous powerful blonde woman, and, as I later found out, she had been an exponent of Icelandic wrestling, a curious sport in which the participants sometimes stand on their hands and wrestle with their feet and legs. She had also been cook on a fishing vessel. She looked capable of anything.

I expected to be served some sort of mush, and to be told to eat it or else, but dinner was actually quite good. When we had finished the main course, Salka, with a big smile on her handsome broad face, appeared with dessert, something called skyr. It looked like yogurt with some fruit and nuts scattered on top.

I've always liked yogurt and dug in with enthusiasm. That was a mistake. It was at once the sourest and bitterest thing I had ever tasted. On later occasions, when I nibbled at it with utmost caution, I found that no amount of sugar could neutralize either the sourness or the bitterness. On that first encounter with skyr, I very nearly gagged. Salka, of course, had been looking forward to my reaction and laughed so loud as to seemingly shake the house.

Salka was, I soon realized, a Nordic heroine on the scale of Vignis, but of a different kind. In the Icelandic sagas there are two kinds of heroes. One sort is comparable to the heroes to be found in the sagas, myths, and popular histories of other cultures. They do everything right, but on a massive scale.

The other sort of hero is peculiarly Icelandic, and is best typified by the medieval Skarp-Hedin Njallson. His feats always had a peculiar ring to them. On one occasion, he went skidding across a frozen river and hit another gentleman in the back of the head so hard with the blunt end of his axe that the other's teeth shot out of his mouth. On another occasion, he provoked a fight by suggesting to another delegate at the Althing that he remove from his moustache the hairs from the rear end of the mare with whom he had just been in intimate contact. But, most typically, he would, after having cut off another man's leg in battle, laugh uproariously and say,

"It's as you think. It's off."

Salka was certainly a kindred spirit, and would have found all the same things funny.

With the skyr still bubbling in my stomach, I accompanied Sidonie to the glassed-in cafe, where we found Mac and Vignis. The waiter was Cadet Jonsson, this time in a Salvation Army uniform. Vignis said,

"I encourage him to wear it. It's a nice uniform and the manager of a cafe is really a sort of official."

Unfortunately, it soon appeared that, even though there was, as before, nothing alcoholic in Vignis' cafe, Cadet Jonnson was drunk. Vignis sighed when he slopped tea on to the table, but, as she later said,

"In the ongoing war here between the Salvation Army and the bottle, neither side ever really wins."

It looked to me as if the Salvation Army had won only in the matter of the uniform, but I didn't say so.

The pastries on the counter looked good enough to drive away the formidable after-taste of the skyr, and I ordered a piece of chocolate torte and a hot chocolate. Cadet Jonsson assured me that I had made a good choice in his mostly made- up and rather comic English, repeating himself at least three times.

While waiting, in some anxiety, to see whether the good cadet would cut the cake before he cut his thumb, Vignis pointed out that the glass above was clear enough to allow the identification of stars. Realizing that she might be feeling a little defensive about her cafe, I assured her that it was the best one yet, even better than the ones in the converted railway cars. She then brightened considerably when Cadet Jonsson managed to get everyone's drink down without spilling anything.

The true business of the evening began when Mac went to a cupboard and came back with a board game whose name, disquietingly enough, was Starvation. It actually was an adaptation of a game used by the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth to train cadets in the basic notions of economic and naval competition between nations.

Most of the board was blue, representing an unidentifiable ocean, and it was laid out in tiny contiguous hexagons. Ships could be moved a given number of hexagons on each turn, depending on the speed of the ship.

Across the bottom of the board was a coastline on which there were several ports. These were identified as neutral, and were open for trade with any ships which could reach them.

Scattered over the ocean were seven islands, and the players, numbering from two to seven, each chose an island for their country. Any left over were, like the mainland, neutral. At the beginning of the game, when the countries were chosen, each player was given a large sum of play money. With it he could buy ships, both merchant and naval, and stocks of food and fuel. None of the islands were considered to be self-sufficient in either food or fuel, and a certain quantity of each was consumed each day. If food wasn't available, the people starved fairly quickly. If there was no fuel, they couldn't produce exports for trade, thus starving more slowly.

All negotiations were secret, but there were also diplomatic channels through which cards could be passed. It was quite possible for the players to all negotiate treaties of non-aggression with each other and carry on mutual trade. In that case, they could all prosper, and the winner at quitting time would be the richest person/country.

In practise, a game never went on very long before one player, breaking a treaty if necessary, attacked the merchant marine of another. Such an attack could also activate certain secret agreements, in which case war was likely to become general.

The game was quickly explained to me, and we were just rolling dice, to see who got to choose islands first, when Willy appeared, apparently knowing just when the game would begin.

I happened to be the high roller and chose the island which was marginally nearer the mainland, and also the western-most one, thinking that it would make it easier to protect my shipping. The others then chose and went about buying their ships and stocks of food and fuel. I had little idea how to make such choices, but Vignis suggested certain proportions, saying,

"These are fairly conservative choices, and you'll want to alter them in later games, but they'll get you started."

The setting for the game was the turn of the century, which meant that there were steamships, but no airplanes or submarines. There were, however, radios, and it was assumed that each side had light scouting forces which would give each player at least the general location of ships at sea.

When it came to choosing ships, one was reminded that the game had come from a naval college. While the merchant ships were all five thousand tons and steamed at seven knots, there were many choices to be made concerning warships. One could, within limits, choose between speed, armor protection, and armament. An expensive ship would involve a maximal combination of these three factors, but one could save money and buy more ships if one sacrificed some of these factors.

I decided at the outset to be as peaceable and defensive as possible. I bought a high proportion of battleships, as opposed to cruisers and destroyers, and I made them heavily armed and armored, sacrificing speed. All they needed to do was to escort my merchant convoys, and I had no intention of attacking other people's convoys.

The game began, quietly enough, as we all traded with the mainland, slowly accumulating money. I used my first profits to buy a fast destroyer, thinking that it might be able to harrass an attacker with torpedoes working under cover of the guns of my battleships. I also passed a note to Vignis, suggesting a defensive alliance. She agreed in her reply. The other players were also passing notes, but, of course, I had no idea what they were proposing.

The first excitement came when a convoy of Mac's merchantmen passed near one of Sidonie's. With no warning whatever, Mac opened fire. Sidonie uttered a heart-felt French obscenity.

It looked as if Mac might have violated an understanding, but he was obviously pleased with himself. The main game was then held in abeyance while the battle scenario was worked through. Mac had three battleships to Sidonie's two, and he had worked it out so that the range was optimum for his heavier guns. One of Sidonie's battleships was quickly sunk, and, while the other limped off, Mac's ships routed her two cruisers and four destroyers. Her convoy dispersed, but he sank some of her merchant ships and captured others.

No one else intervened at this point, although Vignis suggested it to me with a note. I agreed that we didn't want Mac to get too strong, but my ships weren't fast enough for offensive operations.

Sidonie was, from that point on, reduced to trading with a nearby neutral island by night. A night interception depended on a roll of the dice, and, if the roll was unfavorable, it was assumed that the ships had passed each other by without sightings. For a long time, she was left alone. With almost half her fleet gone, she was a threat to no one.

I suppose that both Vignis and I were over-cautious when Mac's ships were nearby. If our islands had been adjacant, as opposed to having Mac between us, we would have combined convoys. Even as it was, I tried, as often as possible, to position my four battleships so that she could retreat toward them if Mac attacked her. She, in turn, kept her heavy ships on my side of her convoys. One consequence was that Sidonie, on her other side, was able to again run convoys to the mainland. She was vulnerable to Willy, but he seemed willing to let her alone.

The next surprise came when Willy and Sidonie's convoys were crossing. They combined escorts and both headed for the unprotected side of one of Vignis' convoys. She reacted less violently than Sidonie, but said to me, by way of instruction,

"This game brings out people's opportunistic tendencies."

Vignis steamed her warships as fast as possible to intervene, and I, adhering more to the spirit than the letter of our alliance, sent my convoy back to port and headed in the direction of Vignis ships with my warships. It was then, even before the expected action took place, that Mac fell on me.

I discovered, in the battle situation, that it was a mistake to sacrifice speed. A target ship can dodge one way or the other after the enemy has fired on it, and, at a range of a dozen miles or so, the probability of a straddle is much affected. Unfortunately, slow ships such as mine couldn't dodge as far, and were more likely to be hit. While I did manage to damage a couple of Mac's heavy ships, I lost almost all of mine.

That battle finished, Willy, laughing hysterically, managed a victory over Vignis with help from Sidonie.

From that point on, the game was really between Mac and Willy. The rest of us were subjected to only occasional depradations while they concentrated on each other, but we just managed to avoid starvation.

It was during that phase of the game, while I was having a more detailed look at the rules, that I noticed that the rule book was stamped, R. M. S. Mauretania. The others were actually a little embarrassed when I arrived at the obvious conclusion. Then, when I enquired who, in particular, had stolen the game, they became much more embarrassed. Sidonie quickly owned up to the theft, but I knew that she was lying.

A little later, Mac ambushed some of Sidonie's few remaining merchant ships and captured them. Sidonie had almost nothing left. She put her right hand up to her throat and looked questioningly at Vignis. The latter shook her head very slightly, and Sidonie seemed about to surrender. Before she could do so, Mac boomed out,

"I'll give you a ten day food supply for your bracelet."

There was laughter from the others as Sidonie smiled brilliantly and pushed the bracelet across.

That crisis averted, I was soon reduced to impotence when Willy sunk what was left of my navy. Before long, I had handed over my watch to Willy, and Mac had Vignis' pearls sitting beside Sidonie's bracelet.

Surprisingly, the seriousness had now left the game with no one, even the two principals, caring whether Mac or Willy eventually won. We talked of other things, and, when Willy suggested going up the mountain, the game was immediately abandoned.

When we went back to our house to change from the fairly formal attire Sidonie had insisted on wearing to the cafe, I asked her,

"Are we really going to climb a mountain now?"

"Oh yes. Willy loves to do things like that."

"And you all humor him?"

"Yes. Well, we'd be lost without him. We need an Icelandic citizen to own the property, but, after we've developed everything, the citizen could claim it to be entirely his own and shoo us away. Willy is one of very few people we can trust not to do that."

"I can see that. But I hope he doesn't just go completely crazy some day."

"He probably won't here in Iceland. Everyone's used to him, and he's really rather well liked. Where he lived before, they'd occasionally have to call out a half dozen of the biggest men to restrain him. That hasn't been necessary here. I think he's calming down a little as he gets older."

It was a clear bright night, and, as we rose slowly above the harbor on a winding trail, we could see the black ocean and the Snaefell volcano, whose white peak caught the moonlight. I had never been anywhere even vaguely like it, and I kept stumbling on the rocky trail as I watched the scenery.

As I was gradually discovering, a standard Icelandic mountain is an enormous cone of volcanic gravel poured over a rock structure. You can start walking up the gravel until it reaches a certain inclination, at which point your feet slide down faster than you can climb up. It's necessary then to go from one rock outcrop to another in order to get any higher.

Our so-called trail up the rock turned inland to a saddle between two mountains, but Willy led us along an arm that ended in a sort of pulpit overlooking the sea. There was just enough room for all of us to stand, and we could make out the lights and white upper works of a steamer which appeared to be headed for Cape Farewell at the southern tip of Greenland.

When, finally, we turned to go back, Mac produced a rope and tied Sidonie and Vignis to himself. He said that it was easier to fall going down than coming up, and urged caution. Willy, it appeared, simply ran down mountains. I was offered the end of the rope, but declined it, intending to follow Willy, but at a much more moderate pace. Willy assumed, mistakenly, that I intended to keep up with him. He smiled, clapped me on the shoulder, and said,

"As with skiing, it's honorable to fall forward, dishonorable to fall backward."

Hardly had he spoken than he took off. I followed, astonished that I didn't fall immediately at the breakneck pace. Somehow, I kept planting my feet on the tops of the boulders and skimmed over them after Willy as we went back along the arm.

After several hundred yards or so, we turned virtually down the slope and increased speed still further. Somehow, Willy then managed a sharp turn to the right. I saw what needed to be done, but couldn't do it. I found myself hurtling through space. I had, in fact, run right off a ridge.

I came down, significantly later, in the gravel. While it was quite a jolt, I was travelling almost parallel to the slope and the gravel absorbed most of my impact. A little later, I discovered that nothing was broken. In the meantime, I went spinning and rolling down the slope in a small avalanche of gravel.

After coming a good distance down the mountain in that fashion, I fetched up, rather painfully, against another outcrop. As I picked myself up, I heard Willy, shouting congratulations and encouragement from above. I realized that I was actually on the trail ahead of him, having taken a short-cut of sorts. It seemed that he thought I had done it intentionally.

Having done something honorable by accident, I took off down the trail so as not to spoil the effect. Fortunately, it became more even, as it flattened. I stopped at the edge of town and greeted Willy, who came pounding along not far behind me. As I suspected, he did think that I had leapt from the ledge intentionally, and he said some very kind things.

When we began to walk slowly up to meet the others, I realized, for the first time, that my boots and clothing were full of gravel. I stopped and got rid of most of it, and, when we set out again, we didn't have far to go.

None of the others seemed to think that my action was intentional, but Vignis burst out breathlessly,

"We saw you get up and start running, so we figured you couldn't be too badly hurt. But we rushed down to make sure."

On the short walk home, I discovered, increasingly, how stiff and sore I was, and how many of my limbs were functioning only partially. On the other hand, I was the hero of the hour, and was clapped on the shoulder even by Mac himself.

Vignis accompanied us to our house and wanted to call a doctor, adding,

"Of course, there isn't a real doctor here. The veterinarian doubles as the doctor, but he's clever. He worked in a zoo in Denmark, and he's treated a great range of animals...."

The more Vignis said, the less I wanted to be waited on by this gentleman. I chose a hot bath instead.

The next morning, I was just as stiff and sore, but I was sure that nothing was broken or sprained. I was up before Sidonie, and was looking out the upstairs front window when I saw something extraordinary.

A few houses down the way, several mangy dogs were barking noisily, and, from the third-floor window, directly above them, there protruded the large white rear end of a man, absolutely naked. Even as I watched, several large turds detached themselves and dropped. They landed in a pan which was balanced on a strut sticking out from the side of the house, a foot or so above the reach of the dogs. The discharge from above over-balanced the pan, and the whole affair fell among the dogs. I'm not sure what I said, but Sidonie replied from the bed,

"Yes. That's Willy's morning ritual. He insists that human feces mixed with the dog food are nutricious for the dogs. He knows a lot of science, and no one can argue with him."

I replied, rather lamely,

"What do the neighbors think?"

"Well, Iceland may be the last refuge for true eccentrics. A thousand years ago, people like Willy probably cut off people's heads on whim. Willy doesn't hurt anyone, and so he's tolerated, actually with something to spare."

Seeing Vignis alone in the cafe with coffee, I dressed quickly and went down to join her. Telling her what I had seen, she nodded gravely and said quietly,

"Willy isn't quite right, there's no denying that. I doubt that he ever has been. In fact, he may now be in the best shape ever."

"He'd certainly be nabbed for exhibitionism in America, but here it's evidently all right."

Vignis looked pointedly at me, and said,

"I know what you're thinking, James, and it won't work."

I, of course, knew what she thought I was thinking. She was right. I had originally assumed that, in Iceland, any so- called perversion would be out of the question. Any foreigner would be instantly recognized as such, and there might be only a dozen in the country at any given time. But, then, seeing Willy, as exposed as I had ever been, I wondered if, perhaps, some things could be done quite openly. I had hardly said anything before Vignis said,

"Willy may be an exhibitionist of a sort, but it isn't personal. He doesn't come up to someone just to shock her. What you're inclined to do, James, is really quite unpleasant. You may not have really hurt anyone, but I bet you've spoiled the whole day for lots of women. Some may have avoided places where they've seen you for months, for fear of seeing you again. And some were probably afraid that you'd attack them."

There was nothing for it, really, but to agree. Vignis was being entirely reasonable. She added,

"Besides, Willy can't help it and you can. Everyone would realize that, here as much as in America."

"Well, one trouble with my sort of thing is that you tend to look at so many things from that perspective. When you arrive in a town, the question is, not whether it's a pretty town, but whether you can do certain sorts of things there."

"You can do better than that, James. Your resources are too great for that, in some ways greater than Mac's. For one thing, you're more flexible than he is."

Vignis then paused, and, when I said nothing, she spoke with great force,

"Besides, you simply can't do it here. There are generally only a half dozen people in jail in all of Iceland, but, if you do it, even once, you'll be one of them."

"Yes. I see."

Vignis, evidently convinced that she had made an impression, talked cheerily of other things. It was clear that she simply assumed that I would change. Then, as we parted, she said,

"I don't mean that we all have to be boy scouts. Sidonie can provide you with lots of excitement. Probably more than before."

"Willy can also make things exciting."

When I returned to the house and joined Sidonie at the breakfast table, I asked, rather suddenly,

"Does Willy have affairs with women?"

She replied calmly,

"I don't think so. He's interested in women, I can tell that. But I think he's just too cut off from people to ever get that close."

I nodded. That was how it seemed to me, too.

Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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