Added July 31, 1999
Category: Science Fiction/Star Wars
Author: R.John Burke

Long and Winding Paths

In Defense Of Freedom series Episode Four

DESCRIPTION: Old friends meet again, and Jev Parrak will embark on the adventure of a lifetime having made a new enemy.

NOTICE: One score and one year ago, George Lucas brought forth upon every continent a new copyright for Lucasfilm. This story is not for sale, since a sci-fi franchise divided against itself cannot stand.


"So when are you coming home?"

Rik Evverd, technically the commanding general of the New Republic base on Tragis, frowned at his wife over the comm. Kerri was Tragis' Ambassador to the Provisional Council. Her current trip to Coruscant had kept her away for several weeks.

The exotic-looking woman smiled, her brown eyes wistful. "A few days still. You can't believe the red tape Fey'lya has the Council bound up in..."

"I can believe it," said Evverd dryly, "I've met the man, remember?"

"I..." Kerri hesitated. "I spoke to Luke Skywalker the other day..."

"Oh?" Evverd grinned. "How is the boy hero?"

"He's... inquisitive. He's gone now. Left about the same time as Leia and Han went off to Bpfassh. But... while he was here... we had a little talk about my crystal." Kerri was clearly hesitant to say anything more over an open comm.

Evverd couldn't resist. "What've I been telling you for five years? The kid needs your help! You're just about the only one left who was formally trained." Evverd just held off from using the word Jedi - precaution never hurt.

"It's not my business, Rik. My fighting is done."

He sighed. They'd been over this ground many times. "If you ask me..."

"I didn't."

"I noticed," he said with a grunt. If I don't change the subject, he thought, she'll probably still be mad when she gets home. "Just a few more days, huh?"

He must not have switched gears very smoothly, because Kerri laughed. "Coward. Where's Mat?"

"Brynn took him down to the park," said Evverd, "They should be back soon."

"I was hoping to talk to him," said Kerri. "Next time, I suppose. I love you."

"Come home soon," he said. The comm turned off.

Almost simultaneously, the front door slid open. Evverd craned his neck around to see who it was. "Hey, there you are! How was the park?"

Brynn Avers, his former XO with Mav Squadron in the old days and currently serving as the Commander of Tragis Fighter Defense at his recommendation, plopped down heavily on the couch. "Now I know why I don't have any kids..."

Evverd scooped his four-year-old son off the floor with a grunt. With curly hair, his father's chocolate skin tone and his mother's large brown eyes, Mat Evverd looked like any four-year-old, especially still dirty from the park.

Of course, most four-year-olds can't put away their toys by thought alone, his father thought. I wonder how the parents of full Jedi used to manage?

"How about you, pal? You like the park?"

"Yeah," said Mat, holding out his cupped hands. "I caught a vrish!" He opened the hands to reveal something green and slimy. Vrishes were indigenous to Tragis, Evverd suspected, mostly because other planets didn't want them.

"Whoa! So you did," he said, and put his son down, "Why don't you go play with it in your room? I want to talk to Aunt Brynn, okay?"

Mat nodded and ran off to his room. Evverd pulled up a chair across from his former wingmate. "What's the problem?"

Avers frowned. "How'd you know there was a problem?"

"You're wearing your 'I-blew-the-stabilizer-again' look."

She sighed, and held up her portable datapad. "I got a news update on the way here. The Empire hit Deese yesterday."

Evverd winced. "Ouch."

"Atro, Porrev, and now Deese." Avers frowned. "You know who's next."

The general of Tragis Defense exhaled in a hiss. "Us. All right, as of now, the base in on yellow alert. Your pilots are running double sims. The INTREPID and the COURAGEOUS are on round-the-clock watch. I want to be ready when they hit."

"Got it," said Avers, "First that Elomin task force, then the hit on Bpfassh...the Imps are making a push."

"Great," said the Corellian. "Gives us a chance to push back."

Avers sighed. "I came here to Tragis because I thought some little frontier world on the edge of Wild Space was the perfect place to contribute without having to be in the thick of the war. Now the war's coming to us."

"War has a way of doing that," said Evverd. "Don't take it so hard. I'm sure you'll be fine - unless you've slowed down over the last five years."

"Hey!" his friend bristled at the suggestion. "I can skin your tail anytime, my old friend. Emphasis on old."

"Oh, now you're getting nasty..."

Mat toddled out of the bedroom. "Daddy, the vrish got away. I'm bored. What's to eat?"

Avers glanced at the child, and grinned. "You think we'll still be fighting this war when he's grown?"

Evverd looked from her to his son. "No way. That was my promise the day he was born - we're gonna end this thing soon. And I don't lose..."

"I am most disappointed, Admiral Bronn. Most disappointed indeed." Grand Admiral Thrawn's glowing red eyes narrowed in an expression of distaste, and in that moment Pellaeon was very glad he was not on the other end of that look.

The CHIMERA was over Myrkr, investigating Thrawn's strange hunch that the smuggler Talon Karrde was harboring Luke Skywalker on the planet below. The man on the hologram projected into Thrawn's meditation chamber was a crimson Mon Calamari named Bronn, a traitor to his people who had joined the Empire and been hand-picked by Thrawn to replace him in the Unknown Regions.

Pellaeon despised the amphibious alien. He could not fathom why the Grand Admiral seemed to have such faith in him. Though that faith had plainly evaporated by now.

"But - but sir," Bronn said in his gurgling, scratchy voice, "I did create havoc on the New Alderaan colony. The Rebels..."

"The Rebels were not your concern." Thrawn stared the other alien down. "You were to remain in the Unknown Regions. Why did you disobey me?"

A stormtrooper had appeared at Bronn's side, blaster rifle at the ready. The Mon Cal was no fool - he knew he'd be dead very quickly if he answered incorrectly.

He averted his eyes. "It was such a tempting target, my lord. Practically no defenses. I thought..."

"You thought you could impress me without putting yourself on the line."

Bronn hesitated. "Yes, my lord."

"Your attack on New Alderaan was ill-advised and stupid," said Thrawn. "Such retribution against defenseless planets is what unified the galaxy against the Empire in the first place."

Bronn gurgled softly, a sort of Mon Cal whimper. "Yes, my lord."

Thrawn just stared, no hint of expression on his blue-skinned face. "You will never make that mistake again."

Bronn clearly saw that as a death sentence, and flinched.

Thrawn sneered with disgust. "Control yourself. I meant only that will clear all future operations through me."

The Mon Cal's large eyes swiveled 360 degrees in what could only be described as utter and complete relief. "Then... I am still the commander of this task force?"

"What task force?" Thrawn asked. "Admiral, your stupidity has caused most of your support ships to be captured and even your Star Destroyer to be seriously damaged." A bit of anger faded from that alien-accented voice. "Allow me to make something clear: You are in debt to my Empire. Until the cost in lives and equipment is made up, consider yourself on probation."

Bronn gulped audibly, a human mannerism that seemed comical coming from his alien frame. "Understood."

"But," said Thrawn, as he held up a hand to motion the stormtrooper away from Bronn's side, "You will have a chance to repay your debt. When repairs are completed on your Star Destroyer, I have a very special assignment for you..."

Bronn had signed off a moment earlier. To Pellaeon's way of thinking, the simpering fool had been lucky to escape with his life. Thrawn had explained Bronn's assignment, and as usual when dealing with the Grand Admiral's complex strategies, he was confused.

"Why do you want the freighter, sir?"

Thrawn was busy surveying two groups of his holographic artwork. The works on his left were flowing, peaceful, even soothing. The smaller number on his right were angry, bold, and frantic in design.

"Observe, Captain," the Grand Admiral pointed to his left. "These are examples of Mon Calamari art work. Note the subtle style, the peaceful but unimaginative composition."

Pellaeon nodded. Even he could tell that much. "Yes, sir."

"These other," and Thrawn indicated his right side, "Hang in Bronn's personal quarters. Do you see the difference?"

"I do, Admiral." Pellaeon was pleased to be able to contribute to the discussion for once. "They're rather symbolic of the differences between Bronn and his people, aren't they?"

Thrawn favored his subordinate with an approving smile. "Very good indeed, Captain. In point of fact, Bronn's reaction to any given situation will be almost exactly the opposite of his fellow Mon Calamari. That element of surprise, in itself, would make him an asset to me. Even if it were his only attribute."

Pellaeon snorted. "You mean it's not?"

"No." Thrawn concentrated on his holograms intently. "Look closer at the artwork, Captain. Bronn's favored works pay tribute to a hidden intelligence, a sort of sly resolve."

Pellaeon frowned. In fact, he saw no such thing. But the Grand Admiral did, and Thrawn was never wrong about art. "If you say so, sir. I still think you let him off rather easily."

"Perhaps I did," Thrawn admitted. "But only this once. Bronn is a man who will make his share of clumsy mistakes, but is quick to learn from them. He will not underestimate the Rebels again."

"Even if he doesn't, sir, I don't trust him."

"Nor do I," said Thrawn with that same, almost invisible smile. "Which is precisely why I left him on the Unknown Regions when I left. He is too much of an asset to disregard, but not to be trusted with a more central position."

Pellaeon grunted. That seemed like much the same reason that the Emperor had left Thrawn out there.

"Yes, Captain," said the admiral. His expression was knowing. "The Emperor did much the same to me. In my case, my loyalty was unquestioned, but my being alien brought with it a certain amount of Palpatine's distrust."

"Besides," said Pellaeon, "The Emperor did not appreciate competent rivals for his power."

"I would not have been his rival." After a pause, Thrawn added softly, "For long..."

Pellaeon felt a chill run up his back, and changed the subject. "What do you want the freighter, Admiral?"

Thrawn's orders to Bronn had revolved around the capture of the YT-2400 freighter that had interfered at New Alderaan. Thrawn glanced up at his subordinate. "I should think that obvious, Captain. There is a Jedi on that freighter."

"A Jedi? You can't be serious?"

The admiral's eyes closed to slits. It was when the admiral appeared lazy that he was at his most dangerous, for that was when his incredible mental faculties were hard at work. "But I am, captain. The battle data is clear. That freighter was hit by three direct turbolaser bursts which did no damage - and then immediately returned those turbolaser bursts back on the Star Destroyer."

"Perhaps they had some new weapons system..." Pellaeon speculated.

"Then why did they use it only once?" Thrawn shook his head. "No, there was a Jedi present. He absorbed the energy, and turned it on his attackers."

Pellaeon hissed softly. Trying to keep up with Thrawn was like running a mental obstacle course. "But sir, who could this Jedi be? They're all dead, except for Skywalker. And you've already said he's on Myrkr."

The Admiral smiled. "I mentioned, did I not, that I once fought Mykel Garreth at Corellia?"

How did we get around to Garreth? Pellaeon wondered. He felt like his IQ shrunk twenty points just being in the same room with the Grand Admiral. "Err... yes, sir."

"During that battle, my ship jumped into hyperspace early, for no apparent reason. The helmsman who did it reported disorientation regarding his actions. Officially, it went down as a malfunction, but I have always wondered..."

Pellaeon sighed. "But, sir, what makes you think..."

"And now, just as Mykel Garreth arrives miraculously to the rescue, another intelligent officer makes the blunder of early entrance into lightspeed."

Pellaeon coughed slightly. "Bronn panicked, that's all."

"Perhaps," the admiral agreed. "That is in his character. But it would not be too implausible to speculate that someone magnified the fear he felt. Encouraged him to perform that ridiculous retreat. It is worth considering."

The captain sighed. "I think it's a stretch."

"Indeed, captain. But those who are limited to obvious solutions to their problems will fail when presented with the extraordinary." The admiral's eyes glowed brightly. "The extraordinary is my business..."

Jev Parrak walked through the debris of a world he'd called home for nearly five years. Metal and plasteel crunched beneath his feet. Ferrocrete and sand near the landing field had been fused into glass. The forested area that had surrounded the spaceport district was ravaged, it's trees burnt and crushed. Only a handful of ships on the landing pad appeared in working condition. The rest were destroyed, as most of New Alderaan's cities had been destroyed. As Alderaan itself had been destroyed.

By the Empire.

Jev felt a tear roll down his cheek. I'm strong in the Force, he'd told Amber when she'd asked why he didn't stop the Imperials, but not that strong...

The Dark Side of the Force could have done many things to stop the attack, or at least hinder the Empire. At the very least, he could have extracted payment.

The Light Side did not work that way. By his own choice, Jev controlled energies that were poorly suited for attack.

He wouldn't have it any other way. He couldn't. Too much remained at stake.

"Jev?"

The voice, Coruscant-accented like those of many who had served in the Imperial fleet, cut across the buzz of the relief efforts like a knife. Jev did not turn as a short, compact form with long, gray hair approached him.

"Hello, Admiral," he said quietly.

Admiral Mykel Garreth of the New Republic Fleet greeted him with a nod. "I'm here. What did you want to speak to me about?"

Jev sighed deeply. He inhaled a deep breath of what he expected to be clean spring air, but instead he choked on lingering smoke. Gray clouds rolled above, perfectly matching his mood.

"I..." Jev stopped. "I don't really know."

Garreth started to turn away. "In that case, there's little to be said."

"Wait!" Jev caught hold of his superior's arm. "Wait. I had to...apologize. For real, this time. For Clancee, for Weeilka. Everything."

"Your apologize is very cold comfort at this point, Mister Parrak." Garreth held Jev's eyes, anger simmering behind his lined countenance. "I'm not the one to apologize to. I'm still alive."

Jev swallowed hard, then hissed. "How many people died because you served the Emperor, admiral? How many did you kill in his name?"

Pain crossed Garreth's face. "Too many."

"We're of a kind, Captain. We've both done things we're not proud of. We both hate the Empire now."

"I never killed a friend," said Garreth, and tried to pull away.

"Neither did I!" Jev insisted. He wasn't trying to dodge blame; he accepted the events at the Emperor's skyhook as being on his head. Still, there was a limit to how long he'd lay the martyr. "I know you don't believe this - maybe you shouldn't - but I never meant to hurt Clancee. Or anyone else. Not really."

"Keep telling yourself that, son," said the admiral, "Perhaps some day you'll believe it."

"Please," said Jev, "Hear me out. I'm not making excuses. What I did was wrong, and people died, and maybe I don't deserve to ever be forgiven. But I am sorry."

"Perhaps you're sincere," said Garreth, and this time he ripped the arm away. "Sell it somewhere else. You've spent all the trust I had to give you."

"Dammit, Garreth, give me a chance!"

The air was getting cold, and Mykel Garreth pulled his Fleet-issue field jacket more tightly over his frame. "I gave you one, as I recall. You spat in my face."

"But this time I'm not asking you for anything," Jev insisted. "You never even have to speak to me again. You don't have to forgive me. I just wanted to explain."

Garreth's jaw tightened. "I'm no longer interested," he said, and walked away.

The hopelessness of the entire situation flooded in on Jev. If Garreth could not forgive him, no one else would. After all, why should they? He was a traitor.

He sank to his knees in the middle of the landing field, and cried.

After a time, an arm around his shoulder. With deceptive strength, it helped him to his feet.

A gurgling, deep voice said, "Come on. It's about to rain. Let's get you inside the shelter. I'm brewing a pot of stim-tea."

"Leave me," Jev hissed, "Leave me alone..."

He opened blurry eyes to find the Mon Calamari Chief Okel supporting him. Okel idly touched his scarred forehead with one flipper. "We all have our burdens, Jev. Garreth will come around. He's a good man."

"Which is exactly why he should want nothing to do with me."

But the Calamarian was already half-dragging Jev to the field shelter. "Come. We'll have some tea, and discuss it."

Amber Stormcaller made her way onto the OUTRIDER's cramped bridge, covered with grease and sweat. Between herself and the droid Leebo, they'd affected repairs in record time. She wiped her brow. "There you go. That stabilizer is in as good condition as the day the Jawas pilfered it. Thanks again for..."

She hesitated. A bulky man with his head wrapped in bandages was seated in the copilot's chair, talking with Dash Rendar.

"...guess it's a deal," Rendar was saying.

Amber leaned against the doorframe. "What's going on?"

The bulky man turned, and Amber recognized him as Harv Welden, her former captain on the Corellian freighter EASY MONEY. That ship had been trashed pretty thoroughly in the Imperial raid, but Welden seemed to have gotten off cleanly, except for the bump on his head and a scratch below the right eye.

"Amber," he said, "We were just talkin' about you."

"What were you saying?"

Dash Rendar, a pale redhead who passed himself off as the galaxy's premier star pilot, said, "I've just been hired."

"Excuse me?"

Welden said, "I've offered Dash ten thousand up front to take you off on your little quest."

Dash nodded. "In return, I've promised Captain Welden half of my cut of whatever we find - assuming it's anything."

Amber was immediately suspicious. For Harv Welden to part with money, especially as much as ten thousand, was unheard of. "What's the catch?"

"Amber, c'mon. You know me..."

"Right," she said, "That's why I'm asking."

He sighed. "Look, I'm a superstitious guy, okay? I fire my navigator, right off my ship gets blown up. That's gotta be a sign from somebody."

"You didn't fire me," she said, "I quit."

"Whatever." Welden made a dismissive gesture. "Look, Amber, the hard truth is, ten thousand ain't gonna fix the EASY MONEY. There ain't enough cash among the whole crew to fix her. And she's not exactly insured..." Welden sighed. "You're my last shot, kid. At least I know I'm backing a winner."

Amber frowned next at Dash. "I'm confused. By giving away half your stake, aren't you basically betting that our search will fail?"

"Right," said the smuggler with a grin. "I figure the odds are pretty good."

"But..."

"Go find your weird friend," said Dash, "We lift in an hour."

Amber whistled softly. She'd never have believed this would work in a million years. She had to find Jev, and quickly. She was actually going on a Jedi quest!

"Amber?" said Harv Welden, "Good luck, kid. Come back rich."

"I intend to come back a Jedi," she said, and jerked a thumb at Dash. "He'll come back rich. Whether he likes it or not."

Dash snorted. "That'll be the day..."

"Captain," said Amber, "Thank you."

"Thank you, she says." Welden grunted, ticking off points on his fingers. "First she calls me a fool, then my ship blows up... suddenly I'm some kinda saint, just 'cause I'm reduced to taking this sucker bet..."

Garreth's shuttle arced up towards the GUARDIAN. He felt badly about the way he'd treated Jev Parrak. After all, the boy's point was good. Garreth himself had served the Empire. There was more blood on his hands than Jev's. But his words had been accurate, too. He'd always done what he believed was right. If he was not proud of all his actions, he was at least proud of the sense of duty that had caused him to take them.

And he had never killed a friend. If Taryn Clancee and the Twi'lek Korb Weeilka had not died as a result of Jev's actions, perhaps Garreth would be more willing to sweep such things under the rug.

But they had died, and now it would take more than apologies to make everything all right. Besides, this would not be the first time Jev had come to him under the pretext of remorse. Men like Mykel Garreth did not give their trust easily, and once lost, it was nearly impossible to win back.

He noticed something, and frowned. Okel had not been available to pilot him up to the ship. Some young ensign was doing the job.

"Excuse me?" said the admiral. "What's this course? You're going to miss the ship by a good...Excuse me?"

The ensign still had not moved. Garreth got up and walked to the pilot's chair. He tapped the ensign on the shoulder.

The man fell forward, a knife visible between his ribs.

The copilot's chair swiveled to reveal a short alien with rows of sharp teeth and steel-gray skin.

"Greetings, Admiral Garreth," it said. "I am Khor'akh clan Eikh'mir. You are our prisoner."

Something flashed behind Garreth, and he was caught in the back by a stun blast. He grunted and fell forward to slump against the control panel.

He saw nothing else.

Jev took another cup of stim tea, closing his eyes against a headache. "Thank you. I needed this."

"That was obvious," said Okel with a touch of humor. "Do you feel better?"

"Somewhat," Jev admitted. "I feel... I don't know, empty. I can't be angry or sad anymore. I'm drained."

"Perhaps that is best," said the Mon Cal. "Perhaps, at this moment, what you need is a cold, logical eye."

"The most logical being in world would still say I'm a traitor," said Jev.

"That does not sound unemotional. Logically, I would say you were a young man, hurt very badly by the destruction of your homeworld. You became vulnerable to powers you could not control."

The failed Knight blew out a long breath. "That doesn't excuse anything."

"It does not," Okel agreed. "You made poor choices. You acted recklessly. That cannot be denied. But if I may suggest, you put too much weight on the admiral's opinion."

Jev groaned. "His opinion means a lot to me."

"As it does to me," said the alien. "But not so much that I would let it obscure my opinion of myself. Do you believe you should be forgiven?"

Jev considered that question for a long moment. "No."

Okel's eyes rotated in a Mon Cal smile, and he patted Jev's shoulder. "Until you do, my young friend, everything else is unimportant."

Okel's comlink beeped, and he activated it. "Chief Okel."

A female voice said, "This is Captain Lumas on the GUARDIAN. Chief, I thought you were bringing the Admiral's shuttle up."

The Mon Calamari frowned. "Not I."

"Well, it signaled for an approach pattern, and never arrived." The Captain's tone was frustrated.

"Have you checked the sensors? Attempted to contact Garreth?"

"Of course," she said, offended. "There's no response."

Okel gurgled softly. "Understood. I'll return to the ship immediately, to organize a search."

"Already being done," said Lumas. "And we found an ion trail that could be his shuttle - heading off on a hyperspace course for the Core."

The alien cursed in his native tongue, then said, "Understood. Captain, I believe you should leave this matter to me."

"I'm not going to have officers stolen off my ship without..."

Okel's voice, when it spoke, had a new authority that Jev had never heard in it. "Captain, I am the official representative of Admiral Ackbar on this mission. Do you wish to take the matter up with him?"

Lumas hissed softly. "Negative, Chief. It's your party." Sarcastically, she added, "Let us know if we can be of any help."

"Understood. Out." Okel put away his comlink, gurgling to himself for a moment. Then he stared at Jev. "They cannot help me. But you can."

"Why me?" Jev asked.

Okel made some Mon Cal gesture Jev could not interpret. "There was a previous attempt on the Admiral's life. I believe I know who is behind it... but if I tell anyone in the Fleet, it could mean great trouble for Admiral Garreth, as well as myself."

"Is that all you're going to tell me?"

"Until we're en route," said the alien. "If you'll help."

Jev didn't even have to think. He stood up. "I'm with you. I think I can arrange a ship and crew - if you've got money."

"It can be arranged," said the Mon Cal.

"Then let's get moving..."

Amber Stormcaller appeared at the shelter entrance. "Jev, I have great news. I just talked to..."

"Later," he said, and pushed past her out of the tent. "First we have to make a little trip to the Deep Core."

"The Deep Core?" Amber frowned. "Why are we going there?"

"Ask Okel," said Jev, already halfway to the landing pad. "You wanted to see what a Jedi does? Well, this is it..."

Kerri Lynden-Evverd awoke quickly, slapping at her alarm three times before realizing that it was the comlink buzzing. She groaned, rolled off the bed in her guest suite at the Imperial Palace, and turned it on with the Force.

"Yes?" she mumbled. Her long hair was all messed up in front of her eyes. She reached up to organize it somehow.

And saw who was calling. She broke into a delighted smile. "Chief! How have you been?"

Okel hesitated. "I did not mean to wake you. I had forgotten what time it was in the Imperial City."

"No, that's perfectly all right." Kerri pulled up a chair, rubbing the last of the sleep from her eyes. "What can I do for you?"

The Mon Cal's expressions were hard to read, but that particular one had never meant anything good. "It is my belief that Admiral Garreth has been kidnapped by the Empire. I am organizing a rescue effort."

Kerri groaned. "Garreth? Kidnapped? You're joking."

"I will explain when there is time," the Mon Calamari promised. "In the meantime, can you meet us at Corellia? That is the most direct stop before our destination."

Kerri wanted to say, no. I'm retired from fighting. I'm sure you'll be able to handle this yourself.

But Garreth was a good friend. And she was still a Jedi. "Understood. Who's on the team?"

Okel hesitated. "I had hoped to recruit your husband, but Tragis is too far out of the way, and he is busy there with the yellow alert condition. In his place, I have hired Dash Rendar, whom I believe you know..."

Kerri nodded. Dash was a friend of Rik's. A mercenary and a braggart, but a good hand in a fight. Word was that he was dead, but Kerri had never believed that. "Who else?"

The Mon Cal made an odd face. "Two other operatives, whom you should meet at Corellia. Please come quickly."

Kerri sighed, and nodded. "Got it. Hey, Chief... you, me, and Garreth? Should be like old times."

Okel made a sort of Mon Cal laugh. "Together again."

"Wouldn't miss it. See you on Corellia. Out."

Kerri dressed, recorded a message for Rik, and was on a transport within the hour.

She tried not to think that it actually felt good to be back in action.

She also tried not to think about the funny look on Okel's face when he'd mentioned the rest of the team.

Continued in Episode 5

R.John Burke



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