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

Hunters and Prey

In Defense Of Freedom series Episode Twelf

DESCRIPTION: Thrawn's push continues into the events of "The Last Command," while Jev and the OUTRIDER crew evade Bronn.

NOTICE: Lotsa this story is based on stuff written by Timothy Zahn, and of course it goes without saying that all things Star Wars are Copyright Lucasfilm, and this story is not for sale in any form. If it goes without saying, why'd I say it?


The OUTRIDER sat back on her landing gear in a rocky, brown canyon, identical to all the others on a world Dash Rendar had unglamorously dubbed "Dirtball Number Three.".

Unlike the other planets in the unofficially named Dirtball System, Number Three had the advantage of a breathable atmosphere. That was its only advantage. Apparently some sort of airborne, microscopic plant absorbed carbon dioxide and converted it to oxygen, a plant that also used up most of the atmospheric moisture. The result was a planet that had an oxygen-rich atmosphere, but was almost totally barren and dry. So dry that they had all attempted to remain inside the ship. Not only would the air chafe the skin, but it would help drain them of bodily fluids. The OUTRIDER's food and water stores were running low as it was.

Of course, some time spent outside was a necessity when conducting delicate repairs. Young, compactly built Amber Stormcaller had spent the better part of the morning working on the rear stabilizer array. The biting, dry air had made her itch all over, and she shivered as the ship's ramp closed behind her.

"Cold out there," she said. "Not that you boys would know that..."

"I gotta work on the thruster package," said the redheaded smuggler Dash Rendar, "And Leebo's gotta talk to the OUTRIDER's computer. Ain't my fault all that can be done from inside."

Amber sipped greedily at the water packet she'd removed from a storage locket. She pointed at the fourth member of their ship's contingent. "What about him?"

Dash quirked an eyebrow at the tall young man with the beard who sat at the hologaming table. "What about you, Junior?"

Jev Parrak shrugged. A power coupling was laid out on the table in obvious disarray. "I can barely get this back together. You'd trust me to repair a whole stabilizer array?"

Dash grunted. "He's got a point. Ain't his fault he's useless on a starship."

Amber sat down against the far wall, some distance from either Jev or Dash. Idly, she scratched at her left arm. "I'm going to start acting less competent."

"Hasn't worked very well for me," Jev said, grunting as his welding tool threw up a spark. "There's no reason to be bitter."

"We're bitter 'cause you got us into this mess," Dash said, turning back to his work on the thrusters. "If you hadn't insisted on this fool errand to find some mythical planet..."

"It's not mythical," Jev protested, "And how was I to know how badly the OUTRIDER had been damaged in the TIE attack?"

Dash turned away from his work again. "You mighta tried paying attention! The alert board was lit up like a Coruscant skyline!"

Jev shrugged. "That's the pilot's concern. I'm just the local mystic."

"If you recall, the pilot wanted to turn around!"

Amber realized there was some genuine anger in Dash's tone, brought on, no doubt, by stress and boredom. "Why don't you take the stabilizers for a while, Dash? I can work in here."

Dash grumbled. "It's like Hoth out there..."

"Not quite," she said, "And I survived it. Go on; it'll do us good to try something different for a while."

The redhead started to argue, but Amber could see he knew she was right. She tossed him her tool belt. Dash caught it on the fly, dressed himself in a lined field jacket, and ventured out into the atmosphere.

When the ramp had hissed closed, Amber looked to Jev. "Don't mind him. He's just tired."

"I know," said Jev with a weak smile. He grunted as a connection failed to engage.

Amber joined him at the table. "You want me to take a look at that?"

"I can do it," Jev said, his brow furrowed in concentration.

"No," Amber said, picking up a hydrospanner, "You can't. Here." She made two quick adjustments, and the connection came immediately to life.

Jev groaned in frustration and slammed down his welder. "I guess there are a lot of things I'm not good at."

"Self-pity? That's not a good attitude for a Jedi Knight."

His expression was halfway between hurt and frustrated. "As you pointed out, I'm not a Knight. I never was."

"I..." Amber hesitated. She clasped his right hand in hers. With her other hand, she scratched again at her itching arm. "I judged you too quickly. Whatever happened five years ago, it's none of my business."

"No," Jev said. He reached for the welder as though to try again, but seemed to decide against it. "You were right to doubt me, Amber. You shouldn't have any faith in me. I've done nothing to deserve it."

Amber scratched again at her arm. Stars, that itched! "That's not true. You..."

"Amber, your face!" Jev said, eyes widening. "It's all red and blotchy."

Amber froze. The itching...could she have picked up some alien disease on this strange world? "I'd better get the medkit," she said, and leapt for the storage locker.

The airlock hissed open, and Dash Rendar stepped in. "I gotta get something for this itching..." He broke off as he beheld Amber. "You, too?"

The young woman from Tattooine with the unruly, brown hair gritted her teeth. "It gets a lot worse. It burns."

Dash's face went even paler than usual. "Burns?"

"Yeah. I feel like I'm being eaten alive..."

Dash swallowed hard. "That's a possibility."

"WHAT?"

He pointed to Amber's hands, which were digging rather vigorously into the fabric of her jumpsuit. "Let me see."

Amber frowned, turned her hands over...and gasped. The skin was raw and cracked, thin trickles of blood marking the deepest lines.

Dash cursed. "I was afraid of that. We got Mites."

"Mites?"

The smuggler pushed past her and began digging in the medkit. At length, he pulled out a set of medical injectors. He pointed one at himself, and it discharged its contents into his arm. The injector made its familiar, heavy click, and then was empty. Dash tossed another one to Amber, then nodded towards Jev. "You touch him?"

"Yes," Jev said. Dash tossed him a third injector.

"Quickly," the smuggler said. He looked at Amber. "Especially you. You been out with 'em all morning. Didn't you notice anything?"

"I thought it was the climate, like you did." Amber's arm felt cold, then numb as the injector's serum worked its way into her bloodstream. The feeling spread down her arm, and then towards the rest of her body. It quickly faded, leaving in its wake skin that had stopped itching.

"That'll take care of the ones on you," Dash said, "But they'll eat anything." He pounded on one way. "Leebo! Get your two-ton metal hide up here!"

"We gotta electrify the outer surfaces," he continued. "Some of 'em probably got inside when the airlock opened, but probably not enough to do big damage before we can..."

"Can you electrify the inner surfaces, too?" Jev asked.

"Yeah, but..."

"Then do it," the bearded young man said, "I'll protect us."

"Hey, NOW I feel better..."

"Do it!" Amber said to the older human, and he groaned. Leebo appeared in the doorway.

"Yes, Master?" he said.

"Get ready to run a full-scale shock therapy on the OUTRIDER. We got a Mite problem."

The droid hesitated for a long moment. "Oh, dear. And I forgot the repellent..."

"Leebo, can it and do something useful, okay?"

The droid harrumphed and made his way into the cockpit. "Mites'll eat anything," Dash explained, "So we gotta get 'em off the hull--and spacing 'em don't work. They can live in a vacuum."

Jev frowned. "Could they really damage the OUTRIDER's hull?"

"Lemme put it this way, kid: This canyon we're in was probably carved by Mites." Dash craned his neck around to look into the cockpit. "Leebo, hit it!"

The droid's skeletal arm pounded down on the switch, and something crackled as energy surged over the OUTRIDER's hull. Dash made a cutting motion, and Leebo switched the energy off.

"Now the inner surfaces," said Jev.

Dash hissed. "I ain't trusting my neck to your mysticism."

The young Jedi shrugged. "Suit yourself. Look down, Dash."

The smuggler glanced idly at his feet. Then he did a double- take as he realized that they were several centimeters off the ground. "What in the depths of Kessel...?"

Jev's eyes were closed in concentration. He reached out next for Amber, and lifted her into the air as well. Finally he focused his Control abilities to levitate himself. He grunted as the Force surged through him. "I'd advise you to get started. I'm good, but I can't keep this up forever."

For a moment Dash looked like he would refuse, but finally he called, "Leebo, electrify the inner surfaces!"

Leebo's tone was understandably puzzled. "Master, I calculate a high probability that the humanoid form will be unable to withstand..."

"Just do it!"

The droid made a sound akin to a human sigh. "Here goes nothing. Hopefully you won't find this experience too shocking."

"I hate that droid," Amber said.

The next moment they were in the center of a maelstrom as currents of blue-white energy sparkled and twisted over the OUTRIDER's control surfaces. This continued for about half a minute before Dash nodded. "Awright, shut it down."

The electricity vanished, and Jev let out his breath in a hiss. The three floated back to the floor.

Dash hopped from foot to foot experimentally, as though half-expecting to be baked by any current remaining in the deck. Then he clasped Jev on the shoulder. "Not a bad trick."

"I'm glad you approve," Jev said, only a little sarcastically.

Amber also smiled her gratitude, then looked at Dash. "Unfortunately, even a low-intensity current probably screwed up all the work we did."

"Yeah," he said, jogging towards the cockpit. "But we ain't gonna be able to fix it here. Leebo, get us outta here."

"That may be difficult," he said, "One of our power couplings is in pieces on the gaming table, the stabilizer pack still isn't..."

"Figure it out later! Route everything through the secondary systems!"

The droid grunted. "That will damage us further."

"Right," the redheaded smuggler said as he slid into his chair. "That's why we're gonna need a nice, safe port."

"In the Unknown Regions?"

Dash sighed. "We'll think of something..."

"Are you all right?" Jev nodded at Amber's hands, which were still splotchy and caked with blood. She rubbed them on her trousers, ignoring the dark stains made by her blood, then inspected her hands.

"I think so," she said. "That stuff works pretty quickly. How about you?"

He shrugged, returning to fiddling with the power coupling. "What about me?"

"Do you feel better about yourself? You did just save our lives."

Jev tried hard to concentrate on a micro-generator, but could not make himself focus. "It's not like that with the Force. One use of the Dark Side can override years of control." He paused, and Amber opened her mouth to reply, but Jev cut her off. "When we get to the planet...then I'll know whether I'm healed."

The engines thrummed, albeit a bit off-key, and Jev felt the slight lift that indicated their takeoff. He reached down to his belt, produced a small cylinder, and held it out to Amber. "Here."

She frowned. "I told you, I don't know if I want to resume practicing yet..."

"I know," Jev said. "Because you don't trust me. More than that--Okel was right, I don't trust me. Until I do, I have no use for this." He shrugged, and tossed Amber the blade. "Maybe Luke Skywalker can teach you to use it."

She caught it. "But we haven't reached the planet yet. How do you know you won't pass your test?"

Jev hung his head, pretending to study the coupling again. Then he looked up, his blue eyes suddenly very serious. "When I think about the planet, I sense only death."

"Death? From where? How?"

Dash's voice came from the cockpit. yelling a vicious string of curses. "Aw, come ON! This ain't even FAIR!"

Amber and Jev ran into the cockpit, and Jev wondered if he was now seeing the death he'd sensed: The IMPERIAL-class Star Destroyer RETRIBUTION, back for more and heading straight towards them.

It's a sad state of affairs in this galaxy, Boba Fett decided, when a great hunter like myself is reduced to tracking a measly fifty thousand credit bounty on a slaghole of a world like this one.

Actually, when one considered that disintegrations were allowed, the bounty on Talon Karrde wasn't half bad, and while Tattooine brought back...unpleasant memories...it was as good a planet as any to Fett, who cared little for scenery or anything else that did not somehow affect his bank account. It was merely the principle of the thing...

His first stop had been to torture the Sarlacc (Fett made a point, when he was on-planet, to give the thing a blast from his ship's thrusters; he planned to kill it slowly, for what it had done to him*). After that, he made his way into Mos Eisley, docked his ship, and headed off towards the cantina.

There, he met with Garindan, the mysterious Kubaz spy with the long snout who knew everything that went on in Mos Eisley, and most of what happened anywhere else.

"It has been a long time, Hunter," said the alien. "I had heard you were dead."

"The reports were exaggerated," Fett deadpanned. "I have a name for you: Talon Karrde."

"Karrde," Garindan repeated. "Human, smuggler and information broker. Quite clever, wry sense of humor, knows almost as much as me. Probably the galaxy's foremost smuggler kingpin. He can be a soft touch; he helps the Republic, so of course Thrawn despises him."

"I knew his biography," Fett hissed. "I understand he's searching Orus sector for Thrawn's clone storehouse."

"Confirmed," said Garindan, and waited.

Fett rolled his eyes beneath his helmet. "Well?"

"Well what?" Kubaz didn't always pick up on social cues.

"This is Orus sector. Is he here?"

Garindan frowned. "Why didn't you phrase your question to imply..."

Fett's wrist dart launcher pressed up against the alien's throat. "I'm really not in the mood today."

Garindan's snout twitched, a Kubaz expression of fear. "Understood. Karrde is here, Hunter. Meeting with Rebel agents in the Dune Sea."

Fett frowned under his mask. "Rebel agents?" Remembering the Kubaz's little quirks, he elaborated, "Who are they?"

The alien's snout now swung from side to side, his version of a shrug. "Minor operatives, long history with the Rebellion. Husband-and-wife team."

"Husband and...?" Fett hissed softly. "Evverd?"

"Confirmed."

Beneath his infamous blue, gray, and green Mandalorian armor, Boba Fett smiled. "Rik Evverd and his wife, meeting with Karrde in the Dune Sea..." He produced a stack of coins and placed them on the table.

Garindan made a small noise. "You may wish to consider being a bit more subtle."

"Everyone knows you're a spy, Garindan," he said, and left the cantina with the sounds of jizz music ringing in his ears.

"It's been a long time, Karrde," said Rik Evverd, wiping his brow clear of sweat from Tattooine's oppressive heat.

"Not long enough," the smuggler said. He shaded his icy blue eyes to watch the pair of officers approach. "Though it is nice to see you alive."

Evverd shrugged; when last he'd seen Karrde, the man had been escaping from the Emperor's skyhook with Kerri. Rik Evverd, a wiry Corellian with chocolate-toned skin, had remained behind to see to the destruction of the massive installation; but for a last-second save by an unexpected hero, his atoms would have been in orbit of Coruscant.

"I'm never gonna die; the Force doesn't want me." He shook the smuggler's hand. Then his eyes flicked past Karrde, past the skipray blast boat the smuggler had taken to their rendezvous, to the slithering tentacles of the Sarlacc monster, only a few meters out of reach. Beyond that, a herd of banthas grazed peacefully. "Great place you picked for a meeting, buddy."

Karrde shrugged. "It has its advantages. For one thing, few people are anxious to approach the Sarlacc too closely."

"Yeah, but what if it has a really long tentacle it's been savin' up for an occasion like this?"

"It doesn't," Kerri Lynden-Evverd said. "It's hurt."

Karrde's eyes flicked over Kerri thoughtfully. "Hurt, you say?"

"I sense... pain. Burning pain." She frowned. "There must be something we can do for it."

"DO? For that thing?" Evverd laughed, a quick, harsh little burst of sound. "Is the sun getting to you?"

Kerri flicked an annoyed glance at him, but Karrde's voice brought them back to the subject. "I had called you here to discuss business."

"Yes," Kerri said, "Do you have anything for us?"

The smuggler chief's gaze flicked downwards. "Nothing yet. At first I'd thought the Empire might run their clones through here--after all, the homeplanet of a Jedi seems an unlikely place for such a thing, and the irony would appeal to Thrawn. But I've found nothing. I'm thinking of raiding the Chazwa Garrison records."

"So you've really got nothing," Evverd said.

"Afraid so."

The Corellian smiled. "And yet, you've drawn so heavily on Luke's credit line."

Karrde shrugged. "Expenses. You understand."

Evverd's lip quirked. "Yeah, I understand, all right..."

The smuggler chief was about to reply, but his comlink cut him off. "Yes?"

"Karrde, this is Dankin." Dimly Evverd wondered where Karrde had managed to hide another operative around here-- unless the guy was waiting in the blastboat.

A moment later, that hunch was confirmed. "I have some kind of weird metallic reading on the active scope; it's not much, but it could be a stormtrooper patrol approaching from the east."

"Understood," Karrde told him. He shut off the comlink. "It appears someone's taken an interest in our handiwork. I'm leaving now, and I suggest you do the same. We'll link up in orbit, and I'll transmit some data and a few of my leads--for what they're worth. There's also a requisition in there for a larger credit line."

"LARGER? Why, you old--"

"My expenses are skyrocketing," Karrde said, and looked so blasted innocent that Evverd would have believed him, had he not known Karrde as he did. The smuggler chief turned and stepped towards his ship.

The attack came then, not from the east but from the northwest, obscured by the blastbolt's hull. A pair of blaster bolts shot out for Karrde's chest. They soared high, however, as Kerri used her millisecond of Force warning to knock Karrde to the ground.

Then the blastboat exploded, a ball of red flame expanding over the sands. Evverd expected Karrde to look anguished-- he remembered how attached the smuggler was to his associates--but to his surprise, Karrde just pulled out his blaster and started shooting back.

A moment later, another blaster joined him from behind a nearby dune, and Evverd realized that there'd been no one in the ship. "Dankin" had likely been covering behind the dune, looking for trouble with a hand-held scanner.

Evverd pulled his own weapon and returned to the business at hand--just in time to catch a glimpse of their attacker past the dissipating flames.

He cursed softly. He'd always known that this thing with Fett would have to be settled sooner or later.

The Corellian reflected that he'd have been just as happy with "later"...

"Admiral Bronn." the bulky Star Destroyer captain, Sarkk Orwell, addressed his superior officer. "We've lost the track, sir."

Bronn, a thin, crimson-skinned Mon Calamari, stared out the bridge viewport of the ISS RETRIBUTION as the small, Corellian freighter once again tried to dodge them. "How is that possible?"

"Our reflective particles appear fused," the human said. "Electric current would have that effect. They must know we were tracking them."

"No," Bronn said thoughtfully, listening to the new voices in his head. "I don't think they do. Still, it's clear that this is not the proper planet. We'll have to capture them now."

Orwell nodded. "Yes, sir."

"But, Captain...I do want them alive. See that you capture them intact."

"Understood."

"Don't look at me," Jev said, "I've gone to the idea well far too often."

Dash jerked the controls, allowing them to miss an out- of-control TIE fighter (nailed by their forward cannons) again. The TIE passed so close that its wing snapped off from contact with their shields. "I'm outta thoughts myself, kid. Maybe we can outmaneuver 'em..."

"I doubt it," said Amber. "They won't let us escape again. I don't know what to do, either."

In the copilot's seat, Leebo sat almost perfectly still, his glowing eye blinking. "I do."

"You?" Dash frowned at him.

"My programming combines the intelligence of fourteen top mechanical designers. I'm perfectly capable of coming up with an idea."

Dash hit the trigger again, and another TIE was space dust. The OUTRIDER shook beneath them. If that Star Destroyer got into tractor beam range...

"It can't hurt to try," Jev pointed out.

The smuggler sighed and gave his copilot a condescending stare. "Awright, pal, what's your idea?"

Leebo sounded quite pleased with himself. "Do you recall Xizor's skyhook, Master?"

Bronn watched in satisfaction as his TIE fighters closed in on the OUTRIDER's disc-shaped hull. He thought of the Jedi, and smiled. There'll be no escape for you this time, he thought...

To his amazement, a voice in his head replied: THEN WE'LL HAVE TO MAKE SURE WE TAKE A LOT OF YOU WITH US.

Bronn didn't immediately understand that statement, and he frowned...then his tactical display showed the freighter accelerating at attack speed, straight into their cloud of TIE fighters.

"What is he...?" Bronn trailed off as the OUTRIDER bored down on their starfighters. The TIE's were more maneuverable, but were caught flatfooted. The Corellian ship picked one out, dogged it. Its shots went wide, and several other TIE's attached themselves to its tail. The OUTRIDER just continued on, seemingly heedless. With one final burst of thrusters, it caught up to the TIE fighter.

And smashed into it.

A brilliant light filled the screen, blinding the admiral. When he turned back, the OUTRIDER was gone, along with four of their fighters.

Beside him, Orwell muttered, "Idiots...they committed suicide..."

Bronn turned on him, a harsh gurgling at the back of his throat signifying rage. He reached into his mind, for his gift from Master C'Baoth.

Captain Orwell began to choke. "Wh--What..."

"You've failed me for the last time, Captain. I warned you not to damage my prize."

Orwell clutched at his throat as he began turning blue. "No...please, Admiral..." Then he could no longer speak, and a moment later he crashed, senseless, to the deck.

Bronn nodded to a pair of stormtroopers, who approached to remove the body. Then he gestured for Lieutenant Commander Evins, a female human whose gender had prevented her advancing beyond an XO post.

"It's your ship, Captain Evins," he said.

Evins glanced from him back towards Orwell's body, as it was dragged to the lift. She gulped audibly. Perhaps she was wondering where he'd acquired such powers, or what had happened to change him from the self-important, marginally loyal officer he'd once been to his present form.

Bronn chuckled to himself. His encounter with Master C'Baoth had clarified many things for him. "Well, Captain?"

Evins saluted. "Sir," she said, "since the Rebels have been destroyed, shall I plot a course back for the Core?"

"Of course not, Captain." Bronn gave her a human-style smile. "The Jedi is alive. I did not sense his death."

Evins was confused. "I don't..."

"They are alive, Captain. You will succeed in capturing them, will you not?"

The new captain looked one more time at the now-closed lift doors. "Yes, sir."

Evverd rolled hard to the side, trying to put some distance between himself and his comrades. He knew very well who would be Fett's priority target. As predicted, the Hunter's fire tracked for him. He took cover behind another in the endless series of dunes.

An explosion nearly split his eardrums, and abruptly he had no cover left. Fett had scattered and fused the sand with one of his array of explosive weapons. The Corellian dove again, just avoiding another explosion. He came up firing, but missed cleanly.

While Karrde and Kerri kept the hunter pinned down, Evverd looked for options. He saw nothing but the Sarlacc and the grazing Banthas. A bottomless pit and a Bantha herd, Evverd thought. There's a plan in there somewhere...

"Cover me!" He called to the others. Karrde nodded, and began laying more intense fire as Evverd snuck around at the edge of the battlefield, trying to keep low, narrowly missing several blaster shots.

After several excruciating minutes, he'd worked his way around to where Fett's position was between him and the Banthas. He hefted his weapon and fired.

Two shots missed, but the third pinged against the leg of a huge, shaggy male. That Bantha bellowed and charged, and a moment later all its peers followed. The Banthas stampeded forward in Evverd's direction. Fett was cut off.

He engaged his rocket pack, and lifted off with a roar. The bounty hunter floated, several meters above ground, only needing to go a few meters to get out of the stampede's way. Evverd trusted his wife to do the rest, and he was not disappointed.

Fett was in the danger area for less than an instant, hovering within reach of the Sarlacc's tentacles. Kerri's orange lightsaber blade arced out, controlled by the Force as it spun towards Fett. At precisely the right moment, it cut his rocket pack in half.

Fett crashed to the ground with a bellow, his armor and the soft sand protecting him from the impact. He scrambled forward...and stopped.

The Sarlacc had a tentacle around his leg.

"NOOOO!" The hunter screamed. He twisted around, firing twin wrist rockets at the Sarlacc. They exploded, and the thing relaxed its grip...

And then redoubled it, all its tentacles slithering forward to wrap Fett up in a tight package. His arms were pinned to his side, and the Sarlacc pulled him forward hungrily, it's beak-like mouth snapping. Evverd could almost feel its rage and pain as it retaliated against its tormentor.

Fett continued to scream. Something about that image-- the great Boba Fett, the coldest, least emotional being in the galaxy being reduced to mindless screaming--gave Evverd an idea of what the Sarlacc's digestion process must have been like.

He charged forward, weapon firing at the Sarlacc monster. Several shots scored its tentacles, and the thing cried out. A pair of the tentacles arced out towards Evverd.

"Kerri!" He called. His wife nodded and tossed her lightsaber to him, the Force guiding its hilt right into the palm of his hand. the orange blade sizzled into being, and Evverd brought it down on the snakelike appendages. They exploded with yellowish ichor as Evverd cut them again and again, using the lightsaber like a vibroaxe.

At length, the Sarlacc had no tentacles left. Those still wrapped around Fett writhed with life of their own, but were clearly moving by reflex.

Evverd dragged Fett away from the sandy pit, over towards Kerri and Karrde. Karrde's friend Dankin had joined them.

"Not bad," Karrde said. "I suggest you leave him tied up while we get out of here."

"Relax, said Evverd, and he began trimming the tentacles to release Fett. "We understand each other pretty well, I think."

"We do," said Boba Fett. He hesitated a long moment. Finally, he muttered in a rough voice, "Thank you."

"I was just thinking of the animal," Evverd said. "You would've given it indigestion..."

*--See the story "A Barve Like That" by JD Montgomery, in the Tales from Jabba's Palace book

Continued in Episode 13

R.John Burke



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