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The Cruet Sea
[pgb-w] The chase had been wearing: Jack using every one of his hard-learned tricks, the pursing frigate first losing a quarter mile, then gaining it back: and each time perhaps a cable more.

Early in the forenoon watch a cry from the masthead had all eyes and telescopes on the larboard side, the weather side. Jack had felt a cold clutch at his heart when he recognised what had been the "Blackwater", that fine heavy frigate that he once had wanted to command on the North American station, but that Irby, with his greater interest, had taken instead. Irby, though, had met two French ships of the line cruising out from the Bay, and, caught in pincers, had been forced to surrender. Now Jack's lost frigate was "Le Destin De L'Homme". Never was a ship so ill-named, Jack had thought some way into the chase.

Stephen Maturin was in a turmoil. He knew that the frigate was commanded by Alois Pontet-Cantet, a nephew of an old adversary. He knew that it was crewed by fanatics: men single-minded in their allegiance to Buonaparte. That the Emperor would be defeated, would to lose his great war, was clear to all but the silent, cold bitter men who now surrounded him, who had infiltrated and taken over the army command, the many and often competing secret services, and who had bent to their will the best of the French fighting ships. Thus was the black character of their pursuer.

Past noon the water had been started, all supplies that could be put over the side had gone, and one by one, starting from forward, the guns had been loosed and heaved and pitched overboard. Still the pursuit went on, remorseless, inexorable. The calculating part of Jack Aubrey's mind told him by mid-afternoon what the end must be, and the first ranging shots from the French frigate's bow-chasers had underscored that awful conclusion. Though he retained the brass stern-chasers, and though for an hour he plied them with fierce resolve, he did not bring down a single spar of the pursuer.

In the orlop, surrounded by the tools of his trade, Stephen Maturin realised that he could be taken by men who, once they had established his identity — and there was little chance that he could dissemble anymore — would bear him to Paris to face agencies on whom he had wrought terrible damage, men whose friends and companions he had killed, men who would be pitiless with him. He had been tortured once. He knew that he could not face it again. With automatic movements his hands sorted through the medicine chest, and mixed, poured, and stoppered in a small bottle a draught that would be swift and certain. He moved to go on deck, to see what the situation was with the chase, when a ball from the French frigate came aboard and struck the foretopmast with a ringing, splintering thump. Cries, the groaning of timber put beyond its powers to resist, a great crash as the foremast came down: and Stephen was thrown off his feet as the Surprise came violently up into the wind. Within less than a minute the hull was ringing from the balls hammering at it.

On deck axes were flying, hacking in desperation at the foremast shrouds to clear the mast away. Men were heaving the stern-chasers round as the Frenchman's first broadside struck, then again, and yet again, the "Surprise" cruelly smashed, blood running in the scuppers. Jack was knocked to his knees by a flying sister-block. The big frigate tacked, cut across its prey's bow, its larboard broadside doing terrible work. Jack staggered to his feet, slipping on the blood of his officers, all now laid down with fearful wounds. A ball hummed by his ear, singeing his hair. Now he knew that he had to do what his whole being revolted at: he had to strike the colours. There was no-one upright on the quarterdeck.

In the calm as the enemy tacked again through the smoke, rounding to rake the stern of the Surprise, Jack, weaving and dazed, stumbled onto the poop and grasped the lanyards of the jackstaff. At that moment the mizzen boom came down and he was swept over the taffrail, still clinging to the lanyards. The ensign was jammed, held aloft by his weight, Jack himself swinging wildly over the stern, banging into the rudder head. "Strike! Strike!" he roared as the frigate came right round astern. His great cry penetrated even to the orlop. Stephen lifted a small tin cup, poured the hellish draught into it, and braced himself against the bulkhead. A calming flow of Latin coursed through his mind: a prayer of absolution for the mortal sin he was about to commit; a prayer for his friends, for his late wife, for his daughter. He saw that his hands did not tremble as the cup came to his lips. At the metallic taste of the rim he closed his eyes and saw a great eagle, an eagle from his youth, soaring higher and higher in the clear blue sky over the Pyrenees behind his home.

For Jack Aubrey time moved so slowly that he could test a dozen possibilities for action as the angle of the enemy ship swung like a massive door closing on his life. If he did not strike the raking broadside would kill him and his ship and all aboard. He hung with one hand whilst he pulled at his breeches pockets, finding his small knife, reaching up to the lanyard cords. If he could cut them the ensign would fall free. He would drop into the sea and might survive.

"Sophie, my love, forgive me!" he gasped as he began to hack and saw.

[bat] A single gun boomed out sharply, but the deep roar pitched up into a discordant metallic ring and Jack's mind instantly registered that a cannon barrel had split, a French cannon, for Surprise's brass chasers had gone without crew these past ten minutes. His exertions had spun him about to face towards the Frenchman and he was stunned to see a great burst of white smoke and orange flame from the frigate's midship gunports, not a broadside but something more concentrated and more terrible, enveloping her upper works and accompanied by a shaking, shuddering rumble. Unbelieving, he watched her larboard mainshrouds fly up, loosed from the shattered chains. The Droit's mainmast shook as if caught in a sudden gust, then slowly toppled towards the bow, lines snapping, whipping through the air, the whole immense tangle of wood and canvas and rope carrying forward against the foremast and dragging that down, too. Not another gun fired as the frigate's stern swung about to present itself to the Surprise.

Jack pulled himself up the lanyards, grasped the taffrail with one hand, then the other, and finally stood again upon his deck. "Does she still answer her helm?' he shouted to the young master's mate at the wheel.

"Aye, sir!" came the reply. The bosun, blood streaming down his left cheek from an ugly, ragged wound, staggered across the poop. With shouts and gestures Jack woke the man from his daze to send him aloft to strip the canvas from the mizzenmast. Under her maintopsail alone and with her rudder turning her bow from the wind, Surprise could run before the freshening breeze, run as far and fast from the disabled Frenchman as Jack could drive her shattered hull.

With a stumpy foremast jury-rigged and a new mizzen gaff in place after hours of stupefying work by her decimated crew, Surprise could now at least make a pretense of maneuver. As yet the horizon to sternward showed no glint of French canvas above it, and Jack believed with all his instincts that night would fall before the enemy frigate would again be underway. Buonopartist fervour might do well enough in servicing the guns, but it could not replace years and decades of practical seamanship denied to them by the long Royal Navy blockade. He turned from the empty sea to see Maturin emerge upon the deck, his clothes reddened with blood and face a somber gray. "How many"? Jack asked.

"I've had no time to count," the doctor replied, "but it is heavy, very heavy. I've still three amputations to do and not even a loblolly boy at hand. I needed fresh air, a few moments of fresh air, if I am to saw again with any steadiness."

"I was just wishing a wicked thing," Jack said. Stephen raised an eyebrow in silent inquiry. "I was wishing that the Frenchman would take fire and blow her magazine up, but I've heard no welcome boom and seen no plume of smoke. Did I see you on deck before? Just before, just before she lost her masts?"

"Yes, now that you mention it. I thought that I should like to see what you were about, how you would effect a satisfactory ending. I had no doubt you would, of course, no doubt at all, brother."

"Had you not, though?" Jack responded with a small shake of his head. "I tell you, Stephen, that I had doubts enough for both of us. If that French cannon had not split upon a premature discharge and ignited powder being carried to other guns, then I should not like to answer how I would have produced your satisfactory ending."

"And what now?" Maturin asked. "I collect our mission might be imperiled?"

"We've two brass nines as our whole armament, not above half a crew fit to keep watch, rigging that would not stand against anything of a real blow, and not enough water to brew a full pot of coffee. Perhaps even the Admiralty might see some peril in that, I suppose."

[Bruce, which he had been tempted to start: "Jack awoke from his horrid dream with a start. "I should not have had that fourth helping of spotted dog," he thought.]

[sdw] Jack declined a fourth offering of spotted dog.

"No sir," he cried, "You have been too generous already, though it does eat uncommon well."

The fine buzz of conversation flowed over the table in the great cabin of the Mornington. Captain Spottiswood said:

"I am at a loss, a complete loss, to understand how the Company could possibly be anything like too generous to you, Captain Aubrey: your services have saved us millions in trade. A little more claret, then?"

Jack smiled benevolently at Stephen, and the three female passengers, one young, all pretty. Stephen was deep in conversation with a Miss Kennedy who, though nearly wholly ignorant of cryptogams and potoos, was very capable of cultivating an engaging interest.

"Eats uncommon well, after a week of short rations and unending worry about that wicked old Frenchman," Jack said, but only to himself. For the worry was over: the Mornington had found the Surprise, had sustained her, and sent across enough spars, line and hands to set up the barky in something like her former glory. The two ships sailed in company, their lights faint through the mistlike rain.

"Oh," said Spottiswood, a look of lively urbanity still on his face, and fell forward onto the table. Jack, confused by the wine, turned to the small break in the cabin window, just in time to see a great section shattered by a boarding axe. This was instantly followed by another axe and then a face under a black stocking cap, a dark face with a fearful livid burn down one side.

"Bonden — ladies forard," roared Jack, bringing his chair down on stocking cap's head. But the ladies only clustered against the door, preventing Bonden and his mates from entering. Jack continued to thrust and parry with his chair, pushing boarders back from the starboard side of the window. The Destines, however, poured in at the other side of the table. Here many of them met Spottiswood's servant, a small, normally cheerful Malay who plied the carving knife, in spite of his roundshot-like figure, with an agility that surprised Jack and was deadly to the Frenchmen. There was Stephen with a fowling piece seized from the wall, swinging it like a hurly, and all around a terrible, confused din: feet running overhead, cries on deck, Bonden roaring at the door, the petty officer in the boat shouting encouragement.

But the French were fighting uphill, and not in defense, and, instead of surprising an East India Company captain alone at his dinner, they had found two naval officers much sustained by wine, good company and chivalry. They soon fell off. Jack dispersed the ladies at the door and flung it open. The elegantly panelled corridor was filled with his barge crew, bristling with tension. Overhead: a long, lusty cheer of victory, in French.

"Beg parding, sir," said Bonden, strangely calm, "But the whole fucking crew of Frenchies is aboard us. They have the quarterdeck and focsle and will be here directly."

"We need hands: starboards sweep this deck. Collect small arms too. Meet us in the cable tiers. Larboards follow me and sweep the lowerdeck. Two minutes, no more. Bonden, see the doctor and the ladies to the tiers."

Down, down, through decks of unimaginable blackness, companionways of fearful steepness, heads pushed down, shoulders hunched, gowns trodden on, rats scampering underfoot like sleek kittens, the sounds of the enemy rushing about above; past the cable tiers until finally they stopped in a hold, a comforting, clean sweet-smelling commercial hold, one that might have been a warehouse in Deptford, except that it was a dead-end with no entry or exit save the hatch above. It was full of bales of silk laid on top of tiny casks of pepper: the footing underneath was treacherous: they stumbled and fell in the pitch dark.

In this blackness Jack organized the crew, the ladies, and the few Morningtons who had been below when the attack started. He tallied up their few weapons, their complete lack of water, and the Frenchmen above: burned, injured, Bonapartiste, and, judging from the singing, already well into the Mornington's rum. There was a scuffle of shoes on the hatch above their heads and a glim flashed through the coaming. In its brief, dull glow Jack saw the upturned faces of his companions, watching and waiting.

[gdf] "Why there you are Captain Aubrey! Doctor Maturin sends his compliments and desires that you assist him in the great cabin as he is unavoidably detained..." called the younger Miss Moseley before she gasped with wondrous astonishment at the myriad bales of pure silk in such quantities as to make a young lady's head giddy with the excitement of it all.

"Damn and blast it! Brought by the lee again!" hissed Jack Aubrey remembering his previous capture by Azéma aboard the Indiaman 'The Lord Nelson'. He raised his Patriotic Fund sword in preparation for one last desperate charge at the head of the remaining Surprises and those Mornington's still willing to fight. Jack had experienced the ebb and flow of fortune in battle in countless naval engagements and his fighting instincts told him it was now or never. It would be nip and tuck, but a desperate rally might yet take the French off guard. He pushed the momentarily insensible Miss Moseley aside and charged out of the hold onto the deafening silence of the lower deck.

"There you are Jack, Pray do not touch the Rum Punch bowl!" said a resolutely defiant Dr Maturin and by way of explanation, "During the fight I took the liberty of adding a sleeping draught to it and consequently most, if not all, our French friends will rest secure in the arms of Morpheus for the time being. The gluttons amongst them may never stir again."

"Why in all the annals of naval history I have never heard of such a prodigious blow in such circumstances, the most complete thing," said Jack his high spirits returning, as he and Bonden set to severing the ropes and chains that bound Stephen to his chair, "One might call it a knock out blow! And by an unArmed man too! Ha!Ha!Ha! We shall soon cut this garbadine knot for you."

The abrupt sound of a gun being fired made all in the cabin jump. The sound of a round shot smashing into the Mornington's side put all thoughts of jollity aside. Miss Moseley involuntarily clubbed a sleeping Frenchman with her musket, Killick made as to gather up the remaining silver plates. Jack looked out of the shattered stern windows. The Surprise was nowhere to be seen. The French frigate sat like an anxious mother hen upon the rolling Indian Ocean swell a couple of cables distant to windward upon the Mornington's quarter.All her stubby eighteen pound guns were run out and ready for renewed action. One mid deck gun smoking. With his sea going cunning Jack realised that the French Capitaine had yet to comprehend the true state of affairs onboard the Mornington. The position was almost hopeless considering the fearful odds stacked against them, but when Captain Aubrey turned round to face those in the cabin, those who knew him of old saw the glint of firm resolve in his eyes and the smile on his face indicated that there was still all to play for given time and chance.

"Gentlemen, there is not a moment to lose." said Jack firmly, "Bonden take the wheel, Killick to the galley, Mr Wilson swivel guns to the quarter deck as soon as possible if you please, and Doctor will you kindly..."

[pgb-w] . . . strip off one of those French officers' uniforms, get into it, and stand by."

With the eager assistance of the ladies, a somnolent Frenchman was relieved of his garments ("Admirable zeal, ladies, but just the outer ones for now!") and a fairly presentable Stephen Maturin stood beside Jack as a cutter from the French frigate cautiously approached the East Indiaman's starboard side.

"Now, Stephen, buy time, dear Doctor, at any price," Jack whispered.

Those old friends and shipmates who knew the stooped, crabbed Stephen Maturin were astonished at the strutting figure who leaped onto the starboard mizzen chains and cried, with crisp authority:

"La peste! La peste de l'Indies! J'en ai plusiers des cases!" Consternation, the feverish backing of oars, and the cutter raced back to its mother ship.

"Now," said Jack, "that should give 'em something to think about for a while." Privately: 'For a day maybe: if "Surprise" don't show, we've got precious little else in hand.'

A day of careful work on deck. A day of strengthening the pretence that the frigate's crew had overcome the Mornington (three Surprises clad in French uniform prominently guarding Jack on the quarterdeck; hammocks stuffed with other hammocks and round shot going over the side at regular intervals; Killick boiling what garlic he had been able to find in the sleeping French crew's pockets). A day of dragging still-doped Destines into the hold. And ever-so-careful trimming of sails in the light breezes so the wallowing East Indiaman worked, with a lulling and nonchalant air, slowly to windward of the shadowing frigate.

Killick, ears straining, hovered outside the great cabin with a third pot of coffee. Inside, Jack, the Doctor, a pale and bandaged Pullings, and Bleasdale Trinque — first lieutenant of the Mornington — pored over charts.

The last position Jack could be certain of put them about a hundred miles south of Aldabra. The Indiamen mostly went to the west of the Comorros to pass south through the Mozambique channel. He could not break from the frigate: only keep it at a distance. Could he lure it south, where there might be a British man-of-war cruising out of Simon's Town? And where was 'Surprise'? Battered, yes, but in his heart he knew she was not sunk, she was out there, somewhere: in the vast space of the south Indian Ocean? Or lurking in among the islands in the channel, repairing, resting, waiting?

[bat] "Begging your pardon, Captain Aubrey," the Mornington's lieutenant ventured in a rough, but hesitant voice. Like many Indiamen officers, he had an exaggerated regard for the Royal Navy and was loath to interrupt the thoughts of so august a person. Trinque had been second of the Bombay Castle when Jack led the improbable attack of the China fleet against Linois, and since that time had considered Aubrey to be Nelson re-born. "Does your Surprise have any officer familiar with these here seas, intimatelike?"

Jack nodded. "Finlay, a senior master's mate. He was here during his Company days before the wars. He copped it with a splinter through the left thigh during the recent battle, but the doctor set him right again."

"Old Double-Grog Dave Finlay?" Trinque exclaimed, a wide grin lacking two or three teeth breaking across his weather-beaten face. "Why, bless my soul, sir. Finlay and me has stood many a watch together in these same waters. Oh, my, yes. And all the better, if you follow me, Captain Aubrey, because I knows that Old Dave knows these here islands I was about to mention to you as being the best of their kind in these seas by way of being right handy and just the spot that Dave and me knows from the time that the barky we was in sprung her maintopmast on account of a white squall that came upon us one morning out of the west, you sees, and not a reef in the topsails and ... and ..." Trinque's voice trailed off as he tried to plot a course back to the beginning of his sentence. "Anyways, your mate Finlay knows these here pair of islands I'm telling you about. A right snug little harbor and good ground to hold an anchor, too, just so long as the wind don't blow hard from the south and it don't, not this time of year."

"Where are these islands of yours?" Jack asked as he slid the chart towards the Indianman's lieutenant.

The grizzled seaman pulled a pair of reading spectacles from a pocket, slipped them over a nose reddened by years of salt, wind and rum, and pointed at the map. "Right here they is, Captain Aubrey. The latitude is correct and all, I think, but I would put a quarter degree of longitude to the west if I was to be looking for them. This here map names them the Islas des Cochinos, but we of the Company calls them the Dark Maidens on account of their shape, you see, all sort of sticking up out of the water like two ... like ... very maidenlike, if you take my meaning. That and there's a village on one of the islands and the young ladies are right friendly and dusky."

Jack concentrated on map and wind and their present position, softly humming a Corelli concerto to himself. He nodded slowly and touched the wood of the table. "Wind holding, Tom, we should fetch up these islands just about dawn tomorrow, the sun coming up to silhouette us and the Frenchman to anyone on the heights posted as lookout. But for the pleasure of your company, I might wish you were aboard Surprise for that eventuality." He left unsaid the second half of his sentence: "with you in command instead of that

[sdw] Mr Midshipman Bramwell-Wesley was in a hellfire passion, stalking the quarterdeck in as near an imitation of Jack Aubrey as his seven stone and fourteen years would allow. Certainly the hands deserved a run ashore, but this was coming it pretty high, pretty high indeed. The starboard watch had failed to see the morning signal to return to ship, and could be glimpsed under the fringe of the distant vegetation disporting themselves, still disporting themselves, and worse, with the island maidens, all of them dusky, and all of them ashore. Bramwell-Wesley poked his dirk at an islander trying the mizzen chains. The islanders over the side were all of them male, and all of them eager to board, and trade. The larboards good naturedly kept them off, carrying on a bantering exchange in what they took to be the appropriate pidgin.

"Mr Finlay, there," squeaked BeDub, as the hands called him, "I am going aloft." High in the main royal cross trees he found his vision of the activity on shore entirely blocked by the vegetation, and by the blinding dazzle of the rising sun. So he scanned away to westward, and saw the horizon there nicked by topsails. "All hands!", he shrieked, slinging his glass, and sliding down the backstay, "Give them a gun, Finlay, and unmoor ship!".

Jack Aubrey was also up early; he saw the Surprise drop her topsails, attributed the slowness to Pullings' absence, and turned to address the crew gathered in the waist.

[gdf] "Listen sharp men! That there ship clearing harbour is the Surprise and with luck she'll be alongside within the hour. If the French capitaine knows what's good for him, he will bolt and make a run for it and doubtless give us a broadside or two in passing. I intend to lay the Mornington alongside immediately and confound his knavish tricks. You Morningtons shall have a chance to serve out those who killed Captain Spottiswood and satisfy the honour of your most noble and hospitable ship. My Surprises will fight alongside you directly and together our battlecry shall be "Mornington!" Together we'll show those damn rascals that if they ever venture out again, they shall always be beat! There's not a moment to lose!" bellowed Jack in his most imposing and authoritative Post-Captain's manner.

The Mornington's lascar crew murmured their approval, the passengers applauded Jack's speech, and the Surprises roared their approval when the younger Miss Moseley shouted "Three cheers for Captain Aubrey!" and the wavering remainder joined in with gusto. That settled, Jack turned to his officers...

"Gentlemen, I intend to ram the enemy and knock his bowsprit clean away! Our larboard twelve pounders are to be double shotted with round shot. Three broadsides each and then we board. Mr Pullings will lead the Surprises and I will head the Morningtons with Lieutenant Wilson and his remarkable portable swivel guns. Boarding parties must have every available man, boarding pike and grappling iron we can muster. The elder Miss Moseley has kindly volunteered to take the wheel, and the indomitable younger Miss Moseley has offered to keep order on the quarter deck during our brief absence!"

Jack stood at the rail, watching the French ship closely, searching for the slightest sign that his ruse had been smoked. He had every confidence that his plan would work if he could just get the Mornington within a pistol shot range of the foul bottomed French frigate. The huge size, stout well built and fine oak timbers of the Indiaman would guarantee enough momentum for a crushing well directed blow...

"Doctor, would you kindly hail the French and persuade them to let us come alongside within pistol shot distance. After that you must go to your station, we shall have some broken omelettes shortly and no mistake!"

[pgb-w] Deep in the hold, that clean, sweet-smelling, sturdy hold of the Mornington, a bale of silk, smouldering since the younger Miss M. had dropped a dark lantern seized in the mad dash to the hold when the dastardly Destines came aboard and knocked poor Captain Spottiswood on the head, finally burst into flames. Stacked next to it were two kegs, not of peppercorns as the rest of the cargo, but of best Red Number One. The loading superintendent at Shanghai had turned to watch the elegant Misses Moseley go aboard, missing an opium-fuddled coolie taking two kegs from one of the arsenal's carts that had paused to let the Moseley carriage through.

Red Number One came to ignition. The hold was like a giant mortar, bales of silk forming a natural throat. Three dozen kegs of peppercorns blasted through the hatch cover, and, sucked out in the great vacuum created by the explosion, dozens of unraveling bolts of silk. Cobalt, tangerine, aquamarine, iridescent silvers, figured golds and reds, great streamers of green and saffron all leapt upward in perfect parabolic trails, two and three hundred feet high. And in the centre of the blossoming silken plumes a comet's head of pulverised peppercorns, also describing a fine parabola, rose and fell to earth exactly on the quarterdeck of Le Destin De L'Homme.

Choking, sneezing, eyes streaming, the French frigate's officers fell writhing to the deck. The hands at its wheel pulled in every direction, quite blinded. As the pepper spread, all aft were rendered quite helpless. In one of those shrewd grasps at the main chance that would mark his rise in the Navy and carry him to Admiral of the Fleet one day, Bramwell-Wesley drove the Surprise's bowsprit across the frigate's taffrail. Shrieking with all his might, he led a boarding party onto the poop, yanked down the ensign, and began jumping up and down on the spluttering French Captain: "Yield, Sir! Yield!" he shrieked. French sailors less affected by the pepper-bomb rallied on the fo'castle and began to move aft, threatening the attackers hold on the frigate.

Miss Moseley, senses at the highest pitch, spun Mornington's great wheel, swinging the heavy Indiaman to starboard, and thrusting its sprit right across the frigate's midships, thwarting any further advance. Quick-witted Surprises hauled their ship 'til it was head to stern with the French frigate, poured onto the forecastle, and caught the remaining resistance between an exultant Bramwell-Wesley's party and themselves.

The Mornington's boarding party had been blown into the sea by the eruption in the hold: Jack, Pullings, Stephen in his borrowed finery, lascars and Company men. They clung now to the streamers of silk, settled onto the surface, adrift in a kaleidoscope ocean.

A soaked Jack finally hauled himself up Le Destin's side and to the quarterdeck.

"Sir, she's mine, sir! Mine!" BeDub piped. Then: "I mean: Ours, sir, of course."

"Thankee, Mr Bramwell-Wesley. Give you joy of your capture," Jack managed to reply.

The Surprises, with ever-growing numbers of dripping reinforcements climbing aboard, soon had the French crew below hatches. And soon the three ships were disentangled and disposed on the sea in a more seemly fashion, Miss Moseley (elder) having reluctantly gave up the Mornington's helm.

"Look at the silks, sir!" young BeDub cried. "They are like a great rainbow on the sea!"

"Yes," Jack replied: paused — then, his face suffused with bliss, went on — "And your prize, Mister, is the pepper-pot at the end of the rainbow!"

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