Travel Agency: Scouts, part 2 of 6

“Dear body-borrower,

“I hope you have fun in my body and my world, but not too much fun, if you know what I mean.”

This story is set, with Morpheus' permission, in his Travel Agency universe.

Travel Agency: Scouts

Part 2 of 6

by Trismegistus Shandy

This story is set, with Morpheus' permission, in the same setting as his story “The Travel Agency” and its three sequels. Thanks to Morpheus for his feedback on the first draft.

The original stories and this one need not be read in any particular order.

“I’m a girl!” exclaimed one of the young women who was holding her breasts.

“We all are, apparently,” said the much calmer voice of the woman who was looking around the room. “Surely you considered the possibility? There was that woman we spoke to who became a man while she was here...”

“Never mind,” Tariq said. “I’m just happy to have legs again! I haven’t been able to pee standing up for the last six years anyway...”

“You must be Tariq,” said the other woman who had been touching her breasts — though now she hastily stopped and put her hands on her hips. “I’m ul-Kalsim.”

“I’m ul-Balimmu,” said the woman who’d been looking around, turning her attention to ul-Kalsim.

“I’m Tvalenn,” said the other woman who was still cupping her breasts, twisting and looking behind her — at her missing camel-hindquarters, Tariq supposed.

“And you are the Gray One,” said the fourth woman, who had been looking straight at the older woman the whole time, and bowed to her.

“Yes,” said the gray-haired woman. “I see I must teach my servant Barsiq to recognize a mage when he sees one. But no harm done. I mean you and your sultan no harm. I will allow you a few more minutes to become accustomed to your bodies; you may come out when you are ready.” And with that, she withdrew through the only door in the room, taking her staff with her.

“I was resigned to being human,” Tvalenn fumed, “but a woman...!”

“Calm down,” ul-Kalsim said, taking a deep breath herself. “As ul-Balimmu said, we should have been prepared for the possibility that some of us might get female bodies... I feared as much, though I did not expect we would all be female, or so young. How can we pursue our investigations in such low-status forms?”

“Come, ul-Kalsim, we are clever and resourceful,” said Tariq. “We will learn much — perhaps even more than we could in men’s bodies, if we adapt to our new selves quickly and use our advantages well. — O Subtle One: is it your professional opinion that we are not hallucinating?”

“We certainly are not,” she replied. “Or if we are, it is a finely detailed hallucination created by magic far beyond my powers. We weren’t simply drugged with something Barsiq put in our drinks. Indeed...” She looked around, puzzled. “There is so little ambient magic, I don’t know how the Gray One, powerful as she is, managed to bring us here. Certainly she could have brought nothing material over, and even bringing our souls must have taken incredible skill and great effort.”

“Well,” Tariq said, “let’s go. Or do you wish to ‘become accustomed to your bodies’ for a while longer?”

“Not here,” ul-Kalsim said. “You’re right; we must do the best we can in these bodies.”

All five were young and healthy, as Barsiq had said. Tariq’s borrowed body, and the Subtle One’s, were a little darker of skin than their original bodies, with black hair; the other three had much lighter skin, almost pale, and ul-Kalsim and Tvalenn had yellow or whitish-yellow hair, while ul-Balimmu’s was a light brown. It was hard to judge of their height, with no familiar objects to compare them to, but ul-Balimmu was the shortest of them and the Subtle One the tallest, with Tariq somewhere in the middle. Most of them, including Tariq, had small handbags on long straps hanging from their shoulders.

Tariq led the way from the room, marveling at the play of the muscles in her legs and hips. The way she walked in this body was not the way he had walked before he was bitten by a ghoul and had to have his legs amputated before the rot spread to his torso, but it was deliciously wonderful.

The door led to a short hallway; Tariq heard low voices coming from her right, and went that way. She found the Gray One speaking with another young woman, about the same age as Tariq’s new body, in a large room whose walls were covered with brightly-colored pictures. Some of the pictures reminded her of some of the places he had seen in his travels as a young man; verdant forests, sandy beaches, snow-capped mountains... Others were strange, so strange that it was hard to make out what if anything they represented.

“Here they are,” said the Gray One. “Honored visitors, this is Melanie. She will be your guide during your stay in this world.”

“Hi,” said Melanie. “I’m sure we’ll have a blast.”

“I’m sure,” Tariq murmured, becoming suddenly aware that she and the others, since their arrival in these bodies, had not been speaking the chief language of the sultanate, nor Sikva, nor the dialect of the foothills, nor any language of their world. It was only when Melanie spoke, using that curious colloquialism, that Tariq became aware of it. (When she said the word “blast” Tariq saw a vague mental image of fireworks, superimposed on a group of young people drinking and feasting.)

The others followed her down the hall into the main room, and Tariq introduced them. Melanie smiled at each of them and repeated their names, pronouncing most of them more or less correctly. But then she said: “You might want to learn the names of the girls whose bodies you’re wearing. And when we’re in public, call each other by those names — your world’s names will sound strange to people who don’t know where you’re from.”

“Of course,” Tariq said, for whom assumed names lasting only the duration of a mission were nothing new. The others agreed as readily.

Tariq’s body, it turned out, belonged to a young woman named Keisha. Ul-Kalsim was to be called Stephanie; ul-Balimmu, Natalie; Tvalenn, Rae Nan; and the Subtle One, Lauren.

“And, Keisha — you don’t mind if I start calling you that now?”

“Of course — it will help me learn to answer to it.”

“Indeed,” said ul-Kalsim — Stephanie — “let’s use those names among ourselves for as long as we’re here. Let there be no slip-ups, people.”

Melanie looked surprised at Stephanie’s serious tone, but went on: “So — Keisha, the girl whose body you were wearing gave me a note for you. Here it is.” She took a slip of paper from the high desk at which she stood and handed it to Keisha.

“I’ve got one for you, too, Natalie,” Melanie said, as Keisha read her note:

“Dear body-borrower,

“I hope you have fun in my body and my world, but not too much fun, if you know what I mean. You’re welcome to sleep in my apartment and wear my clothes, and eat the food in my kitchen (within reason; don’t open any bottles of wine that aren’t already open, that stuff’s expensive here), but don’t move stuff around so I can’t find it when I get back. And don’t you dare have sex in my body. I promise not to have sex while I’m in yours, — unless your people have Pon-Farr or something while I’m there and I can’t help it. Anyway. My credit card is maxed out just now from paying Ms. G. for the vacation, so don’t try to use it, but I have some cash in my purse that should last you a week if you don’t waste it and mostly eat from the groceries I have at home. Most of my friends have gone to Fort Lauderdale for Spring Break, except the ones who are going to your world with me, and my boyfriend, who’s gone home to visit his parents this week. He might be back before I am; if so, or if you meet anybody else who knows me and thinks you’re me, pretend you’re in a hurry and say you’ll talk to them next week. If my phone rings, just let it go to voice mail. Never mind, I’ll just turn it off before I go.

“Your host,

“Keisha Grant.”

“I understood most of that, I think,” Tariq said, reflecting that she’d magically acquired a knowledge of this language’s written form as well, though that part of the spell didn’t seem to work perfectly. “But there are many things that puzzle me.”

“What parts?” Melanie asked. “Do you mind if I look...?” Tariq held it out to her and pointed in turn to a few words and phrases that baffled her.

“Let’s see — credit card, that’s a sort of tool for buying things without having to carry coins around. Like keeping a tab at an inn, sort of. Pon-Farr — um —” Melanie blushed. “It’s a long story. An allusion to a famous play... Um, don’t some of the peoples in your world have sex only at certain times of year, and then they can hardly stop themselves? Merfolk, for instance? Not like humans or elves, who can take it or leave it any time.”

“I’ve heard of merfolk, but never met any — I wouldn’t know. I’m human myself, as are, um, Stephanie and Lauren. Rae Nan is a — um —” She hesitated, not finding a ready word in this language she was speaking, and coined an ad-hoc compound: “a camel-centaur. And Natalie is an ifrit.” That word wasn’t quite right either, but it was a closer fit than simply calling Tvalenn a “centaur”, which here seemed to refer exclusively to the horse-men of the north.

“Cool...! Anyway, if you’re a human your body should be fine when you get back; she’s not going to get you knocked up or diseased while you’re gone... What else? Oh, her phone. It’s a little machine for talking to people a long way away. You don’t know anybody here but me, and I’ll be with you for most of the day every day, so you probably won’t need it, but I’ll show you how to make an emergency call... Spring Break? That’s a time when college students have a week of vacation — right now, in fact.”

Tariq put the pieces together. “Then these bodies we wear, these women whose souls are now in our bodies — they are scholars?”

Melanie laughed nervously. “I don’t know about scholars, but they’re all students, yeah. And Stephanie there, I mean the real Stephanie, she’s a lot better student than I ever was — I don’t know about the rest, they’re Stephanie’s friends, not mine.”

Tariq wondered why Keisha’s other friends would be traveling to a fortress during this vacation from their studies; perhaps to carry on affairs of gallantry with the soldiers? But many other questions drove that one out of her mind, and she never did find out. ul-Balimmu — Natalie — had been puzzling over her note from her body’s original inhabitant, and conferring with the Gray One and the other scouts over the unfamiliar words. They looked up now and Stephanie said to Tariq:

“Keisha, what does yours say?”

She showed her commander the note. Stephanie wrinkled her nose and said, “I have no intention of sleeping with a man; they have no reason to fear that we will defile their bodies... What’s this about the ‘credit card’?”

Tariq explained. “What about the note from, ah, Natalie? What did it say?”

Stephanie said, “Natalie says we shouldn’t stay in the ‘dorms;’ apparently that is a lodging house for young scholars — female scholars, can you imagine? She recommends that we all stay over at Keisha and Lauren’s apartment ‘off-campus,’ a mile from the university, during our stay. She thinks too many people will recognize us if we stay at the student lodgings.”

“That could be awkward,” Tariq said. “We might blow our cover if we meet someone who knows the real Keisha or Stephanie.”

“You’ve all got driver’s licenses, and Stephanie at least owns a car,” Melanie said — again puzzling the visitors with the imperfect way the language-acquisition spell seemed to have worked — “but none of you know how to drive, Ms. G.'s acclimation spell isn’t that thorough. We’ll just leave Stephanie’s car in the parking lot the whole time, and I’ll drive you around, or we’ll take the bus and subway.”

“I understood very little of that,” Tariq said, after exchanging puzzled glances with the other scouts, “except that you will arrange for our transportation during our stay...?”

“Yes, exactly. Let’s go — we’ve got time to see several neat things before I drop you off at Keisha’s apartment for the night.”

“Good day,” the Gray One said. “I will see you back here in six days. Melanie, call me at once if anything goes wrong.”

“Sure thing, Ms. G.” The young woman turned toward the outer door, beckoning to her charges.

“Wait,” Stephanie said, panicking. “We can’t go out like this, can we? I mean — we’re hardly dressed. Where are our veils?”

“Women don’t wear veils here,” Melanie said, turning back. “You’re fine the way you are — that’s how the girls your bodies belong to were dressed when they got here, how lots of women dress in this weather.”

“It does seem strange,” Tariq said, when she saw that Stephanie was still hesitating, “but even in our world, the women of the north do not wear veils. We must trust our guide to tell us how women such as we appear to be dress here.” She followed Melanie out the door, and the others followed her.

They stepped outside the office and looked around. Tvalenn — Rae Nan — said, “Where are the tall buildings we were told about?”

The building they had just come out of appeared to be a single story, with one section that rose to perhaps two stories. It had many large glass windows, but other than that was not greatly different from some of the buildings Tariq had seen in foreign countries in his travels. The forecourt of the building was paved with some black substance marked with white lines; oddly shaped carts, painted in bright colors and with glass windows, were scattered around it, but Tariq didn’t at the moment see any of them rolling along faster than a gazelle under their own power. In the distance she could see other buildings, in unfamiliar architectural styles, but none higher than two or three stories.

“I suppose you’ve talked to some other travelers?” Melanie asked. “— This way, please. Yes, we have some really tall buildings here, but not in this neighborhood. We just moved to this office in the suburbs from a place downtown, where the tallest buildings in the city are. — Here,” she said, having led them to one of the larger carts in the forecourt, a silvery-gray thing with a smoothly rounded front end. “I get to drive the company minivan all week.” She took keys from a pocket and unlocked two doors in the side of the cart, gesturing for the scouts to climb in.

“Wait,” she said, “I just remembered — we need to get Stephanie, Natalie and Rae Nan’s suitcases out of Stephanie’s car, so you’ll have something to wear when you’re staying over at Lauren and Keisha’s apartment. Stephanie, can you get your keys out of your purse?”

Stephanie dug around among the things in her purse and finally came up with a ring of finely-tooled keys. It took some time to figure out which of the cars was Stephanie’s, and which of the keys on the ring would open it, but finally they got three large semi-rigid bags and put them in the back of the “company minivan.”

There were two benches in the back of the “minivan,” which word Tariq recognized as a specialized term for cars of this particular shape; she vaguely felt that she knew many other words for differently shaped and purposed cars, but couldn’t remember them at the moment. Tariq wound up sitting in a chair in the front of the minivan, next to Melanie, while the others situated themselves on the back benches.

“Fasten your seatbelts,” Melanie said. “Like this,” and she demonstrated. Tariq could see her clearly, and followed suit, but most of those in the back couldn’t see and took longer to figure out what to do. When they were all secured, Melanie turned a key in a lock on the side of a wheel, and there was a sudden loud noise, at which nearly all of them shrieked — then looked at one another in embarrassment as Melanie laughed.

“That’s just the engine starting up,” she said. “Nothing to be afraid of. Come on, I’ll take you downtown to see the skyscrapers.”

The minivan started moving, slowly at first, and then, as Melanie steered it out of the “parking lot” (Tariq suddenly remembered the word), into the street, faster and faster. Tariq gasped; she was getting conflicting information from her different senses, her sight telling her that the landscape and the other carts in the street were moving past at an incredible speed, while she felt no wind in her face such as she would feel on the back of a galloping camel... Of course, that was what the glass windows were for. Without them the wind would be so great at this speed that they could hardly breathe.

“How does it go?” the Subtle One asked no one in particular. “There’s not enough magic around to move something this massive! And I don’t sense any spells on the wheels or body of the carriage...”

“It’s not magic at all, Lauren,” Melanie said. “We don’t have any magic here, except the Gray One’s spells. And they only work in certain places, and sometimes those places move around — that’s why we had to move recently, the patch of magic around our downtown office shifted and we had to follow it.”

“Then how does this minivan move, without any animal pulling it?” Tvalenn asked.

“I don’t really know,” Melanie said. “I told you, I wasn’t a good student, especially not at science. I vaguely remember the term ‘internal combustion’ from my high school science classes, but I can’t tell you what it means.”

“Can you take us to someone who knows?” Tariq asked.

“Maybe... Natalie said you should stay away from the university in case somebody recognizes your faces. But — oh, I know. We’ll go to the Science and Technology Museum tomorrow. Does that sound interesting?”

Strange echoes resounded in Tariq’s mind when she heard the words “science” and “technology.” She wasn’t sure what they meant, but she knew they were important. “Yes,” she said at once, a moment before ul-Kalsim said the same.

Tariq had thought the minivan was moving at an incredible speed before, but soon Melanie turned them off the wide street they had first entered into a much vaster road, wide enough for four of the self-moving carts to go abreast, and increased their speed even more. Tariq gripped her seat tightly and said nothing, though she watched the large signs raised on stout poles above the sides of the road, and the increasingly tall buildings visible in the distance, and stored up questions to ask later when she wasn’t so nervous. From the silence, it seemed that the others were similarly affected.

The tall buildings grew closer and more numerous, until they were surrounded by them. After a short time Melanie turned them out of the wide road into a narrower street, and said: “Ah, the joys of finding a parking place downtown... Say, I thought you guys would have more questions. You’ve been awfully quiet.”

Natalie said: “We — at least I was savoring the experience of flying and sitting still at the same time. It was exhilarating.”

“Exhilarating?” Lauren said in a strangled tone. “I felt like I would be sick, going so fast...” They had already slowed down a great deal, and were frequently stopping and starting, as this street was much busier than the wide road they had been on.

“Oh, I’m sorry. Some people are affected that way; I tend to forget. The last couple of visitors I was guide for enjoyed the speed, like Natalie. I’ll try to stay off the expressway for the rest of your visit... Ah, here’s a good place.” She turned the minivan off of the street into a high, wide open door leading into a dark building, full of cars, minivans and similar vehicles; after circling around for a while, she found an empty space between two of the others and stopped the minivan.

“Here we are,” she said, unfastening her seat belt and opening her door. “I figure we’ll walk around downtown for a while, eat supper, maybe go dancing, before I take you to Keisha and Lauren’s apartment.”

“The dancing will not be necessary,” Stephanie said. “We are here to explore and learn.”

“All right, what else do you want to do...?” Melanie opened the other doors and let her passengers out; Lauren and Rae Nan looked ill, and Tariq was glad to be on her feet again — just having feet was such a wonderful novelty, even if they were a woman’s feet.

“First, find a privy,” Lauren said.

“Oh!” Natalie said, her eyebrows raising. “I think I need that too.”

“All right, there’s a public restroom in the Macy’s, just up the block. Come on.”

They followed Melanie through the dimly-lit building to a metal door, where Melanie pressed a knob, one of several, which lit up. “This is an elevator,” Melanie explained, and Tariq felt a vague idea stir at the sound of the word, but still wasn’t sure what it meant. Moments later the door slid aside and revealed a tiny windowless room.

“Is that the privy?” Lauren asked uncertainly.

“No, silly, come on — it’s easier to show than explain.”

They nervously crowded into the “elevator”, and watched as Melanie pressed another knob — it was labeled with a symbol for the number one, Tariq noticed. The door slid closed, and a moment later they all felt light-headed. Rae Nan started hyperventilating.

“Calm down,” Stephanie said, putting her hand over Rae Nan’s, though she was breathing none too steadily herself.

“I’m sorry,” Melanie said. “Maybe we should have taken the stairs... But see, it’s almost over.” A moment later the light-headed feeling went away and they felt momentarily heavier than normal, then the door slid open. They hurried out and followed Melanie to the high, wide doorway into the street.

There were many people walking this way and that along the sidewalk, and many minivans and other carts rolling along in the street. The traffic was heavy, but seemed orderly to Tariq, with all the cars going in a given direction staying to the same side of the street, and taking turns at intersections to let others pass. The people — every one of them human — were of a wide range of skin and hair colors, most of them lighter-skinned than her but some as dark or darker. Many of the young women were dressed like the scouts, in tight trousers and short-sleeved tunics, but some wore skirts or dresses, many with the hem above the knees, to Tariq’s astonishment and indignation. Some had low-cut tunics or blouses that revealed nearly half of their breasts. Only a handful of them were dressed more modestly than the scouts had found their borrowed bodies dressed, with longer sleeves, looser trousers or higher collars; none wore veils.

“In here,” Melanie said, and led them through a double glass door into a vast open space filled with what turned out to be racks of ready-made clothing in all the styles they had seen on the people in the streets and then some. As they followed Melanie to the privy — which turned out to be a particular kind of privy called a “restroom” — Tariq looked around, and was puzzled to see no tailors or seamstresses working, in spite of the vast amounts of clothing. Nor did she see any bolts of cloth for making the clothes. Melanie led them through an opaque swinging door with the word “Women” emblazoned on it (after so many glass or half-glass doors, and the sliding door of the elevator, Tariq no longer took it for granted that a door would look or function normally), and said:

“I’m not sure if you’ve got indoor plumbing in your part of the world...? They didn’t in the places I’ve visited, but Ms. G. tells me it’s a big place, and some parts of it are more advanced than others...”

“I don’t know the phrase ‘indoor plumbing’,” Lauren said, “so we probably don’t have it. I’ve noticed that the Gray One’s language spell doesn’t give us knowledge of words corresponding to things we don’t have in our world.”

“Yeah, that’s a kink she’s still working out of it. She’s already improved it a lot, though. Our visitors used to have trouble with idioms and figures of speech, but you can handle them fine; it’s just words that don’t match up to concepts you already have that don’t make sense. So, let me show you...” Melanie opened another swinging door, one of several in the room, to reveal a fine chamber-pot, as comfortable as the best in the sultan’s palace, except that it had no backrest. “Sit here and do your business, and when you’re done, press this lever here —” She demonstrated, and there was a whooshing sound. “That flushes it away. Oh, and use the paper on this roll to wipe with. Sorry if I’m explaining anything obvious — I’ve been to several places in your world, but not to your country yet.”

“That is clear enough,” Lauren said. “Excuse me.” She took Melanie’s place in the little sub-chamber and closed the door behind her. Natalie, who had been exploring the room, had already closed herself into another sub-chamber, and moments later Stephanie and Rae Nan decided they ought to do the same. There were only four of the screened-off chamber-pots, so that left Melanie and Tariq alone in the outer room.

“We’d probably better go while we’re here, once some of them are done,” Melanie said. “Some of the smaller places we’ll go tonight won’t have public restrooms.”

“I suppose so,” Tariq said. She was nervously looking forward to having a moment’s privacy and seeing her new legs without the trousers.

“So... do you have any more questions for me about what you’ve seen so far?”

She asked about the clothing-market they had come through on their way to the privy, and learned that it only sold ready-made clothes; the clothes were made in another place far away, a “factory,” and brought here in “trucks,” self-moving wagons like the minivans but far larger. At the word “truck” Tariq suddenly remembered seeing some of them on the “expressway,” though she had not then recognized them or recalled their name.

“Hmm,” Melanie said. “They sure are taking a long time in there...” At that, they heard a low moan and a gasp from one of the stalls — Tariq thought it was Rae Nan’s.

“Ah, I see. Some of them were guys back in your world, weren’t they...?” Melanie smiled knowingly.

“We were all male,” Tariq said. “I thought the Gray One had told you?”

“Oh,” Melanie said, and laughed. “Well, take your time, when they finally give you a turn. I remember the first time I wound up in a guy’s body in your world, I couldn’t wait to get away from my guide for a few minutes and look at my new equipment. I like being a girl better overall, but getting to be a guy sometimes when I visit your world is —”

Just then another woman came into the restroom, about thirty, leading a little girl by the hand. She looked at the closed stall doors and said to her daughter, “Be patient, honey.”

“But I gotta go now,” the little girl whined.

Melanie, who had abruptly stopped talking when the other woman arrived, called out: “Hurry up in there, slowpokes. We’ve got a potty emergency out here.”

The whooshing sound Tariq remembered from earlier followed moments later from a couple of the stalls, and a few moments after that Stephanie opened the door of her stall and stepped out, followed by Lauren a little later.

“You can go first,” Tariq said to the woman with the little girl. The woman thanked her, and led her daughter into the stall Stephanie had vacated.

“So...” Melanie said to Stephanie as Tariq entered the stall Lauren had vacated, “what do you do when you’re at home?”

Tariq heard Stephanie giving Melanie a vague but not entirely untruthful account of ul-Kalsim’s official duties, as she figured out how to latch the door of the stall, then took a deep breath and started fumbling with the fastenings of her trousers. They turned out to have two different fastenings, one easy to undo and the other a little trickier. Finally she pulled down her trousers, then her undergarment — a lacy little thing much smaller than anything he had ever removed from a woman he had loved when he was young and handsome — and sat astride the chamber-pot. It was full of clean-looking water, which surprised her — she hadn’t had a good vantage point when Melanie had been demonstrating the use of it. Was she supposed to pee into that, and defile good water...? But she remembered her youthful travels in the east and the north, and how he had once seen an inlet of the vast ocean; water wasn’t scarce everywhere, and it must be abundant here as it was in some places in her world. She finally relaxed and let out a wide splattery stream of piss.

She tore some paper off of the roll Melanie had shown them — it was much softer than the dried leaves they used at home — and gently dried the pee off her female parts and pubic hair. Then — wondering guiltily for a moment whether someone else might be waiting her turn, like the woman with the little girl — she explored down there with her fingers. She gasped, and decided that anything further could wait for another time. She didn’t want to embarrass herself with loud moans, like Rae Nan; and she’d have six days in this body. Plenty of time to learn more about it later.

When she emerged, Melanie instructed her how to use the washbasins and their faucets which automatically pumped a continuous stream of hot or cold water. Lauren shook her head. “That’s not magic either,” she said. “There’s even less magic available here than there was at the Gray One’s office. I don’t know how they do it.”

“I’m not sure either, but we’ll try to find out tomorrow,” Melanie said. “Everyone done washing up...? Okay, let’s go.”

I'll probably post part three in about a week.

When Wasps Make Honey, the sequel to Wine Can't be Pressed into Grapes, is now available from Amazon in Kindle format and from Smashwords in EPUB format. See here for more information.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License. An earlier version of this story was serialized on the morpheuscabinet and tg_fiction mailing lists in January 2013.

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