Category Archives: Story behind the story

Story Behind the Story: The Savage Year (#SFWApro)

savageyears3-375x600As I mentioned last week, The Savage Year is now out in the online magazine Lorelei Signal with that great illustration by Lee Ann Barlow (all rights to image reside to current holder).

The opening: “Walking past a half-naked couple making out next to a picnic basket, Artemis West wished she could turn invisible. I never thought my first assignment would involve working magic in front of a park full of hippies.

It’s 1968, Robert Kennedy has just been assassinated, and the country is mourning. And as Artemis soon discovers, her job as a Secret Service sorcerer is about to get much more complicated, thanks to a British black magician and a bronze-skinned, golden-eyed drifter, Diana Savage. Whose father is some kind of brilliant scientist and philanthropist, and everyone expects her to follow in his wake. So she’s run away for a summer of love before she heads to college. Only there are innocent people in danger, and in her heart she’s her father’s child …

Why yes, this is the story about Doc Savage’s daughter that I wrote about starting several years ago. As noted at the link, I’d wanted to write about her (or more precisely my version of her) since the early 1980s, but never came up with a story. Then I hit on teaming her up with Art West, great grandson of James West, the hero of Wild Wild West now following family tradition by working for the Secret Service, though as a mage.

That frankly floored me when I reread it. Now that I think about it I can dimly remember Artemus West, but he’s been Artemis and female so long I didn’t remember it any other way (Jim West’s partner was Artemus Gordon. So descendants are stuck with the name). Although as I write a lot of male/female teams, it’s not surprising (I’ve no idea why I switched).I do know the basic concept shaped up early. Mages in the Secret Service actually have a dull gig. All they do is go around and touch up the bindings Native American shamans used to lock various Lovecraftian outsiders away. As long as the mages do their job, the outsiders can’t get out.Except that when Artemis goes to check the local bindings (originally San Francisco, but it eventually shifted to the Midwest) she discovers someone is letting outsiders loose. Which is, of course, bad.

Even with a bronze teenage tornado who fights like ten men (she’s Doc Savage’s daughter. She’s been well-trained) Artemis has a hard time stopping the bad guy.Unfortunately I had no idea what the bad guy planned to do. Or what his plan was — I wanted multiple encounters between his monsters and the women. Or exactly how to stop him. Eventually I figured it out, with the help of Lester Dent’s plotting formula — appropriate as he created Doc. I also trimmed back a lot of the in-jokes. I wanted to make sure that someone who’d never heard of Jim West or Doc Savage could still enjoy the story. That meant avoiding anything that would make readers stop and go “Huh? What’s that supposed to refer to?” There’s one reference to Artemis’ family (creepy uncle Herbert West, from an HP Lovecraft story) but nothing more. Perhaps if there’s a next time …Then I shared it with some beta-readers who made some good suggestions. First, that as the malevolent Covenant-Price doesn’t appear until the end, it’s hard to build him as an antagonist. Now he’s in multiple scenes. Second, that there were places I needed to make things even weirder in a couple of places. I think I succeeded.Lorelei Signal is free, so go ahead and check it out. Especially my contribution.


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Story Behind the Story: Nuclear Winter (#SFWApro)

tangent-nuclear-winter-coverOops, despite having the RPG module Nuclear Winter (artist Chandra Reyer, all rights to cover image with current holders) come out last month I didn’t get around to doing a Story Behind the Story. But better late than never, right? Or you can just go now and download the game for a small fee. Just saying.

Some years back I’d picked up a copy of the Beyond the Supernatural game and I liked it. For those who don’t know, it’s a modern-set RPG in which the players are mages or psychics of various kinds. For those who’d rather be a two-fisted physical type there’s the nega-psychic (protective psychic shields rather than active powers) and the Natural (channels psychic energy into some mundane area, making them phenomenally strong, acrobatic, etc.).

My initial thought was for a game set in the Victorian era, but it never got off the ground — at the time I didn’t have enough people to play. Gaming has always been something I’ve done within my circle of friends (or circles, as they shifted over time) and there weren’t enough friends ready to play at the time.

Later, for reasons that now escape me, I began to think about the potential for running a 1930s version instead. And even though I didn’t have anyone to play with, an idea for the first campaign formed in my head (I GMed for a decade, so maybe it’s not surprising I keep thinking of “ooh, that would be a good campaign”). “White Russians” — supporters of the Tsar during the Russian revolution — were a staple of 1930s movies, typically as hangers-on using their aristocratic connections to spunge off rich socialites. And there were in the real world no shortage of pretenders to the Russian throne, people who claimed to be the last of the Romanovs.

So my villain would be one such count. An arrogant man who tops the other pretenders by claiming he’s not only heir to the Russian throne but a descendant of the Rus, the Vikings who founded the nation. Of course, he’s telling the truth. And as it happens, the Rus included some warriors descended from the frost giants. My villain would be descended from them, an ice mage who’s come to New York with a mission. Somewhere in town lies a magical talisman that will enable him to summon his frost giant kin to Earth, unleash an apocalyptic Fimbulwinter and make him king of a frozen world.

Other than wondering occasionally if I could turn that into a premise for a story, I did nothing with it. Then one of my writing-group friends put me in touch with Curtis Baum at D3 Adventures. I wound up suggesting my ice mage idea for one of the Tangent modules. These are designed as one-evening quickies, easy to customize to an existing set of PCs and to whatever game system the GM uses. Reworking my idea, I scaled things down and simplified them. Count Belorsky is just a Russian ice mage and Tsar Nicholas’ bastard son; his goal is to freeze Russia long enough for conquest, not to bring on a new ice age. Though as a test for his powers, he’ll freeze over New York first.

I had fun fleshing out Belorsky, his hulking bodyguard Tolstoy (shamelessly inspired by Dr. Loveless’ brutal aide Voltaire in Wild, Wild West) and adding a new character, a millionaire descended from Russian peasants. He despises the aristocratic, arrogant count and vice versa. Getting down the gaming details — settings, maps, progression from one encounter to another — was a lot more work, but I’m pleased with the results. Hopefully y’all will be too.

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Story Behind the Story: Where Angels Fear to Lunch (#SFWApro)

51hohliwyclSo 12 years  ago, Where Angels Fear to Lunch came out in Realms of Fantasy. And now it’s out again, courtesy of Digital Fantasy Fiction (image by brunogm, all rights to image reside with current holder)So as usual, here’s the story of the story’s genesis.

As near as I can remember, it started with the image of an angel walking into a PI’s office (“It never bodes well when an angel shows up at my office first thing before breakfast.” is the opening line—I think it was there from the start). Then I started writing and came up with a plot that involved rebel angels hoping to succeed where Lucifer failed, a break-in in Heaven and … I don’t remember what else. Suffice to say while I kept the rebel-angel hook, it plays out very differently than in the early drafts.

And then at some point my hardboiled protagonist (very 1930s in style, even though the story took place in the 1990s), turned into Al Soares, the Wandering Jew (yes, the same Al who appeared recently in No Good Deed Goes Unpunished over at Crimson Streets). Pissed off that for one smart-mouth crack at the Messiah, he was sentenced to walk the Earth forever, feeling ill-used and unjustly treated, and doing what he could to balance the scales for others. And quite experienced at moving through the strange supernatural world of the Big Apple. It seemed to fit perfectly with the classic, cynical, hardboiled gumshoes of the 1930s, so I went with it.

And I threw in one little detail of religious history that I’d thought about for years. But I can’t detail it without blowing a big twist.

The story sold fairly quickly (well, for me) to Realms of Fantasy, my first sale of the 21st century (and second most profitable, they paid pro rates). Regrettably I was never able to sell to ’em again, but still, it was a big boost to my spirits (and yeah, the money didn’t hurt either).

And a few years later I had the pleasant surprise of hearing someone in an online discussion quote the story, which she didn’t know was mine. The discussion was on the way writers can show the signs of something uncanny happening (e.g., the classic of dogs snarling at the person who’s actually a demon or an ET) and she paraphrased my line—after the angel has assured Al that his presence is completely cloaked—”Outside my window, I could see a skinhead and a Black Muslim helping Rabbi Gould’s mother across the street; Maeriel’s presence was about as subtle as the ten plagues.”

If you read both this and No Good Deed you may notice the two Al’s seem very different. No Good Deed is set in the 1930s, Al’s much more mundane, and not enmeshed in the supernatural. He’s a burn-out with no interest in helping balance anything. And he’s also much more Jewish. While I can’t say I designed his character arc, I did have in mind that the second story represents a turning point, setting him on the path to becoming the guy in Angels. And that his attitude to God, religion, Judaism and Christianity tends to swing wildly over the centuries (I don’t spell this out, but it’s definitely in my head) as he tries to make sense of an act that really doesn’t fit a just God.

And now I’m thinking of a third story, something set maybe in the 1960s when Al’s in yet another mood … But until that comes out, read one of his stories, or both.

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The Story Behind the Story: No Good Deed Goes Unpunished (#SFWApro)

wandering-jew-1914.jpg!LargeAs I mentioned Sunday, my short story No Good Deed Goes Unpunished is now live at Crimson Streets. So here the backstory (illustration: The Wandering Jew by Marc Chagall, courtesy of Wikiart. All rights to image with current holder) on how I came to write it, and why I’m illustrating this post with the Wandering Jew’s image.

And by the way, this post will have some minor spoilers for the story, so you may want to go read it first. I shall follow this line with some blank space so you can now look away.




The first idea was inspired by a freelance spy who popped in DC in the 1980s, code-named the Bad Samaritan. My friend Ross made a passing comment which made me think of using the same name for a different villain, one who murders people for doing good deeds (“Just think of me as—a Bad Samaritan.”). I liked it but of course I had to come up with a reason for him to be doing this.

One I seized on was the Jewish legend of the 36 Lame Wufniks (I’ve heard other names used for them). The myth is that 36 people in the world are chosen to live lives of goodness, charity and compassion, thereby reminding God of our potential. Because of this, he doesn’t lose it at the behavior of so many other people and rain down fire or flood on us. So what if someone started targeting the Wufniks, killing them so that God would lose it?

And if that were the concept, the protagonist would obviously be Al Soares, the Wandering Jew. In my first published short story this century, “Where Angels Fear to Lunch” (in Realms of Fantasy, my biggest market to date), I had presented the Wandering Jew as a hardboiled PI, a cynic who nevertheless works to balance the scales and protect people he thinks got the shaft the way he did when he was cursed for mocking Jesus on the way to the crucifixion (“One lousy joke, that was all. I didn’t kick him, I didn’t fling cow patties like Simon the Zealot, so why me?”).

But that still left me with the problem of what the villain’s end game would be? And how exactly would he achieve it? After all, the Wufniks aren’t immortal, thousands of them have died through the centuries, so why would these deaths be any different? Suffice to say I worked all that out and it’s woven into the story.

In so doing, the Bad Samaritan became a somewhat smaller part of things. Instead it became very much an origin for the Wandering Jew’s decision to start lighting a candle rather than cursing the darkness. The original ending was very consciously written to set that up; after my friend M. David Blake pointed that out (in the course of turning it down for Straeon Quarterly (not the exact issue shown at the link) I rewrote it so while it was still a launching pad it was less obvious. And I shifted the character Al has his final conversation with, which for various reasons worked much better.

Al is considerably more Jewish here than in the first story, which is set in 1996. My thinking is that he probably goes through cycles of rejecting the implication of his curse—that Jesus was in fact the son of God—and reluctantly accepting it, then rejecting it again (after all, why would a divine being inflict a fate as cruel as this?). If I do another story, set between the two, we’ll see where he stands then.

In the meantime, you have this one. Go read.


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The Story Behind the Story: Signs and Hortense (#SFWApro)

29459858-1So as I mentioned yesterday, my short story “Signs and Hortense” has just been reprinted from Arkham Tales (2009) in ELDRITCH EMBRACES (available from Smashwords or Amazon). And as usual, here’s how it came to be (cover art by Ignacio Cariman, all rights to current holder).

Some credit for this one goes to Fred Clark of the Slacktivist blog. For several years he’s been working through the Tim LaHaye/Jerry Jenkins Left Behind series, analyzing them scene-by-scene on his blog (posts on the first book are now available as The Anti-Christ Handbook). Clark fundamentally disagrees with La Haye’s view of the Bible, the endtimes and politics, and he also rips into the sub-part writing.

For a long time I was a regular commenter at Slacktivist (not so easy now that I can’t surf the web on someone else’s dime). During one discussion, someone wondered what the Rapture would look like in a Lovecraftian universe, and that got me thinking …

My first attempts, as far as I can remember, focused on a parody of the Left Behind books, but somewhere along the way it started to change in multiple ways. For one, I took it a step further—it wasn’t simply a Lovecraftian Rapture but a Lovecraftian Christianity. The worship of the Old Ones is the mainstream religion, broken up into various churches such as “Dunwich Traditional” and “Strange High Church of Mists,” and with the same kind of books predicting the end times that spring up in Christianity in our world (only here, of course, based on interpreting the Necronomicon rather than the Bible).

A second change was in the lead character. I’d started Hortense out as a judgmental prude, but she began turning sympathetic. I’d read accounts of people struggling to break away from their fundamentalist upbringing; she was someone who hadn’t broken away, insisted she didn’t want or need to, but deep down, under it all … And the key to breaking away may be a charming man who insists on walking through the walls she’s put up against the world.

Despite the sadness of Hortense’ plight, this is a comedy, with a lot of Lovecraftian in-jokes and references. I still enjoy looking over it; hopefully y’all will too.



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The Story Behind the Story: Kernel of Truth (#SFWApro)

My story Kernel of Truth is now out at Kzine. So as usual, here’s the background.

The story had its roots in Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which included a lengthy discussion of our crazy farm policy. To take one example, the reason corn and corn meal and corn syrup is in so many things is that our agriculture policy pays good subsidies for corn. So much so that farmers can’t help but plant lots of it, because that’s where the money is. So the food industry then has to use the corn surplus.

I started to wonder if there wasn’t a hidden agenda behind our national agriculture policies (I think it’s SOP for writer’s minds to imagine hidden agendas behind things). And of course, hidden agendas require someone take action if the agenda is exposed, or threatened … and so we open the story with a US senator very very dead, and not accidentally. And we bring on my er, heroes, Det. Suarez and Hal Whitcomb, Vice-President of Security for the “big agro” firm GreenLife.

I don’t think I’ve ever had two less appealing protagonists. Both careerists, willing to do what it takes to get along, even if what it takes isn’t perfectly ethical. Neither one particularly skilled—Suarez is competent, Whitcomb’s a management type (I have known good management types. He is not one). I think at some level I was influenced by an article written by John Westermann years ago in Writers Digest where he commented that if your protagonists are stumblebums and losers, it’s no surprise they miss all the clues.

Another influence was my politics. Everything I’ve ever read convinces me that despite the endless right-wing cries for government to be “run like a business,” big business isn’t much better, and no, people who get big salaries and corner offices are often not super-achievers and wealth-producers (it’s been known for at least 20 years that CEO pay doesn’t track performance). So my take on the inner workings of GreenLife is somewhat jaundiced.

This is my third story out this year. That really makes me look forward to getting back to fiction writing next month.

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The Story Behind the Story: Leave the World to Darkness (#SFWApro)

get-attachmentThe anthology Love, Time, Space, Magic (cover by Elizabeth Hirst, all rights to current holder) is just out (on Createspace now and Smashwords soon), with my story Leave the World to Darkness included (I even got a back cover blurb, woo-hoo!)

I don’t remember the title of the book on shadows that triggered my ideas, but I remember the point: shadows are stronger in the age of electric light than they’ve ever been. In firelight or candle light, shadows are flickering indeterminate things. In electric light, a shadow is fixed, sharply defined, stable.

As soon as I read that, a voice whispered in my head, “And that’s just the way someone wanted it.” Because what could make shadow magic more powerful?

My first version of the story had a researcher explaining to her boyfriend that Edison was rumored to be some kind of black magician behind his public facade, that he’d used electric light to make shadows more powerful. And then at the end—it turns out she’s right, and the shadows kill her, OMG!

This is a traditional SF structure: Person tells wildly implausible theory. Theory turns out to be true. Bad, probably fatal things result. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work very well unless the theory is absolutely brilliant (I think Henry Kuttner’s “Don’t Look Now” qualifies) and even then, I think most people can see the ending twist coming. Who’s going to devote all that exposition to something that doesn’t turn out to be true?

So I began rewriting, building up the shadow cult, adding characters, adding more plot (researcher is lost in the shadow world. Can boyfriend get her back?). Along the way Edison became a good guy, fighting against the shadow wizards.

Still didn’t work. I began doing some flashback to Edison in the past and that helped. Doing research on Edison (nothing too deep) added some details, and also the title. Like many people of his day, Edison loved James Grey’s “Elegy Written in a County Churchyard” so I adapted one of the lines (“Leave the world to darkness and to me.”) for the title (I think my working title was “I Have a Little Shadow That Goes In and Out With Me”)

Finally, for reason I can’t know recall, I dropped the present day researcher and switched to a 1930s setting. My protagonist became Aggie Baxter, a reporter stuck with the sob sister beat (heart-tugging human interest stuff) and burning to do something bigger. Tagging along is her very wealthy boyfriend Rod Ducourt (of the Delaware Ducourts). Ahead is a whole boatload of trouble …

I love Aggie, and I love the 1930s (at least as a fictional setting) and everything seemed to click at last. Of course after sending it out and getting feedback, I had more changes to make. I cut the opening with Edison so that Aggie and Rod lead off the story. I also made Rod a little stronger: Aggie was still taking point, but rereading it I realized I wanted it clear that Rod will back her up, no matter how much danger or craziness she leads him into.

And when I saw the announcements for the anthology (thanks, Ralan!) I realized that the rewriting had made this into a love story, so why not give it a shot?

And obviously it worked.

I’ll have guest blogs from a couple of my fellow authors posted over the next week, and one by editor Liz Hirst herself.


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The Story Behind the Story: And He Bought a Crooked Cat (#SFWApro)

getPartAnd He Bought a Crooked Cat is now out in the e-anthology (POD coming later) REJECTED (don’t have credits for cover image, but all rights are with current holder). It’s very satisfying as the first page or two of the story go back well over 20 years.

I don’t remember what prompted it, but back in the late 1980s (IIRC) I came up with a scene in which a young man follows a grotesquely disfigured cat down a narrow, twisty street. At the end of it, a crooked old man informs the protagonist that having walked a crooked mile, he has to buy the crooked cat. Unfortunately, that was as far as I got with the concept.

I do remember trying several angles on the lead to give him some sort of character arc. He’d just had a bad break-up. Or she hadn’t even realized he was into her (this might just possibly have been drawn from some personal experience). But I still couldn’t figure out why the crooked cat would show up, what happened next, or why anyone would care.

I think the idea of nursery rhyme characters as a chaotic, nonsense-force trapped in the rhymes manifested before my final protagonist, Paul. Once that idea came to me, I started playing the chaos opposite an era that looked staid, nonchaotic, sober—the 1950s. Only underneath there was all this chaos and restlessness, and now the rhymes had returned … And slowly Paul took shape. A writer/editor, serious, intelligent, and depressingly middle-aged at 25. Staid. Afraid to take a chance.

And then the crooked cat showed up. And four and twenty blackbirds plucked off someone’s nose. And the kittens showed up at the door asking for pie …

My initial ending drove home the subtext of the story rather explicitly. I wavered back and forth on that and eventually decided by best friend Cindy was right and cut the explicitness out. The story, which had bounced to multiple venues by this sort, still kept bouncing back. Finally last year I sent it to rejected and … success!

Click on the link above to purchase.

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The Story Behind the Story: Affairs of Honor (#SFWApro)

No reviews today, either—I just discovered my historical fantasy Affairs of Honor is out on Abyss and Apex. In fact, it’s been out since summer but when I got the check, I assumed they were paying early and never checked (why yes, I am sometimes a doofus). So here’s the backstory on how it came to be written.

The story was inspired by a nonfiction work of the same name, Affairs of Honor by Joanne Freeman. It’s a fascinating book that deals with reputation, honor and the code duello among the politicians of the newly born United States—Alexander Hamilton’s duel with Burr was only one of several he’d been involved with, for instance. It wasn’t necessary to actually fight (all Hamilton’s previous duels were resolved amicably by the seconds), but to prove that you were willing to fight—to show your honor by challenging anyone who insulted you, or to show you’d stand by your words if you were on the receiving end. It was also fascinating to learn what were considered fighting words back then, such as “scoundrel” or even “puppy.” There’s a lot more to Freeman’s book, such as how whisper and innuendo campaigns worked in that very-pre-Internet age, and I highly recommend it.

Somewhere in the middle of reading Freeman, I realized that a)I wanted to do a story in this setting; and b)it would be a fantasy (of course), with a wizard’s duel. The basic concept took shape immediately. The protagonist, Knorr, wasn’t in the duel himself, but his relative (I settled on older brother). His hot-headed sibling has written an honor-blackening, insulting letter about a much stronger wizard who now demands satisfaction. To complicate things, the other wizard’s uncle is a former comrade from the Revolutionary War, now estranged from Knorr an old dispute.

Then the nephew turns up dead. And all the evidence points to Knorr having killed him to save his brother’s life.

To this I brought something else that fascinates me about the early United States, the conviction (common to many revolutions since then) that they were creating a new world, a better world, a world such as had never existed before. In an age of monarch, they were a Republic, such as hadn’t been seen since the Roman Republic of old, full of “Republican” virtues (regrettably I decided that phrase would sound like a modern political reference, so I didn’t employ it). So in my alt.history, wizardry is part of that.

Wizards fuel their power with intense emotion, and the easiest place to find that is in the midst of battle. So part of the “republican” vision is to change that, to turn wizardry from a tool for kings to wage wars to a science that serves humanity in peacetime.

Of course, anything that involves magic and early America makes me think of Salem. It seemed logical there’d be witches at Salem but I so did not want to go the “No, in this world where magic works, witches are evil and they were guilty!” route (something I’ve discussed previously). So I decided no, they were witches but they were innocent, framed and hung by a cabal plotting to drain the magical power from their dying bodies.

I also worked in one really obscure historical reference, to “Inkle” as a synonym for “betrayer.” Inkle was a British planter’s son in an account published in the 1730s. Living in the West Indies, he took a slave woman as his mistress, then sold her when he needed money—getting a better price because she was with child. The shocking story was still remembered in the early 1800s, so I worked it into a reference to Judas and Benedict Arnold, figuring the meaning would be clear even if nobody knew the story.

I had a lot of fun with this one. I might go back to the setting sometime and do more.


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Story Behind the Story: Number of the Least (#SFWApro)

My short story Number of the Least is now out in the fourth issue of Fever Dreams. So as usual, here’s how it came to be.
The ultimate inspiration lay, IIRC, in Fred Clark’s Left Behind critiques at his Slacktivist blog. For those who haven’t heard of them, they were a wildly successful series of novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, chronicling the events of the Rapture and the End Times, as conceived in LaHaye’s view of Revelation (Clark goes into some detail on why it is not, as sometimes described, a literal retelling of the book). Clark strongly disagrees with LaHaye’s conservative theology and his analysis makes great reading for the most part (I do not agree with him that you can draw any conclusions about the readers from the books. As I’ve said before, you are not what you read).
Anyway, one of the points on the LB posts was that becoming Antichrist is a really bad job. Sure, you have a fabulous life for seven years, but then you face eternal damnation. So what would drive someone to take the gig?
Those seeds lay and germinated until at some point, I got the mental image of a schmucky guy dismayed because his change is $7.77 instead of $6.66. It’s never $6.66, not for him.
And so the somewhat absurd story of the wimpy guy who dreams of being the Antichrist began taking form. It firmed up fairly quickly, in fact. The main changes other than general tightening were removing some of the sex references and making it clear just why it ends the way it does.
And that’s pretty much it—it’s a short story, though I’m really pleased with it. Read it for yourself—it’s free!

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