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Gromm had set to work straight away. Walker had explained the situation as concisely as possible to him, and he had dropped everything to start work. Madeleine had left Walker the housekeeping functions to do to keep his mind off the situation.
Madeleine cared for Walker. She knew her heart was too cold to love him, but she respected his talents. There were only fifteen hundred men and women in the galaxy who were rated worthy to hold the post of a Techsearch Administrator. He was one of them, some would say the best of them. She secretly hoped to join the ranks of administrators one day. She knew what it took. She knew what Walker had.
She had offered to tell Arlan the news. Walker had resisted, but it was a token. Arlan was one of the elite, the select few in front of whom Walker would ever let his guard down. She didn't pretend to know why, but Arlan was important to him.
She lost herself in thought as the capsule travelled down to the medical wing. It had been an interesting forty-eight hours. They had found out about Arlan's experiment, planned for the contingencies which occurred right on schedule, found what remained of him, found that artificial abomination in the system intact...
Madeleine's train of thought came to an abrupt halt amidst a surge of hatred. She wasn't sure which she feared the most. That electronic creature or the fact that she herself was capable of such raw emotion regarding it. This wasn't the way to become an administrator and she knew it. This made her even angrier at April. If she could gather the slightest shred of evidence against her, no matter how trivial the offense, she would delight in flicking her power switch personally.
Madeleine fought to calm herself. She had a task to perform, and her stop was near. By the time she stepped off the capsule she was in total control once more.
She approached the reception desk. They told her which room Arlan was in. When she entered, he was alone. "Hello, Arlan. Blow up any buildings today?"
Arlan grinned. "Not so that you'd know. Perhaps I should try again?"
"Not on your life." Madeleine laughed. "We've finally got damage control on you, we intend to keep it."
"So, any casualties other than me this time?"
"No. April was nearly a goner though."
Arlan's smile disappeared. "You look real upset about that, too."
Madeleine pursed her lips. She fought for the control she needed over herself. "I've told you before, there's something about her..."
"I don't know."
Arlan had an obvious scowl on his face now. "Come on, Madeleine. Both Walker and myself expect more from you. She may be a simulation but she is a real person and you know better than to judge people like that." He was obviously angry.
Madeleine didn't need this. It was the first time Arlan had ever raised his voice in her presence. She knew that this was going to be brought to a head now. Arlan was always hopeless with timing. "So you're telling me you never act on your instincts?"
"I'm saying even I know when enough is enough and the proof is against me."
"Well, that's saying something from the person who has a habit of destroying buildings to prove his point!" Madeleine could hear herself, but she didn't know the person speaking. She was making this personal. She never did that until now.
"Firstly that's not fair, I get totally absorbed in those projects and you know it. Secondly, there is a difference between persistence and stubbornness."
Madeleine's voice came out lower and deadlier than she had intentioned. "Just tell me, was she in that protected memory bank or not?"
Arlan's face registered shock and puzzlement. Madeleine wished she could retract the question. She had been pushed too far in her irrational state. She tried desperately to find the source of the turmoil within her. Arlan stared at her, and sat forward in the bed.
"Are you referring to the blackout?"
"Then you would know where she was found better than I would."
"Where she was found was not what I asked."
"What do you keep in that protected memory, anyway?"
"That's not the point, Arlan. She's restricted from there."
"Well, she wasn't there. Think about it, do you seriously think she would risk incurring your wrath further? She's already scared witless of you."
If Arlan was lying he was doing it well, she decided. His last sentence kept playing back in her mind. She's already scared witless of you. Over and over. As it repeated, she could feel the well of emotion surging within her, threatening to consume her. She fought viciously with her mind for control.
Arlan's voice was barely a whisper as he spoke. "She may be free to vent her emotions as they occur, but then she isn't responsible for the power you hold."
Arlan's words drove like a missile into the dam she was building to hold back her emotions, destroying it completely. That was the answer. All this time, it hadn't been instinct, it had been jealousy. April got away with things that she would never consider doing. She was the cheeky innocent girl Madeleine fought to keep well inside, away from the outside world. Arlan caught her as she fell forward in a bawling heap.
Madeleine could feel Arlan's arms holding her as she cried in his chest. She could hear the soothing words he uttered as he held her. She cried on, comforted by him. It felt like the times her father would hold her close back on Earth, washing her fears and sorrows away with a firm hold and a kind word. Like then, she knew it would go no further, and she felt comforted by that as well. It was several minutes before she regained her composure, but as she did, she felt clean. The poison that had spread through her since meeting April had been expunged. She had the balance set right once more. April had her freedom of expression, but she had the power.
Arlan's voice was back to it's usual mild tone. "Better?"
Madeleine smiled. "Much. Thank you."
"You're welcome. You have needed that for a long time."
Madeleine realised that she could no longer look at Arlan in the same light. She had her composure once more, her cold rational mind, but Arlan could no longer be fitted into the models she had used before. Their relationship had changed, but she didn't know how.
Arlan was the one to point it out to her. "You know, I never had a little sister before. It feels good."
"I never had an older brother, either." The term fit, but it made her uneasy. Older brother. When she remembered, the shock hit her like a slap in the face. With the new level of control Arlan had given her, he didn't notice.
"Arlan, that reminds me. I came here to tell you something." All traces of humour had vanished from her face. Arlan knew something was wrong in the same way he could always tell when his brother brought bad news.
"Its not good, is it."
"No. Arlan, its about Marinus. They've found an outbreak of Hydrosarax there."
Madeleine watched as Arlan turned white before her.
Romus Gromm knew his place in the order of things at Techsearch. He held all the quirks of the other branch heads, he was nearly as intelligent as some of them, and he had control over a branch which held a low status at this particular institute. He always found it an irony that the power brokers of the facility couldn't hold a candle to him in his own field and yet even he accepted their authority without question.
Now, as he perched beside an iso-lab containing a beaker of pink fluid, staring intently at it, he didn't think about such things. He was where he was because he had no interest for politics and wasn't held of interest by those who did. What his mind kept trying to think about was the number of lives dependent on the outcome of this research. It was with difficulty he continually forced that subject from his mind now. He needed to focus all his mental energy towards the experiments if he would have something in time.
Hydrosarax was a complicated virus, any biologist and geneticist knew that. Attempts at finding cures for it had been attempted before. The problem was that it attacked anything that lived. That meant that it's basic structure revolved around the fundamental core of the DNA strand, things which were common to all life. As a result, the problem was simple: to kill the virus you would have to create something which was universally toxic to all other forms of life as well.
As Romus watched, the solution in the beaker turned bright green. He smiled. The acetate was beginning it's work. Hopefully, this would mean the attack sequence in the DNA coding of the virus which was contained in the beaker would be stripped out within minutes. Romus activated the scanner built into the iso-lab. The monitor above it displayed data on the virus' activity.
Romus had put a number of single celled organisms into the solution as bait. The virus was currently in a dormant stage, but he accelerated the activation process with a microwave pulse. It did it's job, and the virus colony within the beaker activated.
The theory he was working on dictated that the virus should have been unable to attack the cells. This was because the acetate should have masked out the DNA sequence in the virus which told it to go forth and invade other forms of life. For a short while he thought he had been successful. The scanner he watched indicated the cells which were in the solution were showing no ill side effects. Romus' heart sank as the cells fell victim to the virii, one by one, barely seconds after the deterioration had taken effect in the control solution.
Romus had tried everything he could think of. The virus just avoided or fought off all of his best laid plans to stop it's spread. While it wasn't within his nature to give up, he didn't know what to try next. The door alarm sounded in the midst of his despair.
"Come." Romus responded instinctively. He was so engrossed in the project that he hadn't thought to ask who it was. He looked up to see Arlan. "Hello. What brings you down into the bowels of Techsearch?"
Romus' labs were on floor two, just above the floor for the geologists interested in magma activity. Romus had never had a visit from Arlan here before. He liked Arlan, they had a lot in common. They were both dedicated scientists. His biggest concern for Arlan was the amount of political interest focussed on him. Just the same, Arlan had never let it affect him in any way, sometimes Romus wondered whether Arlan even realised it existed.
Arlan wrinkled his nose a little as if there was a smell in the air. Romus sniffed, but couldn't detect anything out of the ordinary. Only the usual smells contained in a biology lab. Arlan looked around the office for several seconds before answering.
"I just wanted to know if you could use any help from me."
"What do you know about biology, specifically genetics?"
Romus sighed inwardly. He could imagine how Arlan felt. Romus had woken up for the last several mornings thankful he didn't have relatives on Marinus. "Arlan, I can only imagine how you must feel, but you'll only get in the way. I'm sorry."
Arlan's visage paled slightly. After a moment he nodded. "I understand. Any progress so far?"
Romus exhaled. That had went better than he thought it would. "No, not really. I'm trying to find an answer for this but is has beaten all of the galaxy's finest biologists for years. I have access to all their research of course, but I am finding that it does little more than tell me what won't work, with no ideas on what will."
"Romus, in your field you are the best. Make no mistake on that."
Romus was taken aback. Arlan was accepted by all in the facility as the finest mind there was. Even Romus never dared to think himself in Arlan's league. They may have had a lot in common, but Arlan's work had always betrayed a mind he could barely imagine. It was a strange thing indeed to receive such praise from a man like Arlan.
"Well, thank you Arlan. I don't know what to say. Maybe if I wasn't short on ideas here I could believe it."
"That bad. I've tried every blocking and masking agent I can think of to retard the processes of the virus and it won't die or even slow it's natural course." Romus slumped against the bench behind him. It felt good to air the problem out loud.
Arlan looked deep in thought. It was nearly a minute before he answered. "It seems to me that you are trying to destroy a greater force."
Romus looked up at Arlan, surprise on his face. "Of course I'm trying to destroy this thing. It's about to destroy a planet!"
"No no no. That's not what I meant. It looks to me that you are trying to take the virus head on to stop it, trying to break it's natural processes. Maybe the answer lies in diverting them."
Romus sat forward, intrigued. "What are you talking about, Arlan."
"Well, in my discipline, no scientist would ever try to stop a laser beam if it was heading in the wrong direction. Our lasers contain a lot of energy, and therefore it would take a lot of energy to stop. On the other hand, that energy heading in the wrong direction could be deflected or even absorbed and harnessed with much less difficulty."
"You mean by a lens or prism or something?"
"Yes. It bends the light towards the desired point without absorbing much energy itself. Of course, if you could set up a field of similar energy, it might be possible to absorb the beam, using the harnessed energy to either deflect or absorb future beams."
"So that's what you were doing when you blacked out the building the other day! You've created a shield!"
"Shh!" Arlan held a finger to his lips. "If I had built such a system, I'm sure you will find out about it when its no longer a secret."
Romus was shocked. Arlan had just given away something which they both knew would put him in a lot of trouble if it got out. It was obviously a token of friendship, a gift to help boost his morale. He realised Arlan had a lot more to lose if he failed than he would personally. "Anyway, I still don't see what this has to do with Hydrosarax."
"Well, maybe the forces, the energy the virus is prepared to expend is the equivalent to one of my laser beams. Stopping it becomes near impossible. Deflecting it's intentions however..."
"Arlan, this virus has quite a wide focus. It will destroy anything. In fact, the only thing I have never seen it attack is another Hydrosarax virus." Something stirred in Romus' mind as he made the statement. It was true, the virii would attack anything else, even other strains of virii, but never each other. He looked back up at Arlan, who was smiling.
"Arlan, this could work." The equations and strand sequences were running through his head as he spoke. "I have to check some things, but this could be it!"
"I'll leave you to your work. See you later, Romus." Arlan left. Romus didn't here him speak or leave. He had a lead to chase up on this virus. He was sure he could make them exclusively cannibalistic. He was sure.
Walker sat at his desk working. There were minor food distribution problems to be sorted out, resources to be allocated to branch heads, Arlan's invention to be field tested, a myriad of things to be done. Since the call from Marinus he hadn't felt like doing any of it. Arlan's brother Peallos would be dead if Gromm couldn't find a cure for that virus. Not to mention the millions on that planet including a major research centre for Techsearch.
It had been a week since the call. It seemed to Walker that everyone had changed as they heard the news. Some of the changes hadn't made sense. Arlan had become even more reclusive, that was understandable, April had all but become a nurse for him, which wasn't too surprising when you knew how their relationship was constructed but the big surprise was Madeleine.
He had sent Madeleine down to tell Arlan about the Marinus situation because Arlan would have taken it better from her than anyone else, but also because he thought that if anyone would have sniffed out the truth about April's survival story she would have. Not only did she come back from Arlan's hospital bed with the cold rational efficiency she had been fighting to achieve, but she had exonerated April completely, almost to the point of defending her against him.
Walker was impressed. Madeleine was now operating to a level of efficiency he had thought to be beyond her. She may make a Techsearch Administrator yet, he thought.
The comm link began buzzing, snapping his thoughts back to the present. He hit the switch to activate it, and the image of Romus Gromm appeared on the table before him.
"Dr Gromm, you have an answer for our friends at Marinus?" Walker thought it unlikely. Still, it couldn't hurt to make the importance of success quite clear.
"As a matter of fact, I have." This reply made Walker pay attention. Romus Gromm's image suppressed a smile.
" Excellent. Send it straight up for transmission." Walker made to cut the contact.
"I'm afraid it's not that simple, Sir."
Walker froze. Something was wrong again. "Explain." Romus did.
Arlan had buried himself in his work. It was one of the few things that took his mind off his older brother. He had idolized Peallos as a child and the thought of him ending this way was more than he could bear.
April was helping him with a research project. After the hard light theory proof (Arlan still refused to call it a shield) he had realised it was time to come up with some new theoretical work. He sat at his desk dictating strings of variables into the newly installed Fairchild Mark V. He was thankful he had kept backups of the old operating parameters on the Mark IV. While the V was packed with extra features, Arlan felt more comfortable easing himself into the operational enhancements.
"Arlan, there's a call coming through from Walker." April's dismembered voice cut through his monologue.
Arlan sighed. That man was always interrupting his train of thought. It was no wonder people like Romus couldn't get any real research done. If he couldn't pick up where he left off so easily, neither would he. "Put him on." An image of Walker sitting behind his desk appeared before him.
"Arlan. How are you holding up?"
"Well enough under the circumstances. I offered my services to Romus yesterday."
"Really?" Walker showed genuine surprise. "What did he say?"
"He said I'd only be in the way. He was right, too."
"Funny you should mention Gromm." Walker's image looked uneasy. "That's what I was calling about. I thought you might like to know. He's found a cure."
Arlan's attention was grabbed. "Really! You've sent it through to Marinus?"
"Well, that's the problem. It would appear that the cure has certain properties which just happen to be exclusive to Karissia. The serum would have to be made here and shipped to Marinus when prepared."
"I admit it's not an efficient method, but a ship could be there in three weeks. We still have five up our sleeve. Why is it a problem?"
"Arlan, let's assume the serum can be made in time. Let's also assume that the Marinus government is prepared to lift the quarantine to let the vessel in. I can't force any pilot to go. I don't have hordes at my desk volunteering, either."
Arlan couldn't believe it. This was impossible. First, Romus beats the odds and finds the cure, then it all goes to waste because it can't get where it's needed. For a second, Arlan's thoughts turned to despair. It was that fighter within him which was stirred by these thoughts. He knew that he could not let the matter rest there. The situation fixed in his mind as the problem he would solve next. He could see the edge of fear creeping into Walker's visage which meant that Walker could see the set in his eyes, the determination to succeed. "That serum will get to Marinus." The sentence was one Arlan did not speak lightly, and by the look on Walker's face he knew it.
"I mean it, Walker. That serum will get to Marinus." Arlan disconnected. He had a lot of work to do. As Walker dematerialised before him, April appeared.
"You want me to process what's here?" The look in April's eyes had taken on the same edge as that in Arlan's.
Arlan had never seen that look reflected back. He realised that April was prepared to help in any way possible. She had been overly helpful and quite willing to talk with him about recent events over the last week, but it chilled him to wonder how far she would go to help and protect him this time. Arlan found himself considering whether or not he should drag her into this. He didn't know where it would end.
"Yes. For now. I may need some help later with other things."
"All you have to do is ask, Arlan." They both stared at each other for several seconds. In that time, they both realised the extent to which the help would be forthcoming.
"Thanks." April nodded in reply to Arlan's acceptance. He knew now that she would follow anyway, it felt good to know he could count on her. Without further comment he left the lab.
His senses cringed at the thought of where he was headed. The biology floor. He hated the place. He knew Romus often wondered why he didn't visit him there, but it overwhelmed his senses. The labs were unkempt by his clinical tastes, the smells were horrific, the place exuded the simulated chaos of life itself. As he reached the transit tube, he realised he was already mentally preparing for the assault his senses would suffer.
He stepped off the capsule on the second floor and his senses were struck with the wall of sensory input the floor provided. Arlan stopped for a second as he always did stepping off at this floor. He could feel his stomach churning, so he took the time to steady it mentally. The floor had a similar smell to that he had experienced the time he had been sent out to do field research near the ocean. To Arlan it was a staleness.
The corridors were filled with the frantic bustle of traffic it always had when he visited, Arlan had always suspected it was because biologists were inherently unorganized. He moved through the crowd as best he could to get to Romus' lab. He hit the visitor alarm as he reached it.
Romus was sitting over a microscope as he called Arlan in. His head barely rose, but Arlan knew he saw him. He asked Arlan to join him over in the corner of the lab.
Arlan wrinkled his nose slightly. He would never get used to the smell he realised. At least here in the genetics area the smell was confined to the labs. Maybe it was confined to the biologists themselves, Arlan wasn't sure. He moved over to the bench Romus was sitting at.
As Arlan arrived Romus rose from the seat he was in and motioned for Arlan to take it. He did so. He peered into the microscope.
"What am I supposed to be looking at here?" Arlan couldn't see any movement in the solution under the microscope.
"A colony of Hydrosarax." Romus' answer made Arlan freeze.
"You mean you have taken a viral colony out of the iso-lab? Won't it spread?"
Romus laughed. "No. Did you see any movement?"
"That's right. The colony is dead. You were right. I was looking in the wrong place. I owe you one Arlan."
"No you don't Romus. This serum of yours is my brother's life. I owe you."
Romus' smile faded. "Maybe not, Arlan. This serum can't be made at Marinus."
"It contains an ingredient which is crucial to it's success and can only be found here on Karissia."
Arlan looked up. "Romus I don't understand."
"Okay, I'll explain. The serum acts on a dormant colony of the virus, modifying their attack sequence in such a way that they are attracted to each other instead of attacking other life forms. That's the beauty of this system. They use their destructive tendencies against themselves. They become cannibals."
Arlan was impressed. "That's good. Very good. Why will it only happen on Karissia though?"
"I found the answer after you left yesterday. I realised that you were right. I had to modify the attack sequence, not block it. I experimented with several compounds to modify the DNA sequencing, none of the standard ones worked. Then I used this petri dish."
Romus held up a pristine dish for Arlan's inspection. Arlan glanced at it. It didn't look any different to the hundreds of dishes he had seen lying around in Romus' lab the last time he was here. He said so.
"That's right. But it turns out it was contaminated. The contaminant was what led to the success. The contaminant combined with a rather exotic mutagenic protein strand makes the serum work. You see, the contaminant distracts the defence mechanisms within the virus while the mutagen does it's work."
"So who contaminated the dish?"
Romus grinned. "Well, you did."
Arlan's mind fought against the statement. "I did? When?"
"When you were here yesterday. You must have brushed up against the dish while you were here."
"And just what did I contaminate it with?"
Romus' grin widened. "Come over here. I'll show you." Romus led Arlan over to the interface panel in the side of the lab wall. Arlan noticed it was a Mark III Fairchild. He made a mental note to advise Walker to have it updated.
Romus stood before the interface. "Computer, display molecular schematic of compound Sigma five five one." A three dimensional image appeared between Romus and the computer. It was highly enlarged diagram of a molecule. It was a molecule Arlan had seen many times before.
"Karissian crystal." Arlan shook his head. "How?"
"To explain it in detail I would have to give you a detailed lesson in biology..."
"No, how did it get into the dish?"
"Haven't you been making lenses out of those crystals you nearly killed yourself collecting the other week? Some of the particles ground off them must have stuck to your hands, clothes, whatever and then fell off when you brushed the dish. Lucky for us."
Arlan stared at the molecule for several moments. He found it ironic that the same substance which had made most of his academic life bearable could also be the saviour of his brother so many millions of light years away.
"So can it be synthesized?"
Romus looked back at Arlan. "Yes, but as I said, it can only be synthesized here. This crystal is necessary for the compound."
"Can't they cannibalise their lenses? Surely there would be enough laser systems on Marinus to provide the quantity of crystal required?"
Romus shrugged. "I suppose there is. Do you know of any facility off this planet which would have the technology to crush the crystals into the particles we would need? Remember Arlan, this crystal is used in lasers because of it's strength and heat tolerance."
Arlan gave Romus a sharp look. Romus blanched. "I'm sorry, Arlan. I didn't mean to lecture you on your specialisation. It's just that we both know the race against the clock can't be won."
Arlan's mind rebelled against Romus' comment. He knew that it was possible. He knew it with all the power of his existence. They just hadn't found out how yet. He pondered the subject for a minute before answering.
"Could you make enough of the serum here?"
"Of course. I could have it ready in a week."
"Then we could fly it in."
Romus laughed. "Have you gone insane? What pilot in his right mind would take the risk?"
Arlan looked directly at Romus. He saw his face pale as recognition struck. He could see that Romus understood Arlan's commitment to this. "You said you could produce the serum, start now. It'll get there if I have to fly it there myself."
Romus believed him.
The pilots assembled in the mess hall erupted in laughter simultaneously. Arlan's heart sank. Walker had been right.
"You must be kidding." One of the pilots called out to Arlan over the roars. "Why should we risk ourselves for this. We have enough trouble with pirates without flying medicines into a death zone."
"It wouldn't be a death zone if..."
"Forget it. No amount of money would entice me to take this mission."
Arlan didn't bother to mention he had no money to offer. He watched the pilots leave until he was alone. The tap on his shoulder made him shudder.
"That was gutsy, Doctor." It was the cook who ran the mess hall. "You didn't deserve the treatment you got." Arlan nodded his acknowledgement. He wished some of the pilots shared the sentiment. He walked out of the hall into the open air.
The fresh breezes which brushed his face momentarily distracted Arlan from his dejection. He revelled in the feel of the outside world on his skin. Even twenty-one floors up, he was close enough to the nature of this planet to enjoy it. A screech sounded high up. Arlan looked up to see the Fralian hawk circling upwards on the currents. For a fleeting moment, Arlan envied the freedom of the creature. The freedom from the concerns of man, the freedom from the ground, the freedom to travel where it pleased.
"Hey, Doctor!" Arlan turned around to see a group of the pilots. They were smiling. "Come with us. We might have your solution." One of them gestured for him to follow them. He did. They led him over to a hangar on the far side of the roof.
Arlan stood before it as the pilots sniggered near the hangar doors. "Well gentlemen. I'm waiting." They laughed openly and opened the hangar doors.
Inside stood a starship. It was an old Trader class freighter. It was coated in rust and cobwebs. The pilots laughed heartily and left him staring at it.
Arlan walked forward. He stared at the vessel. It had obviously been there a long time, Arlan guessed that it had been left there shortly after the facility had been constructed. It was old. Very old. The Traders had been in service when Arlan was a child on Borallis. That planet had used the only equipment it could find, and even they had scrapped the Traders when he was a teenager. Arlan suspected the ship was rusted to the hangar floor.
Traders, like all freighters Arlan had ever seen, were designed to have a standard freight container connected to the rear of it. Four arms stretched behind it, serving as both the landing gear and the warp engine outputs. The ship was larger than most modern freighters. Arlan knew from younger days that this was because it was also designed to carry a limited number of passengers.
The ship stood like an upright rectangular prism resting on the four arms. The edges were rounded and the nose was narrower than the rear of the ship. The front consisted of a transparent bubble. Arlan knew that to be the cockpit. He had loved the sight of these ships as a child, now it depressed him as no other sight would. He had no doubts the ship would be unable to fly.
Arlan didn't even bother to close the hangar doors. He knew he was defeated. Hope deserted him. He walked back to the transit station oblivious to everything else. He deliberately avoided the mess hall. He wouldn't be made a fool twice.
For the first time in his life, Arlan found himself unable to think straight. He headed back to his labs in a daze. He couldn't remember if there was anyone in the transit capsule with him by the time he had reached the door to his lab. He hit the visitor alarm.
The door opened revealing April. She looked worried. Arlan stepped into the lab, nearly passing through her. He noticed her asking him if he was all right, but it just seemed like it would take too much energy to answer her. He went through all the usual motions he did before retiring for the night, it wasn't until he was showered and ready to jump into his bed that he noticed that the sun was still up. It didn't matter. He crawled into the bed and wished desperately for sleep to claim him.
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