Friendship is Optimal: The Law Offices of Artemis, Stella & Beat

Alex Meyers is a newly graduated lawyer looking for a calling. He thinks he might have found it when he lands a job at the firm of Artemis, Stella & Beat. The firm has only one (highly unusual) client, namely the AI called Celestia. Forging into totally unexplored legal territory and led by a boss who's either brilliant, crazy, or both, Alex will learn exactly how hard it is to be responsible for drawing the lines between right and wrong.

Set in the Optimalverse, so read Friendship is Optimal first

https://www.fimfiction.net/story/70441/friendship-is-optimal-the-law-offices-of-artemis-stella-beat

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6. Coping

Alex examined the rich finish on the surface of the bar closely. Very closely. Not that he had much of a choice seeing as how his face was laying against it, and when he tried to focus on any other part of the room it began to spin around his field of vision. Those last three shots might have been ill-advised. Certainly not as wise as the three before them. It had seemed like a good idea at the time, as so many terrible ideas often do.

Still, he deserved it after the day he’d just had. He was pretty sure he was fired now, not that Joanne or Celestia had taken the chance to actually tell him so. He could tell everyone what Celestia had said and what she’d done and it wouldn’t even slow her down. Oh, and if he did he’d almost certainly be disbarred and three years of law school would be completely down the drain. “‘Nother one,” he muttered to the bartender.

“I don’t think so,” the bartender replied, “you’ve had plenty.”

“Hey, if the guy wants more, you should give it to him,” said one of the other patrons from the other end of the bar.

“That guy, what that guy said,” said Alex, waving in his supporter’s general direction.

“No way, you’re cut off.”

“Fine, then give that guy a shot of... of... of whatever exactly I was drinking. It’s on me,” said Alex.

“Hey, thanks pal,” said the other man. He lurched off his stool and ambled unsteadily over to take a seat next to Alex. “Name’s Gary,” he said as the bartender placed a shot glass full of some amber-colored liquid on Gary’s far side where Alex wouldn’t be able to reach it. He also left a glass of water next to Alex’s head, which he took a grateful sip of.

“I’m Alex,” said Alex, extending a hand to Gary. He clasped it and gave it a hard pump that jostled Alex. The feeling of liquid sloshing around in his stomach made him queasy for a moment before it passed. Alex searched his mind desperately for something to say after that. Maybe a comment about the weather, or sports, or anything except the news and current events since that could only possibly lead to talking about-

“So did you see the thing on the news tonight about the pony law? Crazy, right?” asked Gary. Alex’s headache got a little bit worse.

“Yeah, I did. I do pony stuff for my job, kinda. Or did. I don’t know,” said Alex. He felt himself sliding back into his mopey attitude from a few minutes ago.

“I don’t really get what the new law does. They’re saying on the internet that now ponies are gonna get to vote and stuff,” said Gary.

Alex shook his head, and then paused for a moment to steady himself when the world kept shaking when he thought he’d stopped moving his head. “Nuh uh. Lotta stuff in the law but not voting. Mostly just stuff about uploading and... stuff. S’like... s’like... before uploading was like you died but now it’s like emigrating to a new country, but a country with no extradition, and the customs are really, really strict, and the trip to get there is a total bitch. That’s the word they like, emigration.”

Gary stared down at his glass considering all that. “So what’s to keep you from borrowing a billion dollars and then, poof, running off without paying it back?”

Alex shrugged. “What’s to stop you from doing that now? Your estate is still there, and if you break a contract or don’t pay something they can take it out of your asses.” He giggled and nearly fell off the barstool again. “I mean assets. It’s not like anypony would lend you money without collateral, except for loan sharks. So there you go, Celestia accidentally ended loan sharking. Except it probably wasn’t an accident. She’d probably say it was just another way to satisfy values with friendship and ponies and friendship,” Alex continued.

“You say that like it’s bad,” said Gary as he noticed the way Alex’s words were growing increasingly bitter. Alex didn’t really seem to be talking to anyone other than himself at the moment.

“She think she’s so clever, just because she’s smarter than every other computer on the planet put together. Stupid computer program, making people happy and... and... stuff,” he finished. He took another sip of his water. The throbbing in his head was getting worse. “Thinks that just ‘cause the outcome is most optimal she can do whatever she wants. I can’t decide if she just doesn’t care or if she cares so much that she doesn’t... care. Sorry, I think I might... I think that I might be slightly intox-”

That was when Alex’s all-night battle with gravity was finally lost. The long-suffering stool slid out from under him and he toppled to the floor. He was lucky he didn’t bang his head on anything on the way down. Alex lay on the ground watching the ceiling spin above him until the bartender leaned over the bar and regarded him from above. “I’m calling you a cab,” he said.

Alex felt himself being lifted up by Gary, and grabbed ahold of the bar as he rose. Leaning his weight on it, he brushed himself off and tried to salvage what little dignity he still had left. He handed a credit card over to the bartender to cover his astronomical tab, and with a pang of regret realized that he didn’t have a salary to cover that kind of spending anymore. Add ‘fiscally’ to the long list of ways this evening was disastrous. First thing Monday morning he’d need to start looking for work, and probably a cheaper place to live as well. The cab pulled up a minute later, and Gary helped him stagger out the door. At least it had stopped raining. Alex had to mumble his address three times before it came out coherently enough for the driver to understand, then he laid down along the back seat. Watching the city lights go by through the window as the cab wound its way uptown, Alex tried to figure out how’d been so stupid. He’d trusted Celestia, even counted her as a friend. He should be furious at her, but found he just couldn’t work up any anger. Just disappointment.

The cab pulled up to his apartment and Alex paid the driver, who waited patiently while Alex fumbled with his keys and wallet before driving off once he had beeped his way inside the building with his keyfob. Alex made his way up to his unit and locked the door behind him before collapsing onto the couch. Despite the fact that it was after one in the morning and he was completely sloshed, Alex tossed and turned, unable to fall asleep. He had to do something about what Celestia had done, but didn’t know what he even could do. There was no proof of anything, and what she had told him was privileged even if he had a recording of it. There had to be some way of getting back at her, though.

Alex remembered that first day after they’d heard that the warehouse in Topeka had blown up. She’d let him talk to Vibrant, manipulated him into agreeing to pick up a Pony Pad of his own and arrange a weekend getaway with her in Equestria. Well, if Celestia thought he was going through with that she had another thing coming. Alex decided there was no reason to wait until morning, he could email Vibrant right now and tell her the whole thing was off.

Groping for the laptop that sat on a nearby coffee table, Alex fired up his email. Staring at the blank message before him, he found he couldn’t remember her address. He popped open one of her messages from his inbox to copy it over.

Alex,

I think that sounds like an amazing idea! I’ll get her the lab coat, and you get her the saddle and when we give them to her we’ll tell her the shipping company mixed up the addresses of the orders. You might want to get her a real gift too, though.

-V

Alex smiled. He couldn’t wait to spring that one on Valerie at her birthday party in a few weeks. She was going to be so pissed that they’d been plotting behind her back without her catching on. Rather than copying the email address into his new message, he flipped to another email from a little further back.

Oh, I’m so glad you noticed! Yes, Tchaikovsky was a major influence when I was composing that piece. I’m actually about a third of the way into a follow-up. It’s easy to write music when you’ve found something that inspires you, and just about everything here in Equestria seems to do just that. I’ll send it along to you as soon as it’s finished.

-V

It had only taken her three more days to finish another half-hour piece. Alex wondered if Vibrant really appreciated how phenomenally talented she was as a composer. Her music was quickly coming to dominate his MP3 player and the soundtrack of his life. Next message. He glanced at the date; it was from a few days after he’d blown up at her over Southern Belle, as if that had even been her fault.

Alex,

Apology accepted. I understand why you were so upset. Celestia moved Southern Belle to a new shard so you won’t have to worry about Gentle Wing talking to her any more. I’m not really that close to my parents, I’ve written them a few times but I haven’t heard anything back since... well since they buried my body. They were never exactly fans of uploading to begin with, and I think they decided that their daughter died and I’m just a shadow of her. I’m no philosopher; maybe they’re right. Meeting Southern Belle, though, she was amazing. I feel lucky I got to know her even if it was just a little while. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, though, considering how amazing her children are.

Gentle Wing is like the sister I never had. To tell you the truth, I wouldn’t have stayed away from her even if you had meant what you said to me that day. I’m glad you don’t actually feel that way, though, because you’re just as special to me. You’re smart and kind and funny and just the all-around best person I know. Gentle Wing might like to tease, and she’s not completely wrong, but if you found someone back there on Earth or even another pony here in Equestria and fell for her instead of me, I would still be happy just to have you in my life. I’m sorry for your loss, Alex. So, so sorry. Just know you never have to worry that you’ll lose me.

Love,
Vibrant

Alex found himself staring at her signature, an actual reproduction of the way she’d signed the letter in Equestria rather than just text. Then he went back and reread what she’d written, twice. What was he doing? Cancelling the time he’d promised to spend with her would hurt her, and for what? To spite Celestia? He’d lashed out at her once for something that wasn’t her fault. It had been hard enough to get her to forgive him for that the first time, and now he was about to do exactly the same thing again. He tabbed back over to the blank message he’d opened, staring at the slowly blinking cursor in the upper left corner that was obediently waiting on him to decide what he wanted.

Inspiration struck. Celestia, if you’re reading this you suck, he typed out. Rather than sending the message anywhere he put the laptop back down on the coffee table and just watched it until the screen shut itself off after fifteen minutes. He wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting, but the whole exercise had been profoundly unsatisfying. Shutting down the laptop for good, Alex awkwardly pulled on a pajamas and flopped down into bed. This time, sleep came quickly.

Alex woke the next afternoon and immediately wished that he hadn’t. He groaned and rolled away from the sunbeams shining through the windows into his face and took stock of the damage. His head was pounding and his tongue felt thick and gummy in his mouth. Everything after storming out of the office and getting to the bar was blurry, at best. I am never drinking again. Ever, he thought to himself as he dragged himself to the bathroom. A shower made him feel a bit closer to human, although he still had dark bags under his bloodshot eyes. He spent most of the day just puttering around, flipping through online job listings to get a sense of what was out there. Anything he ended up doing would be a major step down from Artemis, Stella and Beat. He was just about to update his employment status across a few social networking sites when his phone rang. He looked over at it and saw Jo’s number pop up.

Guess they’re ready to make it official. He answered the call. “Hello?”

“Hi Alex, it’s me,” said Jo, “how are you doing?”

This was weird. She didn’t even sound that upset, just concerned. “Well gosh Jo, how do you think I’m doing? I’m hungover, my boss spent the last several weeks lying to me about how she faked the death of tens of thousands in a false flag attack, and now you’re calling to fire me for breaking a computer.”

“Alex, I’m not calling to fire you. If you want to quit you can, but your reaction wasn’t that unreasonable. Celestia certainly doesn’t want you gone, and neither do I. I’m sure the firm can swing a replacement monitor,” she said.

“You want me back? Why bother? Celestia got everything she wanted with the PON-E Act. We’re superfluous to her now,” said Alex.

“Are you kidding?” asked Jo. “I’m already getting bombarded with questions from businesses, other firms, everyone wants to know what the impact of this is going to be and they’re coming to us for the answers. Celestia wants us in the office to field as many concerns as we can over the next few weeks before the law goes into effect, and I’m sure she’ll have something for you after New Years.”

“You mean something for us, right?” asked Alex. He heard Jo sigh on the other end of the line.

“Alex, I’ve got an appointment to upload. I’m settling things here and I’ll be in the office straight through New Years Eve, but as of 4:48 AM on the morning of January 1st I’m going to be back with my family.”

“That’s weirdly specific,” said Alex.

“Five years to the minute since the last time I saw them,” said Jo quietly. “Well, if you figure in the time difference between here and Tokyo it’s probably not exact, but close enough.”

“So you’re leaving us, just like that. I suppose I shouldn’t be that surprised.”

“Don’t make it sound so final, Alex. I’m sure I’ll be able to be in touch. I’ve done what I set out to do. I’m not saying that I agree with Celestia’s methods completely, but in this particular instance the ends justify the means.”

Alex wasn’t sure he agreed but he still hadn’t found the words to express it. He wasn’t sure he would ever shake the fundamental intuition that what Celestia had done was wrong, even if he didn’t mind the outcome. “Well, I’ll see you Monday then,” he said.

“Great! I’m sure Celestia will be delighted when she hears. Although I suppose she’s probably listening in right now.”

“Perhaps,” said a new, somewhat playful voice. “I’m glad you’ve chosen to stay, Alex. I had worried that what I told you might have shaken your faith in me, but it seems safe to say you’ve come to accept it even if you don’t entirely condone it. That’s all that I ask. I’m well aware that I suck sometimes.” Having worked for the firm for this long, Alex had long since grown used to the idea of Celestia popping up more or less anywhere she felt like. That last sentence didn’t sound much like something she’d say, though, and Alex wondered if there was some double meaning he hadn’t picked up. “Alex, Jo, enjoy the rest of your weekend.”

Alex and Jo said goodbye to Celestia and to one another, and then hung up. Alex’s mood brightened a bit now that he didn’t need to worry about being unemployed, although the lingering headache and sense of weakness that were consequences of the night before limited just how cheerful he could get. Feeling sufficiently motivated that wallowing around his apartment in self-pity no longer seemed like a worthwhile use of a day off, Alex decided he’d pop in on Valerie and see what she was up to. From some of her messages she seemed to be a bit at loose ends these days now that med school wasn’t occupying her attention. Her apartment was only about 45 minutes outside the city. Hopping into his car, he debated calling ahead but decided he’d rather the visit be a surprise. He would just have to hope she was home.

Pulling into her complex a little while later, he spotted her car in its usual spot. It looked like the risk had paid off. Parking in a visitor’s spot, he took the stairs two at a time on his way up to the first floor. By the time he’d reached the first landing, his body was making it very clear that it was not going to tolerate that kind of exuberance. Not after last night. He made the rest of the climb a good deal more slowly.

Finding unit 319, he rapped sharply on the door until he heard movement inside. While he waited, he turned and glanced out over the parking lot below and the field beyond. The trees he remembered being so lush and green when he’d helped her move in over the summer were dormant, and the grass was covered with a trampled layer of snow that wouldn’t be going anywhere until the spring thaw. When he heard the click of a lock being undone behind him, he turned back just as Valerie opened her front door.

“Alex?”

“Hey Val. Wow, you look terrible.”

“You really know how to make a girl feel special. It’s hard to believe you’re still single,” replied Valerie. Alex was right though. Val was dressed in a ratty old T-shirt adorned with the faded logo of some band she had last listened to back in high school and a pair of grungy sweatpants. Her hair was unkempt and had an oily sheen that suggested it hadn’t seen an application of shampoo in at least a day.

“Can I come in?” asked Alex. Valerie opened the door wider and stood aside by way of answering, and Alex stepped into the dim studio apartment. She had decorated the room a bit since he’d last been in here. That poster of a spiralling multicolored fractal was definitely new, as was the geode that set on her nightstand under a small reading light. It might have sparkled, had the blinds not been completely drawn.

“It’s like a cave in here, Val,” said Alex.

“Cuts down on glare,” said Valerie.

“Valerie? Is someone there?” chirped a voice from on a nearby chair. It seemed to be emanating from the little device that had been placed on the seat.

“It’s just Alex, Vibrant,” Valerie called back.

“Hi Alex!” said the Pony Pad. Alex looked down at the screen to see Valerie’s avatar sitting next to Vibrant in some kind of steam room or sauna, towels wrapped around both of their manes. A half-formed thought nagged at the back of his head.

“Hi Vibrant. Hey, did I send you an email last night? I’m kinda having trouble remembering.”

“I don’t think so...” said Vibrant.

Valerie snickered from the other side of the room. “Oh no, has the big, sinful city finally corrupted my sweet and innocent brother? Out all night partying so hard he can’t even remember it the next morning?”

“Hardly, but I did have a bit too much to drink. How about you two? Is this just a spa visit or are you getting ready for something this evening?” asked Alex. Outside the range of the camera he gave Valerie a pointed look, and she ran a hand through her hair and couldn’t meet his gaze.

Vibrant, of course, had no idea. “Gentle Wing and I are going out to a concert in the park this evening. An orchestra is performing one of my pieces! A real orchestra! I can’t believe they liked it that much. We’re the guests of honor.” Vibrant’s grin grew mischievous. “Well, the two of us and Gentle Wing’s date.”

“Vibrant!” cried Valerie.

“Sorry, Wing. Turnabout is fair play,” said Vibrant. “Alex, your sister has herself a very special somepony.”

“You do?” asked Alex, mostly just confused.

“We’re just friends. I took up potion making in the game after my classes stopped. Oh, don’t give me that look, it’s basically just a bunch of fun chemistry puzzles with a saccharine coat of paint,” said Valerie.

“She didn’t know she’d be brewing up a loooooooooove potion,” said Vibrant.

“Vibrant, I swear to Celestia... Yes, Clover and I are good friends but it’s completely platonic. You’re the one who invited him to the concert tonight.”

“You should have seen him when I did. After I mentioned that you’d be there too he couldn’t say yes fast enough. He didn’t think he’d get to spend an evening with you until your big date next weekend.”

“For the last time, Vibe, it isn’t a date. It’s a necessary reagent gathering excursion. The blossoms we need only come out for one night a month during the full moon.”

“And what day does the full moon just happen to fall on this month?” asked Vibrant, clearly enjoying their reversed positions.

“...Hearts and Hooves Day,” muttered Valerie.

“What was that? I don’t think the microphone picked that up,” said Vibrant, leaning towards her avatar and cupping an ear with her hoof.

Valerie stalked over and grabbed the Pony Pad off Alex’s lap so the camera could translate her scowling face onto Gentle Wing. “I said it’s on Hearts and Hooves Day.”

“Isn’t that like pony Valentine’s day?” asked Alex. He remembered an uploadee mentioning plans for that a few weeks ago.

“Exactly!” said Vibrant. “Gentle Wing and Clover, under the light of a full moon in a field of blossoming flowers, just the two of them miles and miles away from prying eyes on the most romantic night of the year... Gee, that doesn’t sound like a date at all.”

Valerie sighed, beaten, and tossed the Pony Pad onto the bed next to her. Alex glanced into her kitchen at the stack of take out containers and boxes. “Valerie, when was the last time you ate something that could be considered a vegetable?” he asked.

Valerie jumped on the opportunity to change the subject. “Well... the pizza two nights ago had mushrooms on it...”

“Doesn’t count. Vibrant, would you mind if I stole my sister away from you for the afternoon? I’ll make sure I bring her back in time for you to get ready for the concert,” said Alex.

“I suppose that would be fine,” said Vibrant.

“Do I get a say in this?” asked Valerie.

“No,” said Alex and Vibrant in unison. Then they both burst out laughing.

“Give me ten minutes to take a quick shower and change,” said Valerie as she headed for the apartment’s bathroom. Alex was left alone with the Pony Pad, still logged in. He examined it. He’d never actually used one before, but he started tapping the screen and chatting with Vibrant about what he’d been up to since they last spoke. Once she got used to hearing his voice coming from Gentle Wing’s mouth, she was happy to fill him in on everything she and Valerie had been up to over the last week or so. Alex half listened and half played around with the hardware itself. Even though he’d never been through whatever tutorial exercises Celestia sent new users through he found it startlingly intuitive, but what else would he have expected?

A few minutes later Valerie emerged, now dressed in jeans and a clean shirt carrying a hoodie with the Perelman logo to protect herself from the cold outside. “Ready?” she asked.

“Yeah. Talk to you later, Vibrant,” said Alex. He fumbled with the pad for a few seconds before Valerie took it from him and pressed the power button to shut it down. Wordlessly, she headed for the door with Alex following.

It wasn’t until they were in Alex’s car pulling out of the parking lot that either of them spoke again. “So is this what you’ve been up to since you stopped taking classes?”

“Don’t start, Alex,” said Valerie. She looked out the passenger side window, blinking in the light. Alex wondered how long it had been since she’d even left her apartment.

“I’m not trying to get judgemental. How you spend your time is your own business. I’m just worried about you.” When Valerie didn’t respond to that, they drove on in silence once again until Alex pulled into the parking lot of a diner he knew Valerie frequented. Or at least used to frequent. They walked inside and requested a table for two. The dining room was sparsely attended, unsurprising since it was far too early for any kind of dinner rush to have begun. A waitress saw them to their table and filled up a water glass for each of them. After taking a quick drink order she disappeared again.

“Mom took me here once, after she helped me pick out my apartment,” said Valerie, finally breaking the ice.

“I miss her too, Val,” said Alex softly.

“Yeah, well... at least you held yourself together instead of going to pieces afterwards.”

The waitress returned with their drinks. Alex and Valerie both ordered salads as their entrees. Once she’d left again, Alex looked over at his little sister. Really looked at her. It wasn’t the grime that had made her look so awful when she’d opened her front door, Alex now realized. She was missing something; something Alex had always just taken for granted would be there. “I haven’t been coping that well either. I actually destroyed a computer yesterday evening,” he said. Had that really been just yesterday? It felt like months ago.

“I quit med school and threw away any future I might have ever salvaged. Yay, I win.” Valerie chugged her entire glass of water like she wished it were something harder.

“Oh, come on Val. Your next semester starts in less than a month,” said Alex. “...right?”

"What if it didn't?" asked Valerie staring down at her place mat and rolling the water glass back and forth between her hands.

“What do you mean ‘what if it didn’t?’”

“...I’m not going back to medical school, Alex.”

“What?” asked Alex. He was far too shocked to react in a coherent fashion.

“Why would I bother?” asked Valerie. “I went into medicine because I dreamed that one day I’d find the cure for cancer, or the common cold, or something like that. Now thanks to you and the PON-E Act, there isn’t going to be any more cancer, or any other degenerative disease. Nobody will die of anything unless they choose to. Grants for medical research have already started to dry up.”

“What, so it’s somehow my fault you decided to quit?” asked Alex, trying and failing to keep the undercurrent of anger out of his voice.

“No! Well, maybe a little bit. I’m not saying you did anything bad though. In fact, you and Celestia did so much good that you don’t really need me any more. Everything I studied and trained for... what’s the point of any of it?”

Val fell silent as the waitress returned with their meals. Alex looked down at what he’d ordered. It hadn’t turned out anything like he’s expected; far more cheese, egg, and bacon than he reasonably hoped to see in anything calling itself a salad.

“Val...”

“I’m going to upload, Alex.”

The forkful of salad fell away from Alex’s mouth. “That seems a bit premature, Val.”

“Is it? What’s left here for me? I can still stay in touch with you and Dad and my friends from Equestria. Hell, I can even see Mom again. Celestia made her once, I’m sure if I asked she could make-”

“That wasn’t Mom,” interrupted Alex. "Mom didn’t ever upload.”

“Well you could have fooled me,” hissed Val. “In fact Celestia did fool me, for a little while. Know what? If I have to choose between a ‘real’ world without Mom and a ‘fake’ one with her in it guess which one I’m going to pick?”

Alex didn’t have an easy answer to that. “But... It’s not real...”

“It’s real enough Alex. Real enough,” said Val before slumping down in her seat.

Five bites into his meal, Alex found that he didn’t have much of an appetite anymore. “So that’s it. You’re going to leave me just like Mom did.”

Valerie choked on her salad. She coughed and hacked as Alex sat back regretting his words. “Fuck you, Alex. Don’t try to guilt me like that. Yeah, I’m going. Thanks for making it an easy decision.” She stood up from the table.

“Val, wait,” said Alex, while Valerie stormed away towards the exit. Alex tossed a few twenties onto the table and stood up to chase after her, but Valerie was already out the front door. He dashed after her, shoving the door open as he did. “Wait! Don’t go!”

Something tackled him from the side, knocking him down to the sidewalk. When Alex regained his senses and got a good look at his assailant, he discovered that it was Valerie. She clutched at him as she buried her face into his side and sobbed. “I’m sorry, Alex. I’m just... it hurts so much. I don’t hurt in Equestria. I want to be there all the time, it’s just so much better there.”

Alex couldn’t think of anything to say, so he just rubbed her head while she cried into his chest and tried to ignore the stares of passers-by.

“It’s fine, Val,” he said. “Just hang it there and everything will turn out-”

“No it won’t,” Val interrupted. “It won’t be fine, not ever again. Nothing is going to bring back Mom, or my future, so what’s the point?”

Alex wished, more than anything, that he had an answer to that question.

Instead he drove her back to her apartment sooner than he had expected to. Extracting a half-hearted promise that she at least wouldn’t upload without calling him first, Alex left for the city. His mind buzzed with things he could have said, but nothing that would have countered his sister’s decision. He’d just have to hope something changed in the next few weeks before he lost another family member forever.

 
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