“The Coldest Winter” – A Walker Chronicle

Posted: 15th September 2013 by Jason Kristopher in My Work
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For readers of my The Dying of the Light series, you’ll know that there’s a lot of story to tell in this world. Nearly endless amounts of story, in fact. I created The Walker Chronicles to tell some of the stories that got skipped over in the books; they’re the ‘deleted scenes,’ if you will. So far, there have only been two: Whatever Happened to Thomas J. Reynolds? and Outbreak One: Washington Territory.

Update: The Coldest Winter is now a part of The Walker Chronicles: Tales from The Dying of the Light.


The Coldest Winter (Cover)The Coldest Winter

by Jason Kristopher

Belzec Auxiliary Extermination Camp
Poland, 1942

Jack crouched in the low scrub brush between the trees and peered through his binoculars at the wire mesh of the fence, two hundred yards beyond the treeline. Previously, he had felt disgust when seeing the prisoners held at this sub-camp of Belzec, but now… now he just felt pity, and wanted to help them.

“Not that they would even know if I did,” he said.

“What was that, sir?” asked Lev, one of his corporals.

Captain Jack Randall realized that he’d spoken out loud. “Nothing, kid.”

The young corporal merely grunted in response, and Jack eyed the camp laid out in the forest before them. He motioned for the rest of the team to move forward. The men glided through the trees, silently taking up their positions to either side. Randall took pride in the stealth of his men. No rattles from loose equipment, no reflections glinting off an uncovered iron sight, and no twigs broken beneath a careless step.

You’d hear a mouse fart before you’d hear my guys, he thought. Well done, fellas. Now, if I could just figure out what to do here.

His orders hadn’t really been too clear about the prisoners, but he had a feeling he knew what the colonel had been trying to say, without actually coming out with it. Fact is, there was only one thing he could do here, and everyone knew it. And, of course, that was the one thing he’d been rather pointedly not ordered to do. What a mess, he thought.

The men waited, cold and shivering in the Polish winter. As he looked across the cleared space between their position and the wire, he realized just what the war had done to him. He thought back on the carnage and destruction he’d not only witnessed but also personally wrought; families wrenched apart, children dead from stray bullets, and whole cities lying in ashes, all because they made convenient stopping points for one army or another. He’d been changed forever; even the literal dead walking around in their pens a short run away had no impact on him now.

 “It’s not right, Cap’n,” said Lev. “We should help these people.”

“Really, Mr. Grossman?” retorted Randall. “And how, exactly, would you suggest we do that, Rabbi?”

As the only Jew in the squad, Grossman had picked up the nickname fairly quickly, despite or, perhaps, because of his objections. When Lev didn’t reply, Randall nodded.

“Not even you know what to do with them, do you? It’s not like we can send them home,” he whispered. “Or anywhere else, for that matter.”

“I know that, it’s just—”

“Take a good long look at them, corporal. Go on, look!”

Lev turned back to the ‘prisoners,’ and Randall could see him bite back the nausea. They were clearly, definitely dead, and yet… and yet they moved when they heard a noise, or when one of the guards passed by, staying well out of grapple range. Their bodies had been ravaged by unknown chemical cocktails created by Josef Mengele, with their bones standing out from their flesh, their shaven heads bent and slack, the skin peeling and rotting away in places.

Zombies, he thought. Walkers. Five thousand of them, give or take. How can even the Nazis create such monsters?

Suddenly, the noise of a truck engine came through the trees, and Randall signaled for everyone to take cover. His men disappeared into the brush and snow, taking cover where they could, and he dropped flat, keeping an eye on the camp through his binoculars. The area around the camp was fairly flat, all things considered, but they’d managed to find a slight rise in the terrain and he had a pretty good view of the camp. The only way he’d find better would be to climb a tree, and he was way too old for that.

The covered cargo truck stopped at the entry checkpoint, then proceeded inside the camp proper, where it backed up to one end of a low, wooden structure. The building had several exits into the pens, and though the walkers—as the brass called them—obscured some of his vision, he could make out observation windows along the length of it.

The truck driver stepped down from the cab and lit a cigarette, watching with little interest as the two guards in the back of the truck let down the gate and began pushing and pulling people out into the cold. Randall could see some identifying patches on the Jews, some in the familiar dress of the Romani, some in peasant clothing, all scared, stick-thin, and shivering.

The guards were met by others from inside the building, and the new prisoners were herded inside. Randall couldn’t make out what happened next, but whatever it was, it didn’t take long. The doors along the side were opened in sequence, and a new prisoner was shoved out of each one. They began screaming and beating on the glass of the window or door immediately, but it did them little good. The walkers were on them in moments, and Randall turned away, barely holding down his meager Army-ration breakfast.

“What is it, captain?” Lev hissed from a few feet away.

Randall just shook his head, closing his eyes and trying to force the images from his mind, trying not to think, to feel, to imagine. They… they fed them to the walkers. Monsters! He wanted to attack, to wipe them out, both the walkers and the Germans, but age provides wisdom, and he knew it would be pointless. Besides, they weren’t here for that. Their mission was to gather intelligence only, so the brass could kick it up the chain and the boys back in Washington or London or wherever could make the call.

Somedays, it just doesn’t pay to be in Unit 73, he thought. Movement caught his eye as he glanced back at the camp, and he raised the binoculars once more. A tall man in an Schutzstaffel uniform swaggered toward the pen nearest the end of the building, talking to another man, bundled in cold weather gear. Randall would’ve bet money the second man was a scientist of some sort, and he recognized the SS officer’s rank as that of an Oberführer, or senior colonel. Clearly, this was the guy running the show at this camp. Randall strained his hearing, but couldn’t make out what they were discussing. Dammit. We need to hear this.

“Alright, Rabbi, you’re up,” he whispered to Lev, who lay nearby. Not only was the corporal the quietest man on the team, he was also the only one who spoke more than passable German, and Randall had a feeling he’d need it. “I need you to tell me what they’re saying, son.”

Lev looked at him, then back at the 200 yards of open ground between the treeline and the camp fence, and back at him, then swore when it was clear Randall meant it. He crawled out of his gear and began inching his way forward across the snowy ground.

At least they don’t have spotlights, thought Randall.

It was a good ten minutes before the Rabbi returned, and only after the camp commander and scientist had gone their separate ways. Lev shivered, wrapping himself in his gear and heavy coat once more, blowing on his hands. Randall looked at him pointedly, and the young man sighed.

“I heard, but you’re not going to like it, captain.”

“No doubt.”

“They’re working on air-dropping them.” He said it matter-of-factly, as though dropping zombies from planes with automatic parachutes was the most normal thing in the world.

“Right. Fall back,” Randall said, signaling to the other men, who were no doubt as cold and tired as he was.

“Fall back, sir? But what about…”

“That’s an order, corporal. They’re not going anywhere.” He sighed. “Moretti is not going to be happy about this.”

Allied Headquarters
London

Moretti wasn’t just unhappy, he was pissed. “Son of a bitch!” He said, stomping around the desk and sending the trash can flying with one swift kick, papers scattering through the air like startled birds. “You’re sure that’s what this SS colonel said?”

“That’s what the message says, sir,” said his aide. “I decrypted it twice myself.”

Moretti threw himself down into the chair, scrubbing both hands across his eyes and groaning. “Do you have any idea the shitstorm this is gonna bring down on everything? These assholes are manufacturing walkers. And they want to drop them out of goddamned planes.”

“That’s about the size of it, sir.”

“Well, we damned sure can’t let that happen.” Moretti stood up once more, grabbing Randall’s report from his desk. “Come on. Let’s go give the general the good news.”

His aide blanched. “General Eisenhower, sir?”

“Did I stutter?”

“It’s just… he doesn’t like me, sir.”

“Well, corporal, he’s not gonna like me either, after I give him this.”

Belzec Auxiliary Extermination Camp
Poland

Randall raised a nearly-full tankard of the local beer to his lips, enjoying, for the moment, being in a warm house and out of the cold. He and his men were taking shelter in a local sympathizer’s home, free from the prying eyes of the German patrols. His team were all sacked out, eating, or drinking alongside him, except for the Rabbi, who was pulling radio duty. Randall tried not to think about the warmth of his southern California home, even during the depths of winter, and concentrated instead on the strong beer.

The door crashed open, the frigid wind billowing snow inside and causing more than a few muttered—and some not-so-muttered—curses from the men. Randall glanced at the snow-dusted corporal as he entered, but didn’t so much as pause his drinking. Waste not, want not, he thought. He licked the foam from his lips as he set down the tankard. “I take it you’ve got something, corporal?”

“Yes, sir,” said Lev, shrugging out of his coat and handing Randall a radio message with one hand and grabbing a bowl for the stew heating over the fire with the other. “Came in just as I was about to close up shop, sir.”

Randall unfolded the message, glancing around at the men, who were suddenly alert, even those that had been sound asleep mere moments before. It was a simple set of orders, for a change.

INTEL REC’D. OP IMMINENT. HOLD POSITION, OBSERVE TARGET, AWAIT ORDERS. -73

‘OP IMMINENT?’ he thought. What the hell does… oh, shit. He looked around at the expectant faces. Gotta tell them something. Rabbi’s gonna talk, anyway. “Okay, fellas, here’s the deal. Higher says they’ve got something in the works for our friends up the road. No telling when, but we’re to sit tight and wait for further orders. And no, Carlyle, I don’t know what they’re thinking,” he said as one of the men started to speak up. “You know as much as I do. But I can bet it won’t be pretty. So we’re gonna keep an eye on things until we get word. For now, get some rest and we’ll take another look tonight. Any questions?”

There was a chorus of ‘nosirs’ and the men spread out to their pallets, bedding down for the day. It’s gonna be another long night, he thought.

Allied Headquarters
London

Colonel Moretti looked up as his aide walked in and took a seat. “There’s a call for you, colonel,” the corporal said. “General Eisenhower, sir. I thought I’d stay in case you needed anything.”

Moretti grunted and shook his head to clear it after being deep in reports from his operatives spread over what felt like half of Europe, and picked up the secure landline. “Colonel Moretti here, sir. I see. Yes, sir. Two weeks, sir? That’ll… yes, sir. I understand. Will do, sir.” He sighed as he put the phone down and began scribbling on a pad, ripping off the sheet when he was done and handing it to the other man. “Corporal, get this to the boys at Belzec, pronto.”

“Yes, sir.” The aide glanced down at the note as he stood, and shook his head.

OP DELAYED 2 WKS MIN. MAINTAIN POSITION. REPORT ACTIVITY. PHOENIX. -73

“Problem?” asked Moretti.

The corporal started to reply, then merely shook his head again, clearly changing his mind about speaking up. “No, sir.”

“Out with it, Roger.”

“It’s just… we know what they’re doing. Our men are in position to take action. Why the delay?”

Moretti stood, walking to the window and looking down at the busy London street below. “What sort of action would you have them take? There’s only 8 of them.”

“I’m not suggesting a straight-up assault, sir, even for your men. But what about an infiltration? Sneak in, take them out from the inside?”

“To what end?”

“Sir?”

“What would be the point, corporal?” Moretti folded his hands behind his back, his voice taking on a somber tone. “Would you like to know what Colonel Trace told me, just before he retired as head of Unit 73?”

“What, sir?”

“‘You can’t put the genie back in the bottle.’ What he meant was that the walkers are here, and they’re here to stay. We can’t take them all out, and, eventually, unless we prepare ourselves adequately, we will lose everything.”

“So, you’re saying that even if we took out this one outbreak, there will be others.”

“Exactly.”

“Well, sir, how can we ‘prepare ourselves adequately?’ What can we do?”

Moretti turned from the window. “Your wife, Roger, what’s her name, again?”

“Edith, sir.”

“Right, Edith. Here’s what you do, Roger. After the war’s over, when you muster out, you take Edith and get yourself a place somewhere in the middle of nowhere. Arizona, maybe, or Texas. You raise little George to be smart, questioning everything. You train him, and your wife. You live, Roger. That’s the best preparation you can make.”

“Yes, sir. Thank you sir.”

“If you stay in, you’ll make a good officer one day, Mr. Maxwell. If not… well, I’m sure you’ll be just fine. Now see to that message.”

“Yes, sir,” said the corporal, glancing down at the note once more as he closed the colonel’s door behind him. What the hell was that all about? He wondered. And what does ‘PHOENIX’ mean?

Belzec Auxiliary Extermination Camp
Poland

Another message, another delay, thought Randall as he prepared for the night’s scouting activities. I wish higher would get their ass in— wait a minute… ‘PHOENIX’? Good Christ! He sat down hard on the barrel in the corner of the room, and its tortured creak resounded in the suddenly still room. He knew they were looking at him, especially the Rabbi, who’d handed him the decrypted message, but he couldn’t look away. Finally, he found his voice.

“Murphy, break out the tank.” When no one moved, he looked over at the burly sergeant, standing stock still near the door. “Sergeant?” Expressionless as always, Murphy didn’t bat an eye. He merely cocked his head in the captain’s direction, and glanced downward. Which was when Randall remembered just what was in the barrel he was sitting on. He stood up quickly and moved to one side, and the sergeant strode over.

“We’re… we’re using that sir?” asked Carlyle. “Really?”

“Top won’t get off his ass, so Moretti’s given us a green light… of sorts.” He looked over as Murphy broke open the barrel and began assembling the flamethrower that had somehow miraculously survived the paratrooper’s jump into the area weeks ago. They’d been able to scrounge some fuel from various cars and trucks in the area, and the pressurized nitrogen gas canisters had been included in the gear of some of the troopers. Murphy was the only one big enough to lug it without it slowing him down, so he drew the short straw.

“We’re going to take out the smaller camp. Murph here will burn the walkers in their pens while we cover him. That means you and the Rabbi, Carlyle, are going up a couple of the trees with your rifles. The rest of us will hijack one of the transports and take them from the inside.”

“There’s gotta be twenty guys in there, captain, not including the scientists…” said Carlyle.

Randall just looked at him. “Did you volunteer for this outfit, Carlyle?”

“Yes, sir. We all did, sir.”

“Well, did you think it would be a cakewalk?”

“No, sir, but a suicide mission isn’t my style, sir.”

“Suicide? There’s only twenty of them. That’s nearly 2-to-1 odds, Carlyle. You’re a goddamned US Army paratrooper, man!” Randall looked around at the other men. “How about the rest of you? Any problems with these orders?” No one spoke, and no one so much as glanced at Carlyle. “That’s what I figured. Looks like you’re the odd man out. Besides, you’ll be up a tree; stay a good shot, and you’ve got nothing to worry about.”

Carlyle had the grace to look chagrined. “Yes, sir.”

“Now, let’s figure out the rest of this mess,” Randall said, and spread out a map on the table.

The ride was bumpy in the back of the covered transport truck, and the prisoners were scared. Randall didn’t know if they were more afraid of him than the Germans, but he couldn’t tell them much more than przyjaciel – Polish for ‘friend’ – and hope they got the point. I’m sure telling them they can’t leave the truck really helped that idea along.

The truck slowed, and he knew they’d come to the gates of the camp. He motioned for everyone to get down, but apparently the guards just waved them through, as no one took a look under the flap. It was bitterly cold that evening though, so it didn’t come as much of a surprise.

The truck began backing up to the building, and Randall and his men got the civilians to take cover as best as they could, ducking underneath the seats and toward the front of the truck as much as possible. Quietly, he and the troopers readied their Thompson submachine guns and took positions as the truck parked and the driver shut it down.

Was ist los?” came a voice as the building door opened and shut.

Now that the engine was quiet, Randall heard in the distance a single hoot from an owl—the team’s prearranged signal for the number of guards meeting the truck. He slung his gun and drew his combat knife instead, waiting for the guard to peel back the truck’s cover. Flinging it up and to one side, the guard barely had time to gasp in surprise before Randall’s blade took him point-first under the chin, with the other troopers hauling the luckless man inside the truck, where he flopped on the floorboards for a moment before finally going still.

Randall was surprised that none of the prisoners cried out, but they looked like they’d seen worse. Plus, hey, I just killed a German. One sure way of making them realize we’re on their side. The troopers piled out of the truck, dropping down and out of view of the windows in the building, the bulk of the truck blocking them from easy view of the bunkhouse and colonel’s quarters on the other side.

Randall made a circling motion in the general direction of the treeline where he knew Carlyle and the Rabbi were perched, and got two single hoots in return. Randall grinned. Lotta owls out tonight, I guess. “You two, take the building. Can’t be more than a few in there. You two, with me,” he said. “Move out.”

The two snipers were covering them and Murphy, who even now would be moving quickly across the no man’s land from the treeline to the fence, readying his flamethrower. The other two troopers entered the lab building, and he and his men headed for the bunkhouse in a crouching run, staying to the shadows as much as possible. As they got closer, Randall realized how fortunate they were that their target only had one entrance. They each took two grenades off their belts as Randall carefully opened the door on the dark interior, tossing all six inside and running for the colonel’s quarters.

Time seemed to slow for Captain Jack Randall as several things happened at once. He saw the night brighten considerably with a reddish-orange glow as Murphy’s weapon spat flaming liquid in an arc more than a hundred feet long, easily reaching from the camp fence to every corner of the walker pens, sweeping back and forth and setting the dead alight.

He heard the crack of a rifle, then a second, as his snipers took out curious guards that got too close. Finally, there was a massive explosion behind him, and the sky lit up again as he whipped around to see the entire bunkhouse reduced to an expanding cloud of splinters and flame. What the hell were they storing in there? No way to know now. At least I know we don’t have to go searching for survivors.

He brought up his Thompson as they neared the colonel’s quarters. His ears were still ringing from the blast, but he could hear the nearly-continuous crack of the sniper’s rifles, and his smile was grim. He didn’t even twitch as the SS colonel came bursting out of his quarters, trying to look in ten directions at once, settling on the American paratroopers in front of him as they simultaneously squeezed their triggers. The .45-caliber rounds from the rugged submachine guns tore him all but in half and peppered the building behind him.

“Clear that building,” Randall said, turning to take cover and keep an eye out for guards as his men entered the structure. The pace of the snipers’ shots was slowing, and then stopped altogether. The whipsaw action of Murphy’s flamethrower was quiescent, too, indicating he’d run out of fuel. Randall’s troopers emerged from the colonel’s quarters a moment later.

“All clear, sir,” one said.

“Move out,” he replied, and they ran once more, back to the lab building. As they neared the entrance, Randall could see flames along the wall it shared with the now-smoldering pens. That was one problem with flamethrowers – they weren’t exactly precision weapons. Time to get out of here, he thought, and threw open the door. He glanced in, but couldn’t see anything other than bare white walls and a turn at the end of a corridor.

“Let’s finish this,” he said, moving inside. They entered in staggered formation, each covering the man behind as they leapfrogged through the building. Bodies were everywhere, some in various states of decay, some rather fresher, wearing white lab coats and all very, very still. As they passed through the first section, Randall became nervous. Where are all the guards?

He opened the door leading into the other half of the building, and the answer became abundantly clear as a bullet ricocheted off the wall next to his head, accompanied by shouting in German. He threw the door wide, diving for cover in a bay set off to one side of the main room. Taking stock, he realized that this half of the building was one big room, with various exam rooms branching off of it. The Germans must be hiding in a bay just like this at the other end.

“Careful, sir!” yelled one of the troopers he’d sent into the building from up ahead somewhere. “They’ve barricaded themselves behind some lab equipment. We don’t have a shot.”

Looks like I was right. “Use your grenades!”

“But what about the prisoners, sir?”

“They’re dead already! Either way, we can’t help them now.”

“Yes, sir!”

He heard a grunt, and then a clang as the grenade bounced off a metal obstruction and landed. He covered his ears and yelled “Fire in the hole!” The concussion wave hit mere moments later, and he was fairly certain that it was much bigger than it should’ve been… or maybe it just seemed that way, in the enclosed space. Either way, no more rounds were zinging past his head.

“Clear, sir!”

He motioned the other men forward, and they leapfrogged once more to the first two troopers, staying in cover, just in case. Randall looked down at the injured man, Fredericks. “You okay, son?”

“I’m fine, sir, just hurts like a sonofabitch. One of those fuckers bit me, sir!”

Randall went very still. “Say again, son?”

“Shit. I didn’t even think about… Dammit.” Fredericks reached into a pocket, drawing out a sealed letter. Just like the one Randall and all the other men carried in their own pockets. He looked up at Randall. “For my sister, in Iowa, sir. It’s been an honor, sir.”

“I’ll see that she gets it, son. And the honor was all mine.” Randall didn’t so much as flinch as he drew his pistol and shot Fredericks once, in the side of the head. The other troopers were stunned only for a brief moment, but to their credit none said a word. They’d all known the facts, once they’d signed on with Unit 73.

Zombies are real. They will do anything to bite you. If you’re bitten, you’ll turn. Cut off the head or destroy the brain – that’s the only way to stop them. They all knew what it meant, and they’d agreed to do the same for any member of the unit.

That didn’t mean it hurt any less to have to kill a brother.

“Pick him up. Let’s get out of here.” One of the other troopers picked up their fallen brother in a fireman’s carry, and they moved out of the building. As they exited, the first thing Randall noticed was that the truck was gone. Well, no surprise there. I hope they make it somewhere safe. The second thing he noticed was the smell, and he wasn’t the only one.

He thought he heard retching, but he didn’t turn to find out for sure. “Hastings, go find us that colonel’s command car. Might as well ride out of here in style.” The trooper ran off to retrieve the dead SS colonel’s personal vehicle, and Randall made sure all his men were accounted for. Except for Murphy and the snipers – they’d make their own way to the rally point.

He thought he could hear an alarm from over the hill in the direction of the main Belzec encampment, and climbed into the car as Hastings pulled up. “Time to get gone, boys.” He glanced back only once, making sure the lab building was good and burning. Wouldn’t do to leave evidence behind. Wonder what Moretti will think of this?

Allied Headquarters
London

Corporal Maxwell knocked once and entered Colonel Moretti’s office, where the other man was on the phone. He set the cup of coffee down on the man’s desk, and Moretti nodded his thanks.

“Yes, sir, general sir. I’ve recalled them, per your orders, sir. I agree, but in this case… no, sir. I… yes, sir. And you, sir.” Moretti hung up and massaged his temples. “Roger, if I ever accept a promotion to general of anything, will you please shoot me?”

“With pleasure, sir.”

“You don’t have to sound quite so happy about it.”

“Sorry, sir. Quite a mess, isn’t it, sir?”

“More than you know, Maxwell, more than you know. They destroyed an enemy camp, lost a man, and killed over five thousand walkers.”

“Pardon me, sir, but apart from the lost paratrooper, that sounds like a win for our side, sir.”

“Oh, it is, don’t get me wrong! It just puts us in a difficult spot.”

“How so, sir?”

“Well, when this is all over, you don’t think the Germans will just say ‘Oops, sorry, we didn’t mean to mass-produce zombies?’” Moretti sighed and sat back. “No, it will go unacknowledged and unremarked by virtually everyone. And our job will be harder than ever. Don’t be fooled; that wasn’t the only camp the Nazis had, I’m sure. They’ll take care of the others, but who knows if they’ll do it right? All it takes I sone… and then it’s all over. As for our men, oh, they’ll take care of them, but quietly, without fanfare, and without anyone knowing what it actually was that they did.”

“But, well, sir, isn’t that kind of the point?”

“Of Unit 73, you mean?” When the corporal nodded, Moretti leaned forward, resting his elbows on his desk. “You’re sharper than you look, Mr. Maxwell.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Yes, this will get buried under the rug, and no one but us will know about it until… well, whenever the problem becomes to big to ignore, though let’s hope that’s not for a long, long time. And when that day comes… well, I’ve got some ideas. You know, Hitler’s got a bunker under Berlin?”

“So I’ve heard, sir. Seems like a good idea, having a hidey-hole you can retreat to in a pinch.”

Moretti eyed the young man once more, weighing a clearly important decision. “What are you doing after the war, son?”

“Well, sir, I’ve been thinking about that piece of land in the middle of nowhere, like you suggested.”

“Horrible thought, isn’t it? Being so far from the action?”

Maxwell grinned. “That’s exactly what I was thinking, sir.”

“I’m glad. So that’s settled then. You’re in. But bear this in mind, when you’re in, you’re in, son. There’s no backing out. You’ll be with me the whole way; I need someone I can trust. What do you say?”

“I say, what did you have in mind, sir?”

“Good man. Now, let me show you something I’ve been working on for a little while now,” Moretti said, pulling a large, rolled up paper tube from the shelf behind him and spreading it out on his desk.

On the map of the US were ten clearly-marked locations, spread across the country. Maxwell’s eye caught on one near his hometown of Tacoma, Washington marked ‘No 1 – Mount Rainier’ and he looked back up at the colonel.

Moretti tapped the map with a finger. “I want to talk to you about Project Phoenix.”

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