24. The Plants Themselves

by anna//bool

Tags: #cw:noncon #D/s #dom:female #Human_Domestication_Guide #petplay #slow_burn #sub:female #anxiety #dom:imperialism #dom:internalized_imperialism #dom:plant #drugs #f/f #hurt/comfort #hypnotic_voice #nonbinary_character #ownership_dynamics #panic_attacks #pov:bottom #pov:multiple #pov:top #scifi #sub:the_horror_of_existence_in_a_caring_universe #transgender_characters

Chapter Twenty Four: The Plants Themselves

Now, we’re going to count you back up to ten, okay, sweetie? With each number, you’ll feel yourself becoming more and more awake.

One. Two. Three. Four. Five.

A little break here, just to rest, hmn? You’ve been answering a lot of questions and you’d like a glass of water.

Katie took the oversized glass in both hands. Drink. She gulped down a few mouthfuls of clean, soft water, and then a few more as her conscious mind caught up to how good it was and how much she needed it.

“This’s… weird,” Katie slurred. She could hear the doctor, and she could feel Thatch, but she couldn’t see anything, really. There was just noise around her. It was a strange kind of noise, like it meant something. Like what it meant was just on the tip of her tongue, and if she spent just a moment more looking she’d realise what it was. Katie felt the glass slipping through her fingers.

No, no, little one. Focus on me. We’re counting up, not down. You don’t need to worry about anything but following along, hmn? Count with me, now.

“Six,” Katie whispered. She knew which number came next. She was leading the count, wasn’t she?

“Seven.” No, she wasn’t. Of course seven came after, and after seven there was… It was like forbidden knowledge. Katie knew she knew this, but it just wouldn’t come. Strange, when so much else would. Doing what she could do was as easy as breathing.

“Eight.” It was her speaking, but it wasn’t her choice. This wasn’t somebody speaking through her. She could remember the lightning-fast question and answer session she’d just been through with crystal clear clarity. Those had been her answers simply given far faster than she could have done alone. A full day’s interview had just taken place over the course of an hour. Katie could appreciate the efficiency. She still couldn’t remember what number came next.

“Nine.” Of course nine had come next. The last count was on the tip of her tongue, but no matter how she strained, it wouldn’t come. No matter what approach Katie took, no matter how she tricked her brain into finding it, the final figure failed to materialise.

Here we are, now, cutie. Right on the edge. One more number and you’ll be in charge of yourself again. Get that independence you so crave, right? All the responsibility and all the pressure. Wouldn’t it be easier to—

The voice paused. Katie turned, sightlessly, to look towards Thatch by sixth-sense alone. “Ah, of course, I— Oh, one moment, let’s get her disconnected.”

“Ten.” Katie took a deep breath, eyes going wide as the force of her own cognition slammed into her like a girl hitting a burning bulkhead. Her breaths sped up, hands rising to tear the visor off of her head and yank free the little metal disc. It was too dark her head was reeling and she could feel the flames licking her skin and—

An arm caught her. Katie buried herself deep, breathing hard, while her emotions slowly normalised. The soft beat of Thatch’s body was a riot, matching Katie’s own panic note for note, but slowly calming. With it, came Katie.

“I’m terribly sorry, I hadn’t intended that to be a negative experience. Are you okay, Miss Sahas?” asked the deep, rumbling voice of the doctor. After such a long interview it was weird for Katie to hear it with her ears, and not simply have it as a voice inside her head.

Katie wasn’t sure how to respond, but thankfully Thatch came to her rescue. “I suspect that it was not, Glochi. Poor Katie here has been struggling with some of the experiences in our recent misadventures. Truth be told, as have I, but I am confident that things will be dealt with now that we’re here.”

Katie’s racing heart was gradually slowed to a resting pace, and her breath returned to a sustainable depth. She managed to sit back up, to give the doctor an apologetic smile. “Sorry. Yeah, not you. You did fine. That was… yeah. Head stuff. Harder to fix than body stuff, right?”

“Not at all,” Glochi replied, with a smile and an offered disc. “Cutting out an unwanted memory or ten is delicate work, but in many ways easier than setting a bone.”

Katie stared at the disc. Was this how they did it? Was this why humanity had fallen so quickly? Sweet, tempting offers of oblivion? Struggling with trauma? Just let me rewrite you. With that disc on her temple and the visor over her eyes, Katie would go along with it, too. It wouldn’t even occur to her to question it.

She shivered, realising just how much trust she’d placed in the doctor without really considering the details of what she was doing. She shook her head rapidly, but thankfully, Thatch stepped in to rescue her yet again.

“Last I checked, the xenodrug regime necessary for that to stick safely is a little beyond Miss Sahas’s tolerance right now. Additionally, I suspect she is still acclimatising to such ideas, and it may be best to revisit that option at a later date.” Thatch’s hand quietly drew Katie back in, holding her head against soft leaves.

“As you wish.” The doctor nodded his assent, flicked the disc into the air, and— Katie lost track of it almost immediately, but it was gone, replaced with the previously promised treat which he held out in offering. Katie took it. “I’ve also done a few more traditional therapy sessions in my lifetime,” he replied, with a grin. “Regardless of your tolerances, I’m sure we can find a way to comfortably work together, Katie. Don’t hesitate to send a message if you want to organise something, or just pop by whenever and I’ll be with you when I can.”

He leaned over, and continued with a stage whisper. “I’d appreciate your company, to be honest. Humour an old man like me with some stories and I’m sure I could give you some in return.” His smile was as infectious as it ever had been. Katie’s nod hardly felt less compelled than it had been under the hypnotics, but it was hard to mind.

“Sure,” she replied. “Once I find out how messages work, anyway.”

He winked. “I believe that’s next.” He glanced up at Thatch, extending a vine to entangle in what seemed to be a fairly commonplace gesture here. “Do you know where habitation engineering is? Erica Erigin and her florets?”

Thatch glanced up as if surprised, blinked, and shook her head. “Oh, no, I brought my hab along with me, I am afraid, I have never had occasion to meet them. Could I trouble you for directions? My communicator is lost somewhere in this star system, I suspect. I do hope it’s working well enough to be found, but the lack of it does leave me without guidance.”

The doctor rummaged around in a drawer for a moment before pulling out a small pink object in the shape of a stylised flower. He tapped it a few times, then leaned down to place it in Katie’s hands. “How about you take this, then. It belonged to a very dear friend of mine, but it has been in that drawer for far too long. I would be honoured if you would help it continue its journey.”

Katie looked down at the item. She wasn’t sure what it felt like, other than perhaps the flower that it clearly was not. Four pastel yellow leaf-like objects sprouted from a flat, round middle section that was itself a very pastel shade of light blue inset with an endlessly complicated pattern in a slightly darker blue. These plants sure did like their fractals.

Katie looked up, a curious tilt to her head.

“Just tell it what you want to do. Start with your name, cutie.”

“Uh, okay. Hello… flower? I’m Katie.” She felt silly, talking to something like this, but it wasn’t even the weirdest thing she’d done in the last hour.

{Greetings, Katie! I am a basic communications device compliant with all eighteen thousand six hundred and nine relevant standards and requirements for use by ward species of the Affini Compact,} the device chirped in a shockingly realistic human voice which Katie could not even begin to place the accent of. She held it a little further away, but after a short moment, it kept speaking. {I’ve established a connection with the Affini Light Scout, Elettarium. Is this your home?}

Wow. That was one hell of a question. Was this her home now? Katie had nowhere else to go. Katie knew all of six people aboard and trusted maybe two of them, but that was better than anywhere else in the galaxy. The real answer was probably that Katie was home-less, but that her best option was to try to make a home here. She suspected that the little device wouldn’t handle her philosophising all that well, though, so she simply answered, “Yeah, I guess so.”

Thatch’s vine squeezed her hand.

{Okay, that’s all synced up with your paperwork, cutie! Your file currently doesn’t list an owner, would you like my help fixing that?}

The center of the flower resolved into a stream of pictures. Some inexplicable kind of display technology that Katie couldn’t even begin to figure out showed endlessly detailed photographs of a seemingly endless stream of affini. Katie wasn’t sure she could tell any of them apart without the names or brief biographies displayed alongside. Underneath each entry was a pulsing button that raised slightly above the surface of the ‘screen’, displaying “Adopt me!!!!” or similar. No two buttons had the same number of exclamation marks.

“Uh, no, thank you,” Katie replied. “And can you make the wording be a little less… embarrassing?”

The machine seemed to take an unusually long amount of time before responding, as if processing the idea of an independent creature was somehow challenging for it. {Updating language setting from English/Floret to English/Boring. Helpfulness disengaged.}

Katie couldn’t escape the feeling that the machine was being petulant, but that was ridiculous. It was just a machine. “Cool, thank you.” She turned to Glochi. “What do I do with it now?”

“Ask for directions to Miss. Erigin, who I imagine is already prepared for your arrival. She does most of the habitat building around here.”

Katie did just that and the device sprung back to life, wordlessly displaying a map on the screen and lighting up one of the leaves. Katie did an experimental spin, and the light shifted to always point towards the room’s exit. A guide, then. “I guess I’ll be seeing you later, then, doc,” Katie said, with a smile that somehow didn’t feel like it was crushed beneath the weight of his. What a strange man. Impossible to dislike, it seemed. Katie popped the lollipop into her mouth as she left, and could have sworn she felt the grin widening as she gave an appreciative moan.

Katie led the way with Thatch in tow, leaving the room with her focus on the map. They hadn’t gotten more than a few feet away before Katie made the mistake of glancing upwards. She lost her footing, slipping and nearly falling, though of course she was caught and set back onto her feet.

This wasn’t a ship. This was a city. It was unfathomable. Large in a way that things simply couldn’t be.

Katie span around to look at the building they’d just left. Glochi’s Veterinary Services: Florets welcome! towered into the air maybe thirty or forty feet, and yet it was dwarfed by its surroundings. Katie stood between two rows of buildings, each easily that large or larger, all resting on a soft floor of what seemed like actual plantlife. The path between the rows was huge, mostly covered in something akin to grass. A hundred humans could have walked side by side here, and likely dozens of affini, without anybody getting in their way. Alien trees of a dozen varieties were dotted around, providing shade and shelter, little fruits or natural seating. Smaller gardens outside many of the buildings showed off smaller sets of plants, or provided a base for vines or moss or more alien things to spread and cover the tall walls

Yet all of that paled in comparison to the sky. Dirt’s starscape hung above them like there was no upper hull at all, like the ship was simply open to the elements. Katie had seen the outside, she knew that it was not. She had seen the unbroken, if patterned, hull.

No, this wasn’t a city. This was its own small planet.

“Thatch?” Katie asked, looking over to her companion with a vine held tight.

Thatch had been looking off into the distance, but she quickly brought her focus back around to Katie. “Yes, flower?”

“How is there a sky?”

Her affini laughed, and gently pushed her forward. They started walking again. They were far from the only people on the path, but the others weren’t really paying attention to either of them. Thatch got a few glances, it seemed, but each terminated in a smile and a wave and nothing more. Perhaps it was simply obvious that they were going somewhere.

“I believe that the Terran Accord had figured out glass before we got here, Katie. You may need to be more specific.”

Katie gave the vine in her hand a sharp tug and the plant it was attached to chuckled. “Yes, yes, very well. You—” Thatch reached out, picked Katie up, and placed her half a foot to one side. She glanced down to notice she’d been about to trip over some kind of orange shrub. She glanced up at Thatch for a brief moment, and the two of them seemed to come to the wordless decision that it was best for Katie to keep her feet off of the ground while she was distracted.

Firmly in place around Thatch’s neck, Katie took her vine and started guiding them along the path suggested by her new device.

“Growing material which is transparent in one direction, opaque in the other, and strong enough to shrug off the hazards of space travel is something our Stellar Gardeners have been perfecting for tens of thousands of years, Katie. Working it into hull designs like this instead of using smaller windows is more of a modern artistic trend, I believe.” Thatch paused for a moment, considering, then continued in her usual dry tones. “Like most advancements, I suspect it began as an attempt at flirting.” It was hard to tell if she was being sarcastic, but Katie was starting to believe it could be literally true.

Katie let out a long breath, gazing upon a blanket of stars she’d thought lost to her for several long moments more. “Is ‘the hazards of space travel’ a euphemism for Casaba-Howitzers?” she asked, gently ruffling Thatch’s hair.

“I suppose.” Thatch shrugged, then tilted her head a few degrees to the side while she thought. “Also: railguns; gravity lances; phase disruptors; hypermetric kill vehicles; stellar penetrators; and, hmn. I believe the last ship I was on got clipped by one of the Xa’a-ackétøth zero-point manipulators about two hundred years back and even that didn’t quite break the hull. Space can be dangerous, but Terran space is fairly docile. I wouldn’t worry about it, Katie, you’re safer in here than you’ve ever been.”

That was hardly the point, but it seemed difficult to argue otherwise. The plan Katie and the rest of the crew of the Indomitable had been so focussed on seemed laughable, now. They’d thought that one good hit with their main gun would do some damage, but it was unclear now whether it would have even scratched the paint.

“We never stood a chance, did we?”

“I believe you had already come to that conclusion.”

The pair continued onwards in a strange kind of silence. Not uncomfortable, but all of this was very new to Katie and not new at all to Thatch. She had a million questions and every answer just raised more, but Katie needed to save her energy for the trials to come.

As they moved, it became clear that there really was no distinction between commercial and urban districts to be found. The buildings they passed were a hodgepodge of styles, types, and aesthetics. Any which had clear signage usually had the text repeated in five or six languages, one of which was usually English, though the presence of such things seemed to be no clear indicator of what the building was for either. Some seemed simply to be homes, declaring the building to be so and so’s habitation unit, or the home of a short collection of names. Others advertised some service or product, specialty ingredients or devices, in a staggering array of diversity.

There was little to no clear consistency here. Everybody was doing their own thing, and yet somehow nothing clashed. It was hard to ignore one of the few obvious patterns, however. Even down in writing, it was the Affini who came first, and Katie didn’t see a single non-affini without the word “floret” in their name.

If Katie looked away from the buildings and the signs it was hard to ignore that the rest of the population of the ship were almost exclusively pairs or small groups, and no affini was without some kind of smaller creature hanging off of its body. The affini sometimes noticed her looking and gave a smile and a wave, which Katie returned for fear of causing offense, but the other species never did. They had eyes only for their betters.

They looked happy. Not the passive kind of happiness Katie had spent her life searching for that was mostly characterised simply by a lack of misery, but an active, visceral joy, as if getting to walk at the heel of some overgrown houseplant was the very peak of their existence to date. They practically skipped, all dancing to different inaudible tunes as they gazed lovingly up at the creatures who had enslaved them.

Katie glanced down at Thatch. Was she being unfair? She was being unfair, wasn’t she? Fuck. Were these all people? It wasn’t just Thatch who was secretly real, hiding amongst a population of a trillion trillion monsters?

Fuck. Fuck!

Katie pulled the pair of them to a stop underneath something that looked somewhat like a cross between a palm tree and a bagel, positioning Thatch so that she could lean into the hole. “Can you… tell me something about Rosaceae? Something that isn’t to do with war or taking humans as pets. What does she do, otherwise?. I’m getting worried that she might have a rich inner life.” Katie was pretty sure she’d taught Thatch how sarcasm worked in Terran culture well enough for her to get it.

Her plant hummed, reaching up to brush a hand against Katie’s shin. “I do not know her very well, I am afraid. I believe she is primarily an actress, however. She used to lead the… I suppose in English the closest word would be theater, but that does not quite capture it. She is a storyteller, of sorts. A conductor who can keep a thousand planes spinning in the air to tell stories unique to their audience, though again, the words do not quite directly translate. It is a more… participatory thing than your theater. A story you experience and shape as you interact with it. I have not had the chance to experience her work for myself, but I have heard good things.”

“Ah. Great. All the others, though, their only personality traits are that they like taking sapient creatures as pets, right?” Katie sighed. Hell. The only thing worse than fighting against a change for years and still losing was, apparently, then finding out that the thing she’d been fighting against didn’t even exist. “Fuck.”

Thatch shook her head. “I can honestly say that I have never met two of my people who are exactly alike. If anything, we are individualistic almost to a fault. I suspect that the cultural inclination towards efficient, effective bureaucracy is a tacit admission that without impeccable paperwork tracking the details, our society would have collapsed long before we had reached the stars.”

Katie slumped forward, resting her chest over Thatch’s head and letting her arms drape down to her upper chest. She emitted a dramatic sigh. “And we couldn’t have that. You have so many species to rescue.” Katie rolled her eyes.

“Just so. Know this, Katie. I am not unique in my uniqueness. Everybody you meet here will be their own person with their own history, their own way of looking at the world, their own goals, and their own way of interacting with you.” Thatch gently tugged Katie’s arms, pulling the girl forward until her head hung upsidown, bringing them eye to eye. A hand atop her head kept Katie steady. “But all of us understand our responsibility. Every person on this ship would move mountains to see you kept safe and to help you be the best Katie we can help you be. If you think that we seem preoccupied with the cute creatures of this universe then you are correct, but that is just about the only shared attribute among us.”

“Pfffff,” Katie blew, waggling her legs until Thatch pushed her back up into place. “Then I guess we go see somebody else unique. Do you know this—” Katie checked the readout on her communicator— “Erica? We’re only a couple minutes out, I think. How do you all deal with things being so far away?”

Thatch shrugged, again, with a rush of air that was almost like a sigh. “I don’t, unfortunately, so we shall learn about them together. If we were in a rush, we could have taken a magrail shuttle, but I suspected you would not mind the walk and so did not suggest it. Also, until you tell the registry your acceleration preferences it seems that it will assume I’m assisting you, so if you wish to remain standing alone I suggest you investigate those.”

Katie considered that, then nodded. They took off again. Despite the relative chaos of the individual buildings, the layout of the arc itself was predictable and efficient, and Katie suspected that once she got to know how things were organised she wouldn’t need a guide at all to get between places. Katie guessed that the symbols she saw on each building were some kind of street system, as they seemed to change in a predictable manner, but she hadn’t quite figured that out yet.

The building they were heading for became clear long before the communicator chirped to mark their arrival. While many of the buildings were covered in artwork, even in that context this one was striking. It seemed to mix the material of the path with the transparency of the sky and blurred the line between where one building ended and the next began. It was almost a sculpture of sorts, but one that tricked the eye to make it seem like a shifting, living imposition on reality that didn’t quite fit. The stars around it seemed to get drawn in, becoming just another part of the piece. Shadows didn’t seem to fall quite right on it. It was otherworldly even compared to the literal alien spaceship.

Thatch opened the door and the pair of them entered.

Katie found herself with her back against a wall immediately, as a neck longer than Thatch was brought a mouth filled with countless rows of teeth and four glowing eyes right up against Katie’s face. It huffed, and Katie felt a rolling wave of heat dance across her skin, leaving a dull tingle in its wake. She took an instinctive breath and filled her lungs with damp, strongly-scented air. Katie found herself smiling.

She gulped, blinking rapidly as she took the creature in.

“What mortal snack deigns to enter my lair? Have you brought a gift, little one?”

Purple. Pink. Mostly dark colours, but it was plantlife again, just… really, really not in human form. Katie laughed. “Only my company,” she tried, really hoping that they hadn’t just found the first affini to break Thatch’s expectations. Even if they had, Thatch was right there. What harm could come to her here?

A thousand teeth curled into a grin as the creature rose back up, giving Katie some space to move. It—She?—sat curled up on four legs with what looked like wings draped down its sides. Now that Katie was no longer hyperfocused on the teeth, the creature actually looked a little goofy, and that impression was only heightened by the pair of humans sitting on its back unsuccessfully trying to hold back laughter. She almost looked like some kind of dragon, though the details weren’t quite right to match Earth’s ancient myths. For one, there were too many eyes.

The room itself was liberally sprinkled with artwork, photographs, sculptures, and what looked like a few projected three-dimensional models in a variety of different styles. Like the houses beyond, what could have been a tangled mess instead managed to flow smoothly through good choice of position and grouping, giving the room a complicated, varied, but not unpleasant texture.

“That’ll do! I’m Eri, she/her, and those two back there are June and Sarah, who’d just love to get to do some of your internal decor. The good captain called ahead, cuties, I hear you’re in need of somewhere to live. Is this for both of you? Not sure I’ve seen either of you around before.”

Thatch shook her head, raising a vine in a brief wave. “Hi. I’m Thatch, this is Katie. We’re only looking for her, my own unit is perfectly serviceable.” At a raised eyebrow from the dragon, Thatch added, “it isn’t one of yours, but I have lived in it for long enough that it is comfortable.”

Katie bit her lip. “I’m not looking for much, whatever you have will d— ack!” Katie was cut off as a million teeth backed her against the wall again.

“You are new here and so I will forgive you your insult, little T—” A quick shake of the head from Thatch cut the word off halfway through. “Uh, little sophont. We do not have anything ready to go. We do not do not much. You are speaking to artists.” She hissed the last word.

Katie giggled, gently pushing the snout away. “Okay, okay, I understand. Thank you.” She shot a glare at Thatch. While her affini had said that she didn’t know this one, surely you had to be pretty out of touch to not be aware she was like… this? “Uh, do you have a pamphlet I can look a— Okay, no, no I get it!”

The creature settled back down with a satisfied grunt. “Hmnnn. I haven’t gotten to design anything for a sole ward before. All of my prior work will be useless. Too big, too tall. Inaccessible. Unusable without a caretaker to do all the work. Yet, you have nowhere to stay, and so it must be ready by tonight?”

Katie’s heart sank. This was the moment where her dreams hit reality, then. This culture simply couldn’t account for her. Given the sheer opulence surrounding them, Katie didn’t dare imagine how much a hotel here would cost. Not that she had a job. Hell, was she going to have to get a job? “It’s— I don’t mean to be any trouble, and I can figure out somewhere else to stay if—”

A snort cut her short. “Nonsense. I will not have any sophont’s first impression of my home be delay or compromise. You will sleep where I tell you to and you will do so tonight. Come, sit, I must understand you.” A claw tapped down against the floor with an air of finality.

Katie looked over at Thatch, who, Katie noted with a perverse comfort, seemed just as baffled as she was. She walked over to a pile of cushions just opposite the architect and sat herself down. Thatch sat alongside for moral support, though Katie wasn’t quite sure in which direction the support was expected to flow.

Erica was interrupted as one of her humans brought to her a stack of papers an inch thick. The affini raised it in one clawed hand, using the other to pamper the messenger into some kind of blissful oblivion. “Ah, clever girl, I knew we had something on this. The ‘Xenian Terran Accessibility Model’! Some clever floret on one of those fringe worlds ended up being some kind of prodigy, so we shouldn’t struggle to design something that works for you. It is then my role to make it perfect. So, Katie, when you imagine your ideal home, what do you see?”


When Katie imagined a home, she thought of a shared bunk in a cramped room aboard a dirty starship. The kind of ship where gravity wasn’t a given, so you had to strap in overnight, but maintenance was so bad that the strap was usually broken. She suspected that that would not be a pleasing answer.

“I honestly have no idea,” she admitted, glancing away. “I’m good with anything, really. I don’t think you can disappoint me.”

The dragon’s eyes narrowed. “You speak like you wish to be eaten,” it hissed, and Katie was glad she hadn’t met this one first. Thatch gave her hand a gentle squeeze, presumably to let her know that she was not on the menu, but she’d already given the game away there. The dragon was eccentric, but apparently they all were. Besides, no matter how many teeth that creature had, she also had two very uneaten humans relaxing against her flank with their noses in books. It softened the image somewhat. “But fine, how about you tell me about the nicest place you’ve lived and we go from there.”

Katie laughed. The architect wasn’t going to like that answer either, she suspected. “That planet down there. We made a camp down by a river, uh, big tall trees around us giving us lots of coverage from rain and stuff, but a big hole over the river where we could see the stars. I have a fish that lived kinda in the river and that was nice, I want to keep them with me. We carved a bed and cooking stuff and, y’know, things. It felt big and open in a way I’d never experienced before. It was… nice. I know that isn’t the kind of answer you were… expecting?” Katie paused, noting that Erica was biting her lip with what must have been two dozen teeth.

“You want an indoor habitation unit that evokes the great outdoors of a planet nobody but you has ever visited; to a scale that we have never before worked, accessible to both yourself, your pet, and, presumably, your friend here; where the aesthetic demands handmade styles and fittings; and yet I could not possibly provide anything with less than perfect amenities and utilities—and you want it by tonight?” With each word, her snout had grown closer to Katie’s face until they were practically nose-to-nose.

Katie paled. “I, uh—”

“It is perfect. It shall be done. You must go at once before I change my mind.”

The dragoness whirled around, raising herself to her full height, where the room, no matter how grand, could barely contain her. She spent a moment fussing over her florets before striding out of the room with them in tow.

Thatch and Katie both spent several silent seconds sitting before Katie finally turned to pin Thatch down with a savage glare.

“How are all of you like this?”

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