Cordyceps

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Art by Sunny Efemena

By Alvin Kathembe

Thursday, 6.30 pm

‘Good evening sir, welcome to the Regal. How may I help you?’

Ciku beamed her sweetest smile at the squat man standing across the counter from her.

‘My name Jae-Mo Tochukaso, I make reservation two week ago for three night,’ the man said.

‘All right, Mr. Tochukaso, one minute please, as I look up your reservation.’

Ciku typed the name into her computer, and began to frown as it beamed the information she had summoned back at her. She glanced quickly up at the guest, then back to her screen again.

Shit. Another one.

‘Um…sir, there seems to be a problem with your reservation, please have a seat as I try to figure out what it is. Please sir, this won’t take more than a minute.’

He stared at Ciku belligerently, as if he had just been waiting for her to say the wrong thing.

His eyes flashed angrily, and his face began to redden.

‘What mean?’ he said, his voice rising. ‘I make booking two week ago. I just land at airport, long flight, very tired. I need room now.’

‘I understand sir, please, have a seat and I promise you I will sort this out as fast as I can.’ she said in her most diplomatic tone, flashing her most disarming smile.

Her niceness bounced right off him.

‘No, no, NO! I make booking two week ago –’ holding up two fingers ‘– two week! I make long flight from Congo, have early day tomorrow. I need room NOW! I make booking TWO WEEK–’

His voice kept rising with every sentence, and soon he was shouting; repeating the same sentences over and over again. In a few minutes the whole lobby knew that he had made a booking two week ago, had just come off a long flight from the Congo, and he wanted a room, NOW.

It took all of Ciku’s de-escalation skills, the promise of a complimentary glass of champagne, and the smiling, hulking presence of Elias the security guard to persuade him to calm down and take a seat at the lobby. Once he was safely out of earshot, Ciku picked up her phone and dialled her manager’s extension.

‘Brenda?’

‘Hello Ciku, what’s up?’

‘We have a problem. He showed.’

‘Who?’

‘The Korean guy, Tochu-something.’

‘Shit!’

‘Yup.’

‘Can you handle it?’

‘He’s causing a massive scene. You better get down here.’

***

Brenda hung up and buried her head in her hands, groaning. This was the worst part of her job, the absolute worst.

The hotel was overbooked. She rang Odhis down at Reservations and harangued him for a full five minutes. She hung up on him mid-sentence, and began to work through her list of contacts. This was the fourth guest today. She had called in every favour to get the first three rooms in other hotels, and knew that it was the longest of long shots trying to squeeze in a fourth. Still, she tried, but turned up nothing. There was a conference in Nairobi that week – a UN summit on something or the other – and there were simply no rooms to be had.

It was just a piece of bad luck – the wrong day, the wrong guest. Usually, when faced with a choice, Brenda would bump the Japanese businessman travelling alone: they were always so polite, so understanding, smiling and bowing. Not today. First of all, he was Korean, a researcher of some kind, a big shot; Dr. Prof. Jae-Mo Tochukaso. Shit!

She hurried out of her office and made for the reception. Ciku winked and nodded towards the professor. He was seated at the lobby with his arms crossed on his chest, his face flushed with anger, refusing to even acknowledge the glass of champagne bubbling beside him, looking like he could explode any minute.

Brenda glanced back at Ciku hesitantly, who shrugged and flashed her it’s-your-mess-now-deal-with-it grin.

‘Good evening Doctor Tochukaso, my name is Brenda Alusa, I’m the manager here –’

‘Professor Tochukaso,’ he cut in. Brenda flinched.

Something was off about him, way off. His eyes were strangely out of focus, he seemed unreasonably aggressive, and even in the Regal’s cool, air-conditioned lobby his forehead shone with beads of sweat. His face was beetroot red.

‘I make reservation two week ago. TWO WEEK. Now, I land from Congo, long flight, very tired, very angry. I want rest, early morning tomorrow, very early. No tell me, “Sit here Tochukaso, wait please,” no! I want room now! I make reservation TWO WEEK –’

‘All right sir, please, calm down!’

He seemed taken aback at the sudden steel in her voice; he paused for a second, just a second, which was all she needed.

‘I am very, very sorry for this inconvenience, please accept my profoundest apologies.’ She cut in, trying to sound as earnest as she could.

‘I’m going to find you a room sir, I promise. Please, just calm down and give me a minute; we’re doing everything we can.’

She almost ran back to the reception counter – there was no telling how long this lull in the storm would last.

‘Ciku, give me a room.’ she said, almost begging. Ciku typed furiously away, frowning and shaking her head.

‘We’re full.’

‘Everything?’ Brenda asked, desperate, glancing back over her shoulder; the guest was staring right across at them, his jaw working furiously, his eyes flashing like lightning. The storm clouds were gathering again.

‘All we have left is the Mbingu Suite, Diamond’s people called to cancel an hour ago. Everything else is full till tomorrow.’

Brenda turned back to Prof. Tochukaso. He was dabbing with a handkerchief at his florid, shiny forehead. His hand was trembling, and he was muttering under his breath to himself. She walked over, a warm smile on her face, thinking to herself how she had a bad, bad feeling about this guest.

‘Professor Tochukaso, I have good news for you. The hotel offers its thanks for your patience and understanding, and in light of the delay you’ve unfortunately had to experience, we would like to offer you a complimentary upgrade to our Mbingu Suite, with a complimentary dinner. The Mbingu is our pride and joy, and was voted Best Suite in Africa by the Gulliver Magazine.’

She expected relief, thanks, or at least some sort of softening from him; besides, this was a hell of an offer. Nothing. He was as bellicose, as florid, as before. He didn’t seem to have heard or understood her.

‘I make reservation two week ago. TWO WEEK. I want room.’

Brenda signalled to the porter to carry the guest’s bags and lead him to his room. Tochukaso shot her, and then Ciku, one last look full of fury and loathing. Then he turned to follow, dabbing his forehead, muttering under his breath. As she watched them disappear into the lift, Brenda wondered what the hell was up with the guy.

There was silence in the lobby, finally. The security guard who had been hovering around watching the situation with mounting concern mimed wiping a stream of sweat off his brow.

‘What a jerk.’ Ciku said, from her desk.

Brenda checked her watch. 7pm.

To think the night was only just beginning.

***

Six hours later she was slumped over her desk, exhausted. Two more guests had turned up that evening. Miraculously, she had managed to get them rooms over at the Grand. She had had to make fantastic promises which she knew she could never keep, but that was a problem for another day. Her shift was up in two hours, and right then she was fantasizing about crawling into her bed and not leaving it for two months. Her reverie was interrupted by the sound of someone knocking.

‘Come in,’ she said wearily, sitting up. It was Elias, from Security. He looked worried.

‘What now?’ Brenda snapped.

‘Pole madam, but we might have an issue.’

‘What’s happened?’ she asked calmly, reminding herself that there was no need to take her frustration out on her co-workers.

‘Mwange – you know, the guy who monitors the CCTV? – he says he saw one of the guests on the penthouse floor go into one of the service doors.’

Brenda frowned. ‘It wasn’t locked?’

‘It should have been, we’re trying to find out from Maintenance.’

Brenda rubbed her temples, trying to think.

‘What time did this happen? Have you sent someone to check it out?’

‘An hour ago, Muli sent me to call you.’

Muli was Head of Security. Brenda sat up, alarmed.

‘Why does he want me?’

Elias shuffled uncomfortably.

‘The guest hasn’t come out yet. The service door leads to the roof.’

Brenda froze, stunned into silence momentarily.

‘Shit.’

***

Brenda and Elias rode the lift to the fifteenth floor, where they found Muli waiting for them.
‘I’ll go first,’ Brenda said, her voice filled with a confidence she did not feel. ‘Could be it’s only some guy who wants to smoke, or look at the stars or whatever. Elias, what did Mwange say the guy looked like? I need some idea of what I’m dealing with.’

Elias spoke into his walkie-talkie, and listened keenly to the reply.

‘He says it’s that guest, the one who made a scene earlier. Tochukaso.’

Brenda took a deep breath, steeling herself.

I knew it. I knew it, I knew it, I knew it. I knew that guy was trouble. I fucking knew it.

‘OK, Elias, you stay down here, be ready to call for help. Muli, with me. If nothing’s up, stay back, I’ll talk to the guest. It’s probably nothing,’ she added, in an attempt to lighten the mood. ‘You know how crazy some of these guys get. We’ll probably find him up there naked, howling at the moon.’

They all laughed, weakly.

Muli had told her on the way up that he had dispatched two guards to patrol the grounds around the hotel.

God, I hope it’s not a jumper, she prayed. Not today.

They walked down the brightly lit corridor between the numbered doors. Brenda kept thinking of The Shining. They turned the corner, and there it was; the service door, clearly marked ‘ENTRANCE RESTRICTED TO HOTEL STAFF ONLY’, slightly ajar.

She pushed open the door, it opened into darkness.

‘Hello?’ she called. ‘Is anyone up there?’

No response.

She fumbled along the wall for a light switch and flicked it – nothing. Muli handed her a torch and she shone it into the doorway, revealing a staircase that disappeared into the ceiling.

Fuck this, she thought, I quit.

She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and pushed the thought from her mind. Then she forced her legs to move, one step, two steps, then up the staircase warily, calling ‘Professor Tochukaso, are you up there?’, and taking comfort in the knowledge that Muli was close behind her.

Another flight of stairs. Brenda called again, her voice echoing up into the darkness. She listened keenly for a response, and heard nothing, only the frenzied beating of her heart. She swept the staircase with the flashlight and caught sight of something white.

It was a handkerchief, soiled and damp.

She looked back at Muli, who shook his head.

Up two more flights of stairs and they came to another door, also slightly ajar, through which a cool draught rushed, whistling. Brenda steeled herself, and pushed the door open.

It opened out into the roof. The first thing she noticed was that there were no stars tonight; a full moon shone all by herself in the grey sky. The wind was strong, and cold, biting right through her sweater like a thousand tiny needles. The roof was littered with satellite dishes and large black water tanks. She stepped uncertainly out into the night, shining her flashlight around, calling the professor’s name, gesturing to Muli to follow.

A few minutes later Elias, downstairs, heard the screams and began to dial for the police.

Friday, 8.00 am

‘Who was he?’ Inspector Kipng’eno asked.

‘Professor Jae-Mo Tochukaso, world renowned mycologist, from Seoul.’ Corporal Sinde answered, jogging to keep up with the Inspector’s long strides.

Inspector Kipng’eno liked his briefings on the go. They swept across the Regal’s lobby, ignoring the stares of the hotel staff and guests.

‘How long has he been in the country?’

‘Three days. Flew in from Congo-Brazza, was doing research in the jungle there for a couple of weeks.’ They got into the lift, and the Corporal punched the button for the fifteenth floor.

‘My God, Inspector,’ he added, in a low voice. ‘I’ve never seen anything like this before.’

‘If it’s anything like what you’ve described, nobody ever has. How many people have seen the body?’

‘Besides myself? The manager, the head of security, two other police officers. The head of security had the presence of mind to shut off the area once they discovered the body. The two officers were the first responders, they called me directly. They are all under strict instructions to keep this quiet.’

‘Good work,’ the Inspector said. The elevator doors opened. ‘All right, let’s have a look.’

They went up the stairs. Corporal Sinde pointed out the handkerchief on the staircase, and assured the Inspector that nobody had touched it. Soon they climbed out onto the roof.

Dawn was breaking; the first sunrays were just peeking over the horizon. The Regal was situated in a prime location, smack in the middle of Nairobi’s Central Business District, and the air was full of the sounds of the City Centre coming to life.

The body was propped up against one of the water tanks, half crouching, half sitting, with its back resting against the tank. The head was tilted back, facing upwards. A foot long, whitish object protruded from the victim’s face.

At first Inspector Kipng’eno thought that someone had stabbed the man, and left the knife in the wound, right in the eye. Surely that was the hilt protruding; this Sinde fellow must be exaggerating.

Then he got closer, and began to inspect the area around the body. It was strangely bloodless, just specks of membrane here and there. Then he saw it.

‘Sinde,’ he asked calmly, ‘is that an eye?’

It was, lying there on the concrete, staring at him sightlessly.
Kipng’eno turned his attention to the corpse itself. Sinde was right. That was no knife. It was…some kind of…some kind of plant, some sort of greenish-yellow stem poking out of the man’s eye socket. It seemed hollow; the tip of the plant – the thing – was ruptured, curling outward.

Kipng’eno looked back at Sinde, incredulous.

All around them the wind whipped, howling. Below them, three million people were scurrying to and fro, like termites scuttling from one nest into the other.

‘What do we do, sir?’ Sinde asked.

The Inspector didn’t answer. He had no idea.

Friday, 4.30 pm

Dr. Alice Okallo sat, shell-shocked, in her office at the Kenya Medical Research Institute. She couldn’t believe what she was hearing. If she hadn’t known it was Festus Babu, Director of Police Forensics on the other end of the line, she would’ve dismissed the whole thing as a prank.

‘That’s not possible.’

‘I’m telling you, it’s true. I’ve seen the pictures with my own eyes. Have you ever seen anything like it?’

‘Well, yes, but – in insects! In…in nothing larger than caterpillars, for God’s sake!’
‘Get me all the information you can,’ Festus said. ‘I’ve sent the samples over, I want a report ASAP.’

She rushed from her office and into the adjacent laboratory, just in time to see her intern, Nakhayo, walk in with a package.

‘Are those the samples from police forensics?’ she asked excitedly.

‘Yes,’ Nakhayo replied, surprised to see her boss so worked up.

Dr. Okallo snatched the package, opened it, and lined up the slides by the microscope. She put the first one onto the microscope stage and peered down at it, adjusting the lens.

‘Extraordinary. Absolutely extraordinary!’ she murmured to herself. ‘It doesn’t make any sense!’

Dr. Okallo removed the slide from the microscope stage, and mounted another, repeating the process until she had inspected all of them, all the while shaking her head in disbelief.

‘What’s up?’ Nakhayo asked.

‘Cordyceps.’ The doctor breathed. ‘But how?…’

Her words trailed away, and she crinkled her brow, thinking; thinking hard.

‘Cordyceps?’ Nakhayo repeated, ‘What’s that?’

Dr. Okallo squeezed her eyes shut, and rubbed her temples with trembling fingers. Then she got over the initial shock, and sprang into action.

‘Cordyceps is a genus of endoparasitoid fungus,’ she said, thinking aloud. ‘It targets insects…anthropods…’ She was talking very quickly now, pacing up and down. ‘Have you heard of Ophiocordyceps unilateralis? It’s a fungus that affects ants; they call it the zombie-ant fungus. This is crazy!’

She flew to the nearest computer – Nakhayo followed her, trying to keep up. She had never seen the doctor so excited.

“Look! It’s a parasitic fungus that manipulates the behaviour of its host in order to increase its chances of reproducing.’

Nakhayo stared at the image Dr. Okallo had summoned up. It was a grotesque picture of an ant clutching a stem, the stalk of a horrific fungus growing from its head.

‘Wow,’ Nakhayo gushed. ‘How does it do that?’

‘The – the spores – they enter the ant’s body through its spiracles. Fungal filaments – mycelia – grow through the ant’s body cavity, absorbing soft tissues but avoiding its vital organs–’

‘So this thing grows inside the ant?’ Nakhayo broke in, incredulous.

‘Yes, yes,’ the doctor answered impatiently, as if this were some minor detail, ‘but that’s not it! When the fungus is ready to sporulate, the fungus produces chemicals which act on the ant’s brain. Get this – it makes the ant climb to the top of a plant, then forces it to clamp down securely on the stem with its mandibles!

‘Then it devours the ant’s brain, and the fruiting body bursts up through its head, releasing clusters of spores into the air. Do you know why it makes the ant climb? It’s so that the sporules can spread over as large an area as possible, infecting the maximum number of ants, and the cycle begins again. It has decimated entire colonies!’

‘Sheesh,’ Nakhayo shuddered. ‘Nature cooks up some pretty creepy stuff.’

‘It’s nature’s way of population control,’ Dr. Okallo continued. ‘Making sure no species’ numbers grow beyond what the ecosystem can support. Different Cordyceps species target different organisms – grasshoppers, locusts, caterpillars…it’s a system of check and balance; once a species becomes too dominant, Cordyceps happens and limits its growth.’

‘Cool,’ Nakhayo said.

‘Nakhayo, you don’t understand!’ Dr. Okallo was almost jumping now; shouting, shaking Nakhayo’s shoulders in excitement. ‘This morning, they found a man in a hotel. Or rather, on a hotel. He had been acting strange all night, and finally climbed up onto the roof! He was a mycologist. He flew in from the Congo, where he was doing research in the field. The Congo forest is one of the places where this Cordyceps fungi is found.’

Suddenly, a thought struck her. Dr. Okallo raced back to the microscope and peered once more into the lens. What she saw must have confirmed her fears – she sank, horrified, into a chair.

‘What, Dr. Okallo, what is it?’ Nakhayo asked, alarmed.

‘The samples…they’re taken from part of the fungal ascocarp. My God! Oh God!’

‘Doctor, you’re scaring me. What is it?’

Dr. Okallo looked at her; it was a strange look, half of horror, half of pity.

‘The asci…they’ve ruptured.’

‘What does that even mean?’

‘The spores have been released.’

Speaking the fact aloud seemed to have sparked something in Dr. Okallo’s brain. She sprang up, and began making frantic phone calls.

***

Jeff, Brenda’s husband, was scared.

The hotel had called him at eight that morning, telling him his wife was not feeling well, could he come get her? He had been on his way to work, two minutes away from his office building. He made a U-turn and called his boss.

He had found the hotel lobby full of police officers. When he asked to see his wife, the receptionist had looked at him with pity in her eyes, and directed him to an office in the back.

He’d walked around to the office and found her surrounded by police officers, being questioned in a gruff voice by a senior cop, an Inspector or something.

She wouldn’t say one word.

One look at her, and Jeff knew that something was terribly wrong. She was sitting in her chair, staring vacantly into space, her face ashen.

The Inspector had taken him aside and explained in a low voice that Brenda had seen something – he wouldn’t say what – and it was important, once she came to her senses, that she record a statement, and speak of it to nobody else. Jeff just stood there, amazed to learn that his wife had gone through an extremely traumatic episode, and instead of calling an ambulance these men had been interrogating her all morning.

They’d been in and out of hospitals the rest of the day.

First they put her through triage, then they waited an hour to see a physician, who referred them to the resident psychologist, who, they were informed, only came in at 3.00 pm, for two hours, and whose appointment schedule was full for the next two months. The receptionist added helpfully that the psychologist had a private practice which he ran from 8.00 am to 2.30 pm, over at another hospital.

Jeff had driven there, cursing the mid-morning traffic that turned what should have been a ten minute drive into an hour-and-a-half ordeal. They then waited another hour to see the doctor; they were finally hustled into his office at 2.15 pm. The doctor checked his watch every five minutes during the consultation.

After a cursory examination, he announced that Brenda had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, prescribed some medicine and lots of bed rest, and gave them an appointment for first thing Monday. Then it was back into the gridlocked traffic for the drive to his brother’s house.
His brother Eddie lived in South B, a suburb much closer to the city centre than Rongai, where Jeff and Brenda lived. Eddie travelled a lot and was rarely in the country for more than a few weeks at a time. Now he was off in Norway, and since Jeff had a spare key to his house, he decided to go there instead of his own home so that they would be closer to the hospital. He shot Eddie a WhatsApp message explaining; he knew his brother wouldn’t mind, considering the circumstances.

Through all this Brenda had spoken less than three words to him, to anyone. She had followed instructions like a child – go here, sit there, lie down, breathe in, hold it, breathe out. Ordinarily she could never stand being told what to do. Jeff was very scared. When he dropped her off at the hotel at the start of her shift last night, she was buzzing, as full of life as ever. Now she was a zombie with a two word vocabulary.

‘Fresh air,’ she was all she would say, over and over again.

Jeff cranked up the A/C to the max. Brenda curled into a ball on the passenger seat and fell into a fitful sleep. When they got to Eddie’s, Jeff parked the car, and checked the time on his watch – 7.40 pm. He got out and went round to the passenger seat, where Brenda was fast asleep. He opened the door, carried her out and up the stairs into the bedroom and laid her on the bed.

‘What have they done to you?’ he asked her. ‘Don’t worry, B. I’m here. I’ll get you through this.’

‘Fresh air,’ she murmured. He opened all the windows.

He was massaging her head – she had such a fever! – when his phone rang. He went out into the kitchen to answer it, so as not to disturb her.

‘Hello?’

‘Hello, Mr. Jeffery Alusa?’

‘Yes, who is this?’

‘This is Sergeant Franklin Ogidi, police.’

‘Yes,’ Jeff said warily. ‘How can I help you?’

He thought he heard the front door creaking open, but it couldn’t be, surely, Brenda was fast asleep –

‘Mr. Alusa, where are you?’

This caught Jeff’s attention.

‘Why,’ he asked, growing suspicious.

‘Where is your wife?’

‘She’s here with me, why do you ask?’

The man on the other end of the line sighed deeply.

‘Mr. Alusa, we think your wife may have been exposed to a highly infectious disease this morning. We need to know where you are so we can send a team of medics to examine her and help contain this disease.’

‘What are you talking about? What disease? Is it – is it…Ebola?’ Jeff whispered the word, hardly daring to say it out loud. ‘Is that why there were police at the hotel this morning?’

‘No,’ Sgt. Ogidi said. ‘Something else, we don’t know what it is. That’s why we need to identify and contain it as fast as possible. Where are you? We need to send a team of medics to you ASAP.’

The whole thing seemed fishy to Jeff, now that he thought about it. A disease? No, Brenda had seen something. Who was this Ogidi fellow, and how could anyone be sure he really was a policeman? Maybe Brenda had witnessed a crime, or seen something she shouldn’t have…why was this guy, whoever he was, so insistent on finding them, on knowing where they were? Something was not right.

‘Who am I speaking to, again?’ Jeff asked, unable to keep the hostility out of his voice.

‘Sergeant Franklin Ogidi, I told you, I work with the police –’

‘And how do I know that? How can I know for sure? I want to speak to the Inspector.

Inspector Kip- er, Kip-’ dammit, what was his name?

‘Unfortunately, that won’t be possible. Inspector Kipng’eno was found half an hour ago. We are trying to reach everyone who was present at the scene. Mr. Alusa, if you would just tell us–’

‘What do you mean, found?’

‘Mr. Alusa.’ Sgt. Ogidi sighed deeply, fighting to keep the frustration out of his voice. ‘This is very serious. We have dispatched units to your house in Rongai, it is empty. Where are you?

Your wife’s life is in danger. Hello? Hello?’

Jeff flung the phone across the kitchen, burst out of the door and sprinted across the living room. The bedroom door was open. The bed was empty.

‘Brenda? BRENDA!’

Friday, 7.55 pm

Fresh air, fresh air. Must have fresh air. No, not that itsy-bitsy draught from those tiny windows. Must have fresh air.

Must see the sky.

Brenda got up and glided across the room; opened the door, carefully, as noiselessly as she could. For some reason, it was important to be quiet. It was like a game, she wanted to see how quiet she could be. Besides, someone might hear and try to stop her from getting fresh air.

Somewhere nearby she could hear someone talking, in a room close by. The voice sounded vaguely familiar. How could he stand the stuffiness?

Fresh air, fresh air, it’s too close in here. Fresh air; I simply must have it.

She crept up to the living room door. There was a deadbolt; she slid it open noiselessly. Then she began to open the door, slowly…It creaked, loudly. These hinges need some oil, she thought, annoyed. She listened; the voice paused for a fraction of a second, then resumed speaking heatedly. All clear.

Up, up, up. Must go up.

She passed a number of people on the way; they all looked at her so strangely. One woman touched her on the shoulder and asked, ‘Are you all right?’

Brenda just shrugged off her hand and kept climbing.

Of course I’m all right, she thought. Everyone else – that’s who’s not ok. The stuffy air down here must be addling their brains. Anyone with any sense is after some fresh air.

Up, up, up.

Beautiful night. Look at that full moon! And the breeze! Lovely fresh breeze. Just the thing I want. I just need something to lean against, as I take in this view, this fresh air.
She walked toward a large satellite dish and sat with her back up against it.

Perfect. Fresh air, so refreshing. This is bliss.

She closed her eyes, smiling, and turned her face up to the sky. She felt like she could sit here, like this, forever.

She began to feel a slight headache.

THE END

Alvin Kathembe
Alvin Kathembe is a 25-year-old writer born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya. He is a lover of truth and beauty, and seeks after both through art. He writes for the mind, and might touch your heart while he’s at it. His poetry has been featured on the literary blog wamathai.com here, and stories on Story zetu.

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