American Gods meets The Dark Tower in Last Exit, a dark, contemporary fantasy of the open road, alternate realities, and self-discovery, from a Locus Award-nominated and Hugo and Nebula Award-winning writer Max Gladstone.
Ten years ago, Zelda led a band of merry adventurers whose knacks let them travel to alternate realities and battle the black rot that threatened to unmake each world. Zelda was the warrior; Ish could locate people anywhere; Ramon always knew what path to take; Sarah could turn catastrophe aside. Keeping them all connected: Sal, Zelda’s lover and the group’s heart.
Until their final, failed mission, when Sal was lost. When they all fell apart.
Ten years on, Ish, Ramon, and Sarah are happy and successful. Zelda is alone, always traveling, destroying rot throughout the US.
When it boils through the crack in the Liberty Bell, the rot gives Zelda proof that Sal is alive, trapped somewhere in the alts.
Zelda’s getting the band back together—plus Sal’s young cousin June, who has a knack none of them have ever seen before.
As relationships rekindle, the friends begin to believe they can find Sal and heal all the worlds. It’s not going to be easy, but they’ve faced worse before.
But things have changed, out there in the alts. And in everyone’s hearts.
Fresh from winning the Hugo and Nebula Awards, Max Gladstone weaves elements of American myth—the muscle car, the open road, the white-hatted cowboy—into a deeply emotional tale where his characters must find their own truths if they are to survive.
Please enjoy this free excerpt of Last Exit by Max Gladstone, on sale 02/22/2022.
When the worst of the bleeding stopped, Zelda hitchhiked back to the Bronx to say that she was sorry.
New York wasn’t safe for her even then. She crept in sideways, kept her head down, and did not think about possibilities, about spin or rot or all the other ways the skyline might have looked. Those thoughts were dangerous here. But she had to tell Sal’s mother she was gone.
Years ago, when Zelda and Sal and the others left to begin their time on the road, she had dreamed that one day she might come back to this city triumphant, to stride down her long boulevards as confetti rained from rooftops and bands played marches. They were young and proud, and they knew that if they tried, they could fix what was broken in the world. It was a stretching early summer then, the glass-walled streets casting the blue of the sky back up so they’d felt as if they were marching off to storm the gates of heaven. They were saviors. They were adventurers. They believed.
Zelda made her way back alone. The 138th Street subway station was a grungy straight tunnel tagged with graffiti in hard-to-reach places, a tired, worn station best used for homecoming, just as it had been when Sal first brought Zelda here to meet her mother, all smiles at her gawping, cornpone girlfriend. Zelda had never left South Carolina before she came north for college. She was used to backcountry roads and towns with two stoplights. More people crouched on New York’s few square miles than lived in her whole half of the state, all those lives weaving around and through one another.
She climbed the dirty stairs to a street that had not changed much since she had been what she’d then thought was young. Her mistakes climbed with her. Down on the platform, a girl cried, “Hey, wait!” Zelda almost did. She almost turned, and a nightmare voice suggested that if she had, she would have seen Sal.
She climbed instead, into the wet-dog heat of an August afternoon.
When she knocked on Ma Tempest’s door, she heard the old woman wailing upstairs. So, she knew. A premonition, a dream, or just word traveling fast. Ramón might have called her, or Sarah, or even Ish. Zelda knocked, and kept knocking, and no one came. She bruised her knuckles, broke the scabs on her fists, and left bloody prints on the olive-painted door. Her heart was a hairy, howling thing too large for the cage of her ribs. She had lost Sal. She had lost Ma’s girl, her favorite and firstborn.
She had gone off onto the road with her lover and their friends and ruined everything. She wanted to kneel at Ma Tempest’s feet, bow her head to those thick sandals, and let herself be beaten until blood flowed from her back and the white bones lay bare. The bloodletting might relieve the pressure in her chest and quiet the voice inside, repeating: It’s your fault.
It was her fault they’d left in the first place, and so was everything that came after, and the fact that Sal was gone. After all that, to need punishment or absolution from Sal’s mother, now, was a crime greater than any she’d committed in those road-bound years. Except, perhaps, for stepping out on the road in the first place.
But she had nowhere else to go.
So she stood there, a tired woman in her midtwenties, sobbing bloody-knuckled, slumped against a door on a sidewalk in the Bronx. The most natural fucking thing in the world. Dog walkers took no notice. Trucks rolled by on the Cross Bronx Expressway. A cop car blared its siren at her once and she jumped, turned, glared. They drove off snickering. A bodega cat sauntered out and sat across the street to watch.
She kept knocking. This had brought her across ten states, straining to outrun the shadows on her heels. After Montana, there had been nothing left for her in the world except for this olive door. If she could look Ma Tempest in the eye and say that she was sorry, that it was all her fault, if she could take the blow across her cheek, then she could go and find a cozy little hole to die in. Or she could leave—walk out into the Hudson and never, ever come back. There were pills she could take, needles she could slide into veins, and if all else failed, there was good old legal booze. She could rot her liver and die jaundiced, miserable, screaming. That would be worth it. That would be right.
One conversation, and then she could go away forever.
So she knocked, and sobbed, and felt the steel in her spine bend.
The door took her weight.
It opened. She stumbled, caught herself.
A girl waited inside. Skin Sal’s own deep brown, hair in puffballs. Cheekbones that with another ten years’ growth could mirror Sal’s, and big, dark eyes blinking behind glasses mended with masking tape, lenses thick enough for Zelda to see herself in the reflection. Not a sister but close to it—a cousin Ma had the raising of. June. Zelda had met her when she first came to visit during college. She was barely walking then.
June stood straight, silent, with the uncanny stillness of a child watching an adult (which Zelda had never, before this moment, felt herself to be) lose her shit.Zelda trembled to see her, this girl who might have been her Sal long before it all went wrong.
Just say it, she told herself, just say, She’s gone, or I’m sorry, or anything with an ounce of blood in it.
But before Zelda found her voice, June said: “She doesn’t want to see you.” Precise and clipped. Zelda reached for her—just to touch her arm or the black hand-me-down Wu-Tang T-shirt—and the door closed in her face and left her out there on the sidewalk alone, with tears stinging her eyes and snot running down her nose and blood on her knuckles where the scabs had opened, and the sky uncaring and perfect blue, solid as a dome overhead.
She forced herself away from the closed olive door, away from Ma Tempest, as untouchable as the past.
Since she had not apologized, she could not now disappear to die. So she took her first step away.
Every year she came back.
Every year she’d failed a little more. Every year she’d gained a scar or two. Road dirt worked into her skin. Every year the country grew a little darker. She’d been told, back in college, that she and her friends were going to save the world. She’d been told they would seize its reins and turn it toward truth and light. No one said it in quite those words, no one would be so gauche, but the intent was there. You, they said, are special. You will help the planet, you will guide the nation.
They’d been out in the world a decade now or nearly, those bright young things—the fuckups like Zelda and the ones who got it right, the polished and prepared debate-team children, the masters of the college political union. They’d been out there in the world for ten years, and somehow there was less truth each year than the last, and the light was dying.
Even in the years of hope, she’d seen it. In the great cities of the coasts, there was a sidelong wariness, glancing out of the corner of the eye at something not quite there, a high-pitched laugh of desperation, almost a scream.
And in the heart—on the long open roads—the tension grew. Small-town cops dressed in black now and sported rifles like the ones they might have used before they got kicked out of the army, in one of the smaller stupid fucking wars. She got their sidelong glances—head to foot and back up, lingering along the way—a woman traveling alone, ratty and ragged. Their fingers twitched when they looked at her. The small-town diners and truck stops got hard, and they’d been no easy places before, America always quicker to call itself friendly than to make friends. The smiles, when she found them, seemed shallow and fragile. She felt hated there, in the dark that seeped through the fault lines in those lips.
Heat lightning flashed, silent in the gathering air.
The world moved on. Or had it always been this bad, and she just never noticed before? Facebookless, lacking mobile phone, and with no internet but the public library, she was left to feel out the moment on her own. Those false smiles soured and became the baring of teeth. Cop cars on grim city streets slowed when they passed her—the eyes behind the windows covered in dark glasses, reflective like the nighttime eyes of monsters.
Every year she came back and knocked on Ma Tempest’s door until her knuckles bled. The door never opened. The Bronx changed with the years: coffee shops opened and the young rich, or at least the young not-quite-poor, filtered in. But the important details did not change at all: the blood, the olive door, her memory of June’s dark eyes.
The tenth year after she’d lost Sal, Zelda was living in the back seat of a hard-used Subaru in a small town in Middle Tennessee, waiting for the end of the world.
It might happen any day. She worked as a checkout clerk at the local Walmart and slept in the parking lot with the other losers and retired mobile home people, and every day she felt the rot gather, the wet foul heat of it, the summer heavy as a guillotine in this time of change. She had followed the rot here across three states, guided by the hackles on the back of her neck, by yarrow stalks and the faces of upturned tarot cards. This was the place. There was a mystery here, and she would solve it, or she would die—which would solve one mystery at least.
A boy—eighteen, nineteen, in a black T-shirt, with a homemade tattoo of Thor’s hammer on his wrist, always staring at his phone—wandered up and down the fishing aisle. She’d pass him sometimes as she restocked. While she was around, he never, ever looked at the guns one aisle over. Sometimes he’d glance at her, though. Never quite brave enough to match her eyes.
It might be him.
Or: Mona, her sometimes partner in the checkout line, her eyes deep-set and red, her shoulders down, her face bruised sometimes, or her wrist. She offered Zelda weed, and they smoked out on someone’s back forty under the stars, and Zelda coughed because it had been a while since she last smoked and when she remembered just how long and whom she’d been with, she began to weep and passed it off as more coughing. Mona wasn’t from around here either, she said, by which she meant she was from East Tennessee, Smoky Mountain country, not used to flatlands or the local flavor of dirty strip mall. When she worked her lighter, the spark caught reflections of something jagged in the depths of her eyes.
Mona’s husband drank and stayed up late into the night, typing on the internet and watching videos about how she was the root of his problems. He’d been a good man, she said, when they met, and he still was, just confused. Zelda said she didn’t care what was in people’s hearts. You only had to watch their hands.
Mona said that she had a secret place, a clearing in the woods out back of their small house, where she’d go when it got too much. She’d pretend that no one could find her there, and she’d lean against the rough bark of one tree and talk into a cleft, tell the dark space her fears, and sometimes, she said, she thought it whispered back.
It might be her.
You had to be lost to let the darkness in. You had to lie awake turning and churning around a coal in your stomach, body aching and mind alert to the whispers behind the door. You had to need something you couldn’t imagine, need it more than life or sanity, you had to pray not to some airy aftermath god of smoke and cloud and resurrection but to a grotesque wriggling belly-deep god of Now. No one comfortable could muster that razor need. But you never knew who was hungry. Or sick. Or curled around a fishhook of what he thought, or the TV said, the world denied him, or gave to someone less deserving. Everyone else was less deserving.
So where would the end begin? Where would the rot break through, and who would call it?
She never knew. She envied movie detectives the clarity of their cases. In real life, you never know what your problem is, unless someone loves you enough to tell you. Philip Marlowe just had to drink and wait and not even hope—sooner or later, a beautiful blonde with legs long and bright and curved as the swell of swift water over rocks would stride through his door, of all the doors in the world, with a mission. Zelda would never be half so lucky, with the mission or the blonde. And she was running out of time.
Every morning she crossed off another day on the calendar hanging in the Subaru, one day closer to Sal’s birthday, one day closer to her date with that olive door. One week left, and the drive would eat most of that if she wanted to do it safely.
She could give up. She didn’t have to sneak a third of the way across America and through the black hole orbit of Manhattan to stand on Sal’s mother’s doorstep and knock and fail for another year. This was her life now, had been for the better part of a decade: wandering alone, haunting back lots, shoring up the sandcastles of the country as they crumbled. Give up what was gone. Take the L.
She considered it, drunk, for the better part of an hour. Then she went hunting.
It was harder to do things this way than to wait for the rot to manifest. First she had to build spin. She circled the small town in her Subaru, to the extent there was a town to circle. There was a town square, at least, a city hall in red brick and a movie theater built in 1950, where she’d spent some of her spare cash to watch a forgettable action picture starring a guy named Chris. The other buildings on the square were shuttered and empty, except for the attorney’s office, and there the curtains were drawn. Vacant storefronts sported peeling decals: cole’s hardware, a liquor store, a pharmacy with a punning name, all gone now.
The buildings in the town square had been built to last three hundred years. They would stand while the stick-and-board houses she drove past rotted to dust. But they would stand three centuries empty. Why build anything to last when the whole country lived on borrowed time?
She drove circles around the city hall, drinking the strangeness of the shuttered place. The sun glanced off windows as haunted as Mona’s eyes. Turn and turn and watch it, feel it—suck the spin of the wheel and the suchness of the passing world down into the pit in your heart, where it gathers like cotton candy around a carny’s wand. She listened to the wheels of the Subaru on the seams of the road. And when the spin churned inside her, she popped the glove compartment without taking her eyes off the road, withdrew a handful of yarrow stalks, and tossed them onto the empty passenger’s seat.
The yarrow stalks told her that she’d almost missed the turn.
She heeled the car hard right, felt it tip, and slid through a narrow gap in the wide-open gulf of the two-lane road, onto the right track. Hunting.
She had worked out how to do all of this way back in college, had perfected it on the road with the others, and with Sal. Driving by yarrow stalks and by the transformations in her head, Zelda remembered other cars and other worlds, lifetimes ago: Ramón’s black Challenger with the red racing stripe, Sal in the passenger seat, the two of them blissed out and talking math as they slipped from streetlight to streetlight and all the darkness of the world rolled over Sal Tempest’s skin. They had dared each other out into the deep, like girls at summer camp, not realizing just how far either of them would go to please the other, until the lake’s depths yawned bottomless beneath and they’d both lost the strength to swim for shore.
Just a little further.
That’s what Sal had said every time Zelda balked—those full lips parted slightly as they curled into a smile. Just a little further, her hand on Zelda’s wrist, cheek, thigh, drawing her after.
Zelda had never known anyone like her when they met. It had been orientation week of Zelda’s freshman year, at, of all the absurdities in retrospect, a Christian Fellowship mixer, one of those ploys the campus evangelicals used to rope in faithful who might otherwise hear the siren song of the convulsive drunken rest of the campus. Zelda went because she’d promised her mom she would—Zelda, who’d come to campus book-smart and quiet and careful, a little South Carolina Lancelot, armored with purity and hair clip and sensible skirt against the corruptions of the northern school to which her parents couldn’t bear not to send her.
To the collar of her unremarkable blouse she’d clipped the enamel rainbow flag pin she took from the alphabet soup alliance table at the activities fair that afternoon when she’d thought no one else was looking. She went to the mixer because she’d promised Mom, and she wore the pin because she’d promised herself.
Surely, she thought, heart in her throat as she walked down York Street to the events space where the Fellowship met, one gothic pile down from the campus newspaper, surely it would be different here, surely the Fellowship would get it, at least the other kids would—she still thought of herself as a kid then. Surely this was a small concession, set beside her willingness to come here at all, to keep her feet on this particular path when she’d left North Bend and family and church behind.
One thing to tell herself this, and a whole different thing to grip the wrought iron handle of the great, heavy wooden door and pull with her legs and back until it begrudged her entry. To stride into the brightly lit room with the yellow walls and the punch bowl on the table in the rear right corner and all the kids in polo shirts. That heavy-bellied man with the bouncing step would be the pastor, turning toward her like an artillery battery. She already felt as if she’d walked in naked with a fanfare. How could she have been so dumb? She knew the rules. You never showed anyone else your soul, not even a piece of it, or you would give them something to pray against. Of course it wouldn’t be different here. The rules didn’t change in adulthood, no matter what anyone said. You kept your surface clean and tidy, made yourself look like everybody thought everybody else was supposed to look. You mowed your lawn so no one thought to look in your toolshed. And now here she was, exposed to the withering heat of the pastor’s kind smile. She might have run, but there were other kids between her and the door already, the congregation extending amoebic pseudopods to draw her in, digest her.
Anyway, she’d promised Mom.
The pastor knew his job. He welcomed her, offered her punch, a name tag—made a joke about the princess being in another castle that confused her too much for her even to pretend to laugh. Pastor Steve was his name, but of course he wanted everyone to call him Steve.
“And where are you from, Zelda?” Pastor Steve asked.
Where, indeed. The world was small, smaller still with a name like hers, and in that moment as she met his eyes, the part of her brain that calculated fast but figured people slow churned away. There were only so many churches in North Bend, South Carolina. One might without trouble call them all, if one were a youth pastor wondering whether the new girl with the rainbow pin might have worn one at home or whether her family knew, or cared. She had meant to contain this small experiment, this small moment of rebellion—to test herself, to masquerade as the kind of person who would wear the pin not just on trips to bars in town but to church. And now the mask might glue itself to her face. She imagined the phone call soon to follow, and Mom on the other end of the line.
Her mouth went dry and her tongue was too large to fit her mouth. The room with the punch bowl seemed too bright and inhuman and close. Cheery faces pressed in to crush her as the floors and ceiling opened out to infinity and down forever. She felt herself begin to fall.
“Zelda!” A voice from out of sight, and then a girl dawned through the crowd—tall, sharp, and dark, her hair in tight braids back from her face. Her arms flung wide and she embraced Zelda, firm and warm, and Zelda’s own indrawn breath caught her speechless. The girl smelled of sandalwood.
“Sal,” Pastor Steve said without a trace of chill.
“Zelda’s a friend from back home,” Sal said, turning around to face the pastor, arm still around Zelda’s shoulders. “Grew up down the block. Ma asked her to meet me here—that’s okay, right? All who are hungry, let them come and eat.” She had a brownie from the snack table in her free hand. She took a bite. “Though I guess that’s the other guys.”
“Will we see you at youth group?”
“Expect me when you do.” She saluted with her brownie hand, two fingers to the temple like a Girl Scout. “We’ll get gone, Pastor. I’m sure you have fishes to multiply.”
And, arm still around Zelda’s shoulders, Sal drew her from the room into the dark, down York Street with the tall castle walls of the residential colleges to their right. Loping beside her, Sal chewed, swallowed. Zelda watched the muscles of her jaw and neck. Sal tore off the part of the brownie she’d bitten into, offered Zelda the rest, and asked questions. “First week’s rough, but you’ll get used to it. Where are you from, really? What’s your roommate like? Don’t worry, at first it seems like half the kids here are from Westchester, but they’re just, you know, different. And there’s plenty of the rest of us around. We just don’t talk about high school as much. You learn the patterns, anyway. I’m still getting used to the guys who wear their shirt collars popped.”
The voice that had frozen in Zelda’s throat when she faced Pastor Steve babbled now like a spring brook, answering, and Zelda felt herself melt to Sal’s side, though she had to stretch her legs to keep pace.
Cars rolled along Elm past the Au Bon Pain where the woman stood selling roses, and somewhere some orientation group raised a cheer loud enough to make Zelda flinch. Sal pulled away, looked at her. Zelda felt her departure as if a magnet pulled them together.
“Thank you,” Zelda said.
“You can’t leave everything behind,” Sal said, as if she hadn’t. “I made the same mistake when I showed up. Spent half the year wrestling with people who wanted to save my soul.”
“Did they call your church?”
“They tried. Turns out my pastor’s cooler than I thought.”
“Why did you come back?”
“Brownies.” She finished her half. “And to rescue young ingenues.” Gesturing with her chin to Zelda, grinning.
She’d learned that word her second day at college. Her roommate was into musical theater. “I’m hardly.”
“Oh.” Sal appraised Zelda: her sensible blouse, her skirt past the knee, her long hair gathered back. “I must have been mistaken. You’re clearly piratical. Scourge of the seven seas. I came back,” she said, “to spike the punch bowl.”
When Zelda laughed, she realized it was the first time she’d really laughed since she came to town, a laugh untainted by confusion. “You didn’t.”
She took a flask from her inner jacket pocket, unscrewed it, upended the last drop into her mouth. “Either it was me or the miracle at Cana.”
“I thought I might show you around. But with you being so piratical and all, you obviously don’t need my help.” She grinned, mocking, inviting. The light did interesting things to her silhouette. She must have noticed Zelda’s sway toward her as she drew back; she turned away slow enough to torture.
Sal stopped at her word, one eyebrow raised.
“What if I’m a pirate,” Zelda said, “in disguise?”
“A ruthless killer, faking innocence. A murderer in a french braid.” She flicked Zelda’s hair.
“I’m here on a mission. I feel naked without my cutlass. I spent hours staring into a mirror, practicing how to flutter my eyelashes.” She demonstrated, and got the hoped-for laugh. Sal took her arm again.
“Come on, Captain Kidd. Let me show you around.”
All night Zelda followed Sal from courtyard to courtyard, skimming the edge of parties—peering through astronomy club telescopes on Old Campus at the moon when it peeked through orange sherbet clouds—a pitch-perfect mock ingenue. Playing that role, she had the freedom to ask the questions she’d not felt comfortable asking before—where people came from and what it meant, what Westchester was and what Stuyvesant might be, where power lived on campus, how that power worked. Zelda had never been around class before, not this flavor of class, anyway, which the kids (she wasn’t thinking of them as men and women yet) pretended didn’t exist, even though it was obvious that some people, like Zelda, were working in the library, and some people, like her roommate, would spend Thanksgiving break in Switzerland. Sal knew it all, and liked sharing what she knew, with cutting asides that made Zelda laugh. Zelda wondered, while they walked, at the depth of Sal’s insight, and wondered also if this girl was lonely: watching, judging a world with little place for her. After a year of study, in self-defense, it must feel good to share what she’d found with someone else.
After hours of wandering, Sal led her up the stairs of the A & A Building, floor by floor to the rooftop deck and then to the fence that separated the lower deck from the true roof. Just a little further. Sal’s eyes sparkled with reflected streetlights and the few stars that pierced the orange shell of New Haven sky
Zelda lay beside Sal on the pebbly roof and pointed up into the swirls of yellow, purple, pink. “A comet!”
The warm length of Sal twisted against her as she raised her arm to point at another patch of weird and mottled sky. “Spaceship. Aliens.”
“Looks like a plane to me.” She nestled into the hollow of Sal’s arm. Where Sal pointed, Zelda could almost see the ship—curves of crystal and translucent metal, impossible to build, a gross affront to aerodynamics, useless to imagine anything like that leaving a planet’s surface, a perfect rose in the sky trailed by—“
Rainbows,” Sal said. “That’s how you know they’re aliens. Like in E.T.”
“I think that’s a dragon over there.”
“Dragons don’t come north of Pennsylvania,” Sal said. “Everybody knows that.”
“Not me.” Zelda didn’t have an accent, but she could put one on for effect. “I’m just a plain, simple country girl, on mah own here in the big city.”
“This isn’t a city.”
“I can’t see but three stars. That makes a city.”
“You forgot the comet. And the spaceship.”
“And the dragon.”
“I said, no dragons this far north. They don’t like the winters.”
“What about Viking dragons?”
“European varietal. Hardier. Your American dragon is temperate.”
The colors turned in the sky above, and on the street below, the Christian Fellowship stumbled from their orientation mixer, warbling hymns, drunk on the Holy Spirit and the contents of Sal’s flask. Zelda found herself on her side. Sal’s chest rose beneath her tank top, and fell. Her hoodie’s wings spread out beside her on the roof. She wore a gloss that gave her lips the shine of still water, a pool where a big cat might kneel to drink.
If you’d asked Zelda hours ago, she would have said that of course she’d kissed people before. But now, searching back and comparing each of those moments to this one, she found only memories of being kissed, moments where kissing had happened to her. And this, what she thought this might be— there was nothing passive in it, nothing of the pawing pro forma junior prom date with Billy Klobbard or the deeply uncomfortable truth-or-dare with John Domino. She wanted to do fierce things to this woman, and that need, owned fully for once in this strange place, scared her.
Sal was watching. “It’s okay to ask, you know. If you want something.”
“May I?” Zelda’s lips pursed around the m.
“Have you ever done this before?”
She would not lie. “Not . . . as such. Not exactly. No.” The shame was real. She felt it color her cheeks.
“I should not take advantage of an innocent.” A dare, an invitation. Sal’s hand on her side, on her hip.
She had a vision then of the two of them perfectly alone in the center of a vast and hostile universe, these few square feet of pebbly rooftop the heart, the city and that sickly melted-candy sky just a shell, and beyond that shell an immense and profound darkness, a writhing night full of blades and fangs and needles pointing in, the cosmos a trap and her the mouse creeping, whiskers atwitch, toward the trigger. And she prayed to a god she was no longer certain she believed would listen: Let me have this.
“I’m not an innocent, remember? I’m a pirate. In disguise.”
Sal’s face eclipsed the trap of the world. She was smiling. “Come on, then, Captain Kidd.” Her breath warm. “Just a little further.”
Copyright © Max Gladstone 2022
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