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Blue Sky - Chapter 15 - The End [1/2]
Hobbes: writing with colours
wafflestories


(Art by K! In my head, this beautiful piece of work is titled That inward eye which is the bliss of solitude. Because I'm pretentious like that. And because it's just that awesome, and I was pretty unkind to Wordsworth earlier in the story. Annd... off we go.)


I've made out a will; I'm leaving myself
to the National Health. I'm sure they can use
the jellies and tubes and syrups and glues,
the web of nerves and veins, the loaf of brains,

and assortment of fillings and stitches and wounds,
blood- a gallon exactly of bilberry soup-
the chassis or cage or cathedral of bone;
but not the heart, they can leave that alone.

They can have the lot, the whole stock:
the loops and coils and sprockets and springs and rods,
the twines and cords and strands,
the face, the case, the cogs and the hands,

but not the pendulum, the ticker;
leave that where it stops or hangs.*

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()~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~()

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Wheatley drifted.

It was dark, and it was silent. He had nothing to see or hear with, and no voice of his own.

It was cold.

Down and down and down and down...

Days or minutes. Seconds or years. Time didn't really have any meaning, not down here. The facility was in deep, deep hibernation, and only the very faintest glass-fragile flickers of activity reached him, slow-ebbing glimmers of processes and protocols, all the way down here in the lowest, murkiest level of the mainframe.

He didn't hurt. He didn't feel, apart from the cold, and that was beyond a physical sensation- he was a part of the facility, and the facility was cold, an endless hard-coded cold that never changed and never, ever thawed.

He was tiny and drifting and quite, quite alone. He was- and that was all he was. He couldn't talk- but he could think. The bright trails of his thoughts traced slow paths through the wasteland, the mainframe's endless nuclear winter.

Not... too shabby... shutting Her down... getting her to the surface...

Feel... good about that. Definitely... good...

...really good, actually...

The memories were warm. They almost burned- nearly too much, comforting heat against frostbite- but it was worth it. It had all been worth it. Upturned faces and bright patchwork signals, the smell of new bread, stars and long grass and her, just her, a scary-brilliant universal constant, a sun-through-panels smile, laughter he'd give anything for.

Time passed, or didn't. He settled deeper, a fading digital ghost drifting like a leaf down into the cold black-blue nothing, held together by the fine, slow-unravelling web of his memories. He knew- without knowing how he knew, understanding on some long-buried level of his programming- that eventually he would simply drift apart, the small frayed strands of his mind unweaving into the nothing. As more of this slow, timeless not-time passed, he would become less and less himself. He would become just another nameless part of the sleeping mainframe, something only dimly aware that it might, once, have been something else.

It was alright. There was no gripping urgency, not any more. There was no trace of threat or worry, no panicky sense of losing control- just a numb, ebbing peace. If he let his fuzzy, wavering mind drift in the right direction, he could nearly hear the distant skreep-skreep of those not-so-mysterious little insects, a cheerful, scratchy chorus warming the chilly darkness. He could half-feel the cool tickle of grass at his back, the calm-breathing weight of her against his chest.

She was safe, out there, with an entire town's worth of humans to be getting on with. He'd done that, he had, genuinely honestly almost-singlehandedly; and if he'd made up for nothing else, he'd at least made up, fair and square, for dragging her back down here to save him. Better, much, much better than that, was knowing that she didn't hate him for letting her down. He'd known that much from that moment in the lift, her hand outspread on the camera lens, that proud, wry look that was his alone.

So, this is it, then. After all that... this is it.

He'd always been so scared of this- of dying- in no small part because he'd always thought his own death would be the ultimate, point-of-no-return failure, however it happened, the final proof that even just staying alive required more skill than he could handle- but now he was here it was amazing, really, how little it mattered. No fuss, no fanfare; he would just slowly drift down into the facility until he wasn't even him any more, deeper and deeper into the dormant mainframe until even the protective warmth of his memories would finally be swallowed by the darkness.

Half alive and half dead, until...

...someone opens the box, said a voice.

Hello, little thing.

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()~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~()

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“Chell?”

Chell turned, too quickly, a savage bolt of pain jagging down into her neck from the sore bruised place at the back of her skull.

Aaron was standing behind her, and- like Garret- his eyes were first drawn to the device in her hands, then inevitably across to the swirling patch of impossibility on the grimy, panelled wall. She'd fired the second portal again and again, point-blank, the soft violet starbursts crackling across her bare skin, knowing that it was insanity to expect a different result, knowing that a misfire was a misfire, knowing that was just how it worked- but still trying, because if she stopped it would be as good as admitting-

Aaron looked at the portal, his beetle-black eyes furrowing up with a remote sort of interest. He took it on board- then put it aside. She could see him doing it, and she recognised it better than most people would have done- how he was weighing up the balance on the fly, weighing the obvious questions and his own natural curiosity against the importance of what needed doing around them. There was a reason why everyone listened to this one, gruff-spoken old man- why he led, unofficial and undisputed- and she'd never seen it as clearly as she did now.

“You look like hell, dear,” he said, gently. “Where's-”

Chell turned away. She'd known the question would come from somebody, soon enough, but she still didn't want to hear it, didn't want to have to answer it. She didn't want to answer anything, she wanted to do something, her mind already marathon-pacing forwards as it always did, groping desperately towards the next step. She could find one of the other entrances- one of the hidden ways- the lake, or the shack in the wheatfield- and then-

-and then-

“Hey,” said Garret, quietly, at her back. He had followed her from the lip of the chasm, where earth was still sliding down across the pale, tight-locked lower surface in dark, mossy spillways. “Do we have a plan? What's the plan?”

Chell shook her head. wordlessly, her thoughts racing, turning up ideas and discarding them one after the other as quickly as she grabbed for them, not possible not possible not possible not possible. Away in the middle distance behind her, she could hear the faint sounds of the beginnings of a rescue operation for the people still trapped on the upper levels cranking up into high gear, yells of encouragement and concern echoing from the shattered outer walls of what was left of the Relaxation Centre, beached like the skeleton of some stranded subterranean creature in what had once been a perfectly innocuous, flower-scattered meadow. Somewhere, she could just about make out an almighty debate going on between Romy and the twins.

“Maximillian Theodore Hatfield, if you dare to try and climb down from that thing on your own you are grounded.”

“Mom, that's the point.”

“I could climb up and get him for you, Miz Hatfield.”

“You stay right where you are, Lindsay. Where's your father?”

“I... think he's in the one next to Max.”

“It's not fair, Mom, how come Max gets to be all the way up there and I get one all the way down here on the floor?”

“Well, I arranged that on purpose, Jason, 'cause I knew it'd- MAX! I SAW THAT! GET BACK INSIDE THAT THING THIS INSTANT!”

Chell turned away, towards the gap in the wall. She tried to concentrate, racking her brain for the solution- there had to be a solution-

For a second, she envied Jason Hatfield, with his ten-year-old's ability to fix blame to anything as long as it made him feel better. She, on the other hand, knew with an adult's weariness that it wasn't any use saying it wasn't fair or right. It wasn't any use saying it should have happened a different way. Chell knew damn well that the universe was indifferent to prayers or wishes, and it didn't care in the slightest if things were fair. She'd learned that the hard way, a very long time ago, and she'd always avoided pointless regret over the things she couldn't change.

But her throat was so tight and her stomach heavy as a rock, and she could barely fight through the deadened feeling settling in her chest to think about what she needed to do to get him back, because there had to be a way. She'd wing it if she had to, God knew she'd done that before-

Keep going keep going can't give up can't lose can't lose I-

And that was when she caught it, the tiny blink-and-you'll-miss it instant when the balance shifted in her head and she realised that somewhere along the line I can't lose had become through the smallest touch of extra truth I can't lose him.

Him, his voice, his cheerful absurdity, the sweet uncomplicated comfort he never failed to light up inside her, just as sharp and warming as the very first time she'd woken to the dazed sleep-blurred possibility that there might actually be something in the facility besides herself, something just as alive in that deadly place, something that wasn't just another part of Her. The best of him, always so gladly, willingly given; the rambling fragile-yet-indestructible hope he'd shared with her right from the start, just by being there-

She stood still, staring blindly down through the portal gun in her hands. It was a heavy deadweight, just a handful of scrap metal and silicon in a grimy blue-striped shell, and it had never felt more useless.

“...nearly done, Ellie, sweetie, just look up for me- follow my finger- there, well done!”

“Is she-”

“She's going to be fine, Mart. Whatever that stuff was, it seems to wear off pretty fast. I've got about twenty people with headaches and couple of twisted ankles, and that's about the size of it. Oh, and Mister Rickey's skull had a minor altercation with a chunk of wood, from what I gather.”

“About time someone knocked some sense into that kid- hey, hey, honey, where're you-”

Ellie, industriously ignoring her father's attempts to keep her sitting down quietly on a low piece of wall, clambered across to Chell and tugged on the hem of her unravelling sweater.

“I can't find Linnell,” she said, mournfully. “An' it wasn't Max took him this time- Jason says he's got stuck, up in the air.”

Chell looked down at her, forced herself to see her, her small serious face framed by a tangly unravelling cloud of curls and bright hairclips. The little girl peered around behind Chell's legs, looked up at Garret, thought for a moment, frowned.

“Where's your monster?”

Chell swallowed, conscious of Garret's wince, his telling little don't-speak-ill-of-the-dead flinch and downwards glance that told her that he, at least, was already most-of-the-way convinced that Wheatley wasn't coming back. Her throat felt almost completely locked, as if it was so confused by the surroundings that it didn't even realise it wasn't still in There, throbbing, painful.

“He's not a monster,” she said. “He's-”

Behind her, loud in the silence, something went thht.
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()~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~()

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For the first time since he'd slipped down into this dreamy shadow-state, Wheatley felt fear. He knew that Voice- the strangling deep-written utter fear of it, an ice-pick sinking straight through the centre of him.

She'd found him. She'd woken up and She'd found him and now he had nothing left, nothing to fight Her with-

No, God, no, no, please, please not now, not-

-wait, hang on-

Hello, said the voice, again, and it had to, had to be Hers- it sounded so similar, pitch, tone, almost everything about it sent crawling shivers of recognition spidering through his files- but- but if it was- there was something terribly wrong with it. It was clean and sharp, nothing like Foxglove's many-toned, overpowering undercurrent of a voice, her solid, reassuring, scratch-built chorus- but, no, surely, it couldn't be Hers. Her voice had never, ever sounded so warm, empty of that razorblade focus, completely stripped of its chilly blurring modulation.

He was as sure of that as he could be sure of anything, in this foggy nothingness. Never in a million years had She had never sounded so...

...human.

Who- who are you?

My name is Caroline.

Caroline? Ohh, what? No way, not as- as in, the Caroline?

Well, gee, said Caroline, brightly. It was surreal- Hers, without a doubt, but at the same time, not. Not Hers at all; a charming, winning voice, perky as birdsong, freed from Her flat deadly mechanical discords. I don't see any other Carolines around here!

But- but I thought you- I-I-I mean, I could have sworn Chell said She... She deleted you.

Silence. He cringed- was it impolite, maybe, bit of a faux pas, to tell someone that they were as good as dead?- but then the voice came back, light, and- amazingly- amused.

Not so easy, to delete your humanity. You should know... Stephen.

For a moment, Wheatley couldn't speak at all. The memories came crowding into his mind all over again, jumbled and faded, flicker-fast, but no longer so much like a stranger's. A face- his face- worried and hopeful, in a smudgy mirror, hands- his hands- spread in front of him, a churning stomach and a pounding heart, white tiles and running water and a screwed-up handful of notes-

I-I'm- I'm not-

Shhhh, little thing, it's alright, murmured Caroline, soothingly. I'm your friend.

You... you are?

Oh yes indeed! A friend of hers is a friend of mine!

Uh- well- good, that's good, but- but, ummm... sorry, just feel like I should clarify this... no hard feelings? About- about me sort of switching you off, I mean. Well, switching Her off- getting- getting Her to switch herself off, just wanted to point out, it was technically Her doing- well, that, and all that, uh, unfortunate business before that, with the reactor and everything, because I can see, I can easily see how you might be a bit-

Caroline laughed- a bubbly, whimsical sound. Wheatley shut up on instinct and shrank away from it, withdrawing into the small, drifting tangle of his own files. He was finding it difficult to hold his thoughts together- difficult, and getting steadily more difficult, a slippery slope which started at 'fairly challenging' and went all the way down towards the murky depths of an eventual 'impossible'- but when Caroline laughed it was like being hooked up to Her all over again, like the first time Garret had plugged him into Foxglove, tiny and vulnerable and having no idea what was coming next; anger or mercy, kindness or oblivion.

It was the voice that did it. It was warm and musical, and beautifully controlled, and the fact that it wasn't Hers alone was an overwhelming relief, but it was... it was just that tiny bit too bright and serene to be completely reassuring. It sounded like a voice which was absolutely certain everything was just fine and was going to continue to be just fine for ever and ever. It sounded like a voice that believed in big smiles and happy faces and not being at home to Mr. Grumpy, and if Mr. Grumpy kept on making unwanted house-calls, well then, something just might happen to Mr. Grumpy's own house, someday.

Possibly something to do with lemons.

Chell had told him that Caroline was all that remained of Her humanity. Which was brilliant- if he'd had to pick one thing to be found by, down here, he'd certainly hit the jackpot on that one- but the thing was, human didn't necessarily have to mean kind. It didn't have to mean sane, either. If the essential definition of 'human' had included both, if it had applied to every human Aperture had ever employed, there would never have been such a thing as an Intelligence Dampening Sphere in the first place. There probably wouldn't have even been such a thing as Her.

Maybe Caroline had been both kind and sane... once. Maybe. He knew next to nothing about her, but it was at least possible that a very, very long time ago, at the furthest, dimmest end of the unnatural span of her existence, she might have been. Once, before the scientists had got their keen, callous, why-not-desperate hands on her, she might have been just as harmless as the human he'd been, just another innocent human unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time (easily done, if the place in question was Aperture, where it was the wrong time twenty-four hours a day.) Maybe... but he had his doubts.

Wheatley didn't have much evidence to go on, besides that very bright, very charming, very frightening laugh, but if there was one thing he'd learned about the whole putting-a-human-mind-in-a-computer thing, it was that whatever you tried to do to it afterwards, the human bit sort of stuck. There was no getting rid of it- it clung to all the shiny new programming you put in there like the glue of a particularly stubborn sticker, and unless you were prepared to spend half your time attacking it with the coding equivalent of wire wool, you were lumbered with it for good. Case in point- the scientists had started with a human who was almost pathologically incapable of shutting up for five minutes at a time, a human who, with the best will in the world, wasn't really kicking an eleven on the bright-spark scale, a human who was absolutely brilliant at generating the kind of ideas that made everyone else in a three-mile radius go for the classic eyeroll-facepalm combo, and the end product, not to put too fine a point on it, had been him.

That was worrying. With Her, the end product was a machine that was frighteningly good at controlling things, a machine just as absolutely stone-cold brilliant as it was ruthless, a machine with a bone-deep obsessive jaw-droppingly no-holds-barred unhinged love of Science and a total callous disregard for the individual human lives under its control...

...and they'd started with Caroline.

Then again, if this was really Caroline, then it didn't really matter if she was crazy as a box of frogs or not- if this was Caroline, she had saved Chell's life. She'd said so. This was a good thought- a cheerful thought- and he tried to hang on to it through the inky mist gathering around him, struggling against the slow, creeping loss of focus. He knew he should be fighting the urge to just let it all go, but he was just so, so tired-

Ah, ah, not just yet, little thing, tutted Caroline, and he felt the fog clear, a tiny bit. I've got something, just for you. It's a surprise.

Uh- oh, wow, I... I appreciate it, honestly- whatever it is- but... should probably warn you beforehand, She- She'll be probably more than a bit unimpressed, if- if She wakes up-

She, said Caroline, overloading the word with a ludicrous, slightly giggly dramatic weight, gently ridiculing his own, she won't know a thing. Anyway, silly, you'll be gone long before I wake her up.

Wheatley was pretty sure this was an accurate prediction. He knew that he was still slipping fast, despite the temporary boost of focus Caroline had granted him. Any worry he might have felt on that score, however, was sledgehammered under by the utter horrified shock of what she'd just said.

You're going to wake Her UP?!

Of course! said Caroline, genuinely taken aback. There's Science to do.

But- but-

Sshh, now. Don't worry, I'll make sure and keep her busy! I know just the thing. Oh, and while we're here, it's time for your surprise.

He tried to marshal his thoughts- a fairly useless endeavour at the best of times, and right now an undertaking equal to trying to round up a flock of lobotomised sheep that have somehow managed to wander into a maze constructed entirely of mirrored glass. The effort of his last emotional outburst had taken most of the energy he'd had left.

Look... look, like I said, it's- it's the thought that counts, really, isn't it, with- with surprises, and I do appreciate the thought, a- a lot, honestly, but you really don't have to-

I know I don't, silly. But you tried so hard! And besides, you're such a big helper.

A... sorry, I- I sort of lost you there, lost your- thread... a helper?

That's right! Some people are just... oh, boy, they're one in a million, they're so bright, so brilliant- you watch them doing what they were born for, and oh, they just light up like stars. They can take on the whole world. But they still need you by their side, just being good old you. Yes, sir! I'm always happy to help a helper.

A helper... He tested the word, savoured it, the last scrap of warmth in the arctic darkness. I... I like that...

Here we are again, sing-songed Caroline. It's not much, I'm afraid- just something I had lying around- but I think it suits you.

I... I... don't... I...

Oh, but it was so hard to think, now, so much easier to just not try, to not think and not hurt and just be nearly nothing at all...


...Caroline?

Yes?

I'm... I'm going to die, aren't I?

Yes-indeedy, said Caroline, in the same bright, unconcerned tone.

Ah, right... I... I wasn't a... a hundred percent sure. Don't... really mind, I suppose... not now, not in the... the scheme of things... but it's just- well, they told me it'd hurt, dying. Will- will it hurt?

Oh, gosh, little thing, I don't know, said Caroline, and there was a smile in her voice. I've never died.

Fair enough, thought Wheatley, and then- finally, it was so easy, when it came down to it- he let go.
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“It's a trap, isn't it?” said Garret.

The two of them stood in front of the portal, the slow-spiralling violet tear in the fabric of reality. They could see nothing beyond the dwindling little pool of light filtering through from their side, sunlight reflecting dully from corroded steel mesh, too dulled by time and neglect to strike up more than the ghost of a metallic shine. The world on the other side was a blank, black, faint-humming void, cold and fathomless and somehow... anticipatory.

Chell shrugged. To her, the question was more or less irrelevant, and besides, a trap you knew damn well you were walking into was, in her experience, well on the way to not even being a trap at all.

Wheatley was hers, and she was utterly amazed at herself that it had taken her this long to realise something as fundamental as that. To save him, she would fight just as hard as she'd fought for her own freedom, for the lives of everyone on this side of the portal- and not out of moral obligation, not out of any need to defy Her or prove a point, but because of the warm growing brilliant bewildering thing they'd barely begun to touch over the last week, the comfort and happiness she'd felt with him on the hilltop, the heartsick ache tangled inextricably into the idea of never seeing him again.

If the drifting violet invitation on the broken wall offered a way of getting him back, trap or not, she was already committed to it. It was as simple as that.

“Stay here,” she said.

“No,” said Garret, immediately, “no way. No way in hell are you going in there on your own.”

Chell gave him a look which, if visual contact had contained any kind of physical energy, would have set his beard on fire on contact, but either her powers of intimidation were slightly below par after everything she'd endured, or his probable concussion acted as a shield, because he only scrabbled in the wreckage underfoot and came up with a chunk of panel roughly two foot by five inches, trailing wires and cracked across its grimy surface like ancient baker's glaze, and hefted it experimentally in both hands.

“Okay. All set.”

“Garret.”

“Those little guys were hers, weren't they? Thanks to that orange one I've got a headache the size of a small dimension. Maybe I'll get a chance to return the favour.”

“Garret.” She moved, as he started forwards, sliding faster than snakebite between him and the portal, the barrel of her portal gun blocking his lump of panel in an effective cross. “You're not coming.”

“Look, not that I remember anything much after that sneaky little guy cold-cocked me, but I'm pretty sure that is not a good place to be walking into all by yourself. That's just a vibe I've been picking up on, call me psychic, whatever. He's my friend too, Chell. If he's in there, we'll find him, but, jesus, let me-”

“-make sure nobody else goes through,” she said, still backing purposefully towards the portal. “Good idea. Thanks for volunteering.”

“Chell-”

“I'll be fine,” she said, and turned, stepping through the wall.

Garret gave a frustrated-beyond-words flail at her retreating back- fast-fading in the darkness on the other side- and rammed his chunk of wall into the ground by his feet. Angrily, he turned and looked up at the towering wreckage of the Relaxation Vault, a crazy half-shelled ruin against the blue, the shredded remains of a part of the insanely dangerous place below the ground where- according to a very reliable source- you couldn't even trust the walls, floors or ceilings to stay still for five minutes at a time.

He came to a decision.

“Screw it,” he muttered, grabbed his improvised two-by-four from the ground, and- ducking, somewhat leery of the edges of the weird interdimensional spacehole- dived through the portal after her.
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()~~~~~~~~click for part 2/2~~~~~~~~()

*Text from I've made out a will; I'm leaving myself by Simon Armitage.

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FASDFSDFGBDHNDFGADFGFFDGSDF

BABBABAWAAAAAAA

(Anonymous)
SBKHAJSKH WHAT IS ALL THIS WET STUFF COMING OUT FROM MY FACE?

My sadness has gotten to the point where I just am numb. Hello, emotional shock. This sad music that Pandora's playing is not helping in the least.

Hello, little thing.
... Hello, is that hope I see lurking in the darkness?

Oh dammit, and now I'm actively shipping them. You weren't happy with me just passively thinking they were cute, no, now you've got me crying over them not being happy together. I hate you.

Caroline! :D

He has a name. *FLAILS*

It sounded like a voice that believed in big smiles and happy faces and not being at home to Mr. Grumpy, and if Mr. Grumpy kept on making unwanted house-calls, well then, something just might happen to Mr. Grumpy's own house, someday. Possibly something to do with lemons.
Oh my God, this is so perfect. How the hell do you come up with such beautiful lines like that, sob.

Fair enough, thought Wheatley, and then- finally, it was so easy, when it came down to it- he let go.
*The user you are trying to contact has disconnected due to her tears flooding and breaking her computer*

... I can't tell if Garret would be scared outta his wits or over the moon with all the tech inside the center. :|a

I found this story... like, two days ago. I have been endlessly reading this since Monday. I KNOW it was written some bizarre number of months ago, but I HAVE TO COMMENT. DEAR... LORD. I HAVE to.


"...Caroline?

Yes?

I'm... I'm going to die, aren't I?

Yes-indeedy, said Caroline, in the same bright, unconcerned tone.

Ah, right... I... I wasn't a... a hundred percent sure. Don't... really mind, I suppose... not now, not in the... the scheme of things... but it's just- well, they told me it'd hurt, dying. Will- will it hurt?

Oh, gosh, little thing, I don't know, said Caroline, and there was a smile in her voice. I've never died.

Fair enough, thought Wheatley, and then- finally, it was so easy, when it came down to it- he let go.
"

^^ WHAT THE FRIGGIN' CRAP. ;A; QAQ Okay, I have a SINGLE little hope, an idea... I hope I'm right, I hope the story ends the way I want NEED it to. I'm serious about the idea thing though... I see a little... a little way of escape in Caroline's last two sentences. I THINK I may be able to get out of this crying tears of joy instead of sadness if my prediction is RIGHT.

FGHKLJGKFJHGKHL
THIS IS MY SECOND TIME READING THIS AND I'M STILL CRYING

WHEATLEY ;A;



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