Celefin’s “Track Switch – Steel Dreams”

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Today’s story is engineered to be quite a moving tale.

Track Switch – Steel Dreams
[Slice of Life] [Human] • 12,434 words

Modern just in time supply chains require arcane logistics. The people I work for specialise in that special kind of magic. Me? I just make sure stuff gets from A to B. And I’m good at it. All over western Europe. Always at night. Always alone — just the way I like it.

FROM THE CURATORS: “I have never read a bad story about ponies and trains,” Present Perfect said as we discussed this story.  “I don’t know what it is about the two, that they go together and inspire people to write great things, but I’m glad they do.”  And while our discussion was full of nostalgia for other great railway writers, what quickly became clear was that Steel Dreams forged its own exemplary direction.  “Celefin has basically created an entire subgenre all their own, one I can only describe as ‘Europone train drama’,”  FanOfMostEverything said in his nomination.  “It’s a pony-on-Earth slice of life with a focus on mundane pony-human interaction and vehicle engineering. It’s also a wonderful tale of found friendship and the intense drama that can be found in everyday life.”

We found ourselves getting sucked into that drama, in all the best ways.  “Oof, this one hit me hard,” Soge said.  “It has this quietly emotive angle to its writing, which — coupled with the sublime characterization work — made for a deeply empathetic portrayal of its protagonist.”  Present Perfect had similar praise: “This surprised me with Celefin’s easy character-centric writing, introducing us to a whole host of folks all at once and making us give a darn about all and sundry.  Then you’ve got the way the writing changes style when it’s just Nightline and her train. The words flow differently, the landscape feels different; it’s a really impressive feat the author’s pulled off.” And AugieDog praised how that solid characterization tied in to the story’s deeper themes: “I like how we get the pony character’s point of view on everything — I’m a sucker for stories that look at our world through an outsider’s eyes — and I especially like how it ever so gently gives us the point that even moving to a new dimension won’t change a pony unless that pony’s willing to change.”

While the story isn’t the first in its continuity, we noted it still made an excellent starting point.  “Having read [the prequel] Frankfurt Calling first, I have a great deal more appreciation for the character of Penny than I think you might otherwise, but reading this by itself is fine,” Present Perfect said.  Part of that was the power the story teased out of unexpected places.  “It speaks volumes of the immigrant experience without ever drawing attention to that angle,” Soge said.  “It is remarkably lifelike, particularly when it show the small ways in which Nightlight relates to the people around her, or how she goes about making (or not making) new connections.” So perhaps it’s no surprise that our most unanimous sentiment was — as RBDash47 put it — “I would love to see more of Nightline and Trax in a future continuation.”

Read on for our author interview, in which Celefin discusses sapient engines, biscuit imitation, and silver-haired memories.
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Revenant Wings’ “Reconstruction”

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Today’s story assembles a unique look at Starlight’s aftereffects.

Reconstruction
[Drama] [Sad] [Slice of Life] • 6,378 words

The former equalized ponies struggle to reconstruct their town after Starlight Glimmer’s defeat, and Double Diamond struggles to reconstruct his own identity after being freed from Starlight’s equalization brainwashing.

FROM THE CURATORS: If you want evidence that later seasons of MLP still provide fertile ground for wide-ranging storytelling, “The Cutie Map” is arguably Exhibit A — and this story is an excellent example of why.  “In our tenure, we’ve seen story after story that studies depression, anxiety, even PTSD. But brainwashing?” Present Perfect said in his nomination.  “If this story has a big thing right, it’s portraying the ways in which Starlight’s conditioning amplifies and exacerbates Double Diamond’s own self-doubts.”  The story quickly moved to a feature amid comments like FanOfMostEverything’s: “One does not shuck off mental chains in a single triumphant chase scene, especially not when one was the cult leader’s right hand. His falling into a propaganda-reciting fugue state is a wonderfully chilling image.”

And while Double Diamond’s struggle with his past was the story’s most compelling theme, the world around him also contributed to the story’s power.  “Like the characters tell Double-D over and over, he’s not the only one hurting,” Present Perfect said.  “And I really appreciate that they never say that to demean him or his pain, but to remind him that he has friends, and those friends are there for him.”  AugieDog agreed: “It’s quite a nice portrayal of a group of people coming out from the other end of a trauma,” he said.  “And I especially like Double Diamond’s speech at the end, the way Starlight’s maxims are still running through his head even as he largely contradicts each one with the words he’s saying out loud.”  And the narrative kept the focus quite solidly on its powerful moments: “It’s got a well-chosen central struggle and a solid message,” Horizon said, “but for me what elevates the story is the way this sets and holds its mood.”

In the end, well-chosen imagery and good use of literary techniques carried the day.  “The big thing right is the tension between the townfolk’s old, brainwashed patterns and their new struggles to define themselves,” Horizon said.  “It covers that quite heavily, and normally when a story chased its own tail so much I’d get restless, but here Diamond’s backsliding feels consistently fraught, an excellent use of repetition.  The vivid imagery certainly contributes to that, and the many little variations on the equals-sign pattern are nice touches, especially the minus of the stacked skis.”  RBDash47 agreed, adding: “The notion that DD’s mind would keep turning up that particular signal in the noise of his world is compelling.”

Read on for our author interview, in which Revenant Wings discusses little detours, final fantasies, and paladins vs. giants.
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Special interview: California’s Camp Fire

Today’s feature asks us to put the brakes on for just a minute.

With the arrival of Thanksgiving here in the U.S., we hit the downhill portion of the holiday season: a month of rushing around that will see us all careening out the other side smack dab into the new year.  We often take holidays off to encourage our readers to catch up (with friends and families, and on features from our archives), but this year, instead we would like to bring the focus on people who could use some help — those who found themselves in the path of the Camp Fire, which recently swept through the foothills of northern California.

Horizon, who I’m guessing needs no introduction around here, works with a Search & Rescue unit in the Sierra Nevada mountains near the fire, and was called in to the town of Paradise to help comb through the rubble.  We’ve asked him to discuss his experiences, as well as ways to help those affected by the fire.  Read on for his photos and commentary.
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Lost + Found Features: “Decisions” / “The Unicorn and the Crow”

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From time to time, despite our best efforts, we don’t have a feature ready to post come Friday—but that doesn’t mean we can’t recommend some reading material! We keep track of the stories which passed our approval process but whose authors have proven impossible to contact. We’d like to give these stories their time in the spotlight too, so read on for two RCL-approved tales for your reading pleasure.

decisionsDecisions
By hester1
[Sad][Slice of Life] • 2,818 words

A server waits on six ponies in a restaurant. The diners have drinking contests and discuss social responsibility. The clock ticks ever on and on.

FROM THE CURATORS: Everyone appreciated this story’s attention to detail and excellent use of “show-don’t-tell.” “The more I think about this one, as more pieces fall together inside my head, the more I appreciate the subtlety and power hidden inside what’s apparently a little Slice of Life piece about an evening in a restaurant,” said Horizon. “Piecing together the situation from the details draws you into the story, letting you explore a second layer to the conversation that works more richly as subtext than it would out in the open.”

RBDash47 seconded the nomination: “It’s definitely a fantastic example of show-don’t-tell, and it’s a bonus to me that it’s done in first person; using the waiter’s POV to bounce us between the three tables is a nice framing element.” Present Perfect called it “a masterwork in subtlety and how to tell a story with a scattered focus” and Soge said “it is in looking at how everything suddenly fits together that this becomes something special.” FanOfMostEverything applauded how the story asked “fascinating questions about responsibility and duty that settings other than Equestria can’t pull off nearly as effectively.”

the unicorn and the crowThe Unicorn and the Crow
By Foxmane Vulpequus
[Drama][Mystery] • 128,032 words

Madeleine Crumpet: A world-trotting jeweler with an eye for gems… and pleasant company. Of the stallion persuasion.

Rubyk of Trotheim: A cold noble of the forbidden Equestrian North.

What cause could bring these two unlikely figures together?

FROM THE CURATORS: In his nomination, Horizon felt this story was shockingly underappreciated; at the time, it hadn’t received enough votes to have its ratio displayed, “which is startling, because having read through it this is some pretty high-level stuff … it definitely deserves more attention than it’s getting.” He went on to compliment the story’s style, “languid and stately and modestly archaic … but that style works in synergy both with the fantastic character work and the foreign feel of the setting.” Chris agreed that “it’s not going to be for everyone, but I found it very effective for what it was. It’s the kind of prose that encourages slow reading, but doesn’t demand an unattainable attention to detail — perfect for reading by the fire while sipping at a glass of scotch. And the setting is clever and original, without abandoning the feeling of being an MLP fic.”

Present Perfect loved the character work: “few fanfic authors strive to be this deliberate with their words. By the second chapter (not part), I was hooked, and never failed to be impressed by a character.” Horizon felt the same way, and noted that “as the story goes on, Frost Pane begins stealing every scene she’s in, turning that larger-than-life bombast into a positive, and Madeleine’s inner narration is consistently engaging. The supporting cast is almost uniformly vibrant, and are written sharply enough that I found myself analyzing them in the same way the protagonists did.”

 

Starscribe’s “The Last Pony on Earth”

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The last stop for today’s story is the RCL spotlight.

The Last Pony on Earth
[Adventure] [Mystery] [Human] • 102,429 words

Until yesterday, my life was no different than anybody’s. Go to work, pay the bills, sleep. Today, I woke up to a world without humans. The streets are empty, the power grid is running down, and not another soul is in sight. That might not be the worst thing, if I wasn’t also a pony.

Where is everyone? Why is this happening to me?

Will l stay sane long enough to starve?

FROM THE CURATORS: “I’m surprised to see Starscribe hasn’t been featured before,” FanOfMostEverything said at the start of this story’s nomination — launching one of the longest and most spirited debates we’ve ever had. High and low scores flew; all six curators wrote essays filled with praise and critique; and when the dust settled, Soge’s final vote pushed it over our feature threshold.  “I have many complaints,” he said, “but this fic gets a ton of things right — compelling OCs, well-crafted mysteries, a ton of humanity in its portrayals and the dilemmas of the characters, and plenty to enjoy. The Equestrian chapters in particular are deserving of special honors. There are many small, special things which make this fic, and it is thanks to the sum of it all that this story comes off as so strong.”

And while all of us found things to complain about, an equally common theme was the ways in which gripping, unique storytelling overruled those to keep us invested regardless.  “If there’s a big thing right for me, it’s the use of layered media to tell the story,” Present Perfect said.  “We’re primarily in some excellent journal entries for the bulk of the fic, but along with images, these are supplemented by transcripts, interviews, and journal entries from another character, not to mention ARG-style codes for the faithful to solve. I’m really impressed with those codes, they were not easy to crack.  And this has the absolute best use of second-person I have ever seen in a story.”  Soge, too, offered a superlative: “The journal format is one of the best executions of this format I remember reading in Fimfic.”  And Horizon was broadly impressed: “The world around the protagonists was never less than vibrant, and every mystery the story brought up came to a satisfying resolution,” he said.  “Most importantly, I felt that on the whole my trust in the author was rewarded with genuinely cool and thoughtful twists.  The ultimate source of the ‘numbers station’ caught me off guard at least twice, and HPI walked a tricky tightrope between threat and resource which served the story very well.”

It’s worth noting that we found reading pace mattered.  “I’m not sure how it will read when it isn’t a daily serial,” FanOfMostEverything noted, and after some critical comments from speed-readers, Soge was grateful that he decided to slow down. “I decided to read this fic at most two chapters a day, so I could properly appreciate it in its original context,” he said.  “Doing so helped make the pacing more natural, and allowed some of the mysteries enough time to make me properly excited.”

And in the end, the fact that the story got us invested enough to react so strongly — both to our dislikes and our loves — was a mark of its effectiveness.  “I have to point out my favorite part of Last Pony: when Alex gets the full story of what happened,” Present Perfect said.  “This is a story celebrating humanity — something of an oddity, when it comes to fanfiction centered on human/pony interactions — and Alex is such a strong character, not to mention that excellent second-person writing, I couldn’t help but be angry, and absolutely loving that I was. It takes phenomenal effort to evoke feelings like that in a reader.  Compared to other survivalist fics, HiEs, and PoEs, this comes out positively on all points, and I’m glad to have read it.”

Read on for our author interview, in which Starscribe discusses outlined organizations, Olympians, and optimism.
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Tangerine Blast’s “Under Layers of Dirt and Worry”

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Today’s story worries.

LayersUnder Layers of Dirt and Worry
[Drama][Slice of Life] • 3,598 words

It had been a long day of saving the world, and the usually perky pony wanted nothing more than to collapse into bed.

Unfortunately, somepony’s waiting at Sugarcube Corner.

Pinkie was fine. She just needed to sleep.

FROM THE CURATORS: As FanOfMostEverything points out in this week’s nomination (and Tangerine Blast alludes to later on in her interview), every idea has been done before; it’s the execution that matters. “The hero’s family grappling with the fact that one they love is risking her life is hardly a new idea in fiction; it’s who’s involved that makes this one shine. After all, Pinkie Pie as the imperiled hero? Maud as the hand-wringing family staying up past midnight waiting for her to get home? Now we’re getting somewhere.” AugieDog chimed in to praise the juxtaposition of the premise and the setting too: “It’s one of my favorite sorts of story, actually, the sort that the late, great comic book writer Steve Gerber called the ‘what do you do the day after you save the universe?’ story. This expands on that idea to ask, ‘what do the people around you do the day after you save the universe?’ and that’s a very effective question to ask, especially in the My Little Pony universe.”

A large part of the success of this particular execution of this particular idea has to do with the author’s character work. “This is a striking, unique portrayal of Pinkie, Maud, and their relationship, with some very interesting ideas at play,” said Soge; “Maud is an extremely difficult character to write correctly, but I think this author has done just the thing, and found a unique role for her in doing so. Her frustration at her own inability to ‘properly’ comfort her sister is relatable,” said Present Perfect; “Not only is Maud a hard character to write well, but Pinkie is, too, and the two of them interacting just about creates a third character who is also difficult to write well. Add Mrs. Cake to the mix as the quiet voice of experience, and the story pretty much hits all the character bases that it’s aiming for,” said AugieDog.

But good character work is not enough, and the curators appreciated the story’s other strengths. Horizon pointed out that “this has some lovely and memorable details, like Pinkie falling asleep in the tub, and it’s centered around a compelling problem rarely covered.” Present Perfect also enjoyed that “the source of Maud’s worry is something that’s rarely tackled in either the show or fan fiction.” And FanOfMostEverything summed things up well when he said, “The layers of nuance at work, the sibling bonding, and the resolution make this a much deeper story than its length would indicate.”

Read on for our author interview, in which Tangerine Blast discusses being like Twilight, the slow percolation of inspiration, and fresh perspectives.

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Antiquarian’s “The Tab”

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We hope you plan to pick up today’s story.

The Tab
[Comedy] [Sad] [Slice of Life] [Alternate Universe] • 4,092 words

Years have passed since the Crystal War ended. Twilight Sparkle visits an old haunt to spend some time catching up with her friends. Then comes the question of who picks up the tab.

FROM THE CURATORS: When most stories on a topic crank their drama up to 11, finding fics with the confidence to take a more nuanced approach can be like stumbling across an oasis in a desert.  “After ‘The Cutie Re-Mark’,” FanOfMostEverything said in his nomination, “stories set after the war with Sombra have become something of a subgenre, most of them little more than vehicles for PTSD angst or Rainbow Dash wing amputation drama. The Tab is not one of those stories. It seeks to capture the full spectrum of the veteran’s potential experience in readjusting to peacetime conditions.”  As this story sped toward a feature, Soge agreed: “If there is one big thing right this fic does, it is its distinct portrayal of how trauma affects different people differently.”

There was so much to like, though, that we all cited different elements as our favorites.  “Its greatest strength shines in folding the exposition that any AU has to churn out into fantastic character interaction between the Canterlot friends,” FanOfMostEverything said.  “The subtext here is rich and plentiful, from Twilight keeping metric time to Twinkleshine’s nickname to a single sentence that says volumes about Rainbow Dash’s status in this timeline.”  (Soge agreed: “That it speaks so much of its world building — rarely directly alluding to it — is phenomenal.”) Present Perfect appreciated the characters: “They are all distinctly themselves … Twilight especially comes off as ‘Twilight, after serving in a war’.”  And Horizon liked its framing: “It’s a story about good (and authentic) ponies being good (and authentic) to each other,” he said.  “And that’s its power: showing us the beating heart of its characters, affected by their experiences but not defined by them.”

In the end, it was simply exemplary execution which carried the fic.  “There’s not really anything surprising about it, but it does a damned fine job portraying post-war life,” Present Perfect said.  The surprise, Soge said, came in the emotions that it prompted: “It is a powerful and emotional story, with sublime characterization, and a real humanity and care for the characters involved.  The actual ‘tab’ scene got me all teary-eyed.”

Read on for our author interview, in which Antiquarian discusses surrounding heroes, sacred stupidity, and the heroism of everyday life.
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alt-tap’s “An Ordinary Day”

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Today’s story is no ordinary tale.

An Ordinary Day
[Slice of Life] • 5,436 words

Fluttershy lives a happy life. Every day is special. All of her friends are lovely ponies.

Today is a day just like any other; she wakes in the morning, does her chores, sees her friends, takes a nap and sees more of her friends before an evening of relaxation.

Just an ordinary, wonderful day.

FROM THE CURATORS: One interesting aspect of fanfiction is that — much more than published fiction — it’s a living medium, with stories changing over time.  And sometimes, you stumble across the sort of story that makes you thrilled you gave it a second look.  “Once upon a time, I read and reviewed this for Scribblefest 2016,” Horizon said in his nomination.  “I was blown away by the gorgeous and literary prose, at turns intimate and philosophical, and the incidental worldbuilding; I wasn’t so impressed by the many textual errors. However, I am thrilled to say that the story has since been polished to a fine shine.”  That sentiment was widely shared, with reactions like FanOfMostEverything’s: “Gorgeous is right. I’ve never seen a take on Fluttershy quite like this one.”

Almost every aspect of that take came in for praise — sometimes all at once.  “This has absolutely everything I look for in a Fluttershy story,” AugieDog said while assigning it a top score.  “A gentle pace, beautiful language, understated humor, semi-requited love, quiet insight, a tender sort of melancholy, and kindness infusing it from beginning to end.”  But while the story as a whole drew widespread raves, it was the story’s unusual focus which often got singled out for praise.  As FanOfMostEverything noted: “There’s a fascinatingly animistic aspect to the perspective here, where even the cottage’s squeaky floorboards deserve Fluttershy’s consideration just as much as any of her other friends.”

Amid all of that, the story did exactly what its description promised: simply showed us a day in Fluttershy’s life.  And yet its depth made it so much more.  “It’s got very much an ‘infinite space in a nutshell’ feel to it,” AugieDog said, “showing us the whole world of Equestria by focusing on these very specific images, these very specific moments, so small as to almost be non-events, in Fluttershy’s life.”  Ultimately, what impressed us most was the way it captivated us with those non-events.  “The prose is lush and engrossing, definitely the big thing right, and the author has a knack for writing single sentences that powerfully encapsulate a character,” Present Perfect said.  “This proves that you can write a story about nothing in particular without it being dull.”

Read on for our author interview, in which alt-tap discusses drunken Bs, buttery heads, and adventure couscous.
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Muramasa’s “The Thief and the Princess”

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Don’t let today’s story slip past you unnoticed.

thief and princessThe Thief and the Princess
[Slice of Life][Thriller] • 3,252 words

In the dead of night, a thief breaks into the royal palace in Canterlot to steal Celestia’s crown. She successfully sneaks through the palace and enters the room where this prize possession is kept, with not a soul the wiser.

Well, save for a certain Princess.

FROM THE CURATORS: “Amazing characterization,” said Soge in his nomination. “It certainly impressed me … casting Twilight in a typical Celestia role, and allowing her to shine in comparison to her mentor by having her take a decidedly Twilight approach to conflict solving.” The other curators echoed his impressions. “The author said they were trying to give Twilight a more mature, serene portrayal and I think they nailed it,” RBDash47 said, and AugieDog chimed in that he’s “always glad to see Twilight acting in her capacity as princess.”

The first character named in the title also drew praise. “A very compelling portrayal of its titular thief, of her craft and her approach to problem solving,” said Soge. “I also love Cerise’s motivation,” Present Perfect agreed. “She wants to become a legend, a fairy tale, if only she can just pull off this heist, the theft of something so precious, most ponies don’t know it exists.” AugieDog appreciated the author “letting us get to know Cerise first, then slipping us over to see how Twilight deals with the situation Cerise has created.”

But there’s more here than deft character work. “What gets me about this one is the atmosphere. It’s extremely well detailed, and palpably tense,” Present Perfect said. “It manages to weave throughout the narrative the tried-and-true ponyfic theme of destiny, and how it can be challenged and re-interpreted,” said Soge. RBDash47 loved “the idea of ‘whatever you are, be a good one’ subverted by an (apparently) negative destiny.” Present Perfect summed things up nicely: “As short as this is, there’s a lot packed into it.”

Read on for our author interview, in which Muramasa discusses cursed blades, constructive criticism, and illegal cutie marks.

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Cherax’s “Sundowner Season”

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It’s always a good season to read today’s story.

Sundowner Season
[Drama] [Sad] • 21,493 words

With a heavy heart and an empty journal, Rarity heads north.

FROM THE CURATORS: “Cherax is more well known as a musician,” Soge said in his nomination, “but in Sundowner Season she shows quite the writing chops. In it we follow Rarity, taking a long trip to the farthest reaches of Equestria, with a purpose in mind which only becomes clearer to the reader — and to her — as we reach the end of the trip.”  Along the way, there was plenty to like.  “I loved the atmosphere and the sundowners themselves,” RBDash47 said, with AugieDog adding: “Rarity’s voice in the journal sections and in the third-person POV parts is simply phenomenal.  She changes during the course of the story, but she’s always recognizably herself.”  And while the story also accumulated some critiques during our voting process, we collectively found it winning us over.  “It starts at such a slow burn that I had to begin the story four different times before I made it past Canterlot,” Horizon said.  “And yet I was won over by how artfully everything was done … I came away impressed.”

The digressions during that lengthy unfolding were polarizing, but there was one thing on which we were unanimous: the exemplary touch provided by the story’s many well-chosen details.  “I liked how Rarity kept traveling to progressively smaller and more remote settlements as her ability to deny the reason behind her journey dwindled,” FanOfMostEverything noted, while RBDash47 said: “I also got a kick out of the formatting choice of setting flashbacks off by right-aligning them; I feel like it was a nice way of accentuating the ‘back and forth’ of Rarity’s inner turmoil.”  Although a few details were unintentionally personally disorienting: “Why am I in this story?” Present Perfect asked.

And what tipped the vote was the story’s lush, deliberate pacing.  “The big thing right for me was the slow drip-drip-drip of revealing exactly why Rarity was feeling what she was feeling and why she was going on this journey to begin with,” RBDash47 said.  Horizon summed it up similarly: “It was that slow rolling reveal most driving my vote; it worked well in concert with the story’s pacing and the gentle leavening of the distractions,” he said.  “This is a tightly controlled story which asks the reader to follow along exactly in its footsteps, but I found it repaid that investment of trust.”

Read on for our author interview, in which Cherax discusses interstate buses, snow biomes, and pastel distances.
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