Hoopy McGee’s “The Cutie Mark Allocation Agency”

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Today’s story will leave its mark on you.

cutie-mark-allocationThe Cutie Mark Allocation Agency
[Comedy] [Random] • 35,789 words

‘Unseen and unheard: They must never know’.

That’s the motto of the CMAA, the Cutie Mark Allocation Agency. Nopony knows who they are or what they do, but they’re vital to the workings of Equestrian society.

This is the story of two of these unsung heroes of the pony world, who selflessly sacrifice their time and energy for those blasted mysterious cutie marks that the ponies seem to like so much.

FROM THE CURATORS: In the hands of many authors, this story’s core idea — that a band of snipers targets foals and fillies with Cutie Mark guns — would have become a brief and forgettable one-shot, but it doesn’t take long for this story to transcend its roots.  “There’s nothing I love so much as watching an author take a crackfic idea seriously, plant the seed, and then have something beautiful blossom from that,” Horizon said, and as soon as we’re introduced to the gnome Glummwriggle and his employer and coworkers, that beauty is apparent.  “The cast is probably best described as ‘David the Gnome meets Office Space‘ (a thoroughly intuitive pairing, I think you’ll agree),” Chris said, “and Hoopy’s knack for observational comedy and asides in general shines in that setting.”

There were plenty of other things to appreciate, as Present Perfect noted. “This story is a lot of fun,” he said.  “It’s quirky, it’s whimsical, it’s charming, and I really enjoyed reading it. The stakes are always clear, the pacing is quick and smooth, and the idea behind it is so goofy, yet plays out in a perfectly serious way.”  Horizon similarly appreciated the crispness of the storytelling — “the pacing here was dynamic; I never felt that nothing was going on” — while Chris was enchanted by the comedic twists of the prose: “My notes on the story are pretty much just a bunch of funny lines that I highlighted.”

Even the bit parts contributed to the story with outsized flair and memorability.  “Shadeswell is a perfect example of everything this story gets right, a smart blend of ridiculous, serious, and self-subversive,” Horizon said, and AugieDog offered an insightful suggestion as to why: “What I liked most about this story was its deft use of so many cliches.  Too many authors use them as shortcuts to avoid doing any creative thinking. So when an author actually uses cliches in a creative fashion, it always gets a grin out of me.  Knowing when to undercut a cliche is important — such as with Shadeswell — but it’s also important to let some cliches play out, and the author does both to good comedic effect throughout.”

Read on for our author interview, in which Hoopy McGee discusses Shyamalan subversions, Tirek tea parties, and garden gag gifts.

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Oroboro’s “Starlight Glimmer and Sunset Shimmer Are Dead”

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I’m stuck inside today’s story, trying to find a way out.  (Please send help.)

starlight-sunset-are-deadStarlight Glimmer and Sunset Shimmer Are Dead
[Comedy] [Crossover] [Random] • 3,837 words

Two magical prodigies cast in Twilight’s shadow stumble about in somepony else’s story and try to find meaning in their lives.

An affectionate parody of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Which is in itself an absurdist and existentialist parody of Hamlet.

FROM THE CURATORS: With many of our featured authors, we face a difficult choice of which of their RCL-quality stories to spotlight — and in this case, we decided that good things come in small packages.  “I’ve been trying for months now to work up a pitch for either of Oroboro’s 100,000+ word epics, The Heart of an Author or Fractured Sunlight, but this story displays all the author’s positives without making anyone take a week off to read it,” AugieDog said.

Chief among those positives was Oroboro’s way with words.  “My favorite part of this is how the dialogue changes when it stops being ‘their story’,” Present Perfect said.  “Everyone talks like an overblown stage actor; it’s quirky and marvelous and just a fascinating way to show what’s going on.”  That deft touch extended from the small touches to some larger ones.  “This story certainly chooses its fourth-wall breaks well, and every one of them got a grin out of me,” Horizon said.  “The narrator judging the story with ‘Then she galloped off to save her marefriend or whatever’ was a great blend of subtle and satirical.  And I love that it effortlessly shifts back and forth from that sort of hilarity to sober discussions of stories and our role in them.”

Our biggest debate was over how authentic this was to the source that it drew from.  “This does just enough to distinguish itself from R&GAD to be a fresh take on the subject,” Chris said, “but I don’t think this makes any cogent statement about secondary realities or fictional existence the same way the source material does.”  To AugieDog, however, that was a positive: “This takes the idea of the existential metadrama and makes it absolutely Pony,” he said.  “Yes, Starlight and Sunset come to realize that the story they’re in isn’t about them at all, but their reactions to this state of affairs are nicely free of angst, and the ending gives the two more leeway than Rosencrantz and Guildenstern get in the last scene of their play.” And Horizon thought this was best evaluated as its own story rather than as a statement on Stoppard’s play: “Whether or not this is meaningful in the meta, it’s profound in the small and does make a statement in the large.  Like any good crossover, it stakes out ground of its own in between its two sources.”

Read on for our author interview, in which Oroboro discusses normal speaking voices, great lunches, and Japanese-accented orcs.
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AestheticB’s “Twilight Sparkle Gets A Free Salad”

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Today’s story puts over-the-top action on the menu.

free-saladTwilight Sparkle Gets A Free Salad
[Comedy] [Random] • 9,142 words

One beautiful morning, Twilight Sparkle decides she wants a free salad. After a small amount of theft, assault, battery, and arson, she sits down to enjoy what is sure to be the best tasting salad ever.

…Or she would have, if it weren’t for the Equestrian Intelligence Service locking her up as a potential threat to national security. Now, Twilight must escape a maximum security holding facility hidden deep underneath Canterlot. And to do it, she’ll need a paperclip, a spymare catsuit, an escape plan, and an alliance with the dastardly Drakbog, King of Frogs.

FROM THE CURATORS: While some stories achieve greatness because they invite the reader to explore hidden depths, there’s also something to be said for tales that make bold promises up front and then deliver.  Twilight Sparkle Gets A Free Salad — and its protagonist’s destruction of a fast-food restaurant — is firmly in that second camp.  “It’s a perfect exercise in over-the-top ridiculousness,” Present Perfect said.  “It’s one of those few random comedies that really avails itself well of both tags.”  For his part, Chris praised the balance it brought to that extreme approach: “Free Salad is a comedy of hyper-exaggeration, in terms of both characters and overall plot,” he said. “But while this might be an exaggerated setting, it’s a consistently exaggerated one, which lets the reader feel moored in the story even as they’re able to appreciate the absurdities on which it’s founded.”

What makes this story shine is that that exaggeration works.  “It’s about Twilight freaking out in a way that’s actually funny,” Present Perfect said, while Chris praised the range of its silliness: “Even outside of its core humor, there’s a nice blend of other comedy, from cheap shots at academia to visual gags rendered (often surprisingly well) into a written medium.”  Horizon appreciated that too: “Just because a comedy is random doesn’t mean it has to be dumb.  This cracks some remarkably sharp jokes, like The Manager’s academic background and Twilight’s explanation for her martial arts skills.”

And while not everything reinforced that humor, even the parts which didn’t had some pleasant surprises.  “For the most part, the fight scenes don’t contribute to the comedy — though gags like the salad left behind the blast door sneak in around the edges — but they are vivid and clever, especially the gravity manipulation,” Horizon said.  What that added up to, as AugieDog said, was a welcome bit of whimsy: “I did end up skimming the fight scenes, but this sort of smartly-delivered silliness always has a place in my cheese-like brain.”

Read on for our author interview, in which AestheticB discusses pony-filled singularities, justified justification, and melodramatically vomiting sisters.
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Dafaddah’s “Pas de Deux”

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Today’s story explores the dance of love.

pas-de-deuxPas de Deux
[Drama] [Romance] [Slice of Life] • 3,734 words

Fancy Pants and Fleur Dis Lee were made for each-other: the perpetual playcolt and the sultry supermodel. Now, they’ve been going out for over a month. Has she fallen for this stallion? Is he finally ready to settle down? Can true love blossom in the high-pressure world of Canterlot’s social elite?

FROM THE CURATORS: A “pas de deux” is a dance for two people, and Pas de Deux is not only a study of the dance of intimacy between two ponies but also their social dance as they define themselves against the expectations that confine them.  What first caught our eye is that it’s “a good character study of two good characters,” as AugieDog put it, but this also breathes life into an often poorly explored relationship. “I’ve always found FleurPants shipping to be a weak explanation for why they hang around together, but this story shows their relationship is anything but weak,” Present Perfect said.

The same was true for the story’s portrayal of its protagonists.  Chris was impressed that they were so relatable despite (or perhaps because of) their upper-class background: “Their concerns are familiar,” he said.  “Here, we see a look at pretensions and the need to hide our true selves in the name of social demands, which is about as universal a conflict as there is — but at the same time, Fancy and Fleur’s richness keeps them far enough removed from reality to explore issues more frankly and directly than suspension of disbelief might otherwise allow.”  And AugieDog was impressed by how they became more than the sum of their parts: “In the stories I’ve read about Fleur, she always seems to be struggling against her inclinations … that’s always a powerful story to tell, and when you add Fancy Pants as the outsider on the inside who triggers this desire in her, you get two characters who see their own missing pieces in each other. I’m a sucker for that sort of thing.”

That was enhanced by the excellent framing of the story, which multiple curators praised. “Setting the scene with Fancy and Fleur before zooming out to resolve it was a good strategy,” Present Perfect said, and Horizon agreed: “Marriage counselors say there are three people in a marriage — the first partner, the second partner, and the two of them together.  This explicitly is structured to show how the relationship benefits all three of those, and it’s much stronger for the decision.”

Read on for our author interview, in which Dafaddah discusses Kirin mothers, vulnerable moments, and the pushing of ships.
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ph00tbag’s “Numberography”

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You can count on today’s story for a rich exploration of Equestrian history.

numberographyNumberography
[Adventure] [Comedy] • 6,896 words

Once upon a time, ponies did not know how to count very far. Clover the Clever tells her two young fillies the story of how her mentor, Starswirl the Bearded, learned the secret of counting from the dragons.

FROM THE CURATORS: It seems wholly appropriate that what turned our heads about a story so steeped in mathematics is how much work it put into the little details.  “The worldbuilding is continuous, effortless, and endlessly surprising,” Horizon said.  “Every time the story turns a corner I stumble across a new, cool tidbit: Clover indirectly earning her nickname due to Discord; pegasus attitudes on how to win battles; Starswirl’s random encounter with the ascetic monkeys.”  Chris appreciated the finer details as well: “I really like the explanation for why ponies count in base ten.”  That wasn’t the only thing Present Perfect marveled at: “It definitely has something to say about the scientific process, at the end of the day, and it’s quite a charming piece.”

And while the luxurious detail attracted us, it was the story’s charm and tone which sealed the deal.  “The legend is a quite pleasant read — told in the manner of a just-so tale, with a much-appreciated vein of humor running through it,” Chris said.  AugieDog also commented on that whimsy.  “I love the goofy sweetness here,” he said.  “I mean, even though we’re smack-dab in the middle of Discord’s reign, the biggest worry ponies seem to have is how to keep reading when day has a tendency to switch over to night without notice. … This story is pony through and through.”

The ponies, too, were memorable.  “Star Swirl the legend is contrasted to Star Swirl the pony, as Clover remembers him, and it’s a lot of fun seeing how the various parties he approaches defy his wish to count higher than eight with simple practicality,” Present Perfect said, and Horizon went further: “Everyone we meet, down to the bit parts, is memorable and fun.  In particular, Filly Luna is super adorbs and the dragon steals her scene.”  Overall, Horizon added, this was an all-around standout work: “Oh my, yes.  Very yes.  I don’t think even the abrupt ending can keep me from following the author immediately.”

Read on for our author interview, in which ph00tbag discusses epiglottal frication, rollercoaster pee, and titular eggcorns.
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Posh’s “Teach Me Goodness”

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The quality of today’s story is both moving and instructive.

teach-me-goodness“Teach Me Goodness”
[Slice of Life] • 13,579 words

On the last day of school before summer vacation, Cheerilee informs her students that she’s going to pursue her doctorate in Fillydelphia, and won’t be returning as their teacher in the fall. Her friends and students alike spend her last night in Ponyville bidding farewell and showing their appreciation for her, each in their own unique way.

But one student, in particular, has a hard time coping.

FROM THE CURATORS: While we recently featured another story about Diamond Tiara connecting with an unexpected mentor, we found ourselves unable to ignore this Writeoff Association gold medalist — and the way it took its premise in a very different direction, focusing on the emotional journeys of Tiara and her teacher.  “This was just a satisfying read full of wistfulness and heart,” Horizon said.  “Cheerilee’s inner conflict is earnest and moving, Diamond Tiara is equally well painted, and the side characters steal the show with their appearances.”  Present Perfect cited one of those as a highlight of the story.  “There is a perfect moment in this, when Rarity gives Cheerilee her parting gift,” he said.  “I say ‘perfect’ because the way the events and Cheerilee’s emotions are described perfectly mirrored my own. The revelation of the gift brought tears to my eyes, and then I had to laugh along with Cheerilee at Rarity’s remark. That’s powerful.”

Along with its solid range of characters, we were impressed by the story’s emotional balance.  “The whole thing is just tear-jerkingly sad, but … I love the humor,” Present Perfect said.  “There’s not much, and it’s very incidental and almost entirely thanks to the CMCs, but it helps keep this from being dour while not overshadowing the serious emotions at play.”  And the story seamlessly demonstrated some rare skills, AugieDog said: “I’m normally a huge perspective ogre, grouchily grousing when authors try to shift between characters during the course of a single story because so many authors fail in that attempt.  But the shift here from Cheerilee to Diamond Tiara is handled in exactly the right way, letting them illuminate each other and bringing out the overall theme.”

“Teach Me Goodness” is also “an example of a really well-done revision,” AugieDog said.  “The original version [which is included as a bonus chapter] is good, but the longer version digs into the material that was only hinted at in the first draft and expands on it to enrich the whole piece.”  Not only was that instructive reading, Horizon said, but it illustrated some daring choices in the editing process: “What impresses me most is that the revision moves the climax, upending the pacing of the entire story — and yet works as well, if not better.  It’s rare to see that pulled off.”

Read on for our author interview, in which Posh discusses mothershuckling, author-eating jackals, and menthol-starved cynics.
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Shachza’s “Insecurities”

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Today’s story will reward you for stepping out of your comfort zone.

insecuritiesInsecurities
[Slice of Life] • 12,105 words

Fleur Lumineuse, daughter of Fancy Pants and Fleur de Lis, has made a mistake.  A serious one.  She never intended so much harm but, even with her eyes now open, can she make amends?

Sometimes, what a pony really needs, is somepony else to reach out to them.

FROM THE CURATORS: While one of the great truisms of fanfiction is that no idea is irredeemable, there are some premises which are very, very difficult to sell.  So when a story admits in its author’s note to being “blatant self-insertion and gratuitous wish fulfillment,” and yet turns our heads anyhow, that should be a sign that the author is doing something very, very right.

The core of that, as Horizon put it, was the stark self-awareness on display.  “This is like no other ‘wish fulfillment’ fic I’ve ever seen,” he added.  “It draws boundaries in a way that both respects the female counterpart and reinforces her characterization.”  Present Perfect, meanwhile, was most impressed by how that self-awareness came through in the protagonist.  “Front and center is Hyperic Cable: shy, awkward, socially phobic, possibly autistic,” he said.  “It’s the kind of character portrayal that can only come from personal experience, and the fact that he isn’t the viewpoint character undercuts a lot of the wish-fulfillment angle.”  Chris felt similarly: “The self-insertiness comes through really clearly.  But on the other hand, he’s still a character who’s easy to empathize with.  I felt most of the story feeling really bad for this guy, which is exactly what I was supposed to be doing.”

But while the “nuanced, flawed characters” (as Present Perfect put it) turned our heads, this was exemplary in areas beyond its self-awareness.  “This is an excellent look into anxiety and irrational fears with equally excellent writing,” Present Perfect said, while Soge appreciated that there was an equally solid B-plot: “What really struck me was how Fleur learns to not be such a horrible pony.  She is … an incredibly selfish narcissist, profoundly bigoted, and almost comical in her lack of empathy — and yet she grows a lot during the fic, eventually even trying to see things from his perspective.”  Ultimately, Horizon said, this story became more than the sum of its parts: “The characters here are — through personal experience, good writing, or a combination of the two — both earnestly authentic, and that transforms this into something far beyond its roots.”

Read on for our author interview, in which Shachza discusses dinosaur toys, friendship ironies, and pancakes vs. ponies.
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Corejo’s “Only, Only, Only You”

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Take a poetic excursion through the mind of Nightmare Moon with today’s story.

only-only-only-youOnly, Only, Only You
[Romance] [Sad] • 1,594 words

Come closer here—my heart, my host.
Come closer.  Hear my heart, my host,

Is only staid with presence close.
If love’s a potion, ample dose.

My night-ful bride, I need your boon.
My baleful bride, I need you soon:

For what’s eclipsed by half a moon?

FROM THE CURATORS: If it seems like we disproportionately feature poetry relative to how rare it is in the fandom, it’s only because we keep stumbling across poems that are really, really good.  This was laudable not only in its construction — “The mouthfeel of this piece in lines like ‘nightshade-wound chrysanthemum’ is exquisite, and it uses its repetitions and its breaks from verse to solid effect,” Horizon said — but also in its storytelling: “It tells a riveting tale, recasting the story of Luna and Nightmare Moon as a love story,” Present Perfect said.  “The characters and plot fit the poem form well, and I love how strong the sense of yearning and desire is.”

But what impressed us all the most was the mastery of language on display.  “The words are obviously carefully chosen,” Present Perfect said.  “There’s some great wordplay, like the ‘here/hear’ in the otherwise identical couplet that appears in the description.”  Chris found another example to praise: “I think the moment I realized I was in for a treat was the couplet ‘To slither, snake, in shadow form, / To recollect, inveigle—mourn—’,” he said.  “I’m on board with anyone who can use ‘inveigle‘ in a coherent sentence, especially while holding to the rhythm of the line.”  And Horizon agreed: “This is a piece which isn’t afraid to deploy ten-dollar words with rapier precision.  Seriously, look up ‘Lacuna’ the first time the poem uses it: this isn’t just a pet name for Luna, it’s a direct statement on the relationship.”

Despite the deep linguistic delving, though, “this remains shockingly readable as it flows through a story of need and betrayal and loss,” as Horizon put it.  “Nightmare Moon’s anguish is palpable, even as the piece makes very clear who the villain is here.”  And that makes this remarkable on another level, Chris said: “The content is a fresh twist on the oldest story in the fandom, which is increasingly hard to do six seasons in … but, as Corejo shows here, by no means impossible.” That it managed to do so while impressing even our poetry connoisseurs was what sealed this story’s feature.  “I will admit to being a giant poetry grouch who clings to strict ideas about rhyme and rhythm and imagery,” AugieDog said.  “To find a piece like this one that picks a meter and keeps to it, that picks a rhyme scheme and keeps to it, that paints some wonderful pictures with words and sounds and all, that’s the sort of thing that makes me very, very happy.”

Read on for our author interview, in which Corejo discusses rabbit errors, fluff-ectomies, and the fine line between hugboxers and skimmers.
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Rambling Writer’s “Cant”

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Today’s story lines up some quality entertainment.

cantCant
[Horror] • 2,353 words

There’s an old book that’s falling apart. Twilight wants to copy it down to preserve it. But it needs to be as accurate and precise as possible, to preserve the state of the original. That shouldn’t be too hard. After all, it’s not like the text will change whenever she looks away.

Right?

FROM THE CURATORS: For a story solo-tagged [Horror], we found Cant to be unusually — and pleasantly — light reading.  “This was a fun little fic,” Chris said, and AugieDog had a similar reaction: “This is a horror story the way ‘Lesson Zero’ is a horror story … I usually find horror stories to be, well, too horrific, but this is just exactly how horror stories should go in the Pony universe.”

But make no mistake, this uses its tag effectively and subtly.  “The way it progresses to horror is as insidious as it is natural,” Present Perfect said.  “And this particular brand of quiet, obsessive horror is the sort of thing I’ve previously only seen at the SCP Foundation.”  For Soge, that quiet horror built up over time.  “My gut reaction was that it felt a bit too low key,” Soge said, “but after a few days I can safely say that it is one of those stories that is memorable in all the right ways. … I wound up reading it again, in search of all those bits of wrongness in the text.”

What makes it so rewarding is that there’s just so much the story does right.  “The way it sets up Twilight with a perfectly unexceptional book of would-be occultitude feels right at home in Equestria,” Chris said, and Horizon similarly praised the story’s approach to its protagonist: “It’s marvelous how naturally Cant meshes its horror conceit with Twilight’s character, to the point that it’s able to hide crucial pieces of unreliable narration in plain sight.”  Ultimately, as Present Perfect said, that clean execution elevated it: “This is a tidy piece, sets itself up well, doesn’t overstay its welcome, and has a great bit of foreshadowing at the start that you’ll never even realize is there.”

Read on for our author interview, in which Rambling Writer discusses high-strung wordiness, moral deconstruction, and intrinsic gray.
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JohnPerry’s “The Wreck”

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Lose yourself in today’s story about a boat that’s more than it seems.

the-wreckThe Wreck
[Dark] [Drama] [Mystery] • 13,126 words

A.K. Yearling leads a quiet, peaceful life as a novelist living in Canterlot with her fiancé.

But recently, she has been haunted by dreams of a strange shipwreck, and she doesn’t know why.

FROM THE CURATORS: JohnPerry left the fandom (and the RCL) some time ago, but we weren’t going to let that stop us from featuring The Wreck, given the wide-ranging quality of its tale.  “It’s quite an amazing piece, given the intersection of dream, desire, adventure, writer’s block and mystery,” Present Perfect said, while Soge had nothing but praise: “Very creative, amazing imagery, great characterization, and a surreal plot which ties up in the best way possible.”

We had some difficulty, in fact, finding the most praiseworthy part of this tale of A.K. Yearling’s journey of self-discovery.  AugieDog thought it was the character deconstruction: “JP’s take on the idea that A.K. Yearling and Daring Do are the same pony is just plain perfectly realized,” he said, “exploring not only which of the two is the original and dominant personality but also which of them would honestly envy the other.”  Horizon appreciated the unfolding of the mystery: “The construction here is impressive.  For instance, there’s a part of the story which seemed subtly wrong to me until I realized that the wrongness had been foreshadowing an important reveal that caught me off guard.”  And Present Perfect appreciated the way it reforged canon: “It proves that Daring Don’t didn’t rob the fandom of its ability to interpret Daring Do to their heart’s content.”

What we agreed on was that — despite its strong opening — this story kept finding ways to up the stakes and close even stronger.  “The whole thing kicks into high gear in Chapter 4 and stays gripping till the end,” Horizon said, and Present Perfect added: “The way it unfolds is quite the experience, with a strong, relatable moral at the end.”

Read on for our author interview, in which JohnPerry discusses sympathetic actors, Steven Universe, and suffering feature boxes.
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