Merry Christmas, Sergeant Edge – A Festive Tail

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
Photo by Andréas BRUN on Unsplash

In the winter of 2000, Jarvis passed his Special Forces selection. Following his Pathfinder training he expected the selection process to be a mere formality, but he found it a lot more difficult than he thought it would be. As a Pathfinder, he was expected to show a high degree of military skills and the directing staff were constantly on him. Jarvis was not only expected to have good skills, he was expected to pass these on to the other candidates and help those who were struggling. He did his best, but in truth he was struggling himself.

During his work-up phase which consisted of the various parachute insertion courses, his high degree of technical skills were identified, and Jarvis became a specialist in demolition, explosives and pyrotechnics in general. He fitted easily into the mobility troop where he became friendly with a Staff Sergeant Henry Morrison and a trooper called Cooper, who never gave out his first name. He also met a Sergeant Edge again, the man who he considered had been so rude to him in Kosovo. Jarvis was extremely good during the “Killing House” scenarios and seemed to have a natural aptitude in the claustrophobic, close-quarter battles. He was partnered with Edge and was secretly pleased to see he was better than the other troopers at reacting quickly to the difficult situations.

Just before the Christmas of 2001, he and Edge were assigned training in the “Killing House,” which was a hostage rescue of children being held in a school by terrorists. Right from the word go, Jarvis knew there was something wrong with his partner, who seemed to be slow and clumsy on that cold morning.

“Are you OK, Edgie?” he asked just before they went up onto the roof of the building.

“Of course, why?”

“It’s just that you seem to be errr… Well, not yourself,” Whatever the hell that was.

“And you’re a doctor now are you Guy? What a diversity of strings you have to your bow. Ace in the Killing House and a degree in medicine as well.”

Although it was said with a smile, from Edge’s face it seemed more like a grimace.

“Sorry I asked.”

The “Killing House” was a cordoned off area within the Credenhill base, home to the UKSF. It consisted of a large hangar with other buildings clumped around it, some from the base’s time as RAF Hereford but others had been purpose built for the particular scenarios. Aircraft storming exercises were usually carried out at Stanstead Airport on an old passenger aircraft, but other types could be requisitioned for practice on a particular aircraft type.

They were on the roof of a three-storey building and there was eight of them up there, the four going in and the four buddy-buddies who would remain on the roof and ensure the abseil lines didn’t become tangled. Edge and Jarvis would be going in first, once their wingmen had blown in the windows and tossed in the stun grenades. Edge looked around the roof. Someone had gone to the trouble of producing a large sign that read: The Grange Hill Academy for Talented Young Thespians. Some people had too much time on their hands. Jarvis’ Heckler & Koch was rear-slung and within easy reach of his right hand. The Glock 17 was in a quick-draw holster strapped to his right thigh. Both weapons could be fired ambidextrously. His view through the eyepieces of the S10 respirator was constrained and he was hot inside the hood of the NBC suit jacket. The black boiler suit was thin against his skin and his legs were cold.

Edge looked to his right and nodded at Jarvis, who gave him the circular OK signal with his right middle-finger and thumb. Their earpieces clicked, OK, stand by.

Once the floor below had been cleared, the buddy-buddy’s would take the stairs down from the roof, securing each floor as they were cleared. Edge and Jarvis would be going in first, once their wingmen had blown in the windows and tossed in the stun grenades.

Go, go, go!

He heard the abseil rope hiss to his left as he went over the side and down the wall. Jarvis moved to the balustrade and leaned out at a 45 degree angle, supported by the abseil rope. The two frame charges went off within a fraction of a second of each other and he felt the shock wave in his diaphragm. His buddy-buddy dropped the abseil rope down the wall and checked that it wasn’t tangled. He gave a thumbs-up. Jarvis walked down the first few feet of the wall, kicking out and missing the second storey window. Something was burning below, he could feel the heat and heard the tinkling of already smashed glass as the stun grenades went in. He briefly checked Edge to his left and closed his eyes as the brilliant flash came from below him, followed by the visceral boom and high-pitched screaming of the flash-bangs. Then he was out and kicking away from the wall, the rope smoking as it went through the carabiner. Jarvis swung in and went through the smashed window, the first of them in the building.

He burst through the shards of glass and dropped to his knees, swinging up the Heckler & Koch. The mannequins representing the children were grouped together around two tables in the centre of the room, a female wearing a niquab and a suicide vest was beyond them. He lay on his side and put a short burst into the figure to his front and another by the right-hand-door. The rope fell away and Jarvis was on his feet, scanning the darkened room, lit by the flickering of the burning blinds he had just come through. There was a fast rattle of fire to his left as Edge dealt with another of the bad guys.

His number two came in behind him, protecting Jarvis’ rear and right side. The children were screaming, or rather the loudspeakers around the room projected the sounds, which included distant gunfire that seemed to come from the floor below The hi-fi systems in the Killing Houses were very good quality, but the gunfire was real as four troopers were going in on the floor below from a cherry picker.

Another female figure reared up behind the children, wearing a shemagh and a suicide vest. The detonator was in the left hand and Edge put in a longer burst that completely destroyed the head. He ignored the children and noticed something hiding behind the teacher’s desk. The teacher? A door to their left burst open and Edge twisted and fired at the figure that had been coming into the room. Jarvis immediately knew that Edge had made a mistake. This mannequin wore a tweed jacket with leather patches, corduroy trousers and even a jaunty pipe was jammed in the dummy’s mouth. Edge had just said goodbye to Mr Chips.

“STOP! STOP!” boomed the voice over the PA system. The range conducting officer stepped out of the bullet-proof booth and ordered them to unload. He moved behind them and checked their weapons, while the mannequins in the smoke swirling room stared impassively and vacantly at nothing.

Edge put down his hood and pulled off the respirator. Grimy sweat had pooled under his eyes and his face had red marks where the rubber face-mask had dug into his flesh.

“Mr Edge. Would you mind telling all of us, why you decided to slot Mr Chips, the slightly dodgy science teacher who was about to retire next month?” asked the range officer. He looked at the mannequin that was wearing a tweed jacket with leather patches on the elbows. The jacket now had three holes.

Edge felt uncomfortable in the laughter, “Who in their right mind is going to dash into a room where there’s a firefight going on?”

“People are people, Edge. They do stupid things. Like the passengers who stopped to collect hand baggage on the flight at Manchester, even though the aircraft was burning around them. You have to be prepared for the stupidity of people, otherwise we would be out of business and so would politicians.

“But not a bad effort, apart from Colonel Kilgore here. Outside, have a brew and a fag if that’s your bent and we’ll do it all again at 11:00. Up on the roof by 10:45 and it will be different next time. Swap around, Edge and Jarvis will be the wingmen. It may save a few lives that way.”

As they traipsed out, Jarvis said to Edge, “It was an easy mistake to make.”

“Fuck off, Golden Boy,” was Edge’s uncompromising response and Jarvis knew there was something wrong with him.

* * *

It was the 20th December and Edge checked his mail in the Sergeant and Warrant Officers’ Mess. There was a Christmas card that had obviously been written by his daughter, a mess bill – All mess bills are to be paid, prior to going on leave – and a note that the Adjutant wanted to see him. He groaned inwardly. The Adjutant did the duty rosters and Edge was due to go on Christmas leave in two days’ time. With a heavy heart he went over to the Regimental offices and knocked on the Adjutant’s door. As he went in the Captain smiled sympathetically, so it obviously wasn’t good news.
“Straight to the point, Sergeant Edge. I’m afraid I’ve got bad news. Sergeant Mossberg was signed off sick this morning, with that bloody flu epidemic that’s doing the rounds. I’m really sorry, but as you’re current after this morning, you are going to have to cover his ‘strip duty.’ I really am sorry, as I know you were looking forward to going home, so it will mean a late Christmas and New Year leave for you.”

The Adj smiled sympathetically, “But Christmases aren’t too bad round here and you can help the officers serve the ‘Gunfire’ and the troops’ Christmas Dinner. It’ll be fun.”

Whoopie shit, thought Edge. He felt like telling the Adj the he wasn’t feeling too clever either, but that would have just sounded pathetic. He shrugged and sniffed.

“Sorry, mate. Shit happens.”

Edge saluted and left. The later phone call was quite difficult, with long silences. Moira rarely did anger, but she was very good at silent disapproval.

“Look, Moira, I know you’re pissed off and I don’t blame you, but it’s really not my fault. It’s the bloody flu and I think that I’m getting it.”

The silence was glacial, “We were supposed to be going round to Mummy and Daddy’s for Boxing Day.”

So it’s not all bad news, Edge thought cynically, “We can see them as soon as I come home.”

“And what do I tell Sarah?”

Edge sighed, “Look love, you knew what I was when you married me. If you wanted a nice, uncomplicated life you should have married your Daddy’s accountant.” Or Daz, he thought nastily.
The silence was a long one this time, “I married you coz I loved you, and God knows why, but I still do. Sometimes, Mark, you can try the patience of a saint!”

She hung up and he heard the distant buzz, swearing silently. As he came out of the phone booths the Mess Manager was waiting.

“Will you be having dinner tonight, Sergeant Edge? It’s just that we’re going onto combined messing from tomorrow.”

Oh Christ, more cheesy bloody chips, “Yes, I’ll be here for dinner.”

“I’m afraid the bar won’t be open.”

“That’s OK. I’m on dry duties for the duration.”

Jarvis saw Edge sitting in the crew room that afternoon and went over to speak to him, “Edgie, I’ve heard they’ve put you on “Strip Duty” over Christmas, because of this damned flu that’s going around. Look, I don’t have any family apart from my Mum, and she’s going to spend Christmas with my brother, who I can’t stand. You’re a family man and I’m single. I’ll cover your duty so you can get home.”

Edge looked at Jarvis with surprise, “Err, that’s very kind of you, Guy, but It’s my stint and I really have to do it.”

Jarvis looked around the room, “Do you mind if I join you?”

Edge shrugged so he sat down, “Can I ask you a question?”

Edge’s eyes narrowed in suspicion, “What?”

“Why don’t you like me? Is it because I’m a newbie?”

“No,” Edge said avoiding eye contact, “It’s just that everything is so easy for you. I have to work very hard and sometimes I fuck up, like in the Killing House.”

Jarvis chuckled, “Do you really think that? I nearly cocked up my selection, because I thought you couldn’t teach an ex-Pathfinder anything. They gave me a hard time and I struggled, so it served me right. None of us are great at everything. I’m sorry if you think that. You may be surprised that some people, including me, look up to you. You didn’t get that Military Cross from a cornflake packet and I reckon the memory is hard for you to forget.”

Edge looked at Jarvis with something that almost approached a smile, “The problem with you, Guy Jarvis is that you’re just too bloody nice.”

Edge watched him go and shook his head

“Prat,” he said, but he wasn’t referring to Guy Jarvis.

* * *

The Ibuprofen had made a slight dent in the headache, but he was developing a sore throat. He had just finished reading The Bitter End by Richard Holmes and Anthony Kemp and was deciding whether to start on Shackleton’s Boat Journey. It was Christmas Eve afternoon and it was getting dark outside. Tomorrow morning he would assemble with the officers to take round the troopers’ Gunfire, tea heavily laced with rum. He couldn’t face an early dinner in the combined mess. Edge gulped down half a pint of water and lay back down on his bed with a groan. Because he was in a nihilistic mood he was listening to Warren Zevon’s Werewolves of London. It put him in a slightly better mood. The track always did, with its simple incredulity. He didn’t hear the frantic knocking and his door burst open. It was the duty runner.

“Sarge Edge, you’re on!”

Edge took off the headphones, “Don’t be bloody daft, it’s Christmas Eve.”

“The “Strip Team’s” on instant notice to move. Aircraft hijack. Transport’s outside.”

Edge rolled off the bed and hefted his bergen and the webbing roll with his personal weapons. He hurried downstairs where two coaches were waiting outside the mess. He got on the first and the Battle Major and Captain Halward were already on board with half of the team.

“Briefing on the aircraft, Edgie. We’re going to St Mawgan in Cornwall. That’s where the QRA forced them down.”

“OK, Boss,” He had forgotten his sore throat.

They picked up the police escort outside the main gate and made the short drive to the airfield in Gloucestershire, where a C17 and a C130 were waiting for them, engines running. While the ‘Strip Team’ filed into the C130, their heavy equipment was being loaded into the vast interior of the C17. There was the motorised horsebox that contained the mobile operating theatre and the air transportable surgical support team. In addition there were a number of vehicle-mounted cherry pickers, members of the Special Forces Support Group, comms equipment including the sat link to the Cabinet Office Briefing Room (COBRA), folding tables, chairs and a pile of body bags.

The C17 would take off first because it was the faster aircraft and the C130 followed shortly after. Both aircraft climbed out and headed southwest towards Cornwall. The C17 would land on the civil side of St Mawgan, while the C130 would fly on to the disused but still covertly operational airfield at Nancekuke, a short drive or helicopter flight from St Mawgan. During the flight down over the Bristol Channel, the Battle Major briefed the team in the back of the C130, not easy given the noise. There was a lot of shouting.

“Right, here’s what we know. At 13:05 Zulu an Airbus A 320 of the Budget Carrier JizzAir with one-hundred-and-fifty-nine souls on board, was hijacked by four men, whilst on a flight from Las Palmas to Glasgow. The men are armed with handguns and what appear to be grenades. They forced entry to the cockpit when a flight attendant was let in and the crew was distracted and an armed man gained entry. The pilot squawked the distress signal and the Southern QRA was launched at 13:40.

“The flight attendants noticed that the four men were rowdy as they boarded and assumed that they had spent too long in the bar prior to boarding. It’s not known how they managed to get the guns and grenades past security. But forty-five minutes into the flight, two of them gained access to the cockpit and demanded to be flown to Dublin. All four of them are white, male and under thirty.”

“Are we dealing with Provos? Doesn’t sound like their MO,” asked a trooper.

“Doesn’t look like it. One of the cabin crew is a switched on cookie. She phoned her boyfriend who also works for JizzAir and gave a good description of the men and the strange way they were behaving. She thinks that at least two are Scottish, East Coast and well spoken. She provided a lot of good information before her battery ran out.”

“Could they be Viet-Jock?”

The Battle Major smirked and shrugged before carrying on, “Since they’ve landed, they have made one demand. ‘A selection of the finest wines known to mankind and don’t bother introducing anything nasty, because the lovely trolley-dollies will be tasting it first.’ Yes I know it sounds like a piss take, but the Home Secretary wants this wrapped up tonight and not allowed to drag on into Christmas. No protracted negotiations.”

“Could it be anything to do with deflecting attention from his son getting busted for possession of illegal substances?”

“I couldn’t possibly comment. So we go in tonight. I will be the Gold Commander on the link to COBRA. Captain Halward will be Silver Commander, with the reserve outside the aircraft,” his eyes swept the assembled team, “And you, Mr Edge have the honour of being the Bronze Commander. Team up with Corporal Backshaw, who has experience of getting into aircraft. I have plans of the interior layout that shows the doors and escape exits. Come up with a plan for briefing once we’re on the ground at Nancekuke. It’ll have to be quick and dirty I’m afraid.”

Edge sought out Backshaw and they went to the rear ramp to study the aircraft plans. The corporal wanted to put Edge straight on a few issues.

“Edgie, the Regiment hasn’t had to do this since the year that I was born, 1977. When the Major said I had experience, I’ve done a couple of aircraft practice assaults on the mock-up at Stanstead. The ‘passengers’ were all volunteer Servicemen and women, which is important. People like that tend to act in a predictable way as far as we’re concerned. Civilians don’t and that’s an essential thing to remember.”

Edge thought back to his ‘murder’ of Mr Chips, “So what are the key considerations?”

“Getting all the team in at the same time and neutralising the bad guys in the first ten seconds. Use sub-sonic rounds to prevent collateral and stop their nice aeroplane from being pumped full of holes. Best use pistols and not Kocklers. You must keep the passengers in their seats until the opposition is neutralised, then everyone must be gotten off as soon as possible, so you’ll need a switched on member of cabin staff to operate the escape chutes.

“There should be simultaneous entry at the front to control the cockpit, which is the most important area, the rear of the plane and in through the over wing exits with at least four, two going forward and two going back. No CS in case anyone has asthma, but use flash bangs to gain entry. I would suggest a big diversion at the front of the aircraft as we go in.”

Edge studied the plans and then started to cough. His eyes were streaming.

“You all right, Edgie?”

“No, I feel terrible. I see the A320 is quite wide, six seats across.”

“Yep, I would only use the front and rear starboard doors, but there are four over wing exits, so I’d put one in from each one. Get the four on top of the aircraft with a cherry picker. I’ll take the rear with two of us and have two standing by. Same for you, but make sure you clear the lav and the galley before the cockpit. I’ll run through how the doors open with the rest of the team. The Major’s got a couple of photographs of the emergency opening procedure.”

“OK, so we have our bones of a plan. I’ll sit down and turn it into Rupert speak for briefing when we land. Thanks, mate.”

By the time the C130 landed at Nancekuke, a Land Rover, a four tonner and two coaches from RNAS Culdrose were waiting for them. They had erected an 18×24 tent as a light rain was falling and the troops traipsed in. Edge briefed the plan and made a couple of small tweaks on advice from the character assassination group. They were hoping for a stay of execution but the Major had gone on ahead to set up the Gold control centre, and radioed that COBRA wanted the operation carried out that night.

* * *

Edge stared at his watch on the outside of the NBC suit and wiped the drizzle from the eyepieces of the S10 Respirator with weapon cleaning flannelette. There were four of them on the gantry of the battery-powered cherry picker that was just under the starboard front crew/passenger door. The driver waved up at them and gave a thumbs-up. Edge was holding two flash bangs that would go in as soon as his wingman opened the door. His earpiece clicked and Captain Halward’s calm voice come over the radio.

“Everyone in position. Stand by Bronze.”

There was a distant rumble coming from behind the aircraft, which increased until the noise could be felt. A brace of Tornado ADVs screamed a few feet above the airliner and pulled up into an almost vertical climb. The screaming rumble of the afterburners was visceral and four jets of flame carved fiery trails in the night sky.

“Go, go, go!”

The door swung upwards and the stun grenades went in. Edge didn’t remember drawing his Glock and he heaved himself up into the aircraft. A young man with a pistol came from his right, from the direction of the cockpit, just as the first stun grenade went off, followed moments later by the second. There was screaming as Edge beaded the man’s chest, just as a panicked passenger bolted in front of him, trying to reach the door. Someone yelled BRACE, BRACE. It was Edge and the panicking passenger jolted him as he went out of the door and fell twenty feet to the tarmac. He heard the long bones snap and the scream from below.

The wingman came in and the young man dropped the gun and shouted: “Don’t shoot, don’t shoot.”

There were pop, pop, pop sounds from towards the back of the Airbus which was full of swirling smoke. Edge was about to fire when the dropped pistol hit the deck with hollow thump. The pistol was a plastic toy gun. Edge hit him hard, bouncing him to the deck and knelt on his neck as the second hijacker came out of the cockpit. He saw Edge and the muzzle of the Glock and dropped the ‘grenade’ he had made out of a deodorant spray can. The wingman slammed him to the ground and cable tied the two men while Edge went into the cockpit.

“Everything OK now?” The pilot nodded with a shocked expression, “Right, we’ll get the passengers off first.”
On the way out he swept the galley and found a flight attendant hiding on the floor in the corner,

“You need to get the passengers off. On your feet and pull yourself together!” The lavatory was empty.

He went aft and met the two troopers coming forward, “Where are the rest of the flight attendants?”
“Aft. Two suspects shot at the back of the aircraft. The cabin is clear.”

At the galley at the back of the aircraft Corporal Backshaw had finished searching the two men lying on the deck. One was crying with pain, the other still and dead, staring up with vacant eyes.

“Toys, they were fucking toy guns!” Backshaw exclaimed with disgust and Edge felt a simmering anger, which he took out on the flight attendants.

“Get your passengers off! An emergency evacuation. Come on, get your arses in gear!”

The screams of panic continued, but the passengers were at last exiting down the escape chutes. The eight men of the assault team waited for the paramedics and police to take over. Ten minutes after entering the aircraft, Edge briefed the police and Captain Halward, while the paramedics saw to the wounded terrorist and the injuries sustained by the passengers evacuating the aircraft.

The troopers filed off onto a high lifter and made their way to a building that had been set up as Gold Command. They didn’t unload any weapons, which were tagged and bagged as evidence, even those which had not been fired. Edge slumped onto a folding chair, pulled down his hood and took off the respirator, which by now smelled rank. They had a hot debrief.

“Well done team. One dead perpetrator, one wounded, four passengers with minor injuries, one with serious fractures. We think this was an extremely stupid student prank that went too far. Four lives ruined for a jolly jape. I have no idea how they managed to get the fake firearms through airport security, that’s for the police and the investigation team to find out. You did your jobs very well. Well done Edgie and you too, Backshaw.”

The Major smiled at Edge who was sitting, looking at the floor, trying to forget his aching joints. When he looked up his face was drawn and an ashen grey now that the adrenalin had worn off.
“My God, Sergeant Edge. Are you all right?”

“No Boss. I feel like shit. I reckon I’ve got the flu.”

There was an imperceptible movement away from him while one of the troopers went to cadge some painkillers off the paramedics. The two officers had a little discussion and then the Major went to speak with the police Chief Superintendent. He came back several minutes later as the troopers were filing back onto the coaches.

“Not you, Sergeant Edge. You come with me.”

They walked across the hardstanding to a police helicopter. The Airbus was behind them, flooded now with light as the forensic team examined it. There were lights dancing in the periphery of Edge’s vision.

“We’ve decide we don’t want you on the Hercules with us, because we don’t want what you’ve got. You live close by and the police have kindly agreed to fly you home, on the way back to Exeter. You’re no use to us in this state, so go home and get rest. See a doctor if necessary. We’ll look after your weapons and kit.”

“Thanks, Boss,” Edge croaked.

Inside the Eurocopter, the female observer helped Edge strap in and handed him an OS Map of North Devon, “Your boss said you live in Weare Giffard. Where can we land?”

Edge showed her the bend in the river on the map, “Approach from the south and you can put it down on the flood meadow. There are no obstructions coming in or climbing out.”

She went into the cockpit and Edge settled back and closed his eyes. He felt like he was in an empty space, such as a disused power station and he was very hot. The helicopter climbed out towards the northeast and the female observer looked at him with curiosity. Here he was, the real deal and not some wannabee SAS tactical firearms officer; like her husband. And this man was uniquely unprepossessing and yet a source of fascination. He was still wearing his Pointblank body armour, ripped black trousers and tatty Magnum Hi-Tech boots, tied with green para cord rather than laces. He had attempted to dye the NBC jacket black, but it was just a dirty grey. He was slumped with exhaustion, grimy face from where the anti-flash black under his eyes had run with sweat. It was a face that had been on the wrong end of a beating. He opened one eye, then the other and stared at her. He said something she couldn’t hear. Self-consciously she leaned forward.

“Are we nearly there yet?” he asked hoarsely.

* * *

Edge ducked into a crouch and watched the police helicopter climb away over the river, swing round and head towards the southeast. He stood up and pushed through the long grass, heading towards the lane and his cottage. It was just after 01:25 on Christmas morning. He was singing softly and a little deliriously:

I saw three ships come sailing in,
On Christmas day, on Christmas day,
I saw three ships come sailing in,
On Christmas day in the morning.

He found the spare key in the hollowed out log in the woodshed and let himself in quietly. The tree was up in the sitting room with wrapped presents under it. Edge dropped the body armour and pulled the NBC smock over his head. He found a bottle of brandy, poured himself half a glass and sat down in front of the still warm fire to take off his boots. As he felt the warmth of the brandy hit his stomach, a tabby cat padded silently in from the kitchen and sat down in front of him, with a disapproving gaze.

“It’s purely for medicinal purposes, Monty, so get stuffed.”

Edge finished the brandy, scratched the cat’s head and went upstairs, slipping off the boiler suit, his socks and shreddies. He needed a shower but was too tired, so he slipped into the bed behind his wife.

“Moira, I don’t feel very well,” he said in his pathetic, sickly voice. She stirred and felt his heat.

“Oh Antonio Corelli, I knew you would come back to me,” she murmured, still asleep.
Edge felt himself slipping into sleep, but suddenly sat up with a start.

“Who the bloody hell is Antonio Corelli?” he demanded.

“You stink of gunfire and violence. And you can’t play me like a mandolin, Mark Edge. Not in your state.”

* * *

Monty sat in the darkness looking up at the Christmas tree. Well if Edge Father hadn’t been afraid of it, perhaps he shouldn’t be as well. Monty reached out a paw and touched a glass bauble. His claws made a satisfying little chink on the glass and he watched it swing. He reached out again and patted the bauble several times, each one accompanied by the little tinkle of his claws on the glass.
I’m going to have fun with these dangly glass things. The being shouted at kind of fun. Monty purred in the darkness.

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