• The Fissure of Rolando

    by  • May 22, 2017 • Fiction • 0 Comments

    An essay by Euphemia Thorniwork, as provided by Judith Field
    Art by Scarlett O’Hairdye

    November, 1890

    A splash of water in my face brought me round. I opened my eyes and sat up to find myself in the lecture theatre of Huxley College, Oxford, where a mathematics lecture was in progress. Spaulding, my fellow student, knelt at my side with knitted brows, an empty glass in his hand.

    “Are you alright, Euphemia?” he whispered. “You fainted and slid from your seat to the floor. I took it upon myself to apply first aid. Do you require more water?”

    “No!” I dragged myself back into my seat and pulled my handkerchief out of my cuff to dry my face. “No, thank you. I am quite myself.”

    Spaulding took his place and looked toward the blackboard at the front of the hall. There were mutterings from several parts of the audience about feeble women who were simply not up to the job. Dr Wagstaff continued his lecture as though he had not noticed my faint.

    The dim lamps in the hall matched the gloom I felt. I groaned inwardly, cursing myself for swooning like a character from a melodrama. Shifting in my seat, I was unable to get comfortable or concentrate. I jumped as Dr Wagstaff banged the chalk down onto the table in front of him to make a point I had not heard. The chalk shattered into a cloud of dust, which settled on his whiskers, changing them from grey, to white.

    The letter from my mother was the cause of my loss of consciousness. It arrived just as I was leaving for College, and I made the mistake of opening it during the lecture. She told me that Barings were virtually insolvent following imprudent investments in the Argentine. I had lost most of my legacy from Uncle Eric. There was enough to last until the end of this term. Four weeks, and then my time as the first female student of mathematics at Huxley College would be at an end. I began to feel dizzy again and rummaged in my Gladstone bag for smelling salts but found none.

    I pushed the letter inside the bag, next to one Mother had sent me earlier in the week, informing me that Mr. Driver who owned the pharmacy had been enquiring after me again. She considered that he would ask me to walk out with him next time I was at home. My stomach turned at the thought of keeping company with sweaty-faced Thomas Driver and his hot breath that smelled of fish. But unless I could fund my continuing academic career, penury would force me to do so, with him or someone like him. If I were a man, I could find gainful employment. But for me, it was a choice between Driver, or scratching an existence as a spinster, invisible without a man by my side.

    I had to find a source of income. I poked and prodded inside the bag again, but other than my keys and the two letters from Mother, all it contained was the classified advertisement I had torn out of the newspaper:

    Wanted immediately at the home of a gentleman scholar a prudent, steady and careful assistant without dependents for novel physics research project of vital importance and of the utmost confidentiality. Each evening, all day Saturday and Sunday. Must be accustomed to the maintenance of glass instruments and equipment and to working with the electrophorus and the dry cell. Good character indispensible. Ability to hold breath for at least one minute a distinct advantage. Five shillings per week offered. Apply to Dr Q Wagstaff at the office of this paper.

    I had not been surprised to see it, for the college was rife with rumours about Dr Wagstaff. It was said that he had already had three assistants this term, one after the other, and they had never been seen again. Had they simply been too embarrassed to show their faces? I had been intrigued, but not brave enough to reply. Nor had the need existed—then. Desperation made me consider seeking this post, despite it paying the wages of a parlourmaid. At the end of the lecture, I waited until all the other students left, hoping that the post was still vacant. I walked on shaking legs down to the front of the theatre and spoke to him.


    At almost 9 o’clock on Saturday morning, I trudged through the rain along the street leading to Dr Wagstaff’s house. A bicycle bell rang behind me. Before I could move aside, a man on a velocipede rattled past me across the cobblestones through a puddle. Muddy water spattered onto my skirt, making the hem droop in damp folds round my ankles.

    I stood on Dr Wagstaff’s doorstep and tugged the bell pull. A woman I estimated to be in her sixties opened the door, coughing and wafting her hand in front of her face. Behind her, green vapour filled the hall to about knee height. The smell of burnt hair hit the back of my throat.

    “Kindly tell your master that Miss Thorniwork is here,” I gulped as I tried to peer round her.

    “Never heard of you. Get along, now.” The rain dripped onto my head from a leaky gutter. She eyed me up and down. I must have made a poor specimen but I drew myself up to my full height of five feet three and three quarter inches and tried to look her in the eye.

    “Dr Wagstaff instructed me to attend here at 9 o’clock, precisely.”

    “Here to see the Doctor? Not on your life. The very idea! Enough to make a stuffed bird laugh.”

    “Do not waste my time. See, here.” I pulled the remains of the page bearing the advertisement out of my pocket and showed it to her.

    She waved it away. “Go along with you. Drat your insolence.”

    “Enquire of Dr Wagstaff. He will confirm the appointment.”

    “I will do no such thing. If you don’t take yourself off, and precious sharp, I’ll go and fetch the police.” She moved as though to shut the door in my face.

    A future in a marriage breeding cannon fodder for the Empire loomed in my mind. I felt my hands shake. I spoke again, my mouth dry.

    “Has there never been an occasion when an unannounced visitor arrived to see the Doctor? Please. Just ask him. Then if he denies all knowledge, I swear I will leave.”

    “Hmm.” Her mouth set in a line. She took up a speaking tube from the wall inside the doorway, pulled a brass cover from the end and blew into it. A whistle sounded. I heard a faint voice from the other end: “Yes, Mrs Howell?”

    “A young lady. Unaccompanied.” She put the cap back onto the tube and stood, hands on hips.

    I peered past her again. Dr Wagstaff appeared through a door at the end of the hall. He strode toward her, his wrinkled face wreathed in smiles. “Thank you, Mrs Howell, the young lady is expected. I apologise for my lack of prior announcement.”

    She glared her disapproval and stepped aside.

    Dr Wagstaff rubbed his hands together. “Capital,” he said, looking downward. “Ah, I see the rolandic vapour is settling. Therefore, it is, as I hoped, heavier than air.”

    Mrs Howell dabbed at her watering eyes with the corner of her apron. “Enough to give me the green sickness. I hope you have lost your sense of smell, Miss.” She sniffed, turned and went inside the house.

    Dr Wagstaff turned to me. “I fear I have annoyed Mrs Howell by covering the carpet with green gas again,” he said. “But I am forgetting my manners, leaving you standing on the doorstep. Please come in.”

    I hung my hat and coat on a peg and put my umbrella in a hollowed out elephant’s foot that already contained a furled parasol with a brass duck’s head for a handle, a gnarled wooden walking stick with a solar topi dangling from a protrusion on the end, and what might have been a rapier from the look of the haft. He led me along a wide hallway past dark wooden doors till we came to one that was half open, leading into the scullery.

    Dr Wagstaff stopped next to a scrubbed wooden table in the middle of the room. “First, I must ask you to sign this agreement.” He reached into a jacket pocket and extracted a creased piece of paper and a fountain pen.

    “Allow me to read it first.” I took the paper from him, unfolded it and put it down on the table. “Keep secret all I see, hear and do. Of course.” I ran my finger down the page as I read, stopping at an unfamiliar word. “What does this mean–‘accept the risk of transmigration and/or transmutation'”?

    “A mere formality. Do not concern yourself.”

    I read on. “And … ‘confirm that my spine is flexible and has suffered no previous injury'”?

    “Surely a young person such as you need not be concerned with that.” He waved the pen under my nose.

    “Agree that my estate and relicts have no claim on you? Perhaps I should ask a solicitor to examine this document.”

    Art for "The Fissure of Rolando"

    I fear I have annoyed Mrs Howell by covering the carpet with green gas again.

    Dr Wagstaff pursed his lips and tapped his chin with the pen. “Such timidity does you no credit, Miss Thorniwork. Without boldness, there can be no advancement. You must ask yourself whether you want this post at all. Indeed, I may reconsider my offer of employment.”

    I thought of Mother’s letter yet again, snatched the pen, and scrawled my name at the end of the paper. Dr Wagstaff took the pen from me and placed his signature beneath mine.

    “This way.” He walked to the far end of the scullery and opened another door. Tendrils of the same green mist snaked out. “Welcome to my laboratory. Please hold your breath!” I breathed in as deeply as I could. Just inside the doorway, through the green clouds, I saw a stuffed swordfish dangling from the ceiling.

    “Ah, mind your head, Miss Thorniwork. Once the vapour–quite harmless, I assure you–disperses, you will see more clearly.”

    I rubbed my left temple. He bowed, and ushered me inside. I exhaled in a rasp.

    “Breath held for twenty seconds,” he muttered to himself. “That must suffice.” He looked up at the fish. “My first attempt at taxidermy.”

    It reminded me of something similar in a painting I had seen, called “The Alchemist at Work.” Or had that shown a suspended crocodile?

    “I needed the bony bill of the fish for the experiment you are to help me with,” he said. “It involves electricity.”

    “In fish?”

    He shook his head and frowned. “I needed a conductor of electricity, but metal would not do. The part of a bone that is compressed will become negatively charged, while the part of the same bone that is under tension will become positively charged.”

    “If you say so. I am a mathematics student with little knowledge of physics.” I felt my face grow warm, and I bit my lip, hoping that I had not just terminated my employment. “But I do find that elliptical geometry and … Riemann’s Hypothesis hold a curious fascination. What would you like me to do?” I said, with an artificial smile.

    “I have heard great things about your tenacity and your inquiring mind. And you will help me in the development of mathematical methods that can be applied to problems in physics. I have observed your diligence during my lectures, the probing and incisive nature of the questions you ask. I will trust you with my discovery.”

    He shut the door behind us. Gas lamps flickered and cast long shadows. Dr Wagstaff turned a regulator on the wall and the lamps shone brighter. The walls were bare brickwork, painted white, as was the floor. There was a window made of reinforced glass that was either frosted or filthy–I did not care to find out which. Dark wooden shelves held jars filled with liquids in a range of colours I had not thought existed: blues so bright they seemed to etch the back of my eyes so that saw them behind my eyelids when I blinked. At the bottom of a carboy filled with purple liquid that fluoresced yellow round the edges was a blackened object. I looked closer. Could it be a minuscule brain?

    I gasped. “From a rat?”

    “I doubt Mrs Howell would thank you for that judgment on the last of her pickled walnuts. Would you like it?” He rummaged through his jacket pockets. “I have a fork somewhere.”

    I shuddered and shook my head.

    He shrugged his shoulders. “Not hungry? No matter. Now come along.” He hurried toward the end of the room.

    As I passed a bench, movement in a jar the size of my head, filled with bright orange fluid, caught my eye, and I stopped to look. An oily globule the size of a hen’s egg rose to the top of the liquid, floated for a moment, then fell back to the bottom like lava. I walked past racks of shelving lining the walls, laden with heaps of contorted glass tubing and vessels that seemed to have been twisted into sailor knots. At the opposite end of the room, next to a low stone sink, stood a bench on which stood a pair of metal rods mounted on a dais shaped like a squat cylinder. The rods inclined away from each other in a v-shape and a spark crackled from side to side between them. A smell of ozone replaced the smell of burnt hair.

    A japanned screen, inlaid with a marquetry image of a slice of human brain in side view concealed one corner of the room from view.

    “What I want your help with is over here.” Dr Wagstaff moved the screen aside, revealing Regency-style chairs surrounding a card table covered in green baize. In the middle of it stood a mahogany box about one foot square and six inches high. On top of one side was a wooden shape like a pyramid with the top sliced away, inlaid with engraved brass plates. Some of these bore dials, some levers, still others apparently purely decorative. In the place of the point of the pyramid was an upright glass cylinder the length of my arm and twice the width, filled with clear liquid and capped with silver-coloured metal at both ends. Metallic probes projected into the cylinder from the caps. A copper cable as thick as my thumb ran from the top down to a smaller box on which were mounted two fluted glass bell-shaped devices resembling gas lamp shades but facing forward, one pointing to the left and one to the right.

    We sat down at opposite sides of the table. He cleared his throat. “You see before you a device that will revolutionise communication within buildings. No longer will the master of a house have to ring for a servant. An employer will be able to speak to his staff without rising from his place to blow down a tube, as I do when I wish to speak to Mrs Howell. But, most excitingly, those whom illness has deprived of speech will be able to engage in dialogue.”

    I saw no wires. “Is it similar to Mr Bell’s device? I have heard that he has developed an electric telephone that will transmit over a few feet.”

    He shook his head. “Speech is not required. It employs the electrical impulses that are generated in the brain.” He pointed at the picture of the brain cross-section on the screen. “Now, when we intend to speak, before we do so, electric currents are generated. I have found a previously undiscovered function of part of the brain. Contrary to what the self-styled experts of the day would have us believe, the electric currents do not merely dissipate.” He jumped to his feet, put his finger to his lips, crept to the door, and jerked it open. There was nobody there. “I have already demonstrated that this knowledge can be dangerous, if not treated with respect.” I called to mind the rumours about the previous assistants. “It could have catastrophic results, in the wrong hands.” He sprinted to the diagram and jabbed at a deep crevasse shown at the top of the brain. “Once generated, the currents remain. They are stored here, in a part of the brain the name of which I dare not speak, lest it be overheard.” From his pocket he pulled out the stub of a pencil, and a scrap of crumpled paper. He scribbled something and handed the paper to me.

    On it he had written “The Fissure of Rolando.” It sounded like the title of one of mother’s gothic novels. “You have read what I wrote?” I nodded, and he snatched the paper from my fingers and tore it into pieces. These he dropped onto the brickwork floor. He retrieved a box of matches from his jacket pocket and set them alight. “Catastrophic,” he muttered, grinding the charred remains to powder under his heel.

    He returned to my side of the screen and took a box from one of the shelves on the wall behind him. “This headgear is an integral part of the mechanism.” From the box he took a black rubber, close-fitting cap which he tugged onto his head. It had a large round hole on each side through which he pulled his ears. He fastened an elasticated strap under his chin. “This ensures that the cap comes into close contact with the head and picks up the electrical impulses.”

    From the cap protruded rows of small round studs, from each of which a wire led. They collected at the back in the manner of a horse’s tail about a yard long, at the end of which was a thick metal pin. This he plugged into a hole on the side of the cut-down pyramid.

    “And now, yours.” He took a similar cap out of the box and handed it to me.

    I stretched it over my bun, eased my ears out and fastened the chin strap. It tugged at my hair. I felt my head perspire.

    “Now, to test it.” Dr Wagstaff plugged in the wires extending from the cap on my head. “I am thinking of a word. The energy from my brain collects in the rolandic tube here,” he pointed at the glass cylinder. The fluid inside changed from clear to apple green and bubbles appeared at the probes at each end. “The colour changes and bubbles indicate an accumulation of charge. Eventually the electrons are discharged at the cathode on the top. The movement of electrons–an electrical current, you know–is transmitted down this cable, which is in fact the swordfish bill, coated with copper. And when the message is transmitted to you, notes sound for confirmation, amplified by these two glass bells.”

    Two notes chimed from the machine, and I had the curious sensation of Dr Wagstaff’s voice inside my head. The liquid inside the tube changed back to clear. “Now, you please think of a word.” I did so, and the process repeated itself. We removed our caps and unplugged them from the machine. Damp tendrils of hair fell down around my face and I pushed them back behind my ears.

    “You thought ‘swordfish’,” I said, dabbing at my forehead with my handkerchief.

    “I did. And you, ‘Barings’. A lot of fools.” He tutted and shook his head.

    “So, we know that it works,” I said. “But, both parties must be connected to it. And, although one could use long cables to do so … most impractical.”

    “Certainly, for all but the immobile. I seek your help to develop a wireless version. Electric waves move through space at the speed of light, as Maxwell has demonstrated. But we need to boost the sensitivity of the rolandic cylinder if we are to collect them.” He took a grey, cylindrical object about a foot high and three inches across, with two metal pieces on the top, from a shelf beside the window.

    “Now I will connect this dry cell via the relay, which will boost the current further.” He wound a piece of wire round a metal stud protruding from the end of the cylinder. “I must be careful not to loosen the end terminal or the fluid escapes as vapour. I did so earlier, to Mrs Howell’s indignation, and you walked through the results. Should that happen, you would do well to hold your breath. Now I shall think of another word.”

    The fluid changed colour, this time to a dark bottle green and bubbles appeared, but I heard no sound in my head and no chiming tone. A crackle came from the glass bells.

    “I am detecting an unusual wave pattern.” Dr Wagstaff stared at one of the dials on the machine. The needle on the instrument flicked to the left and then the right, left and right, in time with a new two-tone sound coming from the bells. The thud of a heartbeat.

    I looked at my fob watch and touched my fingertips to the opposite wrist, but at seventy beats per minute, it was slower than mine. Was it Dr Wagstaff’s?

    “Who’s there? Hello?” A woman’s voice came from the bell.

    Dr Wagstaff pointed at me and raised his eyebrows. I shook my head.

    “Where am I? It’s all over green, I can’t see a thing,” the voice said.

    “Your voice is in Oxford. But where are you?” Dr Wagstaff said.


    “Dover!” Dr Wagstaff’s voice rose in pitch, and he ran his hands through his hair till it stood up in spikes. “A distance of one hundred and fifty miles!”

    “My voice is in Oxford … right-oh, I’m dreaming. I sat down for a tea break, must have nodded off. Well, san fairy ann.”

    “If you are happy to converse with us, please tell us who you are,” I said. “I am Miss Euphemia Thorniwork–”

    “–and I am Dr Quincy Wagstaff. We are mathematicians, working on wireless communication.”

    “Let’s have a chin-wag, why not?” the voice said. “Something to do. Any minute now, Bert’ll be shaking me, telling me to wake up toot sweet, time to get the bus out. I’m Tilly. I’m a clippie. But they needn’t think it’s going to be like it was. I’m not going back to skivvying at home. Nar-poo, they can’t make me. I’m 21 now.”

    “Clippie?” I asked. “What is that?”

    “Blimey, show your ignorance. I’m a bus conductress.”

    “A singular job, for a lady,” I said.

    “Lady? No time for that now,” Tilly said. “There are thousands like me, working just as well as the men. Wish they paid us the same. They told us women to keep the home fires burning, but there was a lot more to do, and we did it. And I’m going to make sure we can keep on at it, and more.”

    “They intended you to shovel coal onto the fireplace? Would you not do that anyway?” I said.

    “It’s a figure of speech. Where’ve you been, on the moon? You must have heard them. You must have seen all those posters saying ‘Women of Britain say Go’. I don’t know, this serves me right for eating a cheddar sandwich for my tea, always gives me dreams. Lucky to get any cheese, with the rationing.”

    Dr Wagstaff leaned toward the machine, eyes wide, rubbing his hands together. “What rationing? Who is restricting your diet?”

    “The butcher and the baker and the grocer! Where do you do your shopping? There might not be rationing in cushy Oxford, but we’ve got it. It’s alright for some. We might’ve won the war, but you wouldn’t think so to look at the food.”

    “To what war do you refer?” I said.

    Tilly snorted. “What are you, a pair of conchies? Only the Great War, of course. The Kaiser’s War. Only the war to end all wars.”

    My own heart seemed to freeze, then pound. My skin tingled.

    “Tilly.” I heard my voice quaver. “What is today’s date?”

    “November the twenty second.”

    “Correct. And the year?”

    “Blimey, you been asleep too? It’s 1918.” She coughed.

    I grasped Dr Wagstaff’s arm. “One hundred and fifty miles away, yes. And twenty-eight years.”

    “I don’t like this place,” Tilly said. “This green smoke is choking me. I’m trying to run but my legs won’t move. Don’t like those dreams. Wake up!”

    Dr Wagstaff looked at one of the dials. “This is remarkable. It is not only her voice in the rolandic tube, it is her, it is her very essence. She is not in Dover, she is here. She is not yet born, today.” He set his mouth into a line. “Tell us more about the war to end all wars.”

    “But why, when it is finished?” I said. “There is much more we could ask her.”

    Tilly coughed again. “Right, if you’re so good at numbers, here are some. I heard that nearly 9 million soldiers copped it and nearly 30 million were injured. Like my brother Alfie. Went off to fight Fritz. Brought back as a cripple.”

    “I am sorry,” Dr Wagstaff said. “But where was the war?”

    “If I tell you, will I wake up?” Tilly spoke with a catch in her voice. “It was everywhere. Wars used to happen in faraway countries. But we could hear the guns firing in France, across the Channel.”

    I felt a wave of sorrow wash over me, for making her relive her terror. “It must have been horrifying,” I said. I wished I could hold her hand, ask her about something else.  Anything.

    “Alfie told me. The mud. The thick slime in the trenches. Fat rats, gorged on flesh. Alfie said if you had a corpse to sit or stand on, you were lucky. And I saw it. I went to see a picture show about the Somme.”

    “What was that?” Dr Wagstaff asked. I could have struck him.

    “A long battle. Two years ago. I saw what our boys had to go through. The trenches. Falling on the barbed wire. The pictures taken after the fighting were worse. Men lying helpless. The wounded being carried away. The pain in their faces.”

    “We cannot let this happen. How did the war start?” Dr Wagstaff asked.

    “I’m falling asleep,” Tilly said. “But I’m dreaming. I’ll wake up … with a sick headache.” Her heartbeat slowed. Fifty beats per minute. “Wake up. The tooter the sweeter.”

    “We must release her,” I said. “Then she will find herself back, I mean forward, in her time.”

    Dr Wagstaff raised his hand. “How did it start, Tilly?”

    Her voice shrank to a whisper. “Archduke got shot. Sarajevo. 1914. So tired.”

    “Archduke who? When?” Dr Wagstaff shouted at the cylinder, turning a knurled knob on the machine marked “volume control.”

    “The shot that echoed round the world. Sleep … now.” Forty-five beats per minute.

    I grabbed his hand and pulled it away from the machine. “Let her go, Dr Wagstaff. She is losing consciousness. Her heartbeat is slowing. If you let her go, she may not survive, but if you hold her here, she will die. She cannot exist in two places at once. If she dies here, in her time not only does she not exist but she never has done. And never will.”

    “But if we can find out more, we can stop this abomination.”

    “How? Will you write to the Archduke and tell him not to go to Sarajevo in twenty-four years’ time? We cannot kill Tilly. Let her go or she will die here and never be born. And nobody will know her, or her descendants. Think of what will never be. What might have been discovered.” And the women who may never be helped to advance.

    Forty beats per minute.

    “If I let her go, I will find someone else to tell us more. To save all those lives.” He reached a hand out toward the machine.

    “No. It will kill whoever stays in it for more than a few minutes. Perhaps Tilly will not make a mark on history. Perhaps others would not either. But do they not also have the right to live? The end does not justify the means.”

    Dr Wagstaff’s hand shook, then dropped to his side. He hung his head. “You put me to shame, Euphemia. I do not know if releasing her will send her to her own time.” He brushed the back of his hand across his cheek, wiping away a tear. “But we must try reversing the polarity and boosting the current. Get another dry cell.”

    I ran to the shelf and brought back the remaining two. “Here—use all the power available.”

    With shaking hands, we connected them to the machine.

    “Switch on the first cell!” Dr Wagstaff shouted.

    Tilly’s heart rate, still forty beats per minute, could just be heard over the sound of the bubbles gathering in the machine.

    “And the second!”

    A boom made my ears ring. I jumped back as the shards of the rolandic cylinder flew across the room. Green vapour billowed out of the shattered cylinder. I held my breath and grasped Dr Wagstaff by the sleeve. We ran to the door.


    Dr Wagstaff sat on a wooden chair in the scullery with his head in his hands. “The Rolando study is over,” he said. “I would not want to recreate the cylinder. The war will come and we cannot stop it. I am seventy-five years of age, I will not see men marching away to die as cattle. But you will.”

    I knelt down on the stone floor next to him. “It will come. We cannot stop it.” I took his hand. “But Tilly called it the war to end all wars. Let us pray that she will be right.”

    Euphemia Thorniwork finished her mathematics degree with 1st Class Honours. She then went on to become a teaching fellow and was responsible for the development of the Lifschitz-Thorniwork equation. Shortly after this, Dr Lifschitz disappeared. All that Euphemia will say on the subject is that she plans to join him, as soon as she discovers a way into his world.

    Judith Field lives in London, UK. She is the daughter of writers, and learned how to agonise over fiction submissions at her mother’s (and father’s) knee. She’s a pharmacist working in emergency medicine, a medical writer, editor, and indexer. She started writing in 2009. She mainly writes speculative fiction, a welcome antidote from the world she lives in. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications in the USA, UK, and Australia. When she’s not working or writing, she studies English, knits, sings, and swims, not always at the same time. She blogs at Luna Station Quarterly.

    Scarlett O’Hairdye is a burlesque performer, producer and artist. To learn more, visit her site at www.scarlettohairdye.com.

    “The Fissure of Rolando” is © 2015 Judith Field
    Art accompanying story is © 2017 Scarlett O’Hairdye

    “The Fissure of Rolando” originally appeared in Theian Journal, November 2015.

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