AUTHOR'S NOTE: "Star Trek: Picard", the characters, and situations depicted were created for CBS All Access by Akiva Goldsman, Michael Chabon, Kirsten Beyer, and Alex Kurtzman. This piece of fan fiction was created for entertainment not monetary purposes. Previously unrecognized characters and places, and this story, are copyrighted to the author. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
SPOILERS: All episodes until 1x10

The slow walk to a better life
By asianscaper


Chapter 3: Provocation

Raffi peered at the large port-side window of her quarters, watching La Sirena glide into the light side of Coppelius, stark and cherry-red against the planet. The Kaplan F17 speed freighter kept its pace beside the USS Thomas Paine, small and lean as it held high orbit thousands of kilometres above Coppelius' exosphere and traced the planet's glowing curvature.

If she squinted, she could probably make out Cristóbal Rios' disgruntled expression.

"I'm a glorified babysitter," he lamented over the communicator.

"You're just jealous that the rest of us ex-Starfleet reps get the grand tour of a Federation starship."

Rios groaned. "Just tell me what she's like."

Raffi straightened, looking around. Three times more spacious than her room on La Sirena, the Paine's diplomatic suites reminded her of the large apartments the Federation assigned to visiting dignitaries on Earth. It was a departure from a Starfleet cabin's stale colour palette, which represented the spartan nature of an officer's role and was composed of every imaginable shade of beige and grey.

In Raffi's quarters on the Paine, heritage colours of dark blue pressed sophistication on a panelled wall. Tall, bio-engineered plants with round, oversized leaves hung in and over gold pots. In the middle of the room, two miniature fan palms flanked a wide, marble desk illuminated by a weathered brass lamp. Raffi had stacked her PADDs onto a velvet green arm-chair with rolled arms beside it.

Large cuttings of white-mottled banksias in bright orange, the spidery gradient of red to yellow from Australian grevilleas, and fragrant eucalyptus sat in clear vases with water. They lay expectant on the marble desk, on the side tables by the bed, and on the wide console by the door where Raffi had deposited her dress jacket.

"They're trying very hard to woo us," Raffi said, touching the plants and then leaning in to smell them. "I'm willing to bet you these are actual cuttings from Earth."

"The Federation has a lot to gain," Rios mused. "Now that most stipulations in the treaty which upheld the Borg Reclamation Project have literally disappeared, the Federation would want some clear guidelines about what that means."

"Yeah, by far it's a completely different preamble. I'm sure the Romulan Free State won't be happy they aren't mentioned in it. There weren't any articles governing how they'd dispute any big anomalies like the off-chance that the Artifact somehow moved light years from Romulan space."

"Lucky for Tam and the rest, I guess?"

"You could say that. They can completely rewrite the treaty if they wanted, or not have one at all." Raffi picked up one of the PADDs, bringing up the treaty in question, and a counterpart that had not yet been played at the negotiation table. She eyed both critically. "Tam and Soji drafted the articles in less than a week. It's very impressive. An ex-Borg and a Synth together could bring the galaxy to its knees."

"Probably why Axi's buttering you up."

Exhaustion crept into her voice, "That's precisely the reason."

Sighing, she brought up another screen and examined the ship's interior and layout --as much as the onboard computer had been instructed to reveal to its guests. She opened a display with Rios' face, changing the channel from her PADD to the larger projection on her desk.

Pleased at the sudden visuals, he gawked at the surrounding room, whistling. "Nice digs."

"Axi Ridor knows how to impress." Querying the computer with a few small strokes of her hand, she flicked the information to her PADD, which then relayed it to Cris. "Now, about this ship. It's a typical New Orleans class frigate, cute enough to like, all function, with a bite that's absolutely worse than its bark. These ships never age and this old gal in particular has been through a lot."

"Blockades on the Klingon-Romulan border. Diplomatic missions to Epsilon Ashanti III. Forays into Dytallix B," Rios hummed, lovesick and happy in his reverie as he stared at his read-outs.

"You seriously need to take that tone with Agnes more."

Rios grunted. "You're one to talk."

Raffi twisted her wrist, effectively instructing the computer to shut down all her work. She leaned forward and quipped, "Come at me Cris. What is up with all the underhanded comments lately?"

Rios raised his forefinger in mock rebuke and his facetious tone dared her to argue, "One word, Raff. No, make that three." He wagged his finger at her with every word, "Seven. Of. Nine."

Raffi nearly swallowed her tongue. "Touche," she croaked.

"Have you told her you like her?"

Raffi blushed furiously. "Not in so many words."

"What, you've already kissed her?" Rios shouted.

She gave him an exasperated look. "Can you not broadcast this to the entire universe? Who else is with you?"

Elnor's excited voice floated from somewhere behind Rios, muted as though coming from a crevasse, which was likely the mess hall. "Has Raffi kissed someone?"

Raffi ran her hands over her face. "Why isn't he on the Paine with Picard yet?"

"Because he's got impeccable timing."

Elnor bothered to explain, his voice louder, "I had to pick up my PADD!"

Cat videos, Rios mouthed.

Raffi shook her head, "We'll talk about this later."

Rios pointed at his eyes with his two fingers, then at her, an 'I see you' gesture full of playfulness. "We aren't finished yet, young lady. I'm holding you to that promise."

She made a show of strangling his projection. He obliged, clutching his neck and choking.

"God, I can't stand you. Thanks for being the worst sounding board this side of the quadrant." She gave him a good-natured wave. "Raffi out."

Rios winked at her. "You love me, Raff Raff. Good luck at the negotiations. You're going to kill it." He bowed with a flourish. "Rios out."

She moved the PADDs on the chair to the desk before her door chirped. Already in a better mood than when she had arrived on the Paine, she chuckled to herself and imitated Picard's signature, "Come!" just as she was about to sit.

The door opened to reveal Seven of Nine, who paused at the door to examine the room before slipping through.

Raffi aborted her movements so she could stand instead.

The other woman was dressed in a sleek, form-fitting tunic, clever folds hiding any clasps or buttons in the Vulcan style. Her hair was made up in a neat ponytail, revealing a long neck that dipped into a grey cravat. Her boots clacked smartly as she made her way to Raffi's desk.

She took in Raffi's business attire, then Raffi's exposed arms, pursing her lips in appreciation. Raffi felt suddenly exposed and she eyed her dress jacket at the console with yearning.

Seven half-sat on Raffi's desk, her gaze flitting over the stack of PADDs before wandering to the dividing wall that led to the bedroom.

She pulled her attention back to Raffi and said, "Picard wanted me to check in on you, see if you needed company to the conference area." She afforded Raffi a small smile. "Big day. Are you nervous?"

Raffi huffed, making her way to the replicator. She ordered a coffee and tried to be off-hand, "It's been a while since I've been involved in a multilateral trade agreement."

"Spoken with the nonchalance of a true expert."

Feeling found out but mostly flattered, Raffi laughed. "Yourself?"

Seven took a while to search her memory. It seemed she found one because her expression fell, saddened, and she settled with, "Tam takes everything in stride but it's still like watching my--," she caught herself, "--a child take her first steps into the unknown, equal parts trepidation and pride."

In the low light of the room, Seven looked regal but alone, stuck in the reel of a bittersweet memory.

Icheb's first day in the Academy, Raffi surmised, her chest suddenly tight. She recalled Gabe's first day in school, curiosity, excitement, and terror swirling in his young, brown eyes as he begged her to come with him. She doubted that she would ever see the same worship reflected in his eyes again.

She couldn't hide the pain in her voice. "Yeah, I know what that's like."

Seven nodded, swallowing, likely aware of their parallel thoughts. "The newsreels will be broadcasting this for weeks."

Raffi acknowledged her with an even softer, "Yeah."

"The crew is very proud of what you've been able to achieve, Raffi," Seven said, peering at her. "This is more than anything anyone can ask of you."

"Some of us need to try twice as hard to get the ledger clean."

Her words must have struck Seven because she incapacitated Raffi with a look --something she now saw more often, disarming. It was admiration and longing, and the enduring melancholy which seemed to stain their experiences with small yet uninterrupted strokes.

"As I said," Raffi continued, breaking the silence. "It's a process." She drank the rest of her coffee, trying to enjoy the subtle hints of fruit and chocolate as she struggled from tripping into the tangle of her past.

Seven pushed away from the desk and approached her. Standing close, Seven's presence was an immediate anchor, keeping her from that precipice which made her live through her past, over and over. Raffi found herself in Seven's orbit instead, staring into inquiring eyes, savouring the present.

Seven must have recognised the agony in her expression because she took Raffi's arms, slowly as though giving Raffi every opportunity to pull away.

Raffi took the offer and she put her tired forehead on Seven's shoulder.

"Hey, you're okay," Seven murmured, splaying a warm hand over Raffi's back, pulling her closer.

Raffi relaxed into her. She wondered lightly at Seven's affection, which seemed easy but a little stiff as though honed with deliberate practice, and at the other people in her life who had taught the ex-Borg this same tenderness.

She released a trembling breath. There would be many moments to get to know Seven better, she was sure.


"Anything," Seven whispered as her lips brushed against Raffi's temple, moving imperceptibly to press a kiss on Raffi's forehead. She could feel Seven breathe her in and then relax against her.

Seven indicated the door. "Do you think you're ready?"

"Never," Raffi said then choked back a self-deprecating laugh. "But if not now, then when?"

Seven reached for Raffi's hand. It was an echo of all the times they had sought solace in each other, all the times Seven had indicated, silently but surely, that she was present and that Raffi was not alone.

Confronted with Seven's reassuring smile, Raffi felt her doubts thaw. That curved quirk to her lips reflected the warmth in her eyes and stole the breath from Raffi's lungs. She stood motionless as she enjoyed this side to Seven, unfettered in such a private moment.

Raffi took in a big breath, feeling the once-empty cavity in her chest fill.

The PADD in Raffi's pocket chimed, a series of reminders about today's agenda.

"Show time," she said, taking the lead towards the door, their hands still clasped together.

For all the times Seven had pioneered a path in the fields she excelled in, Raffi thought it was strangely exhilarating to lead this remarkable woman through the one she was forging now.

She spared a small smile for Rios and promised to tell him more about what she thought this was between Seven and her.

No matter how mythical Seven seemed, how often she featured in Starfleet apocrypha, Seven seemed all too human to Raffi, grinning with an openness and a smile that seemed reserved only for her.

Seven of Nine must have been staring at the proceedings with disinterest because she jumped when Picard nudged her in the ribs and Dr Altan Inigo Soong announced a recess. Seven turned to check on Raffi to find that Axi had fenced her into a conversation about the possibility of tritanium supply.

"Should I save her?"

She and Jean-luc watched as Soji and Tam noticed the side conversation, promptly flanking Raffi with mirroring expressions of protectiveness and interest.

Jean-luc said, "Probably not."

He smiled at her. The crinkling around his eyes was friendly but there was a certain edge to his voice that made Seven's hackles rise. He indicated the exit to the conference room. "Walk with me?"

She clasped her hands behind her back and followed him to the corridor outside. After a short turbolift ride, they arrived at the aft observation deck. Large windows from floor to ceiling provided a breath-taking view of Coppelius, its sun, the surrounding assemblage of stars, and the Paine's nacelles in the foreground.

Thankfully, with all the activity centred around the Coppelius-Federation trade negotiations, the entire deck was empty. Jean-luc chose the best seats, one centred at the biggest window and closest to the view.

"Sit," he said.

Seven raised a questioning brow. His tone brooked no argument and he simply waited until she joined him.

"So," he began. "You and Raffi."

Seven felt her muscles tense, bracing. She would have been cagey and more suspicious about this conversation except he continued without preamble, "Raffi's like a daughter to me. She may very well throttle me for having this conversation with you but I need to know what your intentions are."

"My intentions?" Seven snorted, amused at the old chivalry in Picard's request. But then, this was a former admiral with a vineyard in France that he managed remotely. She sobered. "She's a friend."

"Don't mistake me for a fool, Seven of Nine. I've noticed the looks you give her, and the ones she gives you in return."

"Are you concerned that we're fraternizing on your ship?"

Jean-luc sighed, looking disgruntled by her defensiveness. "First off, La Sirena isn't my ship. Second, Raffi is a very good friend and inasmuch as our mutual acquaintances are willing to put their reputations on the line for you, Raffi isn't someone I'd like to see broken a second time."

Seven felt chagrined. She leaned forward, half-sitting on the bench as she tried to catch his gaze. "Jean-luc," she said. "I would not intentionally hurt her."

His voice didn't lose any of its hardness; instead, it intensified to the tone he employed when dealing with particularly difficult detractors.

"After Bjayzl and the massacre at Freecloud, I should be rightfully concerned." It had the intended effect: the full brunt of his accusation shaved all the confidence from her expression.

This time, he faced her fully and she could see the anger furrowing his brow, burning away at the kindness in his eyes. "You lied about that."

His words possessed the full force of hard-earned authority. It had brought civilizations to their knees and hit her like a shuttle full of self-doubt. Seven realized very quickly that she was on the other side of a dispute with one of the Federation's foremost negotiators.

"Yes." She took a fortifying breath, wiping her hands on her thighs and trying to gather thoughts that seemed to retreat from any of her usual information stores. "I knew you'd be upset."

He was expectant. "Keep going."

"I...regret it every day. I question it," she shook her head and forced the correction, even if it was excruciating to even verbalize, "I question why I murdered her. Everyday."

"Tell me what you saw in her."

If he was trying to torture her or to bring her to her limits, he was succeeding. Her eyes watered, her throat painfully tight, and she brought a hand to her nose as it began to tweak. "Jean-luc," she nearly begged.

"Tell me, Seven." His voice softened to a whisper, "I'd like an explanation."

She closed her eyes, shunting as much emotion as she could only to find that it was too late to stem the tide. The words from her mouth were the overflow, "She was everything I wanted for myself, everything I thought I wanted to be. Idealistic, heroic, blindly impulsive. But she wasn't anything I needed." She put a hand to her chest, pressing as the familiar hurt manifested into something physical. "I was blinded by that. Until it was too late. And by the time I realized what she truly was, I was standing beside Icheb, listening to him beg me to end his life."

She covered her face with her hands, salty liquid moistening her fingers, gathering at her cheeks. "I couldn't let him suffer so I did." She felt Picard's hand on her back as she deplored, "My son, Jean-luc. I lost him to a monster because I couldn't see more than two steps ahead of me."

As she expended the rest of the pain she had dredged up, Picard chose to remain quiet, rubbing her back until she settled and straightened.

Swallowing thickly, she said, "Probably not the answers you were expecting. But that was cruel, Locutus." The poison she put in the name was deliberate.

He grimaced at it, at the Borg designation that precipitated so much carnage and death. "The extent we go to for the ones we love," he reasoned. "My apologies, Seven."

"You regret not being there for Raffi after your fall from grace so you make up for it now." Seven ran her fingers through her hair. "I can understand that. I do it everyday. It defines me as a Fenris Ranger."

"Still, it wasn't fair to take it out on you."

"No," she chuckled derisively, "no it wasn't."

Picard sighed, his expression pensive as he turned his attention back to the scene framed by the deck's large windows.

"Raffi's special," he said

"I know." Seven looked at her hands, one metal, the other flesh --a microcosm of the dualities in her life. "I don't wear any rose-coloured glasses with her. What you see, what you hear, that's what you get. She is," Seven sighed, feeling her heart swell as she clasped her hands together, "beautiful. Kind. Resilient. Hopeful. She's everything that makes being human worthwhile. Everything La Sirena needs. Everything we both need to be."

They were ex-Borg, looking outward at the possibilities. These moments on the USS Thomas Paine felt pivotal, a shining pearl hung on the necklace of history. They were negotiations that would confer autonomy and respect to those of their kind. It would designate Coppelius as a homeworld, if they chose. It was a lion's share in the kind of belonging they had sought for a lifetime.

If they could not enjoy it, then at least anyone who came after would.

"Well, you know the usual spiel," Picard said, breaking the silence and suddenly jovial. "Hurt her and I'll bring down the wrath of any party I can muster on you."

"Let me take this opportunity to say the same."

Picard laughed. "Raffi will be thrilled."

"Please, let's never bring it up." Seven returned his smile, feeling a measure of peace. Unexpectedly, Picard's expression smoothed into the same tranquility.

They turned back to the view and enjoyed it in silence.

Seated on the Captain's chair with a leg over one of its arms and leaning fully against his seat, Rios flicked through the ship's diagnostic charts. He tracked the USS Thomas Paine from the corner of his eye, admiring its lines, its sleek Galaxy-class genealogy crafting the way aft nacelles sat aggressively behind its smaller saucer section.

On more quiet rotations like this, he preferred Emmet on the bridge more than his other emergency holograms. Rios felt a little less alone watching the ENH man the navigation console.

Inasmuch as he enjoyed bossing Raffi and Seven around, in part because they were the most competent crew he'd commanded since the USS ibn Majid, being able to revert to the language of his origins felt like he had settled into a home rather than a starship light years away from Earth.

The ENH was a manifestation of his laid back personality, his deep Chilean roots, and a devil-may-care attitude that he hadn't been able to fully recover after Alonzo Vandermeer's death.

He'd purposely programmed Emmet with the lilting speech of his homeland, softening over consonants and dropping final syllables. During these moments, he liked to settle into it, his mouth moving with the comfort of muscle memory.

"Anything of interest?" he asked.

Emmet shrugged, dragging his hands over the controls. "Nothing I can see. Although Raffi's program is picking up unusual chatter in subspace channels." His Spanish drawled with soft familiarity and Rios smiled, relaxing even further into his chair.

"She had the time to write a program to pick up encrypted subspace chatter relevant to the negotiations." It was a rhetorical statement, expectant.

Emmet grinned. "I'm impressed as you are. She even took the time to hand it over to us."

"Us." Rios wasn't surprised; he had long suspected Raffi nurtured friendships with each of his emergency holograms to find out how best to deal with Rios' idiosyncrasies or with the rare occasion his post-traumatic dysphoria crippled him into inaction.

In afterthought, he pinged her PADD calendar for a request. They both needed to share a pisco brandy and properly catch up on each other's lives.

Rios said, "What's the sentiment analysis?"

"Well," Emmet's voice sounded pinched with unease, "there have been several xenophobic publications by Martian sympathizers on less mainstream channels. Specific bytes can be tracked to news of a thousand or so workers who walked out of the Riverside Shipyard protesting the Coppelian-Federation treaty just this morning. This has caused the Federation to halt production on a few of its heavy cruisers."

After a few more seconds of absorbing the information from the program, Emmet seemed to tense. "The same anti-Synth sentiments are floating around on the Qiris sector's frequencies on Federation and Romulan channels."

Rios frowned. "Can you pinpoint them?"

"For most, not really because these are inferred by Raffi's algorithms. For a few, they can be sourced to several newsreels covering the negotiations, some of them linked with Martian sympathizers." Emmet's frown deepened. "There's some subspace chatter from crewmembers who are transmitting on unprotected channels directly to other colonies. My suspicion is they were driven out of or had family or contacts on Sol IV."

Rios stood and looked over Emmet's shoulder. He stared at the flow of keywords on Emmet's screen, some in Romulan, almost all of them in Federation Standard.

Rios said, "And there's no telling if the sentiments are also being amplified or spread by Tal Shiar or some other organisation."

"Yes, some of these are being mirrored and replicated across thousands of channels, logs, and transit files in the sector. Without access to Starfleet's Comnet database, all we have are derivatives."

Rios continued to peruse the distillation of opinion before he spotted several categorisations that made the hairs on the back of his neck rise. "Something's not right," he hissed. He tapped his communicator.

"Rios to Seven."

"Seven here."

"Do you know where the Coppelius delegation is?"

"Yes, they're at their rooms as Dr Soong called another impromptu recess. The second one this morning." He could hear the frustration in her tone. It was difficult to be patient in the presence of diplomats, subtly maneuvering to get the most out of a treaty. "I'm just fetching Raffi's PADD for her from the conference…"

The transmission cut. He was still staring at Emmet's console when he felt it, a shudder in La Sirena's tranquil hum. Even Emmet looked up to the main viewscreen, which exploded in a cacophony of white.

Flashes of the same terror on the USS ibn Majid seized Rios' body. As soon as the sensors calibrated against what it had registered as intense heat and light, he gaped as a small piece of the Paine's saucer section began to fall away, the deck's lights slowly going out just as emergency force fields meant to keep structural integrity flickered to life.

Scrambling to his seat, he screamed, "Red alert!"

Emil, Enoch, and Ian shimmered to life at the empty stations of La Sirena. The bridge's ambient light switched to a dark and pulsing red.

"Emmet, scan for any distressed signs of life. If they aren't Starfleet, beam them directly onboard." He waved frantically at Emil. "Get to sickbay." The emergency medical hologram disappeared. He shouted after him, "And take Agnes with you!"

On-screen, the sensors zeroed in on a group of hapless figures floating away from the crippled starship. Those in Starfleet uniforms --yellow, blue, and red --began to shimmer and disappear from view.

"Computer, magnify!"

The screen enhanced the image and Rios recognised the blonde hair before he could make out the face locked in a grimace.

"Seven," Rios whispered, horror sinking to the pit of his stomach. "They hit the conference rooms." He threw a glare at the ENH. "Get her on board!"

Rios knew Emmet would have been sweating if he wasn't a hologram. Emmet gritted, "Locking on her signal…"

He couldn't breath as he watched the transporter beam engulf Seven.

"Anyone else?"

"I've beamed three others from the Synth delegation onboard. The rest with Starfleet communicators are back on the Paine." His hands flew over the controls. "I'm getting multiple requests from the Coppelius delegation, Captain. Including Raffi and Picard."

"I can't deal with them right now. Get me Axi Ridor." To Enoch, he ordered, "Scan the immediate vicinity for any threats."

"Way ahead of you, Captain," Enoch replied. "There are no other ships in the area."

Rios closed his eyes, feeling the sweat crawl down his back, grateful for the adrenaline coursing hotly in his veins and hastening his decision-making. He was going to crash pretty spectacularly after this.

The channel to the Paine opened. "Captain Rios," Axi said. Her skin was paler, her eyes wide. All around her, the bridge glowed an emergency red with crew members scrambling to take control of the ship.

"Do you need assistance?"

"Our force fields have managed to maintain hull integrity but we've completely lost decks 6 to 7." Her exhale was laced with disbelief. "I've been able to recover nearly all my personnel. Two have died in the explosion." She managed not to choke on her last words and Rios felt a pang of sympathy. Losing crew was something a Captain took with them for the rest of her life.

He spared a glance at the chunk of saucer section already falling into Coppelius below. A defense orchid approached it, sinuous and threatening as it embraced the section with its petals and dragged it planetside.

Axi seemed to be following the same scene because she commented, "Orchids in this context isn't something I ever expected to see."

Rios let go of a shuddering breath. "No, it isn't." He gestured vaguely to the concerns at hand. "There's nothing on my scans, Captain."

"There are none on my mine either. Our analysis of the explosion --its power signature and yield --points to a Romulan decay detonator."

They stared at each other, uncertainty and even a little fear flitting across both their faces.

"Where does this leave us?" Rios asked.

"My first concern is the security of all factions to the treaty and to ensure that there isn't an immediate threat to my ship."

"You're suggesting a complete lockdown of the system."

Axi nodded. "Until our investigation is over, and as the attack happened on a Federation vessel, we'll need to keep tabs on everyone. I believe you've beamed aboard four from the Coppelius delegation." The unspoken demand for cooperation hung in the short seconds of silence. "Look, I'm not ready to drag the Federation into a war with the Romulan Free State unless I'm absolutely sure this is Tal Shiar treachery."

Rios stepped closer to the view screen, the line of his shoulders steady despite the turmoil he felt. "You have my full cooperation, Captain Ridor. But I want my crew back on La Sirena within the hour. Whoever sabotaged these negotiations may still be on the Paine."

"Agreed. I strongly suggest nobody leaves Coppelius space. I've already requested additional reinforcements and Starfleet is sending another vessel."

"Truth be told, I'm relieved they are. Before anything else breaks loose."

Axi gave him a tight smile. "I'll let you know if we need anything. Thank you for your offer of assistance, Captain Rios."

"Likewise," Rios muttered. "Rios out." With impeccable timing, Emil appeared a few metres beside him, his hands clasped together on his stomach, as though in supplication. Rios made a come-hither motion. "Out with it."

"Seven is alive but unconscious. She's suffered trauma from the explosion and some exposure to the vacuum. Her nanoprobes are repairing most of her organic injuries and I've been able to stabilize her but I'm afraid," Emil swallowed nervously, "I can't do anything for the Borg parts damaged in the blast."

Rios stared at this softer mirror image of him, incredulous. With Emil withering under his glare, he barked at Enoch, "Get everyone back on La Sirena. And put Raffi and Picard on screen."

Part 4

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