Riders of the Purple Stars

Riders of the Purple Stars

Chapter One
The cowboy squinted off into the distance with the sun glaring in his eyes, interfering with his sight. His target was too far off for any easy shot, even with the new repeater rifles that Mr. Johnson had procured. He had hired the cowboy to find his man and provided the equipment. The cowboy needed the job, he was starting to wonder about the rightness of it all.
“This might not have been the best of ideas,” he muttered, more to himself than to his mount. He didn’t have any idea if he was right or wrong, but he had a job to do and he would do it. The man was a rustler and an all-around thief. Everything was much better off without him, not to mention more secure.
“I still don’t like this, Danny boy, and if you mess this up, Mrs. Mullins’ boy is going home parcel post.”
His mount flickered his ears but otherwise ignored him, apparently used to hearing his master mutter to himself. The cowboy nudged his sides and the horse stepped off onto the trail. They crept cautiously as the suns inched downward.
Danny Mullins was not a bounty hunter. His boss, Mr. Albert Johnson, distrusted anyone who identified himself as a bounty hunter and preferred to use his own men. The men in the distance had been convicted in absentia of robbery and grand theft for knock off a payroll stage coach, and Mr. Johnson wanted his money back and the robbers dead. Since Danny’s money was part of the robbery, he was motivated to help.
“What’s he doing now?” he wondered.
The horse declined to offer his opinion. To the cowboy, it looked like the distant men was motioning to someone else as yet unseen. Danny clicked his tongue to move forward a little faster, and stared as the man simply disappeared.
For a moment, nothing happened, then the horse was spurred into full speed. They galloped ahead, the horse’s exhaust fans whirring as Danny pulled out a gravimetric scanner.
The machine whirred as neutrinos were shifted around and compared against tables if information. The cowboy waited impatiently as the horse settle into ground mode and his scanner beeped away happily. He whapped it on the side and the screen refocused with a preliminary result.
“The hell? What is a loopshift effect?”
“It’s a false reading planted on scanning devices for a clean getaway.”
The soft feminine voice spoke with a battle hard determination. Mullins fell off his horse in great surprise and landed on his belly, after twisting in the air. He looked up to see a shiny blaster in his aching face, next to a solid-looking badge.
“Umph…. Uh…. Ugh…”
“Since you are so breathless with your quite graceful dismount, let me identify myself.”
The cowboy nodded, silently.
“I’m Marshal Tucker, from the Unified Solar Marshals Service. We’re here to investigate reports of some unsavory business.”
The blaster didn’t waver one millimeter, and from his position Mullins could clearly see that it was at full charge. He gulped.
“So, cowboy, what are you doing here, and why are you scanning this area?”
He coughed, still a bit breathless, with various pains and aches vying for attention. He still answered, trying to be as clear as possible.
“My boss sent me out here to run down the dirty thief that hit his payroll wagon. None of us have been paid for weeks, and he wants to get his money back.”
“I see. And are you having any luck?”
He coughed, feeling a tooth wiggling in his jaw.
“Ugh! No, nothing. Not until I saw that – reading? Not until I saw that reading and thought I had him.”
“And do you know who he was?”
“No! And can you point that thing somewhere else?”
The blaster moved away, decocked, and was shoved in a holster. Mullins could clearly hear retention clips click into place, and he sighed in relief as unobtrusively as he could. As the Marshal stepped back, the cowboy saw rifles leveled at him.
“Look, I don’t mean to be rude, but what in the hell is going on here?”
The Marshal considered him. Her cool regard was the same thing he saw when someone was looking at a bug.
“Like I said, we’re investigating. You’re coming with us.”
Handcuffs clicked into place, and the cowboy was placed into an unmarked wagon, none too gently. His protests went unheard as the door slid shut and sealed with a hiss.
The bars of his cell stood silently mocking him. The sturdiness of the teceutrium alloy told him that he wasn’t getting out any time soon, and if he did it wouldn’t be of his volition. With that in mind, he decided that he might as well sit down and wait. Screaming and shaking the immovable bars hadn’t helped, so relaxing was the next obvious choice.
No sooner had he planted his rump in the steel chair than the door to the detention unit slid open. He started to get up, but was stopped by a shake of the head and a subliminal signal from the officer in front.
“Can we talk now?”
The same cool voice that had been behind a blaster inquired with a steady precision. The cowboy considered, then shrugged.
“As long as nobody throws me in the drunk tank again, I guess so.”
“OK. Let him out, Wunker.”
The other officer motioned the cowboy back, then applied a long flashing key to a lock. It buzzed loudly, then various clicks and whirrs ended with a resounding clunk that let the door open slowly. The officer stepped back, drawing his shock stick, and motioned Mullins forward out of the cell.
Mullins stepped out of the cell and saw that the officer fell into step just out of his range. He looked around for the female Marshal and found her standing at the door to the detention unit. Her foot was tapping impatiently.
“Well? I don’t have all day here. Follow me, and don’t start anything. Officer Wunker will enjoy making you suffer. He’s good at things like that. Clear?”
She moved off, clearly in a hurry, and even Mullins’ long legs were hard pressed to keep up with her pace. The arrived at a nondescript conference room in a matter of moments. She pointed to a chair.
“Sit down and shut up. We are going to show you a few things.”
He did and she did. The officer with the shock stick seemed a bit disappointed, but posted himself by the door, after punching in some sort of combination into a lock. The lock beeped unobtrusively and glowed a dim, pulsing orange.
“Good. Mr. Mullins, who was that man you was chasing?”
“Don’t start that! I don’t know. I told you that already!”
“Just checking. Don’t get upset.”
“Well, what in the hell do you expect? I’m out there doing a job for my boss. He just got robbed big time, and I’m one of those what hadn’t got paid for last month’s work because of it, and some cop throws me over because of it? And you say ‘don’t get upset?’ Really?”
“So you aren’t involved in any other way with the man you was tracking?”
“Hell, no! What’s going on and why are you asking me these things?”
“Because the man you’re chasing is Timothy Allen Johnson. Name ring a bell?”
It did, faintly. Mullins thought about it with his brow furrowed. Then his eyes popped wide open.
“Not Mr. Johnson’s brother!”
“Bingo. Give the man a cigar.”
The Marshal’s eyes were hard.
“We got a tip that something wasn’t right, The area that the robbery took place was the one place without a lot of cameras. But that didn’t add up, since the only people who would know that are the people who run that route. What a lot of people don’t realize that that everyone with a payroll shipment on a regular run is sent to different routes every so often.”
“Okay, I get that part. So you think there’s something hinky about this whole thing?”
“I know there’s something hinky. But, I can’t take it to the Circuit Court yet without more evidence to show them.”
Mullins squinted at the Marshal.
“And what does all this have to do with me?”
“Well, since you asked, we have checked you out – very thoroughly. That’s the only reason you haven’t been charged with conspiracy to a bunch of things. Since we still need solid evidence – and you still need to get paid – we need you to help us get it.”
Mullins considered that.
“What’s in it for me?”
The Marshal grinned humorlessly.
“Your life, your family, your freedom, your pay, your possessions – lots of things.”
He stiffened with outrage. The Marshal continued.
“That wasn’t a threat from us. I’m just noting that this sort of thing has happened to people before, but they are too slick to let rewards get made. Ever see any coworkers or people around your boss just disappear?”
He had, now that he thought about it. In light of what the Marshal was telling him, he didn’t like it at all.
“So, no, that wasn’t a threat, Mr. Mullins. But if you help us, I promise that we will protect you and your family.”
She waved a chip in front of his face.
“This is a logger chip. It has pervasive programming and can insert itself in any computer network. Slide it into any read port and let it work. Don’t worry about taking it out.”
There wasn’t really anything else he could say, so he sat hunched over and thought for a while, and she left him alone. Being played for a fool didn’t sit will, and he still needed to get paid to feed his family. He sat up straight as these thoughts ran through his brain.
“I’ll do it. Give me the chip.”
The Marshal graced him with a real smile, finally. She handed him the chip.
The next day, he was checking organic supplies in the barn when another cowboy flopped down on a crate next to him. The other man looked up at him.
“Danny? You okay over there? What happened to you yesterday? Just up and disappeared on us.”
“Sorry, Jake. I had something to do for the boss and was working on it all day. Can’t talk about it, not if I want to keep my job.”
Jake looked at him sideways.
“Can’t talk about what?”
“Can’t talk about what Mr. Johnson wanted me to do. He already done told me that I needed to keep my yap shut about it, and I got a family to feed. So, can’t talk about it. I’m OK, just sore from some stuff that happened yesterday.” Danny grimaced as he turned around to reach into a file cabinet for another blank form. Jake noticed.
“You look like you got thrown from a horse.”
“I did, okay? Horse had a power surge and threw me.”
“Oh. I see. Sorry I asked.”
Danny turned to face the other man, with a grim expression.
“Look, Jake, you know I don’t have the best equipment to work with. I have to draw from the second and third hand stuff until I got more time with the Company.”
“I remember doing that. Sure is hard sometimes. It’s got to where I don’t volunteer for nothin’ and don’t do anything special.”
“Not real fun, no.”
Danny turned back to the clipboard he was marking on and slid the form under the static repressor field. The film smoothed out and he watched to make sure the lights settled down before he touched the stylus to it. He’d gotten more than a couple of static shocks zapping him by being too quick. The board accepted the data he’d collected and populated the form.
“Well, I guess I’ll be headed back to what I was doing, Danny. You’re busy, and I don’t need to slow you down.”
“Appreciate it. Sorry I’m not real talkative today.”
“Yeah, well, you look like you got walloped in a bar fight.”
“I wish. At least I would’ve had a drink first. Later.”
Jake walked out to the mechanic’s corral to pick up his mount for the day. After a few minutes, Danny saw him gallop out. The horse’s vents glowed dull red from the energy being whipped through its frame. After he was sure that he was alone, Danny opened up the desktop panel and watched as the screen and reader slid out.
He logged himself in, and slid the board into the reader. He wondered why it wasn’t one of the wireless models, but then again, he’d just told the other cowboy that he had to use older equipment. Danny waited for the computer to finish working, then took the board out. He looked around again to make sure no one was near, then dropped the chip into the reader. It blinked four times, a red and three greens, then disappeared in a puff of smoke.
He waited for a moment, sure that an alarm had already been raised. If that were so, he had no way to get away from it. Nothing happened for a moment, then he saw a quick message pop up on the computer’s screen.
Nothing else. Just that, and it went away as quickly as it appeared. He was not really sure he’d seen the message. He was spooked enough to gather his stuff and get out. Danny didn’t want to be in here if some security man wanted to check around in here. The door hissed shut behind him, forming its seal without fanfare.
For the rest of the day, Danny kept to himself. Nobody bothered him, since he seemed to be unwilling to talk. He wondered just what was on that chip that the Marshal had given him and for that matter what had happened to it. He had seen the chip disappear in smoke, without a trace. It’d be nice to have something like that to clear stumps of ironwood with.
Finally, quitting time arrived and as jumpy as Danny was, he was thankful for it. He was collecting his things to take home and trading good-natured insults with the other cowboys and trying to look normal. The weekend was coming up and while nobody had gotten paid, the cowboys was still looking to go out and raise hell. Danny was thinking about going with them, but he knew his wife would give him her own special kind of hell if he did. And the thing was, he reflected ruefully, is that she’d be right.
Danny was headed toward the bay door going out, near the mechanics corral, when he saw someone walking the other way. The only thing left to go through was a nondescript door marked with a simple “Keep Out.” He remembered that door from his orientation briefings. The trainer had walked everyone around on a tour of the place when they hired on here. When he came to that door, he got a suitably stern look on his face.
“Boys, this is one of the things I’m pretty damn serious about. You see this door?”
He motioned toward it, not even touching the door frame. At the nods of the others, he went on.
“You leave this sonufabitch a-LONE. Nobody goes through it, whatsoever. Mr. Johnson sees you do it, he’ll fire you so fast you’ll think it’s last Tuesday of two weeks ago.”
A few raised eyebrows.
“I’m serious. Don’t. Now, over here, we have some stuff you need to be aware of in a for-real emergency…”
Danny didn’t remember what the rest was, and he doubted anyone else with him that day did, either. The part about the door stuck in his mind pretty well however, and he always gave the door a wide berth when he’d had occasion to walk by it. He noticed that others did, too. Strangely, that eased his mind, knowing that it wasn’t just him that did it.
With that in mind, his attention was diverted from the anticipation of getting off and going home by the sight of the man approaching the door. The man was carrying something, and he looked closer. With a start, he noticed that the man was carrying several payroll bags. Danny stopped, and saw that he was accompanied by only a couple of other guys. He stepped over to the side and took off his boot.
“You okay, Danny?”
He smiled and nodded at the other man, and watched as the others walked out the door.
“Yes, I’m okay, but there’s been something in my boot all day, and I’ve been too busy to deal with it. It’s been bugging me a while. Go on ahead, I’ll catch up.”
“Something in your boot? Yeah, your foot, most likely!”
Danny grimaced.
“Ha, ha, ha. Funny, wise guy.”
“Yep. See ya tomorrow, Danny. Hope your boots fit tomorrow!” The man waved and went out the door. Danny looked back to see the man by the restricted door, fumbling with a set of keys. He opened the door and let it shut while he shoved the boot back on his foot.
The man was still trying to find the key he wanted when Danny eased behind the corner to peer around at him. The bags he carried looked like the old bags they used for payroll, sure as hell. A couple of faded red ones for Thursdays, and a brown one for Mondays. They didn’t use any other colors. In fact, ever since they’d been hit, Mr. Johnson said that they wouldn’t be using the red ones at all. He’d rounded up all the red ones left in the office and burned them.
Now why was a couple of red ones there, and where did they come from? He watched as the man found the right key and opened the lock. He looked up and down the hall and Danny’s second surprise was right there.
It was Jake.

Chapter Two
The man in black followed the gunslinger across the hot sand. He knew that it wasn’t a very popular meeting place for the people who worked for him because of the heat. To be sure, his dark clothes didn’t really help him feel good about it himself, but he wasn’t about to complain about it and make himself look bad. He’d picked this place years ago after a mineral survey of the land was abandoned. The survey crew had found that magnetic distortions from the planet’s core royally screwed up the standard instruments like the one the law carried. In fact, the surveyors and the law enforcers used the same tools a lot of the time. He chuckled at the thought while surreptitiously wiping his brow.
The gunslinger came to a large hole, capped by a larger metal disk flat on the ground. Several handholds ringed the disk, and a recessed dog lock wheel baked in the sun. The gunslinger glanced at the man in black, who quietly stared back at the man and motioned to the wheel. The gunslinger sighed and struggled into some heavy gloves that made his hands sweat more. The wheel resisted turning, and just before the gunslinger was about to give up and kick the wheel over, it gave with a muted screech.
After the wheel turned, the gunslinger punched a metal button that lay cradled in a recess. A hiss was heard, another creak, and the disk slowly rose on industrial gas struts. A wide ladder was revealed that lead down a dark chamber. Cold air rushed out, with small tendrils of condensation ghosting on the edge of the chamber.
The man in black started down the ladder, thankful for the rubberized coating on the rungs and legs of the ladder. Sweaty hands from being outside in that hot air didn’t help, and to fall down this shaft would not do anyone any good.
He reached the end of the ladder and jumped off, watching as the gunslinger above negotiated the rungs to join him. As his boot heels hit, the gunslinger grunted from the impact of the stone-steel deck.
“Careful there, Bob. I can’t carry your heavy ass up that ladder.”
“Yessir.” Bob grinned a little, but he cast a wary glance at the worn ladder. “Somebody’s going to have to look at that ladder. It’s getting a bit rough.”
“Well, you just volunteered.”
Bob hid a sigh, and the man in black was too busy looking for a light switch to notice. A thick clunk echoed in the surrounding space, and the room was flooded with light.
“You’d think they would keep a light on for people coming in, but no.” He sounded irritated, and Bob didn’t remind him that there was several lights mounted in the walls. Red lights rested in their alcoves, and they dimly illuminated the space when the master lighting was not on. Now that it was on, courtesy of the switch the man in black had turned on, those lights was darkened.
They moved down the hall, Bob listening to the other man grumble about the lights and wisely holding his peace. They came to a door with a keypad lock. The man in black punched in a combination, and the lock beeped in refusal. The small panel above the buttons flashed an unaffected red.
“Uh, Mr….” Peeved, the man in black interrupted the gunslinger before he could say more.
“Yes, yes, I know. Hit the switch.”
Bob reached over on the opposite wall where a switch sat, similar to the one in the tunnel. Another thunk echoed, and the hall went dark but for the dim light of the keypad. Another attempt was made on it, and the beepbeepbeepbeepbeepbeep was followed by the lock clicking open. The keypad rippled green and blue before going dark again.
“Finally.” The miffed tone told Bob not to waste any time. He hustled through the door after the man in black.
Inside the room, it was dim. It was brighter than the darkened room outside, but it took a few minutes for their eyes to adjust. A voice came out of the surrounding duskiness.
“Mr. Johnson. I’m glad you could make it, although we weren’t aware that you was going to drop in.”
Johnson grimaced.
“If that ladder doesn’t get fixed, then ‘drop in’ will be more true than you want to admit.”
“Oh? I’ll see to it.”
“No, don’t bother. Bob will do it, already told him.”
“All right. Bob, you need anything, there’s a full shop down here.”
“I think it’s just that coating that gets worn off. Needs to be reapplied. My brother’s in the Navy, stationed at the Deimos Yards, and he bitches about the same thing. Real pain to put on, and stinks pretty bad.”
Johnson looked at him. His eyes had adjusted mostly, and he could see the room had several people working at desks and a couple of consoles with large screens.
“Bob, we’re going to be here all day. You might as well make yourself useful and knock that out. Ray, you got somebody to show him what he needs?”
“Yes, sir, I do.” Ray leaned over a console operator and whispered in his ear. The man got up and motioned for the gunslinger to follow. They left the room. Ray lead Johnson over to a deserted corner and they spoke in hushed tones.
“Alright, tell me where we’re at right now.”
“Mr. Johnson, for the most part we are ahead of schedule, but we have a problem with the next shipment of merchandise.”
“What’s the problem? We can’t let the feds find that stuff or we’ll all be swinging in the wind.”
“Would you believe a rail car broke an axle?”
“One of the cars attached to the train we was loading out was about a century old and was being held together with spit and baling wire. It just snapped clean in two when the container was lowered down into the cradle this morning.”
“Well, damn! We got anything to replace it with?”
Ray nodded.
“Yes, but it’ll take an extra few days to do it with.”
“Do it. I don’t have another car here. It’ll cut into our margin of error, only leave us a day to turn around on the next load.”
“Yes, sir. I figured you was going to say that, so I went ahead and told them to get started on it.”
“Good. Every second counts on this one. Matter of fact, tell ’em work ’round the clock. It’s got to get done as quick as possible. Now, what about the rustler team?”
“Two of them fell out on the last job. We got Mr. Johnson’s payroll wagon, but one guy shot himself in the foot and blasted it off, and the other guy went out and got drunk.”
“The one with the foot, that’s too bad for him, but the other one? What’s the problem? We all take a drink.”
“He tried to move his air-car by headbutting it.”
“What? Are you serious? Was he that drunk?”
“Yes. The boys took up a collection for his widow. She didn’t seem too broken up by his loss.”
“Can’t say as I blame her. Anything else?”
“No, everything else is on schedule and waiting for another job.”
“Can’t happen for a while, or the feds will get suspicious. What about the adjusters?”
“We filed a claim against our policy for the payroll shipment. So far, it’s on track but you know how slow it goes.”
“Don’t I know it.”
“You’ll be amused by this. They wanted a police report, so we gave them one.”
“What? You got the cops involved? How am I going to tell Al about that?”
Ray laughed.
“No, I got a guy involved that we have on the inside of the department. Your brother made that suggestion. I didn’t know about the guy until he told me.”
Johnson squinted.
“I didn’t know about him either.”
“This guy has some blackmail on him. What it is, I don’t know and I don’t want to know. Anyway, we got an official police report that the insurance company has, and there hasn’t been anything else coming from the cops. No follow up or anything. The case number is lost in the system, and that report is the only thing in the file. The insurance company isn’t checking up on it, other than the photos the guy took – you know, making it look like a real investigation. The adjusters are like every other office worker. Too much to do, and not enough people to do it with.”
“Got lost in the shuffle, huh?”
“Yes, sir, so we can go on with our business.”
Johnson smiled.
“Well, good, but I hope we don’t have that kind of attention again.”
A beep sounded from the unattended console. Ray looked at the screen.
“Mr. Johnson, here’s something. Speak of the devil.”
“What is it?”
“We’re getting a preliminary payment on our policy. Looks like about sixty percent.”
Johnson snorted.
“Good. Route it into the payroll system and get the shell company employees paid. That way, no one will be the wiser.”
“Or suspicious.”
“No, or suspicious. Get that done soonest.”
“Yes, sir.”
Ray logged into the terminal and pulled up a screen. He checked some information on it, then sent a message to the accounting department.
“You know, Mr. Johnson, it’s still funny that the accounting department is just one man.”
“I know. It is, but long as it works, I’m happy with it.”
A few more keystrokes, and Ray sat back.
“OK, that’s done. Everyone will be getting a bump in their accounts tomorrow morning.”
“Good. Now, since we got to wait for that axle to be replaced, I want an inventory of everything we got. Do it quietly, and set up the next run.”
“Yes, sir.”
“Now, I want to see the damage for what we spent doing this last job. We got customers waiting for that stuff, and I don’t want the cops to get wind of us. I want them to keep their long noses out of our business.”
“Yes, sir. It’s right here.” Ray pulled up a different file, and they discussed it. Finally, Tim Johnson pushed back from the desk and stood up.
“OK, Ray. I’ve had enough of that. It looks good from my end, so continue with what you’re doing. I want you to take me to the armory and lets you and me inventory that ourselves.”
Ray nodded, and got up. He shut down the computer as he did so, and walked over to a wall mounted key locker. A sliding panel was pushed up to reveal a keypad, which unlocked the metal cabinet. Ray grabbed a large key ring, shut the locker, and waited for the keypad to reset.
“OK, Mr. Johnson. I’m ready.”
They left the room. Tim Johnson was still complaining about the dimness of the corridor, but after a quick walk they came to another door. He didn’t have to punch in the combination for this door, since Ray did that. They entered into the chamber and waited for the door to close. A second door was there, waiting for another keypad press. Johnson snorted.
“Ray, do you feel like you’re always punching a button somewhere?”
“A lot, but I didn’t design the system.”
“Neither did I. I don’t think I’d have all these keypads, that’s for sure.”
“At least it would be hard for somebody that didn’t belong here to get in.”
“That’s for damn sure.”
The door swung open, and a muted click signaled a relay had closed somewhere. Johnson jumped.
“What was that?”
“I think it was the humidity sensor in here. It’s about time for replacement, but the company that makes the things have them on back order. We have to watch it carefully in here, since too much humidity causes problems with the firearms and the blaster coils.”
“Amazing how little things can screw up big stuff.”
“Yes, sir, it is that. Anyway, here’s the log forms. I’ve signed us in. I’ll start over here, and you do that side. Supposed to be the same stuff on either side, so doesn’t really matter then.”
“All right.”
They got busy counting items. Blaster rifles lay cradled in charging docks, and extra power packs reclined in their own chargers. Sidearms nestled in racks, with the butt pieces sticking out for quick access and clips just underneath. Body armor and headgear took up their own spaces, waiting for somebody to pick them up for use. A computer sat off to the side, electronically monitoring the presence or absence of items in the armory room. Ray woke it up and queried it to see what the electronic record was.
“Supposedly we have fourteen blaster rifles, twenty-eight blasters, seventy-two charge packs … and a question mark on the headgear. Something must not be reporting its presence.”
“Well, that’s why we have a manual inventory to do here. We better check serial numbers, too.”
They got busy counting. It took several hours, but at the end, everything checked out, except for a few items with bad RFID chips. They stored their inventory sheets, made sure the racked weapons were charging, headed out, and locked the door. They had another larger room to go through, with much bigger stuff, before they were done.

Chapter Three
“Well, Danny, how’s your assignment coming along?”
Danny Mullins looked up from the rope he was coiling to put away. Albert Johnson was standing there, and his bodyguards had cleared the area of curious cowboys. He thought quickly.
“I’m moving slow at the moment, but I think that there’s going to be another hit in the next few weeks. I was cleaning up in the general receiving dock yesterday and I found this stuck to one of the pallets of Mod 8 Horse motivator cells. I don’t know what it is or where it came from, but it has the ranch’s company logo on it.”
He pulled out a piece of paper. Marshal Tucker had passed the ragged sheet to him last night, during a seemingly random encounter at the cafe he went to for supper. He’d mostly managed to contain his surprise when the buxom waitress turned out to be the hard-bitten cop in disguise. When she gave him his check, she’d slipped in the sheet and whispered, “Give this to Johnson. The chip worked. We broke some files last night.” He nodded, his stomach jumpy, but he paid his bill and got out as quick as he could.
He really didn’t have a clue what it was. It looked like an inventory sheet for guns and things, and while he was comfortable using them, it wasn’t something that he had a lot of call to use in his job. Johnson took the paper and glanced down. His face tightened.
“Why didn’t you bring this to me right away?”
“Sir, I’m sorry, but when I got in, I had a message from the foreman waiting for me. I had to get this task done I’m working on before I did anything else, and no delay about it. I tried to get out of it, but I couldn’t.”
“OK, well, that’s true. You still need to do your job and not arouse suspicion. You did right, but I need to see if I can get you some leeway for the next time something like this happens. Did you look at this paper?”
“I did, when I pulled it out from that shipment, and didn’t know if it was something important somebody had mislaid or lost or something. I didn’t know we had that kind of stuff.”
“Keep it under your hat, Danny. Every ranch does. Out here in the wild lands – or wild stars, maybe – there’s always somebody what wants to rustle someone else. Some of them are aliens, some are other humans, but all of them are bad news.”
Danny thought about that. He’d never had a problem with the alien species out there in the galaxy, but he didn’t go out of his way to have much to do with them, either. The cowboy had enough problems just living day to day without getting into the problems of somebody else. He looked out at the thunderclouds gathering in the sky and a line of rain approaching slowly.
“I will, Mr. Johnson. I’ll tell you more when I get it, but right now that’s all I got. Whoever did it is lying low for now, I guess.”
“If anything, I want them to stay low. I can’t have my money stolen. Speaking of money, that’s another thing I came by to tell you.”
Danny’s attention perked up, the rope in his hands forgotten. His boss continued.
“You’ll be pleased to know that you and all the others have gotten a partial back payment. The ranch got part of the insurance payout for the claim we filed. It isn’t a full paycheck, but it’s most of one.”
Danny dropped the rope, and had to stoop to pick it up.
“Thank you, sir! The wife and I have been fretting about making ends meet, a lot.”
“Well, Danny, I’m still waiting for the rest of it, and work goes on, as always in this kind of thing. You know how it is. Just be stingy for a while until we get evened out. I’ve been telling everyone that and I’m telling you that, too.”
“Well, thank you sir, that makes me feel good. The wife will be happy.”
“All right. I wanted to come out and check with you. You got work to do, I see.”
“Yes, sir. I want to get it done before that storm gets here, and I got to hurry.”
Johnson headed back to the door after clapping Danny on the shoulder.
“Do what you got to do. I’ll be seeing you.” He got into his SUV, and the driver started off.
The cowboy looked at the retreating vehicle and thought about what he’d learned in the last few days. He was confused. Danny had seen some of the stuff that the Marshal’s service had collected on his boss, and it didn’t make sense. Not when he looked at the way that Mr. Johnson was acting with him, now. He supposed if he was a criminal mastermind, he’d be acting a lot, too.
Danny put the confusing thoughts away as best he could, and went out in the field to gather up his things before the rain got them wet. He’d look at the other stuff later when he could. He would also send a report to the Marshal when he could do it without someone watching him.
He got the equipment put away just in time for the storm to start. One of the other cowboys came in and slammed a stack of paper down.
“Damn rain had to start now!”
“What’s the matter? We need the rain for the water rights.”
“Yeah, we do, but it’s a damn inconvenience when you got to go out in it and deliver stuff. Is there a comm nearby? I got to call Mr. Johnson.”
Danny pointed him in the direction of the office.
“In there. He was just here. You missed him by about ten minutes.”
“Yeah, I saw him, but I meant the other Mr. Johnson. I got to relay information on a busted axle.”
“Yeah, damn thing busted on a flat car and we busted our asses getting it fixed quick. I’m real tired of this and I’m about to tell them what I think about it. I’ll be right back.”
He disappeared into the office with his papers and slammed the door. The glass rattled in the frame. After about ten minutes, Danny could hear the other man’s voice raised and several things that didn’t sound real nice. He decided that he was going to go find something else to do. The door opened back up before he could make his escape.
“Hey, bud, what’s your name?”
“Danny. Danny Mullins.”
“Danny, you know how to work this comm-panel? They told me to transmit it to them, but it’s a lot different from what I’m used to.”
Danny walked into the office. Some of the papers was spread out on the desk. He looked at the machine. It was a decrepit piece of technology that still worked, after a fashion. He checked the power and saw that it was turned on.
“How much you got to send off?”
The man gestured to the folder. It was a fairly thick folder, about as thick as Danny’s little finger.
“Wow, that’s a bunch. You’ll be in here all night.”
“Great. I got to be back in Doverville in an hour.”
“Not and do this, too.”
The man looked like he was about to explode. Danny looked away from him and busied himself with turning on other equipment.
“How come it wouldn’t send anything?”
Danny grimaced at the man’s question.
“It will, but you have to make sure the computer it’s attached to is online first. I just turned it on, and I’m waiting for it to link up.”
“Well that doesn’t make sense!”
“I know, but if we had more recent stuff here, we wouldn’t need a computer to link to. The new stuff is all self-contained.”
“Yeah, I noticed that this place is the pits. You guys must get all the broke down stuff.”
“We do. It’s the end of the line here.”
The man shook his head.
“Look, I can’t stay here. I got things to do, and if I don’t get them done, the boss will take my head off. Can you send all that stuff to this number for me,” he indicated a number scribbled on a scrap of paper, “and make sure you get that stuff shredded?”
Danny thought quickly.
“Good, I owe you one, Danny. I got to get out of here. Bye.”
“See ya.”
The man hustled out, muttering more imprecations under his breath. Danny looked out the door and watched the door slam shut behind him. He turned to look at the paper stack. A few pages in, he saw another inventory form about parts, and an accounting report listing an insurance draft. He flipped through and saw a memo about some kind of upcoming operation.
His blood ran cold. Danny didn’t quite know what he had here, but he thought that somebody really needed to see this. But how was he going to account for shredding it? He started the equipment up and started transmitting it while he thought about it for a little while. About halfway through, he had an idea. He didn’t know if it would work, but he had to try something.
He started up a word processor and opened up somebody’s forgotten report on grain rot and printed off enough copies that the stack was about the same size as what he was transmitting. Danny took the papers from the printer, and started shredding them. It took a while, since the shredder was just as old as all the other equipment in the office. The other reports finished transmitting, and an acknowledgment sheet spit out of the machine with a list of the jobs completed. Danny didn’t know what to do with it, so he stuck it in the folder with all the other papers, and when on with his shredding.
It was about an hour after quitting time when he finished. Danny turned everything off and found a large envelope to slide the folder into. He stuffed the folder down his shirt and headed out.
“Hey, Danny! You’re here late!”
He turned to see the custodian with his cart. He gulped, startled by the voice.
“Hey, Mr. Mike. Yeah, the rain set me back and I had to get this stuff finished.”
“Better hurry home. There’s more of it coming, and supposed to be rough.”
“Thanks, I will. Later.”
The custodian waved absently, already forgetting the cowboy. Danny got into his old beat up cargo hauler and waited to see if it would decide to keep running. After a few minutes, it evened out and he pulled out of the front drive. Home was a left hand turn and just minutes away.
After a moment of indecision, he turned right. When he turned the corner, Danny picked up speed. He was headed to the Marshal’s office. She needed to see this stuff as soon as she could.
Marshal Tucker rubbed her eyes. She didn’t care for paperwork, as important as it was. She had written many a report and knew that a well written report was the difference between keeping or losing your job – or life. Still, she did not like writing them or even filling out the insufficient forms. Especially not this early in the morning. The wall clock placidly displayed 0513 in soothing green numerals, and she asked herself again why she got up so early.
She leaned back in the comfortable office chair. The butt of her blaster dug into her side, but after so long, she was used to the discomfort. She had just read the report from her new operative. That was a funny thought. The cowboy was not the most comfortable writing out things and his composition was painful to read, to say the least. There was a package there marked “Marshal Tucker,” but she hadn’t opened it yet.
The law enforcer lay the report down on the desk with a clatter, and got up. She refilled her coffee mug, and dumped in a French Vanilla creamer. A couple of seconds of mental debate later, and she added a spoonful of brown sugar. Thus fortified, she sat back down to finish the report. It was slow going, but she struggled through it. He seemed unsure about something he’d found, and indicated that it was in the package marked for her. She opened up the package and found a folder with papers inside.
She leafed through the papers, and found account numbers, insurance pay-outs, names, and addresses. One was a newly created bank account with an amount of money that looked familiar.
“Wait a minute.”
Marshal Tucker got up again and pulled a file drawer open. Another file came out and slapped onto the desk. She flipped through it and found a notation that referenced a police report on a robbery. She searched through the file, but this particular report wasn’t there.
“Where is it?”
She grabbed her comm without looking. A code was punched in, and she sat waiting impatiently until someone answered.
“Hello, my name is Marshal Nerys Tucker, from the Unified Solar Marshals Service. I’m looking for a report from your agency about a payroll robbery.”
She waited until the officer on the other end could catch up. She gave him her badge number to verify her identity and the report number she wanted. Thirty minutes later, she had the report. Marshal Tucker perused the report and noted the amount of money stolen was identical to the amount of money that this account was opened with.
This was something. She kept looking through the file. Her blood chilled as she found an inventory sheet for an armory that listed some heavier weapons than a ranch operation was supposed to have. She picked up her comm again, and punched a speed dial button.
“Johnny? I’m glad you’re here this early, too. I need you and Phil, if he’s here too, to hustle in here. I got something hot. No, it’s hotter than the Hankey Twins. All right. Bye.” She set the comm down.
Presently a couple of men in dark fatigues knocked on her door. She waved them in, and handed one of them the armory inventory sheet.
“Johnny, look at this. When did ranches start stockpiling military grade weapons?”
He glanced at the sheet and passed it to the other man.
“They are not supposed to. You need a special license and regular compliance checks after that. A rancher has to prove that he has a demonstrable need for that kind of hardware. I don’t think anyone has been able to do it. Phil?” The other man shook his head no. “It’s a pretty expensive process. Supposed to take about a year and a half just to start.”
He took the sheet back from Phil and squinted at the logo.
“Say, isn’t that the outfit that got hit a short time back? Silverplus Enterprises?”
“Good memory, Johnny.” He grunted.
“Doesn’t take a lot of brain cells to remember that much money getting stolen, plus other stuff, too.”
Marshal Tucker handed him the police report and the sheet listing the new bank account.
“Wow. That can’t be a coincidence.”
Phil spoke up, after looking over the sheets, too.
“I’m wondering about some of the other hits in the last few months. I’d be checking the incorporation records of these places and seeing if they come under the Silverplus Enterprises banner.”
“Think they’re committing insurance fraud?”
He nodded.
“That and/or plain old racketeering.”
She leaned back again, thinking about it.
“Johnny, he has a good point. I think there is probable cause to investigate further. I mean, we was already looking at some other pretty questionable stuff with this company, but this is new information. I want it looked into as quickly and quietly as you can. The military grade hardware really bothers me more than the insurance fraud possibility. Run those serial numbers, too.”
“We’ll look into it. How did we get this information?”
She shook her head.
“I can’t tell you – not yet, any way.”
He nodded, accepting it.
“Come on, Phil, we got work to do. I’ll get with you, Nerys.”
She inclined her head and went back to her pile of paper as they left. Just over an hour later, people outside her office heard a loud curse and a scramble, and that was just barely enough warning to clear the area in front of her door. She burst out of her office, calling on her radio while she ran.
Chapter Four
Albert Johnson was not happy. He hadn’t gotten up this early to get to work in a long time, but that wasn’t the only thing that was the cause of his current mood. The incident with the rail car wasn’t anything he couldn’t do much about after the fact. It didn’t help that his brother made sure to tell him a few things he didn’t want to hear. For some time, Tim Johnson had been telling him that the old, busted equipment wasn’t going to cut it and something was going to happen right when they really needed it.
It didn’t help to hear the “I told you so’s” coming from him. Not for the first time, he wanted to beat his brother black and blue.
He had just gotten word that the police report they’d ginned up was accessed by someone with a security clearance that prevented him from finding out who it was. There wasn’t a lot of agencies out there that could do that, and that part alone was making him sweat some blood. There was other things, too. He’d been hearing some things, certain rustles in the underbrush, as it were. It was something else to worry about, but unlike others who could laugh it off over drinks at the end of the day, he couldn’t.
According to more than one person – and his brother – there was somebody sniffing around where he shouldn’t be. He wasn’t worried about it being some woman, since neither he nor his brother thought a woman had any business doing a man’s job. He let women know that, too. That was his opinion, and if anyone didn’t like it, they could stuff it.
Come to think about it, maybe that was the reason he had six ex-wives and working on another. His favorite words in the whole Terran Standard language were “ironclad prenuptial agreement.” Let ’em try.
Johnson turned and flipped on his screen. He called up a surveillance video. It was grainy and full of static, and he reflected that maybe Tim had a point. There was a lot of activity in the magnetosphere on this world, and it affected unshielded electronic devices something fierce. This particular camera network was bargain basement. He resolved to upgrade everything as soon as he could when he realized that he couldn’t quite tell who was standing at the desk. There wasn’t supposed to be anyone in that office that time of night.
A soft knock came at the door. He blanked the screen and grumbled a bit before yelling, “Come on! It’s open!” Johnson twisted slightly in his chair to see who it was. He was a little surprised to see the night custodian there.
“Chester? I haven’t seen you in months.” His voice held an astonished tone.
The man grinned.
“Well, sir, I haven’t either, but then I don’t usually see you get here this early.”
“Yeah, well, don’t remind me.”
“I just thought I’d tell you that I set up the coffee urn with fresh coffee. Cleaned it out good, cleaned up around it, made some coffee a bit stronger than normal, and I put out some donuts, too. Better go get it before the smell attracts everyone else.”
Johnson smiled, but the tired lines in his face didn’t relax.
“Chester, you don’t know how good that sounds. I will.”
“No biggie, boss. And hey, I wanted to tell you that you got a hard working man here, too.”
“What? Who?”
“Danny Mullins. He was here when I came in last night, just leaving. I guess he was working an evening shift or something.”
Johnson’s heartbeat skipped, although he couldn’t say why.
“Yeah, I think he did, but he’s been working on a project for me last couple weeks. Once that’s done, he’ll probably go back to his regular work and you won’t see him all that much.”
“Like you, huh?”
Johnson smiled wanly.
“Yeah, like me. I got some stuff I got to tie up, some loose ends. You out of here?”
“Yeah, I got to get back home, eat, get some sleep so I can be back here tonight.”
“All right, then. I’ll be seeing you. Got to get back to work on this stuff – one reason I came in this early.”
“OK, boss. See you around.”
Chester left, and the door swung shut softly until the lock clicked. Johnson turned back, waving his hand at the screen to light it up again. He stared at the screen some more, mentally fitting a few more pieces and coming up with something he didn’t like.
After a few minutes of hard thought, he grabbed for his comm-panel and stabbed out a combination. The keys clattered reproachfully, but after a moment the speaker was apologetic in playing a recorded message asking for him to leave a message.
“Tim! Where is your sorry ass?” He cut the connection and stewed, staring at the buttons. After a moment, they lit up with his brother’s comm-code. Johnson snatched the receiver up.
“Al, what’s the problem now? You got ants in your pants?”
“Shut up and listen. We got problems.” He went on for a few minutes.
“OK, Al, just cool your jets for a moment. I can get the boys together. Just get out here. Jake can hold it together for a while.”
“Good idea. I’ll be out there in a little over an hour.”
“All right. Bye.” Tim hung up on his brother, and Al stifled a curse. He grabbed his mug and went out to the coffee urn. Sure enough, there was a bunch of donuts around the coffee, which bubbled happily away. He grabbed three huge donuts after he filled his mug and muttered his way back to his office. Several eyes followed him back, then met, accompanied by raised eyebrows. The door slammed shut.
Danny pulled into his usual parking space, and let the engine coil cool a little before he hit the sequence to shut off his old hauler. He was going to have to look at it soon, or go beg the bank for a loan for another one. He wasn’t looking forward to either one, since either way it would cost him money he didn’t have to spare.
It felt nice, coming in a little later than usual. When he’d seen his schedule a week ago, he smiled. Finally, he could sleep a little later and so could his wife. She got up with him and made breakfast without complaining, and that plus the time they spent talking before he had to leave for work made her even more precious to him. He didn’t know what he had done to deserve her, but he wasn’t going to complain about it, either.
It seemed that more than a few people was coming in a little later than usual, and he wondered about that. The small parking lot wasn’t as full as it normally was for this time of day, and he was a bit surprised. Still, other people’s schedules wasn’t his problem. He wasn’t a foreman or a boss for a good reason, and that was because he didn’t like to tell people just like himself what to do. He felt like that was putting himself above others, and he didn’t want to do that.
Finally, Danny judged that the old hauler was cooled enough to shut off, and he did. It settled to the ground a little jerkily, but quickly enough. He just hoped that it would start up this evening. If it didn’t, he just catch a ride with somebody or call his wife. Danny got out and headed for the front door.
Mr. Johnson came out before he was halfway there. He was carrying two covered mugs of coffee.
“Danny, hey. I got something that came up out Westfalls way, and I need you to run me out there right now. I don’t have anybody to do it. Several people called out sick or drunk, more like.”
“Well, sure, but I got to clock in.”
“Don’t worry about that. I clocked you in from my terminal when I saw you come in. Here. I brought you coffee from inside.” Johnson headed toward the motor pool, not waiting for a reply.
Danny took it and fell in beside his boss, mystified. It was pretty unusual but it wasn’t anything he couldn’t handle. He waited as Johnson punched in an access code, and they walked inside. The man at the counter greeted them, and handed Johnson a key fob with the embossed symbol ’13’ on it. Danny didn’t see him sign it out and he thought it was unusual, but he wasn’t going to say anything.
At Slot 13 was a large tough hauler that looked like it could handle his vehicle without any problems, and still take more. He gaped at it, until Johnson slapped him on the shoulder and motioned for him to hurry up. He got into the pilot’s seat, and hit the start-up sequence. Johnson got in beside him as the hauler rumbled to life. Danny thought to himself, I really wish I had one of these, but I’ll never be able to afford one.
Johnson waved off to the side.
“Let’s get a move on, Danny. I got things to do and never enough time to do it.”
After a little while, the Westfalls site came into view. Danny had driven a little faster than he was safely supposed to, in an unfamiliar vehicle, but Mr. Johnson didn’t say anything. Either he was too distracted with whatever was on his mind or he liked to go fast too. For some reason, the sheriff’s patrol left them alone.
Danny settled the hauler down on a pad, and watched with undisguised envy as the machine smoothly quickly shut down. Johnson noticed.
“It’s nice to have a good vehicle for once, huh?”
“Yessir, I can’t disagree.”
“Well, you’re the first employee to drive it anywhere. I just got it earlier this morning, not long before you came in.”
“That’s not bad, Mr. Johnson.” He stroked the control surfaces, and regretfully got out. Johnson had already disembarked and was waiting impatiently.
“Come on, Danny, we got to head this way.”
“What’s going on, Mr. Johnson?”
“Tell you in a moment.” Johnson stepped over the rough ground that bled into sand. He was already starting to sweat from the heat of the day out here, and he was already missing the environmental controls of the hauler they had just left. When he got the job done that he came out here to do, then he’d be back in the cool air. For now, though, he couldn’t. A flash of resentment stabbed through him when he saw that Danny seemed to be handling the heat better than he was. Well, he was younger, and worked out in the heat all day anyway.
Danny was getting antsy. Mr. Johnson was acting a bit strange and he had no clue why they had come out here. He could see some sort of weather beaten cabin in the distance. It was a bit bigger than he supposed a cabin should be considered, but if it was cooler than out here, he wasn’t going to quibble about the size. He noticed that Mr. Johnson was setting a fairly fast pace toward it, and he followed. He didn’t have any trouble keeping up.
Halfway there, he heard a noise. He turned to see several men surrounding them. A few had blasters, but most had evil looking clubs and police nightsticks. They didn’t seem to be there to ask for donations for charity. Danny stepped in front of Mr. Johnson, but he didn’t know exactly what he’d be able to do. He was very shocked when his boss shoved him forward and the first nightstick bashed him in the sternum.
Danny collapsed, unable to breathe, and curled into a ball. A couple of men bent and got in several strikes, breaking ribs. Agony ripped through his body, as liquid fire raced around his chest. One blow glanced off his head as he rolled around in the hot sand, and blood flowed. Johnson stepped forward.
“Hold it! We don’t want to kill him, not yet.”
He stepped up to the moaning man on the sand, and directed a kick that landed on Danny’s hip. The pointed boots sank in, and the injured man wailed.
“Stow it, Mullins. You been sniffing around stuff you ain’t got business around. Who you been talking to?”
“Mr. J-Johnson, I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’ve only been doing what you wanted me to do.” His breath came in ragged puffs.
“Right.” Johnson motioned to another man. Danny turned his head painfully and squinted until he could focus on whoever it was. His body went rigid as he recognized Tim Johnson. He held a warm blaster.
“You tried to shoot me, didn’t you?”
“Mr. Johnson, no, I didn’t. I don’t know what’s going on here.” The words came, undercut by pain.
“Well, let me spell it out, since you won’t be here much longer. Somehow you got some documents that belong to us. You either gave those documents to somebody or kept them. I know you did one or the other, because the paper in that shredder basket wasn’t all the same kind of paper. And, I know it was you, because the guy that was supposed to do it went out and got drunk. He started talking about how helpful and kind you was to take over for him. He doesn’t work for us – or anyone else – anymore.”
Danny shuddered at the malice in his voice.
“You’re going to tell us what you know. Then after that, you won’t be working for us anymore, either.”
The blaster came up and aimed between Danny’s eyes, almost touching his sweating skin. The hot sand was baking him, but he didn’t notice in between the pain of broken ribs and the fear of imminently losing his life.
“M-Mr. J-Johnson, I was told to go find out who was knocking off our payroll wagons and stealing our money. I was s-supposed to take the new repeating rifles and shoot the thieves when we sent a new one out as bait. I needed the money, like everyone else, and Mr. Johnson,” he weakly indicated Albert Johnson to distinguish which Mr. Johnson he meant, “told me that we should h-handle this in-house.”
“You mean to tell me, you was supposed to be shooting me like a mad dog? That my own brother wanted me dead?”
“Yes, s-sir, and I never knew it was you.”
“Not that I’m complaining, but why didn’t you shoot me?”
Danny figured that he should keep the Marshal’s visit to himself, as much as he could.
“I fell off my horse w-when you stepped into that portal whatchamacallit.” Being under a blaster kept him still, and being still meant he didn’t move his broken ribs around. It was amazing what good he could find in a situation like this. Besides, he told the truth. He had fell off.
Tim Johnson spoke slowly, mulling over what he’d heard.
“Well. My own brother is a dirty, greedy rat. Well, I got something for you!”
He spun in place, and a shot rang out. Tim Johnson collapsed. Albert Johnson advanced on the body, a mini blaster concealed in his hand. He addressed the dead man.
“You forgot, Tim, that everyone here draws their pay from me.”
He looked at Danny.
“I’m sorry, Danny, but he was right about one thing. You have to go.”
Danny struggled upward, and managed to get to his knees. Johnson shrugged and leveled his blaster.
“Whatever works.”
Danny looked up at the blaster in his face. The blood creasing down his face made the smile there look incongruous.
“Mr. Johnson, maybe you should look again. Not everyone here works for you.”
Johnson did, and gasped. Every cowboy was sprawled on the hot sand, slapped with a neurostunner. His brother was laying where he’d shot him, covered up. Badges winkled in the dim light.
Marshal Tucker smiled over the sights of her blaster.
“Drop it, Johnson. You’re under arrest. We found the offshore accounts, the hardware, and the serial numbers. We got you murdering a man, too. We got you measured for a cell, to stay there for a long time.”
Shocked, the blaster thudded out of the rancher’s hand. Danny struggled to his feet and slipped over out of the way of the law enforcement officers. He was met by Phil, stopping to help get him out of the way, but still watchful.
“You OK, Danny?”
“Yeah, for now, but I’m really done for a while.”
“Don’t blame you. You look like you got the worse of it.”
Danny looked at his former boss, now arrested. He thought about all the shady things that the two brothers had done, most of which had still to come out into the light.
“I don’t know if that’s really true.”
Phil looked at the now-handcuffed man.
“Maybe not. Come on, let’s get you checked out. That’s a nasty bleeder there.”
Before they could get to the med wagon, Marshal Tucker met them halfway. She extended her hand.
“Good job, Danny.”
“Any idea what you’re going to do now?”
He hadn’t even thought about it, and said so. She reached into a pocket and pulled out a business card. She tucked it into his shirt pocket.
“If you think about a career in law enforcement, call that number. That’s my number, and I’ll get you started.”
It was a thought. Danny Mullins pondered on it. Maybe.

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