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Astrid slowed down to watch the game for a bit, see if Henry G was playing. He was, at least, there to provide color commentary.
"Boivin and Gaston take the field. You know, with their combination of speed and power, they've got a lot more control of the field than you'd think." He drew on the board, circling around two players. "That's the space past their arms that I'd still want to steer clear of, you get me?"
Astrid nodded approvingly before moving on.
Not long after Vanleer mentioned they were missing someone, the door shot open and a ashen-haired Fox Hybrid stumbled through the doors, red in the face and looking as if she'd just made a fool of herself in front of an entire crowd.
"I'm here, I'm here! I got lost in my thoughts and then went to the wrong hall at first."
Only just noticing the poor state of address she was in, the fox hybrid's eyes went wider for a moment before straightening herself out, clearing her throat politely.
"Ahem, I'm sorry sir. Veronika Runtiene, reporting in. Please forgive my lateness." Her fox ears flattened against her head a bit in shame, hands formally held behind her back as she stood at attention.
"We got assigned another recruit on short notice. Apparently, Cmd. Wille pulled some strings to get more men and women assigned to the 7th Order this time around," explained Sgt. Vanleer and looked at the data-pad. "Likely in preparation for the next Operation. We're going to be directly involved, so we don't have much—"
The door shot open, interrupting him. A fox girl stumbled into the room. She had piercing blue eyes and ashen hair, that ended in white tips. Two large ears poked out of her long mane, twitching with any unexpected sound. And bushy tail swished around her legs.
The girl hastily stood to attention and introduced herself as Veronika Runtienne. Sgt. Vanleer nodded, as she finished. "At ease."
"This is Warden Runtienne. She finished the same Crucible you were participating in. You have time to catch up later. For now, I want to make our plans for the next two weeks clear," he said, looking at each of them.
"The Command-Echelon decided on a new Operation. The attack on the Crucible requires a response and reports have indicated that the Zet-Swarm that attacked us have claimed and settled the Leipzig Sprawl and began to fortify the surrounding area."
"I expect we will see combat quite soon, so we don't have much time to cover the basics. Which is why we're starting now."
Jagoda nodded, but Victoire seemed skeptical. "Excuse me, sir. But we already went through our training. Wasn't the Crucible supposed to a chance for us to show we're ready?", she asked.
"I'm not doubting your combat-ability. But this year's Crucible was not under ideal circumstances and I want to verify your ability to work in a squad. Besides, if we're to get out there and fight, I would prefer if you learn how to work with one another beforehand," explained Vanleer.
He held up several data-chips and walked over to the VR-Cells. "I took the liberty and got you all a combat-simulation. Take a chip, slot in, and let us start."
"Already?" Jagoda was a bit surprised.
"We don't have much time. These next two weeks will be quite intense. We will train in simulation, go over tactics, and spar. I doubt, it will be enough before our first mission, but it should help get you all familiar with one another." Vanleer pushed the data-chip into the slot on the inside of Cell and stepped into the egg-like simulation-chamber.
"I didn't have the time to program your suits into this, so you will be starting with basic EVA's for now," he explained, as he put on the Net-helmet. He waited for them to get into the VR-Cells and start up the simulation. Then he seemed to remember something.
"Oh, a quick warning. This will likely be...intense."
Then he started the simulation.
Initiating Sequence...please hold...
Error! Malware detected
Error-Override. Integration commen—c-commencing..
Programm integrated...Simulation start...
They stood in an old forest. The tree's stood so close, that barely any sunlight breached the canopy. Nearby was an old ruin of what looked to be some kind of cottage or storage. Its roof was gone and all that still stood were the broken concrete walls, which were peppered with bullet-holes.
They were in EVA-suits. The feedback glitched sometimes, feeling like a twitch in their fingers or a misplaced step. Then it stabilized. It was quiet around them, aside from a bird twittering somewhere.
"Wow...feels pretty real," commented Victoire, looking at her hand and clenching it.
"Your first time in VR?", asked Jagoda.
"Yeah...we don't really have that kind of stuff at home." The mutant stomped on the ground, trying to get a feel for the slightly disconnected feedback to her brain.
"Attention, squad. No time for dawdling." Vanleer stepped up his rifle at the ready.
"Sorry, Sarge. Just not used to—"
Further, she didn't make it, as a shot cracked against her helmet and threw her to the side. Metal splinters exploded from her helmet and her screen cracked, as she cursed. Several more shots impacted her chest and as she hadn't braced herself, she got thrown to the ground.
"Enemy Contact!", barked Vanleer. "Warden down!"
Then they came. Twelve Imps with chitin-rifles, five Warriors with shard-guns, and two more wielding each a massive chitin-axe. And finally, scuttling over the ground on six blade-like legs, came a Centaur. A massive beast, who towered over the other Zets and who wielded a long, powerful acid-rifle.
With a roar, the fight began, as the Warriors charged their position, while the Imps and the Centaur laid covering-fire.
Edited by TheNohen on Feb 21st 2021 at 10:00:14 AM
Tera blinked as Veronika entered the room. Well, he was assuming it was Veronika. That was the name unaccounted for, after all. "Hello," he said, giving her a wave. "I'm Tera. It's very nice to meet you."
According to Vanleer, they were going to do a combat simulation. That was fine with Tera. What was a bit less fine was that they had to use EVA suits.
"I have a question," he said as they headed into the VR-Cells. "How does one use the EVA's wea—"
And then the simulation started.
He supposed he'd have to learn through experience.
Tera blinked again as they suddenly appeared in a forest in EVA-suits, the area dark and foreboding. "Is it normal," he began, absently fiddling with his fingers, "for the VR-system to detect malware, override the error, and then stutter when commencing the integra—"
He didn't even finish his sentence before Victoire was suddenly shot in the head. And before he could freak out over that, she was then shot in the chest multiple times and sent crashing to the ground. "Victoire!" he gasped, rushing over to her. "Are you okay?!"
"I— fuck, that's..." Victoire groaned, reaching up to rub her head. "Holy shit, that hurt."
And from the depths of the forest, the Zet emerged, wielding guns and axes and more guns. Oh no. Tera had no clue how to even turn the EVA's guns on, much less how to actually shoot them. Victoire wasn't in much condition to fight either. So his best plan right now was...
"If you need me, just holler!" Tera shouted, sweeping Victoire up into the air—causing her to yell in surprise—and dashing into the ruin. He set her against the wall and immediately looked her EVA over, trying to assess the damage.
"...you know it's a simulation, right?" Victoire asked, clearly confused. "Why're you doing all this?"
Tera didn't hesitate. "Because I want everyone to stay alive when it isn't a simulation and we are actually shot at."
"Doesn't make it any less of a simulation—"
"To let someone die," Tera continued, as though Victoire had never spoken, "when I could've done something to keep them alive, even at the cost of myself...I could never do that. I will never do that. I promise you this: no one will die on my watch."
For a few moments, there was no sound except whatever was happening beyond the ruined wall.
Then, Victoire scoffed. "You're crazy. You know that? You're damn crazy."
"I'll keep that in mind." And then Tera went back to inspecting the damage.
Astrid was starting to get a little worried about how quickly they were getting newbies. The fact that she now knew so many Wardens meant she'd really feel it when they inevitably got thinned out—something she was hoping to avoid. She could've just had her little clique and been done with it!
"Pleasure to have you aboard, ma'am." She said stiffly, before they boarded the VR sims. Her mind was buzzing with news about Leipzig, and truthfully she wasn't all there at first. The sprawl was still a mystery to her, but at the same time, a way of connecting to her ancestors!
"Fucking—with all due respect, Sarge Vanleer!" Astrid yelled out in frustration as she catapulted her virtual suit in the air, trying to buy some time to figure shit out. She similarly didn't know how an EVA's weapons worked. One of the reasons she liked Judah Reborn was that it worked its weapons with its hands, just as she did on foot. "Where did you get this Tandy-tier VR rig?!" She landed on a tree, rebounded, and stomped on an imp's head before swinging a haymaker at another. "It could have been 5 minutes, tops, to explain the buttons!"
Veronika gave a disdainful look down at the assault rifle in her EVA suit's hands as they materialized into the VR simulation. Basic EVA suits were hardly the type of equipment that suited her specialty of long range engagements. Instinctively she switched the rifle's fire selection to semi-auto. Sis had always said that full auto was good for getting the Zets to keep their head down, not to actually hit them with any sort of precision. Veronika would rather make every shot count than choose a hail of them where a few were bound to hit. After all, it's not like they had infinite supplies of ammunition. And then Tera spoke up about the simulation detecting malware, to which Veronika gave a small shrug and wry smile. All the while, her mind still raced with taking in the surroundings of the forest around her, looking for advantageous cover and sniping points, not that that would be good with a freaking assault weapon.
"It's tech, when aren't there errors going around? You've never been in a VR sim before?"
And then shots cracked out, and one of their own was knocked over as several projectiles rammed into him. Veronika didn't waste a moment, quickly ducking behind a nearby tree and raising her assault rifle, poking her upper body out to take a few pot shots at some of the approaching imps. Astrid was complaining about not knowing the controls, as was Tera, and it took some small effort to resist tilting her head. While one mind focused on taking her shots, the other carried on the conversation casually.
"What, you didn't cover this in boot camp? Never run a sim before, or used one of these suits?"
"Keep cohesion!" Vanleer turned the shoulder towards the incoming fire, making himself a smaller target and angling his armor. It looked natural on him as if he didn't even have to think about it, as shards bounced off his shoulder-plates.
Stepping to the side, he fired into the oncoming enemy, before finding cover near the ruins. His bullets peppered against the charging warriors, making one of them stumble. "Focus fire on the Breakers first. Don't let them get too close."
It was then, that Astrid jumped forward and crushed one of the Imps skulls under her boot. As she turned around and knocked another prone with a haymaker, she got met by a hail of shards, as three of the Shard-Warriors trained their guns on her and unloaded. Vanleer shot one of them in the head, the skull fracturing, but the creature eating the blow anyway. It diverted its shot, at least.
It wasn't enough. Astrid's right arm was shattered by a close-range shot, her plates torn to pieces and her bones breaking. The second and third shots hit her right in the head.
Astrid was thrown back, her skull pounding with a splitting headache. Her visor was cracked and flickering and her helmet had several nasty dents in it. She had survived, but only just. Another blow like this her armor wouldn't be able to take.
Vanleer put several bullets in the Shard-Warrior he had aimed at and finally brought it down. Ejecting his empty magazine, he slotted in a new one. "Sobczak, grenades!", he ordered calmly, while he continued to lay down covering fire for Astrid and force the Warriors to focus on him.
Jagoda looked down to pull one of the grenades off and tossed it towards the charging Breaker-Warriors. An explosion threw up leaves and mud. One of the Zet tumbled backward, while the others charged through ignoring the cracked chest-carapace and bleeding gashes. It roared, as it came towards Veronika and swung its ax.
Meanwhile, Tera and Victoire were inside the ruins, shots cracking against the walls, but they seemed safe for now. Victoire pushed her squadmates off her. "I'm gonna be fine. Just go and help the others!", she barked.
Before they could argue, concrete burst past them, and something hot splattered on Tera's shoulder. It sizzled and he could see warning lights appear on his visor.
Warning! Acid detected!
A look to the side showed the Centaur ejecting a burning capsule out of its rifle and aiming again. When it had Tera's position locked down, it fired again.
Tera looked over at his shoulder and saw that the EVA was sizzling from said acid. He then looked over at where the shot had come from to see the Centaur aiming at him.
Hm. Hopefully, the malware from earlier didn't operate on "die in the game, die for real".
"Stay here," Tera said quickly, getting to his feet. "Or, um, don't, if the Zet charge in. Or do, if they ignore you—"
"Don't die. Got it."
"That's one way of saying it." And with that, Tera charged at the Centaur, weaving around the acid shots.
Or at least, he tried to. The Crucible had gotten him accustomed to the light, agile Mercury, of dashing towards enemies to cut them up with blades. In comparison, the EVA was heavy and clunky to walk in, much less run.
As such, his attempt to dodge the next acid shot led to him tripping and falling flat on his face.
Well, this would be a really dumb way to die.
See, what was Astrid supposed to learn here?! The EVA was nothing like Judah Reborn. Few suits really were. She roared more in frustration than pain at just how much she'd fucked up, then... sighed and withdrew, taking huge leaps away from the action. She turned the one functioning arm back and let loose some covering fire, but the focus was on retreat. Even Judah was more of a duelist, trying to "cheat" with breach tactics, flashers, and heavy cover, but these hoopties were a whole other level of glassy.
"They never put us in VR. We used sim rounds on a live arena!" Astrid barked back. "What, did you have the luxury of all your training being simmed, or what?"
"Hah, only some of it! Sometimes my sis would just take me out, put an old rifle in my hand and tell me to shoot!" Veronika called back to Astrid as her mind raced with the image of the Zet charging towards her. Unconsciously, her hand fell from the fore of the assault rifle, bringing up her EVA's combat knife as she took a step back, eyes trailing the Zet's attack. With a twist of her hand, she met the ax's swing at an angle with the knife's blade, rather than head on, holding fast and pushing to turn the chopping blade aside, while awkwardly bringing the rifle to the center and firing several point blank shots at the cracks in the creature's damaged carapace.
Now close quarters combat had never been her specialty, but Sis had trained her well. A marksman was never guaranteed to stay out from close quarters, and they were at a heavy disadvantage, so one had to think on their feet and act on one's instinct when caught by surprise too close for comfort. Being able to consciously and unconsciously think two different things helped with that.
"But I guess not everybody's from old guard like my family are!"
"Stop chatting and focus!" came it from Vanleer, who clearly was not amused by them arguing. And it would soon show why, as Astrid tried to get a distance away from the Zet she had so foolishly charged into first. As she turned around to fire at her pursuers, she saw the Centaur whirling his massive gun around to aim at her.
Tera had tried to charge it, dodge the shots, and rush it. But the android had mistimed his steps and managed to stumble. Immediately the Imps were on him, showering him with chitin-shots. Victoire yelled and fired out of the ruins to save him, but it was too late. Tera could feel the plates cracking and breaking off, then a wave of prickling pain, as the bullets penetrated and then...gone.
Astrid watched Tera being shot to pieces. Jumping away, she landed by a larch. Only a few meters away from Jagoda's position. Then, the responses of her left arm were gone. A look to the side showed only her empty shoulder, plates dripping with acid. The Centaur had put a shot right between her joints and blew her limb clean off. There wasn't even time to curse, as the second shot rang out, broke through the tree before her, and smashed into her visor.
Vanleer grunted as he saw Tera and Astrid go down. Things got even worse, when the Imps, now that the fight turned more lopsided, rushed the ruins. They could hear Victoire screaming before she cut out.
They were alone. Three against...too many. Veronika had emptied a clip into the Breaker that had rushed her and the creature went down, with a perforated chest, but it was not enough.
Vanleer ducked, just as the concrete he had been hiding behind got blown away by acid-shots. "Shit! What do we do!?", yelled Jagoda, panic in her voice. Vanleer pointed at the Centaur. "We need to get rid of—"
His words were cut off by several shard-guns barking. Vanleer was thrown off his feet, his legs torn and broken. Jagoda jolted away, tried to get into cover. The second Breaker rushed forward, now with all the Imps joining him. Veronika shot as many as she could, as did Vanleer before they got overwhelmed and torn apart.
Jagoda was the last one left, breathing heavily behind her cover. Heavy steps approached her position. She tried to fight down her panic and leaped out, emptying her clip.
The Centaur seemed almost to grin, even as its face and lipless fangs had not changed at all. Its carapace cracking but taking the bullets until Jagoda rifle clicked empty. The young woman panting, with tears in her eyes, the rifle slipping out of her fingers. The Centaur snorted, its eyeless skull staring her down. It raised its rifle dripping with acid, slowly pressed against Jagoda's visor.
Then it shot.
Simulation over. Squad terminated.
A can cracked, as Vanleer sat down, tossing some cool cans of beer into everyone's hand and opening his own. Tera got some recharge-batteries instead, obviously. The Warden had a bit of sweat on his face, with his young soldiers almost drenched. Well, except Tera, again.
"Well, that wasn't particularly surprising," he said, after taking a sip. "But still enlightening."
"Before you say it, yes I know you weren't prepared and that you are not used to EVA's," he cut Astrid off, who was opening her mouth. "The point of this exercise wasn't to test your fighting skills or what you can do in your suits. I've seen your resume's and if I doubted your abilities to fight, you wouldn't have made it past the Crucible anyway."
"I wanted to see how you would function in a squad. Under the worst possible circumstances. Stress, panic, overwhelming enemy firepower, etc. Where you would crack, where you would not."
He drank again, his face completely calm. "Squads lose three members on their first mission, on average. That isn't just because it's dangerous out there, but because teamwork and cooperation are a bigger factor for success than what kind of exo-suit you're wielding."
"We have two weeks, at best, before we go out there. I want to make at least sure, we have the basics down and know what we need to cover and we can improve. And that means being...unorthodox. Maybe even unfair."
He pointed at the Sim-chambers. "Real Wardens died in that ambush you just went through. Not rookies, either. They were killed, every single one of them. If I can make you guys get through such a scenario and survive it...then we might see this squad actually thrive."
He looked at each one of them, his cold eyes piercing into their soul. "Now...let's recap. What do you think went wrong for each of you? And to show that I mean it, let me start."
"I made the wrong call in prioritizing the Breakers. The Centaur was the bigger threat, especially with that acid-rifle. Instead of wasting time and trying to keep Astrid alive, I should have focused my fire on him, accepted losing her, and getting the rest of the squad through, instead. I made the wrong call." It was a brutal and honest assessment. There was no hostility or emotional undertone to it, just a rational explanation for why it went wrong.
He gestured at the others. Their turn.
That was his last thought before the Imps rushed him and everything went dark.
Well, that had been an experience. Tera accepted the batteries with a nod, turning them over in his hands. Good thing dying in the simulation doesn't mean you die in real life.
Vanleer's casual comment about squads losing three members on average nearly caused him to drop the batteries. "Three?!" he blurted out, eyes wide. "But that's half this squad! That's..." He looked around at his squadmates—wow, he was one of the only guys, he'd never noticed that before. If I lost just one of them...
Tera stared at his lap, a silent promise already forming in his mind. I'm never leaving anyone behind. If it's within my power to do so, I'll make sure every member of this group makes it out of the mission alive.
I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I didn't at least try.
"I tripped," he said, not looking back up. "If I hadn't tripped...and hadn't forgotten that the EVA isn't a close-combat suit..."
Astrid, yes, was going to bitch about the loadout. She bit her tongue, anticipated. That was it though! Inspiration banged around in her skull before exiting. It was just like a breach: one needed to render out death so fast that even bullets would lack speed.
"Relaying orders in a worst-case jumping like that is clearly seconds we don't have, then." Astrid said. "Moments to identify threats, moments to formulate a response, moments to speak it, plus travel time of sound, thought..." She shook her head, sending her fluff in all directions. "We need a worse-case response ready ahead of time. Like, maybe focusing fire on the biggest threat, or jumping anyone out of place." She shrugged. "Having a plan at all is to me more important than the specifics. We can plan on the battlefield when we've got the drop."
Vanleer looked at the others. Victoire was briefly avoiding his gaze, before groaning in frustration. "Yeah, alright I know...always be vigilant. Dropped my guard," she admitted finally, grumbling under her breath. The sergeant didn't comment any further, instead seeming to just take a mental note.
However, both Jagoda and Veronika stayed silent, when he turned to them. Jagoda stared down at her feet, not saying a word. Vanleer looked like he wanted to say something but then decided otherwise. Instead, he got up and clapped his hands.
"Alright. I suggest you think about today. We will use the next days to do more simulations with the same scenario, just to get you used to work together. I rented this hall, so feel free to use the facility to keep yourself in shape." He looked at each of them, before nodding. "Dismissed."
The next two weeks were a mix of intense training and brief moments of rest. Vanleer was a calm, but merciless taskmaster. Always pushing them to do one session more than they wanted and analyzing their mistake afterward. Some responded well, like Tera. Even Victoire stopped complaining after a while. Only Jagoda became more withdrawn and her performance began to suffer in the last days especially. She froze up, reacted slowly, and more than once failed to support the rest of the squad during an intense firefight.
It was obvious Vanleer wasn't pleased, though he didn't show it. And they didn't have time to really get into the problem, especially because Jagoda refused to talk about it. Soon, the two weeks were over and they were given their first assignment.
It was the late morning of the 13th of April. They had gathered in the hangar, in which just a few weeks prior they had all set off for the Crucible. Now they were going out again, to hunt the same Zet that had attacked them during their initiation. Sgt. Vanleer was waiting for them near an empty repair station.
"Morning, Squad 27," he greeted them. "Before we get to the important part...you all got your mission briefing through the terminal? If not, I will give you a quick rundown now. We will be deployed around 25 kilometers outside the Leipzig Sprawl. Our mission is to scout out the nearby airfield and secure it, if possible. If we manage to take control of it, we can establish a base of operations there."
They had all been given the same information earlier, but Vanleer wasn't finished. "We will also be getting a new squad member. Provisionally, as I was informed. He has been in custody, until now, and they decided to assign him to us for the sake of evaluation." He didn't comment any further, leaving it to them to draw their own conclusions.
Stef knew that in order to stave off the potential humiliation of being led towards his new squad in handcuffs, he'd need to play it 1: smooth and 2: respectable. Which he so far did, calmly following along with his escort's directions as they firmly led him up to Sgt. Vanleer and obediently standing still as they unlocked his cuffs.
“He's all yours, Sergeant,” muttered one of the guards in a tone that was clearly too tired to even think of trying to sound professional, though managed to pull off a salute alongside his fellow once they walked off; leaving Stefan to rub his wrists and grin disarmingly at the group.
“My ears are burning~! You've been talking about me, haven't you...?” he purred, ears twitching atop his head as he took a second to stretch and crick his bones before clearing his throat and standing to attention. Almost in a manner snide, but he'd clearly been disciplined to hell and back in order to watch himself.
“Stefan Söderholm, at your service~! It's an absolute pleasure for me to finally get started...~” he continued, his grin broadening as he relished in his newfound (albeit limited) freedom; catlike tail happily weaving back and forth behind him. “Now, it's been a distractingly euphoric trip out of incarceration... is there anything important I might've been too ecstatic to be listening to...~?”
I'll make sure every member of this group makes it out of the mission alive.
Tera had not...entirely succeeded in holding to that promise—if he had a mark for every time someone had died in those simulations, he'd be...well, not rich, but moderately comfortable. He'd improved a lot over the past two weeks, even managing to ensure Jagoda's survival in one of the last few VR sims. (Granted, he'd died himself, but if it meant saving the others, he'd gladly take it.)
Today, however, was the day those saving-people skills were put to the test. They were heading out to the Leipzig Sprawl to scout for the Zet that had nearly killed all the recruits...wow, it felt like years ago. Like a historical event, not a recent thing that had recently happened.
A new member? Tera tilted his head as two burly guards led a chained cat-hybrid up to the squad. Another male. And here I thought I'd be the only one.
His name, apparently, was Stefan, and he introduced himself by preening and purring in a strange tone that Tera had never quite heard before. It was a tone that put emphasis on certain words and elongated all the words in a way he didn't understand. Very odd.
"...oh, I already do not like you," Victoire muttered.
"Be nice," Tera murmured.
He waved at Stefan. "Hello," he said. "I'm Tera. It's good to meet you, Stefan. We're heading out to the Leipzig Sprawl to scout out the nearby airfield. We'll also secure it if we can."
The training regimen was something Astrid could have gotten used to. Despite the nonstop asskicking it was actually an immensely restful process mentally—no weird Zets to worry about, no weird suit mechanics to bother her, nothing but getting better at her damn job. So when she heard she was going to get a rematch with the Zets that had owned them at the Crucible, she was ready, brain buzzing and raring to go. Until it turned out they had a penal member. And a fellow Cat Hybrid on top of that!
Astrid rolled her eyes at the guy, not disguising her disdain for a showman. Probably a con artist, not even a real criminal with blood under his fingernails. "Astrid. I pilot Judah Reborn. I'll..." She ground her teeth. Wouldn't do to go too hard on him just yet. She swallowed I'll be watching your back, so don't convince me to let something through. Instead she just stuck out her hand. "I'll be looking forward to working with you." She said stiffly.
“As will I. You all seem well put together...~” Stefan returned to Astrid with a smile, shaking her proffered hand before nodding to Tera in return and then turning back to Sgt. Vanleer. “Scouting out an airfield, then? I'll follow your lead, naturally. Please be aware of any... attitude problems I may have; I'll do my best to stay professional but some things are too deeply ingrained...”
Not even a minute in and already two don't like me. This is going to be fun.
“I... understand that I'm to have an exosuit? Given my technical custody minutes before, obviously I'm not sure where...?”
Edited by Enirboreh on Apr 9th 2021 at 5:29:30 PM
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