The Scrolls of Tian Tan

James Yu



It is said that the scrolls descended from the heavens long before the sun and the moon shined in the sky. The first monk looked up in wonder at the gilded loops, tracing its forms upward.

He wrote a symbol upon that scroll and tugged, setting Tian and Earth in motion. It is promised that the scrolls will discover the meaning of everything.

Quuz read a symbol and checked its entry in the Book of Tian, even though he didn’t need to. Unlike most monks, he had memorized every entry in the entire tome. Then he dipped his brush into the ink and wrote a new symbol in its place.

He was one of ten thousand monks in the Hall of Enumeration, positioned in concentric circles around Yuan, the presiding monk, who struck a steady beat on a drum as wide as an ox. Quuz sat in the twelfth arc—a great honor considering his young age.

Recently, arguments sparked the proceedings. “There is famine in the lands. Plants and trees are no longer thriving,” a monk said. “Something is wrong.”

“Yes. We should consider studying the book again, to see if, perhaps, there is an error,” another monk called out.

After a long pause, the head monk answered, “These are the divine instructions. We shall never stray from them.” This was, of course, the first tenet of their duty. A tone of finality rang in his voice.

Quuz heard a whisper and saw his mother setting a tray of boiled tofu and vegetables at his feet. “Don’t question Tian.” She had sensed that he, too, wanted to dissent. “There is a cycle for everything, and as long as we do our work, this hardship will pass.”

His mother always brought food, even though it wasn’t allowed in the hall. She could never stop seeing him as anything but a baby to protect, even though he had been an ordained monk for ten years. Without his father, their bond had become essential to her.

His mind meandered back to the sequences that he had secretly been writing on a scroll hidden beneath his sleep mat. If Yuan found out, he might be exiled from the hall. But he had been uneasy about their work. Isn’t it natural to worry if their work isn’t making Earth prosper?

A sudden cry came from the eastern door. A knot of monks were pointing at the sky. But nothing looked out of place—all he saw was the night sky, dark as soot ink.

A shrill voice cut through the air:

“The moon has vanished!”

The character for Tian means Heaven:

It combines the symbols for 大 (big) and 一 (one): the one deity in the sky. But Quuz saw in those two curves the divine scrolls bursting downward from the lines of heaven, tying the fates of Tian and Earth together in harmony.

Or dissonance.

As a child, his mother lectured to him about the ten thousand scrolls of Tian Tan. That was an inconceivable number to his six-year-old mind. It must be like a hanging forest so dense that it would block out the sun. He wondered if he would ever see those gilded scrolls. But his father would never allow it.

“We should be happy with our village scroll,” his mother said. He accompanied her on the daily pilgrimage to the local temple, a humble pagoda with a wide opening so villagers could witness the monk as he worked. A single scroll hung from the heavens, its edges creased and faded. Quuz set a sack of millet on the offering plate and took in the sharp smell of incense.

The monk conducted the scroll with fluid movements, keeping his arms close to his trunk like a wushu master. After watching for years, he began to understand the system. For example, 耳, the character for ‘ear,’ meant that the monk moved the scroll four steps forward. 苦, the character for ‘bitter,’ directed the monk to write an unseen character on another.

His mother bowed with an incense stick and said: “We give thanks for your work. The heavens move because of you.”

“Can I write on the scroll?” Quuz blurted.

His mother gasped. “Do not say such a thing!”

A smile crept over the monk’s face, but he didn’t say anything.

“I want to control the heavens, too,” Quuz said.

“We can do no such thing,” his mother said. “Each divine scroll is a god tied to a part of Tian—a star, the sun, the moon, the ocean tides—but we cannot know its exact nature. And your father and I are farmers, and you will be a farmer, too.” His mother took his arm. “Come, we must visit the teller now.”

The fortune tellers were camped at wobbly tables beside the pagoda, dressed in bright robes. As per law, the daily sequence of symbols were posted for all to see. Read as sentences, they were gibberish to all but the tellers.

As they approached, the old woman beckoned to his mother: “Ling Ling, good of you to come.”

His mother dropped a coin on the table. “Teller Chang, what do you see in the wind today?”

Chang bowed and glanced at Quuz. “And I see Xiao Quuz is here. Your eyes sparkle just like your mother’s.”

Quuz lolled his head and looked away. He was wary of the old teller. She smelled like old animal hides and spoke mysterious sentences that never made sense. The teller wrote something on a slip of paper and handed it to his mother. The fortune read: 冷.

Cold is coming! We must hurry back,” his mother said.

“The cold will seep in earlier this year,” the teller said.

They hurried back to their hut, where they found his father on the ground with a calligraphy brush in hand.

“You must get out of the sun,” his mother said. She came from a long line of Northern Chinese farmers, which meant she was a full head taller than his father, and was the one tending most of the fields. His father’s body had also been ravaged with disease, leaving him diminutive. But what he lacked physically, he made up with his mind—he was one of the few villagers that knew how to read and write.

“I see you are back from the fake mystics,” he said, not looking up.

“What in heavens are you doing?” she said.

“I am recording the ants. I believe their movements may be used to predict the weather.” A trail of ants surfaced from a hole in the ground. His father’s hand was shaking worse than usual.

“We must start harvesting tomorrow,” his mother said.

“Why do you believe these tellers? They are profiting from your ignorance.”

“They interpret the will of Tian,” she said.

His father sighed. “The only way to understand the world is from observing nature. The monks do not even know what they are conducting.”

“They are making the heavens move. And they will find the final answer of Tian.”

“What is the final answer?” Quuz said. “Are the monks getting closer to it?”

“These are not questions for today,” she said.

“You always say that…”

His father grunted, and Quuz helped him stand up.

“It is a myth. Oh, dear wife, please tell us this final answer, so that we may prosper in everything. Show me one thing that you have learned from Tian that has helped us,” his father said.

His mother thrust the fortune into his hands.

“A single character?” he murmured. “What kind of nonsense is this?” Then his father let out a groan and keeled over on the ground.

“Father!” Quuz yelled. It was another seizure. There was nothing they could do but lead him to the mat and wait for the shuddering to run its course. He couldn’t help but think that the fortune’s touch had initiated it.

Later, when the sun had set and his father was finally still, his mother said: “You are old enough to know now. Your father has a weak scroll.”

“A scroll? Where?”

“There is a scroll inside each and every one of us.”

“Maybe the monk can help us. He has many scrolls.”

His mother shook her head. “It is given to us from birth.”

He had a sudden horrific image of paper bursting from his stomach like worms from a carcass. His face must have contorted, because his mother gently cupped her weathered hands on his cheeks. “Do not be frightened. The scrolls will not eat you. They are more like a fine thread inside your zidong. They direct your actions in life, just as the divine scrolls direct the Heavens and Earth.”

He had heard his father use that word to describe nature—that it operates on their own zidong—the flow of the seasons and the revolution of the moon and sun.

“It is an organ the size of your thumb. Right here”—she pulled up her tunic and pointed to the right of her navel, then she took his head and pressed it there. He heard a tranquil sound like waves breaking on a distant shore.

The next day, his father couldn’t rise from his bed. Quuz placed his ear against his father’s belly. He heard a thin trickle from his zidong, like a stream threatening to run dry. His father sat up and said: “I don’t have much longer in this world.”

Quuz hugged his father tight.

“Just remember,” his father continued. “Do not let them control you.”

“You mean the monks?”

“No. I mean Tian. Heaven is a disease as potent as the one that inhabits my body. It’s a system that can make men follow each other over a cliff’s edge. ”

His father never walked again. But he kept analyzing the rhythms of the fields and nature, and over time, their farm yielded the most crops in their village. Soon, jealous rumors sprouted, accusing their family of being involved with witchcraft. Thieves targeted their land. His mother began training with a sharp stick every day so that she could defend her family even against men twice her size.

Just before dawn after the moon vanished, Quuz led a group of monks down the eastern crest of the temple grounds and into the gates of Tian Tan. Their torches blazed under the empty sky. It was bizarre seeing the sky so void, as if Tian had misplaced its children.

They settled in the center courtyard and placed their offering plates on the ground. Everyone was busy preparing for the moon festival next week. Women rolled out paper thin dough sheets for pork and leek dumplings, bakers shaped circular cakes stamped with divine symbols, and shop owners folded paper red lanterns.

There was a pall over the crowds. The voices of the villagers rose up as they passed the courtyard:

“—Where is the moon? Have you conspired with Tian to hide it?”

“—You should be back at the temple?”

“—This year’s famine is your fault. We know because the skies are furious.”

“—Go away! We don’t have any more food.”

One man, clearly intoxicated, weaved toward them on unsteady feet and shoved a finger in his mother’s face. “My family has only a few grains of rice to eat and you play games with your scrolls.”

There was a sharp tang of rice wine in the man’s breath.

“We do no such thing,” said Quuz.

“You’re young and strong. You should be working the fields. I’ve kept measurements—not only is the moon gone, the days are getting shorter. The sun’s power is waning. Are you praying to Tian to fix these problems?”

The man’s voice reminded him of his father. His mother stood between them and said: “If this is our fate then we should accept it. For how are grains of sand to push back on the tide?”

Yes, it was true that famine had swept the lands, worse than when he was young. Yuan had assured him that it was temporary. Had Tian forgotten how to conduct the rhythm of the days?

The cowards set fire to their farm in the dead of night.

Quuz remembered the sickly scent of the burning millet fields—at once acrid and sweet. He stumbled out of their hut and saw an orange fury engulfing their harvest, the intense heat slapping him in the face.

Where are you? Show your face and fight us!

He heard shuffling from the hut. Someone grabbed him from behind and slung him over their shoulder. He writhed and tried to bite them.

“Be still, my son, it is me,” his mother said in ragged breath.

“Where are we going?”

“We must get far from here.”

“Where is father?!” he screamed, hot tears welling in his eyes.

“He is in Tian now.”

“Give him my scroll. I don’t need it.” He struggled, but her arms were iron. Through his tears, he saw the fires casting red tongues on their hut.

That was the last time he saw his home.

His mother placed him on the ground and touched her forehead to his. A deep gash on her temple wept blood over her face.

“It wasn’t the weak scroll that killed father, was it…?” Quuz said, noticing the bloodied knife in her sash.

“I couldn’t protect him.” She trembled. “We must run. If we turn back, we will join him. Dead thieves breed revenge.”

Why would Tian want to kill his father and burn their home? Why turn their own village against them? What had they done to deserve this?

He didn’t have to ask where they were headed, because in those days, there was only one place to go when you’ve lost everything. It took a month to make the journey to Tian Tan. The great city dazzled his eyes with its fortified walls festooned with spikes as high as stalks of millet and the people dressed in fine silks. But more than anything else, it was the Hall of Enumeration that caught his attention. Its pagoda rose high into the sky like the peaks of mountains.

He thought that surely his mother had a plan. Even when they resorted to begging in the streets for food, he held his head high. This was temporary: they would soon find work with a distant relative at an inn or local shop. But she confessed that she was letting Tian decide their destiny. To him, that meant there was no plan at all; it was as if a switch had been turned off inside of her, extinguishing any fortitude she had when father was alive.

Quuz decided then that he would study the will of Tian—not because he believed in it, but because if he didn’t, he would always be at its mercy. He began to hang around the entrance to Tian Tan temple. He asked the monks penetrating questions. Even if father hated the scrolls, he would have been enamored with the exquisite calligraphy imprinted on its surface.

One of monks let him read a copy of the Book of Tian. The book enumerated every divine symbol. He studied them intensely, relishing the curves and daggers of each glyph.

One day, the monk spoke to him: “Young man, you seem to have absorbed much from the book.”

His mother looked on nervously. At this point, they had run out of money, and was living on the generosity of strangers on the street.

“Yes,” he all but shouted. “I have so many questions. Have you studied the meaning of the symbols? How do they affect the Earth?”

“We can never understand the true intent of Tian. As long as we are obedient in conducting them, we will prosper,” the monk said, abruptly turning on his heels.

Quuz knew this was his only chance to impress him, so he closed his eyes and began to recite the symbols from memory—all 1,024 of them. That was how he and his mother became monks, and gained entrance into the temple grounds.

They deemed his mother’s memory skills unfit for conducting the scrolls, but her physical prowess would be useful in servicing the temple in other ways. She was happy that Quuz’s skills could be put to use. Her hands would be conducting the scrolls through his.

During the first year, Quuz trained with scroll toys. One time, he and a few apprentice monks sat in circle on the cobbled courtyard. There attention was on the miniature toy tiger and deer darting around. Their scrolls were exposed through a pair of holes in their back. Usually, apprentice monks would painstakingly conduct the miniature scrolls with a slender brush, studying how the automaton reacted. These, however, were able to move on their own since they were embedded with a zidong extracted from a real animal.

Someone had swapped the scrolls, sending the deer into a frenzy and nipping at the tiger’s neck. The predator cowered behind Quuz’s, its stiff fur tickling the skin of his calfs.

“Switch it back,” Quuz said. “He’s scared.”

“We’re just having some fun. The deer should be the one attacking for once,” a young monk said.

The tiger was running as if it still had the endurance of a deer. It didn’t know it was in a tiger’s body. This was cruel. But Quuz was also intrigued—it meant that the zidong was merely a machine.

“Xiao monks!” a voice boomed. Yuan struck the ground with a stick, sending the monks scrabbling.

Except Quuz.

Yuan scooped up the tiger, nestling the shivering creature into the crook of his arm. He pointed the stick to Quuz’s belly.

“It wasn’t me.”

“Shall we see what happens if I embed this deer’s scroll into you?”

Quuz’s eyes brightened. “Would I feel what a deer would feel?”

Yuan sighed. The presiding monk pointed to the sky. “See the sun? It will set and the moon will rise. Then the sun again will rise. And then the moon. Our work is not a game. The scrolls control Tian that in turn control our world—they dictate the seasons, set the moon and stars in motion, and allow the plants to grow.”

“But there is famine. The plants haven’t been growing. Perhaps we need to understand—”

“Ah, but that is because there is another purpose.” A serious expression came over the monk’s face.

“And what is that?”

“One day, the scrolls will direct a monk—perhaps you—to rest at a symbol: 停 for HALT. Your work will then stop. It is prophesied that one by one, this will happen to every scroll. The last sequence of symbols will be the ultimate message Tian and Earth are searching for.”

“The final answer.”

“It is more than an answer,” Yuan said. “Hearing this will transcend all Earthly beings. We are bound to this duty as monks—to release humankind from our suffering.” Yuan caught the tiger’s scroll between two fingers, sending it into a spasm. He tore it, and the tiger froze. Its eyes turned cloudy—its essence extinguished.

It would not transcend.

On the day of the moon festival, Quuz stood at the edge of the river bank, gazing at the walls of the city. Usually, they were a resplendent sight, but now, a dark hue emanated as if the walls could sense the moon’s absence. He and the other monks placed candles into flower dishes and, one by one, set them into the current, each carrying a divine symbol on a slip of paper. He remembered marveling at the sight when he first arrived at Tian Tan—thousands of flames marching on the water, projecting wild flickers on the buildings.

“The candles aren’t moving,” one of the monks said.

“You are mistaken. They are,” Quuz said. “But they will not make it to the city.”

The current had ceased, and in its place, eddies pocked the river, whirling the floating dishes in bizarre patterns. He stood silent for a while. Even the water had conspired against them.

“We must gather them,” he said as he waded into the ice cold water.

The festival was ensnared in its own eddy. The rice wine ran thin, and there were barely enough dumplings to go around. People returned to their homes early, leaving a scant crowd. The communion with the symbols had been extinguished. How could there be a festival without a moon?

Children begged for more food, their guardians nowhere to be seen. Despite this, they wore smiles, and one even offered him a rice cake. Something snapped deep inside of him. Had he forgotten entirely why he had become in a monk in the first place? The past few years had been a blur, his mind focused on daily tasks.

No more.

He ran back to his mat and pulled out the sheets of paper with his notes.

A theory brewed in his mind: the monks were part of a grand machine—he was sure of it now that he had seen the grammar of the process. But what if no one ever got to HALT? What if Tian itself was swirling in a whirlpool of repetitions? There would be no way to break out. Not if each monk followed the divine instructions.

The next day, he woke early to observe the early shift, perching behind a monk in the outer ring of the hall. From here, Yuan was only an indistinct orange smudge in the distance. As he suspected, this monk was conducting the symbols in a repeated pattern. He knelt down and whispered, “Do you not see you are conducting the same symbols over and over?” It was obvious this was the young monk’s first days in the hall, as he did not shift his gaze to meet him. Sweat beaded on his brow. “I am busy conducting,” the monk’s voice wavered.

Quuz pushed the monk aside and took up the conduction without missing a beat.

“What is the meaning of this?”

“I am relieving you,” Quuz said.

This was why the moon was missing. Perhaps it had stopped rotating around the Earth. Or perhaps it had truly disappeared—was that even possible?

He could respond with a symbol not dictated by the book. That would break the loop. In the distance, Yuan was on his feet, pointing in his direction.

The symbol directed him to move the scroll one slot down. Instead, he erased the symbol using the clear alcohol solution and wrote a new one in its place. Maybe he could send Tian a message. What could they do to correct themselves?

A tingle traced his fingers up to his arm, then curving down into his abdomen. A minor trickle. Then in an instant: a path of scorching pain. He had an intense urge to vomit. In the past, he had accidentally misconducted the scroll, as every imperfect being has, but never on purpose. Should he stop? The pain continued to pulse under his ribs. Yuan was coming down the aisle now, but he didn’t care.

When he had written the last symbol, he heard something pop. The pain lessened. But everyone around him stopped conducting and put their hands on their mouths.

He looked down—

—a bloody thread lashed out of his belly like a wild worm. His head spun. The world spun. In that haze, he caught sight of the thread again. They contained symbols. His own symbols. He gritted his teeth.

His head cratered onto the table. He felt hands at his sides before the darkness took him.

In the infirmary, he ran his fingers across the tight bandages wrapping his belly. His mother sat next to his cot. Two elderly monks slept in adjacent cots, their bodies furled underneath robes.

“Be still. It will tear your injury,” his mother said. “I thought I had lost my son. You were ashen when they brought you here. ” She wiped a tear from her eye. “After losing your father, you are my most important reminder of Tian. I would have lost myself if you…”

But she couldn’t bring herself to say it.

“How long have I laid here?”

“Three days. I prayed to Tian as the doctor furled the scroll back inside. You should not have disobeyed the instructions.”

“I had to try to stop it.”

She peered out at the moonless night sky. “I may not know much about the symbols. But I know there is a cycle to life on Earth. There had been famines. But they will pass. That is the promise of Tian.”

“Then why has the moon vanished?”

“We do not question Tian’s motives.”

“Like when they killed father? That the lands can scarcely grow fruits or vegetables? These are the will of a mad man.”

There was a long silence, only broken by the wheeze of the elderly monks.

“Tian can never make a mistake,” his mother said.

“How do you know that?”

“I know it,” she said in a hoarse voice. “The reason your father was sick was because your father didn’t trust Tian.”

That was first time she had blamed father directly. “And yet, our farm flourished,” he said.

“And it was burned.”

“And we should allow the world to burn?”

She stroked his forehead. She didn’t have an answer.

Quuz debated whether he should forget the symbols he saw. The rule was seared into him: no one should ever know their own sequence of symbols. Doing so leads to self-destruction. There were stories of monks who have attempted and died in agony, their minds spinning circles.

Yet, he was still alive. Perhaps it was a lie to prevent humans from knowing the will of Tian. Or far worse: that Tian did not know what it was doing—that it was nothing but a mindless machine.

The thought made him shudder.

It took another week for him to gather the strength to leave the infirmary. A dull pulsing sensation stayed with him, as if his zidong had been injured.

Yuan banned him from the Hall of Enumeration. So, he spent the mornings gathering offerings from the village, which had become measly. The moon still had not made an appearance.

One morning after returning with dishes empty of offerings from the village, Quuz spotted the drunken villager leaning against the temple ground walls.

“This is the end. Do you feel the cold winds?” The villager turned his gaze toward him. “Tian has gone mad. If you don’t believe me, then heed my warnings. The winds will increase and become even colder. The lands will be stripped of everything. There will only be dead frost.”

He had tried to break the loop once and failed. Did he have enough strength to try again?

The day the sun vanished was the day four other monks were sent to the infirmary for misconducting the scroll.

When Quuz had visited them, they were frightened.

“The world has been plunged into darkness,” one said. “I saw what you did, and I had to try the same, too.”

“Only four symbols,” another monk said. “All repeating. I’m going mad.”

Yuan didn’t realize the dire state of the world. It was dark outside at noon, and yet, the presiding monk was still beating that drum as if nothing were wrong. He had to do something. There was no turning back now.

He walked up the steps to the Hall of Enumeration. That’s when he heard the screams. A knot of monks were writing on the cobbled ground. Bits of scrolls spilled out of their robes. Through their shrill wails, he heard: loop, misconduct, stop, halt.

He knelt down. “Be calm, brother. What has happened inside?”

“We… are close… to halting,” the ragged voice replied.

The grand door creaked open. Yuan walked out.

Quuz said, “Venerable Yuan, we must stop—”

There was a flicker of a shadow, and then pain ripped through his jaw. Yuan’s staff pinned his neck to the ground. “This is the will of Tian,” Yuan said. The presiding monk’s eyes were wide, as if possessed.

Quuz grasped the staff’s end. “What if… it doesn’t have a will?”

Another hard slap across the face, leaving a taste of blood in his mouth. “We will find the answer,” Yuan said. “Even if it means we lose a few brothers.”

The wails from the monks around him had subsided. He felt Yuan pushing the staff into a vital pressure point on his neck. He couldn’t move. A numbness overcame his limbs. He saw a flash of his father lying in the hut the day the thieves came. Knowing his father, he would have been calm, knowing that his time had come. But Quuz wasn’t like that—his mind was in chaos.

Something knocked the staff away, sending it clattering down the stone steps. Then his mother was towering over Yuan with her own staff.

“Go,” she said.


“This world has gone mad. Maybe Tian has really gone mad, too. Whatever it is, you must find out the truth.”

Quuz went into the hall. A few solitary monks were scattered across the tables. He sat down at table zero—the one directly facing Yuan’s seat. This time, the loop was even shorter. Only two moves. Up one symbol. That symbol told him to move down one. Then repeat. Again and again.

He could try forming a message like last time, but the thought sent a spasm of pain through his zidong. Then it occurred to him: what if he used a sequence of symbols from another scroll? One that was self consistent.

He erased each symbol one at a time until the entire scroll was blank. He wrote his own sequence, his hands stroking the curves of each symbol with great care. He tugged at the scroll until his first symbol was at the bottom and started conducting. Symbols flowed. The sequence of moves and shifts felt oddly familiar.

A warmth spread through his body.

The whole room felt as if it had tipped onto its side. He didn’t know if it was his own senses, or if it were truly happening. He was here in the hall, but also in another space. One that was higher.

The temple receded into the distance, becoming a dot on a distant mountain.

He came alive. He was standing in a void of white. From here, he could see the entire world, every surface, as if his eyes were embedded in all matter.

His hand and entire body had become amber. He felt his head—a perfect sphere. And yet, without features, he could see, hear, taste, smell, and experience everything on Earth.

In front of him was a single scroll, shimmering with convoluted patterns in gold. Time was different here, fluttering like a hummingbird.

Millions of gossamer threads entered his body, converging in his belly. He started conducting the scroll. It contained the same loop as he had seen in the temple on Earth.

They had been wrong.

The divine scrolls did not directly conduct the parts of heaven. They were not connected to the moon. They did not sprawl directly into each and every star. Instead, they entered into this amber being: the Tian embodied—

—and by writing his own symbols, he had embodied it. Just as that toy deer embodied the tiger when its scroll was swapped. After all, the sequence of symbols was what constituted every being.

He had ascended into Tian. And it was no different from those monks working below—it followed the same divine book to conduct its own scroll. In the distance, he saw that this golden scroll wrapped around the Earth. Tian entered into this loop—a repetition that could not be predicted—a stasis that froze Tian and Earth.

He saw his father sitting next to him, his slender hand dipping his brush into ink. “Do not let them control you,” his father said.

Of course: there was no final answer. How could the meaning of the whole universe be conveyed in a few thousand symbols? Or even a million? Or a trillion? He was a fool to ever believe that.

Would every cycle produce his mother? His father? Him? Would it produce jealousy and thieves that would burn their farm? Would the next cycle be cursed with an endless loop like this one?

The only way to know was to experiment—to let the universe evolve and live an infinity of lives. He erased a single symbol and wrote a new one of his choosing—not one preordained by any book.

Then he wound the scroll backwards to the beginning and tugged, setting Tian and Earth into motion.

James Yu is a speculative fiction writer living in San Francisco, where he spends his days wondering if the universe really is a giant sentient Turing machine. He formerly lived and breathed computers, building everything from CPUs to VR worlds. | @jamesjyu



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