A young gentleman of the British Empire should not be forever complaining about trifles. But I must admit that a couple of months after our return from Starcross I was feeling thoroughly glum. My sister Myrtle, always decorous, genteel and thoroughly annoying, had been inspired with the goal of becoming an alchemist and almost from the moment we entered the house (pausing only to clasp her hands to her breast and exclaim, "Oh Larklight! Our dear old home! I had wondered if I would ever see your precious doors again!") she had been cloistered with Mother in our boiler room attempting to learn the secrets of the chemical wedding.
I know little of what they did there, for the door was firmly closed and pressing myself to the flared exhaust pipes in the safety ducting and attempting to peer through the cobwebs down to where they worked led only to Myrtle explaining that the mysteries of the universe were not to be known by the ignorant. I, of course, had to ask why, in that case, she thought she could learn them and the whole conversation degenerated from there. But soon thereafter, she and mother were resuming their studies and Father was immersed in the proof edits for his latest book on the rarest species of Aetheric Ichthyomorphs, leaving me with nothing to do beyond memorising Latin verbs and waiting impatiently for the delivery of the latest edition of Boy's Own Adventure Stories, not due until next month's mailboat.
I tell you all this to explain my unusual excitement at the news that mother's old friend Mrs Araminta Philpott had invited us to join her at a grand gala ball in the Taxlin Hills of Mars held in aid of charity and in the honour of no less a personage than the Princess Victoria Adelaide. On receiving the invitation, Father looked vague and said that he couldn't possibly leave his book at this stage and Mother herself was unsure, reminding us how nearly she and Father had been Torn Cruelly Apart Forever the last two times they had travelled separately, but Myrtle was in transports at the thought of her first grown-up ball so in the end it was resolved that she and I would travel to Mars together, accompanied by Mrs Philpott.
Although Mrs Philpott turned out to be a very silly kind of woman (as she had known Mother as simple Miss Amelia Smith of Ely rather than as a 4000 billion-year-old being responsible for the creation of the solar system, it would be unreasonable to expect her to be in any way Mother's equal), I thoroughly enjoyed our space voyage, spending large parts of the journey with the aethernauts in the ship's engine rooms. When we arrived on Mars, Myrtle initially tried to lord it over me, reminiscing about the beauty she had seen on her last visit. But as I pointed out, being kidnapped by an insane megalomaniac robot and then rescued by a daring explorer, while very thrilling, did not make her an expert on all the Martian tourist sites. (And in any case, while she was being kidnapped, I was exploring Jupiter and battling the First Ones within the rings of Saturn, so I win in the excitement stakes anyway. Yah boo!)
We had two days before the ball to marvel at the King George Plains, their rust red dust fading to purple mountains, (the home of the dread Azorians), before being driven to Raxenhyrst House in a very ingenious contraption, pulled by one of the huge Martian Maggot-worms which you may recall from Myrtle's earlier adventures. So all things considered, I was pretty pleased with the trip and attendance at the ball seemed a small price to pay for my escape from Latin homework.
The house itself was an impressive stately home in the grandest English style, the home of Sir Alexander Spigot, the great industrialist, whose manufactories on Deimos and Phobos, the moons of Mars, were second in size only to those of Sir Waverley Rain. Mrs Philpott entered the reception rooms in all splendour, like an aether-ship with full space-wings unfurled, with Myrtle and me following behind her in our best clothes, Myrtle pretending that she was not peering curiously at all the grand ladies and gentlemen, while I merely tried not to fall over her crinoline.
Mrs Philpott greeted our hostess by first name, ("My dear Wilhelmina! So lovely to see you!") and they exchanged compliments, (What a fantastic necklace!" "Why thank you Araminta! This is the Pearl of Deimos, a gift from my dear husband"), social pleasantries ("Sir Alexander is not with you tonight?" "No, indeed, he was called away by the pressures of work") and comments on the degeneracy of modern society ("... I will have no gentlemen smoking within Raxenhyrst; the next thing you know they would want to smoke in the presence of ladies!")
I'm sure you do not need to read their full conversation, but rest assured it went on at great length before Lady Spigot deigned to notice me and Myrtle.
"And these are your charming young friends," she said. "I have arranged for all the dear children to have their very own dance, with her Royal Highness as guest of honour. Do go through to the Blue Ballroom, children."
Myrtle stiffened in indignation -- so much for her first grown-up ball -- and I admit that I did not much enjoy being told to run along myself. The difference was that I had not expected to enjoy the ball very much and whatever Myrtle may sometimes imply, I do know how to behave myself without creating a scene. So I tugged her by the wrist in the direction Lady Spigot indicated.
"At least you will meet the Princess," I whispered. Myrtle pulled her arm angrily away from me, but followed me nonetheless and was soon being introduced to a dancing partner quite half a head shorter than her.
The Princess Royal was a very serious looking girl, a couple of years younger than me and surrounded by stern looking ladies in waiting, but most of the guests in this room were aged between perhaps ten and sixteen years old and in other circumstances I might well have enjoyed meeting them. These were not normal circumstances though; my education to date has not included dancing and I had no urge to learn in public. A terrifyingly enthusiastic chaperone was making her way towards me, pulling a spotty, red-haired girl in her wake, and I decided it was time to make myself scarce.
I backed hastily through an archway and nearly collided with a six armed Pogglite carrying a tray of drinks.
"Apologies," I murmured and ducked around the side of the room and into a smaller salon, safely away from the spectre of dancing.
For a while I wandered aimlessly through grand rooms, with vaulted ceilings, ornately painted friezes and elegant windows looking out across landscaped gardens to the snow-capped Martian mountains and reddish sky. Outside the windows, several gentlemen huddled together against the cold evening air, smoking the cigars that Lady Spigot had banned from the house. It was a vast building and if it had been left to me, while knowing myself to be a gentleman explorer and therefore above childish games, I would have said that we could have entertained the young princess far better with a jolly game of hide and seek than with dancing.
In time I grew weary of eavesdropping on adult conversation and slipped through a door half concealed behind a display of ferns into what seemed like another world. This was a corridor within the servants' quarters and it was filled with every kind of bustling activity imaginable, all to maintain the effortless facade of the party outside. While the servants who mingled with the guests were from every species of alien imaginable, the servants behind the scenes were all automatons, though of far superior model to our servants at home. They were chopping and preparing canapes, pouring drinks and moving huge trolleys from one place to another. I pressed myself tightly to the corridor wall to avoid one such trolley, laden three times my height with used glasses, and with a mechanical servitor powering it by means of a pump handle on the back; it resembled nothing so much as the railway hand-car on which I had tried to escape the Moobs at Starcross. But when three Ionians came towards it, calling for more wine, I decided that discretion was the better part of valour and crept away.
Around one corner, auto-servants were laying out fairy cakes on a display (I did not creep closer to steal one); around another I found a small Callistan half asleep against the wall, obviously feeling he had deserved a rest. And then, disappearing around the corner ahead of me, I caught a glimpse of a tall lizardlike creature with a blue, spiny head; a creature that I surely knew.
I hurried after the figure, who was wearing a maid's uniform but not participating in the general bustle, and at last came to a concealed gallery where a ragtail group of creatures were looking out over one of the ballrooms. For the tall blue lizard was, of course, Ssilissa and the oversized crab was my friend, Nipper. There was Grindle and Mr Munkulus and the Tentacle Twins. But where was their captain, and who was the strange squid like creature with green trailing tentacles at the front of the balcony?
I was being as quiet as I could (having been practising Stealth and Secrecy at Larklight in between doing my homework), but they must have heard my feet on the stone floor as they all turned to look at me, including the stranger. He had a bald green head and a long green nose, but behind such alien features was a dark human face and he spoke with the voice of one of my dearest friends in the world when he exclaimed, "Art! What a stroke of luck to meet you here!"
I had seen Captain Jack Havock in his role as a bloodthirsty pirate, I had seen him covered head to foot in giant spider entrails and I had even seen him masquerading as an incognito Indian prince, but I had never seen him in disguise as a green alien, species unknown.
"What on earth are you doing here?" I demanded. (Of course, properly speaking we were on Mars, and not Earth at all, but you cannot expect perfect accuracy in moments of great surprise.)
Jack grinned behind his strange green mask. "Well if you must know," he said, "we are here to steal the Pearl of Deimos. Come on, you'll be a great help. Follow me!" and he dashed across the balcony and through another door, leaving me to be swept along with his crew in his wake.
I barely had opportunity to catch my breath as I ran after Jack through a veritable maze of passageways.
"Jack..." I panted, "Jack! Stop and wait a minute. Listen to me!" For I could not possibly be a party to such a heinous theft.
"We're running short of time," Jack complained, but nevertheless he stopped and leant against a wall.
"I know you don't love the Empire for its own sake," I said, "but I can't steal from a knight of the realm," I said. "And Jack, you surely can't either. What can have brought you to this pass?"
The last time I had seen Jack, he was a full member of Her Majesty's Secret Service and although his mentor and immediate supervisor, Sir Richard Burton had lately been turned into a tree (which must surely have taken an emotional toll), I found it hard to believe that the Secret Service would be so foolish as to dispense with the services of such an ingenious spy.
"What?" Jack asked, in surprise. "No, we still work for the Secret Service. I report to Captain Moonfield now and he's been very decent, all things considered." This was a generous tribute indeed to that spacefaring gentleman, given that the first time he met Jack he had been threatening to blow the Sophronia from the skies. "And I can assure you that if we were going to return to piracy, we would choose a somewhat easier target. If you did steal the Pearl for personal profit, I don't know where you'd ever find a fence to dispose of it. But that won't be an issue, for that remarkably beautiful piece of jewellery around Lady Spigot's neck isn't a real pearl at all, but a deadly weapon."
Jack continued to explain as we moved further through the mansion. Sir Alexander's manufactories on Deimos were not innocent parts of the great British industrial landscape, but concealed a Dastardly Plot whose purposes were yet unknown. Sir Alexander kept his Martian workforce on near starvation rations and enforced such long hours that they should have had no leisure for independent thought. But one young foreman, Ulwin by name, had become suspicious nonetheless and had broken into the most top-secret development laboratory with two of his closest friends at the dead of night. What they found had alarmed them so much that, at great personal risk, Ulwin had made his way off Deimos and to the Governor's garrison at Port-of-Mars.
Just two nights ago, Captain Moonfield had raided the Spigot manufactories with two of her Majesty's best aetherships (huzzah for the Royal Navy!), under conditions of absolute secrecy and had taken control into government hands. Ulwin's friends had managed to destroy the secret laboratory, but the scientists working there confessed that their stated aim of designing a smokeless tea kettle was nothing but a front and in fact they had been developing a deadly poison. This poison was fiendishly expensive and difficult to make and it took a solid gleaming form until activated by cigar smoke at which point it would kill anyone within a 200 yard radius. And their first deadly creation had already been sent off site.
"Cigars!" I exclaimed. "Sir Alexander knows that his wife will not endure smoking and that is why he dared to give her the poison as a piece of jewellery."
"Exactly," said Jack. "And although we've been able to shut down his factories, we still don't know why he should go to such trouble to create it. If it were for some innocent reason -- say a new type of rat poison -- then why the secrecy? We need to get it back before he learns that he has been discovered; with the Pearl and a single cigar you could hold every guest at this party hostage. And that's why we have been sent here in secret"
"Yes, well," I said, "that still doesn't explain why you look like a monster from the swamps of Ganymede." And I tweaked his long fake nose.
Jack pulled a disgruntled face. "I'm in disguise," he said, "because every servant here is a nonhuman of one kind or another. Sir Alexander thinks that by bringing different aliens together to wait on his guests he demonstrates the ascendancy and superiority of the human condition or some such rot."
I nodded slowly. I had noticed the strange diversity of the servants and although one might expect to find more Martians than humans among the workforce on Mars, it was odd to have waiters from the most remote moons of Jupiter, but no human servants at all. If was a demonstration of such unpleasant political beliefs it would also tie in with his abuse of his Martian workforce. "But why don't you simply mingle with the guests..." I began, but trailed off in realisation.
Jack had previously managed very well to pull off the Indian prince act, but an event of this kind would have a known guest list and Jack's dark features, inherited from his freed slave mother, would not pass unnoticed in a gathering of the British upper classes.
"I'm sorry," I said softly. Jack had already suffered greatly because of such prejudice and nothing I could say would make things any better.
"Yes, well, "he said. "It can't be helped now. But I daren't get too close to anyone in case they see that my tentacles are really India-rubber. Ssil and Mr Grindle have been doing a great job of slipping out with drinks trays and canapes, but they have to keep moving or someone gives them jobs to do. I've been at a complete loss as to how to get near the Pearl. But if you're here as a guest then that's perfect."
Soon, we were all huddling under a staircase, just a few yards away from another entrance to the public rooms and arguing about our best way forward. I was quite excited to be involved in espionage and derring-do once again, but thought that stealing a necklace from around the very neck of our hostess was a crazy thing to do. Jack conceded the point, but was afraid of what could happen if we let it out of our sight and Nipper and Mr Munkulus were keen to manage the job without actual physical violence.
Finally we compromised; we would follow Lady Spigot to her rooms at the end of the ball and steal the Pearl from her jewel case if possible, or at least snatch it when there were fewer people around. However in the meantime, I would return to the ball and keep her under close observation.
The problem with this plan was that our hostess was presiding over the Blue Ballroom, the Pearl of Deimos gleaming on her breast like a malignant eye, and watching the Princess Royal and her younger guests perform a quadrille.
I gulped, steeled myself as if entering battle and walked onto the dancefloor.
Half an hour later, I had trodden on no fewer than seven young ladies' feet, stumbled backwards into the onlookers knocking over a bug eyed lady in waiting and accidentally torn my partner's dress when I was reaching for her hand, forcing her to dash to the retiring rooms to carry out emergency repairs.
I had prudently kept myself on the opposite side of the ballroom to Myrtle who was dancing with a very gangly young man. She seemed torn between glaring at me ominously and mouthing death threats while her partner's back was turned and resuming a very ladylike deportment and pretending not to know me at all when the dance bought them back together again.
You can imagine my relief (to say nothing of the relief of the poor girl dancing with me) when Lady Spigot clapped her hands and moved forward into the centre of the room.
"Your very Royal Highness," she began, "my lords, ladies and gentlemen, can I begin by saying how pleased I am to see you here in our delightful home on the plains of Mars and how wonderful I think it is that you should support our very worthy cause. If my dear husband were here with me today, I know he would join me in this welcome. As you are aware, it has now been many decades since the British Empire brought all the benefits of civilisation and enlightenment to this backward planet..."
But there is no need for me to record her speech in its entirety, for she continued in this vein for far too many minutes. (And I have to confess that I fairly soon zoned out, focusing my eyes on the reddish light from the windows and daydreaming about my future adventures as an Intrepid Explorer when my acts of bravery would definitely not involve dancing.)
I was roused from my reverie by a polite smattering of applause, which I strongly hoped meant that her ladyship's speech was coming to an end. "... it only remains," she was saying, "for me to thank you once again, your Royal Highness for gracing us with your presence and to ask that you will accept this token of my and my husband's regard for you." And she reached behind her neck to unclasp the necklace containing the Pearl and hold it out to the Princess.
My mind raced, the true horror of Sir Alexander's plan becoming clear to me. Himself safely absent, he had instructed his silly wife to give the deadly weapon to the Princess Royal. She of course, being both a lady and a child would not normally be exposed to cigar smoke and her jewellery would likely be locked in a secure case for the journey back to England. But then the Royal family would gather together, it would be only natural to admire such a handsome gift, Prince Albert would no doubt relax smoking a cigar. And our entire Royal family, our blessed Queen and all her heirs would be assassinated in one fell swoop.
I opened my mouth to protest, before I realised how little attention the gathered great and good were likely to pay one boy. And although Sir Alexander was not present (the dastardly coward), who was to say he did not have villainous henchmen among the gathered crowd? It would take just one man, careless of his own life, to light a cigar and he would poison every living soul in the ballroom; our Queen would be saved, but at the expense of her daughter's life and the lives of every one of us present, surely too heavy a price to pay.
All this flashed into my mind in a split second and I leapt forward from my place in the crowd, catching the Pearl in my hand and running for the door.
Several people screamed, (including my sister's gangly dancing partner -- hah!) and I'm sure I heard Myrtle moan, but I had caught my stride and was nearly away until I barrelled into the bug-eyed lady in waiting. She seemed far more intimidating than she had before, rising up to an impressive height and spreading powerful arms to bar my way.
I thought myself trapped, but then I caught sight of a blue face behind her.
"Excuse me, my lady," said Ssilissa, tapping her on the shoulder. Then she reached past the lady while her attention was distracted, grabbed me by the wrist and dragged me away. In a moment, we had left all the pandemonium behind and were back within the maze of servants' passages.
"Run!" cried Jack, hurrying up to us, and not before time, for both the alien and auto-servants had been alerted and were now pounding down the corridor towards us, fortunately tangling each other up or we would never have got away.
No need to give the details of that wild chase, eight of us running for our lives, dodging between outstretched mechanical arms or ducking away from every species of footman (who had no doubt not been recruited for their skills in pursuing thieves and it was really not fair to expect them to capture such a desperate crew of adventurers as ourselves).
We lost Grindle somewhere along the way, ("Don't worry," said Jack, "he wasn't identified, he'll meet us back at the Sophronia,") and the Tentacle Twins broke away from us to create a diversion. So we had reached the kitchens and were nearly safe out of the house, when we were cornered by a troupe of quite a different kind of servant.
These were still automatons, but seemed to have been designed for battle rather than service. Their torsos gleamed with armour plating and the floor shook at the tramp of their feet. They herded us away from the doors, until Jack gasped. We were backing towards one of the industrial strength drinks trolleys. Jack indicated his plan to us with no more than a tilt of his head, we all flung ourselves onto the trolley's tiers, knocking a dozen glasses of claret to the floor. Mr Munkulus worked the pump handle at the back and we ploughed forward, straight through the ranks of the automated soldiers, straight through the kitchen doors, which we left splintered in our wake and down the kitchen garden path, gathering speed all the way.
"Ssilissa!" I cried, for one of the automated warriors had caught her by the arm and it hung broken, at an awkward angle away from her body.
"I'll be okay," she said bravely, "just get us back to the ship."
Our only other casualty was Jack's ridiculous India-rubber costume. Had those tentacles been a vital part of his internal system then he would have been gravely injured indeed. But instead the automaton was left clutching at worthless greenery, while Jack screamed defiance.
"Steer right," he called. "It will bring us round the front of the gardens. The Sophronia is moored out of sight, in the ornamental wood."
(This is not unusual at high society balls; three-quarters of the guests had brought their own transport and of course you could not set up an impromptu shipyard where your guests might be forced to look at it during their party.)
We were just hitting the lawns, when a terrible thought occurred to me. "No!" I shouted, "Go left!" and Jack's eyes met mine in realisation. Despite the disturbance many of the gentlemen of the party were still smoking outside the on the terrace, the terrace which we would have to pass in order to reach Jack's ship. And I still clasped the Pearl of Deimos in my fist. Close to cigar smoke it would release its deadly poison; we could not take the risk. We would simply have to escape Raxenhyrst's grounds in any direction we could.
Mr Munkulus pulled hard on the handle, our trolley screeched and nearly tottered over and Jack and I laughed with adrenaline and exhilaration. We were cut off from our friends and our ship, but we were battling the odds together and I hadn't felt so alive since the last time we faced probable death.
We ploughed back through the kitchen garden, through a field of ornamental sheep and another of ornamental Callistan snails until we crested a small hill, trundled down it at ever-increasing speed and came to a small bridge across one of the typical Martian lava flows. We made all speed across it, for the sound of pursuit was behind us again, and the trolley began to shake on the more uneven ground.
"Stop!" shouted Nipper for he had seen what was now apparent to us all: there was no way ahead except into further lava fields. We were trapped on an island, with our pursuers closing in.
Mr Munkulus threw on the brake, but it was too much for what had, after all, been designed as a drinks trolley. It shuddered and overbalanced, one wheel falling off, as we all flung ourselves clear. It was hard to say this left us any worse off, for things had already seemed bleak, but with the destruction of our only transport any hope of evading capture seemed gone. Sillissa was growing ever paler, her arm hanging useless at her side, and even had we managed to make it to the Sophronia she could surely never handle the dials and levers necessary to perform the chemical wedding and to take us into the Alchemical Realm.
The thud of armoured feet was like thunder as the Spigots' security force appeared at the top of the hill. Lady Spigot herself was with them now and her furious shouts carried to us on the faint Martian breeze. "Catch them! Catch them and kill them all!" (Surely bloodthirsty sentiments for a delicate lady, no matter how many hoodlums had gate-crashed her ball and stolen her jewellery!)
She herself stopped at the top of the hill, letting the automatons go on ahead of her. But as their leader passed her she gestured imperiously to stop him, handing him a small ominous cylindrical item. And the awful truth dawned; her girlish silliness had all been a front, she was no innocent dupe, but a full player in her husband's perfidy. She would keep herself safely out of the range of the poison and rely on her mechanical servants, who had no need to breathe air, to kill us all.
We huddled closer together, surely a pitiful sight, although even if I say it myself you would be hard pressed to find a braver band of comrades. Lady Spigot did not know that her husband's manufactory had been closed down and that even as she used the Pearl to kill us, she would be exhausting her last stock of poison and foiling all her further plans. Yet even such consolation was not comforting as I thought of Jack's brave face slack in death, Ssil never discovering her own origins, my dear friends Nipper and Mr Munkulus gone, and I would be dead with them all.
We watched the small point of light in the lit cigar move inexorably closer and waited for death when the sound of powerful engines burst from overhead. It was the Sophronia! With Grindle at the helm, the Tentacle Twins waving anxiously and Myrtle, of all people, clamouring for us to scramble up rope ladders to safety.
And after that, all ended well. Ssilissa hurried Myrtle into the wedding chamber, giving her instructions about chemicals and compounds, dials and settings and my sister whisked us safely on to Sir Isaac Newton's golden roads and through the aether to where Captain Moorfield's ship, the HMS Indefatigable was waiting. So her ridiculous alchemy lessons were of some benefit after all and she is never going to let me forget it.
Then she came to join us in the main cabin, cooing distractedly over Ssil's injuries, but breaking off to explain how she had found Grindle creeping around a hallway and then they met the twins on their way back to the temporary shipyard and even before they were able to explain things to her she had realised that we might still be in need of rescue.
("For," she said, "I knew that even Art would not behave so abominably in polite company without a very pressing reason." This, you may imagine, left me torn between indignation at the phrase "even Art" and relief that my sister had a measure of faith in me; her alchemy lessons had saved all our lives after all.)
We handed the Pearl over to Captain Moonfield who had it destroyed before our eyes in Sir Alexander's commandeered lab. I hope he did not get into trouble with his own superiors for doing so, but as he said, it was far too dangerous an artifact to carry to Earth. He congratulated Jack mightily, complimenting me and Myrtle as well and promising that we should know how the investigations turned out and that the Princess Royal should be informed that by disrupting her party I had in fact saved her life. Then he took his fleet warships to lead simultaneous raids on Raxenhyrst House and the port city of Elladon in which both Sir Alexander and Lady Spigot were arrested, together with a handful of accomplices.
It eventually transpired that Sir Alexander had not known of the plot at all, but that his development laboratory and his top scientists had all been suborned by his wife. She was from the same Saxon Duchies that are home to our own Prince Albert, but unlike the noble Prince she was part of a revolutionary conspiracy to assassinate their hereditary rulers and establish a German Republic along the lines attempted last century by the failed rebels in Her Majesty's North American colonies . The conspirators had decided that the elimination of the British Royal family was a necessary first step, lest the ties of Royal blood and marriage bought the entire power of the British Empire to bear on the dastardly German Republicans. I did not know whether to feel more pride at belonging to a nation so well respected and feared, or indignation that our entire ruling family might be assassinated to stage a coup in another country altogether.
Lady Spigot was imprisoned and although Sir Alexander was ultimately cleared of all involvement, the combined humiliation of his arrest and the revulsion of the general public at the crimes of his wife (reported in great detail in The London Evening Post, 3d daily, available in all cities and spaceports of the Empire) led him to sell all his industrial interests at a great loss and retire to live the life of a recluse with three servants and a flock of 700 scrawny sheep in a remote part of the Yorkshire moors. His Deimos manufactories were bought by a Quaker gentleman of Martian ancestry who revolutionised their operations on the enlightened lines championed by Lord Shaftesbury, so we can hope that the courage of Ulwin and his friends was rewarded by better conditions for themselves and their families, and that Sir Alexander was reduced to explaining his unpleasant views on human superiority to the sheep.
And in the meantime, the Sophronia took to the skies again towards Larklight. Myrtle settled herself in the wedding chamber, hovering protectively over Ssilissa, despite Ssil's assurances that she really was healing well. And I lay back in my hammock in the cabin, talking late into the night with Jack and my other friends, secure in the knowledge that the British Empire was once again deeply in our debt.
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