From the Back of Beyond

By Xasphie

TITLE: From the Back of Beyond

AUTHOR: Xasphie

E-MAIL: xasphie1@aol.com

CATEGORY: Gen, some angst

DISCLAIMERS: With this mortgage? Nope, don't own anything.

More's the shame. I would look after them, and share es. May

them. Sometime.

STATUS: Complete

SUMMARY: It all began with the mail call.

Author's Note: Arianna very kindly beta-ed this for me, and didn't mind when I tried different ideas and was useless at them. Thank you for helping me get it right!

 

 

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Ecuador

March 1, 1988

"Mail call!" The two simple words always had the same effect of heads springing up, attention disengaged from other tasks, food forgotten, games ignored, but weapons never dropped.

Corporal Danbury loved this part of his job, handing over communications from home. He didn’t like the part where he had to segregate the late items that belonged to already-departed teams – or worse still, the occasional letter or package that could never reach its intended. Those 'training accidents' had a lot to answer for, when it came to superiors writing the dreaded final communiqué to soon-to-be grieving parents or spouses. He shuffled his feet as he waited for the onslaught of crowding men, keeping his head down and monitoring the thick bundle of battered envelopes that he was ready to deliver.

"Okay, okay," he allowed, certain he had everyone’s attention - the scraping of chairs had ceased, the clamor of chatter gone. He grinned at the four eager men surrounding him, knowing he had letters for each of them. It always made him curious that the Captain never came forward for mail; didn’t he hold out any hope for something from home?

"C’mon, Randy," a strapping, young corporal harangued the mail-bearer. "Do I have to lynch you? You know I've got one from Kate in there." He all but snatched the pile from Danbury, and laughed when his eager hands were batted away.

"Patience, my friend," Danbury teased, holding the awaited envelope at a tantalizing distance. "Patience."

He conceded at the dagger glare he received: "Stewart, Corporal," the piece of mail was grabbed, and Stewart scuttled off like a mouse happy with its scavenged reward. "Lansdown, Sergeant." A further two envelopes found their owner. "Harkin, Lieutenant."

And so the call continued, Seventh and Ninth troop Army Rangers, delighting in their valued contact with home, so sporadic since arriving in western Ecuador three months before. Alpha troop were lucky, they had only been here for a day, and they were fresh in from Stateside.

"What you tell your girl?" First Lieutenant Carlin ventured, seating himself next to the stoic man nursing his coffee in the corner of the mess tent.

"My girl?" Captain Ellison didn't look up but took another sip of the jet-fuel substance.

"Yeah, you got a girl at home, right?" Carlin had worked with Ellison on the Colombia mission the previous year, and he had watched the love struck man penning warm missives to his then girlfriend, and had assumed that it must have reached the next level after all this time. "Paige, wasn't it?"

The Captain turned to look at his fellow Ranger, and noticed the recent scar on his neck. He'd heard about the close call with sniper fire last month, and knew that it was one of the perils of their chosen profession. That was why he didn't like to get emotionally close to any of his men, although it was imperative that he never ceased caring, or he could forget being a human. "Oh, her," he dismissed, knowing that his airy attitude wouldn't fool this man for long. "Didn't work out."

"Don't tell me, 'long-distance relationships are harder for those left behind'." Carlin had been there and done that. Twice. He nudged Ellison's arm and offered a friendly smile, telling him in the typical masculine way that it was okay.

"Yeah." Ellison returned the smile; glad he wasn't forced to discuss his feelings. It was hard enough watching the younger soldiers so full of excitement and amour, knowing that nothing remained for him back in Cascade. "What about you; how's Mary?"

Carlin extended his left hand, showing off his wedding band, and welcomed the pat on his back in congratulations. "Few months back, finally took the plunge." The overt happiness, betrayed his usual macho exterior and he preened with the memories. However, his face fell when he spoke again. "She wasn't too happy when I got the call to come down here, even though she knew what she was marrying into."

Ellison nodded in agreement, his own love life having become a victim to the stand-by life he led. His voice was quiet as he reminisced; "Paige always had these great plans, and got so upset when I got twenty-four or forty-eight hour calls." He drained the last of his coffee, and listened to the delighted whooping from the far corner. "I guess Roshine got some good news!" He hoped he didn't sound bitter, not knowing when he would finally receive some news of his own, from anywhere. At least he loved his job – sometimes it was small consolation, but he cared for his men. And they returned the same respect as well as camaraderie.

"You know he finally got his extra stripe?" Carlin had already noticed the promotion on one of Ellison's men. "Got bored with his whining!"

They shared a laugh, knowing that the Sergeant's promotion had been well earned. Each one of the men at Camp Durang excelled at his job. If he didn't he would never have passed the grueling Ranger training, or would have succumbed to the rigors of the job itself. "So what you guys down for?" A small crowd was gathering around Sergeant Roshine in the far corner as he imparted his overjoyed news.

"Supposed to be doing reconnaissance in the southern region." Carlin touched his nose in a mock covert gesture. "Classified, of course."

"Drug runners back then, huh?" Ellison stood and stretched, grateful that he had an iron stomach to counter the US Army's version of coffee. "Thought we'd already dealt with them." He glanced down at the First Lieutenant, and took in the serious expression. "But obviously not. How many teams?"

"Two, we're taking the 9th in with us. You?" Carlin removed a cigarette from the crumpled packet in his breast pocket.

"Zach's briefing us later, but I think we're shipping out to Peru." It wouldn't be his first excursion to that South American country, but he was getting kinda sick of the humidity, buzzing insects, anti-malaria medication and army-issue MREs. What he wouldn't give for a home-cooked meal. Ellison's stomach lurched as Paige's distraught face flashed into his mind. He had known she was struggling to deal with his frequent absences, but he hadn't been prepared for her confession. Was he such a poor catch that she had turned elsewhere for the more regular attention and presence? Damn, he missed her. Their relationship might be irretrievably over, but that didn't mean to say he didn't still love her. "Mark?"

"Yeah, Jim?"

Ellison hated to voice feelings outside of rage or disappointment, so in spite of schooling his expression, he continued to watch his excited Sergeant chattering away to his friends, rather than turning around.

"I'm very happy for you and Mary." His voice was tight. "And I hope it works out." He didn't wait for an answer, but virtually marched out of the tent.

He bumped into Danbury on the way to the officers' tent, and was so wrapped up in his own tormented memories of loss, that he nearly missed the Corporal's comment.

"What?" He spun around and stared at the clerk in confusion.

"I said, I got one here for you." The small white envelope was slightly ripped around the edges, and, unsurprisingly, had grown damp and lost its form in the humidity.

The captain held out his hand, and accepted the letter with some trepidation. Nobody knew he was here, beyond his attorney who was dealing with all home matters. The addressed side of the envelope was a mess of stamps and crossings-out, and it was a minor miracle that it had reached Ellison at all. Curiously, he turned it over to check for a return address, not familiar with the handwriting.

Mrs. S. Thornley.

Paige's mother.

"Captain Ellison?" He had nearly forgotten the Corporal was there.

"Uh, yes? Sorry." Jim could only stare at the sender's details, a cold tendril of dread twisting up inside of him and overpowering his mind.

"Major Cochran's waiting for you, sir." Danbury inched away from the suddenly silent officer, not certain about the change in demeanor. He was more familiar with an easier-going attitude, not this tight-lipped muted man. Mail call always made Ellison more taciturn, less approachable and not the same pleasant person he was on other days, but this wasn't something he had seen before. Danbury hitched his sleeve back up his arm, wiped the sweat from his forehead and continued to surreptitiously back away. Perhaps Mark Carlin could talk to Jim later and find out what was going on. Regardless, Danbury wanted to find out the news he could still hear Roshine babbling about in the mess tent.

Slowly, Ellison wandered towards the officers' tent, and to the awaiting Major Zach Cochran. Before knocking on the outer door, he waited for his quaking hands to behave themselves, and stuffed the unexpected and unnerving communication into his back pocket. He would open it later, on his own, and quite probably, in the privacy of the latrine. There weren't many places that afforded absolute solitude. Something in his heart told him that he didn't want to read what was within the envelope.

"Sir?" He ducked into the tent on command, snapping a smart salute to the seated Major, and standing at attention until instructed otherwise.

Cochran glowered at the sheet in his hand, the handset of the field-receiver tucked under his chin. He looked up at his friend. "Hey, Jim. Grab a seat." Zach completed his call and ran over the new mission plan with his Captain.

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His mission briefing complete, Ellison mechanically left Cochran's tent and summoned his men to gather their gear and be ready to ship out. His sole piece of mail burned in his back pocket and he was hard pushed not to snap out orders, in his haste to find some time alone.

It was indeed the latrine that he escaped to, his own tent being open access to all, and didn't afford the privacy he craved.

In the limited light available to him, Jim sat, turning the envelope over and over in his hands. There could only be one reason why Paige's mother would be writing to him, especially considering the relationship with her daughter had been well and truly over for more than half a year. Mrs. Thornley would not be trying to pair the two back together; it could only be heartbreaking news, and not the recoverable kind announcing an impending marriage.

Swallowing an intrusive lump in his throat, Jim ran his thumb along the edge of the seal, wondering if he could bear to leave the letter unopened. It was almost as if, if he didn't open it, then the news would never have happened.

By opening the envelope and reading the contents, it would confirm for him that, however it had happened, Paige was no longer alive. Did he really want to have to deal with that?

The tension Jim felt tore into the muscles of his back and shoulders, pulsing up into the back of his head, and making his hands shake. As a trained officer he should have far more control over his emotions and reactions, but his training dealt with the loss of soldiers during combat, or civilian casualties related to operations - not personal tragedies.

Outside the small wooden hut, a light rain began to fall - a steady drizzle that simply heightened the cloying humidity, and seeped into every pore, stifling and heavy. To Ellison it felt like it was pressing against his chest and lungs, and forcing all the oxygen out of him, constricting his breathing. The sweat began at his hairline and trickled steadily down his face, and down his spine, his shirt and pants becoming soaked.

In the corners of Ellison's memory stirred the evening some time ago, when he and Zach Cochran had put the world to rights. During the drunken admissions of alcohol, they had discussed their interest in how people had moved on, but how neither of them ever found either the time or the incentive to discover how those people had fared. It was an accepted part of their job that during their years of service, they came in close contact with hundreds of people, both civilians and soldiers, and yet, although they touched those lives, the links were usually severed on departure. For the sake of sanity, they often had to be. The grapevine would occasionally filter through stories of success or promotions, and, of course, the inevitable tragic updates on missions gone wrong.

Their slurred words had finally brought them to the conclusion, that it was easier to believe that the all the souls they had saved in oppressed villages, and all the army buddies they had ever worked with, were living their lives according to how they chose; that nothing wretched was happening to them and that eventually they would find the elusive 'happy ever after'.

Sometimes, he wished that it could be good news; that the widows and widowers of their profession found the strength and peace to move on with their lives, and their parentless children became confident, happy individuals. Just once it would be nice to hear something that positive.

But news of that ilk was rare, and in the past, unsettling discoveries had usually left the two men preferring to have retained their blissful ignorance.

Life was full of tragedy, and both Ellison and Cochran had witnessed more than their fair share. It was far more painless to imagine that some liberated Vietnamese village had remained out of the grips of the Viet-Con, or that the terrorized families they'd known in Colombia were finally being left alone by the guerillas. And it was far less heartbreaking to imagine ex-lovers enjoying their new lives with whichever partner they found the greatest happiness, than…

Jim turned the envelope over a final time as the sounds of the rain intensified. He held the damp item against his heart for a long moment, halting the impending tears in their tracks. With a sigh of grim acceptance, he took a deep breath and ripped open the seal, withdrawing the single sheet of paper.

Mrs. Thornley's tear-blotched script was brief, and relayed the circumstances of the fatal accident, with her traditional efficiency. The sweat in Jim's trembling palms bled into the paper, smearing some of the words nearer the edges. His worst suspicions had been confirmed, and he felt a devastating cleft in his soul at her departure from this world.

The incident had happened nearly a month ago, and the service already held. It was over.

Re-reading the letter, Jim bitterly reflected that, once again in his life, it hadn't been good news, and his old lover wasn't safe in the arms of someone new.

Yes, it would have been wonderful to discover something positive, to hear that Paige's future was bright, and that she had happily moved on - in the miasma of black, he found it was becoming increasingly difficult to push himself forwards. When seeking closure, it was so much easier to picture people living.

Jim stuffed the letter back into its envelope and into his shirt, just over the ache in his heart. But, hearing his men gathering outside, he sighed as he swiped away the tear that had trickled down his cheek and straightened - he had his duty to perform, and his grief could, had to, wait.

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Within two hours, 7th Troop had boarded their designated helicopter, which was now flying them out across the jungles of Peru. Their mission was simple, a potentially straightforward operation but requiring efficient marksmen, diplomatic skills and clear thinking. The opened envelope now sat in Ellison's single piece of hand luggage. He would be devastated later, but he couldn't afford to be so right now. Life had to move on. He had a mission to command, and didn't need bad news clogging up his thought processes. His men were relying on him to guide them.

"So, our mission is to liaise with the local tribes and organize a militia," he shouted over the whirring of helicopter blades. The six-man team sat three against three, the two pilots responsible for their journey already engaged in the carefully created flight plan.

"Our LZ is three clicks north of our designated zone." The map lay across his lap, the key areas highlighted with red pen. "We're going to need your knowledge of the natives and their customs," he nodded towards Roshine. He allowed a friendly smile at the eager young man. "So put away your baby photos, and start practicing Chopec rather than ga-ga speak!" The other men laughed and jostled the new father, as he pocketed the photographs of ten-minute old Holly Roshine, which had arrived with that morning's mail. "As if one Roshine wasn't enough…" Ellison patted his Sergeant's knee, glad that the nine-month wait was over safely. "You send off a phone message before we left? Good." He continued to smile as he turned towards the last-minute substitute of Mark Carlin.

"So much for insurgence in Spanish-speaking Colombia," Carlin winked. "Turns out my Quechua was needed elsewhere!"

"Glad to have you along," Ellison's sentiment was genuine. It was expected that their own anti-insurgence operation would be less dangerous than the one scheduled for Southern Colombia. The captain was relieved, as Roshine could return home at the end of this mission, and Carlin could return to his new wife. If all went to plan, they could establish perimeters and have the militia organized within the month. The relief team would take over as soon as they radio-ed back, and the six man team could take some well-deserved downtime.

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Twenty minutes short of the designated landing-zone, the team was laughing heartily at Carlin's tales of married life, and the disastrous honeymoon that had been cut short due to lousy planning and taking a sojourn to a small island during the typhoon season. In spite of the thunderous roar of the flight noise, Ellison could hear enough that his sides were aching from the hilarity. He had missed the crazy story-telling abilities of his friend, and was glad to be sharing another mission with him.

They were all well-acquainted with military sounds, and immediately readied their weapons when they heard the discharge of enemy fire aimed at their craft. However, in spite of their speed, in the same fraction of a moment they all heard the change in the thrust of the engines, the velocity of the rotating blades and the urgent cries into the helicopter radio.

The last sound the majority of the men heard was the repeated anglicized French word for 'help me': Mayday! Mayday!

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Cascade, Washington

1 October 1998

Aloysius Benjamin Atherley was the bane of every adult's existence, as well as many of his young peers. He had mastered the pomposity only gained by years of practice, and the waistline that usually took more than his ten years of solid eating, to establish. His teachers despaired of him, his dietician had long-since given up hope, and Detective James Ellison, Cascade PD, who had somehow annoyed Simon enough to be volunteered for school-tour duty, was ready to kill him. Trying to stop the obnoxious pre-teen from his constant litany of what was acceptable, right and permissible in terms of his rights had driven Ellison to distraction.

That morning, Jim had pleaded with everyone else on the 7th floor, and had even offered bribes, but all of them had found other desperately important tasks to do, and places to be. They, too, disliked the visits by hoards of school children, no matter what age. If they wanted to deal with arrogant, rude, mouthy brats who should know better, they would transfer to Vice.

He had even beseeched Sandburg and offered to let him off two months' worth of rent, service his car and type up all his own reports. But to no avail.

"Hey, man," Blair had returned, hastily backing out of the break room, and double-checking his watch under the pretense of needing to leave. "At least the kids I teach are generally potty-trained." With that, he'd fled.

Detective Ellison stood at the foot of the stairs, cleared his throat and attempted to get the attention of the distressingly loud bunch of reprobates.

"If I were you," Master Aloysius Atherley declared, spilling food from his never-ceasing jaws. "I would attempt something a trifle more effective than merely pretending you have control. After all, you are supposed to be in charge."

Jim's fist itched, and he had to remind himself yet again, that using his gun in a confined space was dangerous.

He chewed his lip to bite back the sarcastic rebuttals lining his throat, aware that it would be impolite; after all the noisy mini-adults here were their guests, and he needed to present an accessible and positive front for the Department.

"Our last visit will be to the Central Control Room, which is the nerve-center of…" He stopped and wondered how justifiably hellish he could make Sandburg's life for not helping him out of this mess. "EXCUSE ME!" He bellowed, sick of being ignored, and ready to lock them all in a darkened room and throw away the key. "If you don't shut the hell up, NOW, I will show you the cells from the INSIDE!"

There was a deathly silence from the stunned 5th Grade students as they quit their yap and obediently turned towards their leader for the afternoon.

"Actually, Detective Ellison," Aloysius intoned, breaking the quiet with his loud munching of his disgusting smelling chips. "As you are fully aware, and it is surely basic knowledge, earned during your many years on this planet, that that would be in breach of our human and civil rights, and I'm reasonably sure that if... mmmmffff mmmf, mmmff." Okay, so gagging a child was definitely in breach of various civil rights, but would the kids of today ever realize that adults have rights, too?

Jim kept his hand across Master Atherley's non-stop mouth; repulsed by his close proximity and wishing the day was over. The detective resumed his position on the stairs, Aloysius soundless apart from the muffled grunts behind Ellison's large hand, and Jim was delighted to receive the rapturous round of applause from the rest of the classmates.

"Way to go there, Detective," Simon approved, rounding a corner in the company of the supervising teachers. "I assume you're simply demonstrating some of our more insidious restraining techniques to our young visitors." He hoped that his word choice baffled enough of the listeners. "Of course, an officer would usually back up the gagging technique with an arm lock, but I'm sure…" He caught the furtive glances from the two returning teachers, and the grinning faces of the twenty-four other children. "But I'm sure everyone's aware that it's better to handcuff the suspect at this point, instead."

If he hadn't had his hands full, Jim could quite happily have kissed his Captain. He had full blessing for his next move, as he reached his left hand behind his back, grabbed the cuffs from his back pocket, and with a flick of his wrist had the irritating ten-year-old annoyance handcuffed.

The ensuing round of applause was even louder.

No longer gagged, Aloysius started another loud rendition of his rights, stating how he would be getting his father to sue each of them, and noisily demanding immediate release.

Jim couldn't resist patting his pockets in mock horror, and pretending that he didn't know where he had misplaced the key. The teachers – not being allowed to condone such actions – simply ushered their charges in the direction of the Control Room, to see the final area of their visit.

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Ellison had never been more relieved to watch a bus depart. It had been one of the most stressful experiences of his life, and all he wanted to do now was finish off the pile of paperwork on his desk, clear any messages, and get home. And get drunk.

He all but staggered into the bullpen, and received yet another round of applause, but this time from his amused colleagues. He stopped to take a bow and thank his appreciative audience before slipping behind his desk, grinning from ear to ear. The quicker he got started, the quicker he could go home.

He'd been working intently for nearly forty minutes when he realized he was being watched. He glanced up and his stomach fell when he recognized one of the kids from the afternoon tour. Thought they'd gone and left him alone for this lifetime.

"Liked it!" The feisty blonde cheerfully announced, folding her arms and beaming in an alarmingly self-satisfied way.

"Um…?" Ellison inquired, not sure if he really wanted to know.

"Oh, the tour sucked, and you were useless at controlling us. Don't give up your day job." She tipped her head to one side, unnerving the detective more than he would ever admit - there was something about over-confident kids that irked and unsettled him. "Hmm, yes I liked it," she continued, seemingly satisfied with her conclusions of him. "We've been wanting to shut Alloyance up for years, but none of us wanted to touch him. I hope you disinfected your hands afterwards." She peered over the desk at Ellison's hands, where, for some reason, he felt obliged to hold them up for inspection.

"Um…?" he asked again.

"Oh, me?" she intuitively answered. "I'm waiting for my ride home."

The raised eyebrows and completely dazed expression must have been plain English in kid-speak, because she answered Jim's next unspoken question accurately once again. "Detective Rafe's dating my Mom, and he said he'd take me home tonight." She pointed over her shoulder to Brian's desk. "I've tidied it for him. He's such a klutz, he needs the organization."

Goldfish could do better impersonations of Jim Ellison than he was doing of speechless fish.

And he'd thought Aloysius was bad. Who the hell was this kid?

"Are you…?"

"I'm sitting over here, patiently waiting." Her blasé attitude was disquieting. "He said he'd be here by 5pm, but that was, like, fifteen minutes ago." She grinned, cheekily. "But then he is a male, and we all know what they're like." With that, she sauntered across the bullpen and made herself at home at Rafe's desk, feet up and hands clasped behind her head as she leant back. "Thanks for arresting Alloyance, Mr. Ellison. You're a good guy."

A good guy. Okay. He'd been called a helluva lot worse. Somehow, the judgment of a ten-year-old kid seemed to matter to him. He should consult Sandburg over the psychology of this one, although the grad student would probably come back with something about 'out of the mouths of babes' and the honesty-factor. In truth, he wasn't sure he wanted to know after all.

Jim tried to settle back to scanning the sheets in front of him, and inputting relevant data into the computer, but try as he might, he couldn't block out the feeling that he was being watched. If he glanced up, she would no doubt engage him in further one-sided conversation, but he couldn't focus knowing that she was still there. "Rafe, if you're not back here soon, I'm going to superglue your Armani socks together."

He was just reaching the stage of having to leave the room when the junior detective deigned to return. "Hey, kid," Rafe called out with a grin.

Ellison looked up to see the blonde-haired girl leap out of her seat and run straight into Rafe's out-stretched arms. Jim would never have figured the guy as the paternal type, but this kid seemed almost infatuated with him. The beaming grin was still there, but he would never have thought she would enjoy Rafe's teasing banter, and the hair mussing that he did on her. Rafe wrapped his arm around the girl's shoulder, and directed her towards Jim's desk.

With yet another sinking feeling, Jim watched them approach. "I hear you had my little friend for the day!" Rafe didn't seem to mind the playful punch she gave him, as she rejected his description of 'little'; he simply returned it with two-handed tickling until she squealed Uncle.

"Hey, Detective Ellison handcuffed Alloyance for us," the girl boasted, proud of the news. "He gagged him first in a menacing show of police procedure, and then arrested him." What the hell was it about sassy ten-year-olds that they knew far more words than they should, and seemed far more mature than older folk remembered themselves being at that age?

Rafe laughed. "I was wondering how you were going to cope with Aloysius. Heard all about him, but never want to meet him."

Jim eyed the remaining work on his desk with disdain, and calculated exactly how minutes it would take to crawl out of this conversation, reach the truck, avoid the traffic and get to the beer waiting patiently for him in the refrigerator at home. Home - now there was a word that beckoned.

"Yeah, well, I met him, Rafe." Ellison did not want to have to get into a long discussion about the brat. "And I had Simon's blessing to demonstrate police procedure on him."

"He was so cool," the blonde piped up. "One swift movement and Alloyance was gagged, and you should have seen that left arm. Straight back and around, and clunk, he's handcuffed."

Jim couldn't believe that he was actually blushing from the compliment. This was a kid, for heaven's sake. What did a kid know about whether or not a handcuffing was done swiftly? He so had to get out of here. If anyone else saw him blushing, he'd never live it down.

"C'mon kid," Rafe ruffled her hair once more, and pointed her towards the door. "Your Mom said she'd cook some of her delicious lasagna if I got you home on time, and I'll give you a hand with that Spanish homework if you like."

"Cool, Brian, that would be great." The girl threw Jim a final grin as they made to leave, but suddenly turned back and shot out her hand in a hurried gesture. "Sorry, Detective Ellison. I never introduced myself." That grin was infectious, and Jim couldn't help but grin back. After all, his day was finally over, and the last of kids was about to leave. "My name's Holly Roshine."

 

Fin

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copyright Xasphie 03/09/04

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