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Chapter Sixteen

"Lady Harrington is here, Milady."


"Thank you, Sandy." Emily Alexander looked up at her nurse's announcement. Her life-support chair was parked in her favorite niche in her atrium, and she tapped the save key with her right index finger, saving the HD script she'd been annotating. "Please ask her to join me," she said.


"Of course, Milady."


Thurston bowed slightly and withdrew. A few moments later, she returned, followed by Dr. Allison Harrington.


Not for the first time, Emily felt a certain amusement at the thought that such a tiny mother could have produced a daughter Honor's size. There was something undeniably feline about Allison Harrington, she thought. Something poised, perpetually balanced and faintly amused by the world about her. Not detached—never that—but comfortable enough with who she was to let the rest of the world be whatever it needed to be. She didn't really look that much like Honor, and yet no one could ever mistake her for anyone but Honor's mother. It was the eyes, Emily thought. The one feature which was exactly identical in both mother and daughter.


"Good afternoon, Lady Harrington," Emily said as Thurston smiled and withdrew, leaving them alone together, and Allison rolled those almond-shaped eyes very much as Honor might have.


"Please, Lady Alexander," she said. Emily cocked an eyebrow, and Allison snorted. "I'm from Beowulf, Milady," she said, "and I married a yeoman. Until my daughter fell into bad company, it never occurred to me I might be even remotely associated with the Manticoran aristocracy, far less the Grayson version. If you insist on using titles, I'd much prefer 'Doctor,' since that's at least a title I earned on my own. Under the circumstances, however, if it's all the same to you, I'd prefer simply Allison."


"I see where Honor gets it from," Emily said with a faint smile. "But if you'd prefer to ignore aristocratic titles, that's certainly all right with me. After all," her smile broadened, "as the mother of a duchess and a steadholder, you outrank me rather substantially."


"Bullshit," Allison said pithily, and Emily chuckled.


"All right, Allison. You win. And in that case, I'm Emily, not 'Milady.'"


"Fine." Allison shook her head, her expression almost bemused for a moment. "I suppose any parent always wants her daughter to do well and succeed, but I sometimes think I must have dropped Honor on her head when she was a baby. The girl has an absolute compulsion to overachieve, however inconvenient it may be for her father and me."


"And you're inordinately proud of her, too," Emily observed.


"Well, of course I am. At least, when I'm not spending my time sitting up at night worrying over what sort of insane risk she's going to run next."


Allison's tone was light, amused, but there was a sudden flash of darker emotion in those chocolate eyes, and Emily felt her own smile waver.


"She does tend to make the people who love her worry," she said quietly. "I'll be honest, Allison. I was never so glad of anything as I was when the Queen asked Hamish to take over at the Admiralty. I know he hated it, but having both of them out in space, waiting to be shot at, would be even worse."


"I know." Allison seated herself on a stone bench—the one Honor usually used when she joined Emily in the atrium—and met Emily's eyes steadily. "I realize the timing on this entire situation is as 'interesting,' in the Chinese sense of the word, as anything else Honor's ever gotten herself into. And I obviously don't know you very well . . . yet. But I hope you won't mind my saying that in many ways, Hamish and you are the best thing that's happened to Honor at least since Paul Tankersley was killed. I hope it's a good thing for you, too, but I'm selfish enough to be happy for her anyway."


"She's very young, isn't she?" Emily replied obliquely, and Allison smiled.


"I'm sure she doesn't see it that way at her age, but in a lot of ways, you're right. And she's very Sphinxian, too. I, on the other hand, am an experienced old lady from the decadent world of Beowulf. By way of Grayson these days, of all bizarre places."


"I know. On the other hand, I won't pretend it was easy for me. Certainly not at first. But there's a quality, a magnetism, about your daughter, Allison. Charisma, I suppose you'd have to call it, although she never seems to realize she's got it. You don't meet very many people who do have it, actually. And she's just as striking physically. Most of the professional dancers I knew back when I was still acting would have killed to be able to move the way she does. In fact," she smiled, "if I weren't stuck in this chair, I suspect I'd be just as physically attracted to her as Hamish is." That wasn't an admission Emily would have made even to most members of her own social class, but as Allison had just pointed out, she was from Beowulf. "Even without that, though, she's an incredibly lovable person, in her own way. And so damned determined to never put herself first that sometimes you just want to strangle her."


"She gets it from her father," Allison said cheerfully. "All that altruism." She shook her head. "My own philosophy's much more hedonistic than hers."


"I'm sure." Emily smiled. "Which undoubtedly explains, in some convoluted fashion, what brings you to White Haven this afternoon?"


"Well, even a card-carrying hedonist is usually willing to exert herself at least a little for her first grandchild."


Allison watched her hostess closely, but Emily's smile didn't waver.


"Somehow, I'm not surprised to hear that," she said. "But while we're on the subject, what's your official reason for being here? Just so we can keep our stories straight, you understand."


"Oh, officially I'm here for Doctor Arif. She's drafted me for her commission, as a representative of the medical profession who's as close to an expert on treecats as she can find. I kicked and screamed about how busy I am on Grayson, but it didn't do me much good. And, actually, it's fascinating watching Samantha and the other memory singers working with her to demonstrate their value. At the very least, it's going to revolutionize psychotherapy here in the Star Kingdom, and I think the implications for law enforcement may be at least equally significant. But for the official record, I'm here to talk to you—and Hamish, when he gets home this evening—about your experiences with Samantha for a paper I'm putting together. I'm supposed to present it to the commission next Wednesday."


"I see. And the real reason?"


"And the real reason is to talk to you about something else entirely," Allison said, her voice suddenly softer. Emily looked at her, and Allison shook her head.


"I'm not going to ask you how you feel about my daughter and your husband. First of all, that's not really any of my business. More importantly, even before I met you, I knew you were a strong-minded woman, not the sort to meekly acquiesce in anything against your will. But Honor didn't have time to complete all the arrangements with Briarwood before she had to deploy to Trevor's Star. Since I'm the official contact, with power of attorney to make medical decisions in her absence, I'm tidying up those loose ends for her. To be perfectly honest, Emily, this is something which I believe you ought to be allowed to do. And something which, under any other circumstances, I think Honor herself would have insisted you should."


Emily's eyes misted over, and she felt her lips tremble. Then she inhaled deeply.


"I wish I could," she said quietly. "More than I can ever tell you."


"My own personality, oddly enough for someone from Beowulf, is firmly monogamous," Allison said in a lighter tone. "I suppose it's part of my own rebellion against the mores of my birth world. But in your position," the lightness faded, "I know how badly I'd want to be making those decisions, discharging those responsibilities. And because of that, and because Honor feels exactly the same way, I'm here to ask you and Hamish to assist me with the environmental recordings."


Emily's eyebrows rose. One of the things about artificial gestation which the medical profession had learned the hard way was the necessity of providing the developing fetus with the physical and aural stimulation the child would have received in its mother's womb. Heartbeat, random environmental sounds, movement, and—most importantly of all, in many ways—the sound of its mother's voice.


"Honor and I have made selections from several of her letters to me and to her father," Allison continued. "She's also found time to record several hours of poetry and a few of her favorite childhood stories. And she insisted that my voice, and her father's, should also be included. Just as she very, very much wants her child to hear the voices of its father . . . and both its mothers."


Emily's expression froze. She looked at Allison for several seconds, unable to speak, and Allison smiled gently.


"She's told me in general terms how you reacted to the news of her pregnancy, Emily. And she's almost as much from Grayson as Manticore these days. Sometimes I don't think even she realizes how true that really is. But she's seen the strength of Grayson family structure, how nurturing it is, and she wants that for her—for your—child. And she loves you. She doesn't want it only for the child's sake; she wants it for your sake, as well."


"And she told Hamish they didn't deserve me," Emily said finally, her voice husky. "Of course we'll help with the recordings, Allison. Thank you."


"I'd say you were welcome, if there were any reason to thank me," Allison replied. "And on a lighter note, I trust you're prepared to come up with some reason for me to be spending inordinate amounts of time visiting you." Emily felt her eyebrows rising again, and Allison chuckled. "I intend to be a very involved grandmother, which means you're going to be seeing a lot of me over the next several decades."


Emily laughed.


"Oh, I'm sure we'll be able to come up with something. By now, devising plausible pretexts is getting to be second nature."


Allison started to reply, then paused, her expression suddenly pensive. Several seconds passed, and Emily frowned, wondering what direction the other woman's thoughts had gone.


"Actually," Allison said slowly, at last, "I think there might be a completely legitimate reason. One I hadn't really intended to suggest."


"That sounds faintly ominous," Emily said.


"Not ominous, I hope. But maybe a little . . . intrusive."


"Definitely ominous," Emily said as lightly as possible. "Given that you're the mother of the mother of my husband's child, anything that strikes you as being more intrusive than that is probably fairly terrifying."


"I wouldn't choose that precise adjective," Allison said seriously, "but I'm afraid it is going to be rather personal. And if you'd prefer not to discuss it, that's entirely your decision. But given what's happened accidentally between Hamish and Honor, Emily, I can't help wondering why you've never considered the possibility of having a child of your own."


Emily's heart seemed to stop. It couldn't, of course. Her life-support chair's hardware wouldn't let it, any more than it would let her stop breathing. But despite her brutally damaged nervous system, she felt for just a moment as if someone had just punched her in the pit of the stomach.


She stared at Allison, shocked, unable to speak, and Allison reached out and laid her own hand atop Emily's right hand.


"This is coming from me, not Honor," she said quietly. "Honor would never dream of intruding on you the way I just have. Partly, that's because she loves you and recognizes how much emotional stress she's already accidentally inflicted upon you. And partly, it's because she's so much younger than you—which I'm certainly not. And partly because she's not a physician. We've talked, especially since she found out she was pregnant, of course, but she hasn't betrayed any of your confidences to me, and I'd never ask her to. Still, I'm sure you must realize that as a doctor, and especially as a geneticist, I'm very well aware of all the reproductive options which have been available to you. And that, Emily, suggests to me that you must have some deeply personal reason for not availing yourself of them.


"That's your decision, of course. But Honor's told me how you responded to the discovery that she's going to have a child. And I've just seen how you reacted to the awareness that you're also going to be that child's other mother. So I'm wondering why someone who so clearly recognizes how Honor must feel, and who so obviously wants and needs to be a part of that, has never had a child of her own."


A part of Emily Alexander wanted to scream at Allison Harrington. To tell her that however curious she might be, it was none of her damned business. But she didn't. The combination of gentle, very personal compassion and professional detachment in Allison's eyes and voice stopped her.


Not that anything could have made the topic any less painful.


"I have my reasons," she said finally, her voice far more clipped and harder-edged than usual.


"I'm certain you do. You're a strong, smart, competent person. People like you don't turn their backs on something so obviously important to them without reasons. The thing I'm wondering, though, is whether they're as valid as you may think they are."


"It's not something I decided lightly," Emily said harshly.


"Emily," Allison's voice was gently chiding, "no woman can have gone through everything you've survived without realizing that the mere fact a decision wasn't made lightly doesn't necessarily make it a good one. I'm a doctor. I specialize in genetic disease and repair—too often after the fact, even today—and my husband's one of the Star Kingdom's three top neurosurgeons. The sort they send the 'Omigod!' cases to. If he'd been in civilian practice when you were hurt, he'd probably have been one of your doctors. Do you have any idea how much carnage, how many shattered lives and broken bodies, the two of us have seen? Between us, we've been practicing medicine for well over a century, Emily. If there are two people in the entire Star Kingdom who know exactly what you, your family, and all the people who care about you have been through, it's us."


Emily's lips trembled, and her single working hand clenched into a fist under Allison's fingers. She was shocked—physically shocked—at the abrupt realization that she desperately wanted to open her heart to Allison. By the discovery that she needed to know Allison did, indeed, understand the savagery with which the physical damage to her body had smashed far more than mere muscle and sinew.


And yet . . . and yet something held her back. Her own version of Honor's stubbornness and pride, her need to fight her own battles. As Allison had said, Emily Alexander was an extraordinarily intelligent woman. She'd had half a century in her life-support chair to realize just how foolish it was to insist on facing down all of her own demons, all her own challenges, unassisted. More than that, she knew she hadn't. That Hamish was there for her. That except for one brief period of weakness, which he bitterly regretted, he'd always been there for her, and she'd always relied upon him. But that was different. She couldn't have defined exactly how, yet she knew it was.


"Emily," Allison said again, quietly, as the silence stretched out between them, "you aren't as unique as you may think you are. Oh, the injuries you've survived probably are. At least, I can't think of another case in my own or Alfred's experience in which someone survived physical damage as extreme as it clearly was in yours. But people who are as badly injured as you were take damage in a lot of ways. Obviously, I've never had access to any of your case history. And I've never probed Honor for information about it—not that she'd have given it to me, even if I had. But I have to ask you. Like Honor, you don't regenerate. Is that the reason? Are you afraid a child of yours might share that inability?"


"I . . ." Emily's voice rasped, and she stopped and cleared her throat.


"That's . . . a part of it," she said finally, distantly amazed she could admit even that much to Allison. "I suppose I've always known it's not entirely . . . rational. As you say," her mouth twisted in a bitter smile, "the fact that someone has reasons for her decisions doesn't necessarily make those reasons valid."


"Did you ever discuss the question with a good geneticist?" Allison's gentle voice was completely devoid of any shadow of judgment.


"No." Emily looked away. "No, not really. I consulted several of them. But I suppose, if I were honest, I'd have to admit I was just going through the motions. For me, perhaps for Hamish. I don't know." She looked back at Allison, green eyes brimming with tears. "I talked to them. They talked to me. And they kept reassuring me, telling me it wouldn't happen. And that even if somehow I did pass on my 'curse,' it was absurd to think any child of mine would ever be injured the way I was. And none of it mattered. Not one bit of it." She stared into Allison's eyes and forced herself to admit to someone else what she had never until this moment fully admitted to herself. "I was too frightened to be rational."


She hovered on the brink of telling Allison why. Of telling her what she'd overheard her own mother saying. Of admitting how deep that wound had cut, even though her intellect had fiercely rejected the searing hurt. But she couldn't. Even now, she couldn't expose that jagged scar. Not yet.


"If that's the only way in which you reacted 'irrationally' after what happened to you, then you're some sort of superwoman," Allison said dryly. "My God, woman! Your life was destroyed. You've rebuilt a new one, a deeply productive one, without ever surrendering. You're entitled to not be strong about everything every instant. And you have the right to admit that it hurts, and that things frighten you. Someday you need to sit down with Honor and let her tell you about the things she carried around inside for far too long. The things she didn't share even with me. They've left scars—I'm sure you've seen some of them—and she'd be the very first person to say that everything that happened to her was small beer compared to what happened to you.


"But I think perhaps it's time you revisited that decision of yours. Perhaps enough time's finally passed that you can think about it rationally . . . if you want to."


"I think . . . I think, perhaps, I do," Emily said, very slowly, astonished at the words coming out of her own mouth. And even more astonished to realize how true they were.


"I think I do," she repeated, "but that doesn't magically dispel the things that frighten me."


"Maybe not, but then again," Allison grinned suddenly, "that's my job."


"Your job?" Emily looked at her, and Allison nodded.


"You know what Honor's been through in terms of physical injury. Nothing that's happened to her was as severe as what happened to you, but it was more than enough to make her worry about passing her inability to regenerate on to her children. Fortunately for her, her mother happens—if I may be pardoned for blowing my own horn—to be one of the Star Kingdom's leading geneticists. I made identifying the gene group which prevents her from regenerating a personal project, and I found it years ago. The problem child is a dominant, unfortunately, but it's not associated with the locked sequences of the Meyerdahl modifications—if it were, Alfred wouldn't regenerate either, and he does—so it's not automatically selected for at fertilization. Once I'd determined that, I also determined that she carries it only on the chromosome she received from her father, and I've done a scan on her child. As a result of which, I was able to reassure her that she hasn't passed it along to him."


"Him?" Despite her own whiplashing emotions, Emily fastened on the personal pronoun.


"Oh, crap!" Allison shook her head, her expression suddenly disgusted. "Forget you heard that," she commanded. "Honor doesn't want to know yet. Which, if you'll pardon my saying so, is fairly silly. I always wanted to know as soon as possible."


"Him," Emily repeated. Then she smiled. "Well, once Grayson gets over the fact that he's illegitimate, they'll probably be pleased!"


"Bunch of stuck-in-the-mud patriarchal male chauvinists, the lot of them. It pisses me off to think how frigging delighted they're all going to be," Allison muttered, and Emily surprised herself with a genuine laugh.


"That's better!" Allison approved with a smile. "But my point is that even with Hamish and Honor's genetic material colliding as accidentally as it did in this case, his Y-chromosome's done the trick quite neatly. Mother Nature didn't even need my intervention."


"Not in her case," Emily agreed, and Allison snorted.


"Oh, for goodness sakes, Emily! This isn't the dark ages, you know. I haven't looked at your chart yet, for obvious reasons, but I will be frankly astonished if the problem is anywhere near as complicated as you seem to believe it is. Since we already know Hamish's genotype is perfectly capable of regenerating, and since we already know he and Honor can produce a child equally capable of regenerating, it's probably as simple as selecting the sperm with the genes we need. If it's not, then I feel quite certain I can repair the problem before fertilization. In fact, I could probably repair it after fertilization, although I'd hesitate to promise that without a careful examination of you both."


"You sound . . . remarkably confident," Emily said slowly.


"I sound—?" Allison paused, looking at Emily with an expression of almost comical surprise. Then she cleared her throat.


"Ah, Emily. Although I haven't reviewed any of your files, I know you spent quite some time on Beowulf after the accident. And I believe Dr. Kleinman is Beowulf-trained. He graduated from Johns Hopkins, Beowulf, didn't he?"


"I think so, yes."


"Then it would be fair to say you've been exposed to the Beowulf medical establishment in all its smug, not to say narcissistic, tradition-encrusted glory?"


"To some extent," Emily said, puzzled by the curious bite in Allison's tone.


"And do you happen to know what my maiden name was?"


"Chou, wasn't it?" Emily's puzzlement was, if anything, deeper than ever.


"Well, yes. Except that if I'd stayed on Beowulf, I'd have been known by my entire maiden name . . . whether I particularly wanted to be or not. Which, as it happens, I didn't."


"Why not?" Emily asked, when she paused.


"Because my full family name is Benton-Ramirez y Chou," Allison said, and Emily's eyes widened.


Of all the medical "dynasties" of Beowulf, acknowledged throughout explored space as the preeminent queen of the life-sciences, the Benton-Ramirez and Chou families stood at the very pinnacle. They were Beowulf, with a multigenerational commitment to the field of genetic medicine which stretched back to well before Old Earth's Final War. George Benton and Sebastiana Ramirez y Moyano had actually led the Beowulf teams to Old Earth to battle the hideous consequences of the Final War's bioweapons, and Chou Keng-ju had led the bioethics fight against Leonard Detweiler and the other "progressive eugenics" advocates six centuries ago. Among the many jewels in the crown of their families' achievements since was a leading role in the development of the prolong process itself. And—


"Well," she said, mildly, after a moment, "at least I finally understand exactly where Honor's rather . . . volcanic attitude towards the genetic slave trade and Manpower comes from, don't I?"


"You might say she imbibed it with her mother's milk," Allison agreed. "Bad science, no doubt, but I did breast-feed, and having a direct ancestor's signature on the Cherwell Convention didn't hurt, I suppose." She smiled thinly. "My point, however, is that if I come across as sounding just a bit breezily confident, I come by it honestly. I can't give you an absolute, categorical assurance that you and Hamish could produce a biological child who will regenerate. The probability that you couldn't, especially with my intervention, is so vanishingly small I literally couldn't quantify it, but it does exist. What I can guarantee you, however, is that with my intervention you won't produce a child who can't regenerate."


She looked straight into Emily's eyes again.


"So tell me, Emily. With that guarantee, do you want a child of your own, or not?"


* * *

"Mr. Secretary, you have a com call from Colonel Nesbitt," Alicia Hampton said from Arnold Giancola's display.


"Ah?" Giancola gave her his best absentminded smile, then shook himself visibly. "I mean, by all means put it through, Alicia. Thank you."


"You're welcome, Sir," she said with a slight, fond smile of her own, and her face disappeared from his display. A moment later, Jean-Claude Nesbitt's face replaced it.


"Good afternoon, Mr. Secretary," he said courteously.


"Colonel," Giancola nodded. "What can I do for you this afternoon?"


"It isn't really anything especially important, Sir. I'm just screening you to let you know I'm about to begin the regular quarterly security review." Giancola's expression never changed, but he felt his stomach muscles tense. "I know it's a pain," Nesbitt continued, "but your personal staff is going to have to be vetted again, as well. Under the circumstances, I thought I'd give you a heads-up so we could try to avoid any scheduling conflicts that might interfere with your planned workload."


"I appreciate that, Colonel," Giancola said, and a particularly attentive observer might have noticed that his eyes narrowed ever so slightly as they met Nesbitt's on the display. "But if you're quite satisfied with your own arrangements, I feel confident we could accommodate our schedule to yours. If you'll contact Ms. Hampton when you're ready to begin, we'll be at your disposal for you to proceed any time you're ready."


"Thank you, Mr. Secretary. I understand," Nesbitt said with a respectful nod. "And I appreciate your readiness to cooperate."


"One can never be too careful where security matters are concerned, Colonel," Giancola said seriously. "Was there anything else we needed to discuss?"


"No, Mr. Secretary. Thank you. I have everything I need."


"In that case, Colonel, good day," Giancola said, and cut the circuit.


* * *

Yves Grosclaude leaned back in the comfortable flight couch and wished his mind were as comfortable as his body as his air car sliced through the night shrouded mountains on autopilot.


None of this was supposed to have happened. None of it. He'd agreed with Giancola that it was time to take a firmer line with the Manties, and God knew they'd certainly managed to stiffen that ninny Pritchart's spine! But who would ever have expected her to do something like this? And now that she had, what the hell did they do about it?


He frowned, worrying at one thumbnail with his teeth, wondering how Giancola could remain—or, at least, appear to remain—so unconcerned. He supposed that after this long without detection, he should be feeling less worried, himself. After all, if anyone was going to suspect something, certainly they should have done so by now, right?


But it didn't work that way. Whether anyone suspected now or not, eventually they would, and there was no statute of limitations on treason.


He drew a deep breath and forced his hand back down into his lap. There was nothing to do about it right now, and if the war lasted long enough, and if Giancola played his political cards astutely enough, it was entirely possible that President Giancola would be in a position to quash any unfortunate investigations after the fighting finally ended.


And if he couldn't, at least Grosclaude had tucked away the vital evidence he could undoubtedly trade to the prosecution for at least limited immunity.


That, he knew, was all he could realistically do to disaster-proof his own position. In the meantime, he'd just have to keep his head down and concentrate on being as innocent and aboveboard as possible. It wasn't easy, but he hoped this ski trip would help. It ought to at least let him burn off some of his accumulated nervous energy!


He chuckled at the thought and made himself stretch and yawn, then settled more firmly into the couch. His flight plan was just about to take him through the Arsenault Gorge, one of the most spectacular mountain passes on Haven. It was a huge, axe-blow of a chasm through the Blanchard Mountains, with sheer cliffs towering vertically for as much as two hundred and fifty meters in some places. It was quite a tourist attraction, and Grsoclaude himself loved it. He always programmed his flight path to take him through it, despite the need to slow down around its hairpin bends.


Now the autopilot dipped the air car slightly, dropping a bit lower to give him a better view, and he felt a familiar stir of enjoyment as the rocky, tree-crowned cliffs loomed up on either side of his prow.


And at that moment, something very peculiar happened.


Yves Grosclaude felt something almost like a mental tickle. As if someone were running a finger down his spine, except that it was behind his eyes somewhere. He started to frown, but then the frown vanished into another expression entirely.


He'd never noticed the almost microscopic capsule which had somehow found its way into the yogurt he'd enjoyed with his supper two nights ago. He hadn't been looking for anything of the sort, never suspected anything like it was remotely possible.


Nor was it . . . for the Republic's tech base. That capsule's contents had been well beyond the capability of Haven's own scientists, and as the capsule itself disintegrated in his digestive tract, submicroscopic virus-based nanotech had infiltrated his bloodstream. They'd traveled to his brain, seeking very specifically targeted sections of it, and then waited.


For this specific moment.


Yves Grosclaude jerked in his seat as the tiny invaders executed their programmed instructions. They did no physical damage at all; they simply invaded his body's "operating system" and overwrote it with instructions of their own.


He watched helplessly, screaming in the silence of his mind, as his hands switched off the autopilot. They settled on the stick and throttle, and his eyes bulged in silent horror as his right hand wrenched the stick suddenly to the right even as his left rammed the throttle to the wall.


The vehicle was still accelerating when it struck a vertical cliff face head-on at well over eight hundred kilometers per hour.


 


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