‘Devs’: Every Question (and Theory) We Have for Alex Garland’s Sci-Fi Series

     April 16, 2020

Spoilers ahead through Episode 8, the Series Finale. Keep an eye out for our ending explainer.

Devs, the new sci-fi series from up-and-coming paragon on the genre on the big and small screen Alex Garland, is poised to be the next big water-cooler drama in an era of post-water-cooler television. Episodes of the heady show are available to stream now thanks to the newly launched “FX on Hulu” streaming channel, but we’ve already got a ton of questions that we hope Devs will answer. Stay tuned to this post because we’ll be updating it with answers, more questions, and a validity check on our theories along the way.

Devs follows the story of a young software engineer, Lily Chan (Sonoya Mizuno), who investigates the secretive development division of her employer which she believes is behind the murder of her boyfriend Sergei (Karl Glusman). Devs also stars Nick Offerman, Jin Ha, Zach Grenier, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Cailee Spaeny and Alison Pill. The new limited series, produced by FX Productions, will attempt to do all this in just eight episodes. But first …

*Spoilers ahead*

What Exactly Is the Devs Program?

Image via Miya Mizuno/FX

Our entry point into the world of Devs is Sergei, a gifted programmer who finds himself in way over his head as he gains access to the highly secure and secretive Devs program within the company he works for, Amaya. Sergei’s exemplary work had to do with mapping the behavior of a simple nematode into a computer program, to the point that the A.I. was able to predict the creature’s behavior to nearly 100% … without any direct connections between the two to give feedback. The impressive feat was only hampered by the limitation of a 30-second predictive window, but that was good enough for Forest to invite Sergei into Devs.

However, that wasn’t good enough for security chief, Kenton (Grenier). His xenophobic paranoia proved to be correct since Sergei turned out to be a Russian spy tasked with recording whatever was going on in the Devs program. And what exactly that was, well, we still don’t know, but Sergei’s watch and phone captured enough footage of the code streaming across the Devs’ monitors to not only entice the Russians but to sign Sergei’s death warrant. It’s not long at all before Sergei is suffocated to death on the company’s campus by Kenton, with Forest and Katie (Pill) complicit in the murder. But why?

Image via Raymond Liu/FX

While waiting for Sergei to come home, Lily can be seen reading a copy of D.F. Jones‘ 1966 sci-fi novel “Colossus.” And that should be a big, big clue for just what’s going on beneath the surface here. The novel tells of the titular super-computer that is given oversight and control of the American nuclear missile armament. Colossus soon links up with a similar super-computer in the Soviet Union, but it’s using increasingly devious manipulations of human behavior to do so. In the end, Colossus and the super-computers rein supreme even as the humans attempt to subvert them in a multi-year plan, but it seems certain that the computers will out-last them. In the end, the computer’s final message suggests the futility of humankind’s efforts from here on out: “In time you will come to regard me not only with respect and awe, but with love.” Is the point of the Devs program actually a cold war arms race of sorts between humans and super-advanced A.I.? The Devs facility itself resembles a super-sized version of a computer processing unit, so the visuals and the narrative clues certainly point towards this possibility.

My colleague Adam Chitwood has his own theory on this one; it is as follows:

Another possible theory is that the Devs program has discovered that life on Earth is actually a simulation. When Sergei first reads the code, he is tremendously upset. Like, try-to-rip-your-eyes-out-of-your-skull-and-vomit upset. After Forest has Sergei killed, there’s a scene in which he and Katie are sitting outside Devs having a conversation. At first it seems like they’re just upset about having to kill Sergei, but the conversation is laced with something deeper. Even more troubling.

“What are we supposed to do? Unravel a lifetime of moral experience? Unlearn what has always seemed true?” Katie says to Forest. “These things, they run deep. It’s like whatever we know, the things we feel are still locked inside us.” She goes on to draw a parallel to an atheist whose child gets hurt and starts praying, which we learn later relates to Forest having lost his daughter. But could she be talking about how they’re finding it difficult to unlearn this “lifetime of moral experience” now that they know nothing matters because they’re in a simulation? Did they really kill Sergei if Sergei didn’t actually exist to begin with?

Image via Raymond Liu/FX

This thread continues when Forest is talking to Kenton about how he doesn’t care about money or the environment anymore. Again, if he knows they’re in a simulation, that would explain why these things don’t matter to him right now.

As this theory relates to the end of Episode 2, the “backward projection” project, are they trying to basically pull up a screengrab from an earlier experience from the simulation? We see them conjure a fuzzy image of Jesus of Nazareth being crucified. What if this isn’t a painting or a time travel device? What if it’s literally like the “highlights” section on a video game? – Adam Chitwood

But there’s another possibility. At one point, before Sergei’s demise, Forest asks him why he thinks his predictive program falls apart after 30 seconds. Sergei supposes that perhaps the calculations are just too great, that the numbers “literally go insane” after a certain point; Forest is on board with this theory. When Sergei suggests a separate hypothesis, that this might be a multi-verse problem in which the predicted behavior and the observed behavior actually line up perfectly, just not in this universe, Forest is more skeptical. However, this might be a misdirection. Garland talked about just what scientific concepts interested him in developing the Devs story:

In this case, it was about determinism, but it was specifically about quantum physics. It was about some elements and some implications of quantum physics, to do with interpretations of some strange things, like particles having super positions and one of those interpretations relating to many worlds. To me, those ideas are not dry scientific ideas. They’re rather poetic, philosophical ideas. As soon as you can get that, then suddenly, the story feels naturally a part of it.

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Image via Miya Mizuno/FX

So the whole thing might just be about quantum states after all. Forest comes clean to a senator in the third episode, saying they’re using their quantum system to develop a prediction algorithm of sorts, predicting the weather “and things like that.” Episode 4 confirms that they are indeed “watching the future”, with Forest questioning their meddling with it and Katie asserting that “the future is fixed”, at least as much as the past is.

Forest: Everything we do is predicated on the idea that we live in a physical universe, not a magical universe.

Katie: Are you doubting that?

Forest: Not the physical universe. But I am scared we might be magicians.

Katie also asserts that “In 48 hours, Lily will die. There’s no magic. Effectively, it’s already happened.” So … yikes for Lily!

Later, Lyndon discovers something in the code that appears to bring her great joy, which she first shares with Stewart and then the whole team.

Lyndon: We’re a prediction system based on ultra massive data. The data goes to subatomic level, so we’re fully in the the world of quantum mechanics, using a fully deterministic interpretation of which we use a version of de Broglie-Bohm, Pilot Wave. And it works … kind of.

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Image via FX/Hulu

When the team glimpsed Christ on the cross, it was through a static of variances. (And “the boss” doesn’t like variances; we’re assuming Forest is still “the boss.”) And therein lies the problem: A binary problem–total failure or total success–in a quantum system. Lyndon shares their work on sound waves; “inelegant, ugly, dropout” sounds which get exponentially worse the further back in time they go. Until she ditches the variables and hears, clearly for the first time, a projection of ancient Aramaic language being spoken 2,000 years ago: “It’s Jesus talking.” The success came by swapping in Hugh Everett‘s deterministic “many worlds” hypothesis for de Broglie-Bohm’s also-deterministic “guiding equation.” But Forest isn’t happy with the “everything that can happen will happen” idea. Essentially, when everything is possible, whatever results they get have no meaning, because they can come from one of any of the infinite universes. Forest fires Lyndon for undermining “everything he’s trying to do”; they get a nice $10 million severance pay, at least.

As we see in the beginning of Episode 5, Devs is either playing with multiple universes / realities or an eyepiece that can look across time and see multiple time periods playing out simultaneously. It’s hard to tell which angle of the story we’re looking at as Katie watches Lily’s relationship with both Sergei and Jamie: Is it a playback of the reel of Lily’s romances as they play out in order, or a kaleidoscopic approach of Lily’s life in different worlds? Episode 5 also revisits Katie’s college years in which she takes a professor (Liz Carr) to task for introducing undergrads to various interpretations of the double-slit experiment, including Roger Penrose‘s threshold-based approach, and von Neumann–Wigner’s interpretation that factors in human observers and their “consciousness”, which Katie calls “dualist bullshit” before defending Everett’s theory. As a reminder, that suggests that all possible realities can exist, infinite realities; that point is driven home visually as multiple Katies take up multiple positions in multiple realities as she leaves the lecture. Forest only runs after one of them, and that’s the Katie to whom he offers a life-changing job…

We also see the intermediate stage of the Devs device as it virtually reconstructs sugar cubes, dead mice, clocks, bird skulls, and conch shells perfectly, down to the molecular level at least. (It’s all a bit nonsensical, but it’s very stylishly done.) The team continues extrapolating outwards from the dead mouse until the project includes a recreation of the machine itself, of Forest watching through the window, and of the team beyond them; this is the beginning of the machine’s world, or even universe projection, and the first balm for Forest’s pain at the loss of his daughter. And we also see, in heartbreaking fashion, exactly how that happened… but also how it didn’t happen, how there’s at least one other reality in which Forest picks his daughter up from the backseat of his wife’s car and carries on like normal, or the many and varied ways that this scene could have played out.

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Image via FX on Hulu

Episode 6 did a great deal to sort all this out. It was basically an hour of exposition that set the record straight (if Katie is to be believed, after all). Here’s what she laid out:

  • Devs is the world’s most advanced computer program tasked with determining literally everything; the past, the future, everything
  • The problem here is that Devs can only look forward so far into the future before everything becomes an impenetrable wall of static. And it’s not the limitation of the computer’s power that keeps them from seeing further ahead in time, it’s that, at a fixed point in the future, the laws of the universe break down.
  • 21 hours from Katie and Lily’s conversation, Lily will somehow bring about the end of things (in whatever shape that takes) at the Devs facility itself.
  • Complicating things are Forest’s mad plan to resurrect his daughter Amaya before the end of things, but perhaps his newly revealed relationship with Katie has allowed him to accept his own limitations.

Episode 7 did little to reveal the End of All Things or how it would come about, but it did lay down the path to get there. Namely, it sees Lily heading to the Devs facility, gun in hand, to presumably take revenge for Kenton killing Jamie, but may also trigger the apocalypse in the process. However, an “Uh-Oh” sequence earlier on in the episode sees Stewart and the remaining Devs techs watching primitive humans in what’s likely the Lascaux cave system in modern-day France. They then switch to a 1-second future projection that predicts their movements and responses perfectly. Stewart then comments that the “box” contains everything … everything … even including another “box.” That’s the “uh-oh” moment, the realization that the Devs team may not be looking down on the simulation from above it as the creators, but perhaps from within it as fellow creations themselves. “Uh-oh” indeed.

Spoilers from the finale: In the end, the Devs program was indeed what Katie and Forest had always claimed it to be, a quantum super-computer tasked with crunching universally large data sets in order to both reconstruct the past and accurately and precisely predict the future. The only difference here, in a cheeky reveal, is that the name “Devs” isn’t really Devs but rather “Deus”, using a Roman “v”, or “u”; okay, Garland, we’ll let you have that one. But Devs/Deus was also something else, a simulation generator, one created in order to not just answer the questions of the universe but to construct a simulation of one. Why? Because multi-billionaire / tech genius / messiah complex-driven Forest would do anything and everything to be with his wife and daughter again, even if it meant his own death and a resurrection into a simulated life. Forest traded the red pill for the blue pill while maintaining a knowledge of both. Lily just happened to get dragged along for the ride.

Who’s Really in Charge of Amaya?

Image via FX

“The problem with the people who run tech companies … they become fanatics … and end up thinking they’re messiahs.” ~ Lily

Forest is the CEO of Amaya and the lead for the Devs program, but he often feels as if he’s resigned to being led along his own “invisible tram line” rather than fighting against it. For all his quirky charm, he seems very human, vulnerably so. He’s got a visual style that shares much more in common with Pete, the homeless man who lives on Lily and Sergei’s apartment steps, than any of his employees or colleagues. He drives an outdated, ecologically insulting car; he lives in a rather pedestrian home that belies just how much he’s worth; and he holds onto his traumatic past despite his protests to the contrary. He seems constantly unsure of himself, of what to do next, of what to say, for fear of giving away too much or revealing that, perhaps, he doesn’t really know what’s going on himself.

There’s a scene between Forest and Katie, after the murder of Sergei, in which he tells her that she’s not just smarter than he is, she’s wiser, too. (It may be worth mentioning that Katie is often reflected in one of the gold columns in this scene while Forest is seen in the “real” world.) Later, security chief Kenton checks in on Forest and updates him on the cover-up of Sergei’s murder. Kenton shows concern for his own health as he smokes a cigarette and says he should quit, while also showing concern for Forest and his mental state. Forest, however, seems cynically apathetic about both of these things, saying that they simply aren’t worthy of concern anymore. That lends some more credence to Adam’s theory. These interactions also paint Forest as an emotional, somewhat irrational, and irreducible man, while Katie and Kenton are, by comparison, rather cold, distant, and calculating, as if they’re trying to understand Forest’s motivations … or control them. For what purpose? Forest’s own well-being or the success of the Devs program, whatever that may be?

devs-posterIn the backward projections, we get glimpses of Forest’s daughter Amaya blowing bubbles, the crucifixion of Jesus, the burning of Joan of Arc at the stake, a primitive person leaving a handprint on a cave wall, a shot of the pyramids under construction, a medieval army on the march, a sexual dalliance between Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller, and even Lily’s latest act of rebellion against those who are watching her. But what does it all mean? And what’s the purpose of it all?

In Episode 4, Katie takes Forest to task for “breaking the rule” and watching the future on the big screen. However, Forest also fires Lyndon after what feels like a big break in the research, but which he sees as them undermining his actual research. Katie tries to stop him from firing “her most talented engineer” but Forest snaps at her; is this an act of human defiance against an oppressive force, an attempt to regain control, or just another sign of Forest’s progressive breakdown? Regardless, it seems that Forest is searching for one specific answer, not all possible answers. Forest says, “If it’s not our Jesus, it’s not my Amaya. And does every hair on her head matter? Yes, it does.” But Katie takes Lyndon’s solution and applies it to light waves, giving Forest a clear, colorful picture of his daughter blowing bubbles in her bedroom. It’s enough to reduce him to tears

Meanwhile, Kenton goes looking for Lily and has a curious conversation with Pete, the homeless guy who bums a smoke from him. Their exchange was as follows:

Pete: I’m not afraid of you, man.

Kenton: Yeah, I can see that. Just trying to figure out why.

Maybe Pete sees something we don’t, is clued into something we aren’t, or he’s just far enough out of the system to know when it’s not acting in his friends’ best interests. He’s probably not wrong since the psychiatrist who interviews Lily tells Kenton literally everything, despite any kind of doctor-patient privilege. Rather than take Lily home, Kenton tries to kidnap her and spirit her off to places unknown, but he’s apparently not prepared for her to take the wheel and cause an accident… seems like he probably should have been. And he seems pretty hurt for a security program… but when Lily reaches out to the police to report Sergei’s murder, instead, she’s arrested for causing the crash, and the psychiatrist arrives to facilitate Lily being put under “involuntary psychiatric hold.” At this point, Kenton assaults Jamie in his own apartment, presumably killing him. (Notice, however, that the shelf that fell off the wall in his apartment is now back on the wall, its shattered contents now restored and whole once more…)

In Episode 5, Kenton makes it very clear who he is and what his function is as he assaults Jamie physically and psychologically. Kenton tells a tale from his time in the CIA when the Chinese government literally rolled over their political opposition, thus crushing an uprising and cementing their power. In this scenario, Kenton is the tank and Jamie is the dissident. But all of his bravado and bluster doesn’t hold up when he talks with Katie and Forest; he’s worried about going to prison. Katie says something curious, not that Kenton “lacks the ability” to kill Lily, whom he still regards as a threat, but that “it’s not in [his] power.” Curious indeed.

Additionally, Katie takes Forest to task for his ultimate reason for the Devs program: A personal trial. If it works, determinism outranks free will, so he’s absolved; if not, he’s “guilty” of making the wrong choices, whether he knew what they were or not. Katie sees herself as “a lawyer for the defense.”

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Image via FX on Hulu

Episode 6 clears this up a bit, too. Katie is the one who tells Lily everything she needs to know–Sergei’s murder, the purpose of Devs, and the certain end to the laws of the universe as they know it by Lily’s hand in the very near future–while Forest is left on the sidelines, looking on as others carry out actions on his behalf. He’s basically along for the ride. But a third party aims to muck things up: Kenton, increasingly paranoid and now feeling betrayed, sets out to put a stop to Forest and Katie’s newfound friendship/partnership with Lily and Jamie.

Episode 7 strongly suggests that Devs itself may be ultimately in charge of Devs. That’s a bit of a stretch considering that the AI hasn’t shown any signs of being self-aware or have any kind of agency other than running its predictive software programs, but its very existence makes the ever-shortening existence of its human creators moot. Katie and Forest have resigned themselves to the fact that things are ending and there’s nothing they can do to stop it, despite all the money in the world and unlimited predictive power at their fingertips.

Spoilers from the finale: Interestingly, Forest really was in charge of Devs as its messianic leader, while Katie was a strong right-hand woman who had the tough task of remaining in the real world to oversee Devs after Forest and Lily’s death. What a miserable and heartbreaking job it must be to not just sit back and watch, but to keep Devs running–with congressional support–so that Forest might live with his wife and child; tragic, really. Kenton, meanwhile, was merely a cog in the machine that was Devs; even Stewart had more of a part to play in how things ended, forcing the failure of Devs after Lily’s choice temporarily derailed destiny. The machine itself, dubbed Deus, had little agency, existing not as a directed creator with a purpose but rather a highly sophisticated tool that continues to follow its programming. And while Lily wasn’t “in charge” of anything but her own life and the choices she made, that’s ultimately what was needed to make Devs fail, cause her own and Forest’s death (directly or indirectly, depending on the iteration), and reinsert them back into the system.

Is Everyone Who They Appear to Be?

Image via Raymond Liu/FX

Here’s where we get a little more Westworld with the whole thing.

The somewhat bloody and quietly brutal fight between Kenton and his Russian counterpart Anton ends with the latter’s spine-crunching death. The scene itself also puts a wrinkle in our theory that perhaps Kenton is an artificial human in synthetic flesh, so to speak, since he appeared to be wounded and vulnerable in a very human sense. Perhaps, owing to Adam’s theory, Kenton is actually a security program who is responsible for the integrity of the system and will occasionally have to clash with either rogue programs or invading threats like Anton. Put more simply, perhaps Kenton is the system’s anti-virus software.

Katie feels like something different entirely. Or at least she did, up until the third episode. If she’s a program, she’s a rather human one. “‘Don’t break the rules?’ Coming from her?” asks Stewart, incredulously, after Katie catches them watching a very expensive version of nostalgia porn. But Katie is a no-nonsense, by-the-book exec, willing to accept and allow the murder of a spy if it means preserving the integrity of their project. The question remains, however: Is Katie a solid right-hand woman to Forest, just as Kenton is his right-hand man? Or is she actually in charge of more than we’re being led to believe?

In Episode 4, there’s a discussion of the Devs facility being built on a known active fault line, a fact that disturbs Stewart since the building’s EM fields could fail in an earthquake, causing the mostly glass building to fall and shatter with them inside it. But Katie isn’t bothered. She says it’s because she knows the tolerances of the facility, but maybe there’s more to it than that.

In Episode 5, Katie is seen watching quite a few realities through her once-fuzzy projection device. She watches as Kenton breaks down Jamie, as Lily breaks up with Jamie (poor Jamie) and falls for Sergei, and all the little moments in between, a bit voyeuristically. She’s even able to go back to a young Lily’s teenage years as she plays a game of Go against her father, impressing him by not only thinking three moves ahead but by trusting her instincts for what “feels like” a “strong” position. Later, teenage Lily sits at her father’s bedside in the hospital. He says, “No man ever steps in the same river twice,” explaining that it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man. She ponders this ancient Greek saying alone after he’s gone. Katie watches in the present as Jamie rescues Lily from the psychiatric facility, and curiouser still, Katie smiles at seeing them escape.

Episode 6 continues to both clear things up and muddy the waters at the same time. Katie remains the one who’s most tuned-in with Devs and what’s to come from its predictions while Forest is, increasingly so, not the genius people think he is but, in Lily’s words, “a tech entrepreneur who’s going crazy trying to resurrect his dead daughter.” The Jamie/Kenton dynamic is a little more interesting this time around as Forest learns that Jamie’s job with IT security is with the “defense” while Kenton is very much “offense”; it’s still possible that these two represent separate security programs intended to neutralize each other. Lily, meanwhile, remains either an agent of chaos or an agent of balance to the whole thing; whatever part she has yet to play, it’s bound to be an interesting one.

Episode 7 confirms that, in this world at least, Kenton and Jamie are very much mortal. Jamie dies, executed by Kenton, who then attempts to kill Lily but is interrupted (and killed in the process) by Pete. The kind-hearted homeless guy gets the biggest reveal of the season; he’s a Russian handler of sorts who was tasked with keeping Sergei safe (big failure on that front), followed by keeping tabs on Lily. His intervention on Lily’s behalf was strictly off the books, but it’s a nice surprise in a series of terrible ones, so we’ll take it.

Spoilers from the finale: This is where Devs falls short if you were expecting some kind of major twist: No global battle between god-tier A.I., no reveal of android replicants as perfect body doubles taking over, no nod to the players being various computer programs themselves, no revelation that it was a simulation all along (well, no hard evidence of this, anyway). Instead, the characters are exactly who they appeared to be, for the most part. All the better to drive home the human story at the center of all this techno-religious philosophy.

Will ‘Devs’ Tie into ‘Ex Machina’ at All?

Image via Raymond Liu/FX

Garland’s feature debut Ex Machina explored a number of interesting sci-fi themes: Artificial intelligence and whether or not it’s detectably different from human intelligence at the highest levels, the possibilities and dangers of said A.I., and what a civilization of humans living alongside android A.I. might just look like. It’s a showcase of Garland’s interests and curiosity at its core; Devs is the evolution of that exploration.

The end of Ex Machina was open-ended: The advanced A.I. unit known as Ava manages to disguise herself convincingly as a human and merges into an unknown city. In our timeline, that was back in 2014, but neither Ex Machina nor Devs has a hard date for its storyline. Could Ava be not just the scaffolding that Amaya was based on but the literal entity behind the scenes of the whole thing?

We’re thrown into Devs in the midst of Amaya’s cutting-edge research without much backstory on just how they got to be where they are. We’ve already posited that Katie, Kenton, and the like might be more than meets the eye. It’s entirely possible that Garland’s Ava will be the Eve to this next generation of synthetic humans. It just remains to be seen whether or not Garland and FX want to go that route and tie the two titles into a shared universe. After three episodes, we’re not holding our breath for this one, but we are hoping for a brain-twisting reveal that the people we see and the world they live in is much more than it appears so far.

Or maybe Devs will skew towards Garland’s adapted exploration of the story central to Jeff VanderMeer‘s Annihilation, one that finds an accomplished scientist venturing into the unknown (amidst pressure from a shady government organization) to seek answers as to her husband’s worsening health and to a mysterious and alien environment known as the Shimmer. There are definitely parallels here. Episode 4 suggests that Devs might be headed more in this direction than that of Ex Machina, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see a sort of blending of the two idea sets and the emergence of something new. Fingers crossed! (Garland himself called Devs a “companion piece to Ex Machina” in a recent interview with Engadget; we’ll be revisiting this interview a bit more in the future.)

Episode 6 didn’t do much to explain where Devs was headed, but it did explain the big problem looming over all the players. In less than a day’s time, the universe as they know it (or at least the rules that govern it) will end. And yet there seems to be very little interest in trying to prevent or even understand that apocalyptic event (with the exception of Kenton, who may be following his programming to do just that). Perhaps the more interesting idea isn’t the end-of-the-world event itself, but what caused it, and what comes after?

Spoilers from the finale: Now we know what comes after, and it had next to nothing to do with any of Garland’s other works, not directly anyway. Instead, Devs / Deus “rebooted” a simulation of sorts for Forest and Lily, a paradise where the former could reconnect with his wife and child while the latter ditched the lying, spying Sergei for Good Guy Jamie. Meanwhile, Katie is left on the outside in the “real world” to keep the whole thing running, which is a pretty tragic end, if I do say so myself. However, the Katie in the “box” lives on, even if she’s just a simulated one. One person’s heaven is another’s hell, after all.

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