Dispatch from the Razor's Edge, the Blog of Michael Stephen Fuchs
(← home page for Beyond Land's End Dispatches)
2006.09.27 : Welcome to the Suck
And the End of the Line
"A few bright blue birds mocked one with other people's happiness, and the scenery – the great pine forests dropping like curtains – was, I suppose, magnificent, but I was too sick and bruised to care."
- Graham Greene, The Lawless Roads

"A room with a bed and sheets, a beautifully cooked meal, steak and greens and sweet bread, a bottle of beer, and the radio playing: I was drunk and dazed with happiness."
- ibid

Lying in my tent in the Lizard, near to the pigs, I dreamt long, vivid, grand, yet frustrating dreams. Really long and involved. I wonder how time compression works in dreams. Are we like Data, reviewing video at impossible speeds? Can our brains run through a dozen reels of dream footage in a two-hour REM cycle? Or do they run in real time, a minute for a minute? And how could we tell?

I awake at the usual time, and open the tent to find no sun – which goes to show that it's not so much the light waking you as it is some sort of (pardon my hippy-Earth-child-ness) getting into the rhythm of the earth. No sun; but instead low, solid, grey, wet skies – and small particles of water floating down from them. Which goes to show you that no lucky streak goes on forever. And which also sucks.

I can't claim I'm feeling much enthusiasm for an 11-mile trudge in rain gear – seven of those miles said (by the guidebook) to be basically uninteresting. And I've read there are three buses a day onward up the coast. (You can see where this is going.) I'll see how I feel after coffee; and a world's-greatest pasty.

Oh, I'm also sneezing and sniffling incessantly this morning. And I'm still hearing Big Fun in my head – only ironically now. In that state do I stumble into town – which, for the record, is a 90-second walk away, God bless a centrally located camp site – and find everything closed but the greengrocer/butcher and the shop from last night.

On a pole on the green, I find the bus timetable; and am confused to find that every service goes west – back whence I came. Okay, in London, when this happens, you go to the other side of the street. However there is no other side of the street, or, at any rate, no bus stop there, nor anywhere else on the green. My inquiries, first of the butcher, then of the shop clerk, seem to yield the info that this is in fact the end of the Earth – or, at any rate, the end of the line. To go forward, I must first go back – or, at least, up (north).

Much, much, much, much more distressingly, I also determine that no place in town will serve me coffee, or even tea, until 10am – two hours from now. "You poor dear," said the woman proprietor of the shop whom the clerk asked for a second opinion on the availability of coffee. Evidently, my expression betrayed my despair.

However! Jo to the rescue. I'd seen a sign somewhere at the camp site to the effect that coffee and tea were available, for 80p, "at any time." (The sign was even headlined: "Need Your Caffeine?" or some such.) So I grabbed a litre of White Wave soya milk, headed back, and hoped "anytime" was inclusive of 8am.

I found Jo doing up breakfast for her kids (a boy in addition to the two girls I'd seen yesterday on the school run) – which she dropped instantly, with a great sigh of sympathy, to make me coffee.

Jo: "How do you take it?"
Me: "Well, I've brought my own soya milk. And 145 sugars, if you have them, please."
Jo: "So black with two sugars."
Me: "That will do."

While she boiled, I confessed that the weather had really sapped my enthusiasm for today's walk. Jo commiserated, but began talking – in detail – about how lovely the walk is, and the pretty town along the way, and how it was fairly easy and flat, and how the weather really wasn't much, and by the time she was done, I was too ashamed to admit (perhaps even to myself) that I'd ever contemplated hopping on a bus, or just hanging around in Lizard for the day.

Now I sit sipping greedily, and scribbling in a palsied fashion, at a picnic table by my tent – and my will is wavering again. But . . . it's just starting to look like my fate to have to finish this damned walk.

Bye, Rasher!

Bye, Porky!
Think I'll run back to the shop and get some Muesli to go with rest of my soya milk. Maybe I'll get the pigs some more tarts while I'm there. It's hard to think of many more opportunities in life to create that much happiness for 89p.

Packing up now. Brr. Yuck. Resigned.

On a positive note, allow me to say that Herbal Essences Fruit Infusion Blackberry, Avocado, and Mango is about the nicest smelling shampoo of all time.

I'm actually nearly an hour late for my bespoke pasty pick-up. But they're waiting and piping hot. I'm really full up from breakfast, but I have to have a bite or two before packing them away – I feel rather like I've just exited a really good bagel bakery in New York, or . . . I have no other points of comparison.

    I'm exiting the Peninsula due East, via Church Cove. (The map notes, "Not suitable for swimming" – does this mean no swimming in church, or that God is absent? Or vengeful?) On the way, I do pass a lovely church, with a sweet and sad WWII memorial. Presumably this is the eponymous Church of the Cove.

The last stretch before the water is down a totally lovely lane that's just a profusion of flowers (and a nice cottage).

As I hit the coast, and cast around for the coast path, I am exactly immediately led into two consecutive dead ends – resulting from a combination of crappy waymarking (them) and obstinacy (me) – from both of which I have substantially to backtrack.

Lovely start. You know, it's like when you've got a huge drive ahead of you, and you just want to get out of town and get going, and instead you end up spending 45 minutes circling around looking for the interstate. Bastards.

Once I finally get onto, and a little ways down, the interstate, I stop to stretch and disrobe. I'm stumbled upon, mid-stretch, and end up chatting with, a nice Scots couple – from Fife, late of Edinburgh. Gobsmackingly, they've previously done the whole Southwest Coast Path (that's the 600-mile version of my piddling walk) – plus one of the coastal GR routes in France, the Pembridgeshire Coast Path in Wales, and a lot more walking around Yorkshire. They're just back here on the Cornwall coast rehashing old glories and amusing themselves. They give me several good tips, as you might well imagine they could.

Here comes the sun, boo-doo-boop-ba . . . However, at the same time, and from the other direction: Here comes the storm. Boo-doo-boop-ba.

Despite this morning's dire sluggishness, once I get moving, a couple of miles in, I'm fine-ish, back in the game again. Plus, the weather's still holding – cool, overcast, windy – not bad rambling weather, really. For now. I figure after tea at [] (the notebook just says "[]", I see now it was Cadgwith) – enhanced with the dregs of the soya milk I'm humping with me – I should be ready to murder those last seven.

I believe this feature ← is the Devil's Frying Pan, a rather good name. And my hat's off to whomever carved this awesome, flowery bench. →

Cadgwith (about 4 miles in) is an exceedingly cute, little, cove-shaped hamlet. It's actually kind of strangely New England-y to my eye – which of course is saying how much the original looks like the copy. I take my rest in the cosy, cobblestoned patio of a joint called The Old Cellars, which is already half-filled with other walkers – happily, on their way out. I say happily, mainly because one old crone with a crewcut (which is more folds of wrinkled flesh than hair) keeps giving me, for reasons unimaginable, except perhaps that I'm not as horrible as she is, the evil eye. (*)

In the ritual of preparing the tea – and in my frenzy of slagging people off – I nearly forget about my soya milk. Yum. Oh – those long-walked Scots I met yesterday beat me here, both coming in and going out. Nice to see them; and no shame in trailing behind them.

I discover I'm getting really paranoid about my photo CDs and scribble-filled notebooks – and, okay, excited about the content of this dispatch. At my table, I mark my e-mail address, mobile number, and "Reward!" in each of the notebooks, and on the taped-together bundle of CDs.

After tea, as I'm endeavouring to get out of town, I am stopped at a huer's hut by an old woman, and a slightly less old woman, the former of which gives me the entire history of fishing in the village of Cadgwith. I can't tear myself away, and admittedly don't entirely want to. So I stand holding my hat and smiling for just as long as she cares to go on. This is the kind of thing that would never happen in London.

Now, we fuck up those seven miles.

So they make a lot of the stile steps around here out of serpentine – that pretty, green, local rock I mentioned – which is really lovely, and a completely bad idea, as the stone gets polished by thousands of passing boots, and becomes slicker than hell, never mind when wet. When not focusing on surviving climbs over fences, I get kind of obsessed about finding a nice piece of loose serpentine on the path to take as a souvenir. Stupidly obsessed: I see nothing but the trail beneath my feet for a couple of miles.

I'm already thinking greedily both about a bed inside tonight – the weather is increasingly windy, grey, and freezing (wintry, in a word); and a possible bus ride tomorrow. Apparently the road from Coverack to Helford goes through the middle of a working quarry, and then curves way inland – which part of "coast path" were they fuzzy on? – to avoid more quarries.

Ponies ahead! I've already diverted from a diversion – admittedly more because I don't care to be diverted, than to see the ponies – when I come upon them. I'd heard or read somewhere about these, which are kept wild on this land – in large part to keep the grass down. So, basically, they're human – I mean, equine – strimmers. (Strimmer in American: weed whacker.) Anyway, I have kind of a Jurassic Park-y moment when I come across them majestically lounging, right in the path. I edge around them, snapping photos. Lovely hair.

Now I realise (having found my hunk of serpentine), I'm carrying a rock seven miles. Very clever. On the upside, the temp has risen, and the wind has dropped – though the sun is still MIA. You might reasonably wonder why I'm continuing on if this has stopped being a ton of fun. The only thing that occurs to me in response is: the marathon.

Millions of people run a marathon every year. Can there conceivably be any pleasure in that? I mean, in the actual event, the four hours of body abuse? (Sara can correct me.) Yet all these people do it just to prove to themselves that they can do it. So – so what if there's an aspect of that in long distance walking? There are also a lot of other, purely hedonistic aspects. It's a mix, I reckon.

Now they've started paving sections of the path with serpentine – including steps. Bastards.

In all the grey desolation, I pass a scary-looking dude – who is inexplicably carrying a plastic shopping bag. Stubble, ski cap, sweatshirt – the kind of lone male that makes you go into condition yellow in a really isolated area. As we pass, he speaks, pointing out that I've got a tailwind. Hadn't noticed. Um, thanks.

Me: <reading mileage marker> "Coverack . . . 8½ miles???!!! You fuckers! You're saying I've only walked 2½ miles?!" <walks around to other side to read mileage other direction, which has sort of an update plaque screwed on> "Lizard: 6 miles. Okay, that's better." <pause, resigned sigh> "Well . . . they're not going to suck themselves."

For the first time I actually walk right past a public loo when I need the loo. The thought of another round of that smell (enormously concentrated urine), versus waiting another ½ mile for a nice, breezy cliff side . . .

Uh, oh – a couple of drops of rain. As one does, I hope that's it – but I know it's never yet been just a couple of drops and that's it.

Okay, how the hell am I supposed to interpret this?! ← Seriously – would you go left or right?

I keep pushing my luck with this threatening rain (and avoiding putting on rain gear). I kind of feel like I'm walking out of it, and that it's blowing through. But of course I'm wrong, and it soon gets heavier, and so I take shelter under a tree. Fuck it. I get Gore-Tex'd up. I even have my gloves out and on before my hands have gotten wet. Good to go!

Top of Ass-kicking Climb
It feels good, actually – now the weather can do its worst. I'm also pretty safe from thorns and nettles. It's like being armoured. Robo-Rambler! The armour doesn't do much, though, to save me from ass-kicking climbs, as I immediately discover.

I'm being seriously dogged by a Coast Guard helo again. Maybe this time they think I'm an alien robot drug smuggler. Smuggling in Pan Galactic Gargleblaster constituent ingredients from Rigel. The notorious Rigel → Cornwall pipeline.

As the storm picks up, I pass a couple of (cue MacCarthyite slagging) half-wet half-wits in shorts and semi-sorta-water-resistant jackets. Ha, ha, ha! Losers!

In the growing gale, as I step out onto another starkly exposed cliff face, something lands on the brim of my hat. It's a baby snail! Clinging on for dear life! And I was complaining about the wind . . .

"Welcome to the Suck"
    But, speaking of which (the wind), now I'm literally having to plant every left step up into the verge on the inland side of the trail, just to keep the blasting offshore wind from hurling me into the thorny gorse. Though I guess that's better than an onshore wind. I'd be planting my right steps, or, rather, the one right step, at the cliff bottom. Here's a bit of all that joyousness immortalised in video. Welcome to the Suck.

As I bend forward at the waist to do that bag-hitching-and-belt-strap-tightening manoeuvre, I discover that my waterproof pack cover has half blown off. (As to how it half blew off, without totally blowing off, I'll never know.) As I unsling the bag to re-seat and more tightly to cinch the cover, I also take the opportunity to configure a proper interface from my hat-lanyard module into my rain kit sub-system. Because the lanyard wasn't long enough to reach around to the front of the hood and then back to the carabiner on my pack, I'd been relying on the jacket hood to keep the hat on. But, even tightly cinched, the hood has been threatening to blow off – and I know the hat would have been just one good gust behind it.

    Shortly, the rain lets up, but the wind continues; so I peel back the hood and jam the hat in its carrier position under my shoulder strap, head bare to the elements. I tell you, there's something enormously liberating about just totally, utterly giving up on your hair. Throwing it to the winds, as it were. I feel like a Viking.

If I look a little grim here ←, it's not only because of the miserable weather; not only from the cumulative fatigue; but also because I am standing at the very bottom of an enormous down-and-up – of which the up is handily the steeper, slicker, dicier, and generally more enormous. I have no idea how the Everest summiteers do it without 02. I can barely haul myself up this, and I'm, maybe, 200ft above sea level.

<pant, gasp> Okay. There's that bitch. At the top, I also decide: That's all the fun I can handle. I'm done with this one. (I know I'll probably change my mind again.)

I've also been starting to bonk (*) fairly hard. I've had visions of tearing into that first pasty at the top of this climb – however, the top lets directly out onto a completely exposed face, with blasting wind and spray. Not an ideal spot for a meal.

At the bottom just now, I'd also thought, very clearly: Well, hell, at least it's not Patterdale to Shap. It's certainly no Patterdale to Shap. But as I cross the wind-blasted face of this cliff – and then start climbing again, up into even thicker mists – I wonder if I'm going to need to revisit that.

But, just as I finish writing the above, and pull myself up to stumble on, the climb tops out. And I espy something in the distance, some buildings perhaps, that just might be – oh, please, let them be – wherever the hell it is I'm going today. But they turn out not to be it – they never appear again, in fact. (Mirage? Hallucination?)

Shortly after is another climb up a rock crevice which I don't exactly do on hands and knees, but I do find myself using my hands an awful lot, and let's just say I've got to bear at least a visual resemblance to those survivors of the 97 Everest disaster who came stumbling blindly back into base camp.

And this ← isn't a very heartening thing to find up here, either. Except in that, according to the inscription, BJ Sharpe bit it at age 30, so at least I've outlived him. And it does feel awfully good just to sit here right in the middle of the path with BJ (who else would be out here? today?), writing this.

But perhaps, as with the guy in Jack London's nerve-shredding story "To Build a Fire", that pleasant feeling is the call of death, and I'd better get up and keep moving. Right, then . . . However, when I power up the phone, and discover it's only 3:42, and it's still feeling so damned good to sit here, I decide to bust out the pasty instead. I'll just sit up here and eat my pasty with good old BJ, ole BJ Sharpe, old boy.

I'm actually still lying right where I first dropped – to take that photo of BJ's resting place – now reclining grandly on my bag, enjoying the pasty and the lofty, misty views . . .

And it starts raining again. Oh, you BASTARDS . . .

Right. So. Now I sit in the . . . the . . . the whatever the fuck the one pub is in . . . in . . . in wherever the fuck I am.

I am wearing the same clothes I stood up in when I left Lizard. There is a reason for this.

It is raining. It is going to rain forever. I can feel it. This is Cornwall. The sunny, pretty, breezy Cornwall I thought I knew was an illusion, a faerie, a phantom Cornwall. An alternate Cornwall, the evil anti-Cornwall from a parallel universe.

In the real Cornwall, it rains. It has always rained; it always will. The real Cornwall is rain, and billowing wind, and waves, and rocks for them to break implacably upon. Forever.

My feet are wet. There is a reason for this. Everything is wet. Forever.

So, when it resumed raining on my picnic, there in the middle of the path, there lying on my bag, me and my pasty and ole BJ . . . when it resumed raining, it started up like before, just a moderate splashy rain. But very soon, the sky gained weight. It bulged, it sank, it distended . . . it darkened spectacularly. The wind picked up. And the rain came down. For real.

It made the scene in the "Welcome to the Suck" video, shot so very long ago, look like a Sandals Resorts promo. That wasn't the Suck. That couldn't open for the opening act for the real Suck.

The crone just came in. The wizened crone from The Old Cellars in Cadgwith. "Hello," she says, pinning me with her evil eye. "I think we've seen you before." "Yes, ma'am," I mutter, in fear; then scribble down this, in spite.

Anyway, back to the corpulent, incontinent, swarthy skies . . . and the rain . . . and the wind. Did I mention the new incarnation of the wind? I don't know. 40mph? 50? I'm no judge.

Soon I was walking at such an angle, slanting my right shoulder out toward sea, that when the wind paused suddenly, I had to scramble to keep from falling over. Over and over again.

I walked at this angle, stumbling violently with every change of the smashing wind – gloved right hand held up permanently to my face, to keep the slanting, biting, wind-driven drops of rain (and I swear on my last breath they were needle-shaped) from lashing my right cheek, from sticking me in the eye.

I staggered on like this. Like this.

There are no photos from this period. There are no movies. There are no notes – if only because the notebook wouldn't have lasted 15 seconds out in the storm. I thought to myself – I remember very clearly – I thought to myself, and I imagined myself addressing you, chere reader: The Dispatch is OVER. Please go home now. Good night to you all. Dramatic, fulminating skies; slanting, violent, wind-driven rain; I couldn't be arsed to capture it to film, to do anything with it. Any of it. Goodnight. Thank you all.

I've relocated myself now, to the opposite side of the pub, whatever the one pub is, here in wherever I am, the opposite side from the crone. And her cronies. I have privacy. I have a bit of silence. Albeit, radio playing that forgotten song; Brenda Lee, comin' on strong.

So, right: those blasting, conceivably 50mph, sheer winds on the exposed cliff face – face bared to the full fury of the sea. Somewhere in there, undoubtedly, was where my pack cover blew off. Blew clean off. By the time I realised it, feeling some premonition and feeling around behind me, there was no hope of going back to hunt for it. Manifestly, the wind that took the cover off that pack would have been more than sufficient also to take it to, say, Devon. Or East Anglia.

In answer: Yes, I'd cinched it. And I'd tightened the cinching. And I'd stopped to tighten the cinching again. I'm thinking rivets – and perhaps rivets alone – might have carried the day.

And. So. The one nice thing about this whole experience – namely being waterproof, covered up and secure against the elements – was swept from me. Like . . . like . . . like a waterproof pack cover being swept off a pack, and off a path, and over a cliff face, and into another county. Or world.

There is another pool table here. English pool balls don't have stripes, or solids, or numbers. Just a lot of red balls, and yellow balls. On one level, it's simpler. But you can't play cut-throat, which is a loss.

The people in wherever the fuck it is I am don't seem to like non-locals very much. I've been here not quite two hours and so far a shopkeeper and a barman have been mean to me. Albeit, I walked into the shop .005 seconds before closing time, and did quite a bit of shopping. Thank God I caught that shop.

By and by, the very narrow path – think, like, maybe 18 inches to place your feet in – turned into a stream. In places, a terrifically effectively well-damned stream. Rushing, sluicing, surprisingly deep, muddy water – coming my way fast.

Right as I thought to myself that the one enjoyable part of this, being waterproof, had been swept away . . . right then was when I also felt the water seeping into my conspicuously Gore-Tex unlined Garmont Vegan high-tech ass-sucking hikers. And also into my gloves. The lovely gift gloves from Joe and Laura for which I waited so avidly, and which I received with such glee. The fingers were wet and heavy – wetter and heavier with every passing moment; with every passing slog.

I checked to make sure my jacket cuffs were down over the wrists of the gloves, so that the water wasn't dripping in that way. They were; it wasn't. The wrists of the gloves were dry. The palms were dry. The fingers, stuck out in the storm, were sodden. I checked the little tags on the wrists of the gloves. They read: "Weatherproof". Okay. Fair enough. They didn't actually say "Waterproof". Nor did they say: "Cornwall Weatherproof".

I stopped drinking water (from the tube of my hydration sleeve). I wasn't really playing anymore. I just wanted out. Or, rather, in.

You may have noticed the range which my moods traverse on a trip like this. I get peeved. I get mordantly amused. I do sardonic, I do fatalistic. I certainly do sarcastic.

But when the pack cover went . . . I got actually, genuinely, self-seriously pissed off. I know there's no point in being pissed off. About anything. Ever. And of all the very many things there's no point whatsoever in being pissed off about, at all, ever, the weather is at the exact very top of the list. Nonetheless, at that moment – out in the storm, standing in the stream, taking on water with both hands and both feet – I was an angry, sullen, humourless bastard.

As I straddled the stream-cum-path – feeling the pack sit lower and lower and lower, and heavier and heavier, as it absorbed, I don't know, a good couple of litres of water – I thought: We're done here. I don't care if I have to get a cab from the front door of the wherever-the-fuck-I'm-staying YHA to my platform at the Falmouth train station . . . I was about eight years old at that moment, and it wasn't fun anymore, and I was taking my ball and going home.

But even quitting still required getting to wherever the fuck it is I was going. Coverack. I've remembered where I am. It's Coverack. But there is no Coverack, I became convinced, trudging endlessly through the storm. It just never appeared; ever. Long ages had passed since I'd seen the mirage of buildings; and the real town hadn't appeared to replace it. And it kept on not appearing. I figured they must have shut it. Coverack was right out of the next edition of the guide book. Coverack was a mean joke. Coverack was a fond memory.

The radio is now playing another forgotten song: Don't you . . . forget about me . . . Bump-ba! No, no, no, no . . . Did you know that John Hughes released Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Ferris Bueller's Day Off in 1984, 1985, and 1986? That trifecta which completely defined the 80s (at least for those of us who traversed all our teenage years in the 80s), dead smack in the middle of the 80s, all right in a row. Wow.

I'm running out of money. There is no cash point in Coverack. I don't know what I'm going to do about that. There aren't many cash points, it seems in Cornwall. There are rocks. There is rain.

Eventually, at the end of time, Coverack appeared in the distance. I veered off the Coast Path onto a marked "Footpath", which seemed to head toward the town. I knew I was going to regret this. But from that intersection, the Coast Path descended down muddy, rocky, steep, treacherous cliffs – and then climbed them again, somewhere, presumably before Coverack; and, while I was ready to lay down and die, I wasn't quite ready to fall down and die.

We can dance if we want to. We can leave our cares behind.

Coverack appeared in the foreground. I descended the hill. I climbed the hill. I clomped into the YHA – exactly five minutes before reception was to re-open. I stood and dripped on the rug, my pack slumping lower and heavier, for the five minutes. When the reception woman appeared, and looked up in surprise at my mine-shaft-collapse-victim-like figure, I croaked: "A bed for the night. And directions to your drying room."

    I checked in for two nights. I hung up every single thing I had – less what I stood up in, inside the Gore-Tex – in the drying room. (Because every single thing I had, everything in the coverless pack, was soaked.) I took a hot shower. I stared out the rain-spattered window of my room. → I was tired; and am tired. I have chipmunk eyes. I am sitting in the pub, by the English pool table, scribbling palsiedly, and sipping my second pint of Doom Bar.

"There must have been moments when Odysseus, years after his return from the Trojan War, relaxed on a sofa with a glass of wine in his hand and muttered to Penelope, 'You know, that was actually a pretty sweet trip.' That's one of the strange things about travelling."
- Jeff Greenwald, The Size of the World

You know, that was actually a pretty sweet trip. You can all go home now. Good night.

Route Follower Alongerer :

Tomorrow: Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

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close photo of Michael Stephen Fuchs

Fuchs is the author of the novels The Manuscript and Pandora's Sisters, both published worldwide by Macmillan in hardback, paperback and all e-book formats (and in translation); the D-Boys series of high-tech, high-concept, spec-ops military adventure novels – D-Boys, Counter-Assault, and Close Quarters Battle (coming in 2016); and is co-author, with Glynn James, of the bestselling Arisen series of special-operations military ZA novels. The second nicest thing anyone has ever said about his work was: "Fuchs seems to operate on the narrative principle of 'when in doubt put in a firefight'." (Kirkus Reviews, more here.)

Fuchs was born in New York; schooled in Virginia (UVa); and later emigrated to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he lived through the dot-com boom. Subsequently he decamped for an extended period of tramping before finally rocking up in London, where he now makes his home. He does a lot of travel blogging, most recently of some very  long  walks around the British Isles. He's been writing and developing for the web since 1994 and shows no particularly hopeful signs of stopping.

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ARISEN : Operators, Volume I - The Fall of the Third Temple by Michael Stephen Fuchs
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