The young man looked up to see the teenager storming through the dark tunnel toward him without preamble.
“I don’t know what you did, but you shouldn’t have done it,” the teenager fumed, exasperated.
The older boy — he wasn’t really a man yet, was he? he certainly didn’t feel like it — shook his head at the reproach. “Good to see you too, Terrell.” He knew the teenager wasn’t really angry at him. Not exactly.
Terrell ignored him. “I can’t believe you got caught again.”
“Is it that obvious?”
“Trouble? Nah, I think Azor and I get along just fine,” he managed a grin, still sore from that morning’s reprimand at the hand of the commander.
“Oh yeah, so long as he’s got a stun blaster aimed at your head, you guys are buddies.”
The young man straightened his back, swinging the pick at the rock wall and showering mineral shards over them. “He just wanted to say goodbye,” he said. “Turns out he’s leaving today. Got a promotion.”
Terrell stared at him, his bad mood unappeased.
The young man shook his head. “I’d tell you not to worry about it,” he said, “but I know you will anyway.”
“Of course I will. You give me plenty of reason to worry.”
“We all have plenty of reason to worry, Terrell.”
There was a stretch of silence between them, Terrell hefting his pick and joining his companion in attacking the wall. Finally, he spoke again.
The young man kept swinging. “I didn’t make quota yesterday.”
“And since when don’t you make quota?”
“Since Shalin wasn’t feeling well.”
The teenager took a step back.
“You saw the kid,” the young man shrugged. “He could barely carry his pick down to the mines in the morning, never mind use the thing. He was never gonna make it. He needed the rest.”
“So you used his pick instead of yours, and everything you mined went under his name,” Terrell filled in the rest.
“Why didn’t you tell me.” It wasn’t a question, and this time the young man wondered if he really was angry at him.
“I could’ve helped you!” Terrell exclaimed, slamming his pick into the wall in frustration. “Or Jonah, any of us — we would all have pitched in. You didn’t have to take it on by yourself, you know that!”
“And risk having you miss quota too? I don’t think so.”
Terrell glared at him.
He hit the wall again. This tunnel was fresh, begun only yesterday. Each hack he and the boys took at it made it grow, digging themselves deeper into the network of intertwining underground trails, like the arteries of an immense monster.
No, he thought. Not arteries. Arteries carried blood, life, health. Things the mines didn’t offer.
It was more like a throat, a giant mouth about to swallow him alive. Sometimes he almost wished it would.
– – –—– – – –
The deep voice matched the dark of the night.
“The new general reported in this afternoon, sir,” Colonel Jeos Ames replied, standing at attention outside the back of the palace. His dark-skinned face remained stoic as he oversaw an incoming shipment.
“I know that,” Prince Terzahn growled. “But if he intends to last longer in this promotion than his predecessor, he better do more than report in once a damn day.”
Ames knew it was wiser not to reply.
The previous general in charge of the project had gotten demoted to a station so far out in space that no one was likely to hear much from him again. If Azor was half the man his reputation made him out to be, he’d take this new post seriously. If he knew what was good for him.
But Azor did know what was good for him. Ames knew that. Years ago, when Ames was just beginning his own military career, he’d worked under the man in special ops. Since then, he’d moved on to become army colonel, while Azor had taken a different route: He’d risen through the ranks to the top at the mines of Kelmar, where he’d enforced an efficient, and ruthless, regime for the past few years. Clearly, he’d played his cards right. Whatever he did down there had caught the eye of the prince, who found him to be a suitable replacement for his last failed general.
That’s when Ames noticed where Azor was.
“Your Highness,” he said, nodding to direct the prince’s attention. Both men turned and saw the new general, standing atop the transport that had delivered the shipment.
“Good evening, Your Highness,” Azor saluted, bathed in the floodlight emanating from along the side of the palace. The background dropped off into black behind him.
“Azor!” yelled the prince. “What in Trythia’s name –”
“Just overseeing the delivery personally, sir,” Azor explained, raising his voice to be heard over the distance separating them. “I’ll be right down.”
Ames remained emotionless, hiding a hint of annoyance. As a new general, Azor definitely did know what was good for him.
The look on Terzahn’s face hinted he was thinking the same thing.
Just then, the hum of a pair of patrol bikes approached from the south entrance, marking the transport of a new prisoner. An Ender, most likely, Ames thought. He just hoped the bikes would swing wide in their path to the cells. This delivery that he, and apparently Azor, were supervising had been scheduled at night for a reason. The fewer people that saw it, the better.
The pair didn’t swing wide, though, and Ames grimaced inwardly. This could get ugly, if the prince chose to make it. And he usually did.
One of the bikes was carrying an extra passenger. The prisoner. As the pair crossed into the illuminating circle of the floodlights, he got a glimpse of her.
When he turned back toward the prince, he found him staring after the bikes that had just passed.
“Who was that?” Terzahn asked.
The military man in Ames remained stoic, but that didn’t stop him from wishing he had a better answer. “A Middle Patrol guard, Your Highness. Transporting a prisoner, it would seem. Likely an Ender,” he replied.
“Why are they passing so close to the delivery site?”
“I ordered a perimeter maintained, sir. It would seem that –”
“Seem?” the prince snapped. “And that’s an acceptable answer?”
“With respect, sir,” Ames tread carefully, “the perimeter is designed to keep out nonessential personnel. This patrol was clearly not nonessential, in light of their passenger, and the guards maintaining the perimeter likely assumed –”
“Assumed is not good enough.” Ames found himself cut off again. “I want those guards disciplined severely, do you understand me? All of them — the ones who came in, and whoever let them in. Because of them, a prisoner — a criminal — was brought within spitting distance of what’s supposed to be the most well-kept secret in the country.”
“Yes, sir,” Ames acknowledged, already resenting the conversation he would be forced to have with the soldiers.
“And not just any prisoner — an Ender. An Ender!” Terzahn continued, irate. But he didn’t raise his voice. Instead, he kept it icily level, and that was worse. “I want you to find out who he is, this prisoner,” he said evenly. “And have him executed immediately.”
Ames blinked. “Executed? Sir, with respect, we don’t know what the charges are against this —”
“Charges are not the issue, Colonel.” Ames knew it was bad when the prince called him by his title instead of his name. “The issue is that he’s passed too close to a highly sensitive site. Having seen what he’s seen, he must be dealt with.”
Ames’ mind raced. This was harsh, and he knew it — even for an Ender.
As a Middle, he himself had no particular love for the lower class, but he also had no desire to see blood spilled except as a last resort. This was most definitely not yet at that stage.
He had to choose his words carefully.
The prince scoffed. “What difference does that make?”
“Just this: If the bike didn’t pass close enough for you to be able tell the prisoner was a female, and you were trying to see her, then chances are it wasn’t close enough for her to pick up on anything that was going on here.”
The prince didn’t respond immediately. When he did, his voice was unchanged. As was his mind. “I won’t take any chances. Not now.”
“But sir —”
“Why do you care so much, Colonel.” The words felt more like an order than a question.
“I don’t. But any prisoner has the right to a fair trial.”
“A trial presided over by me, as is often the case,” Terzahn pointed out.
“Yes, sir. But with this — for all the justice of sentencing her arbitrarily without hearing the case — you might just as well take her to be part of that experiment of yours, straight from the prison cell.” Ames knew he was arguing a losing angle, but he had to at least try to show the prince the absurdity of what he was ordering.
The prince’s project, the experiment Ames referred to, had already been finalized. Taking in a girl — a prisoner, of all things — was irrational even to suggest.
He waited for the berating to resume, but it didn’t.
He looked at the prince, and wasn’t sure what to make of the expression he found on his face. It was part curiosity, part conniving, and part…something else Ames couldn’t put his finger on. His mind was working, and that made Ames nervous.
“You’re quite right,” the prince agreed. “It would be much the same thing, wouldn’t it?”
Terzahn nodded with finality. “The same thing indeed. Though perhaps, a bit more entertaining. Very well, you’ve saved your Ender, Ames.”
Ames realized what he was getting at, and he hesitated. This wasn’t quite what he’d intended, either. “Your Highness, begging your pardon, but you’re not honestly thinking to —”
– – –—– – – –
The cell was cold. It was also freakishly bright, the light intensified by the pure white walls. In some respects, it felt almost more like a hospital than a prison, sterile and featureless.
Kierah’s eyes had finally adjusted to the brightness after coming in from the dark outside. The two guards had taken her past one floodlit area on the way to the prison, but other than that, it had been pitch black by the time they finished the ride from the market.
The paralysis of the stun blast had also worn off. Not that it particularly mattered; she didn’t have much room to maneuver her newly repossessed limbs anyway. Slick, plastic-like walls made of plastark hemmed her in on three sides, and the fourth was guarded by a plasma shield that functioned as the door. As far as she could tell, it operated like the handcuffs: Two transparent sheets trapping charged plasma between them.
Any hope she might have entertained of escape evaporated when she saw that. But then, she never had much hope for that anyway.
Besides, what did she have left to escape for? Zera was only a memory now, and frankly that kid Rothan was probably better off without her around to attract the wrong kind of attention.
That bruise, though… She found herself remembering the scared little face, the hurt in his eyes. He was too young to have to go through that —
She shook her head and dropped her face into her hands, trying to clear her mind. Why should she care? He was just another kid unlucky enough to be born in the Ends. There were millions like him. He’d survive. He’d made it this far, hadn’t he?
She should really be more concerned for her own survival at the moment. She was sitting in the palace prison, an Ender accused of not only stealing money — which the pair of guards had immediately confiscated when they caught her — but attacking a Middle.
Attacking a Middle. There was no way she was getting off easy on that one. Stealing was bad enough, but violence against a higher class was inexcusable.
She sighed, taking in her bleak surroundings and even bleaker situation.
A sound at her cell door jerked her head up. With a swoosh, the plasma screen slid aside, and a figure stepped in. But it wasn’t a guard.
“Do you know who I am?” The voice was low, but not in an attempt to be quiet. Its speaker wouldn’t need to be covert anywhere, not even in a prison.
Kierah swallowed. “Your Highness.”
It was him. Here, at her cell. She’d seen his face on posters and screens during her ventures to the market in the East Ends. Sometimes she’d wander past the market, into the nearby Middle, just because she could. It was one of the few times she ever voluntarily chose to be reckless, crossing the line like that, but she had to admit there was a small rush she got from it.
That’s where she’d seen his face before. Never inside the Ends themselves, though; apparently promoting his image there wasn’t considered important.
And now he was standing in front of her, in person. Prince Terzhan. The heir to the throne of Trythia. In her cell.
His title was all she could manage to say out loud, but it seemed to be enough. The prince’s expression slid into a partial smile. “You do recognize me,” he said. “That’s more than I expected. Not bad, for an Ender.”
For an Ender?
Despite her nerves and his rank, she realized vaguely that she had just been insulted.
“I might be an Ender, but I’m not stupid.” Before she could debate the wisdom of her reply, it was out of her mouth. “Sir.” She tacked on the last word to soften the edge in her voice, but wasn’t sure it would work.
His half-smile never left his face.
“Really?” he crossed his arms. “I hear from our friend the baker that you stole money, presumably from a Middle. That sounds pretty stupid to me.”
She didn’t answer.
“He also says you assaulted him when he moved to call the guards, and he’s got a bloody nose to prove it.”
This time he came to a complete stop, waiting for her to respond.
She didn’t, just stared emotionless at the ground in front of her. Or, at least she hoped she came across as emotionless; inside, though, she was fighting a mash of fear, intimidation, rage. Part of her wanted shrink back, close her eyes and hide in the corner and hope he would leave. The other part thought it would have been the easiest thing in the world to explode at him, maybe punch him a time or two for good measure.
He just stood there staring at her, as if he was waiting for her to perform, like a cornered animal.
She blinked. “I already tried. In the market. That was what landed me here.”
The prince digested her response. “So you’re saying, he attacked you.”
“Not bad,” she acknowledged. “For a prince.”
“You don’t get points for insulting me,” he frowned, but not without a hint of amusement.
“I didn’t realize we were keeping score. But if we are, I’d call us even.”
She hated talking to people; she never knew what to say. And she wished right now she could get herself to just shut up.
“So I suppose you’re going to tell me you didn’t steal the money either.”
“No, I didn’t steal it. But telling you isn’t gonna do me much good, is it?” She knew the answer before she even finished asking.
He shrugged. “The word of an Ender against that of a Middle? Not likely. It certainly wouldn’t hold much weight at trial.”
She had been expecting that, but the casual way he said it made her bristle. “Then I think this conversation is over.”
“It’s over when I say it is,” he snapped, and she knew she had overstepped a line. He shifted his stance slightly, moving his weight forward with a hint of aggression, and she looked away from the superiority in his stare.
“Do you know what the sentence is for a charge of larceny?” he asked, voice low again.
She rubbed her wrist involuntarily, where the blade would go if — no, not if — when she was convicted. “I know it’s harsher for Enders than for anyone else.”
He either didn’t pick up on the bitterness in her reply, or chose to ignore it.
Or a very long one.
His gaze was as dark as his voice. “You might want to think about that the next time you forget who you’re speaking to.”
He turned on his heel, and that was it. He left with as much abruptness and as little explanation as when he had come in.
Kierah’s eyes were glued to the space on the closing plasma screen where his distorted shape hovered momentarily on the other side, then disappeared down the hall.
What had that all been about? That was the prince, the prince of the entire country, and he had come to see her? She had no idea what to make of it.
Of all she could have taken away from that brief conversation, it was his parting phrase that stuck with her: next time. Had that meant she would see him again, or was it just a passing expression? Seeing him a single time was more than anyone, particularly an Ender, could ever imagine; the prince wasn’t exactly renowned for his charity or philanthropic works, and she wondered if he had even personally set foot inside the Ends in his life.
But if it was such an honor, why did she feel so cold?
With a confused, almost breathless sigh, she wrapped her arms around herself and slid down to the floor.
– – –—– – – –
If the prince’s “next time” had held any significance, he wasn’t in any rush to explain. For the next two days, Kierah remained in her cell — and soon the worst part about being imprisoned sank in: She was bored stiff.
Hour after hour, she sat in her little 5-by-8-foot white box. Or stood. Or, if she was feeling adventurous, walked in circles.
It wasn’t fair. None of it was. Her whole life, now that she thought about it, had been a string of injustice — she’d just somehow buried it in the back of her mind until now. She’d always been so focused on survival that she never really had time to think about being bitter. And when she wasn’t worried about herself, Zera usually gave her plenty to worry about. Though Kierah was younger, she was the one who played the more mature role, looking out for both of them.
But now, she didn’t have Zera to watch over. She didn’t have food to scavenge for. She had nothing but empty time, and her thoughts roamed into territory she never had really delved into before.
For the first time, she was overwhelmed by resentment, so much that it shocked her. But she lingered in it. She didn’t feel like rousing the energy to fight it, to convince herself it wasn’t really that bad. It was that bad .
The self-pity indulgence was so strong that she barely bothered to look up at hearing the dissolving of the door. It was probably another meal of slop being slid through the portal at the base of the screen.
But the sound was larger than the small hatch could generate. Forcing her eyes up, she was surprised to see the door opened all the way, with a huge guard framed in the opening.
“Come with me,” he intoned in a deep, completely uninterested voice.
Kierah bit her lip. This was it. Her boredom was over. Now she’d stand before the court, with its panel of judges headed up by none other than the king, or in his frequent absence, the prince, to be tried for the biggest mistake of her life. How dare she try to buy bread with her own money.
Wordlessly she rose and followed the guard. Outside the cell waited another equally burly and bored guard, who fell in step behind her. As they made their way through the white hallways, she wondered why they hadn’t bothered to handcuff her.
They led her up a steep flight of stairs and through a series of security barriers before finally emerging on the other side.
Beyond the prison doors, the blinding white ambiance disappeared in favor of warmer, richer tones. The plastic-like walls were traded for patterned intervals of stone and stainless steel. Between them, a row of slate-colored rock formed a transition, which Kierah recognized as a nod to the ore parodesium: the planet’s fuel source.
Parodesium was the backbone of Trythian society; its discovery centuries ago had been the turning point marking the end of the colonial age and the beginning of the modern era. All the technological advances that made the planet the economic envy of the galaxy had been powered by its energy — from the early industrial factories to the current digital development centers, plasma-based defense systems and hovercraft technologies.
Other worlds would trade anything to have such an energy source in as ready a supply. Some even went so far as to fight over it. Currently, Trythia was in the middle of truce negotiations with its nearest neighbor, Etrusia, following a long conflict that civilians on both sides still didn’t quite believe was over.
Kierah’s eyes trailed along the imitation parodesium stripe as she followed behind the first guard, until the wall fell away abruptly around a corner. Their hallway had come to an end, opening up to a much wider space — an indoor avenue, its ceiling arching high over a river of people, Nobles, dignitaries, servants, more guards.
As Kierah looked past the crowd, she realized the wall along one side of the hallway — the entire wall — was made of glass, revealing a world of lush greenery on the other side.
In the Ends, the closest she’d ever gotten to plant life was the scraggly weeds that poked through the concrete cracks. Those did nothing to prepare her for what she saw now: glossy leaves, spiraling tendrils, blooms in tropical shades she’d never seen before; manicured lawns, sculpted trees stretching toward the sky; branches and petals swaying in a dance with the breeze.
It felt like they’d walked along the glass wall forever before they finally broke away and headed down a side hall. The stone, steel and stripe walls again fell into place around them, until the guards stopped in front of a series of more glass panels. The lead guard touched something in the wall, and one panel slid open. A door.
Kierah was right behind him as he stepped through — until she saw what was on the other side. The door opened into a small capsule made entirely of glass, including the floor. And through that glass, a vast atrium soared — the opposite side was hundreds of yards away, patterned with balconies and more glass capsules, shooting like bullets from one story to the next. A thousand geometric windows glittered with the light from some source so far above them Kierah couldn’t see, overlooking a ground level populated with sculptures, floor mosaics, hovering pods transporting people smaller than ants from this vantage point. Beneath the transparent floor of the capsule, a waterfall dropped away dozens of feet before thundering into a crystalline pond.
Kierah balked at the capsule’s threshold, but the guard behind her pushed her inside. Before she could catch her breath, her stomach fell away like the waterfall as the door closed behind them and they were flying up the wall.
She felt queasy, and it wasn’t just from the ascent. With every floor they sped past, doubt grew that the High Court was actually their destination.
When the capsule finally slowed and Kierah stepped out onto a solid surface again, her uneasiness spiked. This floor had a distinctly residential feel to it, with ornate but identical doors lining both walls of the wide corridor, and little else.
They stopped in front of one of the doors far down the hall. Her feet stood still, but her heart was running. She had been nervous for her trial, but that wasn’t where she was headed. That was abundantly clear now.
The next thing she knew, the door was opened and she was shoved inside. She whirled around back towards the door, but the guards had shut it behind her. Neither of them had followed her in.
It was crazy, but she realized she was afraid the prince was behind this, that he’d be standing right there. He had said “next time,” hadn’t he? She turned.
There was no one. She was alone, as far as she could tell, in a room whose size and elegance made her step back against the door.
It was a bedroom — no, it couldn’t be, it was too big. But there was a bed at the far wall, a canopied oasis as large as her entire apartment back in the Ends. A floor-to-ceiling window shone with the afternoon sunlight, highlighting a sitting area with couches and tables, a dressing area and wall of closets. Flowers were everywhere, sumptuous fabrics, sleek metals and stone — Kierah squeezed her eyes shut for a moment. It was too much.
She stood with her back to the door, afraid to move. Where was this? Breath came with difficulty, whether from fear or from the sheer beauty of the place, she didn’t know. She also didn’t know how long she stood there frozen before the silence was disturbed by a sharp click. The door behind her pulled away, and she jumped forward, startled.
A voice exclaimed in surprise from the doorway. “Oh my! Pardon me!”
Kierah stepped back, taking in the woman with a quick glance. She was round, with bright eyes, and black hair pulled smoothly back away from her cheeky face. And she was dressed in the same silver uniform she’d seen people in the avenue wearing, with beige and a dark gray stripe down one side. A servant’s outfit, she assumed.
“I’m sorry to startle you,” the woman smiled, regaining her composure almost instantly. And, strangely enough, she didn’t seem shocked to find Kierah there. “My name’s Terula,” she continued, “and you must be Kierah Kaelan.”
Kierah blinked. She knew?
“Ah, it’s all right,” Terula waved off her silence. “I’m sure you’re nervous, this is all new to you isn’t it?”
“Oh I’m sure you must be exhausted, dear,” Terula continued, “But we must get some food into you first, you look positively starving. When I was told you were coming, I knew we’d have our hands full, but look at you! Poor thing, looks like you haven’t eaten in days. We’ll get you fixed up, for sure. And such a silent one too,” she rattled on. “Must be the shock of it all, I can’t imagine coming into all this from where you came from, poor dear. And those clothes — we’ll hafta do something about that, now, won’t we. I suppose you haven’t had a proper bath in who knows how long!”
“No,” Kierah’s voice sounded microscopic in the sprawling space.
Walking up to her, she picked up Kierah’s sleeve between her thumb and first finger with a look of dissatisfaction. Clicking her tongue, she shook her head. “No no no, this will never do. Come come now, we must get you cleaned up.”
Kierah tried to swallow the tension constricting her throat. “Why?” she asked. Had this woman been sent to prepare her for the trial? The idea that the prince had orchestrated this whole thing seemed more plausible by the minute — but no less difficult to understand. Did he have something else in mind for her?
Terula smiled. “Oh, dear, we can’t very well expect you to figure your own way around this, now, can we?”
“My own way around what?”
“Around these whole proceedings. I’m just here to help you.”
Personal pre-trial coaching? Kierah groped for words.
“What’s — where am I? What’s this room? When’s my trial?” she managed. A million other questions tripped over each other in her mind, but this was the simplest she could force out of her mouth.
“Oh, it’s not a trial, dear, don’t be silly!” the woman dismissed her. “It’s a press conference.”
“What?” Kierah swallowed. “Since when?”
“What do you mean?”
“What do you mean?” she came back. “My trial … is that what this is about? A trial’s usually what comes after being arrested…” she trailed off, jaw working.
Terula still seemed amused. “Now, I’m sure the selection process must have been stressful, but I wouldn’t call it an arrest.”
“I was handcuffed and sat in prison for the past two days.”
“Prison?” The maid’s reassuring smile disappeared. Apparently, this was news to her. “No, no that can’t be right,” her voice fell to a self-contained mumble. “I’m sure he didn’t mention anything about that — all he said was that there was another — that I should prepare another room, to get her ready–“
Kierah tried to weed through that. “Another? Another of what?” In a weird way, she was almost reassured to know she wasn’t the only one who had no idea what was going on.
Terula looked her in the eye. “What’s your name?”
“It is?” She seemed more confused. “And — and you’re an Ender?”
Kierah shrugged at her threadbare clothes. “Do I look like anything else?”
The maid’s nod admitted she had a point. “Then there’s no mistake. You’re the right girl.”
“But…he left out the prison part, that’s…that’s all.” She eyed Kierah cautiously. She was trying to hide it, but clearly that bit about Kierah being a criminal had dampened her cheerful demeanor. Kierah almost wondered if she should try to explain that she had done nothing to deserve the arrest, but decided that wouldn’t mean anything to the woman. Arrestees always claimed innocence. Especially when they were guilty.
“Who’s the ‘he’ you keep mentioning?” She figured she already knew the answer.
“Why, the prince, of course.”
“So you’re saying,” Kierah tried to wrap her head around what was happening, “there is no trial. I’m not going to get sentenced. And the prince decided this.”
“As far as I’m aware.”
“And instead I’m going to a — what’d you say it was?”
“A press conference. About what?”
Terula hesitated. “Honestly, I’m not entirely sure. I just know the prince is going to announce just what he has planned for you all.”
“All? There are others? Other prisoners?”
“Oh, no,” the maid shook her head. “Not prisoners. Other —” she stopped herself and sighed. “If you don’t already know, then I suppose I can’t tell you either.”
Kierah leaned back into the arm of a sofa, oblivious to the dirt she was smudging into it. She felt dazed. “Why,” she whispered.
She must have looked weak, because Terula’s suspicion softened. “I’m sorry, dear. This isn’t by my choice, believe me. Now, come, you’ve had quite an ordeal, apparently. Let’s get you cleaned up, all right?”
Kierah eyes felt suddenly heavy. She didn’t have any argument left. “I got the sofa dirty,” she mumbled.
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” Terula smiled. “It’s your room, after all.”
RE-READ THE LAST CHAPTER ↔ OR KEEP READING TO THE NEXT!
Kierah felt like a piece of lint that didn’t belong in the pristine auditorium. Despite spending the night in the most comfortable bed she’d ever lain in, she hadn’t been able to sleep, and after Terula’s scrubbing and primping and … Continue reading Chapter 3: The Experiment
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