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Peallos' marble drifted into the ring with a grace Arlan was now accustomed to. He idolized his older brother, There wasn't anything he could do wrong. Some of his friends from school said ten year olds knew everything. Peallos certainly always beat Arlan at this game. The marble struck several of Arlan's marbles, sending them from the ring.
Arlan's heart sank as he realised that he had lost once more.
"Don't worry Arlan." Peallos always comforted him after he lost. "You'll get better. Anyway, brothers don't play for keeps." Peallos handed back the marbles he had won.
Arlan was grateful as always. He accepted them with a gleeful look. "Peallos, how come you play with me?"
Peallos looked surprised by the question. "You're my brother. I like playing with you. Why do you ask, Little One?" Everyone in the family called Arlan that.
"Well it's just that my friends at school said ten year olds don't play with seven year olds, brothers or not. They said you must be weird." Arlan was hurt. This had been on his mind for several days now. He knew his brother wasn't weird, but the logic the other kids had presented seemed so strong.
Peallos stared at him in that way Arlan had seen before. It meant his brother was deep in thought. It was several moments before he answered. "What do you think?"
Arlan didn't know. No-one at school had asked him what he thought. The fact that Peallos had asked meant that he was certainly different to his school mates. Arlan thought for several moments before answering. "If other ten year olds don't play with their younger brothers, then that makes you different, not weird. It also makes me different. We could both be weird, but I don't care anyway. I like us playing together and I don't want us to stop." As Arlan finished, he looked to his brother to see what he thought.
Peallos was smiling. "That's what I think, too." Arlan beamed. Peallos continued. "You have a brilliant mind, Little One. You shouldn't be afraid to use it."
"Then why did you have to wait for me to ask you before you thought through what the other kids told you?"
"I don't know. I didn't think I could."
Peallos laughed. "Little One, you could think through anything. How did you even come to this conclusion without stepping through the problem yourself?"
Arlan straightened. "I promise I'll think things through before making up my mind from now on, so long as we can still play together." His face could not hide the fear he felt.
His fears were unfounded. Peallos turned one of his warmest smiles on Arlan. "Of course we can still play together. Want another game of marbles?"
Arlan beamed once more, his troubles forgotten. "No. Let's go over and watch the ships coming in."
They covered over their circle in the dust. This was a solemn act which they had shared since they had first played marbles together. There was an unspoken accord between them that only they would play marbles in circles they had created. Peallos smoothed over his half of the circle and waited for Arlan to finish his half.
Arlan was reassured by this. Peallos was not just telling him they would still play together with no intentions of keeping his word. If he had been, he wouldn't have been concerned about erasing the circle. Arlan felt his heart lift higher and higher as he completed his half. As per their usual custom, they both stood back when they were finished and made sure nothing could be seen of their play area. It was only when they were satisfied that no-one would notice that they had been there that they headed off.
Arlan skipped along behind his brother as they headed down the street. They both returned waves and greetings from those they passed. Both of them were popular in the town, not only with the other kids but also with the shopkeepers, the old people, almost everyone. They had spent many hours in the past running errands, helping people, making friends by lending a hand. Arlan had once overheard an elderly man tell his father that his two sons were "the finest young men on the planet".
Today was a day for play. None of the people they passed asked them for help, they knew where the boys were headed and they knew how much they would enjoy it. They stopped beside a vendor and bought an ice cream each before continuing. They were halfway through their treats before they reached the tall chain-link fence.
Beyond the fence lay the starport. It was a huge area covered in concrete landing pads, hangars, terminals and control buildings. Peallos had previously pointed out the scorch marks on some of the outer landing pads which had been used by ships before the days of magnetic drives.
Peallos obviously knew much about starships, there wasn't a question about them he couldn't answer. Arlan enjoyed watching him point out the various parts of the ships and tell him what they were for. Arlan always tried to remember as much as possible to repay the favour Peallos would give him by helping him when he was building his laser toys. Peallos usually followed the schematics as well as Arlan could remember the parts of the ships, which was not much. It didn't matter. Arlan still knew he should try, so he did.
Their ice creams finished, they gripped the fence, their faces pressed against it. They were in luck today, there were several ships standing on landing pads. As they watched, another dropped from the sky with the huge deep growling the magnetic drives gave off as they fought to keep the ship in a relative position to the planetary magnetic field. It glided down, gracefully touching it's landing gear to the pad, then letting the gear take the weight of the ship as the drives gradually waned.
It was a passenger ship. A new one, too. Arlan glanced over at his brother. Peallos was having convulsions of delight staring at it.
"That's a Journeyman! Isn't she a beauty?" Arlan nodded in agreement before Peallos continued. "I thought I would never see one of those here. Wait till I tell Dad."
They stared at it for several more minutes before the hatch opened and the passengers alighted. No more action there. They looked for anything else happening.
Arlan saw it first. There were over ten Traders on a pad in the middle of the field. One by one, they each rose from the ground and perched themselves on top of containers. He pointed it out to his brother.
"They're only Traders. The new Camels are faster. They're smaller too."
"That's because the Camels can't carry any passengers. They're one man ships."
Peallos was impressed. "That's right. It means there's more room for a bigger warp engine. Mind you, those Traders have been around a long time. They're a good ship."
Arlan loved them. He liked the lines they held, he liked the bubble cockpit. He could see the pilots in their cockpits as they took off and he often waved to them. He sometimes got a wave in return, which was really something considering how busy pilots were during launch.
They were now all perched on their containers. The standard freight containers they sat on were over five times the size of the ships themselves. The legs the ships had rested on now just hung over the top of the upright containers, leaving the ships stranded well above the ground. Arlan looked carefully. There were no pilots in the cockpits. That was because they would all be at the bottom of their ships securing their containers Arlan knew. Traders were one of the few ships Arlan managed to remember details about. He remembered his brother mentioning before how they connected the containers from inside the ships, how there was even an airlock in the bottom of the ship which led into the container when it was connected.
"Looks like they are going to launch soon." Peallos' comment brought Arlan back to the present. He looked again, and now over half of the pilots sat in their cockpits making their flight checks. It was several minutes later before the growling began.
It started like rolling thunder far off. It was a pleasant sound, more felt than heard. It gradually built up to the full deep growling they had both heard so many times before, only this time stronger.
Arlan realised they were all about to take off at once. This was going to be a treat. A whole convoy of ships taking off together. Peallos didn't usually care for Traders because they were old fashioned. Arlan glanced over at him and realised that this time even he was excited by what he was about to see.
The first ship lifted it's container off the ground. It hovered fifty metres above the pad, waiting for the others. They lifted individually, finally the last one was with them at their starting height. They each altered their orientation away from the sun, careful not to swing their containers into each other. The two brothers braced themselves.
The boom sounded as if a huge bomb had been detonated. They both blinked at the shock, and when they looked again, one of the ships was streaking heavenward. The booms continued and each time another ship was thrown viciously into the sky.
Arlan remembered this was because of the boost. The magnetic drives were fitted with boosters which caused the ship to alter it's magnetic field to move it at maximum velocity. The ships needed the boost to reach escape velocity once the drive cut out. The warp drives could not activate until the ship was out of the planet's gravity well.
The last ship hit it's boost, and they both watched it until it was too small to see.
Arlan was struck by a strange resolve. He began to dismiss it from his mind, but he couldn't. It was something he knew would happen one day.
"Something wrong?" Peallos could tell when Arlan was troubled, and vice versa.
"One day, I'll fly one of those."
Peallos wrinkled his nose. "A Trader? They'll be in museums when we get out of school. Besides, since when do you want to be a pilot?"
"I don't. I just want to fly a Trader. I want it badly."
Peallos stared at him, suddenly serious. "Then you will someday."
"You think so?"
"Arlan, I'm going to tell you something. We are both special. We will do whatever we set ourselves to. If you want to fly a Trader one day, you will."
"You mean I can do anything I like?" Arlan was excited by this concept.
"Yes. There is only one condition."
"You have to believe in yourself."
Arlan thought it all sounded too simple. "That's it?"
"That's it. Try it sometime."
"When?" Arlan knew it would take some time to understand all this, but he wanted to make a start.
"Why not with your optical physics test tomorrow? I know you're smarter at that stuff than your marks say you are, but that doesn't help."
Arlan thought it all through. It made sense. "You mean I can do better?"
"Of course you can."
"Then I will." Arlan made up his mind. Peallos beamed at him.
"Good for you, Little One. Don't let yourself down, now."
Another ship was preparing for launch. They turned to watch it go, but for some reason the engines seemed a lot quieter than they usually were, Arlan could barely hear them...
Arlan awoke straight from the dream. It had been unusually vivid. He got out of bed and stared out the window. It was dark now, close to the middle of the night he guessed. The sound of the magnetic drive seemed to be staying with him.
After a few moments, he heard the dull thud which was all that could be heard of a ship's magnetic boost from within the facility. He looked up to see the running lights of a starship streaking heavenward. He didn't believe in omens or signs. He didn't believe in luck. He realised then that he only believed in the one thing his older brother had told him to: himself. That was what had brought him this far. That was what had made him the leading scientist in the core. That was what was going to help him save his brother.
Arlan admitted to himself that he had forgotten about that incident in his childhood. It interested him that it should return now. Perhaps it was the Trader which had set the memory off. Perhaps part of him was saving the memory for such an occasion. Whatever the reason for its return, Arlan was thankful. He would have the strength to push the rest of the way now, and he had a plan. He turned around to dress, but April was standing behind him. He jumped in surprise. She laughed.
"I'm sorry Arlan. I didn't mean to scare you, but I heard you in here and thought you must be awake. Are you feeling better?"
"Well I was." Arlan's response brought more laughter from April. "April, how long would it take a ship on average to get to Marinus?"
"That's easy, about three weeks, give or take a few days."
"What if the ship hadn't flown for a while? What then?"
"Well it would have to be prepared for flight. Depending on the condition, anything up to another two weeks. What do you have in mind?"
Arlan was deep in thought. The answer April gave him didn't leave them a lot of time. "Do you have sensory access to the starport? All of it?"
"I could link into the main computer up there. They have security cameras and so on. I could perhaps even bridge to a ship or two. Is that enough?"
"Perfect. Let's go." Arlan dressed quickly for the night air and left for the transit station. There were still people around at this hour. Arlan realised that in a building which was at least two-thirds underground day and night probably didn't mean much. He reached the station and caught a capsule to level seventy-one. The starport.
It was almost like day up there. Lights flooded the area, not only to display the ships to ensure their safety but also to provide a visual beacon for incomers. Arlan headed straight for the hangar he had visited that afternoon. When he opened the door, April was already there.
"You can't be serious. This old heap looks barely airtight let alone space worthy."
"Believe me, I am serious. I asked those pilots for their help. You know what they did? They laughed. Then they showed me this."
"So that's why you were so depressed this afternoon. Listen Arlan, they showed you this as a joke. It won't fly. You'd be lucky if it's not stripped down inside."
"We'll soon see." Arlan stepped towards it. The hatch was way up, but there was a set of rungs leading up one of the landing arms. Arlan climbed them, then opened the hatch, stepping inside.
Arlan found himself inside an airlock. He closed the outer door and opened the inner one. As he stepped through, he noticed how stale the air was. This ship hadn't seen life in a long time. He had to climb up to the cockpit, while the ship landed upright it's innards were not designed to be used that way. They were designed for use during flight, when 'down' would mean one of the wider sides of the ship. Rungs had been installed on the walls of the main access corridor to get the pilot to the cockpit, and out of it, while the ship was dirt side. Arlan guessed the passengers probably would use them for support while in flight. He climbed up the rungs and found himself in the cockpit.
Arlan had never been inside a Trader before. One of the old Journeyman class ships had brought him here. That time he hadn't had the chance to visit the cockpit. Arlan sat in the chair, set in the launch position, and smiled. He rested for several moments before looking around.
All the controls seemed to be intact, although Arlan knew this wouldn't be an indication of what had been left in the ship. The controls were all unfamiliar, but he searched until he found the startup routine for the ship's computer. He activated it, and was rewarded with a faint hum coming from somewhere within the ship. Arlan realised that meant that there was a small energy reserve on the ship and that the computer was still on board. He hit the internal lights, and the dark cockpit lit up.
"April?" Arlan called out. He knew that April would hear him on the security systems. He hoped she was jamming the signal to the control building.
Her holographic image appeared before him. He was surprised of the range she was getting from the remote imaging system he had installed in the Fairchild for her long ago.
"You said before that you could bridge across to a ship. Do you think you could try to bridge here?"
April gave a distasteful look. I'll try. You do like taking me to these comfortable places, don't you?" Arlan grinned. April disappeared, rematerialising moments later. "I'm across. I'm not happy about it. You should see this computer from the inside."
Arlan could imagine. After all these years of neglect the system was unlikely to be running at optimum efficiency. Age would also mean obsolete technology. Arlan thought it unlikely that it was even a Fairchild at all. "Are you safe in this thing?"
"For now. What do you want?"
"See if you can establish what's here, what's not. You should have access to the ship's repair logs and so forth, tell me whether or not it's possible to get this thing going."
"I can tell you that now Arlan."
"I said possible, not probable."
April conceded. "Okay. Bear with me though. This may take a while. I'm using a stone axe instead of a laser scalpel."
Arlan was confused. "A stone axe?"
April went quiet for several minutes. Her image had disappeared when she set to work, leaving Arlan alone in the cockpit. He stared over the controls and holographic display systems. They were all alien to him, and yet it felt like coming home when he sat before them. He ran his hand lightly over some of the controls. He had never come this close to doing what he had told his brother he would.
April materialised beside him once more. "Arlan, you would not believe the state this ship is in. The magnetic drive needs recalibration, the warp drive needs a complete refit, the computer safety systems are a meltdown and this system you have me in is archaic. This ship's not going anywhere in a hurry."
This was not good news. Still, Arlan was not about to give up. He thought about the problem. As he did, his mind began to treat the problem like one of his research projects. "Would the recalibration work be difficult?"
"Hang on, I'll patch into the maintenance schedule database in Starport Control." April shimmered for a second. "That is relatively easy, but you would have to replace the warp drive with a new system. There would be no parts for a refit."
"Will a new system be compatible with the ship?"
"It could be made to be, with time and a few interfaces which this computer couldn't handle. You would have to replace the computer as well."
"That would solve the safety system problem as well, wouldn't it?"
"I guess so, but it's not that simple. All these things will take time. Once you replace the warp drive and the computer, it all has to be reconnected into here. You may as well remodel the cockpit and controls at the same time. For that matter, you could replace the magnetic drives and give the ship a fresh coat of paint while you're at it. Two extra people would get those jobs done with no extra time added."
"So how long do you figure?"
"For all that? I'd say fifteen man crews working around the clock could have it done in twelve days if there were no holdups and no parts shortages or anything like that. What you are looking for here is a miracle, Arlan."
Arlan smiled. "I know. I'll ask Walker for one in the morning."
Walker laughed. There was no way Arlan could be serious. He looked again at Arlan's face. He was serious alright. Walker sobered immediately.
"Arlan, think about what you're asking. Just think. That Trader hasn't flown since before I got here. What thinks you can get it going now?"
"I have it all figured out. Watch." Arlan had been awake for the remainder of the night working out this plan. "Computer, access display Arlan Psi thirty-one." Walker's desk exploded with the schematics and schedules Arlan had created.
Walker looked at it for some time. "You've certainly done your homework, Arlan. Still, what makes you think I have the manpower to do this?"
"You have it." The tone in Arlan's voice was one which told Walker not to argue the point.
"Maybe so. But you are still forgetting one small detail."
"You have no pilot." This fact glared at Walker as the obvious flaw. The pilots who had refused him earlier would not take the mission now that their personal ships were out of risk, it was their own lives they were worried about.
"Don't worry about that, I have it worked out."
Walker again got the feeling that was all Arlan would tell him, but he didn't like it. Too many things didn't add up in this plan. He looked once more at the schematics. "What's this you have here. It looks like you want the cockpit completely reconfigured."
Walker didn't understand any of this. The plan didn't make sense. Arlan didn't make sense. He suspected that Arlan was in research mode once more, but he had never started something new this close to finishing the last project. Walker looked at the plan once more. He didn't want to, but he had learnt to trust Arlan over the last two years. He trusted him now. "Okay, I'll get some people working on it. You go and get some rest. Now."
"Yeah, Yeah." Arlan turned and left.
Walker shook his head. Arlan was in research mode alright. Walker wished he knew what he was up to, it made it so much easier to avoid the disasters. He looked at the schematics once more. He couldn't see the plan in it. He hit the intercom.
"Madeleine, could you come in please?" Madeleine entered shortly after.
"I see you're looking at Arlan's plans for the Trader we have somewhere topside."
"Yes, how did you know about that?"
"April told me something about it this morning." Over the preceding week the pair had become inseparable. They often spent Madeleine's breakfast together if Arlan was busy. Walker couldn't work out which made him the most uneasy: April mothering Arlan or Madeleine and April acting like sisters. Walker made a mental note to watch April closely in the future.
Madeleine continued. "Arlan stayed up all night after he woke up. They went out to check on the Trader, then he just set to work. This is the result."
Madeleine's confirmation of the fact didn't ease Walker. "There is still the issue of why. He doesn't have a pilot."
"Yes, that confused us as well."
"Do you see anything here that would clear that up?"
Madeleine stared at the diagrams for several minutes. She had to admit the plans were brilliant. It was more than resurrecting the ship for flight. It was closer to creating a new ship from the ruins of the old. The new ship would be faster, more efficient, and would take less time to build than straight repairs would allow. Finally she conceded defeat. "I don't know what he's up to this time. Looking on the bright side, whatever it is it won't blow this building apart. Want me to start organising the crews topside?"
"Yes, thanks. I'll check in with Gromm. Arlan has had him creating that serum in bulk for a day now so he tells me. It's nice to know what's happening in my own facility."
Madeleine laughed. "Maybe it's time for me to take over."
Walker smiled despite himself. "Never. Page my card if you need me." He walked out of the office towards the transit station.
Walker enjoyed the trip down to the second floor as he enjoyed all his travels from his quarters and offices on floor sixty-five. Most of the people in the facility didn't know who he was and the ones who did knew better than to approach him directly in public. The trip to Romus Gromm's lab was uneventful.
Romus called him in as soon as he hit the visitor alarm. Walker strode in.
"What were you thinking Gromm? How about clearing something like this with me next time?" Walker had never prided himself on preamble. It was time to take charge.
Romus laughed. There was something about the scientist that made Walker uneasy. "What, no subtle chastisements? I bet you chewed out Arlan after he nearly got himself killed in that sandstorm too, didn't you?"
Gromm was hitting too close to home for Walker's liking. "How I speak to my scientists is my concern, Gromm. I'll answer for it. Now, once again, what do you think you are doing?"
"You know, Madeleine and you are not as far apart as you would have us believe."
This comment caught Walker off guard. "Explain."
"You're always trying to make out that Madeleine has irrational tendencies that you would never display. You make yourself out to be the cold-blooded ruler of Techsearch. What are you acting like now?"
Apart from Arlan, this man was like no other Walker had ever met. In the face of a hostile superior, he still spoke his mind. It was as if he had absolutely no sense of political tactics. Either that or he just didn't care. Either way he had hit the mark this time.
"Look, I admit I came on strong. It's in my nature. The fact is I have a problem and I intend to solve it, with or without your assistance."
"What you keep forgetting is that I am not your assistant. Technically, I'm not even under your jurisdiction. I am a scientist, and if you are prepared to come to me and share the problem I will help you. If all you want is to give orders, go back to your computer."
Walker retreated within himself to the fortress surrounding the cold rational part of his inner self. Without the distractions of ego and emotions, he studied the situation. Gromm was right, there was no other answer for it. Almost everyone else in this facility was bluffed. This was a similar speech to the one Arlan had made soon after he arrived.
He found that deep inside he felt respect for the bio-chemist before him. Like Arlan, he had spoken his mind, not for malice, not for retaliation or defence, but because he was right. Because the truth was more important than the power behind it. It was this dedication to the truth that Walker knew to be the driving force behind the greatest scientists. He now looked on Romus in a new light, one of respect.
"You're right of course. Accept my apologies." Walker noticed that Romus looked surprised. He had been prepared for a larger fight. It concerned him that his rational skills were held in such poor esteem by the scientist. Like all forms of respect he knew he would have to earn this from Romus.
He turned to the computer. He couldn't believe what he saw. "A Mark III? I thought they had all been replaced ages ago."
"Down here it would seem we are easy to forget."
"Not any more. Anyway, it will suffice for what I need to show you. Computer, display file Arlan Psi thirty-one." The display from Walker's office reproduced itself in front of them.
"What is this?"
"It's the work plans Arlan drew up last night. The plans for the repair of an old Trader vessel he found in the starport. He was up there barely a day after he told you to start making the serum in bulk."
Romus stared at the plans. "It's nice work all right. Arlan has a talented mind. It doesn't make sense, though. Surely the pilot he has lined up would have his own ship?"
"That's what we all thought. The thing is all the pilots topside refused when he asked. In fact they showed him the Trader as a practical joke I believe."
"Then all this fits."
"What do you mean? Who has he lined up to fly this thing?"
"Have a look at this." Romus pointed out the cockpit layouts. "There would be no reason to change the layout for a new pilot. The systems being installed still follow the basic protocols of the old ones according to this information. Nevertheless, the new layouts are to be amongst the first changes."
"So he told me he would get my serum there if he had to fly it there himself. He wants that cockpit in a layout he thinks will be easy for him to learn and he has given himself an eight day window to practice up there."
Walker stared at the diagram dumbfounded. It simply wasn't possible. Arlan wasn't that stupid. Walker thought back to the blackout. "Sweet mother of..." he mumbled under his breath. "Romus, will that serum be ready?"
Romus' face steeled. It was a look so similar to Arlan's Walker gave an involuntary shudder. "Give me ten days maximum. The serum will be ready and loaded."
Walker reached for his communication card.
Madeleine's image appeared above it after a moment. "What is it?"
"Where are you?"
"I'm up at the starport setting up the first work crew. Why?"
"We know who Arlan's pilot is. He's going to take that ship up himself!"
The look on Madeleine's face told Walker she believed him.
The looks on the men's faces told Madeleine they had overheard the conversation. She knew she would look paled as she finished off the instructions. It was several minutes later that they set to work. One of the men promised to do a good job as she was leaving. She thanked him.
There was so much to prepare. Obviously, the serum would be ready on time, Walker would see to that now. Romus was likely to receive resourcing he didn't know the facility had if it would speed up production. That left organising the remaining crews for their shifts and getting the materials supplied as the work needed. All this on top of the day to day running of the facility.
Madeleine was halfway back to the transit station before she realised she was still in shock. There were other factors to be considered now. Would the ship be used at all, could they find a pilot crazy enough to take it up? How would they stop Arlan from trying himself? In her mind, it was a foregone conclusion that Arlan must not be allowed to try to take the ship up himself, it was a crazy idea.
She thought the matter through. They would find someone. They had to now. Arlan would provide the catalyst and shame a real pilot or two into volunteering. The ship would have to be ready. Preparing it would be a symbol of Arlan's intentions, even if it was never to lift off the ground. That meant the remainder of the crews would have to be assembled, the materials found. She continued on to the transit station. She had a lot to do in the next day. The sooner she started the better.
She used the trip back to her office to plan ahead. By the time she entered she knew precisely what she had to do and when it had to be done by. Inwardly she allowed herself a smile. Since making her peace with April and accepting Arlan's support she was developing strong potential for an administrator's position of her own.
She checked her messages before setting to work. There were the usual requests and routine organisational decisions to be sorted out, but what took her by surprise was the several requests for assignment to the Trader repairs. News had got out quickly. So much the better. Hopefully the pilots would be taking notice soon. She started calling people.
It was hours before she was finished. There was more help signing up than she knew what to do with, but strangely enough she had found something productive for them all. There was an immediate fall in the activities within the centre, there was no way to tell whether it was related to the news of Arlan's plans or not, but the fact remained that there was little for all these people to do within the Centre anyway.
After all the effort that the work teams seemed prepared to do, it looked like the ship would be ready ahead of time. There were several advantages in it's performance that would be gained from the refit, Madeleine suspected it would be able to out fly some of the modern ships in port by the time the crews were done. There had still been no offers from the pilots though.
Madeleine thought about this. She knew full well that if no pilot was forthcoming Arlan would actually try to fly this thing himself. This was no bluff on his part, she suspected the man didn't know what the word meant. She sighed heavily, there seemed no way to stop him. Was there a way to help him instead? making sure he got back in one piece seemed a poor second to stopping him from trying in the first place, but if that was the only option...
An idea struck her and she sat bolt upright in the seat. She had to make some calls, but she would visit someone first. Someone who would have some experience in whether or not the idea was plausible. April.
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