It was strange to see him behind glass.
Looking in on him hurt. His body was burnt to a crisp, his skin flayed and peeled back. Chunks of muscle had been surgically removed due to the damage and he’d already had several transplants of arterial tissue. His legs were the worst to see; the Trillodan surgeons had to cut away the pants that had melted into his skin.
After they had finished cutting into him, he’d been bathing in a gel that was supposed to donate cells so his body would repair the damage. The surgeons couldn’t figure out what was keeping him asleep, but I recognized the telltale signs of Overexposure. Poor Titan had nearly killed himself from exhaustion between carving through a ship, powering me, and then fighting through to the Immortal Matron.
Despite having burnt himself half to death, he’d pushed through.
I put my hand against the glass and smiled, “Get better, Max,” I said softly.
“You’re up way too early,” a groggy voice muttered.
“It helps that I don’t drink as hard as you do,” I said with a snicker as I saw Interface stagger in. “You really shouldn’t try to keep up with Adamant. That guy has a deceptively high tolerance.”
“I’m still telling you, that fucker used his power,” Interface groaned, massaging their temples to dispel their hangover. “How’s he doing?”
I sighed, “Damage is slow to repair but he’s getting better. It looks like a nightmare because the skin is the last thing to repair. The little medical update I got was that he should be physically okay in the next day or so. They aren’t sure when he’s going to wake up though.”
The two of us sat there a moment before Jamie reached over and gave my hand a squeeze. “Proud of you.”
“If you didn’t overcome Zellig’s expectation of you, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. You would have never got him out of the prison cube. We would have never made it here.”
“And if you hadn’t pushed me to get back up, I don’t think I could have done it,” I replied, reaching around to give my friend a hug, “So, team effort.”
“Yeah, I clearly did so much,” they replied, chuckling, “I showed up to possess a ship and couldn’t. So impactful.”
I frowned, “I will set up a sonic scream if you don’t accept my compliments.”
Jamie cringed at the thought, “How…how about no. Let’s not even pretend we do that shit.” They glanced at Titan again and then back to me, “I’m sorry Forest didn’t make it this far. I know how much she would have liked to see this all done and dusted.”
Thinking about our old friend was like a kick in the stomach. “Yeah. She’d still be pissed that I figured out how to copy her power. She was so proud of herself for being weird enough that I couldn’t mimic her.”
“I wonder why she was so peculiar,” Interface wondered aloud. “Most Druid’s are still…human.”
“Most of you didn’t have Down Syndrome,” a polite voice said from around the corner. Skaberen poked out from around the corner, looking a tad embarrassed. “Apologies, I was sent to find you, Infinite, but didn’t want to interrupt. But, I figured I should answer the question.”
“She had Down’s?” I asked, perplexed. “How come she never told us?”
“That much I don’t know,” he said, “But it seems that the alteration in her genetics interacted with how the Kelotan shaped her. She was an outlier, like Interface pointed out. My breadth of information about her is limited.”
I thought about the little projection of herself that she always used: a pretty girl with auburn hair and simple clothing. “She grew up homeless,” I muttered, “I think she just dreamed of being normal.”
Interface groaned, “Gah, I can’t think of stuff this heavy this early.” Desperately searching for another topic of conversation, they glanced back through the glass at Titan. “Did the surgeons mention whether or not his dick is gonna be alright?”
“Jamie!” I gasped.
“What? It’s a perfectly valid question!”
“Oh my God,” I laughed, “You’re such a perv! You shouldn’t be asking whether or not my boyfriend’s…well…”
Skaberen cleared his throat, “To answer Interface’s rather, um, personal inquiry: yes. The gel should be able to replicate existing tissues based on memory. Since he wasn’t completely castrated by the fusing of his trousers to his skin, his nethers will make a full recovery.”
I put my head in my hands, my cheeks now a brighter shade of red than my hair. “Can, can we just go?” I begged of Skaberen.
“Have fun deciding the fate of the universe,” Interface said as we turned to leave.
That statement was a little more genuine than it should have been. Even though there had been a cease-fire between the Trillodan and the Adapted, we hadn’t yet drawn up a serious treaty and plan moving forward. There had been too much injury on either side.
Even though we wanted to wait for Titan to wake back up, Dragoon had pushed for us to go ahead and simply get this dealt with. The longer it sat, the longer there was a chance for the Trillodan to mount some kind of campaign against us. Even though the Matron was sure that the military wasn’t going to revolt, there were plenty of Zellig’s legion who had survived and might seek revenge before something was formal.
Enough of the bigger names agreed that Dragoon was still our acting captain anyways. She would have no problem representing us. As a show of good faith, she had insisted I come with and be Titan’s voice by proxy.
The meeting room we used was a remarkably plain setting compared to some of the lavish and gilded buildings we had seen. Like most of the architecture, the walls were composed of ‘slick stone’ which was basically a rough version of marble that was always wet. The room itself was small and didn’t have any furniture beyond a square table with six chairs around it. Several lamps around the room cast a blue glow as Skaberen led me in and pulled a chair out for me.
Beside me was Dragoon, looking intense. After the incident with Zellig, the Trillodan had offered to repair her spine but she had refused. For now, she remained confined to a wheelchair; it didn’t detract from her presence at the table. If anything, it had made her more commanding. Across from us was a pair of Trillodan. One I had only met in passing: Councilman Baarl was the stand-in for the Immortal Matron after her declaration. Beside him was the Matron herself.
Even though she had given him her position, it was clear she was the one calling the shots. Her sheer presence was almost palpable.
“Shall we get started?” Skaberen said politely, glancing between both parties.
“Please,” Dragoon said, leaning forward and resting her arms on the table.
The Immortal Matron gestured back to Dragoon, inviting her to start.
“The Crimson Cities, they need to be decommissioned,” she said bluntly. “They represent too much destructive capability and too much mobility. I understand that you have other means of destroying entire planets if you needed to, but none of them afford you the ability to be omni-present in quite the same fashion.”
“Done,” the Matron replied. “The cores will be rendered inert and the ship itself destroyed after we salvage some of the raw materials.”
“What kind of timeline would this be done in, Iilena?” Skaberen asked, falling into the role of moderator.
“Within the month,” she replied to Skaberen, not breaking eye contact with Dragoon.
I shuddered; even with all the power in the world, I was scared of the Matron. She had no supernatural ability and yet I felt an urge to bend a knee to her. The fact that Dragoon could make demands of her was impressive.
“We want Vaneel’s research destroyed,” Dragoon insisted. “I don’t want you being able to mass produce Adapted.”
“I’ll agree, under the condition that the Adapted aren’t allowed to reproduce,” the Immortal Matron replied. Before Dragoon could protest, she raised a hand to stifle the objection. “I don’t disagree with your request, but there must be a check put on you as well. If the first generation of you can topple my empire, what happens when someone as motivating as Titan comes along with a different prerogative? Who will stand in his way?”
“If I may cut in,” Skaberen said, raising his hand, “I have been working on a solution to this issue. Dragoon,” he said, glancing at her, “I am inclined to agree with the Matron on this point. The Adapted weren’t made under…natural conditions shall we say. Goln science is what created your gifts. I think it prudent to engineer a stop so that Adaptations can’t be passed to the next generation. If and when humanity is at a point they can replicate the Goln research, they can absolutely reclaim the power for themselves.”
Dragoon sighed and nodded slowly, “Fine. Are you going to take our gifts away from all of us? I know that a whole lot of us are going to be opposed to that.”
He shook his head, “I should be able to tailor the Legacy Ender to effectively remove Kelotan from sex cells and prevent the propagation of Adaptations. You will all remain Adapted until you die. I understand that for many of you, the Adaptations have become fundamental to your character.”
“Anything else?” the Immortal Matron asked politely, folding her hands in front of her.
Our captain hesitated.
The Immortal Matron smiled softly, “You can say it. We both know what else you are going to demand.”
“You can’t live,” Dragoon said, a little bit shaky. “I honestly thought it would be easier to say, but after being here and seeing all this… you’re not the horrible villain I assumed you were. But,” she added, “You’re too dangerous to be left alive. You have had so much sway and have fundamentally directed the flow of Trillodan history too long. Even pulling the throne away from you gives the chance for those loyal to simply reinstate you. There’s no way to be sure of your lack of influence unless…”
The Immortal Matron nodded, “I understand.”
Dragoon seemed confused at her willingness to accept the death sentence. “And you’re just…okay with dying?”
“Of course. I figure after encountering Titan, I’ve been living on borrowed time anyhow. Though, I do have a condition for my quiet dismissal.” Her eyes turned to me, “Infinite can’t be allowed to survive.”
“Whoa,” Dragoon said, her hands immediately balling into fists, “That’s a bit presumptuous.”
“Dragoon, I think you woefully underestimate how powerful the woman beside you truly is. All the power of a Crimson City and the sheer destructive capacity is dwarfed by Infinite.” The Matron turned and looked directly at me; I couldn’t help but squirm in my chair. I hated this attention, and the Immortal Matron seemed to see into my soul. “And for all the power she has, she lacks control. She has the ability to flatten continents in an instant if she had a truly bad day.”
Skaberen opened his mouth but the Matron raised a hand, silencing him.
“This is non-negotiable, Dragoon. If you want me to go quietly, Infinite has to come with.”
“That’s not fair,” I whispered.
All eyes turned to me.
I took a deep breath and dug for a voice. “I didn’t ask to be like this. I didn’t work for it. I just…happened to be Infinite. My real name is Charlotte Quinn. My old moniker was Tempest. I was beaten and raped over and over in a basement and left for dead. You made a choice to be who you are. I wasn’t so lucky.”
The Immortal Matron let my comment sit a moment, as if making a point to give it the respect it deserved. “I’m sorry,” she said sincerely, “I didn’t know. And you’re right, I made choices that turned me into the Immortal Matron. Unfortunately,” she said, “We can’t discredit or discount how powerful you are. You hold yourself back regularly. But, you still stopped a Crimson City from plummeting to the surface. You have leapt through the void of space. No matter how we came here, we can’t discount the situation we find ourselves in. Fair or not.”
“I’m not giving up my powers, not because you’re afraid of me,” I said, furious. “I’m not going to let you dictate my life because you only see me as Infinite.”
Dragoon laid a hand on my arm, “I agree. I’m not going to let you call for her execution when she’s done nothing to warrant it. She is no more guilty than those remaining from Zellig’s legion. She hasn’t given a reason to warrant that level of fear. Most of us on Tso’got didn’t know she existed before our campaign against you.”
“Because Titan kept her hidden. What do you think will happen now that people know about her?”
“No idea,” Dragoon said, “But I feel sorry for anyone who tries to apprehend her. All the same, I refuse to see her euthanized because of a theoretical. I won’t say your concern isn’t invalid, but I refuse to be ruled by fear.”
The Immortal Matron took a long breath; she finally shook her head and smiled. “Call me a sap, but I’ll take that off the table. What I will put in place is a caveat regarding you, Dragoon.”
“Your technology,” Skaberen said, “It’s admittedly something I have been concerned about. In your lifetime, you could advance humanity through centuries of technological development. You could give humans the power of the Trillodan almost by accident.”
“And given your nature of seeking confrontation and constantly striving to do better, I believe there is some precedent for this concern. You can’t deny yourself a challenge,” the Immortal Matron added.
I expected Dragoon to rebuke them both, but she was stunned. I could see it on her face that they had gotten to her. “What kind of sanctions would you want?” she finally asked.
“I don’t want you developing weapons,” the Immortal Matron said plainly. “Even though someone like Siege is going to be more powerful for having seen our weapons, he can’t make them permanent. You can.”
Skaberen raised his hand again, “I might offer a more reasonable middle ground. I understand, Dragoon, that you have devoted your life to learning and developing with your gift. It is only reasonable that we don’t deny you that. However, I suggest we allow the Goln and Trillodan to keep an intermittent eye on you to ensure that your technological development doesn’t run away too quickly.”
Dragoon scoffed, “You want to keep me monitored?”
“Your technology will go into other hands besides your own,” the Immortal Matron reminded her, “You have already created weapons and armor for others. Are you saying that you will suddenly…stop?”
Again Dragoon didn’t have a way to answer that. “And if I am racing too far ‘ahead of schedule’ what happens then?”
“We have a conversation,” Skaberen said, quickly interjecting, “We don’t want this to be a looming death threat but instead a bearable compromise.” He sighed, “The Adapted existed because I meddled and effectively introduced technology that was centuries ahead of you. I’d rather not see you accidentally make my mistake.”
For all the frustration I could feel from Dragoon, she didn’t have a better come back. She was furious that they were right. In just a few months she had made a rudimentary version of Tol’s power armor; what would that work look like after a few years?
“Another condition,” Dragoon said, composing herself, “The Goln should come to Xalanni.”
This one actually caught both Skabern and the Immortal Matron by surprise.
“Your kind grew up around each other and had a rift created because of Kardan. Without someone to put the Trillodan in check, there is a chance that Baarl or someone else becomes the next Immortal Matron. Patron. Whatever,” Dragoon said, giving a look to the stoic councilman. “And having some visibility on the Goln might prevent them from using an entire planet as their laboratory. Besides, your knowledge of genetic manipulation is the only thing that will ever undo the damage the Trillodan have done themselves.”
The Immortal Matron, in a tremendous break of character, laughed. “Anything else, Dragoon?”
My captain turned and glanced at me, “I want there to be a monument to the end of your reign. Before you demolish all of the Crimson Cities, I want you to bring Infinite to the remains of Earth.”
Both Skaberen and the Matron were confused. “Why?”
“Infinite, to date, has never used all of her powers. I want to see if she can undo the damage you did.” She turned to me, “You wanna give it a shot?”
The Immortal Matron blinked a few times and fell back in her chair, “You want to see if Infinite can terraform a planet? You understand the implications?”
“I never said I wasn’t scared shitless of what Infinite could do,” Dragoon snapped. “Infinite scares the piss out of me. But, Charlotte doesn’t.” She turned and gave me a smile, “All this time she has lived under constraint and afraid of her power. I want to give her one chance to use it without a worry about hurting someone else. Who is she going to kill on the surface of a dead planet?”
As well meaning as Dragoon was, I felt my chest hammer in horrific anticipation. How could I tell her no? She wanted to prove to the universe that the Trillodan weren’t a threat, that there was no impending punishment awaiting you in the stars above.
And of course, it was going to require me.
Like usual, I was part of someone else’s plan. And, like usual, I didn’t have the heart to say I hated the idea.
Admittedly being taken through a Void Door was less magnificent than I might have thought. Whenever I was using my teleportation to clear huge distances, there was a serious impact. You could feel when I did it, feel the movement, feel the distance travelled.
With this it was just a blink and that was it. One hour to charge and plug in coordinates and then a single press of a button.
It was strange to see what should have been my home. I’d always heard about it as this ‘big blue marble.’ Looking down on it now, nothing could be farther from the truth. Where there had probably been oceans, there were voids in the planet. Where there had been green forests there was just desolate rock.
“What a weird thing to see,” I muttered as I tapped my hand against my silent companion. Even though Dragoon really wanted me to do this, I had my own condition.
I had brought Titan along. As much as I loved and respected the hell out of Dragoon, I wasn’t doing this for her. I had started all of this because of Titan’s dream; I was going to finish it and show him exactly how profound his cause had turned out to be. I didn’t care if we had to wait in orbit for an extra day or an extra week, he was going to see me undo the damage to our home.
“You’re sure about this?” a meek voice called from behind me. Relay crept in, followed closely by Dragoon in her wheelchair with Powerhouse pushing her. “You don’t have to do this.”
In all my time knowing Relay, he barely ever talked. For him to voice concern was uncharacteristic to say the least. I offered a weak smile as I stood up in the clunky suit I had been given. It was like wearing the world’s heaviest diving suit, but it was supposed to keep me from burning up on the surface. It would save me precious power allocations.
“I can do this,” I said, confident.
“Goddamn right you can,” Dragoon said.
Powerhouse donated gifts to Relay to extend his range, and then he laid a hand on me, blinking me down to the surface.
Down here it was even worse. Just barren and empty waste, as far as the eye could see. I’m sure at one point this had been a lovely meadow or flowing riverbed, but not it was just a dry collection of rocks.
I took a deep breath, knowing the first thing to do was repair the immense punctures in the atmosphere. Water had escaped thanks to Protocol 37 literally ripping apart the Earth’s protective layer. Bracing myself, I reached into that void and grabbed a handful of initial powers.
Re-constitute, Expansion, Reach, Creation: Nitrogen, Oxygen, Water.
The air around me swam as I could effectively re-create the atmosphere, but I was still far too localized. I lacked the range to cover an entire planet and to properly undo the damage that had been done. So, I went back to that well to grab more gifts.
Repair, Echo, Magnify.
I paused at nine powers, that door opening as the shade of my past crept out. I felt my knees weaken as I was suddenly back in that basement, suddenly being beaten and violated again. My teeth ground together as I shook, my whole body wracked with a wave of tremors. “They aren’t real, they can’t hurt you. You’re alive, they’re dead,” I reminded myself.
Around me, the nine powers I had amassed were turning into a small hurricane. Air and water were expanding outward, throwing gasses back into place. Still, with nine powers, I wasn’t getting nearly enough coverage. I was probably covering a hundred kilometers in my little storm; a far cry from restoring a whole planet.
I sank to my knees as I seized two more powers. The shade seemed to creep from her hole, placing a hand on my shoulder, trying to shoulder forward for control. It wanted to smother, to extinguish everything.
“Infinite, you okay?” Dragoon’s voice chimed through my earpiece.
“Fine,” I grunted as I pushed back against my own memories. I felt hands inside my suit, on my skin. Grabbing me, pulling me down. I felt them break my fingers again, preventing me from using my powers. My heart hammered as I tried to distinguish the past from the present, my own nightmares from reality.
I was on Earth.
I was in that basement.
Either way, I was alone.
I fell onto my hands, gasping for air, losing control as the anxiety crept in. “I’m…I’m alive,” I swore to myself, “They died. They can’t hurt me anymore.”
My words felt hollow considering I remembered the stench of their sweat mixed with my blood.
“Charlotte,” a weak voice groaned in my ear, “You’re okay.”
Everything went blank for a moment as I heard his voice again. He was the first thing I really remembered after escaping that horrible basement. Titan was the first thing that told me I was alive, that I was valued.
I remembered him finding me, hiding in a hotel. I was scared of myself, but he wasn’t. He welcomed me with open arms.
“Okay,” I said, willing to place my trust in him. “I’m okay.”
I pulled myself back to the present, aware of the storm I was letting rage. Even so, it wasn’t quite done up properly. It needed a little more definition to complete the job Dragoon had sent me here for.
I approached that well one more time, letting my memories wash over me, unafraid.
My storm expanded, reaching to the skies and well beyond where my eye could see. For the first time, I dared to reach the full potential of what this fucked up power could provide. It was torture to be re-living my past, but when I could bring myself to the present, I was a god.
I watched the world bend to my whim. I felt the climate change as I shaped the planet’s surface to resemble the pictures I had seen as a child. Water fell from the skies that I put back into place. Trees and plant life I had only heard of began to sprout around me and far beyond as Genesis was bringing my vision to life.
A laugh slipped out as I walked around for a while, letting my power shape the landscape.
I had held myself back for so long. Dragoon had been right: it was amazing to not worry about hurting someone else with my gift. It was amazing to see what I could do when there was no need to hold back.
The following morning was a rough one.
I spent nearly eight hours on the surface of Earth, shaping and molding the whole damn planet. While it wasn’t nearly a biodiverse as it once had been, there was plenty of life and water in the oceans. In a day I had pushed back the majority of the devastation brought on by Proctol 37.
And then we had taken a Void Door back to Xalanni to join the rest of our friends. A night of drinking and reckless celebration. I even had the audacity to get drunk since I had Titan nearby to ensure I didn’t get myself into any trouble. Even though delving that deep into my power had left me raw and vulnerable, the high from triumphing over it far outweighed the negative.
Not having been a drinker in the past made trying to keep up with Interface and Adamant a poor choice. I don’t remember how I got to bed but I assumed it was likely thanks to Titan. I woke up and saw an impression in the mattress where he had been.
Groaning, I sat up and started trudging out, realizing that I could hear a conversation going on in the common area of our little living quarters.
“She terraformed a planet, Titan. I understand that-”
“Out of the question,” he snapped, “You did this to us, and now you want to take that away? You’d cut out part of her identity because of your own fear?”
“If she can repair the damage, what could she do on a bad day? What happens if you die and she loses control? What happens if-”
“Dragoon already told you that she refused to live in fear of theoreticals, and so do I. You aren’t going to strip her of power, Skaberen. So help me, if you touch her I will turn you to dust.”
There was a drawn out sigh, “Titan, I appreciate your loyalty, but this isn’t something you can pretend isn’t a concern for others. Infinite wields more power than any other person alive and she has PTSD. Her stability is a concern. You recruited Command to help counteract that volatility.”
As I listened, I felt my heart drop. Both of them had valid points.
I was terrifying. I had reshaped a planet in an afternoon. But they wanted to restrict me because they were afraid of me.
And yet, none of them involved me in the conversation. None of them cared about what Charlotte wanted, only about what happened with Infinite. Grabbing a power to quickly deal with the hangover, I readied myself and walked into the room.
“Maybe you guys should ask me what I want,” I said, bringing myself around the corner.
Titan turned to me, flushed, “Charlotte, he wanted to take away-”
“Yeah, I figured out that much.” I turned to Skaberen, “And, honestly, I’m okay with that. I know it’ll make the Matron more comfortable too.”
Skaberen looked just as shocked as Titan did at my declaration.
“You…want to give it up?” Titan asked, disarmed, “But, Charlotte-”
I raised a hand, stopping him, “Max, I’m sorry. For me, this power isn’t like yours. It doesn’t feel good to use. Every time I use it, I just relive the worst moment of my life. And the problem is that I’m so powerful people can’t see anything else. People want to know how Infinite is, not how Charlotte is. People are afraid of Infinite and the threat she poses; no one cares if Charlotte is happy to be alive or not. It colors every interaction I have.”
Max opened his mouth to say something but cut himself off, not sure what to add. He finally settled on, “I’m so sorry.”
I waved him off, “It’s okay! I…I get it. I’m scary. I fucking terraformed a planet. And, unfortunately, Skaberen’s right; I’m not well. I have nightmares most nights, I had intrusive memories most days, and I have a power that is like playing chicken with PTSD. All it would take is one bad day, one bad hour, and I kill thousands–if not millions–of people. But,” I added, turning to the Goln, “I’m not doing it because you are afraid. I’m doing it because I’m exhausted. As powerful as I am, I’m tired of being Infinite. If you can take away the power, I’m glad to be rid of it.”
“You can help so many people. You could-”
“Max,” I snapped, “No. There has to be a line. There has to be a place where I put my foot down and say enough. I love you,” I said, gently putting a hand to his cheek, “But, this is the end for Infinite. She has done her part. She helped your dream become a reality. Now, I want Charlotte to be able to take center stage. I don’t want my life to be dictated by the worst thing that ever happened to me.”
I let out a shaky breath, my confidence faltering as I turned to Skaberen, “How long until you have a way to take this away from me?”
Skaberen opened a hand and handed over a small vial of red liquid. “I’ve had a counteragent prepared for a long time now. The Matron never knew, but I wasn’t going to let Vaneel commandeer my research without some extra challenges. If you all had lost, this was going to be my response to delay the creation of an unstoppable army.” He scuttled across the room and put it into my palm, closing my fingers around the serum. “When you decide you want to part with Infinite, drink it. In your own time though,” he said softly as he turned to leave.
Titan and I were left alone as the door shut behind him.
“I know,” I said. “You couldn’t have. I never told you. It’s…not easy for me to talk about.”
He nodded, looking more out of sorts than I had ever seen him. “I’m sorry I can’t do more for you. I wish I could take this pain away from you, make it all better.”
I scoffed, “Titan, you already did. Do you know how many times I’ve thought about killing myself? It used to be a daily affair. The only reason I didn’t is because you continued to give a shit about me. You continued to love me even though I was so battered and so broken. Yeah, you weren’t perfect and sometimes pushed me too far,” I said with a shrug, “But the good far outweighs the bad. Stop beating yourself up about this.”
“I know, but-”
“But nothing,” I insisted. “Thanks to you and Dragoon, I’ve found my voice. Thanks to you, I’m confident enough to be Charlotte again.” I pulled the stopper on the vial and took a deep breath and closed my eyes. I faced that ghastly spectre who had helped me claw back from the brink, who had kept me alive despite everything being stacked against me. For the first time, it wasn’t trying to claw out, but instead looked back at me, placid. It was like it knew; it didn’t need to fight anymore, it didn’t need to struggle and retaliate against everything.
It had done its job. It had nothing else to prove.
“Thanks, Infinite,” I said, “For everything.”
With a swig, I watched her fade away.
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