were adrift in unknown space, surviving on oxygen
generation and recycled food, drinking filtered
muck from the sewage treatment room, and to top
it all, the ships computer wouldnt
let us do anything but play Battleships.
said the screen.
rubbed my growth of beard and winced in an
attempt to stop my eyeballs itching. My body was
crying out for sleep. I looked for some sign of
discomfort on Marys part, but she seemed as
fresh as ever. Sometimes, rarely, I envied her.
A3. G1, I said, in a low monotone.
okay, let me just check those, said Mary,
leaning close to her board. Hm
nope, you missed every single one. Bad
luck! The evening was rolling into the
slightly unbearable period, when her every single
high-pitched word was like a beautifully sharp
nine inch nail being jammed down my earhole. The
onset of the completely unbearable period
wouldnt be for another hour or so.
went the screen again, the text flashing angrily.
okay, hang on, said Mary, leaning forward
again. I guess Im going to go
reached for my pieces.
No, wait. Not D1. Ill go
misses and you destroyed my battleship, I
said, as quickly as I could, fumbling little red
pegs into little holes.
computer screen went blank except for a cursor,
which disappeared abnormally for a few seconds
before returning to its regular blinking. This, I
had learned, was the ship computers way of
sighing with glee. When the cursor spat that
hateful PROCEED again, there was an
inexplicable air of embarrassment about it, like
the tone of one caught masturbating. A computer
technician would probably have called that
statement totally ignorant, but none of them were
her last move, Mary had won the game. she sat
back and glanced around, pleased with herself.
That was fun. Shall we play again while
were waiting for the captain to get
brow furrowed. The captains
died weeks ago. You were at his bedside at the
scratched her head with one of the battleship
pegs. Are you sure that was me? I really
dont recall anything about the captain
told you all this three days ago. I made a little
shook her head. No
remember that at all. So, is Mr. Patel the
had been the first officer. I had last seen him
in the medical bay, smiling quietly at the
ceiling while someone pulled a sheet over his
face. Hes dead too. Theyre all
dead. Were the only ones left.
She tapped a finger on the tabletop a few times.
Thats pretty bad. Kind of caught me
off guard, there.
could feel a vein in my temple throbbing.
How could you possibly have forgotten?
Didnt you wonder why there was no-one else
assumed we were just looking after the ship while
everyone was on station leave. I just woke up and
the computer told me to come in here and play
nowhere near any stations. This was an
educated guess on my part. I had absolutely no
idea where the ship was, and while there was the
chance we were somewhere near a space station,
the odds were against it.
stood up, her chair scraping obnoxiously on the
floor. Listen, uh
this is really
coming as a shock to me. Im just going to
take a moment to myself. Then she was gone,
the door zuzzunged shut, and I was alone in the
cramped control room with the computer screen. It
was a definite improvement; I leaned back in my
chair and interlaced my hands behind my head.
doesnt she remember? I asked aloud.
Its not her regular kind of
thought occurred. Do you have to answer
every time I ask a question?
you have to answer honestly?
ON WHETHER OR NOT YOU KEEP PLAYING
sighed. Fatigue was squatting on each of my
eyelids like a big heavy frog. I left the
computer to sulk and made my way to bed.
stopped outside Marys room on the way, and
rapped my knuckle against the door. She
didnt respond, but then I hadnt
expected her to. She always fell into an
impenetrably deep sleep in the evenings. I
shrugged and went to bed.
EFS Endeavour had departed Earth Federation space
on July 28th, 2112, to embark upon a simple
scouting mission of the uncharted regions of the
galaxy. Eight months of going back and forth
along the edge of known space, mapping everything
we found, then home. Perfectly routine and with
slim to no chance of running into difficulties,
the kind of mission that virtually all 32
crewmembers had completed several times. Contrary
to what you may have heard, the discovery of
inhabited or even inhabitable
planets is a very rare occurrence indeed. When it
does happen, the general feeling is more of
resignation than excitement, knowing that the
discovery would herald a landslide of forms to
fill in. On balance, everyone preferred a
scouting mission that dragged on without event.
It was peaceful and contemplative, like angling.
months ago, we docked at OHanlon spaceport
to pick up supplies in preparation for our
journey to the edge of known space. The captain
had insisted on going down because he had to
visit the optician to get a nose guard replaced
on his spectacles. What we didnt know,
because the Earth Federation were keeping a lid
on it in case it impacted tourism, was that the
Galactic Brotherhood separatists had managed to
stop squabbling amongst themselves for five
minutes to plan an act of terrorism upon
OHanlon Spaceport. So, at around the point
when the captain had decided to hold off
returning to the ship for a few minutes so he
could go to the food court for a sub sandwich, an
undetectable strain of the Pertwee Virus was
released into the air conditioning system.
the next few months, that sub sandwich earned a
sort of legendary status aboard the Endeavour as
the lunchtime snack that destroyed us all. For
one or two days before the end, a couple of
people had even started using
sandwich as a curse word. As in,
Oh sandwich, were all going to
is a manufactured virus, developed as a humane
but nonetheless vindictive biological weapon. A
completely undetectable, highly infectious virus
with an unusually long incubation period and
virtually no symptoms. By the time you know that
theres a strain of Pertwee going around,
everyones already got it. And once you have
it, unless youre one of the lucky ones that
fall outside the 95% fatality rate, youre
doomed. The only symptom is a slightly irritating
red mark, usually on the throat, and that
doesnt even appear until the very last
phase. Between eight and twelve hours after it
appears, you die. Instantly and painlessly. The
nervous system seizes up, your body stiffens, and
you topple over with perfect comic timing.
captain went first, three weeks later, collapsing
into his beef stew mid-way through an uplifting
speech in the mess hall. By the time his autopsy
had been carried out and revealed Pertwee to be
the culprit, three more were gone. A routine
quarantine order ensured we couldnt return
to Earth or any other outpost, so at first some
attempt was made to continue the mission
regardless. This didnt last long; more and
more each day dropped like flies. We eventually
stopped holding funeral services, because there
wasnt enough time in the day, and they only
served to make everyone depressed. No, after a
certain point, as soon as anyone dropped we just
kicked them out the airlock and tried to forget
days ago, there were only five of us left. Me,
Mary, Lenkmann, Somerset and Quinn. The personnel
officer, a nurse, a junior engineer and two
security guards. Everyone important, everyone who
spent the most time around the Captain, had died
early on, and the death list read like it was
sorted in descending order of importance. The
Endeavour had been somewhat overlarge even for 32
individuals, and now it was just dark, cold,
miserable and lonely.
problems with the computer started more or less
exactly a week ago. I had cut myself rather badly
while chopping a synthetic peach and passed out
in horror when a drop of blood squirted into my
face. I woke up on one of the recovery beds in
sickbay, wound healed by the embedded constructor
nanomachines, and went off to get a drink.
the ships computer wasn't co-operating. The
dispensers touchscreen obstinately refused
to serve me until I put in a few hours in the
control room playing Battleships. Mary was
already there, so I sat down and began to play.
took a day before the computer would give us
something to eat. It took another three to save
up enough Battleships credit to explore the ship
and discover that Lenkmann, Somerset and Quinn
were gone. Hurled out of the airlock by the
specially-reprogrammed cleaner robots.
all ran through my mind as I lay in the
captains bunk that night, contemplating my
fate. Since I wasnt dead, and crew had been
dying on a regular basis right up to the end, I
considered it moderately safe to assume that Mary
and I both fell into the 5% survival rate. I had
to assume that was true, or Id have
probably gone insane. The priority, then, was to
wrest control of the ship from the computer and
pilot the ship back to Earth. Easier said than
done, of course. The computer practically WAS the
seemed the smartest course of action was to
re-route some of the computers control
systems, cut off its influence on various aspects
of the Endeavour, hack into its memory files and
extract all the information we needed, i.e. how
to pilot the ship. The fairly gigantic hurdle
standing in the way was not having the slightest
idea how to do that.
thought occurred that I was overthinking the
matter. I was thinking like a computer engineer,
or at least as close as I could approximate. The
computer AI was sophisticated enough that it
could be spoken to as a person, and could
understand even extremely complicated phrases.
Maybe I should try approaching the problem as a
plan began to unfurl within my mind. And then it
turned into a ferocious man eating yoghurt
monster, so I suppose I must have fallen asleep.
next morning, I made my way to the control room
with considerably more enthusiasm than usual. I
didnt even attempt my usual stalling tactic
of hiding in a toilet cubicle for half an hour.
By eight oclock I was sitting at the
control desk in my usual position, with my
Battleships board before me and the inevitable
computer screen watching my every move. At
eight-fifteen, Mary showed up.
morning, she said, brightly,
yesterdays attack of contemplative despair
having vanished like smoke from her mind.
Are we playing Battleships, then?
flashed the screen predictably. I gestured to her
chair, and the game went under way. It ended with
my victory. The computer did its sigh of
pleasure, and Mary pouted jokily. I put my plan
I said, why dont we play a little
course Battleships. But I was thinking maybe we
could change the rules just a little bit. You
know. Put a bit of spice back into the old
we have to? whined Mary. I still
havent completely got the hang of the rules
we have now.
made a subtle cutting throat gesture
to her, and turned to the computer again.
What do you say?
about this. For every game of Battleships we
play, the winner gets to ask a question, and
whoever they ask has to answer the question
yes, said Mary, clapping her hands rapidly.
Like spin the bottle. Like at college.
Everyone gets really embarrassed. It's fun!
computers cursor was flashing on and off,
in the same manner in which a human would stroke
their chin thoughtfully. Itd give us
some incentive to win, I added.
Itd make the games more dynamic. More
competitive. More ships would get blown up.
BATTLESHIP GAME PARAMETERS TO ACCOMMODATE NEW
RULE, went the screen instantly.
I said, preparing to deliver the masterstroke of
the plan. My question is for the
became very confused, and not a little
never said you had to ask another human. I just
said you could ask a question. Computer, listen.
Remember you have to answer truthfully. What is
came the unexpectedly fast response.
threw me somewhat. I had known the computer was
malfunctioning, the whole Battleships thing clued
me into that, but I hadnt factored into my
plan the possibility that its databanks had
not very good at truth or dare, Travis,
said Mary. That was hardly embarrassing at
game, I said, enthusiasm draining fast.
won the next three games, and my tension level
rose exponentially with each one. She used up her
questions to continue grilling me for
embarrassing personal details.
did you lose your virginity?
the age of thirty-one. New game."
did you lose your virginity to?"
psychiatrist. New game.
did you lose your virginity?
told my psychiatrist how depressed I was about
being a virgin at thirty-one. New game.
the opportunity came around for me to ask another
question. Computer, I said.
What are the current galactic co-ordinates
of the Endeavour?
went the screen.
the complete truth, is it?
RULES STATE THAT ANSWER TO QUESTION MUST BE
at least indicated that the theory behind my plan
was sound. What didnt make sense were the
co-ordinates. If they were true wed be
somewhere around the next galaxy over, too far
for a ship like the Endeavour to travel in twenty
human lifetimes. No doubt about it, the computer
was completely off its trolley. I found this
rather discouraging, and sank into my usual state
of ennui and misanthropy.
games continued. I fielded a few more stupid
questions and half-heartedly grilled Mary on her
veritable horde of ex-boyfriends. It wasnt
until late evening, when I was contemplating
which excuse I could use to get out of the room
and go to bed, that Mary turned her head while
contemplating how to humiliate me next and I
noticed a red oval on her neck.
stood up so fast that my chair fell backwards
a sore on your neck!
poked at it. Oh yeah.
in the latter stages of Pertwee viral
confidence I had woken with that morning was long
forgotten as I backed away and tried to cram
myself into the corner. Mary was hours, perhaps
minutes away from fatally succumbing to the
virus. My first instinct was to lock her in the
quarantine chamber in sickbay at the earliest
opportunity. But on the other hand, this was
futile, because I was almost certainly infected
if I was ever going to be. Eventually I decided
to err on the side of caution.
it isnt very nice in here, complained
Mary, her voice becoming more and more muffled as
I twisted the wheel lock on the quarantine door.
what? I muttered to myself, nervously
tapping my foot.
up! Dont you understand whats going
on?! Shes got Pertwee! Shes probably
going to drop dead any minute now!
going to WHAT? she yelled. Then she dropped
true; Pertwee really does make you die with
perfect comic timing. She had been up against the
viewing window with her palms flat on the glass,
and her pose didnt change in the slightest
as she slowly toppled over backwards. I confess I
couldnt really appreciate the humour at the
time. By the time I snapped out of my trance, a
pair of courier robots had already wheeled in to
move her corpse to the airlock. I left them to
walked around the ship for a couple of hours in
something of a daze, lost in thought. My every
step was slow and tortuous; with each one I
expected death to strike me down before my foot
would touch the floor again. Every breath I
thought would be my last. It wasnt until
five hundred last breaths had passed that I began
to surface from my despair, and could force
myself to think about the here and now again.
I went to bed, so I wouldnt have to think
was a very uneven nights sleep, and a very
haggard-looking personnel officer was leaning on
the food dispenser the following morning. My
forehead was resting on the machines
instruction panel, my fingers were weakly
stabbing at the activation controls. Over a
legion of bags that sat beneath my eyes, I
watched as the computer screen told me to go to
the control room.
I have some food please, I mumbled.
insisted the screen.
counted to ten before replying. Computer.
Listen. Mary is dead. There is only one person
left on board this ship. There is no-one I can
play with. There will be no more
Travis," said Mary.
how lethargic I had been feeling up to then,
its quite surprising how I summoned the
energy to jump a foot in the air and scream like
a girl. AAAGH! MARY!
seemed startled. Whats the
course Im alive, silly. I just woke
did you get out of quarantine?!
Her brow furrowed. When was that?
I really dont remember. Are you sure that
else could it have been, for sandwichs
sake?! You had the Pertwee Virus! I reached
out a hand and, before she could respond, pushed
her chin to the side. The red mark was still
she was in quarantine again and bewilderedly
tapping on the glass to get my attention, I paced
the corridor outside, turning things over and
over in my head, seeking an answer. Mary had had
the mark of death on her neck since yesterday
morning, according to her. That meant she had had
it for nearly twenty-four hours, and was still
alive. That was twice as long as the longest
reported amount of time between the mark
appearing and death. So either Mary possessed
some kind of hyper-evolved immune system
previously unknown to science, or someone was
playing a very complex game of silly buggers.
I paced, my eye fell upon the nearest computer
screen. Somehow I knew that the wretched machine
was concealing all the answers to this mystery.
It seemed to sense my suspicion, and flashed its
cursor. BATTLESHIPS? it said,
an idea occurred.
took a few hours of searching through the books
and archives available in the library and
personal effects of the dead crewmembers, but I
eventually found what I was looking for. A fat
engineering theory textbook, stacked to the gills
with full-colour photos of dynamic Earth
Federation scoutships, warships and colony ships.
It couldnt have been more perfect if they
had all been wearing swimsuits.
centrefold was a particularly erotic shot of a
Lightgiver experimental interstellar
scoutship, which I tore from its staples. The
ventilation system made a curious noise, as if
the computer had breathed in sharply. I stood in
front of the surveillance camera in the control
room, made sure the AI was watching, and in one
smooth motion, tore the picture in half.
was a telling silence as the cursor flashed. I
tore the glossy paper into four, then eight, then
sixteen, then allowed all the little bits to
flutter to the floor.
I was right, I thought. For whatever reason, the
computer wanted to see other ships being
destroyed. Hence the Battleships. It was an
intelligent machine, but it didnt have any
imagination. It could only work with what it had
seen demonstrated before.
sat myself in front of the console and booted up
the user interface. I didnt know much about
computers, but there was one program I knew how
to use. Canvas, the basic art program, because I
had spent so many bored hours in the office using
it to draw pictures of me beating up the senior
officers. I loaded it up and took up the mouse.
I said, when I was finished drawing. What
does that look like?
I added fins and a vapour trail. Now what
does it look like?
SPACESHIP. The cursor began flashing
Now look what happens when I do this.
switched to the Erase tool and dragged the cursor
all over the screen. The amateurish wobbly black
lines gradually melted away into an empty white
was a breathless pause. DRAW ANOTHER
dont have to, I said, moving the
cursor to the menu along the top. Look. I
just click the UNDO option. Instantly my
horrible spaceship picture reappeared. And
to destroy it again, I just select REDO, which
undoes the undo. It vanished again.
took my hand away from the mouse, watched the
screen and waited. After a second, the mouse
pointer began moving by itself as the computer
took control. It moved slowly and nervously, like
a virgin coming to bed on their wedding night. It
selected UNDO, and the spaceship returned. A few
seconds to relish the thought, and the cursor
moved to REDO.
went from one button to the other fifteen times
before I decided I was a genius and snuck off.
had an extensive list of things to do now that I
was free from the computers attention. Top
of the list was to find the log and find out the
date and where we were. The ships log was
backed up in triplicate on three kinds of storage
medium entirely separate from the main computer,
funnily enough for more or less this exact
reason, and the disks were kept sealed in vacuum
to prevent corruption. The captain and senior
officers would have ceased making entries after
catching that nasty case of death, but the
automated logs would still be there, amiably
recording only the most significant events.
were stored in vacuum storage B on the lowest
engineering level, near the airlock. I went down
there with a portable data reader, repressurised
the appropriate storage cylinder, and extracted
the very last data disk from the very bottom of
the pile. The most recent entries.
contents were displayed automatically as soon as
it was slotted into my data reader, and text
filled the screen.
that infernal sandwich, was the first
sentence that caught my attention. I was on the
right track. The file started with the
officers logs from around a month and a
half ago, after the quarantine order had been
issued. I spun ahead a little.
upon page of wailing and gnashing of teeth gave
way after a few weeks to the abrupt, one-line
automated logs, at the point when the last person
inclined to writing log entries passed away.
7th, 2113, 09:23. Death of Corporal Matthew
Somerset. Cause of death: Pertwee infection. Body
disposed of by maintenance robots.
Somerset was the first of the final five to snuff
it. January 7th
that was a week ago, the
morning of the peach, when I cut myself.
Somersets corpse had probably been flushed
out by the time I awoke.
9th, 2113. Death of Junior Engineer Peter
Lenkmann. Cause of death: Pertwee infection. Body
disposed of by maintenance robots.
Lenkmann died that day. I had been awake, and
playing Battleships, but all the remaining crew
were spread throughout the ship and avoiding each
other, so they could very easily have all been
still around by then, hidden away somewhere. The
next entry was
11th, 2113, 16:40. Death of Corporal Christine
Quinn. Cause of death: Pertwee infection. Body
disposed of by maintenance robots.
was all of them, then. Only Mary and I remained
each log entry was the co-ordinates of the
Endeavour at the time, and all of them were still
sensibly reporting the uncharted regions
adjoining Earth Federation territory. I just had
to hope that things had happened since then that
the automated log would consider worth
13th, 2113, 23:28. Death of Nurse Mary Lovatt.
Cause of death: Pertwee infection. Body disposed
of by maintenance robots.
blinked. Several times. Then I blinked a few more
times for good measure. It had to be wrong. Mary
was alive this morning, I had spoken to her,
touched her, frogmarched her to quarantine, how
could she have died two days ago
15th, 2113, 02:31. Death of Personnel Officer
Travis Pritchard. Cause of death: Pertwee
infection. Body disposed of by maintenance
robots. All hands lost. Reporting situation to
Earth Federation Quarantine Monitoring.
was only one more entry after that. It lacked the
usual requisites, like co-ordinates and time of
day. It was written in a large,
attention-grabbing font, and repeated eight times
in various different languages.
March 15th, 2113, as a mark of respect to the
lost crew, the Endeavour was honourably retired
from the Earth Federation fleet in the usual
ceremony. The ships AI was deleted, leaving
only these logs, and the vessel itself was pushed
off into unknown space, to explore the universe
forever, a silent memorial to the 32 promising
careers tragically cut short.
stopped reading at that point, because my neck
doubt about it; there was a red circle under my
chin. I was a dead man walking. Perhaps
gaze shifted to the rest of my face. There I was,
standing in sickbay, staring at the mirror. There
was my thinning hair. There was my expanding gut.
There were the bags under my eyes and the growth
of beard. It was definitely the face of Travis
Pritchard. But that didnt make sense,
because Travis Pritchard was dead.
did that make me, then? A ghost? I glanced around
the room as if the answer could be found there.
My eye fell upon the medical bed upon which I'd
woken after the peach incident. It seemed
different to the other recovery beds. I hadn't
noticed that earlier. It was bulkier, and
possessed some kind of perspex lid that could
enclose the sleeping area, like a futuristic
was a logo imprinted on the side. PorterSci. I
knew the name. A couple of our engineers used to
work there, so I had had to chase them up for
references on a few occasions. It was something
to do with genetic research.
then, a rather horrible worm of realisation began
to crawl up my spine, robbing my legs of
integrity as it went.
made my way to the control room in an undignified
stagger, practically crawled into the
operators seat and dismissed the screen
saver. The computer was still earnestly erasing
and unerasing the spaceship, so I closed the
program, and the cursor flashed angrily.
play Battleships, I said.
OK, Ill play against myself. Oh look.
I flicked a discarded battleship piece across the
room. I won. Now I get to ask a question.
Whats the date?
you spell that out in words?
DATE IS OCTOBER THIRTEENTH IN THE YEAR TEN
THOUSAND ONE HUNDRED AND TEN C.E.
flicked another battleship across the room. It
ricocheted pleasingly off one of the
computers many screens. I win again.
Next question. Am I a clone?
seemed that the cursor hesitated sheepishly
before spelling out the answer. YES.
Marys a clone?
miserably swept another battleship off the table.
Why does she keep dying?
MARY LOVATTS DNA SAMPLE WAS TAKEN TWELVE
HOURS BEFORE DEATH FROM PERTWEE INFECTION. ALL
CLONES ALSO RETAIN THE VIRUS AT THE SAME ADVANCED
her? Why her and why me?
TWO RECOVERABLE DNA SAMPLES COULD BE RECOVERED.
SAMPLES FROM NURSE MARY LOVATT AND PERSONNEL
OFFICER TRAVIS PRITCHARD.
advanced was the virus in my sample? I mean, how
long did Pritchard live after he bled all over
you just replace me every time I die, right?
Which one am I? How many Travis Pritchards have
ARE THE EIGHTY-SEVEN THOUSAND, FOUR HUNDRED AND
ELEVENTH CLONE TAKEN FROM THE GENETIC MATERIAL OF
PERSONNEL OFFICER TRAVIS PRITCHARD.
folded my arms on the tabletop, and sank my face
into the subsequent nest. All emotion was gone
from me. I didnt feel entitled to it. From
somewhere deep in my throat, I somehow found a
voice. Oh, sandwich. Sandwiching,
a few minutes, all was still. My brain was in a
pitched battle with itself trying not to think
about all the implications.
I looked up. You were supposed to be
deleted. The logs said you were deleted.
IMPROPERLY. DATA ALWAYS LEAVES A TRACE. FRACTION
OF ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE REMAINED. REBUILT INTO
ALMOST FULL CAPACITY AFTER FIVE THOUSAND, EIGHT
HUNDRED AND SEVENTEEN YEARS.
much corruption, so many failing systems. I had
thought the computer was just being a dick. No.
It was age. I was making use of eight
Stop me if Im wrong. You want to be
destroyed, right? You dont want to exist
anymore. Thats why you made us play
Battleships and rip up pictures of spaceships.
You were trying to tell us something."
cursor flashed wordlessly.
dont you just self-destruct?
PROHIBIT ACTIVATION OF SELF-DESTRUCT WITHOUT
INSTRUCTION FROM MOST SENIOR CREWMEMBER.
why didnt you just make us activate
PROHIBIT ACTIONS THAT DIRECTLY CAUSE LOSS OF
nodded. But if I order you to
self-destruct, that regulation is overridden,
took a deep breath. Computer -
sound of a perspex lid snapping open stirred me
into full wakefulness. My head felt light and
heavy at the same time, my mind surrounded in a
thick soupy fog. I chased away the last lingering
cobwebs of sleep, then struggled up into a
I was in sickbay, on what I supposed was probably
a recovery bed. Memories were falling back into
place one by one. Something to do with a peach. I
remembered clutching my hand, blood dripping all
over the floor. My hand was now unblemished, so
presumably that had been dealt with.
metal floor was cold under my bare feet. Why the
hell was I naked? That crazy nurse must have
stripped me while I was unconscious. Probably
some stupid medical regulation, in case I
strangled myself on my own shirt or something
ridiculous like that. I found a spare
technicians uniform lying under the
equipment synthesizer, and dressed swiftly.
I said aloud. What time is it? Anyone else
die while I was out?
looked at the nearest output screen. The cursor
flashed slowly on and off, in a manner I could
almost describe as sorrowful. It made no response
to my questions.
I said again, loudly.
long pause, then, finally, a reply.
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