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Anne Mccaffrey. The Dolphins Of Pern (part)

Anne Mccaffrey. The Dolphins Of Pern (part)

-------------------- Anne McCaffrey. The Dolphins of Pern [part]. ======================================== HarryFan SF&F Laboratory: FIDO 2:463/2.5 -------------------- Publication date: october 1994 in hardcover Copyright 1994 by Anne McCaffrey


When Masterfisher Alemi came by Readis's hold that morning, he found his fishing crony ready and waiting. "I thought you'd never come, Uncle Alemi," Readis said in a tone that was a thin line away from accusatory. "He's been on the porch," Aramina told Alemi with a solemn, hiding-a-smile face, "for the last hour. He was up in dawn's dark!" And she rolled her eyes at such eager anticipation. "Uncle Alemi says the fish bite best at dawn," Readis informed his mother condescendingly as he jumped down the three steps to take a firm hold of the callused hand of his courtesy uncle. "I don't know which excited him more: fishing with you, or being allowed to attend Swacky's Gather this evening." Then she waggled a finger at her small son. "Remember, you have to take a nap this afternoon." "I'm all ready to go fishing _now,_" Readis said, ignoring the threat. "I got my snack"--he brandished the net sack laden with his water bottle and wrapped sandwich--"and my vest." The last was added somewhat contemptuously. "You will note that I'm wearing mine, too," Alemi said, giving the trusting little paw a shake. Aramina chuckled. "That's the only reason he's wearing his." "I swim good!" Readis announced in a strong, loud voice. "I swim as good as any ship fish!" "That you do," his mother agreed equably. "Don't I know that as taught you?" Alemi replied cheerfully. "And _I_ can swim that much better and still use a vest in a small boat." "An' in stormy weather," Readis added to prove that he knew the whole lesson on safety vests. "My mother made mine," he said proudly, puffing out his vested chest and grinning up at her. "With love in every stitch!" "C'mon, lad, time's a-wasting," Alemi said. With a farewell wave of his free hand to Aramina, he led his small charge down to the beach and the slab-sided dinghy that would convey them out to where Alemi felt they would likely find the big redfins that were promised for grilling at Swacky's evening's festivities. Swacky had been part of Readis's life since he could remember. The stocky ex-soldier had joined Jayge and Aramina when Aunt Temma and Uncle Nazer had come from the north. He lived in one of the smaller holds and turned his hand to any one of a number of chores necessary in Paradise River Hold. Swacky had guard stories of all the Holds he'd served in to tell a small and fascinated boy. Readis's father, Jayge, never talked of the renegade problem, which had drawn him and Swacky together. And Swacky, though he was fierce and unforgiving of the renegades for "slaughtering innocent folk and animals just to see their blood run," never mentioned exactly what Jayge had done in those days, except to let on that it had to do with the particular renegades who had attacked the Lilcamp wagon train, which was Jayge's family business. If Readis had been asked which man he loved best--apart from his father, of course--Swacky or Alemi, he would have been hard-pressed to make a choice. Both men figured largely in his young life, but for different reasons. Today Readis was going to have the best of both: fishing in the morning with Alemi, and feasting in the evening to honor Swacky's seventy-five Turns of living! Pushing together, they eased the skiff down the sandy shore and into the gently lapping water. When they had waded out until the water was mid-thigh on Readis, Alemi gestured for him to jump in and take up the paddle. That was the main difference between Readis's two idols: Swacky talked a lot; Alemi used gestures where the other man would have used sentences. With one mighty last push, Alemi sent the skiff forward over the first of the little combers and jumped in. At another familiar gesture, Readis moved to the stern and sculled his paddle to keep the forward movement while Alemi unfurled the sail and let the boom run out. The inland dawn breeze filled the canvas, and Readis stowed the paddle and reached for the keel board, sending it home into the stern slot and shoving the cotter pin through to lock it firmly in place. "Hard a-port," Alemi sang out, accompanying his command with appropriate gestures. As the boom swung over he ducked agilely, playing out the lines until he had moved into the seat beside his shipmate. He shortened sail and then put his free arm behind Readis, noting the lad's instinctive handling of the rudder. Alemi's good wife had given him three fine girl children and was carrying a fourth child, which both devoutly hoped would be a son. But until that time, Alemi "practiced" with Readis. Jayge approved, since it would stand a shoreside holder in good stead to appreciate the moods and bounty of the sea, and Readis would profit by knowing more than one skill. Alemi sniffed at the offshore breeze, redolent of vegetation and exotic blossoms. He judged that the wind would turn once they got out beyond the Paradise River channel. He didn't intend to sail far from land, but on the landside of the Great Southern Current, they were sure to find the redfins that frequented this part of the sea in great schools. Yesterday, Alemi had sent out the two smaller ships of his little fleet to meet those schools. As soon as the repairs to his bigger yawl had been completed, he and his crew would join them. Alemi was just as pleased to be on shore for Swacky's Gather. He might miss a day's fishing, but until the mains'l had been mended, he was shorebound. As they hit the rip at the channel mouth, the little skiff bucked and bounced. Readis's merry laugh burbled out of him, as he delighted in the dipping and dumping. Not much phased the lad, and he'd never fed the fishes once. Which was more than could be said for some grown men. Then Alemi caught the sparkle and shine on the surface and, touching Readis's shoulder, pointed. The boy leaned against him and cast his eye along the extended arm, nodding excitedly as he, too, saw the school: so many fish trying to occupy the same space that they seemed to be flippering on each other's backs. In a single-minded action, both reached for the rods that had been stowed under the gunnels. These were sturdy rods of the finest bambu, with reels of the stoutest tight-stranded line, and hooks hand-fashioned by the Hold's Smithjourneyman, barbed to hold once sunk in the jaw of the wiliest redfin. Twelve redfins the length of a grown man's arm were required for the evening's feasting. There would be roast wherry and succulent herdbeast, but redfin was Swacky's favorite. He'd wanted to come along, Swacky had told Readis the night before, but he had to stay about and organize his Gather, or no one would do it the way he wanted. Alemi let Readis bait his own hook with the innards of the shellfish redfins loved best. The boy's tongue stuck out the side of his mouth as he manipulated the slimy mess securely onto the hook. He looked up at Alemi and saw the nod of approval. Then, with a deft cast for a boy his age, he sent the weighted hook, bait still attached, out across the starboard wake of the skiff. To give the boy a chance to make the first catch of the day, Alemi busied himself furling the sail and performing other chores. Then he, too, hunkered down in the cockpit, bracing his rod on the port side. They didn't have long to wait for a bite. Readis was first. The rod bent, its tip almost touching the choppy waves as the redfin fought its ensnarement. Readis, biting his lip, his eyes bugged out with determination, set both feet on the seat and hung on to his rod. Grunts came out of him as he struggled to reel in this monster. Alemi had one hand, out of the boy's line of sight, ready to grab the rod should the fish prove too strong. Readis was panting with effort by the time the equally exhausted redfin was flapping feebly at the starboard side. With one deft swoop, Alemi netted it and hauled it aboard; Readis whooped with glee as he saw the size of it. "That's the biggest one yet, isn't it, Uncle Alemi? That's the biggest one I've caught. Isn't it? A real good big 'un!" "Indeed it is," Alemi replied stoutly. The fish was not as long as his forearm, but it was a good prize for the boy. Just then his line tugged. "You gotta bite, too. You gotta bite!" "That I do. So you'll have to attend to this one yourself." Alemi was amazed at the pull of his hooked fish. He had to exert considerable force to keep the rod from being pulled out of his hand. For a startled moment, he wondered if he had inadvertently hooked a shipfish, something no fishman in his right mind ever did. He was immensely relieved as he saw the red fins of his captive as the fish writhed above the surface in an attempt to loosen the barb in its mouth. "That's ginormous!" Readis cried, and looked up in awe at the Masterfishman. "It's a big 'un all right," Alemi said, jamming his feet under the cockpit seat to get more leverage against the pull. "And it's dragging the skiff!" That, too, was obvious to Alemi: it was dragging them toward the edge of the Great Southern Current. He could even discern the difference in color between current and sea. "And we're right in the middle of the school!" Readis cried, lurching from port to starboard to look down at the darting bodies that surrounded the little ship. "Best knock your catch on the head before it flips overboard," Alemi said, noting the flapping of the landed fish and not wanting its oil to coat the deck. He managed to reel in a good length, though the tip of his rod went briefly underwater. He hauled mightily and got enough play in the line to reel in again. "That is the fightingest fish you've ever hooked," Readis said. He'd knocked his redfin smartly on the head and tossed it in the catch tank, remembering to fasten the lid with a deft turn of the fastener. One eye on the drift toward the Great Current, Alemi hurried the process of reeling the redfin in, Readis cheering him along with reports of the immense size of the fish. "Get ready with the net, boy!" Alemi called as he maneuvered his catch close to the port side of the skiff. Readis was ready, but the struggling fish was too much for his young arms, and Alemi flung the rod aside to help. The moment they got the fish aboard, Alemi clouted it on the head, then stepped over it to get to the tiller and alter their course away from the Southern Current. They were close enough for him to see the rapid stream making its inexorable way through waters crowded with fish. "Wheee, look at that, Unclemi!" Readis cried, pointing a blood-smeared finger at the school of redfin. "Can't we fish here?" "Not in the Current, boy, not unless you want to take a much longer voyage and miss tonight's Gather." "I don't want to do tha ..." Readis's eyes widened and his mouth gaped as he looked astern. "O-oh!" Alemi craned his head over his shoulder and caught his breath. Boiling up behind them, and far too close for them to reach the safety of the river mouth, was one of the black squalls that this part of the coast was famous for: squalls that defied even his well-honed seaman's instinct for storm. A powerful gust of wind smacked into his face and made his eyes water. Even as he moved to secure the boom, gesturing for Readis to perform the emergency tasks drilled into him for just such a situation, Alemi cursed the freak weather, which gave none of the warnings he was used to noting in the Nerat Bay waters where he had been trained. His father, Yanus, had often berated the folly of men who insisted on sailing the Great Currents when there were quieter waters that held just as many fish but without the hazards. Alemi, rather liking hazards, had never agreed with his father on that score--among others. Now he gave a brief tug at the ties of Readis's vest, grinned a reassurance, and then payed out the sea anchor. "So what do fishmen do in a blow, Readis?" he shouted above the rising wind that whipped the words from his mouth. "Sail into it! Or run with it!" Readis was grinning with all the impudent confidence of his age. He leaned into the arm Alemi put around him as they braced themselves in the cockpit. "Which do we do now?" "Run!" Alemi said, adjusting his course to the gusty pressure against the back of his head and keeping the bow in line with the wave pattern. This dinghy was a frail craft in the high seas that a sudden squall like this could churn up. Devoutly Alemi hoped this would be a short blow. One large roller athwart the dinghy and they'd be swamped. The shoreline had disappeared in the blackness of the encompassing storm, but that didn't worry Alemi as much as getting caught in the Great Southern Current, which could take them dangerously far from land or ram them, all unseeing, into the headland above Paradise River Cove. Hauling the tiller over as far as he dared, he hoped the wind would blow them to starboard, away from the Current and toward land. But winds were as capricious as these seas. He _had_ checked the barometer--one of the new tools that Aivas had supplied as a weather aid. Knowing himself more attuned to Nerat Bay's more pacific waters, Alemi had availed himself of the device despite the scoffing of other fishmen. He had also studied the weather charts and such information about these waters as the Ancients had amassed in Aivas's seemingly inexhaustible "files." Anything that would aid the crafthold and prevent loss of life and ship was not too bizarre to be tested by Alemi. But the barometer had been steady on Fair when he had left to collect Readis. Too late to worry about that now, he thought as the skiff was bashed sideways by a white cap. It then dropped down a huge trough, sinking his stomach on the way. Beside him, Readis laughed, even as he tightened his hands on the gunnel beside him. Alemi managed to grin encouragingly down at his brave shipmate. On the upsurge, the wave seized the small boat and heaved it high on the next crest, then smashed it down again so that water walled them into a dark green pocket, the sea anchor trailing in the air behind them. The skiff lurched, its prow digging into the ascending sea cliff. They took on water and, when Readis would have dutifully reached for the bailing bucket, Alemi tightened his hold on him, shaking his head. The skiff could take on a good deal of water--which would make her somewhat heavier in the seas, all to the good--before she was in danger of sinking. He feared capsizing more. He was glad that he had drilled Readis on how to cope with an overturn. Now he had all he could do to hang on, for a cross rip of surging waves battered the skiff from side to side, as well as up and down. He clung, one hand to the ship and one on Readis, and prayed for the end of the squall. Storms like this one could stop almost as abruptly as they began. That would be their only hope now: a quick end to the blow. He saw the mast splinter and break, felt Readis's tightened grip, and then abruptly they were upended as the cross waves slammed into the starboard side and decanted them into the roiled sea. His grip on Readis tightened, pulling the boy close in to his chest. Over the scream of the storm he heard the boy's startled, frightened cry. Then they were being milled in the waters, Readis clinging to him like a gray limpet. Alemi flailed his free arm, trying to reach the surface again. He managed to grab a breath just as another wave pushed them down. Readis struggled in his arms, and all he could do was tighten his grip. He mustn't lose the boy. Then his scooping hand came hard against something. The upturned skiff? He clutched at a roundness that was not wooden, but firm and fleshed. Shipfish? Shipfish! Through the driving rain and wash of seawater, he could see shapes all around them. How often they were said to rescue fishermen! The hard edge of a dorsal fin filled his hand, and his body was swung against its long sleek shape just as another wave crashed over him. No, the shipfish was angling its agile body right _through_ the wave and out the other side. Readis's small body was on the outside, victim to the pull of the harsh waves. Hanging on, Alemi somehow shoved Readis to his side, against the shipfish. In between the sheets of water that covered them, he saw Readis's hands trying to find some purchase on the sleek, slippery body. "Shipfish, Readis!" he shouted above the tumult of the storm winds. "They'll save us! Hang on!" Then he felt another body nudge into him on the other side, wedging him and Readis even tighter, though how the creatures managed that feat in such rough water he didn't know. But the additional support allowed him some respite; he reset his hand on the dorsal fin and even managed to work one of Readis's small hands onto the sturdy edge. Then it occurred to Alemi, as they passed through yet another wall of water, that Readis was small enough to _ride_ on the shipfish's back. It took three more waves before Alemi had hoisted Readis astride the shipfish. To his immense surprise, the shipfish seemed to be helping by maintaining as straight a line through the plunging seas as it could. "Hold on! Hold on tight!" Alemi cried, firmly wrapping Readis's small arms around the fin. The boy, his face a scared white but his mouth set in a determined line, nodded and half crouched behind the fin, like the rider of a sea dragon. A surge of relief caused Alemi to momentarily loosen his grip on the top of the fin, and he floundered about. Almost immediately, a blunt nose bumped him authoritatively, and the next thing he knew a dorsal fin was nudging his right hand. A wave crashed down on him, tumbling him in the water, away from the safety, and he had to fight his panic. But the shipfish was right beside him, pushing him upward with its snout. They both broke the surface together and Alemi thrashed toward the creature, grabbing the dorsal with both hands, only to be thrown sideways against the long body by the next whitecap. This time he managed to retain a grip with one hand. He fought the panic that wanted both hands on this one source of stability offered in the stormy sea and, relaxing into the movement, found the courage to surrender to the shipfish. As they dipped and plunged through the next wave, he saw Readis, crouching over his mount's back. He saw the phalanx of escort on either side and knew that their protection was solid. Then it seemed as if the squall was lessening, or perhaps they had been conveyed to its fringes where the water was calmer. Either way, their passage improved. Looking in the direction he thought land should be, he saw the smudge of the shoreline and almost cried with relief. "Wheeeeee!" Startled by that cry, Alemi turned as he saw a shipfish launch itself above the waves in a graceful arc and reenter the water. Others began the same antic, all wheeing or squeeing. "Wheee!" cried an unmistakably boyish voice, and Alemi looked over his left shoulder to see Readis, now sitting up straighter on his shipfish, grinning with delight at the exhibition. "That's great!" the boy added. "Aren't they great, Alemi?" "Grrrreat!" But it was a shipfish who repeated the word, spinning the _r_ out. On all sides, shipfish were crying "Great!" as they continued their leisurely vaultings in and out of the sea. Alemi convulsively tightened his grip on the dorsal fin. He couldn't believe what he was hearing. The stress of the storm, perhaps a blow to his head, or plain fear, had addled his faculties. His companion raised its head and, water shooting up out of the blowhole in the top of its cranium, clearly said, "Thass great!" "They're talking, Unclemi, they're talking." "How could they, Readis? They're fish!" "Not fish! Mam'l." His rescuer got out the three words in a loud and contradictory tone. "Doll-fins," it added clearly, and Alemi shook his head. "Doll-fins speak good." As if to emphasize this, it began to speed forward, hauling the dazed Masterfisher along at a spanking pace. Readis's doll-fin and the guardian companions altered their course, too, and picked up speed, the flankers still performing their acrobatic above-the-water spins, vaults, and turns. "Talk some more, will you?" Readis encouraged in his high-pitched young voice. This was going to make some Gather tale. And they'd have to believe what he said because Unclemi was here with him to vouch that what he said was true. "Talk? You talk. Long tayme no talk," a doll-fin swimming alongside Readis said very clearly. "Men back Landing? Doll-fin ears back?" "Landing?" Alemi repeated, stunned. The doll-fins _knew_ the ancient name? Wonder upon wonder. "Men _are_ back at Landing," Readis said quite proudly, as if he had been instrumental in their return. "Good!" cried one doll-fin as it executed a twist in midair, knifing back into the water without splashing. "Squeeeeee!" another cried as it vaulted upward. In the water all around him, Alemi heard excited clickings and clatterings. The area seemed so full of shipfish bodies that he wondered how they could move without injuring each other. "Look, Unclemi, we're nearly back!" Readis said, jabbing his finger at the fast-approaching land. They had been conveyed so rapidly and smoothly that Alemi struggled between relief that they were so close to dry land and regret that this incredible journey was ending. The forward motion of the shipfish slowed as they came to the first of the sandbanks. Some leaped over it, others followed Readis's and Alemi's mounts to the channel, while the majority altered their direction seaward again. Moments later the smooth transport came to a complete halt and, tentatively lowering his feet, Alemi felt the firmness of the seabed, gradually sloping up to the shore. He released the dorsal fin and slapped the side of his mount, which turned and rubbed its nose against him, as if inviting a caress. Bemused, Alemi scratched as he would his dog or the small felines who were beginning to invade the Hold. Readis's mount continued past him. "Thanks, my friend. You saved our lives and we are grateful," Alemi said formally. "Wielcame. Uur duty," the shipfish said clearly, and then, with a swirl, it propelled its body sinuously back out to the break in the sandbar, its fin traveling at ever-increasing speed as it rejoined its fellows. "Hey!" Readis cried on a note of alarm. His mount had unceremoniously dumped him in shallows where, if he stood on tiptoe, he could just keep his chin out of water. "Thank the doll-fin," Alemi called, wading as fast as he could toward the boy. "Scratch its chin." "Oh? You like that, huh?" Readis, treading water, managed to use both hands to scratch the face presented him. "Thank you very much indeed for saving my life and giving me that great swim ashore." "Wielcame, bhoy!" Then the doll-fin executed an incredible leap over Readis's head and followed its podmate out to sea again. "Come back. Come back soon," Readis called after it, raising himself up out of the water to project his invitation. A faint squeee answered him. "D'you think he heard me?" Readis asked Alemi plaintively. "They seem to have very good hearing," Alemi remarked dryly. Then he gave Readis as inconspicuous an assist up out of the water as he could. The boy had been magnificent throughout. He must tell Jayge that. A father sometimes didn't see his son in the same light as an interested observer. Tired as they were from the experience, the exhilaration of their rescue provided enough energy for them both to reach the dry sand of the beach before they had to sit and rest. "They won't believe us, will they, Unclemi?" Readis said with a weary sigh as he stretched full length on the warm beach. "I'm not sure I believe us," Alemi said, mustering a smile as he collapsed beside the boy. "But the shipfish unquestionably rescued us. No mistake about that!" "And the shipfish--whadidhe call himself--mam'l? He did talk to us. You heard him. Wielcame! Uur duty." And Readis made his voice squeakier in mimicry of the doll-fin. "They even got manners." "Remember that, Readis," Alemi said with a weak chuckle. He knew he should get to his feet and go reassure Aramina that they'd survived the storm. Though, as he turned his head to look down the shoreline, he couldn't see a soul. Was it possible that no one on shore had noticed the sudden squall? That no one had even known they were in danger? Just as well not to unnecessarily mar what would still be a happy occasion in Swacky's nameday Gather. "Unclemi?" There was a disturbed wail in Readis's voice. "We lost our redfins." Then the boy added hastily, to show he was aware of the priorities, "And the skiff, too." "We have our lives, Readis, and we've a story to tell. Now, just get your breath a few more minutes." A few more minutes became an hour before either stirred, for the warm sand had taken the last of the squall's chill from their bones, and the sea sounds and the light winds had combined with the fatigue of their recent labors to send them to sleep. Except for the fact that Alemi was not given to fanciful tales, the rest of Paradise River Hold might not have believed the astounding tale the two of them told. By the next morning tide, however, pieces of the skiff were deposited on the beach. By then everyone in Paradise River Hold knew the bare bones of their near-fatal fishing trip. No one on shore had noticed the squall, busy with their chores and getting ready for the evening Gather. Aramina had been in Temma's cothold, baking. She nearly fainted when Alemi informed her, as gently as possible, of the recent ordeal her son had come through so magnificently. Then she fussed so over Readis, who was trying to eat lunch because his had been lost at sea, that she looked hurt when he shrugged her attentions off so he could get on with filling his very empty stomach. She reprimanded him severely when he told her that shipfish talk. "How can _fish_ talk?" She glared at Alemi as if he had filled the boy's head with nonsense. Before Alemi could support him, Readis gave his mother a very fierce scowl. "Dragons talk," he insisted. "Dragons talk to their _riders,_ not small boys." "And you heard dragons, Mother," he protested boldly even though he knew she didn't like to be reminded. That made her pause so long that he wished the words back in his throat and chewed more slowly. "Yes, I heard dragons, but I certainly have never heard shipfish!" "Even when they rescued you and Da?" "In the middle of a storm?" she asked skeptically. "Mine didn't start talking until _after_ the storm." His mother glanced again at Alemi for confirmation. "It is true, Aramina. They spoke." "Their noises may have just _sounded_ like words, Alemi," she tried to insist. "Not when they said wielcame' after I said thank you,'" Readis went on hotly, and Alemi nodded vigorously under Aramina's outraged eyes. "And they know that the Ancients called the place Landing and they're mam'ls, not fish!" "Of course they're fish!" Aramina blurted out. "They swim in the sea!" "So do we and we're not fish!" Readis retorted in disgust with her disbelief, and stormed out of the room, refusing to return when she called him. "Now see what you've done!" Aramina said to Alemi, and then she, too, left Temma's kitchen. Alemi regarded the older woman blankly. "If you say they spoke, 'Lemi, they spoke," the former trader said with a definitive nod of her head. Then she grinned at his confused expression. "Don't worry about Ara. She'll calm down, but you gotta admit you frightened the life out of her. And none of us here even knowing there'd been a bad squall. Here!" She handed him a cup of freshly brewed klah, to which she added a dollop of the special brew she kept for emergencies. "Ha!" Alemi said, smacking his lips after a long swig. "I needed that!" He handed back the cup, with a quizzical expression. "You don't need any more or you won't be able to regale the Gather tonight with your adventure," Temma said with a wink. The pod swam back into their customary waters full of elation that they had once again saved landfolk. This was worth relaying to the Tillek now, instead of waiting until the year turned and pods gathered at the Great Subsidence o watch the young males attempt the whirlpool and exchange the news each pod gathered in its waters. The southern pods did nothave as many occasions as the northern ones did to perform traditional duties. So the sounds went out and were broadcast that Afo and Kib had played with mans lost at sea. It had been a great moment. For they had spoken to mans in Words and mans had spoken to them, using the ancient Words of Courtesy. So Kib rehearsed the tale, murmuring into the waters as he swam the Words of his Reporrit. He sent the sounds out to be repeated from pod to pod until they came to the hearing of the Tillek. Maybe this was the time that the Tilleks had promised would come: when mans once more remembered to speak to seafolk and became partners again. The sounds traveled to the Tillek, who had them repeated from one end of the seas to the other, to all the pods in all the waters of Pern. There was envy at such good luck, and some even wished to join the fortunate pod. Afo, Kib, Mel, Temp, and Mul swam fast and proud, with great leaps. And Mel wondered if mans would still know how to get rid of bloodfish, for he had one sucking him that he could not seem to scrape off, no matter how he tried.

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