Bear the Ember, Chapter 6

Chapter 5: Target Praxis

By Stirling Edgewood

Copyright 2020

Chapter 6: Black Missed

He awoke to the foul taste of combustibles clinging to his tongue. He was in bed. Peering around, he realized he was not in his own sleeping closet, but hers. He took a quick personal inventory, noting that all of his limbs were still attached. He peeked under the sheet covering him, and gazing at his relaxed mid-section, noted wryly, “Glad you could finally get some rest, my little friend. It appears we live on, and may yet serve our purpose.”

He began to sit up, but was halted by the pain and stiffness in his torso. With a groan he relaxed back onto the bed. “Provided we escape the evil designs of our mutinous crewmate,” he mused.

The door suddenly popped open, and she rushed in. “You emerge!” she declared, rushing over to the bed, and grasping him in a tight embrace. Her tight, enthusiastic hug caused pain to shoot through him. “I feared so that you would never awaken.”

Grasping her and pushing her back to arms length, he peered at her face. “I appear to be still of one piece,” he informed her. “Yet not fully sound in all aspects. A certain delicacy may be required.” She seemed tired and haggard.

“But you are whole? My examination revealed no mortal injuries,” she said with a worried tone. She began to caress his body, searching his figure closely, as if it might reveal some overlooked wound.

“Although pained, I retain all necessary function,” he replied testily. “Yet I care not for my own discomfort. This ship, this journey, our mission is all. Your treasonous endeavors place us in dire peril.”

“Oh!” she cried. “Please, you mustn’t hate me.” She pleaded. “I worried so. If you were lost, I fear I might perish.”

“Still, your actions are unbecoming and incongruent with our purpose,” he shot back angrily.

“Please, please,” she begged. “Be not cross. I could not bear it,” she whispered, touching him gently and moving closer. “You are the only thing in my world. I could not carry on, were you to scorn me.”

“I require to be immediately informed of our state and all that has transpired while I recuperated,” he demanded officiously. But she continued to stroke his figure, her body now pressing against him, her touch like fire through the sheet. Her eyes filled with fear, regret, sorrow, and something else. The black anger in him began to melt.

“We must…” He stammered, but she pulled him closer, her limbs gliding over his. “No time..” he protested feebly, but now she was on top of him, her soft form whispering against the sheet, feeling his hard frame. And though the anger and disgust still burned in him, urging him to reject her, he found himself returning her caress, their bodies beginning to move together in harmonious rhythm.

“Never leave me,” she said hoarsely. “Be with me forever.”

And they did not know if it was he, or she, or perhaps both who moved it, but the thin sheet between them slid away. It was as if sparks flew where their skin touched, each reveling in the exquisite sensation.

“But we cannot.” he protested. And though passion filled his voice, anger still clung to the tone. But they were helpless, and could not stop.

“The tome forbids…” she protested weakly. But his touch, her smell, relentlessly wiped away the last of their resistance.

Her clothing seemed to somehow melt away, and their caresses roamed, igniting fires of pleasure in their wake. With soft abandon they melded into each other’s embrace, their passion pulling them closer, her soul opening to his love, his burning desire eagerly seeking her, entwined on the threshold of rapturous communion.

Then he coughed.

A violent, wracking spasm shook him, doubling him up with it’s force. With each hacking bark pain shot through him. She leaped off the bed, worry creasing her face. He turned into the bed, unable to control the convulsions of his frame. With each sudden exhalation, he expelled a thick, black mucous. When the fit subsided, he peered down at the bed. A sticky fluid filled with what appeared to be a black mist stained it.

“I fear I still suffer some affliction,” he croaked hoarsely. “A certain blackness, contamination, clings inside. It must be expelled, ere…” He trailed off.

“Ere we proceed,” she completed the sentence for him.

He stood, and they stared silently at each other. The desire, the longing, the love was like a palpable substance between them, connecting them.

She gathered up her clothing and quickly dressed. He saw some of his own clothing neatly folded on a table, and dressed himself.

“You appear overtaxed,” he said, observing her tired face. The grime and rumpled state of her garb attested to her exhaustion.

“I was unable to rest. While your recovery was in doubt, sleep eluded me entirely,” she confessed.

“What time has passed while I lay incapacitated?” he inquired.

“One log period. And half another,” she said softly, as recalling an event too painful to remember.

“You poor, dear creature,” he whispered with deep sympathy.

“I have busied myself ceaselessly about the ship in that time,” she said. “Pausing only to assure myself that you lay in comfort, and to attend to when you revived.”

“Please, relay all that has transpired,” he urged softly.

“After bringing you here, binding your wounds, and making every effort to restore you to health, I took it upon myself to undo the terrible damage of my poisoned message. I composed a renewed transmission, informing our planet that all was well, and the previous missive was in err, the result of the addlement attendant upon dehibernation.”

“Alas,” he said sorrowfully, “it will be of little result. Those who wish to thwart the alliance betwixt our kingdoms will name it false. With no avenue for ascertaining the true author, they will protest that it was I who dispatched it, as a subterfuge.”

“Ah, but the folk of my realm have means to confirm my authorship,” she said, brightening.

“How so?” he asked, puzzled.

“Before our departure, I was given a cipher, whereby I might, through the arrangement of particular words in certain order, conceal my signature,” she revealed.

“Quite clever,” he noted with relief. “Let us pray that the more sensible among our folk recognize your hand and prove the communique true to the satisfaction of all.”

“I have every confidence it will come to pass just so,” she assured him.

“From your disheveled state,” he pressed, “it seems your business has extended far beyond communications.”

“Quite so,” she continued, eager to reveal the extent of her labors. “I have been periodically replenishing the fuel feeder.”

“I am amazed. The fuel hoppers hold considerable mass. For you to transport them would require considerably more strength than I had imagined you to possess,” he replied, obviously impressed.

“Indeed, the hoppers proved to be of weight in excess of my capacity to move. I have endeavored to satiate the fuel feeder by means of a shovel, thereby emptying some half of the spilled fuel in the propulsion section,” she announced proudly.

“I am amazed still,” he announced. “Such a monumental labor. I wonder you have not collapsed from the strain.”

“I have also got in all of the resupply packets. It is a shame the automated packet retriever is malfunctioning. Their retrieval is highly laborious.” She placed a thick, multi-color stack of papers on a table. “These are the manifests I removed from the outside of each, announcing what each packet entails.” He glanced at the large lettering on the top paper, large enough to be read from 50 feet away. It listed first a few items that had been included, in addition to the fuel, fluorine, and oxygen, which made up the bulk of each packet. Each packet was a different color, to indicate the type of supplies it contained, red for medical, green for food, orange for equipment. The color of the paper on which the manifest was printed matched each packet.

“Bravo!” He exclaimed. “And do we proceed upon our proper course?”

“In part,” she admitted. “We continue to drift slowly from our path. My efforts at fueling have proven somewhat inadequate to provide sufficient thrust to hold us fast to our intended path.”

“Well,” he said reassuringly, “I feel quite advanced in my recovery, and I shall reassert my efforts at fueling and bring us back to alignment. Your efforts have surpassed all expectation,” He said appreciatively.

“My recent actions,” she said quietly, with downcast eyes. “My earlier acts, I know, have been unconscionable. I pray you find mercy enough in your soul to forgive me.”

“Your efforts to remedy the error have been quite considerable,” he said appraisingly. “Yet, perhaps not sufficient,” he added ominously.

She stared at him with a look of sadness and fear.

“Indeed,” he continued with a smirk, “As penance, you will be required to slay at least an half dozen intergalactic dragons, and retrieve a full hopper of rare magic rocks from the void.”

They laughed together for a moment.

“But hold a moment,” he added worriedly. “Did you report that all resupply packets have been got in?”

“Most assuredly,” she replied. “It required considerable effort, but the electromagnetic funnel has been emptied.”

“But, there should be no all. The resupply is continuous,” he said with alarm. “Through maby years’ service, I have never successfully got in all, as new arrivals replenished those removed, moving slowly down the funnel to the port.”

She looked at him with shock, realizing what this implied. “Could I have miscalculated the course?” she gasped. “If our drift proves too great, the resupply packets will evade the funnel. We then must needs rely on what stores are already aboard. Those are woefully inadequate to provision us through the many light years separating us from our destination.”

They rushed out to the control room.

“I will set about ensuring the course calculations with new eyes,” he said, sitting down at the navigation desk. “As I do, your best occupation will be to place our location by triangulation with the nearest stars.”

“Which stars?” she asked quickly. “In the brief span from my dehibernation, I have had no moment to familiarize myself with our present stellar neighborhood.”

“The most proximate system is a binary, perhaps a light year distant,” he informed her, and rattled off the coordinates for its distance and direction from the last observation he made shortly before her dehibernation.

“The next lies some 4 light years distant,” he continued, rattling off another set of coordinates.

He set off to the observation section, and he began recalculating their position and course, feverishly scribbling with his pencil and working his slide rule. As he was finishing, she returned with the positioning information.

“Your calculations have proven true,” he said. “We have strayed from perfect navigation, yet, not so far as to orphan the resupply stream beyond the reach of the electromagnetic funnel.”

She showed him a piece of paper cluttered with her notes on the coordinates, angles, and calculations from her observations. He scanned it quickly.

“By all measures, the funnel and resupply should be in near enough synchronicity,” he said puzzled.

“Yet the funnel is empty,” she said gravely. “Has our home planet abandoned us? My message! It is our ruin!”

“Nonsense,” he shot back. “The message propagates through the void still, and will do so for many years. Our planet is wholly unaware of it.”

“Where then, are the packets?” She asked.

“Survey the adjacent void with RADAR,” he suggested.

She moved to a nearby apparatus, flipped a switch, adjusted some knobs, and a phosphorescent screen began to glow. A neat line of green dots appeared.

“These are objects, passing some few dozens of miles from us,” She said.

“Such an unnatural configuration could be no other than our packets. At such range, the funnel should swallow them. The explanation must lie in some malfunction of the funnel, perhaps a rent in the web” he concluded. “I will prepare myself to enter the void and mend the gap with utmost haste.”

“Hold,” she requested. “If it be a tear, a vigorous course correction may place the packet stream into a more wholesome portion of the funnel. Such a correction wonts prodigious fuel. Your efforts must be focused here, as I am unequal to an increase in loading the fuel feeder. As you effect the thrust and course correction, I will enter the void to make repairs.”

“Indeed,” he agreed. “A wise division of labor,” he commented approvingly. “However, I have neglected the routine maintenance on your void suit. I confess, I did not imagine it would be needed. It has been some years since I have inspected and serviced it, and it may be somewhat in disrepair. I would offer you the use of mine, but you would find it much too large for your dainty frame.”

“I will inspect it thoroughly before proceeding,” she assured him. “I hasten to the task,” she proclaimed, turning to head down the access shaft leading to the airlock. But he reached out to restrain her.

“My fair princess,” he implored. “Take care. Recall the cautions of the tome. Though we devote our every endeavor to the ship, the crew owns the greater share of value, and must be preserved.”

She stared at him, slightly miffed, and began to push through his restraining limb, but he held firm and continued. “Ensure your void suit batteries are at full charge, and the stabilizing gyroscopes freely spinning before your departure. Your propulsion tanks must be at maximum pressure, also. And return before they are one third expended, as any venture into the void must account for both the journey away, and the trek back, with added reserve for coincidental movement of the ship.”

Though she glared at him, his lecture continued. “And cinch the compartmentalization belts at each joint of your void suit with firm snugness. In the event of a breach of one section, they will secure the remaining against a catastrophic, total loss of pressure.”

“I certainly shall,” she hissed, barely able to restrain herself.

“And adhere strictly to all precautions of each codicil of the tome –“ but she cut him off.

“The tome once again? Will you endlessly torment me with what I have committed to memory by rote?” She remonstrated.

“Alas,” he said placatingly. “The void is nothingness embodied. Yet within it lurks multitudinous dangers. It hungers to fill it’s frigid emptiness with the warmth of your flesh.” Here his limb began to tremble. “I grow so painfully fond of the sound of your voice, your touch, your smell. Your loss would drive my lonely soul to madness,” he confessed. “I would eagerly sacrifice my most adroit limb, to keep you safe.”

“My passion for you,” she replied, softening “swells achingly so in my heart, that I may rupture.” She gripped his arms tightly. “Fear not, for I shall return, if only to feel your embrace once again.”

“As you see, I chide you not,” he continued. “I merely wrap my worry –“

“In a codicil?” she finished, in a tone both teasing and sweet, and they both chuckled together.

“Oh,” she continued, teasingly, “I see that I have not quite fully touched your heart, nor wholly filled you with great passion.”

“How so?” he asked, surprised. “I assure you, I am powerfully moved to my very core by the mere sight of you.”

“Well,” she explained, “you would sacrifice merely one limb for me? I would suppose that true affection would inspire you to sacrifice somewhat more, perhaps even all.”

“Indeed, I would sacrifice every muscle, fiber, and sinew for you,” he boasted, “were they mine to proffer. To my dismay, our mission owns me more than I own myself, and he is a master most jealous. He demands that I remain sufficiently whole, in order to serve him faithfully.”

“Well played,” she said admiringly. “I see our present indisposition has yet to dismount your charm.”

With that, she turned and headed down the shaft, gathering tools and a spool of electromagnetic filament along the way. At the airlock, she found her void suit hanging in a locker, and checked the battery and propellant levels. Seeing that they were full, she donned the void suit with its air tank, twin propellant tanks, and electromagnetic boots that would secure her to the ship’s hull. She opened the airlock door in the floor, lowered herself into it, and pressed the button to close the door above her and seal the chamber. In the floor near her were the outer airlock doors. The hull served as the floor of this chamber, the centrifugal force of the rotating ship providing the artificial gravity that kept the crew secured to the floor. A long metal handle ran along each side of the door, projecting slightly into the area that would open out into the void.

She then pressed the button to depressurize the chamber. The whine of pumps filled the air for a few minutes. Then she pressed a button to open the doors, and the portal in the floor slid open, revealing a field of glowing stars, set like jewels in the black velvet of space. She activated her electromagnetic boots and braced herself for the disorienting procedure of exiting the airlock.

She gripped one handle, and jumped, breaking the magnetic grip of her boots on the inner side of the hull. She swung down and out into space, never releasing the handle, until she completed almost a full circle, her boots clanging down onto the exterior hull. She stood up, feeling a little nauseous. The centrifugal force now pulled her outward, into the void, resulting in a sensation as if she were hanging by her feet. Her blood rushed up into her head, causing a slight ringing in her ears.  

It took several rotations of the ship for her to find the nearby binary as it passed. Taking her bearings from it as it wheeled above her, she mentally pictured the best point in the ship’s rotation for a release that would take advantage of the angular momentum to help propel her in the direction of the suspected rip in the electromagnetic funnel. She crouched down. She waited. Her heart pounded. Then with a simultaneous jump and a quick flip of a switch cutting the power to her boots, she released from the solid surface of the ship, down into a bottomless free fall.

As she activated her thrusters, she stabbed at the radio controls to turn it on. “I am in the void,” she reported.

In the propulsion room, he was already filling a hopper with powdered fuel at a furious pace. The radio he had placed on the floor in a corner crackled with random static, then suddenly erupted with the sound of her voice. “I am in the void.”

His labors abruptly ceased, as his heart involuntarily stopped. The radio distorted her sweet, melodic tone into a stilted, thin hiss. Yet it was undeniably her.

“In the void,” he whispered, “May she be merciful, and return you safely to me.”

“Your transmission is quite faint, I cannot make it out.” Her voice replied. “Please repeat.”

“Fortune go with you,” He barked out.

“She remains my constant servant.” Came the confident reply.

He set about his labor with renewed vigor, but in his mind he silently counted the minutes, estimating the gap that had opened between them. Each inch further she drifted from the ship was a dagger penetrating an inch deeper into his heart. Thinking about the rate at which she should be accelerating, after only a few minutes, he was enumerating the distance not in painful inches, not agonizing feet, but excruciating miles. He shuddered. Only a thin wrapping of pressurized, air-tight fabric separated her from infinity.

After dumping another loaded hopper into the fuel feeder, he increased the feed rate to the propulsion system. He felt the ship surge slightly under the added thrust. He darted into the control room, bringing the radio with him. After adjusting several levers to alter their course based on the location of the resupply stream and the added thrust, he hurried back to the propulsion section to continue feeding the ship’s hungry engines.

He jumped repeatedly as loud pops and hisses of static echoed from the radio, but of her voice, it was maddeningly silent. Finally, he heard her. Though warped through electrostatic noise, the sound washed him in sweet relief.

“The funnel appears to be somewhat in general disrepair,” She informed him.

“As with all things on our vessel,” he replied wearily. “Yet we will make it serve,” he added confidently.

“I observe numerous small gaps in the web,” she continued.

“Small gaps will lessen the magnetic field somewhat. Nevertheless, they are not expected to render it ineffective,” he informed her.

“Just so,” came her voice through the static. “Yet we must be certain to list rectification of them as a lesser urgency on our list of labors.”

“Indeed,” he agreed. “Perhaps right after inspection and reapplication of the soft aerogel on the ships nose, which protects us from space debris. Have you encountered a larger gap, sufficient to allow a packet to pass?”

“None has yet appeared,” she responded. “I will navigate outward toward the extremity of the funnel.”

After some minutes, his labors were interrupted again by the sound of a gasp.

“Ah!” crackled the radio. “My travel is not straightforward.”

“How so?” He enquired.

“I trace not a line, but an arc. I believe one of my thrusters has ceased to function,” she reported. “Perhaps a valve has jammed.”

“I blame my own negligence in allowing your void suit to fall into disrepair. You should return to the ship. Should the other go awry we may lose you altogether,” he stated with concern.

“I will continue,” she replied flatly. “The tome advises in this matter,” she explained. “I shall rectify my motion by periodic reorientation, effecting a see-saw approach to my destination.”

“I must vigorously object to this procedure,” he admonished her. “The risk of false navigation, or further lapse in your propulsive equipment is too great. I could not bear the thought of you coming to harm, particularly when due to my lack of industriousness.”

“I perceive the nearby binary with absolute clarity, and readily take my bearings from it,” she protested. “In any eventuality, I may simply follow the funnel in my return, as it unfailingly leads back to the ship.”

“That may serve for navigation,” he relented. “Even so, you must shorten your journey considerably. The propellant imprisoned by the stuck valve will no longer give you service. It must be carried as useless weight, further impeding your progress. And the distance must be further lessened by the indirect route resulting from the zig-zag technique.”

“Just so,” she agreed. “Yet I bear the ember of this task, and it will be wholly concluded.”

The radio remained silent for a few more minutes.  He zealously continued the fueling with half his mind, while the other half stayed alert for her voice from the radio.

“A large gap in the funnel lies ahead,” her voice informed him through the radio.

“I pray you have discovered the hole through which our supplies evade us,” he said with relief. “And that it has no companion,” he added with concern.

“The flaw is quite prodigious,” she added with surprise. “I cannot perceive its limit.” She paused a moment, then asked, “I could not possibly have surpassed the extent of the funnel,” she stated. “It should lie some thousand miles distant.”

“Surpassed the funnel!” he exclaimed with alarm.

“Yet from my vantage I perceive the edges of the tear extending endlessly into the void,” she added, ignoring his distress. “I will fasten an end of the replacement cable to the nearest edge as it approaches, then reconnoiter as far along the tear as propellant allows, affixing more cable as I pass.”

A scream of protest rose up inside him, but realizing her plan was compliant with the tome, he stifled it. After a few moments of silence, he realized he was holding his breath. He exhaled slowly, then resumed slaving in service of the fire that impelled them through the void.

“I will effect repairs to the extent possible,” her voice informed him over the radio.

“Just so. Effect repairs to the extent possible,” came his voice through the static in her suit radio.

As the edge of the breach in the funnel came closer, she pulled the spool of conductive cable from the clip on her belt. She unspooled a few feet in preparation, then began jockeying her angle and intermittently firing her remaining thruster so that she would pass within reach of the edge of the tear. It approached with alarming rapidity, and she feared missing her opportunity to grab it. Suddenly it was in front of her, and she reached out, snagging it neatly. Her momentum carried her past it, and her hold dragged it along with her. The tension was very light at first, but even in the few moments needed to wrap the loose strand of cable around it a few times, she could feel the strain rapidly growing. As she pulled the strand she had captured out of its natural position, her momentum pulled the strands connected to it. These in turn pulled on the strands adjacent to them. The mass she dragged out of position grew exponentially with each few feet she traversed. She released the spool and allowed it to float alongside her as she pulled another tool from her belt and sintered the wrapped area, melding the repair cable with the edge of the hole in the web. She reattached the tool to her belt, grabbed the spool, and released the web. Her grip on the web had altered her direction and velocity, and though she knew before she grabbed it that it would impact her trajectory, she felt somewhat disoriented. She began searching the space around her to get her bearings and locate another edge of the gap in the net. It was nowhere in sight. Neither was the binary serving as her lodestar.

Then she spied a twinkling in the distance. It seemed to be moving rapidly toward her, and after following it for a few moments, she realized it was on a course to intersect her own path.

“Is that?” she whispered.

“You speak so softly, I cannot make it out,” his voice crackled through the radio.

“It is a packet!” she exclaimed.

“You must evade it by all means!” he bellowed. “A collision with the rapidly traveling mass would obliterate your slight form. Rotate to an angle perpendicular to its path and apply maximum thrust!” His voice wailed above the static hiss.

It was approaching so quickly she was unsure whether she would have time to act. Panic rose up and her pulse began to race. Breathing heavily, she rapidly reoriented herself to an angle perpendicular to what she guessed was the imaginary plane formed by the packet, her, and the collision point. She opened the thruster to maximum force, while craning to look back at the unopposable force closing in on her. With relief she saw that the rate of approach seemed to diminish, their paths no longer intersecting. She breathed a sigh of relief, but only for a moment. The packet suddenly was approaching again, as if it were somehow following her. She realized she no longer had to twist to see it. It was now approaching head on. “Damned stuck thruster!” She exclaimed. With only one thruster, the unbalanced, rapid acceleration had brought her rapidly around in a circle. Right back to ground zero.

With eerie clarity she realized the packet was no longer just a twinkling light, but had shape, and size. And color. “Medical supplies” flashed through her mind. Traveling at a speed measured in kilometers per second. Heading right at her. She screamed.

“What is happening?” Cried his voice from the speaker in her suit. “Where are you? Where is the packet?”

But panic had seized her. She was wasn’t making words, only sounds of terror.

“I cannot help you now,” came the hoarse, despairing whisper from the radio.

The fear was now in total control of her. She slapped wildly at the thruster controls, and streams of propellant shot out randomly. She turned, twisted, bent, and rolled, flailing out in all directions. Her body jerked about under these chaotic forces, darting haphazardly in alternating directions. The stars reeled around her in a jumbled blur. Suddenly, for the briefest moment, an image flashed in front her with horrifying clarity, burning itself into her eyes:

Vitamin supplements: 10,000 doses

Bandages, 3 inch: 250 feet

Bandages, 1 inch: 500 feet

Antibacterial Solution, concentrated: 6 quarts

Blood plasma: 3 quarts

Pain reliever, 250 doses

Solid fuel: 17 tons

Flourine gas: 17 cylinders

Oxygen: 10 cylinders

A scream erupted from her with such force it nearly shattered her face plate…

In the deep void of space, the vaccuum is almost complete. The properties of gas no longer apply. The pressure that restrains the skins and shells of planetary creatures from bursting is absent. No wind gently caresses a cheek. Nor gale levels a forest. The few particles present, each alone unto itself, do not whisper and crack against each other, and no sound propagates. Yet, as the packet hurtled toward her, in her mind, it roared with violent rage, belching white-hot flame. It approached with a velocity that bewildered her imagination, as if it outpaced even the electrons darting along her neurons that communicated the terror that shook her every cell. It seemed to sweep her up in a whirlwind, drawing her into it’s maw.

Then, suddenly, it passed.  

The screaming had stopped. But not abruptly, as he dreaded, but, to his relief, as a slowly ebbing note. He called out desperately. “Does your heart still beat?”

“Does my heart still beat?” The confusion and awe in her voice was apparent even over the radio. “It is truly miraculous. My heart does still beat.” 

“Are you harmed?” He asked anxiously.

After a moment, the reply came back breathlessly. “I do appear to be unharmed.”

He sighed in relief. “My dear princess, more comforting words have never before been uttered. As to my own heart,” he called out, “it ceased altogether these past few minutes. I shall now inform it that it has my leave to resume its labors.”

“Your efforts have been most valiant, showing excessive bravery,” he continued. “However, I conclude your propulsion stores are exceedingly diminished, and must insist on your immediate return to safety.”

“I turn round and round so.” Came the gasping reply. “Increasing power…to gyroscopes…to stabilize…”

“Through these recent adventures, you have likely acquired an uncomfortable amount of angular velocity,” he explained, “the gyroscopes will settle the motion presently.”

The radio began a rhythmic hissing, as if she were panting. “The stars..streaking…wheeling….dizzy…”

“Deep breathing should assist your state. Look away from the stars, or close your eyes.” He recommended.

“I shall be ill.” She whispered just barely above the static.

“That would be most unfortunate,” he informed her. “Do make every effort to suppress that reaction.”

The radio hiss was suddenly interrupted with a coughing noise, followed by a wet sloshing.

He winced. “Most unpleasant business, vomit in a space suit.” He muttered to himself.

 “Ugh!” Came her voice through the hiss. “It is revolting.”

He replied in a voice purposely too low to be picked up by the radio. “I imagine so.”

“It coats everything. It floats about. And it smells of cheap tea!” She coughed a few times. “The smell, I cannot escape it. I inhale it. It molests my eyes!” She moaned, coughing again.

“A most unfortunate predicament,” he said soothingly. “You have my deepest sympathy.”

“The faceplate is wholly obscured. How will I navigate?” She wailed in despair.

For a moment, he considered reminding her of the procedures laid out in the tome for such an incident, then decided to remain silent.

Then, her voice came again, despairingly. “Ugh! No, I simply cannot remedy this by the method in the tome. I will regurgitate anew, and it will profit nothing.”

“The tome does also allow any suitable alternative,” he reminded her hopefully. “Yet I am unaware of any. The chief objectives are to remove any floating debris, and to clear the face plate of any obstructions to vision. Yet you cannot reach into your headgear without exposing yourself to the hostilities of the vacuum. You must employ what is already sealed inside your helmet.”

The radio crackled again with a groan of dismay. Then the words, “Very well!” This was followed by the faint sounds of something wet rubbing against glass.

He winced, and nearly vomited himself, as he imagined what must be happening. In his mind he saw her head maneuvering, mouth agape, chasing amorphous blobs of slowly floating indelicacies. Then, her face pressed against the glass, her tongue sliding over its soiled surface.

“It’s not so much that it must be done at all,” he mumbled to himself, “but that it must be done well. The beast must be danced reverse back into its cave.”

The radio erupted again with another disgusted moan. “Ugh! It is done,” she declared.

“Can you see?” he asked politely.

“Well enough,” she spat back at him.

“And your motion has stabilized?” he inquired further.

“Well enough!” Her voice came through the radio with a vehement tone.

“This event has not occurred, and no mention of it shall ever be voiced,” she instructed him.

“This adventure in its entirety, or merely the regrettable indigestion bit?” he asked.

“The indigestion!” her voice cracked out, so loud it distorted the radio’s speaker almost to the point of incomprehensibility.

“It is wholly forgotten. No note shall be made in the ship log, and concomitantly, no message to our home world will speak of it,” he informed her politely.

“Very well then,” her voice replied, seemingly placated by his response. “Where am I?” She asked, more to herself than to him.

After a moment of silence, the radio crackled again, “I have located the binary, but cannot place the next nearest star,” she informed him. “I also perceive the electromagnetic funnel. The ship, however, is apparently too distant for direct observation. I will imply its position from the angle of the funnel.”

“Hold a moment,” he requested. “I will fix your coordinates by observation.”

He snatched up the radio and rushed into the control room. After a few moments, the phosphorescent radar screen revealed her location with a glowing blip. He marked it with a grease pencil, and noted the exact time. After several minutes, he marked the blip again, recording the time and measuring the distance between the marks. Then he picked up his pencil and slide rule, and began scratching out the distances and relative velocities, and plotting her course back to the ship.

He relayed the trajectory that would take her back to the ship, then asked, “What quantity of propellant remains usable in your tanks?”

“The recalcitrant tank shows eight tenths remaining,” she replied. “The active one some small measure above one quarter.”

“You bear insufficient material for your return,” he said with concern. “I shall don my void suit and retrieve you.”

“I must object,” she admonished. “Both occupants of the ship might enter the void only in the utmost extremity. The hazard is too large of some unforeseen mishap, ending in us two adrift in the void. An empty vessel hurtling unoccupied and unpiloted presents a disappointing outcome for all we and our peoples have sacrificed. I shall redirect my course, with the intent of expending all remaining propellant to attain a velocity that will place me in a path that intercepts the ship.”

“Just so,” he agreed uneasily. “Yet you will face a grave hazard as you approach the ship. The differences in velocities will mean a most unwholesome collision between you and our vessel. I must still intercept you once you approach nearer, as you will have insufficient propellant to sufficiently retard your speed and allow a safe approach. I would much rather bring you in safely, and not mop your remains from the hull.”

“As you wish,” she replied.

“Should any new inopportunity arise, you must inform me on the instant,” he instructed. “I will track your progress telescopically to ensure no false occurrence. When you have approached nearer, I will enter the void, join you, and slow your approach, just so.”

“Just so.” She agreed. She reoriented herself on the new trajectory, and began thrusting, pausing periodically to change her angle to account for the uneven forcing provided by her single thruster.

After a few moments, his voice crackled over the radio. “I have located you!” he exclaimed. “Through the telescope. I delight to view you with my own eye. You leave a trail like a comet.”

“I must present quite a mundane sight, set among these many celestial jewels,” she replied.

“Quite the opposite,” he replied, his voice ringing over the static. “I offer you a sincere compliment. For even cocooned in a void suit, and from a distance of miles, you remain the most beautiful object in my universe. Promise me now, you will return. I do so yearn to hear the natural sound of your voice, unencumbered by the hiss of celestial interference.”

“I will make the greatest haste,” she assured him. “As each moment we are apart is one of lonely regret.”

“One of lonely regret,” he echoed, picking up the radio and returning to the propulsion section and resuming his efforts to stoke the bulb of flame driving the ship forward.

A half hour later, he was feverishly feeding propellant to the engines when her voice crackled over the radio again.

“The propellant in the functioning tank is expended. I will now proceed under my momentum into the trajectory of the ship.”

“Very well,” he responded nervously. “Is all else in order?”

After a few moments, hearing only the hiss of static, he asked again, “Is all else in order?”

“Well,” her voice came over the radio weakly, “now that I am no longer concentrating on thrusting and steering myself, I realize that it seems uncommonly chill, even for a journey through the void. The temperature gauge on my void suit indicates a level slightly below ideal, yet not out of the bounds of safety.”

“You have been in vacuum for some time now,” he responded worriedly. “Your heating elements may have failed, or the batteries may have been drained by the vigorous exercise of the gyroscopes to stabilize your course.” He paused for a moment, then said, “I will don my own void suit, and come rescue you.”

“That is not necessary,” she protested. “We must proceed according to our plan. I will monitor the temperature, and inform you of any changes.”

“Very well,” he relented. “Inform me immediately should the temperature diminish further.”

He returned to his labors, shoveling and scraping until his whole body ached, bone, muscle, and shell, but he dare not lessen his pace. After some minutes, he heard a noise from the radio.

“Hello?” he called out. And then the noise came again, something like a cough, but distorted by static.

“I say, are you in good keeping?” He said louder.

The noise came from the radio again, and then again, followed by her voice. “It grows prodigious cold. The temperature in my suit has now dropped below safe levels.” Even through the static, her voice sounded weak and frail.

“I will exit the ship and fetch you back now,” he said flatly.

“I may still attain our rendezvous. I have travelled much closer, and can see a small spark, which I believe to be the ship.”

“Even so, I will take your bearing and calculate the courses by which I may most rapidly intercept you in my own void suit.”

With that he dropped the shovel, grabbed the radio, and headed down the access shaft to the control room. After a quick observation of her location he snatched up a pencil and slide rule and began the complex calculation needed to intercept her quickly, while maintaining enough propellant to return to the ship with her added mass. As he was busily scribbling figures the radio crackled again.

“So cold,” came the feeble whisper, barely audible through the static.

He hurriedly scratched out a few more figures, then shouted into the radio, “My calculations are complete. I will be with you in under one half hour.”

Then her voice came again, weakly. “The cold, it grows so. It overthrows me.”

“Be steadfast, be strong. Do not let the ember extinguish!” He shouted encouragingly

“Sir..” croaked the voice, barely audible now. “My prince.. My love… Rescue me.”

He raced down the service shaft to the air lock, banging into equipment, pipes, and bulkheads, ignoring the pain. He grabbed his void suit and quickly checked the propellant tanks and batteries. Seeing that they were fully charged, he jumped into the suit, cycled through the air lock, and emerged onto the surface of the ship. He resisted the urge to immediately jump off into the void, and waited until he got his bearings. Timing it to send him off in the direction of his imperiled crewmate, he grunting with the force of his jump. He rapidly oriented his body toward his target, and opened up both thrusters to maximum output. Although he knew she would not be visible for some time, he scanned every micro-arcsecond of the limited view available through his face plate, searching frantically for her.

He activated the radio in his void suit and called out, “My princess, can you hear me? Hold tight to your mortal coil, for I am coming.”

He received no reply.

“My love,” he whispered, “you cannot, you must not, leave me, alone.”

He could feel his heart pounding in his chest. His body clenched in anguish within his suit. As he approached what he estimated to be the spot where she should be, his eyes sought feverishly through the vast blackness of space. They ached from the strain and felt as if they would burn holes through his face plate then burst from his head. But she was not there. “Where could she be?” He moaned in despair. “The void has no limit. I cannot bear the thought of her, cold and alone, swallowed up in this vast emptiness.”

He cut off his thrusters, then adjusted his gyroscopes so that he would spin. He made one full turn, but no sign of her showed itself. Then a second, but still, he saw no hint of her. He felt the awful weight of despair filling him as he started the third turn. “It is beyond mortal limits,” he moaned wearily. “This endless journey, the crushing loneliness of solitude, the horrible years of confinement. And then she woke. Where once there was nothing but cold machinery and colder space, I suddenly had the warmth of living flesh, the sweet sound of another voice, the endless possibilities of another soul, to share the adventure of life, the passion of love. To have it snatched away after such a brief moment. It cannot be borne. I would rather perish out here in the void with her, than to return, alone, to the –“

Suddenly a tiny speck, a pinpoint of light, a faint spark caught his eye. A star, blending into the background of many distant stars, yet where there should not be one. He reoriented himself and opened the thrusters again. As he proceeded, the small glimmer gradually increased, augmented, until he could make out the vague outline of a void suit. His heart leapt in in relief. “I have found you!” He exclaimed. “You are saved!” But his heart plummeted, as another thought penetrated his mind. “If your heart yet beats within your breast.”

As he approached her, he flipped around to slow himself. Then with quick bursts from the thrusters, he matched her speed and direction, and closed in on her motionless form. He grabbed her and pulled her to him, belly to belly, faceplate to faceplate. But he could not see her. Her faceplate was completely obstructed with frost. He shook her, beat on her suit and helmet, but she did not respond. “I must return to the ship with greatest haste!” he exclaimed. “Perhaps she can be saved yet!” Lashing himself to her with a cord, he oriented toward a point where they would intercept the ship, and opened both thrusters to full throttle. Although the cord held them firmly together, he clutched her tightly to him. His mind bounced maddeningly between two imagined futures. One held a living, vibrant, alive creature of joy and beauty to share this incredible journey with him. In the other, he clasped a cold, lifeless corpse in his despairing arms. As they rocketed through the void, he stared intently at the ship. It was drawing nearer. Soon, he would discover whether joy or anguish awaited him. His heart pounded with anxiety, awaiting the moment with both dread and hope. An eternity and another seemed to pass. As the ship drew nearer and nearer, the moment of revelation approached in all its horrible anticipation.

Then his thrusters stopped.

“It cannot be!” he exclaimed. He checked the propellant level. Both tanks read zero.

“We have not yet reached the ship!” He said in alarm. “We will miss the rendezvous! There is some mistake, some cruel trick of merciless fate!” He wracked his brain, remembering his calculations, his plots of trajectories, speeds and angles. “I must have somehow erred.” Then he realized his mistake. “AHHHH!” he moaned in despair. “In my haste, I neglected to account for the damned useless mass remaining in that accursed malfunctioning propellant tank. I am naught but a worthless, dithering, heap of slapdash idiocy. I deserve nothing less than to perish by my own faults,” he screamed angrily. “But you,” he whispered softly. “You, my love, my all. I grieve that I have failed you so. You did not deserve so inconstant a servant. Such beauty, such grace, should be under the protection of angels, or gods, and not the fallible clay of mere mortal flesh.”

The ship was now moving away from them. He sighed. “Perhaps this is fitting. We shall drift on, for eternity, into the void, lashed together, in the embrace of love. Rather romantic. The bards will sing of the intrepid explorers, venturing out into the unknown, further than any of our kind have ever dared. Yet one day, lost, vanished, our radio silent, our tenuous link to our home world severed.”

He watched as the ship drifted slowly, inexorably, further away. “If we only we had more blasted propellant.”

Suddenly his mind began to work feverishly. “But no, I cannot transfer her propellant tank to my void suit,” he muttered. “The moment it is detached, the pressure will be released, and it will jet off into space. I must endeavor the revivify her thruster.”

He groped around her back, awkwardly feeling for the thruster tank. He followed it down to the nozzle that directed the propellant and provided thrust. He banged on it a few times, but nothing happened. Then he probed inside the nozzle, pushing, poking, prodding. Suddenly he felt a surge, flinging his arm away from the nozzle with a ferocious, violent force that numbed him to the shoulder. They were accelerating forward again. “Perhaps our tale is not yet ended!” he exclaimed.

“I must adjust the flow manually.” He felt around her back for the valve to manually adjust the thrust. But something was wrong. He could not grasp it. He could not feel it. With horror, he realized he had nothing with which to feel it. A wave of nausea and weakness washed over him, and his body began to tremble. He pulled his limb back toward him, where he could see it. But it was not there. He saw a truncated stump. A geyser of blood was rhythmically spurting from it, as the ravenous vacuum of space sucked at his exposed life force.  Streamers of spinning, glistening crimson globs spilled off into eternity. He looked back in their wake, and there, tumbling into the distance, was the missing piece of himself. The suddenly released pressure of the thruster had ripped his probing appendage from his body. “I must stanch the flow, lest I perish before securing my precious burden.”

With his remaining limb, he reached to the cinch strap nearest his severed limb, and pulled it tight, stopping the blood flow.  The stars were swimming dizzily in and out of focus. He realized he was losing consciousness. He fought through the fog closing around him. “Return to the ship,” he panted. He struggled to reorient the combined mass of the two of them. In his mind he traced an arc, the curving path the single thruster would push them through, and the line of the ship’s trajectory. The fog of unconsciousness was pulling him down. He shook his head violently, then looked around, and spotted the ship. “No surety of mathematics and slide rules here,” he whispered. “Only the guess of my eyes. It will serve.” He adjusted their course, praying this new path would lead them back to the relative safety of the steel shell. Her open thruster shoved them violently forward. The fog was gripping him again, pulling him under. “Too fast.” He mumbled weakly. “The hard…we will be splattered…soft…need something soft…perhaps…” He shook himself again, but the fog was still thick in his brain. He adjusted their course again slightly, then the fog overwhelmed him, and consciousness fled.

SPLOOSH. He awoke to a strange sensation, as if he had fallen into a deep pit of thick grease. Deeper and deeper he oozed down, then a bone-jarring impact arrested his momentum, sending violent pains shooting through him. And then they were still.

“Deliverance,” he whispered, his voice filled with surprise. “It is nothing short of divine intervention. It worked,” he said again, his voice filled with awe. “Deliverance!” he shouted now, his voice filled with laughter.

“Don’t you see my princess?” he said to the figure still bound to him by a cord. “We have impacted on the aerogel, on the nose of the ship. We have returned, we made it back, and despite our speed, we have not been shattered against the hull. The soft aerogel has absorbed our velocity, and reentry into the ship is matter of mere moments. Our hearts still beat!” he exclaimed. And then a terrible doubt crept into his mind. Because the figure bound to him by a cord was still. “You must live. You must!” he protested. “Fate cannot be so callous and indifferent. To have waited so long, tasted so little, sacrificed so much…for nothing…it cannot be that you are no longer here with me, my princess.”

They were completely submerged in the aerogel. The starlight filtered only dimly through the semi-transparent material. A dull, gnawing pain reminded him that he had fed part of himself to the void.

He planted his magnetic boots on the hull, and began to pull himself upright. The gel resisted his every motion, and even that simple act left him gasping for breath. When he pushed forward, he found that he could move forward barely a step, and then with only great exertion. The gel before him compressed into an impassable wall. He found that by beating at the gel, he could shift enough of it out of his way to inch forward. But the beating caused the pain in his severed limb to flare into a throbbing agony. He gritted his teeth and beat on. With slow, laborious steps, he worked himself and his cumbersome bundle through the viscous mass. Ten steps. Twenty steps. He was breathing heavily, and the pain, exertion, and lost blood left him feeling dizzy. He needed to rest, but he dare not. The weight of the time she had spent, alone and cold in the void, pressed down on him. He felt as if he were suffocating. But he knew the urgency of getting her quickly into the revivifying warmth of the ship. He pressed on. Thirty steps. Forty. He could sense that his movements were growing slower, weaker, each step taking longer than the last. He was gasping for breath, exhausted. He realized he had no idea where he was in the vast bulk of cloying aerogel. He was not even certain if he were traveling in a straight line or merely fruitlessly meandering and circling back on himself. He paused for a moment. Then he was startled by a buzzing sound. It was the warning alarm for low oxygen levels.

“My exertions have expended the greater part of my breathing supply. Yet to struggle less fervently would mean certain catastrophe. I cannot have come so far to be entombed in a mass of gelatin.”

He redoubled his efforts, feverishly pushing and pounding at the gel, grunting in pain with each thrust made with his damaged limb. His head was reeling with fatigue. His body aching with exertion.

Then suddenly, as he punched his damaged limb toward the wall impeding his progress, he felt no resistance.

“I have broken through!” He exclaimed in relief. He stumbled a few paces along the ship’s hull, his magnetic boots clanging with each step as they made contact with the metal, holding him to the hull. Then he reached up with his intact limb and wiped the outside of his face plate, removing the aerogel clinging there, obstructing his view. He peered down the expanse of metal he stood upon.

“The air lock is merely some few hundred feet distant,” he gasped in relief. “We shall enter our safe harbor ere long.”

He glanced at the limp form, still strapped to him, dangling without agency. A grim foreboding began to work its way into his mind, but he pushed it aside.

Then the buzzing of the oxygen alarm stopped, and was replaced by a series of loud, pulsating chirps.

“That noise, it indicates my oxygen is wholly depleted.” But his voice was calm, almost matter-of-fact, as if through the perils he endured this day, he had been birthed anew, into a harder, stronger, unflappable man. “I have now only a few moments of consciousness before I exhaust the gas in my suit of nourishment. The Tome instructs that travel along the hull be done slowly, carefully, to avoid a slippage of a magnetic boot that could separate a crewmember from the ship, and leave him lost and drifting in the void. However, present circumstances necessitate haste.”

He began sprinting along the deck, as quickly as he could propel himself and the cumbersome mass lashed to his chest. Each step rang with a sharp, deafening bark that roared up through his boots and into his helmet. With each step he could feel his grip on reality beginning to ebb. Yet with each step, he could see the open airlock door getting closer, renewing his vigor. He stumbled. And his next step found no purchase on the deck, only the nothingness of empty space. He thrust a leg toward the deck. It was too far, he could not reach it. He was floating along the hull, slowly drifting away from it, with no propellant to guide him back to its safe solidity.

He looked at the inanimate form dangling on his chest. “Goddamn me to hell if lose I lose you,” he cursed. Then he unfastened the strap connecting them.

With his intact limb, he made three quick loops with the strap around his shattered limb. Then he looped it several times around the leg of the suit containing her. Then he pushed her away, out into the terrible, insatiable void. The reaction against her mass sent him back down to the ship. His boots re-contacted the hull with a satisfying clang. Then the strap suddenly grew taught. Lights flashed before his eyes, as a jolt of agonizing pain shot through his severed stump. Her mass was pulling him out, away from the ship. His limb stretched up above his head, his muscles straining against the opposing forces of her momentum and the magnetic boots securing him to the hold. He heaved on the strap, sending another shock of agony screaming through him. But the force was too great. His boots detached. He was drifting away from the ship again. She came toward him through space, the force of his pull drawing her toward him. She hit is chest with a heavy thump, and he wrapped her tightly in his arms, defeated. A small voice inside his head urged him to unfasten the strap, to push her away again, use her mass to send him safely back to the ship, and her to infinity. “I cannot bear to part with her, alive or no.” He said, and hugged her tighter.

He was shocked when he suddenly felt his back thwack into the hull. “Her momentum!” he exclaimed. “My pull must have given her enough momentum to knock the both of us back to the ship!” He slammed his magnetic boots into the hull, and still hugging her, stood up and sprinted again toward the open airlock. His breath was now coming in rapid, short pants. The air he breathed tasted of iron and blood. His muscles screamed from lack of oxygen. A rim of darkness was building up at the edge of his vision, closing in. He could no longer feel his extremities. He wasn’t entirely sure if he was still running, still holding on to her. But somehow, the open airlock was drawing closer. Another sound rang out, a load beeping. “The batteries too?” He said, but his voice was thick and slurred. The grip of the magnetic boots on the ship’s hull begin to lessen as the power to their electromagnets dwindled. He sensed that at any moment they would give up, release him from the ship, and leave them adrift in the void. He bent low, and lunged toward the airlock, leaving his feet, relinquishing his tenuous connection to the hull’s safety and solidity. As they drifted along the hull, the dark ring around his vision closed in further, crowding out his consciousness. His brain was shutting down. The blackness crowded his vision, tighter and tighter, until all he could see was the edge of the airlock, floating toward him. As they passed over the opening, his limb shot out, into the open airlock, passing through its space while their bodies floated soundlessly over it. Then suddenly, his arm collided with the edge of the open airlock. He desperately grasped for the door handle, and finding it, he pulled with the little strength remaining to him. The two figures stopped, and swung around the pivot of his arm, slamming into the floor beside the airlock door. . He stabbed at the button to close the doors and flood the chamber with air.

The motors and pumps sprang to life. The airlock doors slid closed. He waited, his eyes on the pressure gauge, ready to remove his helmet the moment the pressure inside the airlock was at levels that would not kill him. His brain swam at the edge of unconsciousness. The needle on the gauge crept up slowly. Too slowly. Although well below safe levels, he flipped open the clamps on his helmet, and flung it off.

His lungs gasped and labored to find purchase in the thin air, but even the thin concentration of oxygen in the room was enough to revive his mind back to relative clarity. Full of hope, full of dread, he ripped open the clamps on her helmet and yanked it off. There she was, beautiful, peaceful, motionless. But she was pale, grey, and limp, with no sign of life. He bent low, his cheek next to hers, his ear close, but could hear no breathing. “No, no, you cannot be gone,” he begged. His good hand fumbled on his belt until he found a cutting tool. He tore into her clothing, shredding her void suit and the clothing beneath, flinging the tatters to the floor. Then he went to work on his own suit, slashing and tearing, vaguely aware that he was shredding his own clothing beneath the void suit, and inflicting several gashes in himself in the process. The only part of his suit he left on was the constriction strap restraining the blood flow to his severed hand. Freed of the cumbersome suit, he bent low over her again, and touched her with his remaining hand. She was cold.

He grabbed an emergency kit off the wall and pulled out a small tank of oxygen connected to a mask. Gripping the cylinder between his legs, he twisted the valve fully open, then pressed the mask to her face. Her chest rose with pressure, then fell as he released it. Then she fell still again, motionless. He pressed the mask to her again. Her chest rose, then fell, and then she was still. He pressed the mask to her, again, and again, and again. Each time, after the procedure, she lie on the deck, still, quiescent, peaceful. A horrible, agonizing realization was creeping into his brain.

“No. No. And no again.” he declared. “We will render you whole again!” He shouted confidently. “You are too cold, that is the difficulty. We will stoke the embers of your soul, and you will once again burst with life and energy.” He scooped her frigid figure up in his arms, opened the airlock door, and rushed down the access shaft. When he reached the habitat, he carried her into her sleeping closet, and laid her gently on the bed.

“Warmth, heat — that will renew the spark of life in you.” He pulled out the few blankets he could find and heaped them on top of her. Then he piled on all the clothing from her closet and drawers. But as he did this, the terrible, black thought of losing her intruded into his mind again, this time bolder and stronger. But he pushed it aside once more.

He ripped off the few tatters of his own clothing, and slid next to her underneath the haphazard pile of material. Hugging her closely to him, he whispered softly in her ear, “Yes, yes, you will come back to me. Please my love. It is not so very far. Come back to me.” But her body was cold. Icily, bitterly cold. In his own weakened state, the chill flowed from her and into him. He began to tremble violently, shivering and quaking, but he could not let her go. A great black curtain of despair descended over him, and he lost consciousness. As he fell headlong into the abyss of darkness, he dreamed.

Bear the Ember, Chapter 7: Ardor Among Thieves

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