35,000 Feet

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Plane rides are often a nerve-wracking affair, but nobody could await what Melanie had in store for her. Enjoy this excerpt of the first half of this harrowing psychological thriller, which is available in full through my author page at amazon.com.

               It was a dark, overcast October day as Melanie stood at a check-in counter at Los Angeles International Airport. She looked impatiently at her watch, which read 2:30pm.

               “I can take the next person in line,” a voice called out and waved to her.

               “Hi, I’m sorry I’m late, I’m here for the 3:15 flight to Hawaii. Can I still board?” she asked, handing over her ticket.

               “Don’t worry, we won’t leave you behind,” the attendant said with a smile as he checked over the details.

               “You have no check-in baggage?”

               She shook her head no, and the attendant processed the ticket quickly.

               “Alright, you’re all set,” he said, handing back the ticket, “Just head over straight away to Gate 33; I’ll call and let them know you’re coming.”

               She thanked him and turned toward the gate entrance.

               It had been years since Melanie was last in an airport, and as she clasped her carry-on bag’s handle she felt that her hands were wet from sweat. She never did care for flying.

               She also rarely had any place to go. An orphan from a young age, she bounced between foster homes until she was 17 and ran away. After a few years of night school and crummy dead-end jobs, she finally earned an associates degree and got a job as an administrator for an auto dealership near her apartment. She routinely worked over sixty hours a week which, while not appealing to most people, helped her justify an otherwise lonely, friendless life.

               She reached Gate 33 just as the call for boarding had begun and she immediately joined the line of passengers waiting to board. They were all about her age—late 20’s to mid 30’s—and, surprisingly, most seemed to be single passengers. She grew suspicious and dug in her purse for the pamphlet she’d received in the mail.

               “NO COST! NO OBLIGATION! NO, THS IS NOT A SCAM!” she read in bright red letters, before flipping over the page.

               “NO CREDIT CARD NEEDED. WE ARE HAPPY TO INFORM <MRS. MELANIE WACH> THAT YOU HAVE WON A FREE TRIP TO HAWAII. NO EXPENSES, NO STRINGS ATTACHED!”

               She scoured it thoroughly, looking to see if perhaps she had missed something. Finally she grew impatient and tapped the man’s shoulder in front of her. He looked to be in his early 30’s and had a friendly, unassuming face.

               “Hmm?” he said, turning.

               “I’m sorry, but did you get one of these too?” she asked, pointing to the pamphlet in her hand.

               “Yeah, I did! You too, huh? Boy, I’m glad it wasn’t a scam. I wasn’t sure they’d even let me in to boarding, but apparently it’s legit. The check-in attendant told me almost everybody had one.”

               Melanie looked around and did notice that many of the people in line were holding the exact same pamphlet.

               “Do you know,” she began asking the man, “I mean, I still don’t understand why we’re here, but everybody looks, well—this isn’t like some kind of dating thing, is it?”

               “Beats me!” the man said after looking around, “But if I’m in Hawaii for 7 days, I’m not gonna complain. I’m Brian, by the way.”

               “Melanie.”

               “Nervous flier, Melanie?”

               She realized that her hands were dripping wet.

               “Oh,” she said, blushing, “I’m sorry. Yeah, I can’t stand flying.”

               “Don’t worry about it, I understand. Hey, I’m up—but good luck on the flight. Maybe we’ll get a chance to chat when we land.”

               “Thanks, that would be nice,” she said, still frantically wiping her hands off on her jacket.

               The attendant now called her up and checked her ticket before directing her through the long, rectangular tube toward the plane. Just shy of the door stood a rack of newspapers and she picked up a copy of the LA Times before embarking.

               It was a medium size plane with one center aisle and three side-by-side seats on either side. It was also evidently a newer plane, as each seat had a little television in the back of it and the armrests were far broader and roomier than she was used to. Then again, she hadn’t flown on a plane in years, and part of her wondered if all planes were similarly outfitted.

               She decided to read the newspaper in the hopes of managing her stress, which at this point was considerable. She’d never in fact had any bad experiences on a plane herself (something she reminded herself of constantly now that she was sitting in one), but she did suffer for several years during childhood of horrendous nightmares in which she was a victim of an airplane crash. Even now, at 28 years old, she still got them from to time.

               The details in the dreams did change over time, but the general story and themes of helplessness stayed the same. When she was very young, the planes she was in in her dreams were of an almost comical, Wright-brothers style. In those dreams she wore a leather cap with goggles, and one of the wings, which were as thin as toothpicks, broke midair and sent her careening down in a quiet tumble toward earth. Eventually, as she grew older, the Wright-brothers plane became a proper biplane, the type that one saw in the First World War. By early adolescence it had become a military jet, and after that a commercial airplane.

               Regardless of the type of plane, or her outfits, the themes remained the same. Some catastrophic event—a broken wing, an engine failure, even a missile—would damage the plane, sending it down. Then (and this was the bulk of the dream), there was the descent. She would feel intermittent weightlessness and pressure, hear the screams of the other passengers, and then a heavy, dark tunnel vision would set in as the gravitational force and lack of cabin pressure began to take her consciousness. Sometimes she would awake just as she was about to fall unconscious, and sometimes she would stay conscious in the dream and awake just at the moment of impact.

               The worst dreams, however, were the ones where she remained awake, and even among those the worst were when it was dark. In the daytime she could at least see the ground from time to time, even if the plane was spiraling, and she had some sense of bracing herself for impact. It never did any good anyway, she realized, but the act of bracing somehow made it more bearable. The ones where it was night—especially over something dark, like an ocean—were a different story. There you never knew when the impact came, and at what side it would come on. In the worst case you survived the crash and had to slowly drown while trying to claw your way over the bodies that couldn’t unfasten their seatbelts in time.

               As she sat staring blankly at her newspaper, she wondered if her dreams now would have planes with little televisions and broad arm rests. Then she resolved to abandon the topic altogether and try to focus on the newspaper.

               “MAYOR POISED TO RESIGN IN CULLUSION SCANDAL,” she read, skipping over the article; “CHINESE ADULT FILM STAR HUNG LO TO BE IMMORTALIZED AT HOLLYWOOD WAX MUSEUM,” another read which she again promptly skipped. “WAR EFFORT IN NEED OF MORE BLOOD, MONEY” another one read, which she stopped on, tracing her finger around the headline.

               She remembered DaShawntel, her foster-brother at the last family she stayed with. It was the family she would eventually run away from, and they came to characterize the absolute bottom of humanity to her. All the children there were a paycheck to them, and DaShawntel was one of the few children she got on well with. He ran away too, except he went to the military. As she read the article, she thought of him and hoped he was okay.

               The war in Syria had been stretching on for six years, and she knew that he must be there. The last she heard of him was just at the start of the war, when he told her he’d decided to stay and try to make a career of it. That was when you could do that and not seem crazy. By the time the war started, the Executive Retainer Order ensured that no current active member could be released from their oath, anchoring current serving forces to their contracts indefinitely. The only silver lining was that anchored soldiers at least joined the service before the war, and enjoyed seniority and bragging rights over the draftees that would follow in the subsequent years.

               The world was in a precarious situation, as it turned out, and despite free trips to Hawaii or organic non-GMO Vegan restaurants in Los Angeles, there were quite a number of people who predicted looming catastrophe. The war in Syria had, particularly in the last year, escalated heavily. The two puppet governments—Syrian loyalists backed by the Russians and the Liberty Party backed by the United States—had begun to break down and abandon their causes under the heavy fighting, leaving the two silent backers to face one another for the first time. Direct Russian-American fighting had been taking place informally, but there was considerable talk that a formal declaration of war could be made, in which case the situation would become dire. Calls for an expanded military budget and mandatory blood donation drives became just another part of living in the USA, like fried food and baseball.

               Melanie, fortunately, had just missed the cutoff for the draft, as most people over 25 were yet unaffected. The first wave were all the 18-24 year olds, particularly the high school dropouts and unemployed. The protocols allowed for exemptions based on college enrollment or full-time employment. That being said, both governments were becoming increasingly desperate, and as she read the article further she was astonished at how crucial some of the shortages were.

               Her reading was interrupted by an announcement from the cockpit that the flight was cleared for take-off. The flight crew put away the safety props and started buckling themselves into their seats.

               After a few short moments of taxiing along the tarmac, the plane gave a sudden thrust forward and Melanie felt the adrenaline surge through her, like a million prickly little sensations in her stomach. She saw from the corner of her eyes Brian, who was seated ahead a couple of rows on the other side of the plane, and who seemed to be completely at ease. Next to her at the window was another young woman who calmly read a magazine, clearly straining to keep her head up through the take-off. On her left an indifferent man sat at the aisle seat and Melanie, stuck between the two, felt the weight of the world come down on her as the plane reached a harrowing speed.

               With a swift jerk upwards she felt the tires lift off the ground. The plane dipped occasionally as a wind current hit it unevenly, but after a few moments it had started to even out and reach a cruising altitude. The flight attendants starting making their introductory rounds.

               Through the remote control in her arm rest, Melanie was able to see that a number of films, television shows, and a music library was available to her. There was more entertainment than anyone could ever need, and she felt at ease that she’d have no shortage of things to watch or listen to in her flight. Surprisingly, the media was also all quite extensive, and before she knew it she’d gotten halfway through an episode of Friends when a flight attendant tapped her on the shoulder.

               “—Drink or a snack, Miss?” the attendant asked as Melanie removed her headphones.

               “Do you have any alcohol?” she asked back, quickly.

               “I’m sorry, we don’t serve alcohol on this flight,” the attendant answered with a concerned smile.

               Melanie nodded, disappointed that she’d have no recourse for her nervousness, and turned down any of the other offerings. The flight was to last about five hours, and considering she’d felt quite good after the scare of take-off she felt that she’d be able to manage.

***

               Melanie was on her fifth episode of Friends when she started to doze off. She felt the plane lurch sharply and she peaked over the woman next to her to glimpse out of the window. The plane had evidently turned, as all she saw was sky and the occasional blast of direct sunlight.

               “Ladies and Gentlemen,” the Captain’s voice came through her headphones as the seatbelt sign turned on, “Please return to your seats and put on your safety belts as we are experiencing some mild turbulence.”

               Melanie’s heart raced as she put her back against the seat and tightened her seatbelt. She hadn’t had much experience with turbulence, but the plane felt as if it was turning sharply, occasionally switching directions for a brief instant. Then she felt it go up hard, as if the pilot was pulling the controls for the plane to go straight up.

               As the pressure evened out and the plane appeared to right itself, she had a short moment of relief before a sudden drop came and magazines flew up on either side of her. She felt her body lifted out of the seat, held down only be the seatbelt, and looked frantically toward the flightcrew that was already strapped into their seats and looking ahead calmly. As she looked up at the ceiling of the plane, she saw a pool of plastic cups and liquid congeal and swirl. The image was so surreal it was almost hypnotic. Then, as if somebody flipped a switch and gravity turned on again, everything fell back to the ground, splashing all over passengers who screamed out in horror.

               “Don’t panic!” the nearest flight crew member, who she remembered was named Bill, shouted, “We are just experiencing some minor turbulence!”

               People’s screams grew louder as the plane seemed to turn down now, the ocean looking like a diagonal streak across the window pane.  Then came a loud, singular hissing sound, the sound an airbag makes when it inflates on impact, and in synchrony the myriad yellow oxygen masks blew out in front of each passenger, each dangling at a 45 degree angle. The image only served to reinforce how sharply their descent must have been.

               “Remember the safety procedure!” Bill shouted again, pointing to the masks.

               Everybody began, some faster than others, reaching for the masks and putting them on. Melanie was frozen from shock, however, and she struggled to process what was happening.

               Let it be a dream, she thought to herself, I must still be dreaming. She turned over to the woman next to her, whose face was streaked with tears that ran up her cheeks abnormally fast from the pressure of descent, and she realized that she wouldn’t have a chance if she stayed frozen.

               She grasped for the oxygen mask out of pure fright, ripping it toward her and trying to pull the rubber band around her head. As she looked around she saw people around her start to lose consciousness. One after another they started slumping over, or falling back in their seats. As she looked to either side, she noticed that both of the people in her row had similarly gone under. Her last memory was looking at the flight crew, who sat calmly facing forward, their arms clamped down at their sides as they rattled to and fro.

               She closed her eyes and pushed her head back into her seat, waiting to lose consciousness. The plane heaved and lurched a while longer, before she suddenly felt a light, smooth glide. The screams had completely stopped, and the plane seemed to drift harmlessly. She wondered if this was the euphoria people often discuss at near-death experiences.

               But when she tried to open her eyes, she noticed that she was in fact very much conscious. Her head still back against the headrest, she peaked from the corner of her eye out of the window and noticed that the plane was gliding slowly along just above the ocean.

               The flight crew, which had previously been strapped into their stations, had disappeared. She leaned over the woman next to her, who was still unconscious, and tried to look out in front of the plane from the window.

               Then came a heavy bump and a screech. As she leaned over the woman more, now pressing her face up against the glass, she peaked own and saw a black little expanse beneath the plane, like a runway.

               It can’t be, she thought to herself, looking more closely at it. It was a black little strip along the bottom of the plane, and before she could think of it for too much longer she saw a man in a bright orange jumpsuit walk out from its edge, a wheeled platform ladder in tow.

               She gasped aloud, trying to edge her face even closer to the glass. She saw now a few more men walking around beneath her, all quickly placing large ladder platforms along what she now saw was the tarmac. As they worked the plane still swayed back and forth, giving the odd, surreal semblance of flight. The men working walked right up to the edge of the platform, the other side of which had long, blue ocean that tumbled in intermittent waves against its side.

               Within a couple minutes, a huge, black screen was raised straight up by the workers who seemed to secure it every few feet to some unseen fasteners until it all but covered the plane. As they worked, the view got darker and darker, and before Melanie knew it the outside had become completely black.

               She sat back in her seat, putting her head against the headrest again and waiting, hoping against hope to wake up. She could just barely see the people around her in the dim light, still slumped over.

As she looked out in front of her, she saw dangling a shimmering little plastic tube near her knee. She reached for it and picked it up, wondering where it came from, before she realized that it was the tube of her oxygen mask.

               She looked up, frantically, and noticed that it had been ripped, likely when she grasped for it earlier. Before she could put the pieces together, a bright blue light poured into the plane from the windows. She looked out of the window and saw sky again, and clouds. With the sway of the plane, its realism was uncanny. She tried to focus in on the horizon, and if she squinted just right she could see the little seams in the façade, but it was so faint that she hardly knew if it was there at all.

               Then the cruising lights resumed in the plane and a loud hissing sound rang out from all around her. The passengers raised their heads, confused and panicked.

               “Hello, this is your Captain,” a voice came over the speaker system, “We apologize terribly for the turbulence, but we are safely cruising at 35,000 feet. Please return your masks to their compartments and the flightcrew will come by shortly with some wet towels.”

               Melanie quickly took off her mask, jamming it back into the compartment before anybody could notice that it hadn’t ever worked. The others sheepishly also returned their masks and waited patiently.

               Melanie looked over at the woman next to her, who sat by the window.

               “Are you okay?” she asked, handing the woman her magazine which had fallen by Melanie’s side.

               “Yeah, I’m fine, just a little shaken up. Thank you.”

               Melanie wondered if she should ask her neighbor more about the ordeal, but before she had a chance the flightcrew came with wet towels for the passengers. They handed each passenger a hot wet towel, apologizing to them for the mess. Unlike the passengers, who generally seemed disheveled and confused, the flightcrew’s demeanor betrayed little of any such emotions.

               “Wet towel, Miss?” Bill asked Melanie.

               “Thank you,” she said, taking it, “Can I ask you what the turbulence was about?”

               “Oh, just standard turbulence. It happens all the time on these flights, nothing at all to worry about. We’re safely cruising at 35,000 feet,” he finished, moving on to the next passenger.

               As Melanie took the towel and wiped her face, she spotted Brian across the way. The liquid that had gone all over the place seemed to have made a bee line for him, and he was drenched. She watched him try in vain to wipe as much of it off of him as he could, and she felt like going to speak with him—maybe he had been conscious, and had seen what she had seen, she thought. But at the moment with the flightcrew jamming up the aisle, it was no use. She stared blankly ahead before she felt Bill tap her shoulder from behind.

               “Miss, here,” he said, reaching over her and engaging the on-flight video, “Please, continue watching.” Then he walked away.

               Melanie stared forward, looking at the screen and barely paying attention. Periodically she glimpsed out of the window, but with each glance the sky and clouds looked more and more real. She wondered to herself if perhaps it really was all a dream.

               The moments turned to hours, and Melanie went to check the flight itinerary through the screen in front of her. To her surprise, she could not find it. The entire section was absent from the spot where it was before. As she looked for it, confused, she saw Brian had gotten up to use the restroom and she did the same, hoping to intercept him.

               She asked the man on her left to let her out and headed right to where Brian was.

               “Hey!” she said, “Are you alright?”

               “Me? Oh yeah, I’m fine, just got a little sticky from all that juice and soda and stuff.”

               She looked both ways for a moment, before looking at him again intently.

               “Listen, I know I don’t know you very well, but I have to tell you something. I saw something outside the plane earlier.”

               “Oh yeah?” Brian replied, surprised.

               “It was strange, but when all the turbulence was happening, it’s like, it’s hard to explain, but it’s almost like we landed somewhere once.”

               “Landed?”

               “Yeah, like stopped, and this is like, not happening—what’s outside right now.”

               Brian looked at her, confused.

               “Nevermind,” she continued, “Just, listen, I think we’re not going to Hawaii anymore, that’s the point. Like, I think we’re stuck here.”

               “Hawaii?” Brian responded, confused, “What are you talking about?”

               She sensed him growing distant.

               “Brian, are you okay?” she asked, a feeling of uncertainty building up in her.

               “Listen, miss, I don’t mean to be rude, but I don’t know how you know my name, or who you are, but I need to use the restroom,” he said curtly before passing by her to the stall.

               Dumbfounded, she decided to wait for him, but was quickly intercepted by Bill, the flightcrew steward.

               “Have you had a chance to use the restroom, Miss?” he said, putting his hand on her back as he edged by her.

               “Me?” she said, confused, “Yes, I have.”

               “Then let me direct you back to your seat. The seatbelt light is still on,” he said, pushing her gently back down the aisle with a smile.

***

               As Melanie got back to her seat, she thought about what it all meant. She turned to the woman next to her after a moment.

               “So, what are your plans later?” she asked the woman innocently.

               “Me?” the woman said, now seemingly fully adjusted to the plane ride, “I’m probably going to watch a couple movies before I go to sleep.”

               “Sleep? We’re gonna be there in just a couple hours.”

               “Be where?” the woman asked, confused.

               “Well… Honolulu,” Melanie replied.

               “Honolulu? No, I don’t think they have it here. They have Magnum P.I., though,” the woman responded back.

               “Hawaii,” Melanie now started, more aggressively, “The place where we’re all—“

               “Ladies and Gentlemen, this is your Captain,” the voice now came from the speakers, “We’re safely cruising at 35,000 feet. It’s almost six o clock and it will be time for cleansing. Please follow the directions of the flightcrew; they will assist you if you are in need. For right now if you’d please just remove the contents of your left arm rest and lay them on your lap it will help expedite the process. Also, for any that have forgotten the proper procedures, please don’t worry, the flightcrew will be happy to remind you.”

               The people casually followed, to Malanie’s surprise. After a moment she, too, opened her left arm rest where she found long, opaque tube attached to the compartment, the end of which had a sealed hypodermic needle and the label “WACH, MELANIE” dangling from it. She felt a burst of adrenaline as she looked over to her sides and saw that the people around her also had the exact same thing, except on the tag it said their own names.

               Meanwhile, the flightcrew reappeared, this time without a cart in tow. They began assisting the passengers, but what exactly they were doing was unclear to Melanie from her vantage point. She grew nervous as they started working their way down the aisle toward her, but to her surprise neither person at her side seemed similarly worried. In fact, most all of the people she could spot seemed totally at ease watching their in-flight entertainment, the contents of their armrests laying still in their laps.

               “What’s happening?” she finally asked the man to her left in a hushed voice.

               “This is the cleansing right now, miss,” he said back in a stupor, most of his attention directed at the screen that sat just inches in front of his face.

               “What is the cleansing?” Melanie asked back, trying to pry his attention away.

               A moment passed where he seemed to attempt to consider the question, before answering again in his stupor.

               “I forgot, but they’ll help us.”

               “Help us with wha—“ she said, before being interrupted by Bill, who had peaked his head over from behind.

               “Alright, we’re all ready. Miss, your arm please,” he said to the woman seated next to Melanie.

               Melanie saw the woman outstretch her arm toward him and he, in an amazing show of dexterity, went to work. He deftly unpacked the needle and in one swift motion slipped it into the vein of the woman’s forearm, about a third of the way up from the wrist. Then he put a little strip of tape over it, keeping it in place.

               Melanie’s heart was nearly beating out of her chest as her eyes darted to the source of the tube, but to her surprise there was no special drug or chemical being pumped into the woman at her side. On the contrary, she watched in horror as blood filled the tube and ran down its length in an even, pulsating stream, like cola through a swirly straw. The blood ran down the whole length of the tube, all the way into the armrest.

               “Thank you. Alright Miss, your arm please,” Bill now said to Melanie.

               Melanie, frozen from fear, sat motionless. Bill let out a grunt, stooping down toward the arm rest where he went to work. Within 30 seconds she watched as he went through exactly the same motions, her blood now making its way down the tube and into the armrest.

               “Now that wasn’t so bad, was it?” she heard him say lightheartedly before moving on.

Her nervousness eventually gave way to fatigue as Bill got further and further away, and the hole in her forearm where the needle sat started to give her a slow, distended pulsating sensation.

               It seemed like an eternity, but in reality it was probably closer to an hour before the crew came back and started disconnecting everyone. When she watched the attendant pull the needle from her, she found her arm to be almost unrecognizable in its paleness. She wanted to vomit, but couldn’t find the energy to stand. Then, she heard a voice come from the speakers again.

               “Ladies and Gentlemen, this is your Captain speaking. On behalf of myself and the flightcrew, let me thank you sincerely for an excellent cleansing session. You will grow stronger from each session, just as you have been. You have done good and you are loved. We are safely cruising at 35,000 feet. Please return to your programming as the flightcrew readies your evening meal.”

               She sat half-consciously in her seat, straining to just keep her eyes open. How much blood she’d lost she hadn’t the slightest clue, but it was clearly leagues above an average session at a blood donation clinic.

               Unlike the clinic, however, she did feel herself slowly recover a great deal faster than she expected. Something about the air in the plane was crisp and refreshing, and the food that was served in the minutes thereafter was unusually hearty. It seemed nothing like airplane food, in fact.

               She was surprised when the flight attendant put a plastic box on her tray that concealed beneath it a hamburger that was so savory she could hardly believe it. The patty was thick, nearly a half inch at the edges, and it was smothered in ranch and cheese. She noticed they had all received the same thing, and despite her usually small appetite she was easily able to devour it. For desert, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were served along with a cupcake.

               In the moments of feeding, as it was referred to by the flightcrew, she nearly forgot the intricacies of her absurd situation. Her hunger after the cleansing was nearly insatiable. When she finally did finish the burger, sandwich and cupcake, she fell into a deep sleep.

***

               “Ladies and Gentlemen, this is your Captain speaking,” the voice came again from the speakers, jarring her from her sleep. She peered through the window and saw the same bright blue sky. As she attempted to strain her eyes at the seams, she Captain’s voice continued through the speakers and caught her attention.

               “We are cruising safely at 35,000 feet. Good morning. You slept well and you are loved. We will begin cleansing shortly, after which breakfast will be served.”

               Melanie tried, in vain, to get a grasp of the time. How long she had slept for was not only unclear but also impossible to deduce, as she noticed that the in-flight clock, usually at the home menu of the entertainment screen, was no longer there. She tried to check her phone, but saw that the battery had died.

               The cleansing came again, just as it had before. Again, she acquiesced, and again she felt incredibly weak and sick thereafter. Before she could consider her situation, however, a breakfast box was served with eggs, hashbrowns, and a country fried steak which was smothered in the richest gravy she’d ever had and, again, she succumbed to sleep soon after.

               But she didn’t stay asleep long, as one of her nightmares jarred her awake. She peered around the plane and saw only the lifeless, sleeping heads of passengers as they lay back against their headrests, the windows having been pulled down. She saw the bright light shine out from their edges, where the glass met the plastic, and inched one open to peek out.

--

Thank you for reading the first half of my short story, 35,000 Feet. Find the rest at https://www.amazon.com/35-000-Feet-Thomas-Kreuzberger-ebook/dp/B01G328WL2?ie=UTF8&ref_=asap_bc#navbar

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