Home :: Fantasy :: Worlds of the Timestream: The Interregnum Series, Book 1: The Peace by Richard J. Sutcliffe (Christian Irish/Fantasy)

Worlds of the Timestream: The Interregnum Series, Book 1: The Peace by Richard J. Sutcliffe (Christian Irish/Fantasy)

Worlds of the Timestream: The Interregnum Series, Book 1: The Peace by Richard J. Sutcliffe (Christian Irish/Fantasy)
 
(8 reviews)  

The Peace is alternate-history Irish-flavoured Christian science fiction. James IV, High King of Ireland and the worlds he rules, is deposed at the height of the Three Worlds' War (1941). Banned from the throne by his corrupt nobles for 60 years, he struggles to survive and maintain the Pax Hibernia despite clan MacCarthy's genocidal high-tech schemes. Characters from our earth struggle with their own religious and political loyalties as they are drawn into Greater Hibernia's intrigues. Remote Edwardstown (Calgary) becomes the stage on which three interwoven tales of romance and tragedy converge, launching reborn lives and new hopes.

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ISBN/EAN13: 1920741690 / 9781920741693
Page Count: 450
Trim Size: 5" x 8"

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5 Most useful customer reviews (see all reviews):
Carolyn R. Scheidies, Author's Choice Book Review
Those who enjoy a mix of creative history, fantasy, science fiction and complex plots from a God-entered worldview should find this series an intriguing challenge. It does take the tangle threads and weaves them into a tapestry of hard to forget characters. It also makes you think, Maybe...?
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Josh Yeager
Thanks for this series, I've been praying that God would give me some good Christian fiction to read (i.e. better than the Left Behind series, etc.). These books are the most interesting fiction I've read since Tolkien's books!
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M. D. Benoit
A challenging, yet satisfying read.
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the EPPIE 2004 judges
The best science fiction novel of 2003 (and a second finalist).
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Kim Gaona
captured me in the first chapter. I'm waiting for a sequel.
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Sample Chapter

Chapter One

Tara's palace, Ireland, September 1941 (Hibernia)

"The time for kings has passed." Donal Tobin began his seditious speech to the other lords quietly, carefully mixing patriotic rhetoric and history lessons in a mind-dulling recipe. "From the establishment in 1014 to 1792, ten different families ruled Ireland. Yes, the current dynasty has occupied the green throne for a century and a half, but a change now would generate a mere footnote in Ireland's rich and glorious history. And, I assure you that when our ancestors established the Peace of Ireland following the great European wars, they scarcely imagined Tara's rulers would ascend to world dominion, mastering two earths and accumulating interests on three others. They did not set out to invest a monarchy with such concentrated power, enormous influence, and potential for corruption."

The conspirator sat in his study, "scarcely fifty staves from the court chambers, as the buzzards fly", he was fond of saying. The court scene unfolded in one part of his MT wall screen, as he scrolled a text window beside it. "Following the script, are you, friend Donal? Good. Let's keep the lies predictable, shall we?"

Ending the Irish monarchy was neither a pleasant nor a safe prospect, but better than any alternative. He could easily die in his coup, but there was no going back now.

"Oh, Lord of Heaven," he gazed toward the ceiling in appeal, "People will say I've prolonged our own version of the Three Worlds' War, even betrayed the realm. But you know I've not my own interests at heart, only Ireland's. I'm in your hands, for life or death. Lord, I may have done wrong manipulating Donal, but he'll merely get the power he wants."

"It has been," Donal Tobin's voice droned at the periphery of his attention, "one hundred fifty-two years since the elusive Metans gave us the technical ability to travel among five of the six earths, excepting only Meta herself. The Federation of Ortho and Para, under the rule of our glorious capital here at Tara, is almost as old. It's time a fresh breeze blew through these ancient halls, time to set aside the rule of despots, incompetents, and drunkards, time to take the reins of power into our own hands for the good of all Hibernia. Henceforth, let this house reign collectively." He swept his arm about to include his audience.

"The fighting in Europe and Asia has dragged on far too long. Ireland needs fresh initiatives, fresh leadership, fresh vision to put an end to this interminable war."

"Ah, yes, the war," mused the conspirator to his empty office. "Some argue we Irish merely play our favourite game." He wagged his finger at Tobin's image. "You and your MacCarthy allies believe Ireland lacks the will to fight hard enough. You forget the savage conflict on the earth next to ours, how it leaks through the timestream to adjacent worlds, also producing a war much like ours on Water World, the other side of Tirdia."

A group of junior officers had agreed too enthusiastically with his argument, and he'd had to stop the hotheads from assassinating Tirdia's Hitler and Hirohito.

"Perhaps," he thought, "we could have achieved the side effect of an earlier end to our war if we'd stopped Tirdia's fighting." But the last thing Hibernia needed was a failed intervention resulting in Tirdia discovering the other worlds. "We could all be overwhelmed by the multitudes of a planet whose people apparently have nothing to do but breed," he reflected. "Perhaps that's one reason the Metans call the place Prime. It has more people than four other earths combined."

The conspirator spoke toward a microphone. "MT, open new window, public file James Fourth." He ignored Donal Tobin's speech, to review for perhaps the hundredth time his carefully assembled dossier on the young king whom the nobles were about to dethrone.

"James, second son of James, son of Conn. Born 1917, fostered out to Barry and Millicent Devereaux of New Tara. Entered Kilkarney 1934 on a full scholarship, graduated 1938 as first cadet. Returned to Irish North America in the king's service, promoted to captain 1940, and to major, 1941."

Little else than well-known and well-polished facts, the conspirator thought. Access to a palace network node and skills few would advertise were required to reduce a reigning monarch's personal information to such bare bones. He'd also been responsible for most of the lies in Donal Tobin's somewhat larger file on the King. "But it's not what Donal Tobin thinks he knows that could get people killed today," the conspirator mused. "It's what is not in this file..."

* * * * *

James, April 1941, Irish North America

"Going somewhere, Major?"

James whirled from packing his backsack. His hand was halfway to his sword at the unexpected interruption when he suddenly realized who his visitor was. "Your Highness, I..."

"Cut the guff, James. Brace my arm instead. It wasn't too jolly when you found out, but I've rather enjoyed having another brother. You never knew Conn," reflected his visitor, suddenly pensive, but moving the conversation along rapidly. "He died at four. Matthew has his heart set on bardic orders. Daisy is still too young to know what she wants besides her own horse. But we two are the family warriors. There need be no formality between us."

James relented, and the two locked right arms, testing each others' strength. As they relaxed, William casually observed, "You're more like Dad than ever. Why not become King instead of me?"

James started in surprise, and William added, "If you weren't Dad's secret insurance policy, I'd trade places in a heartbeat. Tara's palace is a dreary place compared to an army camp. This is where Hibernia's true heart beats."

James forced himself to relax before the force of William's good humour. Fostering out a second son to have him raised in obscurity wasn't merely custom, but a necessary security measure in fractious Ireland. Even when his foster parents were killed in a riot during his second year at Kilkarney, the elder and younger James were never together. William was instead informed of the relationship, and dispatched to the school with the news. He had visited many times since, becoming a friend as well as a brother, though James had rarely been to Tara.

James shook himself. "What brings you, William?"

"The high command needed to send a ceremonial bigshot. Dad's managing risk by working out of the country estate. His actor only stands in for routine ribbon cuttings, so I volunteered to chuck palace life for a week."

James raised his eyebrows. "Have there been enemy threats?"

"Nothing so tangible, and he wouldn't worry about the Germans or Japanese. No, he's staying out of circulation till he's ruined the latest domestic plot."

James nodded grimly. Ireland's "loyal" nobles were notorious for such schemes. He reverted to William's initial greeting. "Just as well you spend some time on the field, but you've forgotten I'm only a captain, not a major."

"Not to the high command. You and ten soldiers standing off three hundred Apache at the Alamo until the rest of the army got there made interesting reading from General Ryan's dispatches." William fished a small box from his pouch. "They sent this trinket along with your new stripes. Presentation's tomorrow." He held it out with a grin, and flipped the lid open.

James gasped, then shook his head. "The Medal of Honour. I can't accept that." Ireland's highest award hadn't been given for nearly two decades.

"Thought you'd say that." William laughed, and took a seat on a canvas chair. "Two nights ago Tara News editorialized, and I quote, 'Not content with ranking first sword of the army, James Devereaux has now taken his place in the ranks of Ireland's great heroes.' Meanwhile, the high command thinks you've single-handedly turned around the North American theatre. The way things are elsewhere, Ireland needs her heroes. I'm here to ensure she gets one, and no argument."

"None of it matters." James turned bleakly to the sack he'd been packing.

"Why not?" William's smile faded.

"Got a report from one of my sergeants that an entire Cree village is dead." James held out a photo. "I need samples, but it looks like smallpox."

William gasped. "Only the great houses have access..."

"Exactly. One of Ireland's lords schemes to shorten the war by wiping out the North American natives."

"But we can't win dishonourably. Our allies would turn against us. Hibernia would fall apart." William paused briefly, then pocketed the jewel box. "Got an extra isolation suit?"

* * * * *

Two hours later, James trudged back up the hill where he'd left William on guard. The village of Jumping Pond and its dead were two hundred staves behind and below. He stopped for William to hose him down with disinfectant, stepped from the isolation suit, tossed it onto the fire, accepted another spray on his bare skin, dried himself, then donned his clothes and hefted the sample box.

"Almost certainly smallpox," he announced grimly, as the two walked to the crest, "but genetically engineered to be fast acting. Some died walking down the street or in the midst of a meal. I'll wager it spreads over the whole continent in days."

"What now?"

James glanced at the box in his hand. "By the book, we send these to Tara for analysis."

"By the time they could act," William observed quietly, "the whole world will know. The political fallout..."

James gripped William's arm. "Running Bear's daughter was here visiting her aunt."

His brother whistled. "When the Stoney chief finds out, he and our few North American allies will desert. We'll have to pull troops from Europe to contain the mess."

"Not necessarily."

"What have you in mind?"

"I've prayed about it, William. In what wisdom the Lord of Heaven gives, I believe there's only one way to get an antidote into the field in time."

"That is?"

"We both have our MCs." He waited for William to draw his own conclusion.

"Cut Tara Medical out of the picture and re-engineer the virus ourselves? Messing with pathogens without a vote of the lords means breaking the covenant, brother of mine."

"You don't have to join me, William, but surely if banned techniques are employed to do good, or to stop evil, they're legitimately from God, and must be used, despite the law. There's little choice but to act at once."

Just then, they crested the hill, and James saw five bodies lying in a tangle of swords and blood. He turned to William, astonished.

"Who?"

"Low thugs." William waved his dismissal. "Walked into the clearing chatting about ambushing you. I killed them all, unfortunately. No papers, but all European." His manner was almost casual, but James detected a quaver in his brother's voice. An honourable man disliked killing, even when it was necessary.

"Do we leave them?"

"Might as well keep whoever sent them guessing. Look. I've pulled rank on a few calls I made while you were below. The ceremonies are postponed. I've booked New Tara hospital's synthesizer. An air car picks us up between here and the camp in ten minutes and takes us directly there. Security will guard this place till we're done, then burn it."

James looked at William in awe. "I didn't need to persuade you."

William shrugged. "We're family. We think alike."

* * * * *

Tara's palace, September 1941

And, thought the conspirator, drumming his fingers on the richly-polished desk, the royal brothers won the gamble few would ever know they had taken. They built a virus-vectored countermeasure, then arranged for its distribution throughout the continent with secret cooperation from enemy chiefs. Doing it compromised Irish security, but stopped the plague with only three communities lost.

Within weeks, a quiet telegraph had spread the news of their involvement, and though the reason was never spoken aloud to Europeans, the North American rebellion suddenly collapsed, all twenty nations of the enemy Blackfoot coalition re-entering the Peace on terms negotiated between them and the Stoney chief who headed the allied nations. The document was signed by William for the crown. Whoever stole the smallpox samples from the national lab and altered them would know how the plague was stopped, but not by whom.

"Family Monde started this," mused the conspirator, "but I'll never prove it."

But fortune had not smiled so kindly on the royals two months after.

* * * * *

James, June 1941, Irish North America and Tara

"Sir, General Ryan to see you." The sergeant was in a near panic, and no wonder. Generals summoned majors; they didn't visit them unless the news was extraordinary, and even the unusual would get soldiers killed.

"General." James snapped a salute as his commander entered the tent, receiving one in return.

"Sergeant, see we're not disturbed. Stand easy, Major." Ryan activated a white noise generator.

"Good," thought James, relaxing. "It's military business, after all." Perhaps, as others already, he was being transferred to the European front.

"I take it," began Ryan, picking over his words gingerly, "you haven't had the news from Tara."

"No." James was baffled. Was the war over? But if so, why this? He willed the general to get to the point.

"I'm family," observed Ryan, taking him by the shoulders and looking his young officer squarely in the eye.

James started. "You know?"

"That you were fostered at birth to my sister-in-law's brother-in-law Barry Devereaux, but are by birth the king's son, and my wife Carole's nephew? I was your godfather. You came to New Tara in my arms." Suddenly, the general's eyes brimmed over with tears, and he no longer needed speech.

"It's the King," James suddenly concluded. "What happened?"

Ryan bowed his head, forcing his words. "A force of two hundred invaded the palace early this morning. James III died defending your mother, then they killed her. Apart from two kitchen servants, there were no survivors. None of the invaders was taken alive."

"Matthew and Daisy?"

"I'm sorry, lad."

His voice became a squeak. "Then William is King."

"William slept in the palace after a late-night meeting with the King. He took fifteen with him, but he is gone, too."

There was a long silence while James stood immobile with shock and the general gathered his thoughts. "I hate to do this to you, James, but you have duties. Patrick O'Toole advises that Calaghan MacCarthy and Gerald Monde will proclaim the dynasty's end, then send in the court's name to the high armoury for the means to 'end the war once and for all,' as they put it."

"They would use atomics? Ireland would be dishonoured forever." Shaken back to a measure of rationality, James observed, "Only the King may enter the high armoury. Doing so requires a DNA match and codes known only to the high command."

"There is an override provision, requiring a second code set assembled from among the bards, the church, and Lord Chamberlain. It will take them a day to arrange, no more." Reilly held out a black pouch. "The military lords sent their passcodes. Your DNA was registered at birth."

"You want me to..."

"The general staff agrees the war must not end so. An orbital shuttle arrives in ten minutes. I will pilot. Once you get us into the satellite, we remove a hatch from a class MX device, extract one of the two plutonium canisters and the trigger detonator..."

James finished for him. "...and set a timer to blow apart the protective casing after we leave, contaminating the armoury with radioactive material. It would be years before robots could be built to recover weapons or new ones made, and by that time..."

"...honest soldiers should have won the war honourably," Ryan finished. "Will you do it, James?"

James nodded his head slowly. He would grieve later. "I will."

"I told the other generals we could count on you."

"And, when we return?"

"You will have other duties."

* * * * *

Two days later, James stood at court in the row reserved for senior officers. Any with the rank of Major or higher were entitled, when at Tara, to participate in governance with the hereditary and political nobility. As high churchmen and bards, they were "lords by position." All but one of Ireland's colonels and generals were present, as were four of his own rank.

James looked around at the court chambers, built on the lawn of the second palace forty years earlier when the court had outgrown its previous quarters. On the dais stood the celebrated emerald throne, a chair carved, despite its name, from a solid block of jade. Tears came to his eyes, and he looked away.

Surrounding him were the nobility of Greater Hibernia, hereditary and domain peers, military and bardic lords, and three bishops. Court servants occupied lesser places at the back and rear. The other side of the aisle was empty, for today's session concerned Ortho alone, not her Federation partner Para.

He watched and listened as the front row and other lords drifted to their places in anticipation of the day's opening. Tara was awash with rumour. Secret sessions had authorized a mission to high orbit, but it had returned empty handed, and high-level shouting matches behind closed doors had followed. Some suggested civil war was in the offing. Others had darker forecasts.

"All stand for the first lords."

Quiet shuffling followed Lord Chamberlain's announcement, then a long pause. Wearing matching scowls, Calaghan MacCarthy and Gerald Monde walked in front of the first row, up two steps of the dais, turned as one, and faced the house, thus claiming equal status as overdomain lords.

Lord Chamberlain thumped his mace on the floor. "Recess is over, and the house is back in session. Who speaks first?"

Lord MacCarthy opened his mouth to say, "We do," but was cut off by First Military Lord General Reilly. "Ireland is at war. The high king and commander-in-chief is dead. The army claims the right to speak on a matter touching its honour."

"Such is the custom of the house," intoned Lord Chamberlain, so Ryan, Reilly and their fellow officers strode to the front, ranging themselves on the dais behind MacCarthy and Monde.

"My lords and ladies," began Reilly. "King James III has departed us to join the High Lord of Heaven. Were he here, he would disapprove of your intentions for prosecuting the war."

Tensions grew as many concluded Reilly was about to announce a military coup. But he surprised them. "Moreover, we believe Ireland ill served that this house has not yet announced a state funeral. The army will not interfere with political decisions, but the general staff hereby announces its own warrior's parade and military wake for James III and his family, beginning 0900 day after tomorrow at the palace armoury. Thank you."

Following a brief stunned silence, the dignitaries broke out in applause, thumping fists on their scabbards in approval. Gerald Monde looked around as the tumult died, and nodded at the generals, clearly expecting their party would now vacate the platform.

"There's one thing more," Reilly added, as if in afterthought, waving the house to silence.

James looked from their midst, taking note of the several dozen officers now filing in around the perimeter of the room. Cameras swivelled to cover the breaking events, and he could see reporters in the gallery speaking frantically into their throat microphones for audiences around the world. General Reilly had broken the tension. Now...

Reilly began anew. "William is dead, and so are other children of King James and Queen Maeve. However," He waved at an MT screen, where a birth certificate, school records and military honours were suddenly displayed. "Not many know that in the year of our Lord nineteen hundred sixteen, King James and Queen Maeve gave birth to a second son while in Austria. That son was fostered out and raised abroad as James Devereaux, ostensibly a nephew to the king's brother-in-law. As you can see, DNA and other records prove his blood. I am pleased to present an officer and gentleman, a hero of Ireland's wars, the army's youngest ever first sword, a man worthy of his father."

The group of officers parted. Red faced, James sat on the throne as Reilly concluded. "James III is dead. Long live King James IV."

Callaghan MacCarthy's hand went to his side, but halted when the screen displayed a sword rating for James of one hundred five, ten points higher than his own. As he and Monde hesitated, James spoke to their backs in the ensuing silence. "My lords Monde and MacCarthy, we do not permit you to face the house or to share the dais. You may return to your places and speak in your turns." He hid a grin. Whatever else, the pair had lost enough face to prevent them from attempting another run at first any time soon.

* * * * *

Later, after a gruelling session dominated by reversals of the previous two days' initiatives, James had the king's suite re-keyed to his own DNA and codes, and retired behind a guard of loyal officers to quarters he'd only visited twice and never expected to be his. On his entry, a man in palace livery bowed deeply.

"Your Majesty, I have the honour of being your steward, Patrick O'Dwyer. My fathers have served yours for six generations."

"Your father was the previous steward, and perished here?"

"Yes, my lord, though he killed three first."

"You also are a master sword?"

"Of course, my lord, an eighty-five rating."

"There were survivors."

"Cook and a scullery girl. Beneath their notice, my lord."

"Not beneath mine. Escort me to the kitchen, would you please, Master O'Dwyer." Using title and family name together confirmed the man in his post.

"Right away, my lord, if you will follow me." The approval in O'Dwyer's tone spoke volumes. "I will engage a new staff at your pleasure, of course. But at the moment, we are only three."

When James entered the kitchen, a sumptuous dinner, no doubt his own, was laid out on a tray under the warming lights by one oven. Across the room were the makings of a fresh batch of bread. He'd seen the cook only once. She was Molly Byrne, a broad woman whose sharp tongue diminished her formidable skills. She set down her mixing bowl, and went to her knees at once. At her side, a flour-covered ragamuffin of a girl stared at James like he was an apparition from another world, then dropped the plate containing her own supper to the floor, where it shattered into a hundred pieces.

"James," she whispered, eyes wide.

"Be quiet, girl," the cook snapped, "and get down." She cuffed the child to her knees, and bent her head.

There was a long, silent moment, then James carefully announced, using only her title, "We take note of your service during a harsh time, Mistress Cook." He turned to his steward. "Master O'Dwyer, kindly authorize two months' wages as her bonus." He glared disapprovingly at the girl. "Once this careless child cleans up her mess, send her upstairs for discipline." He stalked out, followed by the steward.

* * * * *

Minutes later, James stood behind his study desk, facing the royal shield and three crossed swords of O'Connor, Devereaux, and Meathe. He sighed deeply. These were the symbols of his family's power and authority, the three blades Conn I had won to take the throne in 1792. Could he wield them, or would they devour him?

Behind him, the door opened. He turned to find Patrick O'Dwyer ushering the child into the room.

"The scullery child as ordered, Sire." O'Dwyer set the dinner tray on the table, bowed, then winked. He knew.

"Thank you, Master O'Dwyer. You may go."

The door no sooner closed behind her than the nine-year-old let out a yelp, ran to James, and threw herself into his arms. The two wept copiously.

"Oh, Jimmy, it was so awful, so wicked. Afterwards, I prayed to the Lord of Heaven you would come and rescue me, but I didn't know how you could, or if you knew I was here. Today they told us to get ready for a new master, but not who, and ..."

James looked down with great tenderness. "How did you do it, Daisy? How did you fool everyone?"

"I was running to the kitchen, and stumbled on the body of Patsy, the scullery girl. It was only her third day here, Jimmy, and she was so innocent, so harmless, but she was dead, her neck all twisted and broken. The men were upstairs fighting, and I knew there were too many, so I took her smock, ran inside the kitchen, mussed myself with flour, then hid in the closet and prayed. Afterwards, when security found me, I screamed and screamed, but I didn't tell who I was. When Cook Byrne came back from visiting her mother's place the next day, she didn't know, 'cause she'd never met Patsy. She didn't even see me, not really. You can't trust her, Jimmy. She says nasty things about Dad." Daisy's voice caught.

"I'll find her a new posting. But you can't stay here, Daisy."

"How will you get me out?"

"I've made cousin Patrick O'Toole chief of security. He'll send agent Seamus to escort you." James sounded amused.

Daisy blinked her dark lashes at him, relaxing slightly. "Agent Seamus is nice, but where will he take me?"

"The safest place is with Chief Running Bear and the Stoney west of Edwardston. His daughter died in the war, so you can be his new princess. You've your grandmother's dark features, and no one will know you're not a native."

She chuckled, and the terror in her eyes faded. "Will I ride a horse and live in a teepee?"

He answered in reverse order. "The Stoney have permanent towns, but Running Bear will surely give you one of my ponies."

"Will I see you often?"

"No, little sister. It's too dangerous." He hugged her close. "And, you'll have to go tonight."

"What will happen to you, Jimmy?"

He looked around, his expression dark. "I don't know yet, Daisy. But this has become an evil place."

And, more evil there was, too, for when James next appeared in court two days later, he was pale and haggard. One rumour claimed he'd been poisoned, another that he'd drunk too much at the wake for his parents. Easily believing the latter story, several churchmen quietly let it be known they were withdrawing their support, and several military officers wondered aloud about a man who couldn't hold his liquor. Hearing them, the jackals gathered once more.

Return to Contents


 

Genetic engineering techniques were well-explored by the mid-eighteenth century, and even today bring benefits when applied to plants. However, the weaponized viruses implicated in the great plagues of 1755, provided the primary impetus for an enduring ban against modifying either pathogens or the human genome. But despite the Covenant of the Living, all today's great houses have the resources to produce biological weapons, and by such an insane act, sterilize all of Greater Hibernia.

At the time of James III's assassination, two such madmen ruled their respective houses. The other nobles, tired of the war and anxious to have the fighting done so as to return to an easier life, were morally soft enough to indulge them. Duty and honour both perverted, the atrocity could not be stopped from within the corrupt system, and certainly not by the influence or direct actions of the King, so the royal family had no choice but to exercise their policing role in less conventional ways.
--from The Peace, a novella by Patrick O'Toole

Chapter Two

Tara's palace, Ireland, September 1941 (Hibernia)

The conspirator paced now, impatient to have the farcical courtroom speeches finished so his coup could proceed to the next stage. It had been obvious from the beginning that James IV lacked the connections and prestige to govern effectively. It was time to get it over with.

He grimaced as he considered those with whom he had dealt, however indirectly, to bend events to his liking. It was no great sin to desire power--all the Irish nobility did. Nor could he fault others for turning against the throne. He had.

But, deceived by their own sense of self-importance, and unable to do any but the most simplistic analysis, Callaghan MacCarthy and Gerald Monde would have Ireland desert her duty to rule nobly and fight honourably. The sabotage of the high armoury and James's accession to the throne had scarcely slowed them, merely redirected their preferred means of mass destruction.

"Fools." He slammed his fist against the desk. "Don't those two see they would permanently destroy the Peace, create a legacy of distrust, and ruin Ireland forever? If they win this war so, others would counter in kind, and the exchange could destroy the planet." That was the real issue. Everything else was unimportant, including kings.

He paced faster, wearing the carpet, ignoring Donal Tobin, who was, after all, merely a puppet. Why could they not learn from history? Did the tragedies of the eighteenth century mean nothing? Much of the population had died in genetically engineered plagues then, and the genetic damage persisted to this very day. Had Monde and MacCarthy never read the Covenant of the Living? Didn't they understand that the realm--nay, life itself--couldn't survive without a powerful moral compact of honour and duty, a set of mutual imperatives strong enough to stay the hand of even the most determined maniac?

"Such men would trade human beings whom the Lord of Heaven made, and for whom His Son died on the cross, to save a few shamrocks in the war budget." The conspirator pounded his hand again in frustration, vowing, "So long as I have breath, it shall not happen."

He sighed and paced, wondering if there could have been another way.

"No, there was not," he decided once more. Like it or no, James IV would not be crowned. Honourable victory hinged upon stopping the atrocity. He must also refocus attention, if ever so slowly, on changing the structure of Irish society. Getting this started while avoiding planetary catastrophe required a change of government, necessitating his betrayal of the emerald throne.

Realizing the invincibility of the forces gathered against the King, the man the others knew only as the grey lord had first anonymously joined the conspiracy, then bent it to his purposes, so they now unknowingly did his bidding. Today they would depose a king, ostensibly for two shallow reasons, one of which he had carefully betrayed. Better that than the assassination they had intended. At least, the succession should be orderly.

He glanced at the MT, where Lord Tobin's rhetoric showed signs of running down. "Ah, Donal, you're the dupe of a dupe today."

He reviewed his war analysis. Ireland, with her allies and client states, ought to triumph over Germany and Japan by 1945, both here on Hibernia and on Tirdia. But victory on this earth would hold only if the war was conducted honourably. Thanks to James, atomics were now out of the picture, but Gerald Monde had developed a new horror that he and Calaghan MacCarthy were preparing to deploy. Sabotaging it could be more difficult than subverting the high armoury, for nothing but a national crisis would draw the guard from the Monde manse.

Thus, the key to the grey lord's plan was employing the king's deposition as a diversion to allow the kingdom's finest sneak thief entry to that manse to pilfer and sabotage Gerald Monde's files, crippling the hawks' endeavours long enough to see a conventional war through to the end. Longer term, he hoped to bring about a new and more stable realm--one whose legitimacy flowed from the people's trust, and obeyed the old compacts.

Ah, Donal was finished.

"Who speaks in reply?" intoned Lord Chamberlain.

Would anyone? wondered the conspirator. Was he wrong? Court members knew the king's deposition merely cleared an obstacle for Monde and MacCarthy ambitions. Could they yet fulfil their duty to govern responsibly and honourably?

Silence.

He turned his eyes heavenward. "Lord of Heaven, you know there is little of either in today's court. But forgive them, Lord. Forgive me."

Ah, and there was the rub. Was he justified in using deceit and trickery in a good cause? Could he really say, despite painstaking calculations, that this was the best way? Well, the Lord of Heaven had given him ability, with some measure of wisdom, and hadn't spoken on the matter from his Heaven. Thus, a servant of God had to do what he could. And, the social calculus gave such high probabilities for the long term success of his plans.

The problem, he reflected, was that the nobility had stagnated, first into decadence, then into moral corruption, betraying Ireland's people almost incidentally. The realm needed spiritual and political renewal, honest competition, new frontiers, enough instability to provoke change, yet not enough to destabilize it further. Honour and duty also had to be restored. It would take two generations, he reckoned, but the attempt had to be made, and from outside the system.

It was one symptom of the lassitude of the great houses that technological innovation had all but ceased in the last hundred years. That, too, must change. He had a few ideas of his own, such as the human tissue regrow nanomachine he almost had finished, but he needed time, distance from the court, and help. Donal Tobin would unwittingly arrange it for him into the bargain, for all the royal cousins would be banned, not just the King.

"Oh, Lord, necessity makes me a traitor to throne and family," he prayed again. "But surely duty to the whole planet is greater than duty to the home island, or even to the whole United Irish Kingdom. Surely it is greater than the court's self-serving desires, vastly more important than the interests of one man, even of a king."

He returned his attention to the wall screen. They had voted ninety-five to five. Shortly, the throne would be vacant. Donal's plan, his plan, would be law once it was proclaimed. The grey lord closed his files, placing the data cube into his carefully boobytrapped safe.

It was time to confront a king, the most delicate part of his scheme, when a single hothead could spoil everything, provoking the very three-way war of succession he laboured to thwart.

To the end of his schemes--especially the sowing of just the requisite amount of confusion--he had enlisted some of the many royal cousins. Others, especially the king's military supporters, he had arranged to be far from the Emerald Isles. When they returned, his coup would be history, the monarchy temporarily abolished, and an oligarchy of Irish nobles led by Donal Tobin in power. By his calculations, the likelihood of civil war under such an arrangement declined from seventy percent to twenty, with little degradation in long term stability. Better to have the venal but highly regarded Lord Donal in charge of a unified kingdom than a powerless and unknown king presiding over ruins.

Meanwhile, he would either destroy Monde's schemes or die in the attempt. In the former event, he would end up far from court, influencing events at a distance, and the remaining royals would be unable to act without themselves triggering civil war, which they would not do.

To make it all happen, to vanish into obscurity himself, yet remain able to undermine the schemes of MacCarthy and Monde, and work quietly to build an enduring new compact for governance, the kingship had to go, to use the words of that fellow Eliot on Tirdia, "not with a bang, but a whimper." More than that, the end of it all needed to be bathed in sufficient confusion to prevent anyone from untangling his skein until too late.

"So let it be said, so let it be done," announced the image of Lord Chamberlain, and the nobles began filing from court, those of the front row on their way to the king's study.

The grey lord chuckled grimly as he reflected on their reluctance to settle matters with a good old-fashioned duel. Whatever they thought about the uncrowned high king's failings, he was the world's best blade, and none could stand before him.

The conspirator prayed once more for guidance to do what was best to glorify God and serve Ireland's people aright. Then, he strode toward the exit of his inner study. Partway to the threshold, he caught his reflection in a mirror, and paused. Expensively-tailored kilt and stockings covered legs his Stoney friends averred could outrun the wind. The rest of his tall, muscular physique was carefully hidden beneath silk shirt and richly-brocaded vest, his image completed with the long tresses of curled hair and tricorner hat courtiers affected.

"Lies upon lies, my boy," he observed to his image, with a wry smile and a tip of his hat. "It's time for the man of many names to join his fellow traitors, but with so many tricky schemes going this time, even I'm having a time keeping track."

* * * * *

Heavy thumping sounded on the ornate door of a palace suite, and its occupant heard it answered. There were demanding voices from the hallway, and moments later his servant appeared grimly before him to announce, "Several of their lordships await the pleasure of an audience, my lord."

"Very well, Patrick. Show them in."

Patrick O'Dwyer stood to one side of the double doors of the cavernous formal study and receiving room as the sombre group of nobles trooped in. After announcing each, he strode to the centre of the room, bowed to his master, saluted stiffly with his sword, then turned to the group.

"His most Christian Majesty James IV, hereditary Lord of Tara, Protector of the United Irish Kingdom, and High King of the Federation of Worlds." Patrick bowed again, stood to attention, then marched stiffly back to stand by the door.

James waved them to seats around the fireplace, and took one himself. There was no point in standing on ceremony. There would be no more of it for him.

As expected, Second Lord Donal Tobin, the Overdomain Lord as he was known, spoke up first. It was his right in court downstairs; here it was his duty. He used James's familiar name, and pointedly omitted any titles.

"Jack, you know why we're here." That there were spies everywhere about the palace was a fact of daily life.

James waved a casual royal hand around the circle. All but a couple of the high hereditary families currently at court were represented. "Yes, Donal, I know. At least when those sharks down the hall sent the executioners, they sent their best."

"They're not so bad, Jack." Donal paused to collect his thoughts, and went on in a rush, momentarily embarrassed by what he was here to do. "They're impatient for results."

"And you don't want a disagreeable king whom people call an incompetent sitting on Tara's throne."

"We overrode your veto and said the new domains in Irish North America this morning."

James made the slightest nod in acknowledgment. He alone had insisted on native self-government, opposing their plan to put Irish lords directly in charge of the continent now that the war there had ended. The issue had become their principal irritant with him, and one convenient excuse for a deposition. Well, if they lacked the courage to bring their real agenda into the open, they would hear nothing of his. He kept silent, awaiting their next charge.

Donal changed the subject. "Are you prepared to tell us who you've been stepping out of the court to see these months past?"

James started, a study in shock.

"You were too obvious." Donal informed him almost absentmindedly. "When two nobles raised the matter, some thought you were selling Ireland out to the enemy." He showed no compunction about cooperating with what must have been a betrayal by a close royal associate or trusted staff member.

The about to be ex-king reached a hand to his sword with an angry gesture, but Donal stopped him with an offhanded wave.

"As I pointed out to the idiots, that idea makes no sense. What power can a king gain? I had you followed."

"Then you know." James kept his voice calm despite the tension. How well had their spies traced him, and what had they learned?

"Yes, we know," Donal replied. "It's a bit much, having you go off with peasants to spend your time drinking in low taverns. Isn't the company of the Families good enough for you? Can't you be here when there's business to conduct? Do you not know people openly scorn you as a drunk?" He paused, glaring. "I don't suppose you'd agree to stay in the palace and behave yourself? Even now, we might be able to offer a figurehead position of sorts."

James wiped his brow to hide his relief. His excursions had been betrayed, but they had not found the why. Did Donal not know any of the rest? Or was he hiding it from the others? He hoped those who followed him had been unable to go farther than the pub. In apparent confusion, he let several moments go by without reply. After all, he could scarcely tell them it was a matter of honour, that he was using the time to work against MacCarthy interests in his secret lab. Nor would he betray other loyalties. Finally, knowing he could change nothing, he determined to make no reply.

Donal picked up where he had left off. "I thought not. Look, it's not just the court, Jack. The people are on edge. If things don't change, we're going to have civil war right here in the Emerald Isles to add to our troubles. You can do the computations as well as anyone. If people don't see definitive action at the top, our whole system of government could break down, setting back the course of civilization a thousand years or more. It's not who sits on the throne that's at stake, it's the very existence of the kingdom. We're facing anarchy, Jack, and it's going to take drastic and sober measures by experienced hands to hold it back."

Hearing Donal, the conspirator stifled a smile. He'd planted those exact words into receptive ears not two days earlier. "Still according to the script," he thought, keeping his face wooden. Being too free with alcohol in public was precisely sufficient moral failing in a king to keep potential military or church supporters on the sidelines, while covering political agendas sufficiently to allow the King to escape with his life.

James nodded mutely, conceding Donal's point. Neither competence nor battle prowess mattered. Current difficulties demanded a high-profile scapegoat, lest Tara have nothing to rule. He could have attempted dismissing the entire executive, but given his youth and their power, he could not succeed.

He saw agreement on their faces, and little sympathy for the man they were shunting aside. Besides Donal Tobin, most of the old high noble families were represented. Those who weren't at court, like his cousins of the Rourkes, Ryans, Reilly's, O'Tooles, and others, would not have cooperated. Lord Chamberlain was there, of course, and so was the court secretary. He idly noted loyal Patrick O'Dwyer in the doorway, and wondered what his man thought. Then he became aware the room was silent. Some reply was expected.

"What now, Donal? Will they make you king?" They were just words. He knew their plans.

Lord Chamberlain cleared his throat at such impropriety, but Donal cut him off. "You know that's impossible, Jack. Mine is not a high family. No, we're done with monarchs. We've decided I shall have the title of 'First Lord Among Equals', and power to appoint the executive, but the green throne stays empty. I give up lands and family name as your ancestor did in 1791, but as First Lord will have less power. Governance will be shared among the front row nobility."

James sighed deeply, and it was only partly theatrical. It was what he had expected, but Donal wouldn't last long under that arrangement. All the front row positions were open to challenge, and the man could hardly exclude himself. "Four or five years," he thought, after a quick calculation, "long enough to finish the war. Then they'll put a knife in his back." It was too bad. Donal Tobin wasn't evil, merely the tool of others who were its personification. But there was no point telling them the deficiencies of their scheme. It was time he officially learned his own fate.

"Do you want my head as well as the throne?" He conjured up a mental picture of the royal executioner standing on the palace steps over his headless body with a bloodied sword, and had to stop himself from smiling at the impossibility.

"No, Jack, we're not even going to banish you from the Emerald Isles, just from the court."

"How long?"

On Donal's hesitation, Lord Chamberlain answered in his most formal tones.

"Upon the agreement of the court, the throne of Tara has been said to be vacated, and shall be so for the span of a triple ban. At one minute past midnight, Ireland becomes a protectorate, and remains so for sixty years. During that time, neither you nor your children may be named or recognized in the council chamber. You will be offered one of the regional domains in Irish North America and a new name, but are adjured under penalty of death from representing yourself as high king. You may tell your descendants only that yours is a hereditary noble family. After sixty years, the old rules of succession resume, and your family will be free to compete for the front row or the throne on the same basis as any other."

Stunned silence seemed indicated, so James mentally reviewed what those rules meant. If someone became heir of three or more high noble families, and had the swords to prove it, he could claim the throne. Descendants of a recent king might mount a separate claim, but it would be difficult without the blades. In any case, two objectors among the hereditary nobility or the swords of the Isles--the protectors of the throne--denied the claim. There would be no monarch for the sixty years they had said, but perhaps none for long after.

No doubt they thought it ironic, he reflected. As king, he had waged a very public losing fight over their North American plan, arguing that Ireland should not impose direct rule there. Now they had proclaimed it anyway, and would send him off as one of the holders obliged to implement it.

Donal looked around the group, suddenly thoughtful, and James tensed. Lord Tobin was notorious for both his temper and his whims. What last minute complication would he introduce?

"English ambassador Kent is already a protector of the throne. However, since it's for the people's good we're doing this, I say we also make the two commoners present protectors."

James suppressed useless anger. Patrick O'Dwyer might indeed be a commoner, but his servant's exterior hid a trained officer's skill with the blade, or he would never be in these chambers. He could defend himself. But Court Secretary Solomon Transky scarcely knew which end of a sword to hold. James felt a bead of sweat trickle down his neck. "Old Rust take Donal's recklessness," he thought. "Why risk Solomon's life by involving him? Someone will surely try stealing his protector's sword."

Hearing no objections, Donal called over Patrick and Solomon. "Do you solemnly swear, upon your honour as citizens of Tara, as have these others, that you will enforce this decree of the court, and will formally object if any unworthy person attempts to occupy the throne? Do you swear to give this charge to your heirs and theirs forever? Do you say it upon the honour of the protector's sword we shall entrust to you?"

Both looked to him, and James reluctantly nodded. When they agreed, Donal nodded to the Lord Chamberlain, and he thumped his mace on the floor before intoning, "So let it be said, so let it be done."

At this, the others left, glad to escape the deposed king's presence. None offered to pray with him. Only two touched his scabbard to wish him well. The others avoided his eye and departed silent, as though escaping contamination. It was just as well. James didn't want any more killed than had been already. His friend and cousin Patrick O'Toole was already mourning his assassinated father. The senior O'Toole had unexpectedly returned early from a diplomatic mission to Russia and discovered the conspiracy. The morning after voicing his objections in a hallway conversation with Gerald Monde, he was found murdered in the palace park. It was too high a price to pay for freedom of speech.

Donal paced the carpet until all had left, then waved Patrick O'Dwyer out of the room. Alone with the former king, he began lecturing him, justifying his actions. "Whatever the attraction out there, and I suppose it to be a woman, she's less important than your duty to the court. Whatever your reasons for opposing us on the new domains, you should have given in to the majority. The nobility trusts you no longer. If I were you, I wouldn't go near the domain they offered; there's sure to be an assassin waiting."

"Where would you have me go?" James' voice held a tinge of sarcasm, but he was using it to hide his relief. Apparently Donal did not suspect what he did with his time. If he knew about the lab...

Donal stopped pacing and glared. "Don't hector me. I'm not after your life, and didn't want the job they gave me, but it was either that or allow MacCarthy and Monde to fight it out. Besides, if it weren't for me, they'd have killed you.

"At the very least, disappear officially. Take the domain if you're foolish enough to want it. You and your cousin Devereaux were chosen to hold New Tara and Moody, with Holdom as alternate. Show up for the investiture disguised as Holdom or Devereaux, ask me on stage how my daughter Gertrude is doing in school, and I'll invest you with one of your own swords. A security man will get another to be your life-agent. Maybe you can fool the other nobility long enough to escape Tara with your life. Once you're in Irish North America, the agent and the other domain lord ought to be able to offer you some protection.

"However, in my opinion, you should leave the palace within the hour, before the ban is published. Use any name you like, but disappear. I don't want to know where. I won't be able to tell what I don't know. The palace is full of intrigue these days. Who knows what would happen if I were to hand you a royal sword, disguise or no?" He stopped and pointed his finger at the former king. "I'll not protect your back. You would be on your own, except for the one agent in the event you go to INA."

James's first reaction was that Donal's was the advice of cowardice, and he would be better off boldly claiming the proffered domain and later raising an army to return to Tara and reclaim his rights, but he kept that counsel private, declining comment. Let Donal think he was insulted. He had his own plans for the domain investiture.

"In that case, how would a descendant of mine," he asked disingenuously, "be able to re-enter the court and be identified?"

"If you take the domain, use the name and sword we offer you. If you don't, the kingship is abolished anyway, but you may save your life. If you know it, use the name your family had before they first became high kings, or make one up. Your descendants can fight their way back here. Perhaps they can pick up one or two noble swords along the way."

He pulled one of the three royal-crested blades from the wall bracket over the large shield, displayed its blade for James, then collected the others and put all three under his arm. "We'll give the first back if you show, though most of us think you could do without," Donal tartly announced.

"Frankly, it's time we were done with royalty and their worthless swords," he added, his tone growing nasty. He would have melted them down, but the other nobles wanted them kept in circulation. Donal had brooded over this, then persuaded them to give the sword of Ireland, most powerful symbol of all, to a mere security agent who would be sent with the new holders to Irish North America. The others would go to James and a royal cousin to mollify the nobility.

James didn't respond. He already knew who would be given the swords. It was no matter. The three blades under Donal's arm were fakes. The genuine one he had selected as his own was carefully secured elsewhere. The other two would be distributed by his instructions, not Donal's.

He dissembled in what he hoped was a cowed voice, "Suppose I do not come, or my blade is lost?"

"Your problem. I'm sticking my neck out even to put you on the same level as the other old nobility. They guard their crested swords and precious family names. You can do likewise, especially with a little discreet help. But take my advice, and forget nobility altogether. You'll live longer."

Donal looked around. "I plan to convert the old royal grant suite into a security office. We'll use this place whenever one of the many penniless aristocrats with nothing but a name and a fancy sword comes begging for a meal and a place to sleep. Maybe your grandson will find the place useful for a few nights, provided he can produce a blade."

He turned to go, but whirled in the doorway to add one last barb. "But none of yours had better set foot downstairs unless they can stay sober and are a lot more amenable to the will of the court than you." With that, Donal marched from the room, and a few moments later, James heard the outer door close behind him.

Patrick O'Dwyer re-entered the inner suite, looking embarrassed. He stood stiffly, awaiting orders.

"Relax, Patrick, I'm a commoner like you now."

"If Your Majesty please." Patrick raised his voice on the last word, sounding offended at the suggestion.

James sighed. The habits of lifetimes wouldn't change overnight. "What is it, Patrick?"

"Well, Your Majesty, it seems to me you have no money and no place to go, and," the words tumbled out, "me and the missus would be glad to put you up for a few nights, and pass along what shamrocks we've got to get you on your feet, so to speak."

James was touched by this devotion, and said so. "Patrick, you have served faithfully and loyally. Be true to the charge you were given to protect the throne, and keep the sword they give you safely hidden. Ensure your descendants can protect both it and the throne.

"I am not without resources, and will not involve you in my troubles. Now, report to the chief steward, and while the Metalibrary terminal still works for me, I'll send along instructions to reassign you to family Ryan. They will be good to you and yours." As Patrick turned to go, eyes filled with emotion, James added, "May your descendants and mine serve each other and the Lord of Heaven."

He heard Patrick mutter, "Amen, and God bless Your Majesty," in a very low voice before he too went out. The door closed and latched behind him.

James quickly turned to his MT, sent the promised note to the steward, and closed his palace account. The last action would trigger a series of automatic processes making James IV a non-person to the system, and simultaneously create several assumed identities.

Rising, he shifted aside the crested shield on the wall to reveal a small safe. From this he took several blank identity cards and two that were already filled in. "Anyone aspiring to high position should work in Security," he reflected aloud. The blanks and one other he secured under the false back of his pouch, and the one he planned to use immediately he placed in the main compartment beside a small store of cash. There was more elsewhere. As crowned king, he would have had to surrender his possessions, but as Prince James, he had accumulated considerable wealth by shrewd investment of his officer's salary.

He also had royalties from the invention of a portable MT device that landsmen and commercemen found useful to access their affairs on the network. He sold it under an assumed name as the "Portable Intelligence Enhancement Appliance" or "PIEA," though it was commonly called a "pocket brain." It was carried on the belt and activated by finger sensitive pads at both ends. There was little point in taking one with him--there were no transceivers installed where he was going--but the little machines provided a substantial income stream even his cousins knew nothing of.

He entered settings on a timer, activated devices he had built to protect the safe, closed and locked its door, and rotated the shield back to its place.

Satisfied, he stripped off his vest and shirt, and went to the washroom to make cosmetic alterations usually performed in a secret suite behind the Red Lion pub before leaving by its side door. He had a way to get there no one could have discovered, and had taken the streets to his destination but once. Betrayal of that trip was the trigger spurring the court's action. Thinking about it, James grinned and began whistling. Getting dismissed trumped being killed.

He removed his glued-on beard, revealing a small goatee beneath. Next, he removed the wig he'd made from his own hair that covered the short straight cut he'd always preferred. Both went into a sack, along with a few items of sentimental value. He had clothes and weapons elsewhere, and nothing else here mattered.

Donning a plain shirt and vest to replace the ornate ones he discarded, he surveyed the results in a mirror. What he saw looked for all the world like a sombre young landsman or commerceman, not at all like a high lord. "It's ironic," he thought. "The commoner's kilt is the same tartan as the high king's." It satisfied the legal fiction that the monarch was of no house but the court's, and of no people but the commons. Moreover, it suited him. He'd wear no other.

He called up the hidden hallway monitors on the screens by the door, and idly watched the guard being changed in front of his suite. It took a few moments for the significance of the simple act to sink in, and when it did, his blood slowly turned to ice. The watch was not due to be rotated for nearly three hours.

"So, the game begins, and the opponents vie already to play 'kill the King,' do they?" he muttered. "So much for secrets, and a good thing I wasn't going out that way." He slid the deadbolt into place to slow later investigations, and strode to a closet door. This he opened and left ajar. It led to a secret hallway exit shaded by a decorative alcove around the corner from the guards. Let his pursuers discover that, he thought.

He glanced at the timepiece. In exactly five minutes a man roughly resembling the king's description would be seen scurrying through that hall, and down the back stairs to the kitchen. He would leave by the palace grounds in the direction of a residential neighbourhood to the rear of the complex. It would be a humiliating departure, and sure to be laughed over by the pompous nobility.

False trail prepared, he palmed what looked like one of the ornate wooden panels, but was actually a sensitive plate keyed to his print. At this, a section of the wall slid silently aside, and he entered a small tunnel. On the count of three, the door closed behind him. Only one other person knew of this private royal entrance to the tunnel system security agents employed to leave the palace without being noticed.

"One stop on my way out," he thought to himself, "and High King James IV will vanish into history without ever having been crowned." His step took on a spring and a lightness it had not had for a long time. "After all, Donal guessed one thing aright. In a few days, I shall be free to marry the most beautiful woman in the world."

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