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"Aww, they took my freakin' kidney!"

Organ Theft, as the name would imply, is the practice of stealing people's organs via surgery, which can then be used for further purposes such as transplants or sold on the black market[1] One particularly common variant of this is trope is the "kidney theft" Urban Legend, in which the victim is conned somehow and drugged into unconsciousness, and then wakes up kidney-less in a bathtub full of ice, often with a message attached telling them to go to a hospital.

In case you're wondering, this fails the logic test for a few reasons:

  • Organ transplant requires lots of specialized equipment to remove the organ and keep it viable for transplanting -- equipment not generally found outside a hospital.
  • In the standard version, the perps display a monstrous disregard for the victim's human rights -- yet they apparently still care enough to keep him alive. (To potentially file a police report no less.)
  • Organ transporting containers are huge due to the amount of dry ice needed -- the thieves would stand out to any witnesses they passed.
  • Organs need to be checked for compatibility, both for blood chemistry and size. A random victim offers no guarantees on any account.
  • It takes a lot of surgical skill and medical knowledge to extract a living organ and keep it in a condition where it can be transplanted successfully to another patient. You'll be hard pressed to find a Hippocratic Oath-bound surgeon willing to do this.

This trope was popularized by, and originated with, Larry Niven's Known Space stories, in which Organ Theft is called "Organlegging", a Portmanteau of "organ" and "bootlegging."

Needless to say, this trope is a potent source of Nightmare Fuel and Fridge Logic (why not steal multiple organs and kill the victim instead of leaving a witness?) Subtrope of Human Resources.

Examples of Organ Theft include:


Anime and Manga

  • An episode of Trigun had a town that was dealing in smuggling girls who were selling their bodies (as potential organ donors, not as prostitutes.)
    • Its actually implied to be both, if I remember correctly.
  • An episode of Ghost in the Shell had a trio of medical students sell discarded organs on the black market. Major Motoko Kusanagi later threatens to sell their currently-in-use organs on the black market to Scare'Em Straight by imitating the Yakuza who actually do sell organs on the black market.
    • GITS likes this trope. A later episode dealt with girls being kidnapped so that their organs and cybernetics can be sold off.
      • Which apparently was based on a public scare that blamed North Korea for doing this to Japanese people.
  • This happens to Plucky Girl Sakura Tomoe in an early episode of Weiss Kreuz. Because this is Weiss Kreuz, though, it isn't a bathtub that she wakes up in, it's an entire swimming pool full of ice. Unfortunately for her, the organ thieves in question later decide they're tired of doing things by halves.
  • In an episode of Wolf's Rain some muggers tell our heroes there's a market for healthy young organs. Of course our heroes are only disguised as humans, and aren't about to part with their organs.
  • Naruto absolutely loves this trope. Eyes, arms, hearts, entire bodies, you name a body part, ninjas are stealing it from each other. There's even a whole clan that got powerups from stealing each other's eyes. Though many of them (though not all) are courteous enough to kill the person before stealing their body parts.


Comic Books

  • A two part Daredevil storyline revolved around Organ Theft.
  • In the "Heart of Hush" arc in the Batman comics, Mad Doctor Hush kidnaps Catwoman and removes her heart, keeping her alive by elaborate machinery, and uses her hostage heart in order to blackmail Batman.
  • A two-part JSA:Classified story arc with Dr. Midnite featured a villain harvesting super-powered body parts to sell to wealthy patrons in the black market. The gruesome part is that the heroes whose body parts were stolen are often left alive after the procedure and basically crippled.
  • In JLA: Year One, The Brain comes into possession of a 'genegraft ray' which instantly and cleanly transplants organs of its targets. The Brain ends up pulling an All Your Powers Combined thanks to Flash's legs, Green Lantern's arm, Martian Manhunter's eyes and Black Canary's vocal chords.
  • Organ theft (AKA "Organleggers") was a common crime in the original Marvel 2099 comic book line whose victims could not afford to pay for police protection.
  • In Mega-City One of the Judge Dredd comic books, organ transplantation is illegal because it advanced to the point where it could render an individual immortal. Organ selling is a prevalent crime throughout Mega-City One.
  • Grant Morrison's run on X-Men featured a group of villains known as the U-Men, humans with a major fanboy affection for mutants... which drove them to "jump up the evolutionary ladder" by hijacking their superpower oriented organs. This often left the mutants dead, and occasionally led to the U-Men suffering organ rejection.
  • In the Sin City yarn, Hell and Back, the protagonist finds that the Big Bad was into organ theft, among other things.
  • One of Howard the Duck's more persistent nuisances was "the Kidney Lady", an annoying old battleaxe who thought Howard was the ringleader in a kidney-stealing conspiracy.


Fanfic

  • Subverted in Promstuck. It seems that Snowman has done this to Jack in the epilogue, but then he remembers that he's a carapace and doesn't have any organs that could be called kidneys.


Film

 "Ninety day delinquent gets you Repo Treatment!"

  • Repo Men has a similar concept, yet is completely different otherwise.
  • Dirty Pretty Things: the entire film revolves around illegal migrants yielding to terrible pressure and selling their kidneys to an organlegging outfit. The film ends with the protagonists stealing a kidney from the Big Bad who is running the operation operation. As you can see, this film has the trope all sewn up in a back room.
  • The Korean movie Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is about a man who sells his organs on the black market to get enough money to pay for his sister's hospital bills but is soon cheated out of his life savings.
  • Anderton buys a pair of black market eyes in Minority Report, so he can get past the retinal scanners that are literally everywhere.
  • The Jason Statham action movie Crank 2: High Voltage starts with the main character getting his heart stolen. He then proceeds to kick ridiculously large amounts of ass while trying to keep his replacement organ running.
  • An unlucky fellow in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life had some gentlemen come to collect his liver, on the grounds that someone needed it and he'd filled out a liver donor card. Too bad for him he wasn't done using it...

 Mr. Brown: Listen! I can't give it to you now. It says, "in the event of death"!

Man: Well, no one who has ever had their liver taken out by us has survived.

  • The creature from Jeepers Creepers committed periodic fatal organ thefts, for reasons that had more to do with hunger than transplantation.
  • One of the urban legends referenced by the serial killer in the movie Urban Legend. Of course, the killer admits that they are not too good at anatomy and will probably just grab the first major organ they see.
    • This is the first kill used in the sequel, Urban Legends.
  • Through a series of odd events in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Jay and Silent Bob find themselves hitchhiking with Scooby Doo and the gang (just don't ask). After a dream sequence in which they all get high, it is revealed that Jay and Silent Bob have fallen asleep.

Shaggy: Let's sell their kidneys on the black market and leave them in a seedy hotel on ice.

Cut to Jay waking up in an ice-filled bathtub with a huge cut down his back

Jay: AHHHHHH!!!!
Of course, that was also just a dream.
  • Turistas and Train turned out to be about this sort of thing.
  • Mentioned in Saw. When Adam & Dr. Gordon wake up in the room, Adam looks over his body and tells Dr. Gordon that somebody may have stolen a kidney. Dr. Gordon assures him that that's impossible because if it was true, they would either be in extreme pain or dead.
  • Does The Human Centipede count in this trope? Technically, ALL of their organs were stolen and their bodies (most significantly their digestive tracts) were grafted together.
  • In RoboCop, the OCP Corporation owns the cadavers of their employees (even if the employee is not quite dead yet).
  • There was this one Brazilian film called Central Station about this one retired schoolteacher who was offered $1,500 if she could persuade this one boy to go along with some organleggers.
  • In The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus this turns out to be what Tony did to the children of his charity. He had previously claimed the reason for his disgrace was doing business with Russian gangsters in order to fund the charity.
  • Awake: Clay and his mother joke about this as a solution to having to wait for his turn on the heart transplant list.

 Lillith: "I'm serious this time. Let's go to China, try out luck on the black market."

Clayton: "Why don't we just go outside, grab some random person, drag him in here and, y'know..."

Lillith: "Sounds good to me. Drag 'em in and cut 'em open! Hey, whatever it takes, right?"

  • The Pet: The main antagonists are slavers who harvest organs.
  • Koma's plot revolves around a series of organ thefts.


Literature

  • Christopher Moore's Island of the Sequined Love Nun has two Big Bads convincing an entire island full of people that they are the personification of the local Cargo Cult gods. It turns out they have an entire database composed of the native's medical information and are running an on-demand black organ market, harvesting (among other things) kidneys, hearts, and corneas.
  • As mentioned above, Larry Niven's Known Space series is the Trope Maker. The government did it by declaring that any person sentenced to death was considered an organ donor, with the number of things that were considered capital crimes gradually increasing to meet the demand for donor organs, as transplants had become the default means of medical treatment and demand was just that high. This ceases abruptly when alternative means of treatment are developed.
    • The organleggers were a more literal version of this trope, though they didn't stop at kidneys. They generally kidnapped somebody, quietly euthanized them, and harvested all of the victim's organs.
  • Coma by Robin Cook. A hospital artificially induces brain death in healthy patients undergoing surgery. Their organs are then secretly removed and sold on the black market.
  • In one of the Doctor Who Expanded Universe novels, this one is done rather weirdly. The Doctor is ill because something is the matter with one of his hearts. Luckily, the villain thought transplanting a Time Lord's heart to himself would help him time travel, so he stole it, curing the decaying heart problem but creating a new, massive-hole-in-the-Doctor's-chest problem. Good Thing He Can Heal.
    • One of his hearts was a link to Gallifrey, which he'd destroyed in "The Ancestor Cell" (different Time War--this one was against Faction Paradox).
  • Blood Debt
  • Unwind takes this to a new level- not only is the process legal, it's used as a way to get rid of unwanted children.
  • One of the later Alex Rider books uses this as a justification for the villain keeping Alex alive yet again. He has Alex taken to a hidden facility where his various organs will be removed one-at-a-time (finishing with the heart) and sold to wealthy customers, allowing him to recover what Alex has cost him. Alex doesn't stick around.
  • In the English sci-fi drama Never Let Me Go, the protagonist and her fellow students willingly submit to having their organs removed - they're all cloned humans created for the specific purpose of organ harvesting.
  • In World War Z, Fernando Oliveira describes his participation in the transplant of a black market heart obtained from a "donor" in China. Unbeknownst to the recipient and the transplant team, China happened to be in the early stages of a Zombie Apocalypse at the time. The doctor goes on to suggest that this was the cause of many other Solanum outbreaks outside of China at the time.
  • The Igor clan of Discworld is known to harvest organs or limbs... but only postmortem, and only from people who have received a transplant performed by an Igor at some point in their lives.
  • Burke mentions a Noodle Incident in which he acted as a go-between for a wealthy family seeking a heart for their dying child. He collects the heart, implied to have been taken from a child murdered for the purpose.


Live Action TV

  • Played straight on Law and Order, which may actually have helped disseminate the "kidney theft" urban legend.
    • SUV's Captain Cragen (who appeared in the above episode) later dismissed such stories as urban legends.
  • Angel Wolfram & Hart's subsidiary health care operation, the Fairfield Clinic, operates a body parts bank where organs are harvested from still-living prisoners.
  • The Firefly episode "The Message" turned out to be about this: Tracy had to pretend to be dead to transport--and incubate--some super-viscera.
    • And despite the stated cost of the organs, the guys who go to recollect shoot to kill.
    • And in a way, Tracy kind of does this to himself, because the way he's smuggling the organs is that he had all of his replaced. Then he decided to go for a better offer, forgetting that the other people STILL had his original organs.
  • On Desperate Housewives, Katherine thought she'd found the perfect guy until she found out he'd been to prison for doing this. Of course, every adult living on Wisteria lane has committed multiple felonies, but this was the one crime that was too much for them to accept.
  • Gerry Anderson's Space Precinct had criminals engaged in organlegging.
  • The Vidiians from Star Trek Voyager. Only that this is not so much organ theft as organ hijacking: they literally take away an organ from a person by teleporting it. When this happens to Neelix, the Doctor gives him *Hard Light lungs* until they can be replaced.
    • In this case, the fact it's a cross-species theft raises serious Fridge Logic issues, as there's no reason why medicine that's advanced enough to perform xenografts couldn't turn to non-sentient animals as donors instead.
  • Star Trek: The Original Series has an example as well, in the infamous episode "Spock's Brain".
  • On Heroes, Claire jokes that she has used her regeneration powers to sell a kidney for quick cash.
  • The Crapsack World of Max Headroom has "body banks" which will pay for organs -- or whole bodies -- with no questions asked.
  • Scrubs had one of JD's daydreams parodying the kidney theft legend.
  • Leverage features a bizarre version in that a heart is stolen in transit for a rich businessman who is dying. As it was stolen from its intended recipient, a 15 year old kid, Nate commits everything to stealing it back.
  • White Collar had a multimillion dollar corporation involved in a conspiracy to sell body parts "acquired" in foreign countries to needy transplant patients, circumventing the organ transplant system and pocketing the "donations" from the grateful patients. Neal and Peter take them down, of course, when they go after June's young granddaughter.
  • In the CSI Trilogy crossover storyline, young women were abducted and smuggled cross-country by a network of criminal truckers. While most were forced into prostitution, those girls who fought back against their captors became salable body parts.
    • An episode of CSI New York had an organ being stolen after it was legitimately removed, with a murder or two in the process. It turned out the surgeon who removed it was behind the theft because his wife was dying and needed it.
    • Another episode (of vanilla CSI this time) had organs being taken from dead bodies that were processed in a specific crematorium.
  • An episode of Las Vegas had a guest at the Montecito claim this had happened to him. He had a fresh scar and X-rays revealed he was short one kidney. It turns out that he'd already sold the kidney in an under-the-table deal with an ailing celebrity, and was trying to extort money from the casino for additional profit.
  • One episode of The Rockford Files featured an insane doctor who arranged "accidental" deaths in order to sell the obtain the victims' organs for his wealthy clients. He tended to target victims with rare blood types.
  • Played for laughs in Call Me Fitz.
  • Nip Tuck not only plays this completely straight, but it then becomes a relevant part of the season arc once we get to know the organ thieves.
  • On Justified a group of criminals sell organs on the black market. However, they primarily harvest the organs from the recent corpses of people who died in prison rather than then by stealing them from living people. They have access to the prisoners' medical records and use people trained in this type of operation. The one time they operate on a live person it is a ruse to make the victim think that they took his kidneys so he will steal for them. All they did was make a couple cuts and sutured them up.
  • Done slightly more realistically with the witness of the week on In Plain Sight. It was a doctor removing kidneys from gastric bypass patients, since they are operating in the same area and the patient is likely to write off any problems caused by loss of kidney to complications from surgery.


Newspaper Comics

  • In a Dilbert comic, Dilbert's mom got her organs harvested by a store after she returned too many items.

 "The company is not planning to steal your organs while you sleep at your desks and sell them on the black market... not at the prices we were quoted."


Tabletop Games

  • Shadowrun. Tamanous is a criminal syndicate that deals in Organ Theft. They kidnap and murder the homeless and will pay for recently-dead bodies, and among other things are known for stripping dead bodies of their cyberware to sell on the black market. Street doctors have been known to engage in Organ Theft as well, including patients who can't pay their medical bills.
    • Tamanous even has a way to get rid of the leftovers once all the saleable parts are gone - they sell them to ghouls.
  • GURPS: Bio-Tech has a template for a freelance organlegger. The Evisceration spell from Magic is made for this exact purpose.
  • Rifts. While natural organs are generally not bandied about it is mentioned that cyber-snatchers are a problem in crime-ridden areas, murdering people for their expensive cybernetic implants.
  • Cyber Punk 2020 Has rules for selling organs to the Organ Banks. Officially you need the deceased donor card in order to donate the organs and get the reward, but in practice the paperwork can be easily faked. There is also mention of a Organ lottery that runs in Night City.
  • Ork rippadoks from the Warhammer 40000 universe tend to do this to their patients as a form of 'payment' for their services. Orks being Orks, however, don't usually miss the stolen organs.


Video Games

  • The game Headhunter was set in a world where the organ market is very profitable. Weapons are designed so they don't damage the target's precious organs. There was a massive black market of organs. The player gets to explore the cargo-ship which is the centre of the operation.
  • An assignment in Mass Effect 1 requires the player to bring to justice (or just kill) a doctor who managed a business of this sort... with a horrible, horrible twist: he paid homeless people to grow extra cloned organs inside their own bodies, with nightmarish medical implications. He'd then harvest the extra organs... if they grew properly. Otherwise he'd just leave you to die a terrible and painful death with two stomachs.
  • Killer 7 had organ theft as part of its so called plot. Made even creepier by the fact that the organs are taken from immigrant children and children abducted from a creepy theme park. Not to mention the things Curtis Blackburn did with the bodies of the girls he killed.
  • The Lost Experience had a side plot involving sold organs. It didn't have much to do with anything other than adding to the general corruptness of the Hanso Foundation and providing Product Placement for Jeep.
    • It also tied into Locke's backstory on Lost: his father, whom he'd never known, found him and struck up a relationship for the sole purpose of getting him to donate a kidney, then tossed him out again.
  • On a Bad Moon run of Kingdom of Loathing, you can get your kidney stolen by a unicorn, and you can buy it back from the Black Market.
  • A weird example from the Fallout 3 expansion Point Lookout: after (unknowingly and involuntarily) undergoing trepanning, your character wakes up with a chunk of brain missing. This wasn't sold on a black market or anything, but put in a jar and kept as some sort of souvenir by your surgeon. You can actually recover your bottled Lump of Brain, though looking at the item fills you with "a terrible sense of loss."
    • The Fallout: New Vegas expansion Old World Blues goes even farther, with the Think Tank removing your entire brain, along with your spinal column and heart and replacing them with cybernetic components. It's up to the player whether to put your original organs back or keep the robotics (both options offer their own stat buffs).
  • In The Thrill of Combat this is what you do for a living. Using a helicopter, stun beam and a rappelling surgeon to get the sweet, sweet organs and points.
  • In Mercenaries 2: Playground of Destruction the Rastafarian Pirates have a repeatable mission involving transporting organs to a humanitarian buyer, likely as a result of organ theft on behalf of the pirates themselves.


Web Comics

  • Gets played with in the Space plotline of Irregular Webcomic. Some of the crew get mugged and their organs stolen. So what do they do? Take the organs from their future selves who failed at going back in time and preventing their organs from being removed, and then later find their original organs and get those implanted inside themselves so that when their future selves get their organs removed, they'll have a spare set.
  • In Something Positive, Pepito did this to a guy to get the money for English lessons.
  • Inverted in this Xkcd, where a guy's ice is stolen and he wakes up in a bath full of KIDNEYS.


Western Animation

  Dr. Venture: "Gah, not again! ... wait a minute. One... Two. This is serious."

  • Spoofed in the Futurama episodes "My Three Suns" and "Spanish Fry." In the former, a sleazy street vendor offers Fry some (supposedly) ill-gotten organs and almost operates on him ("I take lungs now. Gills come next week.") before Leela stops him. In the latter, Fry loses his nose to alien poachers because "human horn" is considered an aphrodisiac. He gets it back, only to discover that what the alien poachers were really after was his... "lower horn."
    • Richard Nixon threatened to sell children's organs to zoos once.
  • Invader Zim is notable as possibly the only example of this in the history of children's television. Zim is afraid of being revealed as an alien by medical science and decides to pack his torso with human organs from the children at the school and replacing them with..."stuff" (random nearby objects). Oddly, this only seems to cause discomfort and severe fatigue, but it leaves Zim a grotesquely obese sack of organs.
  • This was one of the urban legends used in Freaky Stories, although the moved it into the future to slightly reduce the Squick factor.
  • And Organ Theft among Mechanical Lifeforms is apparently a way of getting this past the censors. How else can you explain Lockdown?

  Lockdown: "But don't worry... I got everything I wanted from you long ago."

    • MECH has also stolen body parts from Transformers... leading to a scene explaining that certain parts of Transformers are more like biology than technology... and thus basically irreplaceable.
    • Starscream from Transformers Prime suffers from this trope when he underestimates his human allies and wakes up without his T-Cog. He spends most of a season *running* around the woods bitterly complaining about his fate.
  • On an episode of Drawn Together, Wooldoor does this to Toot.
  • In the Men in Black cartoon, the first episode dealing with Alpha involved him stealing a Sintillian heart. The victim didn't die as his species has two hearts and can live just fine with one, leading J to think that there's no problem. K quickly corrects him:

 K: You have ten toes. You wake up one morning with one missing, how would you feel?

  • There was an episode of South Park where Kyle needed a kidney, but the only person with his bloodtype was Cartman, who refused to give it up because he's, well, Cartman. Stan and Kenny break into his house one night to try to steal the kidney, only to find Cartman had thought of this and was wearing a 'Kidney Blocker 2000.'
  • According to the old Gorillaz website, Murdoc had most of his internal organs surgically exchanged with 2D's.
  • One episode of Sherlock Holmes in The Twenty Second Century had an organ trafficking ring that turned out to be cloning (illegally) their products.


Web Animation


Real Life

  • Largely averted in reality, as stealing organs from unwilling sources is a great way to infect your intended recipients with HIV, hepatitis, or other ailments. Illegal and/or for-profit kidney sales do happen in reality, but generally with the donors' willing participation.
    • The urban legend also fails on two facts that would make this implausible at best. First off, the stolen organ has to match sizes and be compatible to the donor, something you can't control with a randomly picked victim. Second, the large loss of blood from removing a kidney would make death of the victim a much more likely outcome. Another problem with this legend, though less a medical than a practical one, is that it would be much simpler to outright kill the victim who would then be unable to bear witness to the police, especially if their now slightly lighter body was disposed of permanently...
  • There has been documented kidney theft among various poor people in India, who were then paid afterwards with "hush money" or threatened with death (Indian Victims Relate Horror of Kidney Theft - ABC News).
    • Furthermore, the typical kidney theft urban legend is highly unlikely because motel rooms (or wherever the theft takes place) lack the sterility to conduct surgery.
  • The Chinese government is believed to harvest organs from prisoners executed in the colorfully named "death vans" that provide capital punishment services to outlying regions.
    • The Chinese government also executes Falun Gong prisoners (who are detained without trial) whenever wealthy foreign tourists place a demand for an organ transplant.
  • There is an urban legend that if a registered organ donor's life is ever in jeopardy, than they will be murdered by doctors through substandard medical treatment, except doctors in the United States don't check donor status until an individual has been declared dead.
    • Furthermore, the doctors treating the living and the transplant teams work independently from one another.
    • Where are all the medical malpractice lawsuits alleging this urban legend? If it were true, than litigation lawyers would have fortunes to make.
    • The usual variant goes thus: "If you have to go the ER, the doctors will not try as hard to save you if you are a donor. They don't consciously choose to do it, they just do." Aside from being an insult to doctors, it always fails to explain just how would the doctors treating you know that you are a donor.
  • There was this one American missionary who went down to Nicaragua once, only to be confronted with rumors of him trying to kill and harvest the organs of children. Locals responded by beating him into a persistent vegetative state.
  • The Israeli military was recently accused of killing Palestinian prisoners for their organs. Regardless of the accusation's validity, the Israeli military did admit to taking corneas, arteries and other tissue from dead Palestinians (which is not the same as executing prisoners for their organs and the practice was discontinued over ten years ago). Dead Israelis were also "harvested": http://www.forward.com/articles/121564/
  • There have been allegations of the Kosovo Liberation Army murdering prisoners and murders occurring along the US-Mexico border for the purpose of organ theft. However, there has been no evidence to support either allegation.
    • However, in case of the organ trafficking in Kosovo, the Dick Marty report has been endorsed by the Council of Europe and the EULEX and many evidences back it up. It should also be noted that Albanian authorities have denied any cooperation.
  • In some countries, organ-harvesting is practiced under a policy of presumed consent, meaning that a deceased person's recoverable organs will be salvaged unless their survivors object and/or there's documentation saying that they didn't want it done. It's not "theft" because it's perfectly legal, but it can look like this to people from countries where lack of consent is the default assumption.
  • Not strictly an organ but back before they could synthesise erythropoietin, East Germany would allegedly kill people to harvest their natural EPO and feed it to athletes. This is probably just another urban legend, as you could get exactly the same performance advantage by blood-doping with ordinary donor blood and/or by sending your athletes for a few months of high altitude training. Plus, erythropoietin from most other mammals is identical to that of humans, so they could get it more cheaply from sheep.

Notes

  1. Yes, there's a black market for organs, because legitimate doctors (and, for that matter, lawyers) are way too Squicked out by the idea of selling organs to even consider doing it or allowing it to happen. Never mind that the demand for organs is shockingly high, and sadly, some people need money more than they need their organs. Which is why said black market exists in the first place.
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