The Secret of Life
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2026: Something is growing in the Pacific Ocean.
"The Slick" appears to be a strange, fungus-like organism, but its DNA is unlike anything else on the planet.
Rumours start to fly. Was life discovered deep beneath the Martian icecaps on a recent Chinese space mission? If it was, no-one is confirming it, but could that same life now be spreading through the ocean and threatening Earth's entire food chain?
Brilliant scientist Dr. Mariella Anders is recruited to join an urgent NASA mission to Mars to see if she can uncover the truth of this organism, but this is no straightforward investigation. Corporate powers are committed to exploiting the secrets of the Slick for profit; radical eco-terrorists strike out against rampant genetic engineering; and a second Chinese mission to Mars at the same time has its goals shrouded in mystery.
The secret of life on Earth and Mars might be found on the red planet, but who can Mariella trust with the truth once it's found? And what price will she have to pay for it?
Release date: October 13, 2022
Print pages: 320
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The Secret of Life
When I read the above passage in Paul McAuley’s The Secret of Life, my first thought was, How the hell did Paul score a trip to Mars? And when?
Then, of course, I remembered that this is what it’s like to read a book by Paul McAuley. Wherever the setting may be, you’re not just reading about it – you are there. Whether it’s the castle of Leonardo da Vinci in sixteenth-century Florence in Pasquale’s Angel, or the bizarre, near-future Europe of Fairyland, which won the Arthur C. Clarke Award (and for which this book was a nominee), or the multiple worlds given to humanity by the strange aliens known as the Jackaroo in Something Coming Through and Into Everywhere, you will have an immersive experience.
Because we’re not just talking about ‘a setting’ – it’s time as well as place, and the people you find there, and all the elements affect all the other elements. When you open a book by Paul McAuley, you step into a fully-formed world.
The near-future world of The Secret of Life is damaged and becoming more so every day, thanks to climate change and disease. One particularly nasty worldwide plague caused spontaneous abortion of male foetuses. Dr Mariella Anders found the cure for that one but what would have been a moment of triumph was marred by the death of her husband, cancelling the life she had envisioned.
Nonetheless life goes on and there’s always one more crisis brewing, like the one in the ocean, which may be due to the introduction of matter that originated not on Earth but on Mars. Dr Anders is selected to be part of the expedition to make the long journey to the red planet—
Well, that’s what happens but how it happens is a lot more colourful. Paul McAuley is a biologist by education and training, which means Mariella Anders does more than stand around wearing glasses and occasionally looking into an electron microscope. She, too, is a lot more colourful and the internal politics of academia, of the scientific community, and within the expedition personnel give her a lot to contend with before she even leaves the ground.
McAuley doesn’t gloss over the journey as a short hop to the next orbital path and nor does he forget that the landing means reintroducing gravity to people who have been weightless for months. Dr Anders’s journey picks up momentum as we discover the secret of life is, in fact, connected to the meaning of life – i.e., what it means to be alive and to actively live. For Dr Anders, it means she has to stay in motion. Once she travels to Mars and back, she finds the only way she can be true to herself and her principles is to keep travelling. The route she has to take is often beyond her control and it brings her to new and unexpected places as strange as anything she encountered on Mars, some of them even stranger thanks to the human element.
In fact, you may find Dr Anders’s Earth to be more alien than Mars, and really, why wouldn’t it be? If you were jump-cut from, say 2005 to 2013, and you overheard someone telling a friend they had 4000 people following them and today, they were retweeted a dozen times, what would you make of that? Or if you were skipped from 2015 to 2020 and found yourself, say, on an empty street in Central London with no traffic and all the shops closed in the middle of the day, how would you react? Especially if you looked down at the sidewalk and saw marks instructing you as to which side to walk on – and when you finally saw a few other people, they were wearing surgical masks?
Paul McAuley has given us a much wilder and woollier future full of adventures in biology and biotechnology in a world always teetering on the brink of another disaster even though it hasn’t recovered from the ones it’s already been through. The people who live in such a world aren’t always sedate and composed or, for that matter, sober. They don’t always make the best decisions; Mariella Anders certainly doesn’t. But you’ll admire her intellect and her integrity, if not all the choices she makes, and you’ll support her all the way to the end. Which you’ll be on the edge of your seat for.
Oh yeah, before I forget: this is hard science fiction, which means there’s a lot of science in it – and you’ll enjoy every word. I did. Plus I feel smarter. I love it when that happens.
All human life is here.
It’s late in the evening and cruise boats lit up like sci-fi spaceships are ploughing the black waters of the Huangpu River, passing either side of a line of robot cargo clippers anchored in the midstream channel. The tall white cylinders of the clippers’ rotary sails are fitfully illuminated by fireworks bursting above a rock concert in an amphitheatre on the Pudong shore, close to the minaret of the Oriental Pearl TV Tower. The pulsing beat carries across the river to the crowded waterfront promenade of the Bund and lines of traffic creeping along Zhongshan Road and the foursquare colonial buildings which crouch beneath skyscrapers with organic facings like muscle fibres or wood grain seen under a microscope’s lens, or coralline skins fretted with porous knots and hollows and veins. Waiters in starched white shirts move amongst the tables on a high terrace of Fairmont Terrace Hotel where roaring gas heaters keep off the late winter chill. A trio of young police officers lounge at an intersection, tugging at their white gloves as they watch opposing streams of vehicles inch past with blaring horns and glaring headlights. Huge video screens are flooded with advertisements that change every twenty seconds. Corporate logos burn inside a glass-walled mall piled with electronics, high-end fashions and exotic biotech.
Behind the Bund, traffic is jammed in an unforgiving one-way system. Pedestrians and cyclists surge around little three-wheeled trucks, bubble cars, the limos of high-ranking government officials, entrepreneurs and gangsters. Electric scooters tow trailers piled high with flat TV sets or boxes of melons or cartons of cigarettes. Bars and clubs flaunt their wares in video loops or old-fashioned neon. Hawkers thrust animated adsheets into the hands of passers-by. Stalls sell ramen or noodle soups, spices, tacky souvenirs, bootleg spikes, caged birds, tweaked crickets and beetles. Here’s an old woman tipping a handful of fish heads into oil smoking in a blackened wok. Here’s a gaggle of young girls tripping along under a bouquet of paper umbrellas. Here’s a beggar with a monkey crouching on his left shoulder and watching passers-by with dark, wise eyes. Tucked in alleyways are the chop-shops of grey biosurgeons, the offices of baby farmers, workshops that hand-etch customised chips, traditional medicine shops with dusty glass jars of bark or twigs or dried berries, a shop selling cloned tiger penis and vat-grown ivory.
Anything that can be bought can be bought here, in Shanghai.
Pan and scan the restless crowds.
Here’s a man ambling along with the brim of his straw hat angled over his face. An American, a tourist – peacock-blue jacket over a T-shirt printed with the black and white mask of a panda, chinos, trainers. He plunges down reeking steps into a cellar bar and orders an expensive beer he does not drink, discreetly surveilling the entrance while pretending to watch a pair of dancers making shapes in cones of smoky red laser light. After twenty minutes he moves on, semi-anonymous in the crowds. There are many gweilo tourists and business people here. He passes a Cuban bar, a German bar, an Icelandic bar where customers are handed fur-lined parkas as they enter – the inside’s all ice. Another bar, this one a shack so small its half dozen customers sit side by side, serves only whisky: more than a hundred bottles are racked up behind the bamboo and rattan counter. The American waits until a stool is free and sits and orders a Braveheart on the rocks – despite the name, it is made in Kenya. He doesn’t drink but turns the tumbler around and around in his long, manicured fingers. Three drunken salarymen are watching a TV showing a baseball game in Hiroshima, betting on each pitch in a flurry of fingers and coins.
The bar squats under a sign advertising the Shanghai Disney Resort.
This is the Chinese century.
A skinny young Chinese man in a snake-skin jacket sits beside the American and orders a Rob Roy. They don’t talk, but when the American stands up and leaves the other man gulps down his shot of whisky and follows him into an alley, where the American suddenly turns and embraces and kisses him.
The Chinese man is startled and angry and tries to push away, but the American holds him tight. ‘They might be watching, so make it real,’ he says, and kisses the man again, tasting the whisky on his breath.
They hire a room in a short-time hotel and go up the rickety stairs, stepping between the sleeping bodies of an entire family, from shrunken grandmother to fretful baby.
The room is tiny and overheated, smells of disinfectant, mould, and sex. It is almost entirely filled by a gel slab bed covered in purple, vat-grown fur.
The young Chinese man sits down and strokes the coarse fur and says, ‘My company makes this.’ His long black hair is brushed back from his round face; his sallow skin is greasy with sweat. The width of his smile is a precise index of his discomfort.
The American tosses his hat on to the bed and says impatiently, ‘Let’s do it.’
The Chinese man, his eyes fixed on the American, reaches inside his snakeskin jacket, takes out a small glass vial and drops it into the American’s palm.
The American brings his hand close to his face, stares at the vial. There’s a sliver of glass slanting inside: a sealed capillary tube containing a thread of cloudy liquid. He gives the Chinese man a hard look and says, ‘What’s this shit?’
‘It is in there. Alive.’
‘I’m here for the code. The full genetic sequence.’
‘That is not possible. I tell you already it is not possible. This is the second generation, but it has the essential property of the Chi.’
‘If you’re fucking with me.’
‘I have no access to the sequence libraries. I tell you that already. Not the sequence libraries, not the Chi itself. So I get you the second-generation lab prototype instead. I smuggle it past six layers of security. Very hard to do, very difficult. But I do it. I bring it to you. I do not cheat you.’
The American’s hand closes over the vial. ‘How am I supposed to verify this?’
The Chinese man’s smile is very wide now. ‘You grow it. You sequence it. You see I do not lie.’
‘And also a prototype.’
‘It is better than the original. Fully tested. It splices genes, self-selects at a very high rate. Evolution with a fast-forward button.’
The American stares hard into the Chinese man’s fixed smile and says again, ‘If you’re fucking with me.’
‘No, sir. I do not. This is for my family—’
‘Yeah, yeah.’ The American has been told the story in case he needs to use it to muscle the inside man – dissidents exiled to a mining camp in Antarctica, a massive bribe needed to release them, blah blah blah. He says, ‘We’ll have to check this out before your family can wave bye-bye to penguin land.’
Now the Chinese man allows a hardness to show in his face. ‘Perhaps you fuck with me.’
The American return’s the man’s stare. ‘You fuck with me, I’ll fuck you right back.’
The Chinese man is the first to blink. ‘It isn’t what was asked for. I know that. But what you have instead, it’s better.’
‘It had better be. Let’s shake on the deal,’ the American says, and spits on his hand and holds it out. ‘Spit and shake. An American custom to show trust.’
The Chinese man doesn’t look at the American’s hand. He stands and says, ‘You will sequence the sample and you will pay.’
‘You’ve already been paid.’
‘The money is not important. I do this for my family.’
‘Yeah, sure. We done here? Fuck off then.’
After the Chinese man has left, the American pushes the vial into a small padded envelope and lies back on the fur-covered bed. The handshake doesn’t matter because the kiss has already done it; his saliva contains a toxin derived from puffer fish liver, a toxin to which he has been made immune. It will shut down his victim’s nervous system in a couple of hours: clonic seizures, suffocation, heart failure. Even with the best experts, the best gear, it’ll take a while for the authorities to figure out that it isn’t a vanilla heart attack, if they ever do. That’s done and dusted, but the cargo isn’t as advertised and the American is wondering if the deal is compromised. Wondering if his legend is blown, briefly entertaining the thought of breaking cover, heading for the American Consulate. Which if things have gone to shit will have been told to deny everything and hand him over to the Chinese authorities. No, it’s best to stick to the plan, hope that the inside man hasn’t been turned, hope that the stuff in the capillary tube is the real deal.
He leaves the room with his T-shirt back to front and his jacket inside out, so it’s striped red and white now, and he has left his straw hat behind and is wearing a Boston Red Sox cap. He strolls through the crowded streets, brushing off touts and pimps and beggars, taking a long, jagged route towards the Bund, twice doubling back on himself, until he’s as sure as he can be that no one is following him on foot. Nothing he can do about security cameras or helicopters, or a reconnaissance satellite with high-resolution optics, if they’re using any of that to track him he’s been blown from the beginning, but just in case he sits at a table in a café at one end of the Bund’s promenade and drinks a latte and watches the crowds, mostly Chinese tourists, from beneath the brim of his cap, trying to spot anyone who might be tailing him.
The concert across the river has already ended, and at eleven o’clock the lights of the cruise boats on the river and the floodlights illuminating the Oriental Pearl TV Tower and the cluster of skyscrapers along the Pudong shore wink out. As waiters begin to stack chairs on empty tables the American leaves and spends an hour in a games arcade, moving restlessly from machine to machine, before finding a taxi. He shows the driver a card with the address of his hotel in the French Concession printed in Mandarin and Shanghainese, and watches the traffic through taxi’s rear window all the way there.
Seven in the morning, he’s climbing onto a coach with his tour group. Their last day in China after touring Beijing, Xi’an and Shanghai, the Pearl of the Orient. The rest of the group spent yesterday visiting Suzhou’s gardens and canals while he claimed to be sick; when one of the guides asks him if he feels better he grins and tells her he’s still a little wobbly but at least he’s no longer able to shit through the eye of a needle, which shuts her up as he hoped it would.
The expressway to the airport is already busy, eight lanes of traffic elevated above a flat land of factories, office buildings, convention centres, canals and lagoons, acres of polytunnels and greenhouses heliographing steely morning light. Giant holograms of gods and monsters float above the offices of a virtual game company. Beside a stagnant canal, beneath a billboard advertising the floating pleasure palaces of the South China Seas, a ragged boy is beating a water buffalo with a stick.
The coach is almost at the airport when the cherry lights of half a dozen police cruisers flash behind it. Sirens wail, tourists lean at the windows as black SUVs shark up on either side and a megaphone barks orders, and as the coach begins to slow the American tries to stay calm. Things have very definitely gone to shit, but he left the vial at the dead drop in the gaming arcade and he’s a cleanskin cutout, no record, no affiliation to any agency. Arrest and interrogation isn’t going to be pleasant, but he tells himself that so long as the vial was picked up unobserved and there’s nothing to link him with the inside man, he can get out of this.
As security agents and police swarm the coach, a US government courier is settling into his first-class seat aboard an American Airlines scramjet at Shanghai Pudong International Airport. A diplomatic pouch, its lock is sealed with a roundel of security plastic embossed with eagle and shield, is chained to his wrist. Inside the pouch is a screw-top plastic tube containing a glass vial cushioned in impact foam; inside the vial is a capillary tube containing one tenth of a millilitre of cloudy liquid. The chief steward apologises for a slight delay, something to do with a baggage count, and flutes of complimentary champagne and chilly bags of almond rice pops are handed out to the first-class passengers. On the stained concrete beneath the courier’s oval window, two men in white coveralls and ear protectors sign each other’s slates while a truck topped with a flashing amber light glides past.
When it happens, the scramjet is climbing high above the Pacific. The courier is eating almond rice pops and trying not to stare at the famous TV anchor-woman sitting across the aisle. Stewards and stewardesses are collecting glasses and trash in readiness for the interval of free fall at the top of the scramjet’s sub-orbital arc. And in the hold, the device planted by one of the baggage inspectors fires a single microwave pulse which fries every processor in the scramjet’s neural net. All power goes out. Cabin power, power to the fuel pumps of the air-breather motors, power to the control surfaces. The scramjet tumbles in an uncontrolled dive, the spine of its overstressed airframe shattering, the pressurised cabin exploding along welding seams, breaking up a kilometre above the Pacific.
Over the next three days, US Navy ships gather from the ocean’s heaving skin luggage and life-vests and seats and clothing, carbon fibre shards from the scramjet’s wings and fragments of its titanium hull, and bodies and pieces of bodies.
A glass capillary tube, its seal broken, drifts more than twenty kilometres north before it finally sinks.
When she arrives home, Mariella pulls on her sheepskin-lined denim jacket, saddles her bay mare, Twink, and rides at a trot along the dry riverbed. A kilometre out, she turns the horse and urges her up a trail that climbs between scrub pines and junipers to the top of a ridge.
It is not quite six in the evening of this unseasonably chilly October day. The huge sky above the desert basin is laddered with red clouds. Twink is sweating with the exertion of climbing the trail, her flanks steaming gently in the cold dry air. The pungent odours of saddle leather and horse sweat mix pleasantly. Mariella twitches the reins when Twink drops her head to investigate a patch of engineer grass. A scurf of snow clings to the shady side of rocks and ruts. The air pinches Mariella’s face and ears and fingers; she wishes she’d thought to put on her hat and gloves. She can feel cold in the barbell through her left eyebrow, the copper wires sewn along the rims of her ears.
The lights of Oracle are scattered below the ridge, trailer homes and tile-roofed houses. Lines of eucalyptus and acacia trees define streets which generally follow the contours of the low hills over which the little town sprawls. To the south, Tucson twinkles like a pile of diamonds; in the middle distance, the perimeter lights of the Arizona Biological Reserve define three hundred square kilometres in the darkening desert. The long, tented trench of Gaia Two is so brilliantly illuminated it seems more intensely real than anything around it, an interstellar ark floating in primeval darkness. Vapour from the tall steel chimney of the liquid nitrogen plant catches its glow, a feather of white pinned against the darkening land. Beyond the northern end of Gaia Two are the lights of the commercial research laboratories, each separated from its neighbours by landscaping and concrete ditches and revetments and wire fences, and in a chequerboard pattern beyond the laboratories are the concrete blockhouses which cap the shafts, built to the same design as ICBM silos, where biocores are stored in liquid nitrogen. Constellations of red warning lights wink amongst the panels and cableways of the solar energy field.
Mariella sits on her horse and watches as the sky darkens and the first stars come out. Thinking about the phone call from Washington. Thinking, not for the first time, that she has come full circle and that it’s time to break out, time to move on. She can’t let this chance go.
The sliver of the new moon is setting in the west. And there, in Leo, close to the bright point of Jupiter, is what she has come to see.
Mariella rises in the saddle, reaches out with her right hand as if to clasp the red star of Mars to herself.
‘Got you!’ she shouts. ‘Got you at last, you bastard!’
Mariella drives her battered pickup to Tucson International Airport, collects her tickets at the Southwest Airlines desk, and moves from the business class lounge to the scramjet with a sense of huge wheels invisibly meshing around her. All she carries is her slate, clean underwear in one of the pockets of its sand-coloured canvas case, her washbag in another. She is wearing her best clothes, a magenta bias-cut suit five years old and a yellow silk shirt with pearl clasps she bought in Paris last year at the UNESCO conference on sustainability, and her favourite dark red lipstick.
The flight is shorter than the wait at the airport, an arc which briefly takes the scramjet out of the atmosphere, half of the continent spread below, and then down, gliding in over the interlocked curves of the Potomac Barrier to Reagan National Airport, where it is already noon.
A limo is waiting for Mariella at the airport, and takes her to a hotel overlooking the river: the Watergate. Where she discovers that her appearance before the special ad hoc subcommittee has been delayed until the next morning. She can’t get through to the NASA guy, Al Paley, but fuck it, it’s just some bureaucratic glitch, the old hurry-up-and-wait routine. That’s what she tells herself. Don’t make a scene, don’t screw up. Be a good girl and maybe they’ll let you go to Mars.
She showers and hangs her suit and blouse in the steamy bathroom to remove their wrinkles, chooses something from the room service menu and tries to do some work. There is always work. There are a couple of slash clubs she knows about in the central DC area – Studio 7, The Meatlocker – but she can hardly go tom-catting in her business suit, and she will need a clear head for the next day.
Sometime in the night, she is woken by the throb of engines. She gets out of bed, tells the room to dim the light it considerately switches on, crosses to the tall window and parts the drapes and looks out through the armoured glass. An attack helicopter with a shark’s sleek profile hovers in the orange sky above the river’s dark bend, at about the same level as her hotel room. Muzzle flashes star the opposite shore: a string of even, deliberate shots, the sustained crackle of a semiautomatic. The helicopter probes the shore with threads of red laser light, then suddenly stands on its nose and stoops in low and fast, disappearing between two megalithic office blocks.
Welcome back to civilization.
At seven, Mariella is woken from uneasy dreams by her alarm call. After showering and a room service breakfast she is met in a lobby by a Secret Service agent. That is how the woman introduces herself.
‘Glory Dunn, Secret Service. I’m here to look after you, Dr Anders.’
‘I didn’t know I needed protection, Gloria.’
The African-American woman is as tall as a basketball player, bulges with enhanced muscles, and wears a severely cut suit: a cartoon superhero poured into corporate tailoring. Hair cut short in a bristly wedge, dyed the same red as the frames of her spex. She cracks a frosty smile and says, ‘That’s Glory, Dr Anders. Not Gloria. It’s a common mistake. This way, please. How are you enjoying your stay?’
‘It’s nice to see where my tax dollars go.’
A black limo is waiting outside, a gas-powered stretch Cadillac probably fifty years old. Mariella wrinkles her nose at the half-forgotten yet instantly familiar stink of carbon monoxide and half-burnt hydrocarbons. Arizona has air pollution laws so strict you need to buy a licence before you can fire up a barbecue. Agent Dunn holds the door open and climbs in after Mariella, folding her long legs like a stork. As the limo purrs away from the hotel, Mariella asks about the gun shots last night.
‘There was a helicopter, too. Chasing something on the other side of the river.’
‘Probably a sweep against draft dodgers. Some people would rather die than work. I understand you’re easier on them in Arizona.’
‘We certainly don’t shoot at them, Agent Dunn.’
The limo’s tinted windows darken the crisp fall sunlight. Huge white buildings, the shoulder of the Potomac’s levee and the arc of a bridge float past in ghostly procession. A construction crew is working across from the White House, returfing a raw wound in a level stretch of grass. Where that light plane crashed a week ago, shot down by a hand-held stinger missile fired from the White House’s roof. The plane flew up the Potomac under radar, a wildman suicide bomber sitting on fifty kilos of plastique. The President went on TV to tell the nation that he refused to be intimidated, that unlike his predecessor he would not move to the heavy fortifications of Camp David, but it hasn’t stopped the rumours that he sleeps in a Cold War bomb shelter two hundred metres underground.
The meeting of the special ad hoc subcommittee of the Science, Space and Technology Committee is held at the labyrinthine Rayburn House Office Building, which houses the staffs of most of Congress’s standing committees and subcommittees. There’s a complicated negotiation at the security barrier involving retinal scans and passing a chemical sniffer and a metal-detecting wand over Mariella’s body, then a ride in a small, slow elevator. She has been here several times before, knows to ask the secretary who takes her name at the reception desk on the second floor about briefing documents, and is told that there aren’t any, this is an informal session.
‘But we do need you to sign this,’ the secretary says.
Several pages of close-printed paragraphs of legalese. The secretary is pointing to the dotted line at the bottom of the last page.
‘What exactly is it?’
‘A document of non-disclosure, Dr Anders.’
‘Perhaps I should consult my lawyer.’
The secretary, a slender, immaculately groomed man with silver eye shadow, purses his lips and says, ‘Well you could, of course, but it would considerably delay proceedings.’
‘I was joking.’
‘I see. Sign here, please, and initial the other pages. Here, yes, and here. Thank you, Dr Anders. You’ll have to leave your slate with me, but don’t worry, it will be quite safe. I fix this seal, just so, and you press it with your thumb. That’s right. Now no one but you can open it without the seal discolouring. This way please. The subcommittee is ready for you.’
It is the same room where she gave evidence about the viability of a permanent moon colony a few years ago. Low ceilinged and windowless, although floor-to-ceiling drapes at the far end make a pretence that there are windows, worn blue carpet, the air vibrant with the subliminal hum of air conditioning, the lights bright, a long table with three men and two women seated behind it and more than a dozen secretaries and advisors and chiefs-of-staff crammed behind them like courtiers in a medieval throne room. The Stars and Stripes furled on a staff to the right, a woman at a stenographer’s table to the left. Cameras up in the corners of the room, on metal brackets under the white acoustic tiles. A row of straight-backed chairs in front of the table, to which the secretary ushers Mariella.
Mariella knows the NASA representative, Al Paley, and the white-haired African-American woman who chairs the subcommittee – Senator Mae Thornton, chair of the Science, Space and Technology Committee, a notable champion of the space programme and a regular on talk shows and government infomercials – but not the others. There’s a congressman from the Energy and Commerce Committee, a member of the White House Science Coordinating Committee, the director of the congressional Office of Technology Assessment. One of the advisors is nursing both a slate and a young baby, and Mariella remembers afterwards how the baby fretted throughout the meeting.
There are the us
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