LITANY OF HOPE
By Phyllis Irene Radford
My life has evolved in ways I never could imagine. Now I must live the life of a fugitive. This is the first day of my new life. It did not begin today. It began—it began half a lifetime ago. Half of my lifetime, anyway.
“Hope Sally Henderson, must you walk like an elephant?” Mama didn’t turn away from her dishwashing, or stop watching the morning news on her laptop beside her on the kitchen counter.
I paused, one foot halfway into the kitchen. I was in a hurry on my way to grabbing breakfast and not paying attention to manners or walking “ladylike.” This was my birthday breakfast, and maybe, just maybe, I’d have a surprise awaiting me.
The only reason Mom would notice my walking heavily was if she had a cake in the oven.
I peeked to make sure the big cake mixing bowl was among the dirty dishes. At twelve, while too sophisticated to demand a birthday cake, I still wanted one. The special one, three layers of white cake with boiled icing topped with coconut and nests of jelly beans. That was my cake. More cake than just she and I could eat. I looked for evidence that Daddy had come home. He was the only present I really wanted.
His captain’s hat wasn’t hanging on the rack in the mud room off the kitchen. My stomach plummeted at yet another birthday spent without him. Three years in a row now.
“Are you remembering today, Daddy?” I asked the air, hoping he’d hear my thoughts on his oil skimmer ship in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay. “Please, Daddy, have a weekend off soon.”
At least he was in the Chesapeake, close enough to come home to Virginia Beach on his days off, if he ever got another one. That damned oil spill kept him and every other skimmer crew busy every damn day, day in, day out. They only made port to take on supplies or send an injured crewman to hospital.
If I couldn’t have Dad, at least I got my cake.
“Sorry, Mom,” I grumbled. I let my Netbook drop onto the kitchen table, while I fished for my flash drive in my backpack. The tiny thing always slipped out of its pocket and nestled in the bottom beneath all my other junk.
Mom rounded on me with a glare. “You will never be a lady, cluncking and thunking about.” She snapped a lot when dad was gone. Not that she was home much either.
I wondered if the news she watched would send her off on another job analyzing fish and water and seabed samples for UNOMA, the UN Oceans Monitoring Agency. I thought her Ph.D in marine biology was wasted collecting samples all over the world and then writing reports in her office. She could be doing so much more to aid the containment, working on a way to stop the new pollution disasters that cropped up every day since the Big Spill.
I shrugged her scolding off. Again. She never listened to me anyway. “What’s for breakfast? I’ve got to turn in my biology paper first period, so I can’t be late.” I pulled up the paper on the Netbook and did a final spell check, then saved it to the biology flash drive to turn in. The computer groaned and growled as it slowly transferred the data along with a multitude of graphs and photos. The drive was overloaded to begin with. Only ten gigs. Sheesh, I needed a terabyte or four at least for all my research and really cool stuff coming out of the Center for Disease Control. The CDC often had more information on the ramifications of the Big Spill than anyone else.
“Hot water’s in the microwave, hit start.” Mama gestured to a packet of instant oatmeal on the table. She dried her hands and turned her attention back to the morning news on her laptop.
Pictures flipped by. Oil spills, drilling, dumping, eco-terrorists, fish kills, all connected to the Big Spill. That story had been top of the screen for years. Cap the well; it springs a leak a mile away. Cement that, and something else blows, or a grounded tug scrapes off the cap on an abandoned well. Or terrorists blew up a tanker. And we faced illegal toxic waste dumps into the Mariana Trench. The intense pressure of the depths crushed the containers and—well, you get the picture. I think the entire world was tired of hearing about it.
I listened to every word in horrified fascination. I needed to be out there doing something to stop people from killing the oceans, killing the planet, not writing biology papers. We’d gone beyond polluting the oceans. Now we were murdering them.
Smoke in the air from burning off the crude, closed beaches, volunteer weekends on clean up duty—I had my own stretch of the Chesapeake Bay that I patrolled every Saturday morning trying to catch a glimpse of Dad’s ship—and a diet devoid of seafood; we were tired of it all. What hurt most were the daily lists of mass kills: birds, fish, and the occasional whale. Those broke my heart more than any of the other horrors.
Someday I was going to find a way to save those creatures.
Mom gasped. “Oh, my god, that crazy Czech did it. He really did it.”
“What crazy Czech?” I asked.
“UNOMA’s been monitoring Rudi Czerna,” she said, nearly bouncing in place, eyes still glued to the computer—no longer the news. This looked like a private UNOMA site. “He’s engineered bacteria that will eat oil pollution. UNOMA announced the first visible clearing of the mid-Atlantic. We’re seeing an end to this disaster.”
My gaze landed on my AP biology bibliography highlighted on my screen. “Um…Mom?” Something sounded odd about this wonderful news. I didn’t want to crush the hope in my heart that we could end this, that Daddy could come home.
“What honey?” she replied, distracted.
“Bacteria need food for mitosis.” I tapped the flash drive with my AP biology report. “The more they eat the more often they split. Pretty soon there’s going to be a ton more of them and they’ll run out of oil in the ocean to eat.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Hope. If they ever run out of spilled oil, there’s old pollution they can eat.”
“And when they run out of that?” What-ifs spun in my brain. I got into trouble in school over that, thinking too fast and far ahead of my teachers.
“I suppose they can move on to the dead zones that collect plastic dumped in the ocean. Plastic is processed oil after all. By the time you graduate from college our oceans will be clean again. We can take endangered species out of aquariums and zoos, thaw frozen embryos and put them back in the wild.”
That seemed too farfetched even for me. Might as well ask for help from aliens.
But Daddy might get to come home.
“What happens to the bacteria when they run out of pollution and trash?”
“One step at a time, sweetie,” Mom said, finally looking at me. “One step at a time.”
I worried my bottom lip with my teeth, aping my Mom. Our chins trembled in unison, neither of us admitting how much we feared that the solution might be more dangerous than the problem.
Suddenly my twelfth birthday didn’t seem so important.
But I still wanted my cake.
Fast forward my life six years. Another birthday. A different cake. Mom scrolled through the news while I fixed cereal. Mom spent more time in the field, now that I could take care of myself when neither she nor Dad was around. Often I didn’t know where in the world she’d gone. On my beach patrols, scooping up globs of oil and taking oil drenched birds to sanctuaries (how could they call it volunteer work when graduation required putting in a thousand hours of cleanup duty) I noticed a little difference in the intensity of pollution and damage. But more just kept coming.
I think I cried myself to sleep every Saturday night after my patrols, even if I’d had a spectacular date—rare enough when all the boys I liked had as much or more homework and independent projects as I did. My few dates were usually a productive session in the lab at school.
Dad still captained a skimmer ship in the Bay, patrolling for leaks from gypsy (i.e. illegal) wells. But today Mom was home for my birthday and she made a cake, of sorts.
My attention was on the chemistry text on my Netbook. If I aced the second period semi-finals, I could cinch early placement at University of Virginia in pre-med.
Once I graduated and became a legal adult, maybe I could make a difference. Find out what was really going on in the wider world.
I’d given up showing my worry when either or both my parents were gone or my short-lived relief when one or both came home. It was a big, ugly, dangerous world out there and most sensible people stayed close to home. Only government agents, like Mom, got to travel. Somebody who claimed more smarts than me said if we all conserved oil, drastically, then the need for more drilling and the leaky, half-assed gypsy wells would no longer be profitable.
I didn’t believe it for a minute.
“Mom, may I have a piece of cake if I come home for lunch?” I asked as I crunched through plain shredded wheat with soy milk (we saved the goat milk from our neighborhood herd for cheeses). No fresh berries this time of year. Six weeks from now, for my graduation breakfast, I might find a few strawberries in the back yard—if the goats and the chickens didn’t eat them first.
Since gasoline rationing, we didn’t import produce from California anymore. We depended more and more upon what we could grow in our own yards or neighborhood communes. Having eggs to make a cake meant I traded my breakfast scrambled eggs for cereal. Gone was the bleached white flour and processed sugar for my cake. Mom made do with rough-milled flour, eggs from our backyard chickens who weren’t laying well right now, raisins from our own grape arbor, and local honey for a dense and chewy slab. Good, but different. I’d given up hope of ever having my cake again.
“The ocean has been clean for a year; you’d think we’d get a relaxation of petroleum rationing. Your father could come home. Instead, the government just announced new restrictions,” Mom whined.
“He promised to come home for my graduation.” I didn’t like the whine in my voice any more than in hers.
“The press conference says that the resources saved in this new round of restrictions will go back into scientific research,” she mumbled. I pretended I didn’t hear several curses that followed under her breath.
“Will they restore SETI and the space program?” That kind of research might be useful. Maybe we could drill Europa for clean water or get help from aliens. We weren’t helping ourselves much.
“I read a paper last night that suggested we should start mining asteroids for new fuel sources.”
“Wishful thinking,” Mom said. Humans had closed in on themselves into small communities, keeping all facilities within walking distance. We no longer looked to the skies for answers or inspiration.
“The p-rats are the best thing that happened to us,” I told her snootily, to hide my true disdain of the polluters who were the source of the problem. But they were corporations contributing to the health of our economy, so they couldn’t be to blame. “We’re healthier, walking and eating fresh food grown without petroleum based fertilizer and preservatives. Obesity is almost obsolete. Type-two diabetes has fallen below epidemic levels. Air pollution has reduced 63.8%.” I was reading the data off my Modern Problems research paper due tomorrow.
I saved the paper to a data crystal. Part of the p-rats was a reduction of plastic. DVDs and flash drives had fallen before the mighty crystal grown in factories from easily-mined minerals. In fact the oil-laden sand we hauled off the beaches made a splendid silica base for crystals.
“Rudi Czerna just announced a new bacteria to eat the old one that has mutated to eating plankton,” Mom nearly shouted, reading the news as it came across her screen. Then her face fell.
“And what happens when that bacteria runs out of food?” I asked the question I knew hovered on her lips. I had a few ideas gleaned from bits and pieces of Mom’s reports I’d stolen looks at, and phone conversations I’d eavesdropped on. She knew I knew more than I was supposed to. She didn’t go out of her way to hide supposedly secret UNOMA stuff from me.
For six years I’d studied bio-chem in and outside of class. I had a twenty terabyte crystal the size of my thumb with all of my notes and scientific articles. The thing had cost three months’ allowance. I wore it on a neck chain with a wire basket for the crystal. All the girls wore crystals as status symbol jewelry, but my big one held more than school work. I recorded my own research and ideas for a better tomorrow on it.
“I’m beginning to wonder if St. Rudi offers any real hope,” Mom said quietly. Then she looked up, her expression brightening. “Here’s your birthday present a little early.” She held out a data crystal almost the size of her palm. It rested in its own gold mesh cage.
“What’s that, Mom?”
“Hope. Keep it safe; even if you can’t open it with your current computers, you will be able to when the time comes.”
I didn’t know if she used my name or if she defined the crystal. Maybe both. That made me think long and hard. But I had to say something.
“Gosh, it looks like an alien artifact!”
“Never say that in public,” she warned sharply. “Never, if you value your life and mine, let anyone know you have this, or where it came from.”
“Okay.” Um…something was up. Something weird. From the stubborn lift of Mom’s chin, and the cold glint in her eye I knew she wouldn’t say anything more. This was something she’d made sure I didn’t know about until now.
I took the crystal and strung it on my golden neck chain. Then I thought better of it and tucked it into the special pouch on my Netbook case for crystals. It hid quite happily beneath three smaller ones.
But I wanted to wear it. No one else in my class had anything as big or bright or uniquely faceted.
Three hours later, after I aced the chem test, some friends and I loaded onto a bio-diesel bus for a field trip to the UNOMA offices in Norfolk. The crazy Czech himself was in town for a conference at Navy Fleet Headquarters—which now included the skimmer ships—and had agreed to speak to a select group of students. I had more than a few questions for him.
Rudi Czerna made his appearance twenty minutes late. I fidgeted and found metaphors for his tardiness in the timing of his work. He never released it until almost too late. A miracle in the making. Was that his way of making people love him as the savior of humankind, when all he did was cause new problems?
When he finally made an entrance, flanked by seven Secret Service agents—why did he need those?—we could barely see his short, square form behind all the black-suited male hunks.
Guess who got most of my attention? Not the little man with a nervous tick in his cheek.
Czerna talked of generalities in engineering bacteria, stuff most of us knew how to do that sophomore year, and kept looking around nervously.
“Sir, what about the ethics of science?” I asked as he closed his state-of-the-art Netpad. I stood so he could not ignore me. One hundred bored teenagers heard me. I knew that by the sudden silence that followed my words.
“Vhat you mean?” he asked in his fake-sounding thick accent. His eyes riveted on the crystals on my necklace. Seeking something like the big one hiding in my case? Or maybe just my meager cleavage.
“I mean, you created a life form with a finite food supply. Did you just expect them to all die of starvation when our use for them ran out?”
“Is bacteria. Not true life. We kill bacteria every time we wash hands.”
“But your artificial bacteria didn’t die. They didn’t resort to cannibalism. They mutated and started eating plankton, and now our entire oceanic ecosystem is threatened.”
“That’s classified information, Miss,” one of the black-suited hunks said sternly.
“Not it’s not. It was on all the news channels three weeks ago,” the young man next to me shouted.
“I fix with new bacteria,” St. Rudy said with a dismissive gesture.
“And so we have an endless round of solutions becoming as big a problem as the mess they were supposed to solve.” I parroted my mother on this one.
That got me a round of nods and whispered comments from my fellow students. We’d discussed it endlessly, and quietly, over lunch every time a popular blog or indie news site disappeared from the Internet. We knew enough to keep our opinions under the governmental radar.
“By time we need fix, I fix. No time to do more. Never enough time…to understand.” Then he dismissed the group by turning his back on us.
“Which means we have to ricochet from disaster to disaster because you can’t think far enough ahead to build an end-scape into your work?” I asked as loudly as I could before he and his protectors could escape.
His eyes widened and his florid face paled in panic. Four agents gathered in a tighter circle and literally pushed him out the door.
Three agents jumped off the stage and made their way toward me. “We’re just curious kids,” I said, shrugging my shoulders. Ten of my friends sided with me.
The agents backed off. “We’re watching you,” one muttered. I couldn’t tell which one. They all looked alike and stood shoulder to shoulder.
I sank into a depressed silence on the ride home, fingering the bulge of the data crystal in its pouch. Memory of Mom’s intensity sent warning tingles up my back.
That’s when I noted the big black SUV following our bus. Only official government vehicles could afford the fuel for one of those. Every time I turned to look at it, it dropped back behind a dozen little electric cars.
Once home I didn’t bother looking for a slice of birthday cake while I searched the news sites for rumors and background on Rudi Czerna, Ph.D. I found precious little. His personal website waxed poetic about his credentials from a European University I’d never heard of, nor could I find a website for it. Then nothing beyond his early employment with a European conglomerate. A patent for a gene splitting technique that made genetic engineering easier was filed with the Russian government and the US patent office. I used that method in middle school biology classes two years before his patent.
After that I found only government “Classified” stamps on everything; layers and layers of encryption on a dozen dead links.
Okay, the US government didn’t want anyone replicating his current work. So I hit the blogosphere looking for people who had tried to reverse engineer his first oil eating bacteria and the new bug eating bug.
Nothing. All shut down. The same with generic rumor-mill blogs. At the first mention of St. Rudi they disappeared.
No wonder he had massive Secret Service protection.
Strangely, at every place St. Rudi held a conference or met with governmental officials I found an increase in UFO sightings. Coincidence?
Not bloody likely. I remembered Mom’s warning when I suggested the crystal looked alien…
There was a lot the government didn’t want us to know. Like the weekly report from the Center for Disease Control. I’d started monitoring that site as soon as I’d decided on med school. Now I flipped through current CDC lists of outbreaks, projected vectors, and cure ratios.
Nothing new reported for six months.
Call me paranoid, but I decided to hide the crystal in a niche at the back of the chicken coop.
When I came out and latched the cage, I noticed a big black SUV parked across the street. I caught a glint of a camera lens or binoculars in the setting sun. Maybe I wasn’t paranoid after all.
Two weeks later Rudi Czerna, Ph.D. died of mysterious causes. No details, no rumors, just gone with only a bare bones (as in scrubbed clean) single paragraph obituary. If anyone bothered to ask questions on the internet, their email and blog got shut down within seconds. Who knows what happened to the person behind the question. St. Rudi became little more than a footnote in the history books.
The government sealed his lab. Mom’s team at UNOMA petitioned to get their hands on his notes and samples. They and every other scientist in the world were denied access despite loud outcries that the government didn’t really want a clean-up of the pollution or reversal of the damage Rudi Czerna caused. What was the government trying to hide?
Mom asked if I still had the big data crystal safe.
She scared me.
“Helen is sitting on it, hoping it will hatch,” I mumbled, referring to our oldest and crankiest chicken. She was also our best broody hen. She’d sit on anything.
“Good. Give her this one to brood as well.” She handed me another crystal, as big as the first one.
Dad came home for my graduation and extended his leave to a full year. He got to share a birthday with me. Then UNOMA and the Navy called him back to corral more oil from abandoned, as in uncapped and unmonitored, wells that continued to leak. The bacteria hadn’t eaten all of the oil-based pollution after all. Now that uncontrolled but useful bacteria had been eaten by another artificial bacteria.
I wondered if the world was coming to an end.
My dad died at sea of some mysterious illness. I cried and wailed in private. I’d grown too good at hiding my true emotions to ever let anyone, including Mom, know what I truly felt. Then I wrote six dozen letters because the Navy wouldn’t let us bury him in a cemetery. They dumped him in the sea. Oh, sure they had a respectful ceremony, but Mom and I, his family couldn’t be there. I wanted to know why and no one, absolutely no one, gave a straight answer, if they even bothered to reply.
Mom and I paid an exorbitant fee for a grave marker for him within walking distance of the house, an empty grave. “I didn’t want him buried at sea,” Mom said and sniffed away her tears. “But he was a sailor born and bred so I guess that was the natural place for him.”
Mom continued her work for UNOMA as a “site analyst.” I suppose her Ph.D. made her an ideal field agent. I still thought her over-qualified.
Time passed in a blur of studies and exams and med school applications. I got too busy to worry about the data crystals, by now thoroughly buried under straw and chicken shit. The government picked up the tab for both my undergrad and medical school based on my academic performance and my side forays into bio-chem. I guessed they needed someone to replace St. Rudi.
My scholarship committee handed me special lab work commissioned by the FBI. Not the CDC. Not UNOMA. The freakin’ FBI. St. Rudi’s sloppy fingerprints were all over the data.
The UFO sightings increased and the CDC came back online with no explanation for the year long blank spot in their records.
I took the crystals with me to med school. I tried accessing them—four of them now, all birthday gifts from Mom—on every computer at home or university with no luck. Each one was just too big or too advanced. So I petitioned for use of the university’s biggest computer, the one used for sophisticated experiments and was denied. It was fully booked by the government. I couldn’t even use it for my secret work for the FBI.
Then my third year they handed me soil samples from five different locations, none of them identified. As usual I slipped into a lab around 2 AM with the sealed tubes. The security officer knew me and only took a cursory look at my government ID. My student credentials alone didn’t give me access to this wing.
I scrolled through test after test, comparing, separating, diagnosing…not enough of the bacterium that gave soil the organic chemicals to nurture plant life were in any of the samples.
I sat up straighter, swallowed my yawns and tested again. And again. The soil was almost dead. And then I spotted another spike in the chemical graphs. Something that should have been worm poop and beneficial, wasn’t. It looked frighteningly familiar.
I needed a more powerful microscope and a data file from my high school research and the old CDC articles. The crystal was in my backpack, as always. The only microscope powerful enough was on the other side of a locked door, accessible only with a faculty ID key.
Strangely, my government ID opened every lock—but not the one with the super computer. I set everything up, pulled up the slide and compared it to old data on my class work computer. Another slide and another. All looked exactly like the second bacteria St. Rudi had invented. All had strange similarities to the flesh eating bacteria that now periodically spilled out of remote jungles.
The bugs that were supposed to eat the oil eating bugs had decided that humans were nasty bugs too and should be eaten.
I held my breath as I sent a message to my superior at the FBI. He acknowledge receipt and told me agents would get to this information immediately. Nothing to worry about. They would handle it.
Upon pain of death or life imprisonment I must tell no one what I found.
My birthday rolled around again with no further word from the FBI about the bacteria. Mom brought me a cake. It wasn’t much bigger than two cupcakes, just enough for the two of us to share. She’d saved her personal gas ration coupons for months to drive up to the University from the Bay, using personal resources for her government vehicle.
“Do you like it, Hope?” she asked as we savored each bite.
“Oh, yes, this is the best cake I’ve had in years. I just wish Dad could have shared it with us.”
We both bowed our heads in a moment of private remembrance.
“I took a bit of it up to the cemetery and left it at his grave marker for him.
“Thank you for visiting Dad’s headstone. Next year maybe I can schedule time and fuel rations to go with you.”
“We’ll try, Hope.”
“Yeah, maybe. My schedule is really tight now. It’ll be worse when I’m an intern. Speaking of which…I need to put in a couple hours of lab time tonight.” I’d found a way to network with the big computer, and hoped to finally access the crystals that nestled on a long chain under my T-shirt. Arranged properly, they worked better than a heavily padded bra to enhance my figure. With one snugged on the outside of each breast, and one below, worn with loose tops, the only people who looked close were guys who were more interested in sex than what was really hiding in my undies.
“Do you have to go right now?” Mom looked disappointed, older, and more care-worn than I remembered.
“No, we can have a cup of tea together.”
We drank in companionable silence.
“Mom, how did Dad die? I mean, really die.” The Navy hadn’t told us much. Just that it was a sudden illness.
“CDC told me a long complex name for a disease I’d never heard of.” She wouldn’t look me in the eye.
“Maybe I can look it up. It should be on his death certificate…”
“The government kept the original.”
“Mom, what aren’t you telling me?” Probably the same things no one would tell me when he died.
Maybe the same things the FBI wasn’t telling me about my research conclusions.
“It was ugly and messy and they buried his ashes at sea.” She clamped her mouth closed and finally looked at me, defying me to break her seven year wall of silence.
I’d heard that phrase before. Ashes.
Cremation used up a lot of fuel. The government only authorized the procedure when a body was still contagious after death and needed sterilizing.
Obviously, to me anyway, Mom had a gag order from the government. I did, too.
Secretly I had back-up data crystals of all my FBI work stashed with lab partners. All close friends. I trusted them more than the FBI. They trusted me enough to ask me to store their back up crystals without looking at them.
I saw conspiracy, but remembered my gag clause.
The wonderful cake suddenly tasted like sawdust.
Roaring thunder filled the sky. We jumped at the sudden noise. Mom clasped her chest and looked around in panic, enough that concern for her overrode my curiosity.
She leaped to her feet and began pawing through her tote bag. “Go, go look now, Hope. Before it’s too late. If there is any hope at all…”
“Hope, please go. It’s important.”
I looked out my dorm window, keeping half an eye on her as she put her car keys in her pocket.
An endless flash of lightning lit the sky with layers of white and green streaked with red and orange fire.
Something dropped from the middle of a dark cloud that marred the glorious skyscape. Something heavy. I heard it thud into the ground before the image of an egg shape registered in my brain. It buried itself in the open lawn of the quad, three stories down.
I glanced over my shoulder to check on my mother. She nodded encouragingly, so I raced down the stairs and outside barely ahead of my classmates, my friends. My gaze locked onto the overlapping scales of pale green and white poking above the disturbed dirt.
The piece couldn’t be very big, judging by the size of the crater, or rather the lack of size. Twenty feet across and maybe five deep. Even the little bit of the green and white shape that I could see should have displaced sixty times as much dirt as it had. Something inside those scales had a power source to slow its passage and gentle the landing.
Every science fiction movie I’d ever seen, and all the books I’d read seemed to be coming true. The crystals around my boobs warmed and glowed green through my sloppy white T. Were they the same shade as the tip of the…egg?
I skidded to a halt at the edge of the crater. “Stop, Hope,” John, my primary lab partner and sorta boyfriend, yelled, holding an arm out to keep me back. “It’s probably radioactive.”
“I don’t think so,” I replied pushing him aside. With more curiosity than caution I slipped and slid down the shallow crater wall. My speed increased the deeper I went until I was nearly running when I bumped up against the chest-high top of the green and white thing. It looked like an artichoke—what I could remember of artichokes from fifteen years ago.
“Not a meteorite,” I called up to my comrades. My crystals positively hummed with joy. When I peered at them in question I noted, not entirely surprised, that the crystal facets resembled the overlapping scales of the artifact.
“Is it a bomb?” John asked.
“I don’t think so.” Tentatively I stretched out my hand, hovering over the tip while I bit my lip and gathered my courage.
My mother’s words came back to me. Please go. It’s important.
She had given me the crystals. “What does she know?” I whispered. More than she let on. Than she had ever let on. Much more.
My fingers began to tingle. I jerked them away just before I made contact with that strange tile. Or was it a leaf? I presumed it was metal.
The distance I put between myself and the thing set my ears to ringing with the lack of noise. Even my necklace was quiet, like it held its breath in anticipation.
Noise? The growing crowd of spectators at the rim of the crater stared in gape-jawed silence. My ears tried to tell me that a sound was missing.
I forced my hand back toward the tip. A faint humming grew louder and more distinct the closer I got. My data crystals resonated at the same frequency, seeking…seeking kinship, contact, something. I freed them from my shirt.
Then the crystals lifted away from my shirt like iron filings attracted to a magnet.
In the far distance I heard sirens and the whop-whop of a helicopter. Miles away, approaching fast.
“We’ve got to get this into the lab! John, help me.”
“Um…” He looked everywhere but at me. “Uh, Hope, I don’t—”
“Do it. Now!” Mom said with authority. She stood on the bottom step of my dorm, the pistol in her hand nearly as big as a hand cannon.
Where had my Mom gotten a gun? And why?
“We can’t let the government hide this one away. It was sent to us so we can use it.”
“Ma’am, I don’t think so.”
Mom raised the gun and pointed it directly at John. “That was not a request.”
“On whose authority?” John backed away from her weapon with hands raised.
“By the authority of UNOMA Security. This artifact belongs to all the earth, not a single government or agency. Now roll it out of that hole and into the lab. I estimate we have seven minutes. Tops.”
No one moved.
Mom pulled the trigger. The explosion nearly deafened me. The bullet made a big puff of dirt an inch from John’s toes. He jumped straight up and landed half way down the crater wall, fetching up inches from me.
“Might as well help, now that you’re down here,” I said.
He shrugged and leaned a shoulder into the tiles. Two more classmates joined us. As we pushed and wiggled the artichoke, it levitated, the base hovering at my ankles and the tip a foot above my head.
“Big sucker,” Mom said, peering over the edge of the crater. “Biggest one yet.”
“What aren’t you telling me, Mom?” I asked for the second time that night.
“A lot. I’m trying to keep you from getting killed.”
The displaced air from the approaching helicopter ground against my ears. They’d covered the distance more quickly than I thought possible.
Mom looked up at the blinding searchlights approaching from north, south, and west. “Damn, three minutes out. Get moving. Quickly. We can argue and question later. Just get that thing under cover. Now!”
I laid a hand on the artichoke’s side and hastened upward. The thing followed obediently, matching my speed.
We crossed the threshold to the lab side of the quad seconds before lights began sweeping the ground from a quarter mile up and two miles away.
Mom hissed and stood guard on the top step. “Quickly, Hope. The thing should be keyed to a scientist’s DNA; maybe yours since it levitated and followed you, or John’s. It will open to one of you or your classmates.”
“How?” I studied the artichoke where it waited in the foyer.
“I don’t know. Each one is different. Each one is sent to one person and remains impermeable to everyone else.”
“Mom…you aren’t just a site analyst are you?”
“No, I’m not. I’ve tracked these things for nearly fifteen years. Now stop asking questions. I was too late with the last three pods. The FBI, CIA, Homeland Security, the Chinese, the Russians, and probably the Israelis will be here within minutes. The African Consortium and the Saudis won’t be far behind. You’ve got to get the crystal from inside the pod. Add it to the others and get away from here fast. You’ve got to download the data on it before they catch up to you and steal it back.”
Gone was the vague and forgetful mother who pinched ration coupons and gently guided my homework. Here was an entirely different woman: authoritative, powerful, and dangerous. Someone out of a spy movie: Jane Bond.
“Move, Hope. Now!”
Gulping back my fears and my questions, I caressed a tile. The humming resumed. My data crystals joined the orchestra again.
My finger tingled as I traced the edge of one of the green-tipped leaves. John traced a different one and shook his head. “I got nothing.”
When I moved my hand one tile to the right, the vibrations intensified, faded to the right of that, grew stronger one down. Textures blossomed beneath my palm when I flattened it. The cool alloy grew warm, hot, burned until it melded with my skin.
John gasped, and clamped his fingers around my wrist. I stopped him from yanking my hand away with a gesture. My hand sank into the surface as if it were foam.
Something whirred and spat.
I gritted my teeth and kept my hand in place.
The helicopter’s whop-whop descended to the crater.
A door the size of six tiles popped open below my hand. I jumped back, staring at the gaping hole. Soft, green light spilled forth.
“Grab the goods and go!” Mom yelled. “All of you. Take it and disappear.”
“Do it. I can misdirect and bluff for a few moments, but my UNOMA badge only holds so much respect with the big guns.”
I grabbed a fistful of green light and came out with a glowing data crystal. It matched the others in shape, but was half again as big. “What are they?”
“A gift from someone out in the galaxy who wants to help us clean up our messes. St. Rudi got the first one and mucked it up.”
That explained shutting down SETI. Or maybe just public access to what they found with SETI.
“Rudi was more interested in accolades and glory than a solution. When he realized that his shortcuts and incomplete reading were killing him and a lot of others, including your father, he tried to smash his crystal.” Mom turned a feral grin on my necklace. “I stole it before he succeeded.”
That explained sealing his lab and the strange investigations I did for the FBI instead of the CDC. They fed me bits and pieces of Rudi’s data for me to analyze properly.
Mom continued. “There have been four other gifts from space, but the governments of the world don’t want anyone else to have the knowledge in those crystals, so they’ve gone to great lengths to confiscate them or destroy them. I and my agents stole them. You’re wearing them.”
I stared at the glowing crystal. I could almost see formulae and diagrams swirling beneath the facets, spiraling inward and outward, sending laser streaks to each of my crystals in turn, then speaking to my brain synapses directly.
Mom thrust something heavy and jangling into my lab coat pocket. Car keys.
“I know an abandoned high school that might still have some equipment,” John offered. “I—uh—work there sometimes for the CIA.”
“I’ve got my Netpad and it’s still networked with the mainframe in the school lab.” Mary held up her mini-computer. “I’m with Homeland Security.” She flashed a smile and a mini badge.
“Will the crystals fit this data port?” Sean added, showing an external that plugged into a Netpad. “The National Security Agency gave me some extra adapters.” He too produced a badge.
We looked to each other, four medical students with a hoard of knowledge and bit of equipment and…and hope in our hearts. We had each worked separately for a different official agency. They farmed out the work to bright students, bound us with fear and money, because they couldn’t trust their own scientists and agents. Now it was time to work together.
“Work as a team, share every scrap of knowledge you glean so that no one will hide or hoard it again,” Mom whispered. She turned and marched down the steps, gun held out to the side, a symbol of co-operation, but ready to defend and protect if necessary.
“Good luck, Hope,” Mom called from the doorway. Then she turned and faced the enemies of hope.
As one we turned and ran through the corridors, out the back door, across a lawn to the faculty parking lot.
Mom’s little car, with nearly a full tank of fuel and battery charge, sat in the last spot, next to the gate, parked nose out for a quick getaway.
We crammed ourselves into the seats, likes clowns in the circus.
“Good bye, Mom.” Tears spilled from my eyes. I’d never see her again. I knew it. And so had she.
I peeled out of the lot, spraying gravel, facing an unknown future with all I had left, my friends, a few wishes, and…hope. Hope that this time we’d find a way to save our oceans, and ourselves before the government shut us down.
©Phyllis Irene Radford
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