closer all is swallowed in murk. Lightning bolts, hail, torrents of rain, and wind gusts jump out at you from nowhere.
Here, we were miles above the uppermost peaks of the anvil clouds, enjoying an unobstructed view of outer space. The Milky Way shot up like an angled fountain above the storm front, which from this height looked like a layer of ground-hugging dry ice fog in a disco. Sometimes it would glow briefly.
Nickyâs warning had put me in mind of nuclear war and so I had to wait for my logical mind to catch up and tell me that those flashes were nothing more than lightning bolts, seen from above.
Nicky had turned toward meâbut she wasnât looking at me. She was staring unfocused. âTheyâre easiest to see in your peripheral vision,â she remarked. âTheyâll be very high upâin space.â
âWhat are you talking about?â Dave demanded. He wasnât handling this especially well. Fortunately Hiram interceded. âSprites,â he explained. âWe see âem all the time.â
From anyone else this would have provoked a sarcastic rejoinder from Dave. Coming from a crag-faced, 250-pound Mohawk, it took on more gravity.
âOh!â Tess exclaimed.
I heard the smile in Nickyâs voice. âBig one there!â
âWhere?â people were asking.
âItâs already faded,â Nicky said. But then I saw a disk of red light high up, which expanded while darkening in its center, becoming a scarlet halo before it winked out.
I turned back to Nicky to ask a question, which never made it out of my mouth as something huge registered in my peripheral vision: a cloud of red light, jellyfish-like, trailing hundreds of streaming filaments. By the time I had snapped my head around to focus on it, this had shrunk to a tiny blob that went dark.
Within a minute, everyone had witnessed at least one of these sprites and so all questions as to Nickyâs credibility had gone away. For the most part they all faded in the blink of an eye. But sometimes, ghostly orbs of blue light would scamper up the red tendrils for a few moments afterward, prompting gasps of delight. These I heard over the wireless voice com system built into my suitâby this point I had my helmet on.
Nicky was watching their reactions uneasily, clearly wishing they would take this a little more seriously. âA couple of decades ago,â she said, âsome of our orbiting gamma ray observatories began picking up incredibly powerful bursts. Long story short, it became obvious that these were coming not down from deep space but up from below âfrom the earth. So powerful that they maxed out the sensors, so we couldnât even tell how massive they actually were. Turned out they were coming from thunderclouds. The conditions in those storm towers down there are impossibly strange. Free electrons get accelerated upward and get kicked up into a hyperenergetic state, massively relativistic, and at some point they bang into atoms in the tops of the storm towers with such energy that they produce gamma rays which in turn produce positronsâantimatter. The positrons have opposite charges, so they get accelerated downward. The cycle repeats, up and down, and at some point you get a burst of gamma rays that is seriously dangerousâyou could get a lifetimeâs worth of hard radiation exposure in a flash.â She paused for a moment, then stared directly at me with a crazy half smile. âThe earth,â she said, âis an alien world.â
The story was jogging memories. This was one of those âgotchasâ that had come along halfway through the project and precipitated a crisis for a few weeks. The hard part, actually, had been getting Carl and the other top decision makers to believe that it was for real. The engineering solution hadnât been that complicatedâshield the floors of the buildings with radiation-stopping materials, and, during
Barbara Solomon Josselsohn