Free Hieroglyph by Ed Finn

Book: Hieroglyph by Ed Finn Read Free Book Online
Authors: Ed Finn
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.
    Nicky’s 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 me—but she wasn’t looking at me. She was staring unfocused. “They’re easiest to see in your peripheral vision,” she remarked. “They’ll be very high up—in space.”
    â€œWhat are you talking about?” Dave demanded. He wasn’t handling this especially well. Fortunately Hiram interceded. “Sprites,” he explained. “We see ’em all the time.”
    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.
    â€œOh!” Tess exclaimed.
    I heard the smile in Nicky’s voice. “Big one there!”
    â€œWhere?” people were asking.
    â€œIt’s already faded,” 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 Nicky’s 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 suit—by this point I had my helmet on.
    Nicky was watching their reactions uneasily, clearly wishing they would take this a little more seriously. “A couple of decades ago,” she said, “some 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 —from the earth. So powerful that they maxed out the sensors, so we couldn’t 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 positrons—antimatter. 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 dangerous—you could get a lifetime’s worth of hard radiation exposure in a flash.” She paused for a moment, then stared directly at me with a crazy half smile. “The earth,” she said, “is an alien world.”
    The story was jogging memories. This was one of those “gotchas” 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 hadn’t been that complicated—shield the floors of the buildings with radiation-stopping materials, and, during

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