Copyright © 2016 by D M Harp
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Special thanks to:
• Jacque Fresco and the Venus Project
• The Archbold Biological Station
• Bok Tower Gardens
• Weeki Wachee Springs State Park
January 13, 1930
Claude Gautier couldn’t look away from the object. The young French explorer was staring at the greatest archaeological discovery in human history. A fifty-foot wide granite dome with a golden door, enough Gold to buy a small country. His fingers trembled as they brushed across the elaborate inscriptions written in an unknown language, intermixed with complex scientific calculations and meticulous astronomical diagrams.
The object wasn’t hidden in the Amazon jungle or the remote Egyptian desert. It was less than a day’s walk from the busy logging town of Venus, Florida. How, he wondered had it remained undetected? This was not a shrine abandoned by a primitive civilization. It was a technological marvel, beyond anything Claude had ever seen.
The young Frenchman removed a rock pick from his belt and rapped hard on the door. An echo indicated a large chamber, the significance of its contents unfathomable. Whatever was inside, he felt an inescapable desire to protect it like a mother defending her child.
Over fifty years would pass before a little girl’s birth would reveal the chamber’s secrets and alter the course of human history.
September 11, 1983
Six babies are born at precisely the same moment, five boys and a Hopi Indian girl.
September 11, 1999
Daniel Naidoo and his four best friends celebrated their sixteenth birthday at 5:03 A.M. by diving into the cool waters of the Weeki Wachee River. It was time to begin their annual birthday fishing trip.
The early swim drained the boys’ energy which resulted in a peaceful boat ride to the Gulf. The sunrise created an eerie orange glow while mist blanketed the river in a thick gray fog. The large motor purred like a docile kitten as the wake lapped gently against ancient Cypress trees. A heron flew in front patrolling for fish. Turtles slipped silently from their log perches, and mullet performed a surreal ballet jumping into the air as they approached.
Sixteen years ago today, Dan’s friends (Chris, Steve, Brian, and Matt) entered this world simultaneously in a tiny medical clinic 55 miles northeast of the river. To say their births were unusual would be an epic understatement. Dr. George Davis described it like this:
“The day of the boys’ birth didn’t start well for my wife Rachel and me. President Reagan designated it as a National Day of Mourning in tribute to the slain passengers of Korean Airlines Flight 007. Rainy weather added an ominous feeling of impending doom.
Rachel is also a doctor, we operate the local medical clinic together. Within a period of five minutes, we were awakened by three frantic phone calls from husbands of women in labor. We called every nurse associated with the clinic to ask for help, but no one was available. I couldn’t perform the deliveries alone, so Rachel volunteered to help even though she was also pregnant and her baby had dropped. It meant Rachel could become the fourth patient instead of a second physician.
Rachel and I arrived at the clinic and worked frantically to set up birthing stations for the three mothers. The process appeared to be going well. Then all hell broke loose along with Rachel’s water. The instantaneous primal screams of four women in labor was a sound which could have heralded the end of the world. None of us remember anything else until the moment of birth. The clinic was silent when the synchronized births occurred, four baby boys slid out unassisted as if being ejected from a copy machine. It was the most incredible phenomenon I ever witnessed.”
Daniel was born at the same time, but at home in accordance with his parents’ South African tradition. That brought the total births to five, the largest single-day population explosion ever recorded in the boys’ hometown of Wildwood, Florida.
Stories describing the strange events on their birthdate grew more outrageous each year. People said the sky turned dark with strange clouds shimmering with bolts of wicked lightning. Some even said the simultaneous births were a miracle from God.
Even though Dan wasn’t born in the clinic with the others, he was considered a part of the miracle. Until today, he thought the endless tales of peculiar phenomena and bizarre storms were mere exaggerations, but the events they would experience that morning would change his mind.
As they continued their fishing trip, the river widened. Giant Cypress trees gave way to grassy marshlands. They could see Bayport pier illuminated by the sun’s red reflection off low hanging clouds.
Streaks of lightning flashed like delicate fireworks on the distant horizon. The dull rumble of thunder reminded Dan of something his Dad often said, “Red sky at night sailor’s delight; red sky at morning sailor take warning.” But this was their birthday. It had become a treasured tradition, so a little bad weather wasn’t going to stop them.
An old hippie pulling in crab traps from the pier waived as they passed. His hair was long and stringy, his feet were bare, and his clothes looked like an old bath robe. The only thing missing was a sign, “The end is near.”
Dan steered the boat to the left a few hundred yards beyond the pier before the last channel marker. He disengaged the outboard, started the little trolling motor and skimmed silently over the shallow flats.
A few large jagged rocks passed inches below the surface as Chris grabbed a gig pole and began pointing the way. They cruised over the clear sandy flats for less than three minutes before Chris thrust the long spear into the water.
“I got it,” he shouted! “It’s a big one, get the net.” Steve grabbed the net and rushed to the front of the boat. In a few seconds a large flounder was thrashing on the deck. Brian held it down while Chris dislodged the gig.
“Way to go Chris, you’ve crucified another one,” Matt laughed.
“That’s not cool,” Chris responded with a disapproving tone.
The sun had risen above the shoreline as they relaxed in the warmth while fixated on a peculiar shaped storm cloud to the west. “Is it me or does that cloud look like Etz Chayim?” Chris asked. Chris spoke Hebrew, but his pronunciation often sounded like a bad cough.
“Did you ask a question or were you getting ready to spit?” Steve asked. He hated it when Chris spoke Hebrew. It made him feel ignorant.
“The Tree of Life, Etz Chayim is the Hebrew name for the Tree of Life,” Chris said with a smirk. “I assumed everyone knew.”
Steve was visibly irritated. Pretentious twerp, he thought.
“We know you speak Hebrew preacher man.” Steve’s face was turning red. “You’re just showing off. Why can’t you say it’s shaped like a tree?”
Brian tried to ease the tension with a joke. “It’s a heavenly buoy marker pointing the way to the promised fishing hole.”
“Very funny,” Chris said. “I’m trying to be serious. That’s no ordinary cloud. What does it look like to you Dan?”
Dan couldn’t pronounce any of the Hebrew words Chris used. Most of it sounded like gibberish, so he decided to make a joke of his own. “I agree with you Chris, it definitely looks like a Ritz Cracker.” Brian and Matt laughed, but then Dan was blinded by an intense flash of lightning.
From Dan’s perspective, the world was moving in slow motion. There was a loud “boom,” followed by silence. Chris, Steve, Matt, and Brian were tossed through the air in different directions. Each landed face down in the water and lay motionless.
The light slowly faded as Dan lost consciousness. When he awoke, the sky was a brilliant shade of blue. Everything appeared different. He was no longer on the boat, but lying on a soft grassy area surrounded by people.
“Sir, are you O.K?” A young girl asked with a worried expression. As Dan struggled to stand, two young men rushed over and lifted him. They looked like models from a fitness magazine: flawless skin, glistening hair, perfect teeth.
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” he insisted. “My foot slipped when I reached to pull an apple from the tree.” An expression of shock and disbelief filled their faces. Three of them said in unison, “You aren’t supposed to pick the apples.”
Dan’s sixteenth birthday was a vague memory. He was 93 years old, wearing his favorite rumpled tweed coat and bright red bow-tie. His mind was filled with a lifetime of experiences. He felt at home.
A crowd of energetic young students in T-shirts and jeans had gathered and were watching the funny old man. “Is that Him?” Dan heard one of them ask.
He paused for a moment and gazed up at the apple trees adorning the north portico to the University of Georgia campus. The towering branches stretched thirty feet and formed a perfectly sculptured canopy. Each tree was loaded with flawless apples, and underneath was a flashing holographic plaque which read:
THE UNIVERSITY OF GEORGIA, GRADY COLLEGE
IS PLEASED TO PRESENT
DR DANIEL NAIDOO
“THE FOUR PILLARS OF THE GREAT COELESCENCE”
It was the last remaining major college in the country. Education had changed a lot in seventy-seven years, but this was one tradition the South refused to surrender. He stood quietly relishing the moment. Dr. Daniel Naidoo was scheduled to present a much anticipated speech to one of the largest live audiences assembled in years. His friends had changed the world for the better and he could say with pride, “I was part of it!”
Chris helped enact the Treaty of Religious Acceptance. Steve designed and implemented the Code of Acceptable Practices in Human Genetic Modification. Matt developed a Sustainable Resource-based Economic System, and Brian established the Code of Internationally Accepted Standards for Environmental Conservation.
These accomplishments are known as the Four Pillars of the Great Coalescence. They created a utopian world unimaginable to a sixteen year old on his birthday in 1999.
The date was September 11, 2076. The air was crisp, clear, and fresh. The first hint of fall had arrived in Athens, Georgia. The streets were pristine with silent automated vehicles delivering supplies. Spotless outdoor cafes were bustling with students sipping coffee and discussing issues of the day. Incidents of crime were rare, life expectancy had doubled, and common living standards were higher than anything predicted at the end of the Twentieth Century.
Dan had less than thirty minutes before his lecture was scheduled on the far side of the school, so he quickly leapt into the air once again to grab the most beautiful apple within reach. He slipped it into his coat pocket and shuffled onto campus. At least a dozen students watched in horror as he robbed the tree of a single fruit. This was a place where breaking rules was as common as printed newspapers.
At precisely 8:50 A.M., Dan arrived at the back door of Chambliss Hall where the speech was scheduled for 9 A.M. He went backstage and peeked through the curtain. Every seat in the enormous auditorium was filled.
His meticulously trimmed gray mustache, long white hair standing on end as if energized by electric shock, tiny antique wire-rim glasses, and large red bow-tie demanded attention if not respect.
There was a reverent silence as he walked to the center of the stage, pulled out his trusty laser pointer, raised it slowly before taking a long dramatic pause.
The audience rose to their feet and began applauding. The ovation continued for five minutes as he gestured half-heartedly for everyone to sit down. When they were seated, he looked at the pointer and said, “Note to self, always begin speech with a laser pointer.” The crowd laughed and Dan began with his favorite old joke.
“The theory of human evolution is a lot like a tree full of monkeys. Your opinion of mankind depends on where you’re positioned. A prehistoric man would be located near the base of the tree with a view of modern man at the very top. Like a tree full of naked monkeys, the only thing you can see from that vantage point is, a bunch of assholes!”
The audience laughed again. Dan waited until the auditorium was silent. He didn’t continue until they began to fidget with anticipation.
“Picture a world where religious conflicts are settled by cutting off heads. Imagine an inefficient economy that is based entirely on unsustainable growth, and the power needed for daily life pollutes the air we breathe and poisons the water we drink. Envision a society where at least one in ten people are sociopaths and half as many are psychopaths. That my friends, would be a world of unavoidable conflict, and that was our world a few decades ago.”
He stepped to the front of the stage for theatrical effect.
“What we have done is eliminate many of the obstacles which made worldwide civil unification impossible. In a period of a few decades, we’ve established a common religion, genetically enhanced our minds and bodies, formed a more efficient system of government and improved the health of the planet. We are witnessing nothing less than the coalescence of man! If there is a God, this must surely be what he intended.”
At that exact moment, a dull pain shot through Dan’s chest. His heart stopped beating and everything went dark. He was floating on a soft cloud and heard a child’s voice singing a nursery rhyme --
“We are all God’s children – he allows us to play – but he calls us home safely – at the end of the day.”
Dan’s ears were ringing, skin and eyes burning. He awoke back on the boat. A basketball-size hole in the vinyl top was still smoldering. What a strange dream. It felt so real, he thought, and then he remembered, my friends!
He jumped up and grabbed the long gaff hook to reach the others. Brian was closest to the side gate, so he started with him. The boat had a two-foot high aluminum rail bolted to the deck. The best way to get them back onboard was through the gate. It was still a twenty-inch lift from the water and it took him over five agonizing minutes before he rescued Brian.
Brian wasn’t breathing and needed CPR, but Dan decided to recover the others first. Lifting them out of the water was an exhausting struggle, but he managed to pull all four bodies back on deck. He tried reviving each of them, but they didn’t respond.
Every muscle in his body ached and tears of pain and grief were running down his face.
“Let me help,” a loud voice shouted breathlessly. Dan was startled by the figure of a man standing in the shallow water beside the boat. It was the old hippie from the pier. Dan was happy to see him, but confused.”
“Where did you come from?”
“I was on the pier,” he replied.
“I know, but how did you get here?”
The old man saw the bodies on deck and climbed aboard as he spoke. “I swam in a couple places but walked most of the way. It wasn’t deep. We thought you were dead when the lightning hit the boat. From the pier, it looked like an explosion with large pieces tossed into the air.”
“Those were bodies!”
“I can see that now,” he said. A quizzical expression flashed across the old man’s face as he began to examine the remains. “You want me to do what?” he asked, but he wasn’t talking to Dan. Then he turned and said, “It looks like your friends have been electrocuted.”
“It’s too late. I tried CPR, but they’re dead,” Dan said, whimpering like a child.
“I saw you kissing your friends, but you need to work on your technique,” the old man said as he laughed.
“What?” Dan said, his face turning red. “That’s not funny! My friends are dead and you’re making jokes?” “I’m not joking,” the hippie replied seriously. “It’s something I learned years ago. Life isn’t a destination, it’s a journey. This isn’t your true home.”
Dan started to tell him to get off the boat, but before he could the man added in a very confident tone, “Their journey isn’t over. I’m certain we can revive them.”
The hippie’s appearance did little to gain Dan’s confidence, but something in his voice was reassuring. That was until he lifted Chris into a sitting position, slapped him hard on the back, and shouted “wake up!” The whole process looked so silly, Dan figured if he wasn’t crazy the old man must be drunk.”
But within a few seconds, Chris was sitting up as if nothing had happened. The old hippie did the same to Steve, Matt, and then Brian. Other than small identical burns on each of their left heels, they looked uninjured.
In fact they acted better than O.K., they were (no pun intended) energized. The burn on their heel looked like the tattoo of a leafless tree.
“What’s the mark they have on their feet?” Dan asked.
“Etz Chayim,” the hippie answered.
“Wha, what?” Dan stammered. It was the same words Chris used when he described the cloud.
“The Tree of Life,” the old hippie replied. “It’s a common pattern left by an electrical burn. It’s nothing serious, simply the place where the lightning exited their bodies. I will say it’s very unusual to see it in the exact same place on all four victims.
“Hey Chris, the burn marks on our feet look a lot like the cloud,” Matt said without a hint of surprise. Brian said to Steve, “Look, we have the same tattoo.”
Dan’s friends were taking the whole incident in stride as if nothing unusual had happened. They were discussing their matching burn marks with the old hippie in a very unemotional manner. They didn’t bother to ask how the old man got on the boat.
Even the man’s name sounded odd to Dan. Renee, it mean rebirth in French. Dan watched in disbelief as Renee laughed and joked with his friends who only a few minutes earlier appeared to be dead. He got an even bigger shock when they asked to continue on the fishing trip.
“No way,” he said! His head was pounding, eyes burning and ears still ringing. Maybe the near near-death experience invigorated his friends, but Dan couldn’t get the image of their unconscious bodies out of his mind. He knew the responsible thing to do was go home and get checked out by a doctor, but Renee and his new buddies were insisting on an afternoon of fishing. Dan should’ve ignored them, but caved. He didn’t have enough strength to argue.
They hoisted the anchor and headed out to their usual fishing spot, a rock pile about five miles off shore. Quite a few fish were caught, and Dan had a pleasant afternoon despite his headache. Renee became a good friend by the time they dropped him off at the pier.
Dan was still shaken by the near-death of his friends, so Renee shouted as they pulled away, “Life is a journey, not a destination.” Then he added, “Live valiantly my friend, but always remember this isn’t your true home.” As they waved goodbye, Dan wondered if there was wisdom in the old man’s words. Then he said to the others, “crazy old man!”
After what felt like an endless day, Dan was exhausted. It was simultaneously one of the worst and best days of his life. His friends had dragged him out of bed in the dark for a cold morning swim. The boat was struck by lightning sending him into some trance-like dream. His friends were almost killed and then saved by an old hippie who appeared out of nowhere.
Dan didn’t get much sleep that night, kept thinking of his friends. Chris was a religious prodigy. Steve was a scientific genius. Brian’s family practically invented environmentalism, and Matt talked to dead Indians – That’s a topic for later.
Dan didn’t feel extraordinary like his friends, and today’s accident reinforced his belief they were different. On the other hand, Dan did experience something quite unusual. He had a dream which was more than a dream. He had no idea what it meant, but was convinced some supernatural force had intervened.
A little less than two years had passed since lightning struck the boat. The boys’ attitudes toward High school was gradually changing from “a waste of time” into “our fondest memories.” Now that classes were finished, they had one final vacation to spend at the river before entering college.
Dan’s closest friend was Christopher Hagen. Chris’ family was the first from Wildwood to buy a weekend getaway cabin in the neighborhood of Weeki Wachee Gardens. Dan’s parents purchased the place next door a year later.
At six foot six, Chris stood a foot taller than Dan. Disheveled sandy blond hair belied his intense personality, and his smooth dark caramel skin was the lucky result of a pasty Irishman marrying a Jamaican goddess. His girlfriend described Chris’s stomach as “Ripples left by waves on a beach.” He was the teacher’s pet, quarterback of the football team, and the most popular boy in school.
Dan was considered the least athletic in their unique brotherhood. That isn’t to say he wasn’t good at sports. He won many events in track and was a starting halfback for the football team. They called him Atom Ant. His grades were excellent with only four students finishing higher in their graduating class. Who were those four people? You guessed it, Chris, Steve, Matt, and Brian.
Dan felt a slight resentment toward his friends in the beginning, referring to them as the wealthy in-crowd. It appeared as if they were born with every advantage of nature and society. Things didn’t come as easily for Dan’s family. His mother and father had nothing when they arrived from South Africa in search of a better life. His father became a licensed electrician, and his mother kept the books for a local car dealership. They worked hard to become accepted members of the community.
Then the popular families starting buying weekend retreats on the river. It really stretched the Naidoo’s budget, but they scrimped enough to get a nice place. Dan became an instant member of the “in-crowd.” Against all his preconceptions, Dan’s friends turned out to be the least spoiled and most selfless people he knew. He referred to them as “the mutants.”
Chris was the leader. Whether playing football, winning school debates or catching fish, he provided the motivation. He knew how to get things done, inspiring the team with a clear vision of success. On the other hand, his parents were an oddity in their small town. His father Shawn was a big man with an unexpected high pitched voice. It was hard to avoid giggling when he spoke because he looked like Shrek, but sounded like the Lucky Charms Leprechaun.
His mother Sanya was tall, slender, and black as midnight. While Chris’ father was reserved, Sanya was as flamboyant as a cabaret dancer. She painted their house purple and displayed pink plastic flamingos on the front lawn.
Whenever Dan felt intimidated by Chris’s popularity, he remembered Chris’s parents were also immigrants, and he had the extra burden of being mixed race. It made him seem more ordinary.
Chris and Dan would meet several mornings each week to go crabbing. They would be fully decked out with masks, snorkels, swim fins, mesh dive bags, and hand nets. The spectacle looked like an advertisement for a sporting goods store.
They jumped off the seawall in front of Dan’s house to begin a mile-long swim. The river bottom was a shadowy alien world of eel grass, witch’s hair algae, rocks, logs, and large patches of white sand cleared by the current.
Small fish darted in and out of their hiding places, schools of mullet sped past, eels peeked from behind rocks, and an occasional curious manatee swam up to check them out.
When one of them spotted a mature blue crab he would dive to catch it in the hand net. If Dan saw it first, he would silently swoop in for the capture. Chris wasn’t as sneaky. He would get so excited that he shouted “Crab!” Then the race was on. It didn’t matter, Chris still caught more.
The morning turn-around point was Rogers Park, a popular recreational spot constructed around a spring with a beach, boat ramp, and picnic area. On weekends, it was packed with skimpily clothed teenagers playing loud music.
The covered picnic tables were usually empty early in the morning. They would sit for a while to rest while talking. Chris told Dan things he didn’t share with anyone else. Dan enjoyed listening to Chris describe his faith. He made it sound real.
The church played a central role for kids growing up in Wildwood. That was especially true of Chris. The Baptist pastor said Chris was “born again without ever being lost in the first place.” His mother Sanya said the first word to come out of Chris’s mouth was Jesus. He knew the scriptures better than most preachers. Still, Chris rarely discussed his beliefs with anyone other than Dan. His life was a walking testimony which earned him the nickname preacher man. He set aside time daily to pray. Despite his virtuous lifestyle, superior intellect, and popularity, he managed to remain humble.
As far as Dan could tell, he was the only one of the boys who believed their birthday incident was anything more than a freak accident. Most people said Dan was trying to make sense of a near-death experience. Then on a clear morning in April 2001, Dan learned he wasn’t alone.
It was the first time Chris swam all the way to Rogers Park without catching a crab. Dan could tell something was bothering him, so he led Chris to an isolated picnic table.
“You’re very quiet today Chris. Are you O.K.?” Dan asked.
“I’ve been accepted to Duke University.”
“That’s great! Their Department of Religious Studies is one of the best in the country, so what’s wrong?”
“It’s Haley.” (Haley was Chris’s legally blind girlfriend) “She thinks I’m going to the University of Florida. Her aunt Camille has a house in Gainesville and invited her to move there while I’m in school. Haley has already said yes.”
“So why don’t you rent an apartment for her in Durham?” Dan asked. “You have more than enough money with the inheritance from your aunt Leslie.”
Ms. Leslie Connor wasn’t a relative. She was his godmother. With no family or children of her own, Ms. Conner became like a second mother to Chris. When she died in 1996, her entire estate of a half million dollars was left in a trust to Chris.
“Haley wouldn’t want to move that far from her mom,” Chris said. “In Gainesville, I can drive her home for visits several times a week. Moving to North Carolina would be difficult for both of them. Besides, renting my girlfriend’s apartment while I’m majoring in Religious Studies wouldn’t look good.”
Dan could see Chris was getting tense, so he decided to move the conversation along. “What made you decide on Duke?”
Chris looked down, shaking his head as if he couldn’t answer. “It’s hard to explain, just something I have to do.”
“Come on,” Dan said. “You’re talking to me. If you can’t tell your best friend, who can you tell?”
Chris took a deep breath. “I’ve been having hallucinogenic dreams. I’m not taking drugs, sniffing paint fumes or anything like that, and doctors have ruled out brain tumor.”
“Man, I’m sorry Chris. I didn’t know, but what does any of this have to do with attending college at Duke?”
Chris mumbled, “I think my dreams are messages from God.”
Dan wanted to be supportive, but sat there with a blank expression. The only thing he could say was, “Ooooookay,” as if Chris was crazy.
Chris continued, “The dreams started after I was struck by lightning. They feel more real than when I’m awake.”
The fact that his dreams started with the lightning strike grabbed Dan’s attention. At last, he thought, somebody else thinks the lightning was more than a freak electrical storm. Dan’s voice went up a full octave, “I had a dream like that on the boat!”
“Why didn’t you say anything?” Chris asked with surprise. “What did you see?”
“I was an old man,” Dan said, laughing. “I was giving a speech at a big college. You, Steve, Matt, and Brian were famous for creating something called the Four Pillars of the Great Coalescence. You established the Treaty of Religious Acceptance.”
Chris’s face turned white. “That’s impossible! I dreamed the Treaty of Religious Acceptance was the subject of my doctoral dissertation in college.”
“It sounds as if we shared the same imaginary reality, but that was the only time it happened to me,” Dan hesitated for a moment while recalling his dream. “Maybe it was because I died at the end on my dream. I sure hope it was imaginary. What else did you see?”
Chris’ voice was more subdued. “I have the dreams several times a week. They all start with Haley getting upset because I’ve decided to attend Duke. Then I’m at school with you, Matt, Brian, Steve and Haley.”
“What?” Dan cut in, “That doesn’t make sense. How can we be together in school when we’re enrolled at different colleges?” (Steve was the only other person enrolled at Duke. Matt and Dan were going to Florida, Brian to NC State, and Haley hadn’t applied.) “Are you saying we were there on a visit?” Dan asked.
“No, I’m saying we are all going to attend the same school, and it gets even weirder. “I’ve seen myself as part of a movement which will unite the world’s religions. I know that sounds ridiculous and it goes against my beliefs. I couldn’t begin to explain how it’s possible, but I have no doubt it will happen. I’m going to be part of it.”
“You know what’s even stranger than that Chris? I believe you.” Dan’s hands were shaking, because he did believe him, and Dan’s dream ended with death.
Rebecca (Becky) King was an attractive widow who ran a small breakfast only restaurant out of her house. She and her daughter Haley moved to the area in the summer of 1995 when the boys were eleven years old. Their house was located five miles from Weeki Wachee in the tiny coastal community of Bayport.
Mrs. King grew up in nearby Sebring, Florida as Rebecca Miller. She married her childhood sweetheart, Ben King. After both received PhDs in archaeology from Cornell, they traveled the world together. They studied ancient civilizations, putting down roots in New York with jobs at Cornell.
The couple hadn’t considered starting a family because Becky was unable to conceive. Instead, they devoted their lives to archaeology, but an unforeseen opportunity on an archaeological dig In New Mexico changed their priorities. A baby girl was left in their motel room.
The child appeared to be an albino American Indian. A note requested the Kings adopt and raise the girl as their own. Although a little intrigued by the incident, Ben and Becky thought it was a ludicrous suggestion. Their busy lifestyle wasn’t suitable for parenthood. They couldn’t imagine giving up their freedom. Even so, there were many unanswered questions. Why leave the baby with us? Why this particular child? Who knew we were here? It didn’t make sense!
The Kings turned the girl over to Family Services. The doctor who examined her said she wasn’t an albino. “Her skin color isn’t caused by a lack of pigmentation, but she does have problems with her vision. Frankly, the child is unlike anything I’ve seen before.”
Government officials were confident the birth parents would be found because the little girl’s eyes were yellow. “She should be easy to identify,” they said, but her family wasn’t found. Other couples seeking to adopt the infant didn’t follow through because of unpredictable medical expenses.
Becky and Ben returned to New York, but couldn’t forget the little girl. They spent many nights dreaming of her, making repeated excuses to return to New Mexico for visits. She stole their hearts with an enchanting smile and an inescapable feeling that she belonged with them. When they asked to begin the adoption process, someone had already completed the paperwork in their name.
Once initiated, representatives from child services were astounded at the ease and speed of the normally cumbersome adoption process. It was like someone higher-up was pulling strings to make sure the girl went home with the Kings. They named their daughter Haley.
Haley was a pretty little girl with golden blonde hair and flawless skin. She looked like a little porcelain doll, but her eyes were freakish. They were phosphorescent yellow with little red speckles, bright enough to startle people in the daylight. At night, her eyes glowed like the subterranean humanoids called Morlocks in the 1960 movie, The Time Machine. Her glowing eyes upset some people, but she soon seduced them with her charm. Haley was an unselfish child with a contagious positive attitude. It was often said being near her felt like standing in sunshine on a winter day.
Haley was legally blind. It took her five seconds to identify objects. She was completely disoriented by motion, but had no problems in a stationary environment. If you watched her playing by herself, you wouldn’t suspect anything was wrong. But if you walked up to her, she was often startled because it took a moment to realize you were there.
Haley’s condition remained a mystery despite regular visits to specialists. Some speculated it was an inner ear problem. Her Ophthalmologist worried the condition might lead to total blindness if not diagnosed and treated, so Ben asked a prominent doctor at NYU for a consultation when Haley was ten years old.
Doctor John Wiley became fascinated with Haley’s eyes. Since there were no medical records before her adoption, doctors assumed her eye condition was the result of a birth defect. The reason they classified her legally blind was because she couldn’t track moving objects.
Dr. Wiley saw something very different. He concluded her thick iris and dense optic nerve were not defects, but rather genetic enhancements. He became convinced that understanding her eyes would lead to major medical advancements.
His tests revealed her vision was extraordinary in a motionless environment, almost superhuman. She could see in complete darkness.
A slight pulse was detected from red specks in Haley’s cornea which resulted in a corresponding pulse from her iris five seconds later. The doctor determined a process similar to echolocation in bats must be occurring. He became obsessed with the study.
Instead of seeing Haley as a patient who needed help, Doctor Wiley saw her as his own personal ticket to fame. If the anatomical and physiological differences in Haley’s eyes could be quantified, it would almost certainly merit a Nobel Prize.
He gained a lot of attention at first, but couldn’t prove how Haley’s eyes worked. Without hard evidence, the academic community began to ridicule him. Some even accused him of perpetrating a hoax.
Haley’s condition didn’t improve after six months. She grew tired of the constant poking and prodding, but the doctor became even more determined. When her father decided to end the association, the doctor began stalking Haley. It was a very stressful situation for the family ending with a restraining order.
One month after the unpleasant incident with Dr. Wiley, Ben started losing weight and suffered a host of baffling health issues. He assumed it was related to stress, but Becky was devastated when tests indicated advanced pancreatic cancer.
Becky was determined to be strong during the holidays. She decorated the house, baked cookies, hosted parties, and somehow managed to keep the family in good spirits. Her efforts couldn’t change the fact that cancer had already done severe damage. Ben was rushed to the hospital on Christmas Eve. He died two days later.
Becky appeared indomitable, but underneath she was spiraling into depression. A harsh New York winter made her despair even worse. Her sister Camille pleaded with her to bring Haley to live in Gainesville, Florida. The offer didn’t sound too farfetched. Becky and Ben had discussed moving back to Florida before he got sick. They dreamed of opening a restaurant together, but now the memory made her cry. She promised herself to avoid making rash decisions, but did agree to take Haley for a visit in February.
The weather for the trip was ideal. Winter was still raging up North, but an early Florida spring provided an effective distraction from Becky’s despair.
The vacation reinforced the bond between mother and daughter. Becky was enthralled with the glass bottom boats at Silver Springs. Haley couldn’t stop recounting their trip to Disney World.
Two days before their scheduled trip home, Camille invited them to go on an excursion down the West coast of the peninsula. They spent the morning at Homosassa Springs falling in love with the Manatees. After a quick lunch, they drove to Weeki Wachee Springs to attend the mermaid show. Before heading to the sponge docks in Tarpon Springs, Camille insisted they take a short side trip west on Cortez Boulevard to see the Gulf of Mexico.
The landscape which began as a scrub area soon changed to marshland with hundreds of meandering channels. Islands of pine dotted the horizon and the sun sparkled like diamonds on the gulf water in the distance.
As they approached, the small community of Bayport appeared to rise from the marsh like the mystical city of Brigadoon. Giant moss covered oak trees towered over antebellum homes nestled on the edge of the world.
Haley was the first to notice a large ornamental pink house set well back from the highway. There was an elegant carved sign at the entrance, “Rebecca’s Dollhouse.”
“Aunt Camille, look! Its Mom’s dollhouse, may we please stop?”
“Mmmaybe on the way back,” Camille replied.
They drove on to a public park and walked down the pier overlooking the Gulf. A pod of dolphins was playing near shore. One of them separated from the others, swimming directly in front of them.
“That’s Hercules,” said a booming male voice. Becky was startled, instinctively pulling Haley close to her. She turned around to see a scruffy looking old man with a wide smile which revealed several missing teeth. He pointed to three other dolphins coming toward the pier. “Those over there are Aphrodite, Euripides and Cleopatra,” he said with an air of authority.
Becky held Haley’s hand very tight. “I’m sorry, but I don’t let my little girl talk to strangers.”
“I understand. I’m Renee,” the old man said as he leaned forward while winking at Haley.
Becky pulled Haley closer and turned away from the man. “Let’s go,” Becky said curtly.
A woman with three young children was walking onto the pier as Becky, Camille and Haley were leaving.
“Watch your kids. There’s a strange old man out there,” Becky warned.
“Oh, you must mean Renee,” the woman replied. “He’s the sweetest man you’ll ever meet. Everyone around here knows him. The kids adore him.”
Becky was surprised. The woman must be referring to someone else, she thought. “Are you talking about that dirty vagrant?” She pointed to Renee.
“That’s him.” The woman laughed. “He hangs around the pier a lot, telling stories and helping people any way he can. He works locally as a gardener, but I think he’s a retired doctor.”
As they walked away, Becky remembered how some people recoiled when they first saw Haley’s eyes. It made her angry because she knew how it hurt Haley’s feelings. Becky wondered if she had done the same thing to the old man.
Haley asked Camille again if she would stop at the pink house as they left the park. Becky replied before Camille had a chance. “That’s somebody’s home. We can’t just stop and stare.”
Camille pointed to a “for sale by owner” sign as they approached. “It’s for sale Becky, and it’s got your name on it. Maybe it’s meant to be. I think we should take a look. Come on, it’ll be fun.”
“Can we Mom, Please, Please?” Haley begged.
“O.K., we’ll stop for a minute to look, but then we’re going to Tarpon Springs.”
They pulled into the long circular driveway past an old magnolia tree, stopping in front of the house.
A twenty foot wide stairway led to a wraparound porch that circled the entire building. The front and back decks were left open while the left side was screened. The right porch was completely enclosed by glass. The first floor was fifteen feet above the ground with heavy vegetation that made it appear as if the house was growing out of the trees. The second floor incorporated two grand turrets like a fairy tale castle. Towering above it all stood a widow’s walk.
“Isn’t it beautiful Mom,” squealed Haley.
“I’ve got to admit, it is an impressive house. The yard is immaculate, and I love the porches.”
“Hello, may I help you?” crooned a woman’s voice from the front porch. A little startled, they turned to see a very dark skinned, short and stout old woman peeking from behind the front door.
She couldn’t have been more than four feet tall. Her skin, eyes and hair were as black as midnight. Her voice was so melodious it tickled their ears.
“I’m Ms. Shelby,” she said. “Are you the Kings?”
Becky was surprised to hear her name, but decided she must have misunderstood. The woman had no way of knowing them.
“Oh, we’re very sorry to disturb you. Your home is so beautiful we couldn’t resist stopping for a peek,” Becky replied.
Ms. Shelby looked at Becky’s sister. “Camille? Did you get the letter?”
Becky glared at Camille. “What’s going on?”
Camille looked rather sheepish as she pulled a formal looking envelope from her purse. “I received this last week. It’s a letter asking me to bring you here for a personal showing of the house.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” Becky countered. “How did they know who I am, that I would be in Florida, or that I’d be interested in buying a house?” Then she whispered to Camille, “This is creepy.”
Ms. Shelby began explaining, “Though you may not know the owner of the home, he knows you and knew your husband. He’s looking for a particular buyer. You are the only one who meets the qualifications. We asked Camille to invite you.”
“Why me?” Becky asked, but didn’t wait for an answer. She glared at her sister.
“What were you thinking Camille?”
“I thought it would be fun,” Camille answered. “But I didn’t think you’d come, so I planned this trip to get you here. I think it’s worth consideration.”
“Please Mom, please. Can we look?” Haley pleaded.
“Please Becky, please,” Camille added with a laugh.
Ms. Shelby hopped into the sunlight as if someone had pinched her. “I’d be honored to show you the house.”
“I don’t know. We don’t want to take up too much of your time, and we should get back on the road if we hope to make it to Tarpon Springs before sunset.”
Becky could see the disappointment on Haley’s face, so she reluctantly turned toward Ms. Shelby, “Are you sure it’s O.K.?”
“It’s no problem at all Rebecca,” she responded with a wide smile. “I love showing off the place.”
Even though she looked to be in her eighties, Ms. Shelby bounced down the front steps like a teenager. She led the three ladies on a tour of the ornate gardens, the boat dock on a canal with access to the gulf, and the caretaker’s cottage where the gardener lived.
Before taking them inside the home, Ms. Shelby explained that the house was anchored on sixteen concrete steel-reinforced piers, making it one of the most hurricane resilient structures built in 1975. She paused to offer a brief history of the property which was custom built for J. Alfred Weston, a wealthy businessman from Connecticut.
“’The’ J. Alfred Weston?” Becky enquired.
“Yes,” Ms. Shelby replied. “Is that a problem?”
Becky appeared surprised. “No, but I met him many years ago when we were working on an archaeological site here in Florida. Mr. Weston was a very intense man, aloof and unapproachable. I can’t picture him living in a house like this.”
“J. Alfred is anything but aloof and unapproachable,” Ms. Shelby laughed. “I’ve known him since he was six years old when his father died suddenly. Even that horror couldn’t defeat the rambunctious little boy who grew up to be a gregarious, handsome young man. Sadly, even more tragedy has taken a toll on him, but don’t let his gruff exterior fool you. He is a wonderful man.”
“What happened to him? What do you mean by tragedy?” Becky asked.
“A fairy tale that turned into a nightmare I’m afraid,” Ms. Shelby answered. “J. Alfred fell in love with a woman named Angela who was a featured mermaid at the Weeki Wachee Springs attraction. This was Angela’s property before meeting J. Alfred. She lived in the caretaker’s cottage, the only building here at the time. The two of them were married here after an intense romance. They moved to Connecticut, but kept the cottage as a winter retreat. Angela gave birth to a beautiful little girl named Rebecca who grew up visiting the cabin every year. The little girl often pleaded with J. Alfred to build a full-size version of her dollhouse, so they could move to Bayport permanently. Then in 1973, Angela, (Mrs. Weston) died of Leukemia at their home in New Haven.”
“Oh my god,” Becky sighed. “I didn’t know his wife had died.”
“That wasn’t the end of his misfortune,” Ms. Shelby continued. “J. Alfred and Rebecca were both overcome with grief, but still made the trip to Florida the following winter. The warm sunshine lifted their spirits, so J. Alfred hired an architect to design this house as their permanent home. It’s a replica of Rebecca’s dollhouse. They made peace with Angela’s death and lived here for five years.”
“I probably don’t want to know, but what happened next?” Becky asked.
“When she was seventeen, Rebecca also died of leukemia. She’s buried in the back yard under her favorite oak tree. J. Alfred moved out and rarely returns except for occasional visits to her graveside, but he’s kept the residence as it was when Rebecca lived here.”
“That doesn’t sound like a happy story. It’s a little unsettling.” Becky commented.
“I think that’s the purpose of Mr. Weston’s search for a new owner,” Ms. Shelby replied. “It would be a shame to let this wonderful house be remembered for misfortune. After all, the spirit of that precious little girl still lives here.”
Ms. Shelby reached for Becky’s hand, whispering as if revealing a secret, “He hasn’t shared his reasons with me, but I don’t think Mr. Weston intended to sell this house to anyone but you. You must have made quite an impression when he met you because the sales contract has some very specific stipulations including the buyer’s first name. It must be Rebecca.”
Becky leaned toward Camille, “This is getting even creepier. There’s a ghost in the house and a tombstone out back with my name on it.” Then she turned back to Ms. Shelby.
“I don’t mean to be unpleasant, but aren’t there housing laws against this kind of discrimination toward buyers?” She took Haley’s hand preparing to leave, “Regardless, I’m afraid we’re wasting your time Ms. Shelby. Even if I was interested, there’s no way I can afford this house.”
“You’ll be pleasantly surprised by the price,” Ms. Shelby replied. “Regarding the specific conditions of sale, Mr. Weston hired an army of lawyers to make sure no laws are broken and the right person moves into this house. It’s a generous offer. One woman even hanged her name to Rebecca, but the lawyers disqualified her. Mr. Weston believes you and Haley are the perfect match for this home, and he is seldom wrong. Most people don’t get a chance like this, so please come with me inside.”
Becky was skeptical but felt outnumbered. “I guess there’s no harm in looking” she said reluctantly.
She, Camille, and Haley followed Ms. Shelby through the front door. They stood speechless, viewing the magnificent panorama. A hand-carved wooden staircase framed the east side of the enormous room. Maybe it was the intoxicating fragrance of the flowers, but Becky felt a pleasant floating sensation.
A forty-foot long window bathed the space in sunlight, while two stunning chandeliers hung from a twelve-foot ceiling. Luxurious rugs, museum quality paintings, and antique furnishings were meticulously placed throughout.
Everything in the house was distinctive, from the dishes to the linens to the art on the walls. There were six bedrooms, four bathrooms, and two well equipped kitchens.
As impressive as it was, their favorite part of the house was the Widow’s walk, a small deck on the roof with an unobstructed view of the Gulf.
“Ms. Shelby, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a more beautiful home. It’s like a fairy tale,” Becky said.
Ms. Shelby could sense Becky’s softening attitude. “This was a wonderful home once. J. Alfred believes you and Haley can bring it back to life. Please say you’ll give it a chance by spending the night. I’ll explain details of the proposed sale over supper.”
Becky started to decline with a shake of her head, but before she could say a word Haley and Camille were both begging to stay. Alarm bells were going off in Becky’s mind.
This is too good to be true. There must be a catch, the house is probably haunted. Am I getting caught up in the moment, acting irrationally?
Despite her worst fears, Becky recognized the opportunity. At the very least, it was an adventure. Ms. Shelby felt like an old friend, so Becky took a deep breath, smiled, and said, “We would love to stay.”
Becky, Haley and Camille spent the rest of the day exploring the house and grounds. Haley found a concealed stairway in one of the turrets, a secret room in the other. Camille located several rare roses in the garden. Becky discovered her name carved into an ancient oak tree near the dock. When she went to help Ms. Shelby prepare supper, Becky noticed the kitchen appliances were new.
“Didn’t you say Mr. Weston kept the house the way it was when his daughter lived here?”
“It is for the most part, but J. Alfred wouldn’t expect you to live in a museum,” Ms. Shelby answered. “He installed a new roof, bought modern appliances, replaced the heating and air conditioning, added energy efficient windows, upgraded electric, and installed new plumbing fixtures. The house looks the same as it did in 1975, but it’s had a complete functional update.”
Supper was served at the kitchen table with a clear view of the boat dock. The pretty little caretaker’s cottage was also visible. Becky found herself wondered what it must have looked like when Mr. Weston married Angela.
The ladies sat down to a traditional southern meal of country fried steak, turnip greens, mashed potatoes and fried okra. After clearing the table, they talked for another hour before Ms. Shelby showed them the contract. It was a complicated document that didn’t look anything like a real estate contract.
In fact, it was an employment agreement defining the process necessary to acquire the home. Ms. Shelby told Becky to take the document to any lawyer in Hernando County for review. “All legal fees will be paid with funds set aside by Mr. Weston.” Then she explained the basics of the agreement.
“You’ll be paid a generous salary for living in the house. Your wages will come out of a trust fund and will be held in an escrow account until sufficient to cover the appraised value of the home. The time estimated is twenty years depending on the real estate market.”
“So you’re saying I can live in the house for free, but I can’t sell it? Will I have to pay Mr. Weston back if we move out early?” Becky asked.
“No, you can walk away without penalty at any time. But if you stay here for at least a year, you’ll be entitled to the funds in the escrow account.”
“Sound too good to be true. What’s the catch? Becky asked.
“There are a few minor conditions,” Ms. Shelby continued. “You may not sell, give away, or dispose of any of the original furnishings for a period of one year from the date of closing.”
“Anything else?” Becky asked.
For the first time in the conversation, Ms. Shelby sounded cautious, “There is one additional stipulation. Dr. Richard R. Rogers has a rent free lease on the caretaker cottage for as long as he wishes or the remainder of his life, whichever comes first.”
“Who is Dr. Rogers,” Becky asked.
“A gentle soul,” Ms. Shelby assured her. “Until seven years ago, he was a happily married family man and a respected professor at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. That was until a drunk driver crossed into oncoming traffic, killing his wife and daughter.
He quit his job, defaulted on his house and ended up destitute. Mr. Weston became aware of him when he showed up at a Weston Foundation homeless shelter. I think Mr. Weston understands Richard better than anyone because they suffered similar tragedies. They’re kindred spirits of a sort. Dr. Rogers agreed to move to Florida and live in the caretaker cottage under the condition he be allowed to earn his keep.”
“Where is he now?” Becky asked.
“He’s in the cottage.” Ms. Shelby replied. “I took some food to him while you were setting the table. I swear that man would starve to death if I didn’t feed him. He’s the hardest worker I’ve ever seen. The work he does around here is worth much more than his room and board. When he isn’t busy around here, he likes to help folks down at the pier.”
Becky remembered the old man on the pier. “Does he ever use the name Renee?” she asked.
“Well yes, that’s his middle name. He started going by Renee after the accident. He doesn’t like to be called Dr. Rogers because it reminds him of his family.”
Becky confessed, “I’m afraid I made a terrible first impression. We saw him on the pier today. He tried to be friendly, but my maternal instincts took control and I was less than pleasant.”
“Don’t worry. He’s an odd bird and he knows it. Everyone is a little wary of him at first, but then they learn to love him. That said, I do think his gruff exterior is a pretense. He’s a lot more fragile than most people realize.”
After dinner, Becky decided to follow her heart. This was a dream come true and a desirable distraction after her husband’s death.
She took the contract to two different lawyers for review the next day. They both confirmed that it was the equivalent of winning the lottery. It was the most impulsive thing she had ever done, but Becky signed the papers. The whole transaction took less than a week. It seemed like someone was looking out for them, as it did when Haley was adopted.
She and Haley packed their belongings and moved to Florida. Becky even decided to use the long glass-enclosed porch as a seating area for a “breakfast only” restaurant. Ms. Shelby agreed to help with the new business while continuing to live in the house.
In honor of Ms. King’s late husband, the restaurant sign read “Benjamin’s Breakfast,” but most people called it Becky’s.
It was one week after Chris received his acceptance letter to Duke. Dan and his father were going out for breakfast at Becky’s. As they were leaving the cabin, Mr. Naidoo saw Chris hosing off his canoe. He suggested Dan invite him.
Dan called to Chris, asking if he wanted to go. He didn’t say a word, simply dropped the hose, turned off the faucet, and was in the back seat within seconds.
“Guess that was a yes,” Dan said. “You must be hungry.”
“I already ate,” Chris replied with little expression. “I want to talk to Haley about school.”
They drove to the restaurant and parked the car in a small grassy area. Dan saw Renee working in the garden. Haley had described him many times as the scruffy but lovable man who “fixed things.” She referred to him as Dr. Rogers, so until now Dan hadn’t realized the caretaker was their hippie friend from the pier.
Mr. Naidoo and the boys were greeted at the door by Becky. She escorted them through the meticulously decorated living room filled with antique furniture. The room vibrated with the echo of shoes on hardwood floors and the melodious chimes of a Westminster clock. Ancient oak trees cast a gentle shade over the long rustic tables, each positioned near the windows to offer a clear view of the garden.
It appeared as if a charming English cottage had fallen through a hole in the Earth and rematerialized in the old south, but the restaurant wasn’t Mr. Naidoo’s main interest. Becky’s warmth and familiarity provided a sense of belonging that was missing after the death of his wife.
Becky took their order while Chris went into the kitchen to talk to Haley. Dan couldn’t hear their conversation, but could tell it was very animated. Becky joined Dan and his father at the table a few minutes later. She looked at Mr. Naidoo, took a deep breath, and began speaking.
“Tell me Ernie, what are you going to do with yourself when Daniel heads off to college?” She didn’t wait for an answer. “Haley seems determined to follow Chris. I know they’ll be only a short distance away in Gainesville, but she’s my baby and my best friend since Ben died.”
Becky glared at Dan with a stern expression, “don’t tell Haley!” Then she looked back at Mr. Naidoo, “I’m scared.”
Without ever looking away from her, Mr. Naidoo reached across the table with both arms, held her hand tight, and said two words, “Me too.” A slight smile flashed across Becky’s face as tears welled in her eyes. She stood up, dabbed her cheeks with a tissue, and headed back to the kitchen.
Dan and his father became close after his mother died. Dan was ten year old. The thought of what his father would do when he left home hadn’t crossed his mind. This morning’s encounter made him consider the possibility that Ernie and Becky were hoping to share more than breakfast.
Chris reemerged from the Kitchen, dropping into his chair like a man who had finished a marathon. It was obvious Haley hadn’t taken the news well. Dan recalled the dream Chris shared with him. The part about Haley getting upset had come true.
Haley was a devout Christian who found meaning in everything. In her mind, nothing happened that wasn’t part of God’s plan. She felt God had intervened from the moment she saw Rebecca’s Dollhouse. The improbable events that followed made her even more certain. Then Haley met Chris who seemed like a gift from heaven. He was a handsome young devout Christian who instantly fell in love with her when no boy had ever shown an interest. To Haley, Chris was a gift from God.
Four years earlier when Ms. Shelby explained how Renee came to Bayport, she spoke only to Becky. Haley assumed Renee was a regular medical doctor. She addressed him as Dr. Rogers out of respect. When she learned he was an ophthalmologist from Yale University a week ago, her mind starting turning. What are the odds that Dr. Rogers and I would wind up together? She concluded it was more than a coincidence.
Even though her ophthalmologist was the most respected in Hernando County, she told Chris, “I may be legally blind, but even I can see that this is part of God’s plan. Dr. Rogers and I were brought together for a reason. I can’t leave now!” The problem was Chris thought God wanted him to attend college in North Carolina.
Haley was a meticulous records keeper. She had gathered multiple copies of every prescription, every report, every study done, and every paper written regarding her eyes since her adoption.
Even though Renee made it clear he no longer had a medical license, Haley begged him to read the comprehensive file she had prepared. He agree after weeks of persistent appeals, but “only if you stop calling me Dr. Rogers. Please call me Renee!”
Renee began reviewing Haley’s file. What he read was hard to accept. He expected to find nutritional deficiencies or physical abnormalities, but instead found her eyes were healthy.
Her vision tests ranked in the top of the top one percent. What the doctors hadn’t been able to understand was why it took her five seconds to see what other people see in an instant.
Renee assumed Haley wore sunglasses to hide her yellow eyes, but began to wonder if they might also be therapeutic. He spoke to her in the garden the following day.
“Good morning Haley. Those are pretty sunglasses. Do they help you see?”
“Sort-of,” she said. “I know it sounds strange, but the darker the sunglasses the less confused I get. My ophthalmologist said sunglasses shouldn’t make any difference, but it won’t hurt if I like wearing them.” Since standard tests had shown Haley’s vision was exceptional, her current ophthalmologist was certain the problem was in her brain. She began working with a surgeon at the University of Florida. He agreed to perform an exploratory operation on the dorsal stream which is the part of the visual cortex associated with motion. Becky had postponed the surgery on the advice of an old friend, but the ophthalmologist was persistent, wanting to reschedule.
Renee’s reaction was even stronger. The thought of surgery made him sick. He was beginning to think Haley’s new doctor was no better than the stalker from NYU. It seemed the new doctor was more interested in padding her resume than discovering what was best for Haley.
Haley’s iris was twice as thick and her retina ten times denser than a typical eye. The small red flecks in her iris appeared to be receptors that no other human on Earth possessed. Her eyes were gathering vastly more information than normal eyes. We don’t need to improve or fix her vision, Renee thought. We need to screen out certain wavelengths of light in the same way a pair of sunglasses filters sunlight.
For the first time since his wife and daughter were killed, Renee picked up the phone to contact someone from his former life. Yale University professor Robert Morrison was excited to hear the voice of his old friend.
“Hello, Bob. This is Richard Rogers. I need your help.”
“My god Richard, we thought you were dead. I was so sorry to hear about your family. Where have you been? How are you? It’s so great to hear from you. Sorry I’m babbling, but this is such a shock.”
“I’m doing fine. I’ve uh, uh, retired to Florida. A young woman has asked me to review her case. Her vision is superior in most respects, but she experiences a five second delay before the image registers. Some idiot down here wants to cut into her skull for exploratory surgery on her brain. I’ve known Haley for five years, but --”
“Did you say Haley? Is that Haley King?” The professor asked.
“Yes, you’ve heard of her?”
“Richard, she’s a legend. I have a framed picture of her iris on the wall and x-rays of her optic nerve in my desk. She was the holy grail of research five years ago. That was around the time you disappeared.” There was a long silent pause. “You didn’t run away with her did you?”
“Oh god no, Bob! She couldn’t have been more than twelve years old back then. Listen, she’s a sweet girl who needs our help. I have a simple idea. Maybe it’s too simple, but I think it’s worth a try.”
“What can I do to help?”
“Do you have a broad spectrum hue test I can borrow?”
“Yes, I have a set with ninety three color disks I can send this afternoon. I think I know where you’re going with this Richard. You’re thinking the right color combination may block out the extra information overloading her brain. It’s so simple, I can’t imagine no one has tried it.”
“Thanks Richard. I don’t want the whole kit, only the colored lenses. I’ll return them in a few days.”
The lenses were delivered the next afternoon. Renee loaded Haley’s records in a cardboard box along with the lens. He carried them to the main house where Becky led him out onto the glass porch.
His hands were trembling as he began laying out the lenses. Renee’s days as a practicing ophthalmologist were long past. He felt completely unqualified and was tempted to run away, but then he saw Haley. Her smile filled him with confidence. “It’s God’s plan,” he heard her say many times. At that moment he believed it.
“Please sit right here Haley. Put this patch over your left eye. I’m going to hold up a card with a picture on it. Tell me what you see as soon as you see it, I’m going to time you.”
He held up a picture of a cat. He counted to himself, one, two, three, four, five.
“CAT,” Haley called out.
“OK Haley, put your sunglasses on. I’m going to hold up another picture and I want you to do it again. Identify the item as soon as you can.”
He held up a picture of a house. He counted to himself, one, two, three, fo
“House,” she called out.
Becky was trying to stay out of the way in the kitchen, but could hear well enough to know Haley’s response was faster. She hurried to the porch.
Renee asked Haley to remove her sunglasses and wear a patch over one eye. He rigged a device to hold the colored lens over her uncovered eye, then asked her to identify the pictures while he tried various color combination. There was little improvement in her response times at first, but after two hours, Renee combined six different colored lenses to cut Haley’s response to less than a second.
Becky was holding Haley’s hand and they were both crying tears of joy with each response.
“I don’t claim to understand it,” said Renee. “But a simple pair of contact lens with the proper tint should make your vision normal.”
Haley and Becky hugged Renee while Ms. Shelby joined them as they danced around the room. They prayed, shared a light meal, and celebrated until after midnight.
Becky and Haley went to see her ophthalmologist the following morning. They took the six colored lenses with a brief essay from Renee, expecting the doctor to order custom contact lens. Instead, she became angry.
“This is moronic babble! It’s contemptible,” the doctor mumbled while reading the note with a cynical shake of her head. “You said this person is your gardener? It’s beyond belief that he would be advising my patient.”
Becky and Haley were both trying to speak at the same time.
“It works! It works! We both witnessed it.”
“He was a professor at Yale!”
The doctor shook her head in disgust. “This quack has fooled you into believing there was actual improvement, but that’s wishful thinking. I would have done it if it was that simple. You saw improvement because you don’t want to face reality. I don’t blame you, but the man is peddling false hope, taking advantage of a desperate mother and child. I think he’s a deceitful con man.”
Haley spoke with tears running down her face. “I swear it helps, try the lenses, you’ll see.”
“I don’t see the point in giving you unrealistic expectations. I won’t do that to you Haley. You need surgery. We’ve spent over six months and a lot of effort to reserve time at the University.” Mrs. King, I expect you to have your daughter in Gainesville for surgery next month!”
Becky reacted as if the doctor had spit her face. “The surgery isn’t going to happen. You can go cut your own head open, we’re going home to consider our options.”
The doctor glared at Becky. “You don’t understand, there are no options! You’re making a big mistake. Haley needs professional help, not a witch doctor. I won’t let this quack take advantage of your gullibility. I’ll have him arrested for practicing medicine without a license.”
Becky arrived back at the house to find Renee pacing at the front door. She hadn’t finished parking the car when Haley jumped out and ran in the back entrance. Becky steadied herself as she walked to the porch.
Renee saw Haley crying when she ran inside, so he asked Becky, “What happened? Why is Haley upset?”
“She wouldn’t listen,” Becky answered. “The doctor said we’re fooling ourselves, giving Haley false hope. She said we should be ashamed for misleading her, and that surgery is the only option.”
Renee could feel the blood rushing to his face. He hadn’t endured so much anguish since a drunk driver killed his wife and daughter. After their deaths, he insulated himself by creating his own alternate reality. Now those horrible memories came flooding back like a crushing wave of unbearable sadness.
As he walked away from Becky he heard her tearful voice, “Renee, what should we do? Please….” He couldn’t speak. He couldn’t even look at her, so he just kept walking.
Ms. Shelby was correct. Renee was a fragile man. His tenuous grasp on reality was slipping. He staggered to the cottage and collapsed on the floor, unable to move for twelve hours.
For three days Becky pleaded with Renee to open the door. Ms. Shelby brought food, but he refused to let her in. He closed himself off, the same way he did when his wife and daughter died.
The loss of his family had done more to Dr. Richard Rogers than make him re-evaluate his life. The intense stress caused permanent psychological damage leading to schizophrenia. He experienced hallucinations of an imaginary therapist who comforted him. The experience felt very real, but Renee knew it wasn’t flesh and blood. On his third day alone in the cottage, the vision appeared to him.
“Renee,” the apparition said. “Becky and Haley need you.”
“Go away. I’ve done enough damage,” he begged.
“You gave them hope.”
“False hope, that’s what the doctor said. I haven’t practiced medicine in years. I shouldn’t have interfered. I don’t know what I was thinking.”
“Maybe the same thing you were thinking when you saved those four boys on the boat. You know you aren’t the one who needs help. It’s the girl, just like it was Chris, Steve, Matt, and Brian. Like Haley says, it’s all part of God’s plan.”
The vision was gone along with the torment that clouded Renee’s mind. As if on cue, there was a knock at the door.
“Who is it?” Renee asked.
“It’s Becky. There’s a Dr. Orson here to see you. He says he was a student of yours at Yale.”
Renee remembered Kevin Orson as the gifted student who quit school after his little brother died of Retinoblastoma. A physician recommended immediate removal of his brother’s eye to prevent the cancerous tumor from spreading, but Kevin felt it was too soon to extract the eye. He advised his parents against surgery until further tests were completed. They agreed to postpone the operation.
Surgery was eventually performed, but the brother died. Kevin felt responsible for his death. If only they hadn’t delayed the surgery, he thought. Despite his parents’ urgings to stay in school, he dropped out.
Dr. Rogers drove over three hundred miles to Kevin’s home carrying x-rays, charts and pictures to show he wasn’t responsible for the death. It proved Kevin’s brother died from complications in surgery that had nothing to do with the delayed treatment. Renee comforted the young man, convincing him to return to school.
Renee struggled to his feet and opened the door. There stood Kevin, no longer an insecure medical student, but a self-assured mature doctor in a very expensive suit. He was now Chief Medical Officer and Senior Vice President with IMICRON Corporation, a world leading company in eye care medicines and devices.
Becky began to explain, “Professor Morrison has called a dozen times to check on you. He told me yesterday that someone who owed you a favor was coming to help. I believe you’ve met Dr. Orson.”
Kevin began talking as he stepped forward, “I knew our department of research and development would be able to help Haley the minute Professor Morrison described her condition.”
Kevin looked at Becky. “I want to be upfront and honest with you both. We believe the study of Haley’s eyes will advance our research by decades, but we’ll put her welfare first. My company will find the best course of treatment, provide lenses, medicines or anything else she needs. Of course we’ll pay for her time in addition to covering the treatment.”
Becky returned to the main house while Renee and Dr. Orson reviewed Haley’s files. Dr. Orson said he would fly Becky and Haley to their research headquarters in Houston, Texas.
“They will stay in the best hotel and be treated like royalty,” Dr. Orson assured Renee.
“How long will it take?” Renee asked.
“It will be an ongoing process. We’ll work with Haley until both she and Becky are satisfied, but based on your evaluation the initial treatment shouldn’t take more than a couple weeks.”
The wait seemed more like months. When Ms. Shelby learned Haley was flying into Tampa International Airport on Friday after two weeks in Houston, she called Chris to spread the word.
At least twenty people drove to Tampa to meet them. Chris, Renee and Ms. Shelby rode with Mr. Naidoo and Dan because they were too nervous to drive. Becky kept the results secret, so no one knew what to expect.
The airport was bustling with activity, a textbook example of the conditions Haley couldn’t handle. When the passengers began to disembark, Haley’s friends didn’t know if she would be holding on to Becky, walk with a cane, or if she would march off without assistance.
Chris was the first to see her. She exited the terminal gate slowly and then ran full speed through the crowded waiting area into his arms. They spun around like dancers performing a Viennese Waltz. After a long embrace and tender kiss, he gazed deep into her emerald green eyes.
“They’re beautiful. You’re beautiful.” Chris wept as the crowd surrounded them.
Renee heard Haley whisper, “it’s all part of God’s plan.”
Brian Adams grew up on his family’s farm in Wildwood. His wavy brown hair, long sideburns, ruddy complexion, Stetson hat and ever-present blue jeans created the look of a cowboy. His delicate features earned him a nickname he despised, pretty boy. He was shy and awkward with girls, so it wasn’t a surprise when people assumed he was gay. That didn’t seem to bother him as much as the nickname.
Brian’s primary interest was environmental engineering. In addition to their farm in Wildwood, his parents obtained a rare government lease for a shack located in the Chassahowitzka Wildlife Management Area. It was less than five miles from Weeki Wachee Gardens as the crow flies, but extremely remote. An entrance was made by the former owner, a logging company. It was little more than a muddy trail which ended a mile from the cabin. Being isolated was just fine with his parents who were conservationists with an abiding love for nature. They taught Brian to be considerate of everyone. That’s why it was so hard to understand why he heartlessly referred to Haley as the “Morlock.”
Brian was the only person who didn’t like her. Instead of compassion for her disability, he treated her with scorn. Everyone knew Haley was a lot more than “the pretty little blind girl.” She had a contagious optimism about life. It wasn’t naiveté, but the ability to bring out the best in people, but Brian seemed genuinely afraid of her.
Years later after they graduated from high school, the other boys realized Brian knew more about Haley than anyone. He had good reasons to be fearful. It started a couple years before they met her, when Brian was ten years old.
Mr. and Mrs. Adams (or should I say Dr. and Dr. Adams?) were research biologists who volunteered three weeks each summer to conduct field studies at the Archbold Biological Research Station near Lake Placid, Florida. It’s one of the few elevated areas in Florida that have remained above sea level for over a million years, providing a home to many plant and animal species found nowhere else on Earth. Old timers call it the Ancient Island.
Brian and his younger sister Jamie loved going to Archbold, but it wasn’t the rare birds or flowers that fascinated them. It was stories told by a mysterious old man describing the natural history of Florida and the people who lived there in the past. They first met him in the spring of 1994.
The old man was over six feet tall, had long blonde hair and wore a cape like Count Dracula which looked weird in the Florida heat. Jamie said the cape must be very hot because his face looked melted. Brian suggested his features had been worn away by time. You couldn’t see his eyes because they were covered by thick sunglasses, like the ones people wear after cataract surgery.
Nobody knew the geological history of the region like the old man, but he had a reputation for making up wild stories that frightened children. Most people ignored him or were mildly entertained, but Brian and Jamie loved his stories. It seemed like the old man was a permanent resident at the station. He didn’t give his name, but people called him Archie as a shorthand version of Archbold.
His stories were scientifically accurate, at least in the beginning. He described mammoths, mastodons, and camels that once roamed Florida. The children delighted in his depiction of armadillo-like creatures the size of a VW bug and saber toothed cats that once roamed the area.
Then Archie began telling the children the stories they found most interesting. He described several ancient civilizations which existed on North America much earlier than we were taught in school. Most of them were wiped out by severe climatic events, but a few survived. He described several civilizations in elaborate detail, providing convincing arguments of their existence.
But the most fantastic story which captivated the children’s imagination was the tale of the first civilization. According to Archie, the oldest and most advanced society on Earth thrived much earlier than Homo sapiens. Archie called them Homo princeps, a separate species who developed agriculture and an advanced written language long before we existed.
Their technology was far ahead of our own. They were an environmentally conscious civilization with buildings, tools, and machines constructed of biodegradable materials. Even their history was stored on sophisticated recyclable devices which required frequent replacement. As a result, when their society collapsed during the last ice age, very little remained.
When the Paleo-Indians arrived in Florida, the ancient people were considered gods. The Indians called them Nina Nizhoni or beautiful fire because their eyes glowed like burning embers.
At their peak, the Nina Nizhoni people numbered in the millions and were spread around the globe. The largest grouping was in North America. They achieved an unimaginable level of scientific sophistication, and commanded inexhaustible clean energy by controlling the natural magnetic forces of Earth. Their homes were lit by energized molecules within the air which provided continuous light to any area they chose, but their understanding of genetics was the area which led to their eventual downfall.
The Nina Nizhoni altered the basic structure of plants to provide high levels of protein and other nutrients required for peak health. They altered deadly pathogens to render them harmless, even beneficial in some cases. They began manipulating their own genetic structure to adapt to changing environmental conditions, increasing intelligence, eliminating mental disorders, and modifying behaviors to better conform to the social structure. A few even developed limited telepathic abilities which led to a schism in their society.
Some of the people considered the changes an abomination and a few thousand branched off to follow a primitive, more natural lifestyle. A small faction spread around the globe, interbreeding with the Homo sapiens species. The largest group continued to live in an area now known as the Northeastern United States.
The Earth suffered the last glacial maximum 21,000 years in the past. The climate was beginning to warm. The last ice age called the Pleistocene epoch ended 13,000 years ago with a period of extreme climate change called the Younger Dryas. Life was practically impossible for humanoids. Many animals went extinct. The Nina Nizhoni’s advanced scientific competence enabled them to adapt at first, but the weather continued to worsen until they were forced to move underground.
After generations of living below the surface, the once great civilization was in danger of obliteration. The underground lighting method required too much oxygen, so they modified their visual genetic structure to see in the dark. Other genetic enhancements included customizing behavioral genes to be more docile in the confined living areas, increasing skin density to protect against cold, and adapting their digestive systems to enable absorption of nutrients from the soil due to food shortages.
A thousand years of surviving in darkness rendered them unrecognizable. Much of their scientific knowledge was forgotten. Many had lost their will to live. Less than ten thousand remained. It was clear, unless something changed they would be extinct within a few generations.
As the climate moderated around 11,500 years ago, the Nina Nizhoni people embarked on one last effort to save their civilization. They emerged from darkness in desperation, beginning a long treacherous journey south to join a remote former colony in Florida.
Their eyes were sensitive to the light, their pale skin burned, and their passive nature left them woefully unprepared to face predators. Less than one in ten survived the three-year march to the ancient highlands of Florida. They made their home where the Archbold Biological Station is located today and began trying to rebuild their civilization.
Many of the artificial genetic changes and the physical effects of living underground for generations were not reversible. Their technology was deteriorating and they no longer had the ability to repair it. Even their written language was in danger of being lost, maintained on sophisticated biodegradable devices which were designed to disintegrate. Extinction seemed inevitable. It would be as if they never existed.
Their numbers continued to decline and by the time the Paleo Indians arrived at Archbold, less than two hundred remained.
The Paleo Indians were awed by the technology of the people with glowing eyes, but the Nina Nizhoni realized the Indians were relatives, descendants of those who left them to be a part of the natural world. The people who chose a primitive path to join Homo sapiens were thriving. The Nina Nizhoni with their advanced technology were facing extinction. In that moment, the leaders understood their time was coming to an end.
The Nina Nizhoni began assembling as much of their history, culture, and technology as possible. The Indians provided most of the labor to build a small subterranean library to serve as a repository for the remains of their civilization. A clone was placed in stasis to maintain the library. Recessive genetic code was embedded into the Indian children which upon opening of the library, would produce a female child of pure Nina Nizhoni blood. She would be their emissary to the future, a voice crying out from the past to remember them and not repeat their mistakes.
When Archie finished telling the story, he threw his head back and spread his arms wide as if to make some great proclamation.
“She is our queen, has the genetic memories of the Nina Nizhoni, and is the only one who can translate the great secrets of the library.”
“That’s crazy,” Brian said. “That would make her thousands of years old, nobody lives that long.”
Archie laughed. “She’s not old. Her DNA was preserved in the genetic code of the Indians who once inhabited this land. It was reawakened on the day you were born.”
“So where is she? Who are you, what do you have to do with the Nina Nizhoni?” Brian asked.
“I am the custodian of the library,” Archie declared. “The Nina Nizhoni people were experts at cloning life in the laboratory. They even perfected a method to pass on their memories. I am an engineered genetic clone who has been revived after ten-thousand years in suspended animation.”
“Bullshit,” Brian shouted. He didn’t normally use vulgar language, but Archie was lying! He must be lying, Brian thought. He didn’t want to consider the alternative.
“I’m going to tell,” Jamie squealed, referring to Brian’s language.
Archie removed his thick dark glasses to reveal hideous glowing yellow eyes.
“It’s time for a new Archie,” the old man laughed.
Jamie screamed and ran away as fast as she could, but Brian stood his ground. He knew Archie could see his quivering knees. Brian wasn’t sure if bravery or fear was preventing him from running.
“You aren’t the custodian!” Brian shouted. “You’re a liar! There’s no such thing as the Nina Nizhoni. Even if they did exist they’re all dead now!”
Archie spoke like a teacher leading a class, “There’s a little Nina Nizhoni in practically every human because early Homo princeps scattered to the four corners of the Earth. They intermarried with Homo sapiens, so I guess you could say we’re cousins.” He lifted his glasses to cover his eyes. “You should also know there is a faction known as the Qabalah. They are Nina Nizhoni clones who secretly manipulate nations. A few may have telepathic abilities.”
“Liar!” Brian mumbled. “Why are you telling me?”
“My instruments indicate you were born on the same day as the queen. You will recognize her glowing eyes, serve as her guide, and help her restore balance to the world.”
“So she’ll be a freak like you!” Brian shouted. “I won’t follow her, no one will. I’ll fight her!”
Archie’s composure softened. “She won’t be like me. I’m a genetically engineered organism without a soul. She will be irresistible, people will be drawn to her. I am nothing more than a biological machine whose single purpose is to maintain the library for my queen.”
This is ridiculous, Brian thought. Even as a child, he wasn’t naïve enough to fall for such an outrageous story. Real or not, the story frightened him. “Asshole, lying asshole,” Brian shouted as he ran away.
Brian and Jamie had nightmares for weeks. They told their parents what Archie said and his father reported it to the Director of the station. The Director said Archie would be banned from the station, but that wasn’t necessary because the old man was wasn’t seen again.
The incident was so traumatic that Brian stayed away from Archbold for eight years. Jamie forgot the old man’s scary eyes and was the first person from Weeki Wachee to make friends with Haley.
Brian didn’t forget the old man or his stories. After a couple years when the memories were finally beginning to fade, Haley moved to Bayport. She was everything Archie said the queen would be, smart, pretty and had those glowing yellow eyes. Most people were captivated by her, but not Brian. His skin crawled each time he saw her.
For years, he treated Haley like an enemy by calling her names, spreading rumors and trying to turn friends against her. He felt compelled to let everyone know she couldn’t be trusted, but Brian didn’t tell anyone except his parents what happened at Archbold. Nobody would believe me, he thought.
Brian’s feelings for Haley began to change after the lightning incident on his sixteenth birthday. Fear was replaced with fascination which grew into an awkward friendship. He felt even more comfortable around her when she began wearing tinted contact lens. The day after high school graduation, Brian borrowed his dad’s car to drive to Archbold Biological Station. It was time to confront Archie, grow up and put the childish stories behind him.
After arriving at the station, he began asking if anyone knew where the old man had gone. A couple people remembered Archie, but no one had seen him since the incident eight years earlier. The Director suggested Brian speak with a part-time research assistant who started work soon after Archie disappeared. “I think the young man is his nephew,” he said.
As Brian entered the office, a strange looking, but oddly familiar young man was sitting behind the desk. The man looked up with a wide smile.
“Well, well, if it isn’t Mr. Adams! Look how much you’ve grown.” He said with enthusiasm. “I’m so happy to see you. You were my favorite student. Where have you been all this time?”
“Do I know you?” Brian asked.
“Come on now, look a little closer. You know who I am,” the man winked. A sense of panic washed over Brian. It couldn’t be, he thought.
“Archie?” Brian whimpered as he began to tremble.
“That’s right, but around here I’m known as Anastasius. It means resurrection. Clever, don’t you think?”
Brian wanted to run, but instead stood quivering like that little boy from eight years earlier. He felt his legs buckling as he dropped into a stuffed chair in front of the desk. He sat motionless for a moment, then managed to speak. “They said you were banned from ever coming back.”
“Archie was banned, I wasn’t. Don’t tell anyone I’m the old man or they’ll take you away in a straitjacket,” he said with a chuckle.
“This can’t be real,” Brian said. “I came here to make sense of what happened, to put it behind me. I wanted to make amends with Haley, but this makes it worse!”
Anastasius leaned back in his chair. “Oh I see, you’re trying to understand your feelings for the queen.”
“You don’t know me. How could you know why I’m here?” Brian asked.
“I know more than you think. Human events aren’t as random as they appear, its simple physics. Every interaction is preceded and followed by a shadow on the space-time continuum. I know that sounds like science fiction, but it’s a basic tenant of the physical universe. I use a device similar to radar, but it tracks biological interactions on an immense scale.”
Brian sat dazed, unable to move. Anastsius pulled out a sheet of paper-like material which stretched across the entire desk. It was covered with marks, apparent coordinates, and writing similar to Egyptian hieroglyphics.
“When the queen was born, five linked lifelines appeared. The device indicated the queen’s medallion bearer would visit Archbold numerous times before 1993. The small size of the shadow indicated it would be a child who would later have intimate contact with the queen.”
Brian looked up in panic. “What do you mean by intimate?”
Anastasius continued without answering the question. “I spoke with every child who visited Archbold for over a year. The shadows changed when you and Jamie arrived. It meant one of you was the person for whom I was waiting. Then the device was able to calculate you would be returning for the key. Here you are, right on time!”
“What key? What are you talking about? I didn’t come looking for a key. You couldn’t have known I would return because I didn’t decide until two weeks ago.”
Brian glared at Anastasius and snapped, “What makes you think I’m going to help a queen who is going to rule over us?”
“It isn’t like that Brian. She is here to lead mankind, not rule over them. You’ve seen this girl. In fact, you’re connected to her, so listen to your heart. What is it telling you?”
Brian’s posture relaxed as he reflected. “That’s the thing,” he responded as he remembered the times he’d mistreated her. “The person I know is a smart, sweet and shy seventeen year old girl. She isn’t a queen.”
Anastasius smiled as he recognized Brian’s affection for Haley. “The queen is in her genetic code to awaken when she is ready.” He leaned back in his chair. “I guess that time has come.” Anastasius opened a desk drawer and pulled out a gold medallion. It looked like an enormous coin, three inches across and a half-inch thick. It was attached to a leather cord. “Give this to her, she will know what to do.”
“What is it? Brian asked.
“It is the key to her genetic code,” Anastasius replied. He handed the medallion to Brian, demonstrating how to place it in Haley’s hand.
Brian was stunned by the weight of the artifact. It must be pure gold, he thought. Then his heart sank as he recognized the pattern on its face. Etz Chayim, the same shape as the scar on his foot!
Mathew Jackson was the third of Dan’s extraordinary friends. Even as a child, he was interested in history, government, and economics. Dan’s favorite memory of him was the time they spent Thanksgiving at Matt’s grandparent’s house in Arcadia. They were eight years old. Matt described the approaching trip as a great adventure including a holiday feast, crazy relatives, and a secret spot to find Indian arrow heads. Depending on your point of view, that trip was the time Matt either received a supernatural gift or suffered a traumatic brain injury. Either way, that’s when he started talking to a dead Indian.
It was a chilly forty degrees at 5 a.m. on Thanksgiving morning in Wildwood. The house was bustling with activity as the family was dressing, packing, and loading the car. Dan stayed overnight at the Jackson’s home. Due to their young age, Matt’s parents decided it would be less work for them if Dan and Matt sleep until the last minute. Matt was the youngest of four children. His older brother Chip was sixteen, his sisters Diana and Lee were fourteen.
Matt’s mother was a Christian, but his father was a Deist who rose to the level of 32nd degree Scottish Rite Noble in the Masonic Lodge. He taught Matt to trust in reason, analysis, and individualism.
It was still dark when the car backed out of the driveway to begin the adventure. Matt and Dan were quiet lumps at the back window of the station wagon with an unobstructed view of the sky. Dan gazed in awe at the stars, the most beautiful display he had ever seen. Then without uttering a request, they were served a delicious meal of egg salad sandwiches with hot chocolate.
The three hour drive to Arcadia was even more fun than Matt promised. His parents pretended to be official tour guides pointing out historic landmarks. Matt’s favorite milestone was Dade Battlefield. The manicured green meadows surrounded by tranquil forests stood in stark contrast to the site’s tragic history. This was the location where a band of Seminole Indians ambushed Major Francis L. Dade’s column of soldiers, killing all but three.
After endless choruses of a thousand bottles of beer on the wall, squabbling, and repeated calls for potty breaks, Matt’s parents were relieved when they reached Arcadia. The long gravel driveway sounded like popcorn under the tires as they drove past trees plump with oranges to a shady parking spot behind the massive grey house.
There was no other house in Florida like it. The elder Jacksons’ home was a remarkable salute to concrete, built to withstand the most powerful hurricane. With the help of a few able-bodied men, Matt’s Grandfather Osa Jackson, designed and built the entire house from the ground up.
Every handmade concrete block weighed over fifty pounds. As a foreman with Seaboard Railroad, Osa was able to obtain numerous sections of track. He drove the steel rails down through the block walls, deep into the earth to fortify the structure. Matt’s father joked, “Someday when they ‘try’ to tear this old house down, somebody’s gunna get one hell of a surprise.”
Grandma Jackson led the welcoming party to the back porch. Grandpa Osa brought up the rear behind a myriad of aunts, uncles, cousins and friends. There was Matt’s great Uncle Al Masters. He was a pudgy, distinguished looking man who wore thick glasses on his large bulbous balding head. He took great delight in amazing the children with his science demonstrations. Matt claimed his Aunt Henrietta was the best cook in Florida. She was married to a tailor from Palermo Sicily. Matt’s brother Chip said he was a member of the Sicilian mafia. There were more kids running around than Dan could name. The house was filled with the wonderful smell of roasted turkey, fresh baked pumpkin pie, and the sound of laughter.
The Presbyterian Church of Arcadia held a covered dish luncheon on the banks of the Peace River on Friday after Thanksgiving. Church families were invited to what they described as a feast of food and fellowship. A prominent cattle rancher offered his land each year for the celebration. He owned over a hundred thousand acres that remained uninhabited since the Seminole Indians were forced off the land at the end of the Third Seminole War.
The property was wild and undisturbed, but one area had been cleared for the annual buffet. Getting there required a long slow drive down a dusty trail. Mr. Jackson called it a dirt road, but he was being generous. The excursion offered an endless panorama of boring saw palmetto bushes.
Dan’s backside was getting sore. He started to wish he hadn’t come when it appeared in the distance. “It” was a forest oasis along the banks of the Peace River. The contrast couldn’t have been more intense between the miles of rattlesnake-infested scrub and the lush green hills of ancient oak trees along the river.
After the car was parked and the food unloaded, Matt scurried into the woods with Dan following close behind. He made a bee-line for a clearing where several arrowheads were found the previous year. Heavy rains the past week turned the normally docile river into a dangerous bubbling cauldron. Matt led the way through the dense jungle. They emerged on the banks of the river near a large oak tree which had fallen on its’ side and was hanging over the water.
The wide limbs beckoned like an irresistible siren, calling the boys to venture out for a better view. Matt was the first to scurry to a position twenty feet from the shore. His foot slipped as he looked back. Dan saw him fall and heard a loud thud from his head hitting the limb on the way down. He was certain Matt would drown when his body disappeared beneath the surface.
The next thing Matt remembered was being surrounded by thick white clouds or fog. It wasn’t hot or cold. It wasn’t windy or still. There were no sensations of pain or pleasure, no odors or sensations of any kind, pure thought. He knew it must be a dream, but didn’t remember going to bed.
A stranger was standing in front of him. Matt wasn’t afraid partly because the man looked like the ghost of Christmas Present, a jolly soul dressed in bright robes with a big feathered hat.
“Who are you?” Matt asked without uttering a word. He didn’t understand it, but by some means was communicating without actually speaking.
“Your people call me Billy Bowlegs. You may call me Chief.”
“Like an Indian?” Matt asked, his eyes as wide as saucers.
“Yes,” he replied.
Matt sat still as the Indian approached and put his hand on his shoulder. Matt realized this wasn’t physical reality, but he knew intuitively that it was genuine on a much deeper level.
“You may think of me as a guardian angel or better still, ‘spirit guide.’ I will help you two more times after today, but first I will tell you a true story.”
The chief looked at Matt carefully as if picking a melon in the market, “You have been chosen to make a difference.”
“A difference in what?” Matt asked.
“You’ve heard of the Dade Massacre?” The Chief asked.
“I’ve been to the battlefield!” Matt eagerly responded, wanting to show off his knowledge. “That’s where a band of Indians massacred a troop of American soldiers.”
The Chief shook his head slowly in resignation. Then he sat down to begin his story.
“I am a descendant of the Creek nation, but some of my ancestors lived in this place eleven thousand years before the white man. They numbered over one hundred tribes. Then the Europeans brought disease and war. Most of our people were dead in less than two hundred years.”
“In 1816, the First Seminole War began when General Andrew Jackson invaded North Florida on behalf of the United States.” The Chief paused for a moment, his face turned away from Matt.
“The general was a relative of yours.” He turned back toward Matt. “Do you know how the United States ended that war?” He asked, but didn’t wait for an answer. “The British were trading partners with the Seminoles, so the U.S. soldiers pretended to be British by flying a British flag. The two most important Seminole Chiefs were captured when they came to trade.”
Matt sat up straight, “You mean the soldiers cheated?”
The Chief paused and took a slow breath. “The white soldiers were very good at deception.” He looked directly into Matt’s eyes, but didn’t say a word. Matt watched it unfold, the sad history between the ancient Americans and the newly arrived Europeans
Many Indians were forced from their lands to areas farther south. The Treaty of Moultrie Creek created a four million acre reservation for the Indians. It wasn’t a fair solution, but it was an honest attempt by the Europeans to find a way to coexist with the ancient inhabitants.
Predictably, some Indians refused to stay on the reservation. Most didn’t understand or accept the European concept of property rights. The Europeans didn’t abide by the treaty either. Some settlers encroached on the remaining Indian land. To make the situation worse, escaped slaves joined the Indians, so slave-hunters raided Seminole villages searching for them.
It was clear within five years the treaty had failed. The U.S. Congress decided to relocate all Seminoles from the Florida peninsula to a settlement west of the Mississippi, forcibly if necessary.
Some Indians refused to leave even though they were far outnumbered by the soldiers. The only way of life they had ever known was being taken from them. On December 28, 1835, a band of warriors joined forces with escaped slaves to attack Major Francis L. Dade’s column of one hundred and ten soldiers. It became known as the Dade Massacre. The Indians thought they had won a great victory, but when Chief Osceola arrived under a flag of truce, he was captured and sent to South Carolina to die in prison. A few Indians who moved further south managed to escape. It didn’t matter where they went, the white settlers were close behind.
The Chief spoke with deep sadness. “I led two hundred brave warriors to their death in the Third Seminole War.”
“You must hate white people,” Matt whimpered.
“No.” The chief said. His tone wasn’t filled with hate or anger, but with compassion.
“I don’t understand.”
The Chief looked at Matt, “Weren’t you taught to love your neighbor as yourself?”
Matt nodded yes.
“And I was taught that we are children of the same Great Spirit. We are all brothers and sisters. The moment we forget our oneness, we can justify anything. We can take another man’s property, even make him a slave.”
“Can you forgive us?” Matt asked meekly.
“There is nothing to forgive,” the Chief replied. “We’ve all failed at some point to recognize our oneness and have paid the price through spawned retribution, lost cooperation or overlooked opportunities. We are members of the same family. Our refusal to recognize that, bears its own punishment.”
For a brief moment, Matt imagined humanity as members of the same loving family. Then he remembered how often he fought with his brother and sisters.
The Indian Chief was gone; Matt was alone. He could feel a force pulling him upward. The light grew brighter as he ascended until it was blinding. He had risen to the river surface, staring into the sun.
“Are you O.K.?” Dan shouted from the tree limb over the river as he frantically reached, grasping Matt’s shirt collar. “Man I thought you were a goner! You’re lucky I caught you before you floated away.”
Matt began describing his encounter with the Chief, struggling to catch his breath. Dan started laughing while helping him back onto the limb. His story sounded ridiculous.
“You’ve been in crazy land,” Dan chuckled. “You were under water for less than a minute. There wasn’t enough time to have a conversation or even say hello.” Dan raised his arm like a Native American greeting in an old western movie, “or should I say ‘how’? And what kind of Indian Chief is named Billy Bowlegs?”
Matt sat on the limb in a confused daze. “It felt so real,” he said. The whole incident was a fading memory within a few minutes. Despite his wet clothes and the knot on his head, they continued searching for arrowheads until their stomachs started to rumble. Then it was back to the gathering for lunch.
Matt’s drowning vision didn’t seem important. Dan forgot his story until two weeks later when he brought it up in school. He asked the history teacher if there was a Seminole Chief named Billy Bowlegs. The other students heard the question and laughed at the funny name, but the teacher didn’t. She was intrigued.
“Who told you about Billy Bowlegs?” She asked.
“I talked to him on my Thanksgiving vacation,” Matt answered.
“Umm, I don’t think so,” she said. “He’s been dead quite a long time.”
“Well he said he was Chief Billy Bowlegs,” Matt replied.
Matt’s teacher, Mrs. Johnson, knew that Chief Billy Bowlegs (more accurately known as Holata Micco) was considered by many to be the last great Seminole Chief. Mrs. Johnson was amazed at the breadth of Matt’s knowledge, especially the details. Matt spoke with authority as if he personally knew the Chief.
Mrs. Johnson chatted with Matt like an old colleague for more than a half hour while students giggled each time they heard the funny name. Matt’s teacher concluded he must have attended a historical reenactment performed by Seminole Indians while he was on vacation.
From that day forward, classmates greeted Matt with, “how’s Chief Boney Bowlegs doing?” That’s when he became known as the kid who talks to dead Indians.
Matt wasn’t bothered by teasing from his classmates, but he was troubled by his vision of an Indian Chief. The apparition was gone, but the message remained. “You have been chosen to make a difference.” By the time he was a teenager, Matt had lost his childhood playfulness, replaced by a passionate crusade for government reform. His father gave him a poster from the musical “Man of La Mancha” as a joke. Rather than seeing the humor, Matt displayed it on his bedroom wall as a symbol of his devotion to the cause. He had become Don Quixote, the mad knight following an impossible dream. Over the next few years, he grew increasingly pessimistic for the future of humanity. Stunned friends frequently heard him say, “God doesn’t exist. It’s up to us to change the world, not some imaginary deity.”
By his sophomore year in high school, Matt’s cynicism faded with a growing confidence in man’s ability to solve human conflicts through logic and reasoning. But then on April 20, 1999 the Columbine High School massacre shattered his confidence. He was still despondent months later. It took all four of his close friends to get him to the river for their sixteenth birthday fishing trip. Matt didn’t tell the others, but his vision of a Seminole Indian Chief reappeared when the lightning struck.
“I am here to deliver two messages,” the Chief said.
“Thanks Chief, but I’d rather be left alone. I’ve been miserable since the last time we talked.”
The vision of the Chief grew more intense, “Life is a journey my friend, and you are on the wrong road.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Matt asked. “If I’m going to have a hallucination, why can’t you tell me something important like the meaning of life?”
“That is unknowable,” the Chief replied.
“Yea,” Matt scoffed. “You don’t know because I don’t know.”
“It is beyond your ability to comprehend,” the Chief calmly replied.
“Really? Matt sneered skeptically. “It doesn’t matter anyway. You’re a figment of my imagination.
The Chief sighed, “That’s the problem; you’ve stopped believing. If I’m an illusion, how do you explain the details about me you learned from our last encounter?”
“That’s easy,” Matt answered, “I must’ve read or heard about you somewhere. The memory stayed in my subconscious until I hit my head falling into the river. I’m probably experiencing something similar now.”
“Then perhaps my first message will make this meeting more tangible. Haley King is a different species. She is not human.”
Matt couldn’t think of any reason why Haley King was a part of his dream. The idea of Haley being another species was so ridiculous he joked to his imaginary friend, “I always said that girl was far out.”
The old Indian didn’t reply. His stern expression frightened Matt, even if this was a dream.
“I’ll admit I’ve had my suspicions,” Matt grumbled, “but I’m not going to hurt Haley’s feelings or jeopardize our friendship based on a hallucination.”
“That won’t be necessary,” the Chief replied. “Everything will be revealed in time.”
“Big whoop, you make it sound so mysterious,” Matt sneered. “What’s the second thing you wanted to tell me?”
“Listen to God.”
“I don’t believe in God,” Matt grunted.
“That’s not true,” the Chief replied, “but you have closed your eyes.”
“How do you expect me to believe in something I can’t see?”
“Feel God’s presence. You know he is with you. Christopher Hagan is in your life for a reason, seek him out.”
The Indian Chief had vanished. Matt awoke on the deck of the boat with the Etz Chayim symbol burned on his heal. Just another silly dream, he thought. I’m not falling for it this time!
The First Baptist church of Wildwood was a busy place on Sunday mornings. The most popular activity other than worship service was the Sunday school class “God in the Modern World,” a discussion group led by Christopher Hagan. Chris was the youngest class leader ever sanctioned by the church. Matt attended worship service each week despite his crisis of faith. He sat with Brian’s sister Jamie while mentally picking apart the pastor’s sermon. Showing up for Sunday school class was another matter. He hadn’t attended in years.
Matt wasn’t an Atheist. Despite his outbursts, he never stopped talking about God; “Why does God allow this? Why doesn’t God do that?” Chris referred to Matt as “God’s work in progress.” The Sunday following their sixteenth birthday and Matt’s second encounter with his imaginary Indian Chief, he decided to visit Chris’s class. It was no secret Chris was spiritually gifted, but Matt still felt awkward discussing religion with his high school friend. Chris’s class was large, so Matt chose to sit in the back of the room.
Matt’s recollections of Sunday school were blown away when he entered Chris’s class, packed with enthusiastic followers. The conversation wasn’t a routine scripture lesson. It was a serious exchange of ideas of how the teachings of the Bible could help people deal with human weakness. Matt found it difficult to reconcile the Chris he knew with the person leading the session, as if Chris had channeled the spirit of an old professor as he led a serious discussion of the recent Columbine High School massacre.
Despite his intent to sit quietly, Matt felt an uncontrollable urge to speak, “If God is the all-powerful being you claim, then why is the world so screwed up?” he asked.
The class was silent for a moment as everyone was surprised by the outburst, everyone except Chris.
“Our brains function within a ‘Selective Information Network,’” Chris answered.
Some of the class attendees chuckled, having heard it before. They knew what Chris meant, but it was nonsense to Matt.
Matt looked at Chris with confusion, “What?”
Chris continued. “It’s my way of saying we don’t have enough information to make perfect decisions. We’re not omniscient. The Selective Information Network acronym stands for SIN, get it?”
Matt shook his head, “Yea. I get it. It’s in man’s nature to sin, but the question is why? Why did God deliberately create flawed people?”
“Flawed isn’t the best word,” Chris replied. “We’re unfinished. You might say humans are like students who haven’t graduated. The world is our classroom with an incomplete grade until we get our degree in ‘free will.’”
“Free will? Didn’t free will result in the Columbine massacre? If we’re being graded on free will, we’ve already failed.”
“Exactly the point,” Chris replied. “Only one man has ever passed the test.”
“So why are we here if we can’t pass the test?” Matt asked.
“To help us understand why we need God’s omniscience. We do have a choice, he’s asking us to choose him. There’s an old saying, ‘Nobody’s perfect.’ Thankfully, God doesn’t ask us to be. We need to recognize our imperfection, then ask for help. When we accept Jesus, we don’t give up free will, we willingly put it aside to accept the will of God.”
Matt was encouraged by Chris’s words, but wanted more. “I understand what you’re saying Chris, but is there any tangible evidence that God exists? Is our religion based solely on faith?”
Chris walked to the white board and picked up a marker.
“First, I think we need to acknowledge that if God is powerful enough to create everything in our existence, we may never be able to prove it. It may be like trying to draw a picture of a whale from within the whale’s belly. Do you understand what I’m saying Matt?”
“I think so, but isn’t that just another way of saying faith is all we have?”
Chris turned to the board, “That may be true, but I believe the signs are there if we open our eyes.” He wrote:
“In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God
– John 1:1.”
“Like you, many of us struggle to reconcile our faith in terms of modern science. This passage from the Bible was written over a thousand years ago. And yet it explains God’s relationship to quantum physics in a way modern scientists are only beginning to understand.”
“What’s scientific about the first chapter and verse of the book of John?” Matt asked.
“Glad you asked,” Chris grinned. “Word in this verse refers to Jesus. That’s acknowledged by both biblical and secular scholars. The ancient Greek translation of word is ‘information,’ so a more scientifically accurate translation of this passage might be…” Chris wrote on the board:
“In the beginning was Information
and Information was with God
and Information was God”
“What is the foundation of the universe?” Chris asked rhetorically. “Many scientists consider one thing capable of explaining quantum mechanics by unifying wave-particle duality and the Heisenberg uncertainty principle: ‘information.’ Simply put, scientists have figured out that according to quantum physics, everything in the universe boils down to Jesus.”
The class broke into applause with scattered laughter. A couple people said “Amen!” Chris added an “Amen,” while continuing to speak.
“This isn’t a clever play on words. Scientists are beginning to understand that the universe is much more complex and wonderful than we imagined. There is tangible scientific evidence to suggest that an intelligent force, ‘God,’ is in control of everything.”
Matt felt optimistic for the first time in years. It wasn’t the wise words of an old Indian or the logical arguments made by Chris. It was realizing other people were struggling with the same questions. He wasn’t alone.
As Matt scanned the room for familiar faces, he felt the compassionate gaze of a beautiful girl with pale complexion, blonde hair, and emerald green eyes.
Matt became the boys’ unofficial counselor despite his own problems. He was a good listener, the person Brian asked for advice after his trip to Archbold. Matt listened quietly as Brian talked for over an hour, recounting the whole story from his childhood encounter with Archie to the recent meeting when Anastasius gave him the gold medallion. Brian felt sick as he described his guilt for mistreating Haley.
“I started spreading untruthful rumors when she was struggling with her disability. I still haven’t apologized, I wouldn’t know how. She treated me like a friend, but I’ve been a jerk.” Brian explained how his feelings for Haley changed over the past year from fear to admiration.
“It doesn’t matter what we call her. I see Haley for what she is, a good and caring person. I’ll visit Becky’s tomorrow to give her the medallion. A jeweler confirmed it’s an alloy of 18 karat gold with several unidentified metals. It must be worth a fortune. Maybe it will help make up for some of the misery I caused.”
Matt appeared undaunted by the incredible story until he remembered the Indian Chief’s words, “Haley is not human.” If that’s true, he thought, the Chief isn’t a hallucination. I’ve been talking to a ghost!
Haley’s recent transformation took on new meaning. The apparition of an Indian Chief, Matt’s spiritual struggle, the lightning strike, and Haley were each a part of something bigger. But what? Matt decided it was his task to help Brian figure it out. Haley wasn’t an ordinary teenage girl; that much they knew. Brian had concluded Haley was a force for good, but Matt’s struggles had taught him people aren’t always as they seem. He considered his response carefully to avoid the appearance of attacking Haley.
“I think we should wait a while before sharing what we’ve learned with Haley. We should get to know her better. Besides, what are you going to say? ‘Hey, we think you’re the queen of an ancient civilization.’ Since Haley came back from Houston, she is the happiest I’ve ever seen her. You don’t want to be the one to mess that up. There may be another way to find out if the story is true. Steve can help; it’s called a genetic test.”
Steve Davis was the fourth member of the birthday club. His parents knew he was special within a year of birth. He memorized the periodic table of elements by age four and could perform basic math better than most teenagers. At age six, The American Association of Gifted Children at Duke University confirmed he was genius.
His interest in the human genome began indirectly with the death of his older brother John. John wasn’t anything like Steve. He had blonde hair like his mother and sister while Steve’s hair was jet black like his father’s. Steve was considered a tough kid while classmates referred to John as a wimp. Steve idolized his brother, but even he was a little embarrassed when John cried in public.
John was often teased, so the two of them spent a lot of time together, often trekking to an abandoned limestone quarry near their house. It was located in an area so overgrown with palmetto and scrub oaks, most people didn’t know it existed. Steve’s parents didn’t have a clue, but it was a great secret hangout for kids.
Sometimes the whole gang would go. They ignored no-trespassing signs, slipping through barbed-wire fence to throw rocks into “the pits.” The pits were massive craters over 40 feet deep dug out of limestone. The stark contrast between the sparkling green water in the bottom and the sheer white cliffs created a surreal landscape, a strange alluring place that excited their imagination.
A few months before his fifteenth birthday in the summer of 1993, John became despondent. He went out alone one morning and didn’t come home. His parents were concerned, asking Steve if he knew where his brother had gone. Steve remembered the slippery cliffs of the quarry, but was afraid his parents would be angry if he told them. He decided to sneak out of the house to check it out alone. His big brother’s body was floating face down in the pits. John’s death was classified as an accident, but it was widely rumored he committed suicide. Steve was only nine years old.
Dan’s mother died of cancer in April, two months before John’s death. The pastor who also served as grief counselor suggested Steve and Dan spend some time together. Dan’s father met with Steve’s parents at a church luncheon and invited him to spend a week at the river. Mr. Naidoo picked Steve up on Friday June 7. It was a rather ordinary day, but the date was memorable because reports of the O.J. Simpson car chase were on the news the following day. After a Sunday morning breakfast at Perkins restaurant, Mr. Naidoo settled in front of the TV to catch up while Dan and Steve took off in a canoe.
As they passed under the bridge near Rogers Park, two kids jumped off and swamped the canoe. They managed to get afloat, paddling in damp silence for the next hour. The landscape became less crowded and more natural as they traveled further up river. It didn’t immediately occur to Dan to take Steve to his secret hidden spring. It was a private place, but he found himself wanting to share it as they got closer.
“There’s a hidden creek around the corner which leads to a small spring. You should see it,” Dan said.
“Yea, I think that’s a good idea,” Steve answered.
They arrived to find thick vegetation despite the clearing Dan had done a month earlier. It took a half hour to cut through enough vines to get started. They pulled the canoe into a shallow creek and paddled 300 yards to the spring.
Steve jumped into the water. Dan heard the splash and struggled to keep the canoe upright, but when he turned around, Steve was nowhere in sight. Alligators were common in that part of the river, so Dan began to panic. It was several minutes before he heard him.
“Cannonball!” Steve screamed as he jumped from the top of a large oak tree. The splash was so big, it sent a plume ten feet in the air. “Come on in” he called to Dan, “the alligators won’t bite.” After checking the area thoroughly, Dan secured the canoe and they swam. It was the first time either of them had laughed since the death of John or Dan’s mother.
They talked for over an hour before heading home. Dan told Steve stories about his mother; Steve talked about John, admitting there was a suicide note. He felt an unwarranted guilt for his brother’s death saying, “I should’ve told my parents about the abandoned quarry, or at least asked John why he was always sad. He was my brother, why were we so different?”
Steve suspected John was gay, but the subject was too awkward to discuss. It was during that conversation when Steve decided to find out what made John different, what made him kill himself.
It was late afternoon before they left the spring and rode the current back to the cabin. The day was turning to night by the time the cabin was in sight. Steve’s dad was standing on the seawall.
“Hey guys,” he shouted as they paddled near. “I thought we might have to come looking for you. It’s getting late.”
“Sorry to worry you Mr. Davis.” Dan replied. “We went swimming at a spring near the tourist attraction.”
“That’s O.K., as long as you had a good time,” he said.
“Hey Dad, is there a problem?” Steve asked, wondering why his father was at the river instead of working at the medical clinic in Wildwood.
“Everything’s fine. There’s something I’d like to discuss after you help Daniel put away the canoe.”
Steve and Dan carried the canoe to the cabin where it was placed on a rack. Mr. Naidoo spent the entire afternoon cooking mullet in the smoker, so he invited Mr. Davis for dinner. They feasted on smoked fish, grits, hush puppies and conk peas. Halfway through the meal, Steve asked his dad, “So what was important enough to make you drive sixty miles?”
“There’s a science camp soon which might interest you.” Mr. Davis replied.
Steve looked a little puzzled. They had considered science camp, but most of the programs were a little juvenile, even at his age. He gave his dad the “what?” look and waited for him to explain.
“I received a telephone call from Doctor Eckstein. He was a professor at Duke when your mother and I attended. He’s at Harvard now, but he’s been asked to conduct a Science Camp for kids your age.”
“I don’t know Dad. Those camps sound lame. I don’t want to spend two weeks making paper mache volcanoes or playing with static electricity.”
“This one’s different son, it’s for gifted students. In fact,” he paused with a grin. “It may be more than you can handle.”
“Very funny Dad, what’s the topic of study?”
“It’s the study of DNA. It’s titled ‘An Introduction to Genomic Science’.”
“What’s DNA,” Dan asked.
“Deoxyribonucleic acid,” Steve answered casually.
“Duh,” Dan responded, trying to be funny.
“It’s the basic code that determines whether you grow up to be a pig or a human,” Steve added.
“Is there another choice?” Dan was still trying to be funny. He knew what Steve meant, but didn’t understand his fascination with science.
“When does it start?” Steve asked.
“This Saturday in Orlando,” answered Mr. Davis. “This is an incredible opportunity son. The same corporation funding Dr. Eckstein’s research at Harvard is sponsoring the science camp. They consider it an investment in the future and plan to stay in contact with the students who attend.”
“Count me in,” Steve replied.
Dan was disappointed his friend wouldn’t be spending the week at the river, but summer camp turned out to be a defining moment in Steve’s life. Mr. Davis understated the situation when he said it was a great opportunity. The IMICRON Corporation became a second home to Steve. They provided annual follow-up classes, seminars, field trips, and access to state of the art facilities.
By the time he graduated from high school, Steve had already published several articles in science magazines describing the Human Genome Project. Back then, the average person had no idea what he was trying to explain, but Matt was way above average. He realized from reading Steve’s articles a DNA test could unravel the mystery of Haley’s past.
Steve had a special arrangement with Weston Laboratories to conduct basic genetic research whenever he wanted with all expenses paid by no other than J. Alfred Weston himself. Rather than tell Steve the whole story about Haley, Matt convinced him she would make an excellent genetic test subject because of her unknown adoptive background.
Questions concerning Haley’s Indian heritage had haunted her, so it was easy to convince her participate. Matt was eager to hear back from Steve, but when the results came in they didn’t match anything in the Weston Laboratories data base. In fact Steve said, “The sample must have been contaminated because it didn’t even register as the same species.”
The results may have appeared inconclusive to Steve, but they told Matt everything he needed to know. Haley was not one of them.
The Last Summer
Haley was completely transformed when she returned from Texas. She could take a pleasant stroll through a crowded market or drive a car for the first time in her life. The frightening yellow eyes which made her self-conscious were now an alluring green. Her quiet, shy demeanor was replaced by a joyful effervescent confidence. She no longer felt awkward or out of place.
When she walked into a room, people were drawn to her. If there was a conversation on any subject, she would be in the middle with everyone listening to her. Male or female, it didn’t matter. Her sweet personality made Haley one of the most loved teenagers in the community. Her new confidence made her one of the most admired.
Haley had been home schooled her entire life. Public schools weren’t a good fit for a girl with glowing eyes, but there was more to it than her appearance. The main reason Becky and Ben decided to educate her at home was to spend more time with her. They also believed the personal attention would produce better results. It did.
Her SAT scores were the highest possible. She was fluent in Spanish and Mandarin Chinese. Haley was attractive, charming, and had a photographic memory, but few people other than Chris noticed how gifted she was, until now.
When Haley agreed to let IMICRON publish a series of articles describing her eyes, she became famous within a month. Television talk shows were begging for an interview. Prestigious colleges offered her full scholarships. Brian and Matt watched anxiously as Haley blossomed from a mousy little girl into a poised, self-assured woman.
Chris was more surprised than anyone at Haley’s transformation. He thought she was perfect before the changes, but came to realize their relationship was more like a hero rescuing a damsel in distress. Now she was the strong, secure partner he would need. He had no idea how strong and secure Haley would become.
Despite, or maybe because of the changes in their lives, the summer of 2001 was a special time. Haley, the boys, and a few other friends were at the river the week of July fourth. They spent the entire time swimming or hiking the deep woods near the Adams’ family shack.
The holiday fell on a Wednesday. It was still dark when Dan was startled awake by the sound of motorboats idling slowly down the river. They cruised past the cabin and on toward the Gulf of Mexico. The serious anglers were rushing to their favorite fishing holes in time for the rising tide.
Dan jumped out of bed, pulled up his shorts and ran out onto the balcony to see if he recognized anyone.
“Good morning,” bellowed Bill Wynn from his sleek fishing boat as it cruised by. He revved the motor to make sure Dan noticed his new toy.
“Good morning Mr. Wynn,” he shouted back. “Good luck with the fishing.”
“Good morning Bill,” Mr. Naidoo shouted from the seawall while pulling in a trap full of blue crabs. He was up every day before dawn tending to his crab traps.
“Mornin Ernie, looks like you’ve already got a big haul,” Bill responded.
“Got five more traps just like it.” His face filled with pride. “You bring the fish, I’ll bring the crabs, and we’ll have a cookout tonight. What do you say?”
“Deal,” Bill shouted. “I’ll stop by on our way back to work out the details.”
“Yabadabadoooo,” Mr. Naidoo sang out as the boat pulled away.
Fish fry cookouts with the neighbors were common at the Naidoo’s place. Mr. Naidoo called Dan on the balcony, “glad to see you’re up Dan. Steve called to say he’s running a little late. He said to tell you Linda’s coming.”
“I’ll be right down Dad,” Dan replied. The kids had been planning this day for months. Ashley Sagan, Steve’s long-time friend from science camp would be there along with Brian’s sister Jamie. Jamie was dating Matt while Brian had gathered enough courage to invite Jessica, the girl from next door. As for Dan, he had a crush on Linda. He hadn’t seen her in over a year, but thought she was cute.
Dan remembered the first time they met. The boys were celebrating their seventh birthday at Steve’s house, but Linda was six. A year made a big difference at that age. She had already picked out her Halloween costume and was proudly modeling the little nurse’s outfit at the party.
Steve had requested a piñata, so he was given the stick to break it. Matt, Brian, Chris and Dan were trying to misdirect him. Dan received a nasty rap on the head when he got too close. Steve’s mom came to the rescue, but Linda applied the bandage. Dan called her Nurse Linda ever since.
It was a little before 10 a.m. when Steve and Linda arrived at the river. Dan was getting fishing gear out of the old bus when Steve surprised him from behind as he liked to do. Steve took enormous joy in scaring the wits out of people.
“Gotcha,” He hollered. Fishing rods, sinkers, hooks, and other assorted gear went flying, as Dan fell back on his rear, bouncing down the bus steps onto the ground.
Steve was laughing so hard, he fell down the steps too. As they wrestled, Dan looked up and there stood Linda. It wasn’t Nurse Linda, but Whooooa Linda! Her jeans didn’t fit like that before.
“Hello Dan,” she said in a sultry voice. As his mouth fell open, he stared at her, mind blown, body paralyzed with excitement. Steve applied a playful slap to the back of Dan’s head and whispered, “Get your act together, that’s still my little sister.”
Dan jumped to his feet, “Hello Linda!” It was the first time since their seventh birthday he didn’t call her Nurse Linda. Dan thought, this is turning out to be a great day! The boys had it carefully planned out. The goal was to paddle five miles up-river to the Silver Springs tourist attraction.
Chris brought two canoes, Mr. Naidoo provided two, and Jessica had one next door. The expedition was geared up and ready to go after lunch. They planned to swim at a couple springs along the way, then float back with the current. The boys knew it would be a difficult slough for a casual afternoon excursion, but picturing the girls on a hot day in wet bikinis provided more than enough motivation.
The group set off after lunch and stopped a half-hour later at Rogers Park. It was crowded with teenagers. Jessica didn’t want to leave, but everyone else was ready to move on. The landscape appeared less built-up and more natural the further they went. The current increased as the river narrowed. It wasn’t as swift near the bank, but they were still getting weary.
“This is boring. I’m getting tired,” Jessica complained. “Let’s go back to the park.”
“There’s a beautiful spring only a little further. Does anyone want to go?” Dan asked.
“Is that where you took me after John died?” Steve asked. “The place is great. I think we should go.”
“I’d love to see it,” Linda added. “This area is really beautiful!” Chris, Haley, Matt and Jamie agreed.
“O.K., looks like I’m outvoted,” Jessica conceded.
Dan barely recognized the area when they arrived at the creek. An old tree had fallen and a large limb was across the entrance.
“I don’t see a creek, where’s the creek?” Jessica asked impatiently.
Dan answered, “Jessica, It’s hidden. Only those of us who know how to find it can get there. There are no roads and I haven’t seen anyone else there.”
Dan didn’t want to go into the depressing story explaining how he found the spring after his mother died. This was a special place for him, but unlike the few close friends he had taken there before, he was afraid Jessica wasn’t going to appreciate it. In fact, it began to dawn on Dan that a trip up the overgrown creek with a multitude of bugs, snakes and alligators might be something few girls would enjoy.
Steve chimed in, “This is Dan’s secret place, so you guys get to go first. Since you’re in the front Linda, it’s your job to knock down spiders and snakes.”
“Steve!” Dan shouted, then he whispered, “Shut up!” The entrance was completely concealed by vegetation with a large limb hanging a couple feet above the water.
Dan explained to Linda, “Grab the limb, lean back into the canoe like you’re doing limbo, and pull the canoe under. Then I’ll do the same. It should be clearer on the other side. I’ll propel us forward while you sweep your paddle back and forth in case there are spider webs.”
Linda didn’t say a word. She boldly grabbed the limb, pulling them under without hesitation.
As Dan passed under the limb, he looked up to see a garden spider as wide as a softball. It was less than 10 inches from his face. The canoe slid forward a few more feet to avoid the web. Dan looked back at the spider and heard Linda say, “Isn’t it beautiful?”
It was, but that wasn’t the reaction he expected. “Are you O.K. with this?” He asked. She smiled, nodded yes. “I’m having fun.”
Then it was Brian and Jessica’s turn. Dan started to use his paddle to clear the spider web, but Linda insisted it would be a shame to tear up the beautiful work. The web sparked with dew and swayed gently in the breeze.
Dan warned Jessica to avoid the spider by staying on her back until she passed completely under the limb. Haley was a little surprised how quickly the front of the canoe and Jessica’s knees appeared.
As she emerged from under the branch, Jessica popped up like a cork. The spider landed on the top of her head, ran across her face and down her arm to safety.
The people a few miles away at Rogers Park probably heard the scream. The words Jessica used to describe her displeasure would not be recognized in polite conversation. She was back under the limb and heading for home in Olympic time. At that point, Brian was little more than a passenger. The others heard him call out, “we’ll see you back at the house,” as he and Jessica disappeared.
“I’m sorry Linda, this was a bad idea,” Dan said.
Linda’s face began to twitch. It looked like she was going to cry. She bent over as if to start bawling and let loose the most infectious giggle. Dan started chuckling as they both laughed hysterically until tears ran down their cheeks. She managed to speak a few words, “Did you … laugh, laugh…, see her face?”
When they stopped laughing, Dan said, “You’ve got a dark side.”
“Maybe,” she said. “But that was sooo funny. Steve said this is the first time he’s seen Brian interested in a girl. Brian’s first love is nature, so I wanted to make sure Jessica and nature were properly introduced.”
Chris and Haley passed the laughing couple and were waiting at the spring. Dan and Linda arrived a few minutes later with Steve, Ashley, Matt and Jamie. Steve gasped, “Wow! This place is even more impressive than I remembered.”
The spring was an iridescent blue hole, less than 50 yards across with no discernible bottom. The quiet stillness was broken only by the melody of a Carolina Wren. Giant oak trees on all sides stretched out, completely covering it like an entrance to a magical realm on a beautiful alien world. You could travel across the galaxy without finding a more charming place.
The couples rested a few minutes before swimming for over an hour. Steve repeatedly climbed a tall tree to jump in with a huge splash, “Cannonball!” Linda and Dan sat on the shore together.
“Now I understand why you’ve kept this place a secret,” she said. “Steve told me it has a special meaning for you. He said it has something to do with your mother.”
“Yes,” Dan admitted. He felt surprisingly comfortable with Linda, opening up in a way he hadn’t with anyone else.
“I haven’t told anyone this story, not even Steve. I was only 8 years old when Mom died of cancer. I was depressed. Dad kept saying how much she loved the river. He said her spirit would always be here. One day when I was feeling alone, I paddled the little Jon boat further up river than I’d ever gone. I continued until I was too tired to go any further.
I tied the boat to a low hanging limb and cried for the first time since she died. When I was getting ready to head home, I noticed water flowing from the woods into the river. I followed the creek to the spring. I swear, it was full of manatees.
It’d been cold that winter. The creatures must have been attracted by the warm spring water. One of them swam right up against the boat and looked up at me. It was as if my mother had spoken. I knew she would always be with me in this place.”
Linda leaned in toward Dan and he moved toward her. They kissed softly. “I think I’m falling in love,” he whispered. Then as if on cue, a solitary manatee appeared and looked at them. The manatee was gone in an instant, but Dan and Linda felt something very special had happened.
By the time the couples arrived back at the house, the fish fry was well under way. Mr. Naidoo waved to them from his place of duty in front of a large pan of boiling oil. He was serving up huge piles of fish and hush puppies while Bill Wynn was standing only a few feet away tending to a pot of boiling crabs. Other neighbors brought grits, greens, coleslaw, and cold drinks.
As they picked up paper plates to get in the serving line, Mr. Naidoo said “We were starting to get worried. Brian and Jessica got back a couple hours ago.”
Linda said, “Sorry Mr. Naidoo. Dan took us to the most wonderful little secluded spring. We were having so much fun, I didn’t want to leave.”
Bill Wynn chimed in with a chuckle. “That isn’t the way Jessica described it. She said it was the most god forsaken place, then added something about a big-ass spider. She was so distraught that Brian spent all afternoon comforting her.” Bill looked over at Dad and winked.
The couples carried their meals next door, climbing up on the deck above the boat slip where Brian and Jessica were sitting. Dan was worried that Jessica would be angry about the spider, but it turned out she really enjoyed the canoe trip. All she really wanted was to be alone with Brian. Her little tantrum worked.
Everyone ate, talked, and watched the boats go by as the sun began to set. Jessica said she wanted to be a fashion designer, Haley was interested in archaeology, and Linda was already preparing to be a veterinarian.
It seemed as though everyone except Dan was eager to move on to the next phase in their life. Dan didn’t want anything to change. His friends wanted to make a mark on the world. That frightened Dan because he didn’t care. He couldn’t imagine anything better than what they had, this unspoiled moment with family, neighbors and friends. Chris, Steve, Matt, and Brian appeared to be driven from birth with a desire to do something spectacular. Dan felt they were each pursuing their own impossible quest. He began to think out loud.
“It’s like you guys are determined to accomplish some mysterious goal. Ever since the lightning strike …”
Steve started to laugh. “Here we go again. What is it with you and the lightning? You’re obsessed with the lightning! Nobody died, we’re doing fine, so get over it.”
Dan couldn’t let it go. “I’m just saying, you guys have always been ambitious, but the lightning strike changed you! It’s like you’ve each been given a mission from some higher authority. You’re like the Tin Man, Lion, or Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz searching for answers.”
“Well then,” Steve flashed a wicked smile. “If I’m the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz, I guess that makes you, Dorothy?” His face lit up with delight.
A sense of terror washed over Dan. He made a serious blunder and was in danger of being nicknamed Dorothy for the rest of his natural life. He had to distract Steve, but couldn’t change the subject to save himself.
“It seems like you guys are trying to find something that isn’t missing. I mean, our lives are pretty good aren’t they?”
“Yea,” Steve looked off thoughtfully, “Everyone isn’t as lucky as we are. We come from good homes, with good friends, and we live in a rich country. I want to make the world a better place, don’t you? Besides, it isn’t all work. We’ve had a nice day. We’re enjoying the company of these beautiful ladies while watching a spectacular sunset.”
He looked directly at Dan and said, “You’re the one talking shop.” There was a pronounced pause before he added in a voice like the wicked witch, “Dorothy.”
Dan and the others met at Becky’s restaurant for breakfast the following morning. The reaction of Steve’s friend Ashley Sagan was priceless. Even before they entered, she commented how unusual it was to find such a charming restaurant in a small community.
An engraved sign on the front door read:
‘Please knock and wait to be greeted before entering our home.’
Customers had no choice. The door was locked, so nobody walked in unaccompanied. An important part of the experience was the greeting.
The door opened to reveal Becky wearing a gown like something straight from the pages of Gone with the Wind. She was stunning in the finest tradition of Scarlett O’Hara.
It was impossible to predict what she was going to say, but her words were delivered with a sweet Southern drawl that transported visitors’ consciousness to another time and place.
Ashley’s mouth dropped open from delight, but once she entered the front door her amusement changed to awe.
There was a sense of euphoria that everyone who entered the house experienced. The architecture was exquisite and the décor was flawless, but this was a pleasant out of body sensation. Like a near death experience, guests felt a floating sensation as if watching from above as they walked across the room. Psychics, parapsychologists, even scientists came to study the phenomenon. They said it had something to do with a small device above the entry, but no one could explain how it worked.
Becky seated the teens next to the window. She had already set an extra table to accommodate the large crowd.
Ms. Shelby stopped by to say hello and take the order. Ashley, Linda and Jamie were standing at the window admiring the garden. Chris, Steve, Matt, and Dan were discussing Wimbledon tennis, so Brian took the opportunity to talk with Haley.
“Do you remember anything about your birth parents?” He asked.
“No, I was just a baby.” Haley replied casually. “Mom said my parents were Hopi Indians. She said a recessive gene might be the cause of my blond hair and pale complexion. Even the doctors can’t explain the reason for my unusual eyes.”
“I don’t mean to be insensitive, but do you ever wonder why your mother abandoned you?”
“Yes of course, but I wouldn’t call it abandoned.” Haley sounded a little defensive. “In all probability, it had something to do with my eyes. I think my birth parents did what they believed was best for me. My adoptive parents (Becky and Ben) respected the Hopi culture and could provide the care required by a special needs child.”
“Do you consider yourself a special needs child?” Brian asked. He knew this was getting a little too personal.
“I did, but not anymore. If anything, I think of it as my superpower. Don’t laugh at me, but I sometimes dream that I’m queen of an ancient civilization.” She smiled wistfully, scrunching her face with a puzzled expression, “Why are you asking all these questions? You’ve known me for five years.”
A chill ran down Brian’s spine. He knew Haley was getting suspicious, but he wasn’t afraid of her any longer. He wanted to tell her everything at that moment, but resisted.
“Haley, there’s something I want to give you and a thousand things I want to tell you, but I can’t do it here. Since Chris is going back to Wildwood for Wednesday church meetings tomorrow, will you come out to the shack with Jamie before lunch?”
Haley seemed excited. “This sounds very mysterious. If it’s not too busy at the restaurant, I’ll come.”
Jamie had forgotten the frightening incident at the Archbold Biological Station by the time Haley moved to Bayport in 1995. Brian didn’t talk about Archbold with his sister. He definitely didn’t tell her Archie had predicted the coming of a queen with glowing eyes. His childhood memories had caused Brian to shun Haley, but Jamie had become one of Haley’s best friends.
It was raining when Jamie stopped by the restaurant a little before 9 a.m. The trip down the 7.6 mile muddy road off Pine Island Drive to the Adams’ shack was rough. Haley was afraid they would get stuck, so she was relieved when the parking area came into view.
“This is strange,” Jamie commented. “Matt Jackson’s jeep is here, but I don’t see my parent’s SUV.” They parked the truck before headed out on foot for the final mile. The rain had stopped, but the thunder and lightning was getting worse.
“Brian sounded very mysterious. He didn’t say why he wanted me to come out here today. Do you have any idea?” Haley asked.
“I think he wants to apologize for the way he’s treated you. He’s been such a jerk. His behavior doesn’t make sense. He’s usually a very nice person, but don’t tell him I said so.”
“I like Brian, always have,” Haley said. “I can’t explain it, but I’ve felt a strong connection to him from the first time we met. Even when he was being mean to me, I understood.” Haley paused to think. “I didn’t actually understand, but somehow knew he had his reasons for acting the way he did. Does that make any sense?”
“Not really,” Jamie replied. “I just hope this isn’t one of Brian’s jokes.”
Matt was at the shack with Brian waiting on the porch when Jamie and Haley arrived.
“Where are Mom and Dad?” Jamie asked.
“They aren’t coming. They went to Archbold.” Brian answered.
“You know they wouldn’t approve of you inviting a girl out here when they’re gone. So why do it?” Jamie asked. She knew Brian’s behavior was unpredictable when it came to Haley. Hopefully, he wasn’t going to do something stupid.
“We want to talk to her in private, without Mom, Dad or anyone else around.” Brian answered.
At that moment, a bolt of lightning hit a tree less than three hundred yards away. The thunder shook the ground like an earthquake. Jamie and Haley ran to the building for protection.
The shack was an eyesore, but it was sturdy, waterproof, and protected by a lightning rod affixed to the top of a tall cypress tree. The furnishings consisted of five hand-carved wooden chairs, a rustic dining table, and two sets of bunkbeds. After everyone was seated, they fidgeted for several minutes like kids on a first dance.
“These chairs are nice. Where did you find them?” Haley asked Brian.
“Our dad made them.” He answered. Then the awkward silence returned. It lasted a few minutes, but felt like an hour.
Jamie was fuming and growing angrier by the moment. “O.K., I’ve had enough! As soon as the rain lets up, we’re leaving unless you tell us right now why we’re here.”
Brian took a deep breath. He was speaking to Jamie, but made repeated eye contact with Haley as he spoke.
“Do you remember the old man at Archbold who told us those stories?” Jamie’s chin went down with her head forward as if preparing to be punched in the stomach. “Yea.”
“Well, do you remember his eyes when he took off his sunglasses?”
Jamie shook her head. “You’re telling me you mistreated Haley because she has the same eye condition as that nasty old man.”
“No,” he answered. He looked at Haley, and then the words burst out, “I was afraid of you. I think you’re the reincarnated queen of an ancient civilization.”
“What?” Jamie shouted, turning red in the face. “How could you be so cruel? If this is a joke, it isn’t funny!” Tears were running down her cheek. “We’re leaving!”
“Wait,” Haley said as she touched Jamie’s hand. “I’d like to hear what he has to say.”
“You don’t have to play this game,” Jamie said, still sniffling. Haley smiled and said, “I want to.”
Brian started from the beginning. He repeated the whole story the way Archie told it. It didn’t seem like Jamie could get any more upset, but when Brian told Haley about Anastasius and the golden medallion, she jumped to her feet, slapped Brian hard across the face, and ran out to the porch.
“Stop it! Just stop it! This isn’t funny!” She shouted.
Haley went after her. She put her arm around Jamie and described the dreams she had been having her whole life. She said Brian’s story made sense and she wanted to see the medallion.
Jamie stopped crying long enough to laugh a little and say, “You’re as crazy as my brother.” They went back inside where Brian and Matt were waiting.
Brian opened the box in which the jeweler had placed the medallion. He separated the tissue paper to reveal the intricate Etz Chayim engraving.
“Ohhhh,” both Jamie and Haley sighed at the artifact’s stunning beauty. It was more than an intricately carved gold medallion. It glowed like Haley’s eyes.
“Touch it,” Matt said to Jamie. It was ice cold, but had a pulse like a living organism.
“It feels like it’s alive,” Jamie whispered.
“Let me,” Haley said as she reached for the medallion.
“Wait,” Brian pulled the box away. “Anastasius gave me specific instructions. Put your left hand out, palm up.” He lifted the medallion out of the box and placed it with the engraved side down against Haley’s palm. The pattern fit in her hand like a tree with the branches aligned with her fingers.
When the medallion made contact, her fingers grasped it so fast they made a snapping sound like a whip. Brian and Matt fell to the floor in pain. The Etz Chayim scars on their feet appeared to be glowing. Jamie tried to scream, but she could only groan. She was frozen in place. The room was filled with static electricity like a thousand fireflies. Haley’s eyes were glowing so bright the light was escaping around the edges of her contact lens. Her long hair was extended in all directions, writhing like snakes on the head of Medusa. Her body was contorted and shaking as if having a seizure. Jamie tried to hold her, but Haley’s body levitated and floated out of reach. It was the last thing Jamie remembered before blacking out.
Over an hour had passed when Jamie, Brian and Matt woke up. The first thing they saw was Haley’s smiling face. She looked different somehow, like an angel.
“What happened?” Jamie asked.
“You blacked-out.” Haley answered. She glanced sympathetically toward Brian and Matt. “How do your feet feel?”
Brian glanced at Matt and answered, “Better, but that was painful! I hope this isn’t going to happen every time you touch the medallion.”
“The artifact is part of me now,” Haley replied. “It won’t hurt you again.”
Jamie was still trying to understand. She asked Haley, “What happened to you? Are you O.K.?”
Haley looked a little puzzled. “I’m not sure, but I know where I need to go for answers.”
Jamie sat in stunned silence wondering what Haley meant by where she needed to go. Then she realized, this isn’t one of Brian’s jokes.
There were many rumors circulating describing a private community hidden in the dense forests of southern Highlands County. Some said it was occupied by a religious cult. Others claimed it was a secret government compound. A few even alleged it was an alien outpost, the first beachhead of a planned invasion.
Even Dan wasn’t gullible enough to believe the latter, but new satellite image technology had revealed intense development in the area. What could it be? It was a rural region with ten times more alligators than people.
Haley suggested they take a day to explore the area. Chris, Steve, and Dan were excited to be going on an enjoyable road trip with friends. Brian and Matt suspected Haley knew more than she was saying, so they were nervous.
Dan borrowed his father’s Ford Explorer on Saturday morning. The boys stopped at Becky’s for breakfast.
Haley had already eaten, but joined them at the table. Dan was the first to notice the change. He thought of Haley as a mousy little girl who morphed into a beautiful teenager within months of her return from Houston. Today, it was unnerving to witness another transformation which had occurred virtually overnight. The teenager was gone, replaced by a stunning self-assured woman. She even looked taller, but he wasn’t the only one who noticed. Steve kept staring at her, and Chris was practically drooling.
By the time breakfast ended, Dan was too freaked-out to drive. Brian was familiar with the route, so he drove the longest leg of the trip to the Archbold Biological Station. Haley was sitting between Chris and Brian in the front seat. Brian kept looking at Haley, especially when they were close to Archbold. Chris seemed relieved when Dan took over the driving and Brian moved to the back seat. They continued heading south on old State Route 8. It was very desolate.
“Are we lost?” Steve asked repeatedly. “Are you sure we aren’t lost?” After reassuring him many times, Dan also began to wonder.
They turned right on Old Venus Road. It wasn’t much more than a dusty white trail. The tree canopy was so dense it completely obscured the sky, and the heavy shade reduced the air temperature at least ten degrees.
After five minutes, Haley said, “we missed the turn.”
“I didn’t see anything,” Dan assured her. “And I was looking closely.”
They drove a few minutes more and arrived at a dead end on a small waterway. It must have been Fish Eating Creek.
“So much for the mysterious compound,” Matt laughed. Chris, Steve, and Dan didn’t know what he was talking about, but they could tell he was happy they hadn’t found anything.
“I told you we were lost,” Steve added.
“We’re close,” Haley said. “We passed it a half-mile back on the left side of the road.
“I didn’t see it.” Dan said emphatically. “Did anybody else see it?” Steve, Chris, Matt and Brian shrugged innocently.
Dan turned the car around and they drove slowly, looking for a side road, gate, sign or anything that might indicate an entrance. An afternoon rain shower produced a mist which rose from the leaves like dancing ghosts, while a thousand tiny rays of flickering sunlight pierced the dense canopy. Steve continued to insist they were lost, and then starting cracking jokes about man eating aliens.
“There,” Haley called out, pointing to a cleared area. Dan pulled the car off the road. The boy’s followed Haley for a closer look. There was a six-inch wide sheet of paved road protruding from underneath a wall of moss and vines. A further inspection revealed an immense concrete gate, camouflaged to hide the entrance from view.
“Wow, this is like something out of a James Bond movie!” Dan said.
“What makes you think this is it?” Steve asked. “It doesn’t look like anything to me.”
“This is definitely it,” Haley replied as she pointed. “See, there’s a sign.”
A small, obscure placard, read:
Ring bell for service
Haley reached toward a button located beneath the sign. Steve grabbed her arm as if the button was deadly.
“What are you doing?” he asked. Haley smiled at him.
“Don’t you want to know what’s in there?”
“Well yea, but what are you going to say?” He asked sarcastically.
“I’m going to tell them who we are, and that we would like a tour.”
Steve shook his head and chuckled, “O.K. then.” Haley was solemn, but Steve was smirking and acting as if it was a joke. Haley pressed the button and a woman’s voice responded, “May I help you?” The boys were giggling like little kids, but Haley answered calmly.
“I’m Haley King with five friends. We’ve come to tour the property.”
The voice responded, “Yes Ms. King, we’ve been expecting you. The Administrator wants to meet you personally. He’ll be there in a few minutes.”
Steve, Chris and Dan were certain it was part of an elaborate hoax. But while they were enjoying the joke, Brian and Matt remembered stories of an alien outpost. Haley was calm and composed. She stepped forward with confidence as the camouflaged entrance began to move.
“Follow me men,” she said.
The enormous concrete gate must have weighed several tons, but it seemed to float on air. It swung open to reveal a well-dressed man standing on a smooth polished roadway.
He had a pencil thin mustache, jet black hair, appeared to be in his mid-fifties, but had the posture of a much younger man. When he saw Haley, his face lit up with a big smile. She threw her arms around him and they embraced.
Matt and Brian watched nervously. By this time, Chris was also beginning to wonder what was happening. “Who are you?” Chris asked.
“I am Claude Gautier, Director of the Institute and Haley’s cousin.”
“We’re cousins?” Haley asked. “That’s wonderful!”
“Distant cousins, but yes, I’m told we’re related.”
Haley’s expression radiated with joy. “Then I have a million questions,” she said.
“We’ll have plenty of time for that later,” Claude replied. “First things first. I want to show off our little village. We don’t get many visitors.”
He was standing next to a vehicle which looked similar to the trams seen at amusement parks, but there was one major difference. There were no wheels! Dan bent over and looked underneath. Nothing was touching the ground.
“What’s holding this thing up?” He asked.
“A simple diamagnetic gravity vortex,” Claude answered in a matter of fact tone. “People have been using anti-gravity since well before the Egyptian Pyramids.”
“Not in my neighborhood,” Dan mumbled.
“Climb aboard and we’ll get started.” Claude took Haley’s hand and guided her onto the front seat next to him. The others scrambled onto the remaining seats.
As soon as the vehicle began to move, a force began pressing against them like a foam cushion. It was claustrophobic, Haley was having difficulty breathing and began to panic.
Claude stopped the vehicle. “Please forgive me. I forgot to describe the inertia dampening system. It’s a safety device like seatbelts. Stay calm and don’t try to make sudden moves. If you panic, even breathing can be difficult. But when you get acclimated, you’ll love it!”
Once they calmed down, the boys in the back seats began to play. They discovered the closer any object came to another, the slower it would move. Compared to the dampening system, bubble wrap felt like concrete. Before long, the boys were punching at each other and laughing hysterically. It was impossible to hit one another. Haley turned around. They could see the embarrassment on her face.
“Please stop,” she begged. Claude turned to her and whispered, “Most of our visitors act a little silly on their first ride. Watch this.”
He accelerated to sixty mph in an instant and they felt the strange buoyancy like bouncing on a trampoline. They squealed an uncontrollable, “wheeeeeee!” until Claude slowed the vehicle a moment later.
The vegetation along the way was equally impressive: Wisteria, Frangipani, Sweet alyssum, Sweet pea, Four o’clocks, Gardenia, Lilly of the valley, Jasmine, Rose, and many plants even Brian couldn’t identify.
The kaleidoscope of colors was beyond anything they had ever seen, and the fragrance was hypnotic. Everyone was captivated, but Brian was beyond ecstatic.
“This is unbelievable!” He said. “How do you get all of these plants to grow so well together? Accounting for the differences in water and light requirements alone should make it impossible.
“Selective genetic manipulation,” Claude answered. “We’ve gotten very good at it. How old would you say I am?”
“I don’t know, I’d guess around fifty five,” Brian answered.
Brian looked more closely at Claude and asked, “How stupid do you think I am? That isn’t possible, sixty maybe, but there’s no way you’re ninety-three years old.”
“It’s true,” Claude said.
“So I suppose you’re going to tell us that your genes have been altered like the plants.” Steve said with a laugh.
“No, we can’t manipulate human genes yet, but you’ll be even more blown away by the real reason. When my father died in France, I was given a journal passed down through eighteen generations. It contained the writings of a little known explorer, Henri Jacques.
He claimed to have visited the New World in 1472. His journal described native people in intricate detail. He wrote, the people here don’t grow old. I have concluded there is something in the water where they bathe.
My family considered it the ramblings of an imaginative old man. They said the journal was a family heirloom and nothing more, but I believed it was genuine. Henri Jacques came to America twenty years before Columbus and discovered the Fountain of Youth.
I set off to trace his steps in 1928 when I was 20 years old. The journal led me to Florida. A year later, I was prepared to give up when a friend mentioned an old newspaper article published in the Sebring American. The piece described a region in intricate detail near Lake Placid, Florida. It sounded exactly like the terrain Jacques described in his journal.
It was January 1930, the winter tourist season. The only room available was at a grand hotel, the Kenilworth Lodge in Sebring. It turned out to be my good fortune. I met a young man there named Donald Roebling. At first he laughed at me. Then he said I was crazy. After a few drinks together, he told me where to look.
He said, ‘You aren’t the first to come looking for the Fountain of Youth, but more of them have gone missing than returned, none found anything worthwhile. It’s a dark primeval wilderness full of mosquitos, alligators and poisonous snakes. If you’re determined to risk your life, you should know locals call the area hajo, the Seminole word for crazy. They say it’s a day’s walk west of Venus, close to Fish Eating Creek. Local Indians consider it sacred, so if the wilderness doesn’t kill you, the natives might.’
I bought an inflatable raft, supplies, and drove south to a bridge on county road 731 which led me here. What I found wasn’t the Fountain of Youth.”
“Then what’s the point of the story?” Brian asked. “How do you stay young?”
Claude stopped the vehicle in front a very old tree. “It isn’t much to look at, but this is a very special plant,” he said.
There stood an ancient hulk of a tree, almost barren of leaves, twisted and warped. “Etz Chayim,” Chris nervously whispered. “Etz Chayim,” Steve echoed. “My god,” Haley gasped. “It looks like the pattern on the medallion.”
Claude was surprised by their response. “What? I know it’s ugly, but it isn’t that bad!” I call it the Tree of Life. It’s my own fountain of youth. This is the only tree of its kind, and we haven’t been able to clone or reproduce it. It produces a gas which slows nuclear DNA damage by impeding the deterioration of telomeres.” Claude looked back at Steve, “You know what I’m talking about.”
“I thought that was just a theory,” Steve replied.
“Nope, it’s true.” Claude said. “This is where the stories of the Fountain of Youth originated. Except it wasn’t a fountain, it was a tree. The early European explorers got it wrong. When they saw the natives swimming in a nearby spring, they mistakenly concluded it was the reason for their youthful appearance, but now you know better.” He laughed and gestured with his hands. “So everybody, breathe deeply.”
“Wow, that’s an amusing story,” Steve responded. “You don’t expect us to believe it do you?”
“I understand you’re skepticism, but I’ll convince you before the day is over. For example, have you noticed how cool it is here? It must be close to triple digits at Archbold right now, but it’s around 72F degrees here. Why do you think that is?”
Brian spoke up. “The trees here reflect a large amount of heat producing light, and they transpire water through their leaves which provides an additional evaporative cooling effect.”
“Good answer Brian, but that isn’t the whole solution. The woods outside this compound are every bit as thick, but the ambient temperature is still around 84F degrees.” Claude stopped the vehicle and led them to a tree with large black leaves.
“This is unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” Brian said, his voice raised with excitement.
“That’s because it was produced in our laboratory.” Claude grasped a limb and pulled it toward us. “Touch a leaf.”
They each felt a leaf and were astounded. It was ice cold, completely covered with frost. “This tree uses a process called thermosynthesis. It’s similar to photosynthesis except it absorbs heat rather than light and converts it into chemical energy. Leaves of the tree serve as cooling coils and prevailing winds function as the fan. We call them ‘Nature’s Air Conditioner,’ even though they aren’t natural. There are over one hundred on the property and they keep us cool in summer.”
“Do they make it colder here in the winter?” Brian asked.
“No,” Claude answered. “They are deciduous and become dormant when temperatures drop below 45 degrees Fahrenheit.”
From that moment on, Haley and the others looked like kindergartners on a field trip to the Kennedy Space Center, eyes wide open in wonder and anticipation of what would come next.
As the group approached the main complex, enormous sleek dome structures interconnected by long curvilinear passageways arched gracefully below the tree line. They gazed in awe at a small elliptical city. Dozens of circular buildings connected like tinker toys. The design was so extraordinary, it was a work of art.
The structures had huge windows blending seamlessly into the natural landscape of tropical plants, streams, and waterfalls. It was a fleeting glimpse into a world witnessed only in dreams.
“Are the buildings made of steel?” Dan asked.
“They’re made of flexible concrete which is stronger than steel, a better insulator, and much more abundant. In place of cement, we use a bonding agent with a molecular structure similar to rubber. Photovoltaic arrays have been built into windows and onto the skin of the buildings.”
“So the buildings generate their own power?” Haley asked.
“They do.” Claude answered. He pointed to a large tree. “But you may have noticed a number of these in the complex.”
“Yes,” Brian said before Haley had time to respond. “They’re exactly alike. I wouldn’t have noticed except the leaf patterns are too mathematically consistent to be natural.”
“Good eye Brian. The residential buildings are self-sustained, but these particular trees are solar collectors fabricated from organic materials. They are a thousand times more efficient than commercially available solar panels. They provide supplemental energy for our laboratories and manufacturing units.”
The whole complex had the look and quality of a futuristic resort. Children were running and playing. Adults were laughing and talking. Some of them were at an extravagant swimming pool, others were strolling through the gardens, and still others were gathered together in a cozy dining area.
“Who are these people?” Haley asked.
“They live here.” Claude replied. “We have over one hundred families living on campus.”
“What does on campus mean?” Matt asked.
“Technically, we’re a fully accredited research institution. We teach students as young as six and offer advanced college degree programs as diverse as Religious Studies, Theoretical Astrophysics, and Biomedical Engineering.”
Matt grimaced. “I’ve never heard of this place. How’s that possible?”
“We keep a low profile.” Claude answered. “Students don’t apply to the ORION Institute, we recruit. We search the globe for gifted people of all ages, and then we offer what they want.”
“It sounds a little mysterious.” Haley said. “What do you mean by ‘we offer what they want’?”
“Education, food, housing and entertainment are free. Students are able to completely dedicate their time to study and self-improvement without the burden of student loans or bureaucratic paperwork. The one requirement is while you’re here, you contribute your particular talents to the workload and sign a non-disclosure agreement.”
Matt rolled his eyes, shook his head, and moaned.
“What’s the matter Matt? You think we’re running a secret Communist commune here?”
“You said it, not me.” Matt replied. “Like most Communist systems, it won’t work. Instead of sharing the wealth, a few rich and powerful people at the top control those below. That’s a more likely explanation for why this place is secret. The question is, ‘What’s in it for you?’”
“Why are you being so rude?” Haley asked Matt. “Claude has gone out of his way to be nice to us. You’re acting like Brian. If you don’t have something nice to say, please don’t say anything.”
“It’s O.K.” Claude told Haley. “I understand. I’ll admit I’m surprised it happened this soon, but I would’ve been disappointed if Matt didn’t challenge us.” Claude looked straight at Matt.
“The ORION Institute could make vast profits from any of the technologies you’ve seen today, but we haven’t applied for a single patent or copyright.
Our mission isn’t to make profits, and it isn’t about politics. It’s to create a new world civilization that will eliminate war, poverty, hunger and debt. It won’t be easy. We’ll need to change human behavior, and that’s much more difficult than creating new technology.”
Claude could see the glazed expressions on everyone’s face. It was a lot to process in one afternoon. He could tell they were overwhelmed.
“Let’s eat,” he said cheerfully.
The sweet fragrance of Tea Olive blossoms and the peaceful sounds of a nearby waterfall lightened the mood as Claude escorted them into a small domed building.
Once inside, a wide stairway led down to a small subterranean dining room. The room was well lighted even though it was below ground with no windows.
“What’s this room’s source of light, and what keeps it from becoming a swimming pool or floating away?” Steve asked. (The high water level in South Florida made building below ground level impractical.)
“The room is illuminated by our own form of chemiluminescence,” Claude replied. “In simple terms, the whole room is a light bulb. The concrete is magnetically balanced to float in the wet soil like a submarine in water. The exterior walls are water-tight, but porous to air.”
It was clear from Claude’s tone he was getting tired.
“If there are no other questions, we have a special meal prepared for you.”
Chris couldn’t wait any longer to ask the question that had been bothering him from the beginning of the day.
“There is one thing I’ve been meaning to ask. How did you know Haley was coming?”
Claude looked a little surprised, as if he expected the boys to know a lot more about Haley.
“Anastasius told us Brian had the medallion. Then when Brian gave it to Haley, a signal was sent to the library.” Claude chuckled, “Kinda like ET phone home.”
Claude glanced at Haley with adoration, “We knew it wouldn’t be long before she came home.”
Came home? Chris, Steve and Dan had no idea what Claude was talking about. Haley confirmed Claude’s story with a gentle nod to Chris. He didn’t understand, but wasn’t going to embarrass her in front of her new friend. This was something he wanted to hear directly from Haley. Steve cast an angry glare at Brian but held his tongue. Dan didn’t want to look stupid, so he smiled and tried to convey an appearance of understanding. Whatever the reasons, no one asked Claude any more questions. Brian and Matt fidgeted in their chairs, wondering how they would explain why Chris, Steve and Dan had been kept in the dark.
The awkward silence was soon interrupted by an offer of a prime rib, chicken or fish meal. The food was delicious and the meat, chicken and fish were tender with a pleasantly consistent texture. When they finished, Claude explained the dinner didn’t contain a single gram of beef, poultry or fish. It consisted entirely of genetically manipulated plant protein.
The sun was setting, so Dan called his father to let him know they would arrive home late. Mr. Naidoo said he would call the other parents.
A soft cool rain was falling as they climbed onto the tram to head back to the car. The vehicle had no roof, but the dampening field kept them dry. The entire roadway back to the entrance was lit by chemiluminescence. Fireflies dotted the woods and the sweet fragrance of night blooming jasmine served as dessert.
The enormous gate was open, the car was parked where they left it. Chris was the first to shake Claude’s hand. Claude said he was looking forward to seeing them again in September. Chris was too tired and confused to ask what Claude meant. He smiled and thanked Claude for the tour and being kind to Haley.
Steve, Matt, Brian and Dan followed Chris to the car. Haley stayed behind for a moment. She and Claude didn’t have a private conversation or a moment alone during the entire visit, but it seemed as if they had known each other for years. They hugged goodbye and Haley joined the others in the car.
“That was incredible,” Dan said as the engine started. “It was better than Disney World! I’ve got a million questions.”
“You aren’t the only one,” Steve added, his voice cracking with exasperation. “Who is Anastasius, what is the medallion, what is this place really? Hell, I have no idea what’s going on!”
Haley, Matt, and Brian started talking at the same time. Then Brian put up his hands and said loudly, “Wait! This whole thing started with me, so please be quiet and let me explain.”
Brian was careful to eliminate the most fantastic parts of the story. He didn’t believe Steve, Brian, Chris, and Dan were ready for the uncensored version.
“Jamie and I met Anastasius at the Archbold Biological Station when we were ten years old. We called him Archie. He told us of an ancient civilization known as the Nina Nizhoni. They had a technically advanced society which collapsed during the last ice age. A small library containing details of their history and knowledge was buried somewhere in this area.”
“If that’s true, it could explain some of the things we saw at the Orion Institute,” Steve commented.
“Exactly, Anastasius said the Institute is trying to learn more about the civilization, but can’t get access to the most sensitive information in the library.”
Haley and Matt listened quietly. They were impressed at how Brian was omitting certain details to make the story more believable.
Brian continued, “This is the part you’ll be interested in Steve. These people claim they understood and manipulated DNA thousands of years ago. The most sensitive information in the library is DNA protected, and only a genetically pure Nina Nizhoni can gain access.”
“Wow, now that is interesting,” Steve replied. “But what does that have to do with us?”
“Haley was adopted from the Hopi Indian tribe. The legend says that the glowing eyes of a light skinned child, like Haley, will reveal her pure Nina Nizhoni heritage.”
Steve considered Brian’s answer before answering. “That’s fascinating, but I can tell you it doesn’t work that way. The DNA of the child will be a familial match with the parent.”
“That’s the thing.” Brian continued. “They claim to have had such an extensive knowledge of the genetic process they were able to embed the pure DNA of a Nina Nizhoni into the genes of local Indians. After a few thousand years when civilization had advanced enough to understand their technology, the Nina Nizhoni DNA would reassert its dominance and be revealed by a child with glowing eyes.”
“That’s a great story,” Steve said. “But glowing eyes don’t prove anything. I still don’t understand why you’re so sure Haley’s the one.”
“The medallion,” Brian said.
“Oh yea, right, the medallion. What is this medallion Claude mentioned?”
“It looks like an expensive piece of jewelry, but appears to be a living electronic device. Anastasius instructed me to give it to Haley.
When she held it in the palm of her hand, it was activated by her DNA. I touched it, Jamie touched it, Anastasius and Matt both held it, but nothing happened. It only responded to Haley.”
Haley turned toward Chris who was sitting next to her on the back seat. “Do you want to touch it?” Chris nodded yes. Haley unbuttoned the top of her blouse to reveal the medallion hanging from a leather cord, slightly below her breasts. She held Chris’s hand and pressed it gently against the medallion.
“It’s warm,” Chris said, his voice quivering. “It’s alive, like it’s a part of you.”
He could feel his heart beating in synchronization with Haley’s, and then a profound sensation of oneness. Their spirits were floating like two butterflies in a world of flowers. I’ll never let you go, he thought. Then a piercing noise jolted him back.
“Let me touch it,” Steve barked from the front seat. Haley buttoned her blouse and lifted the medallion out, but kept the cord around her neck.
“You can look, but you can’t touch.” She said.
“Why not, it sounds like everybody else has?” Steve said, sounding like a child.
“That’s before it was mine.” Haley said softly. “Now it’s personal.” Steve was an astute guy. He didn’t fully comprehend her reasoning, but understood from Haley’s tone that she considered the medallion more than a piece of jewelry. It had become an intimate extension of her identity.
Dan couldn’t see much from the driver’s seat, but could hear Steve and see the excitement on his face. Steve’s jaw dropped and his voice cracked when he saw the medallion.
“It’s the Etz Chayim!” He said. “This isn’t like anything I’ve ever seen before. It’s an extraordinary blend of jewelry and technology.”
Steve still wasn’t sure what to make of Haley, but as he remembered her DNA test, he had little doubt she was even more unusual than his friends realized.
Chris walked Haley to her door a little before midnight. It had been a long day. Brian decided to spend the night at Chris’s cabin rather than walk through the woods in the dark. Steve and Matt stayed at Dan’s place.
The boys met at Becky’s for breakfast the following morning before heading back to Wildwood.
“Ya’ll seem mighty quiet this morning.” Becky remarked as she led them to a table. “You look like Zombies.”
“Our trip was a little overwhelming.” Chris replied. “Did Haley tell you about the place we visited? It’s a trip.”
“I’m on the ORION Institute’s Board of Directors.” Becky said with a little smirk.
Chris’s face contorted as if he’d swallowed a lemon. “Whaaaaaat? That’s a big deal. Why didn’t you tell us?”
“The Institute is very low key and it’s an honorary position.” Becky answered modestly. “I didn’t even tell Haley until she mentioned you were going.”
Steve sat up straight in his chair. “Wait a minute! Did you call and let them know Haley was coming?”
“Of course, the Administrator is an old friend. My most memorable archeological dig was on the site of what is now the ORION Institute.”
“Aha, that’s it!” Steve said. “That’s how they knew Haley was coming and why we were treated like special guests. Brian, you had me going with that ridiculous story claiming Haley has special DNA and a magical medallion.”
Becky put her hand on Steve’s shoulder and said, “She really does have pure Nina Nizhoni DNA.”
“Nice try Mrs. King, but the cat’s out of the bag now.” Steve shook his head and chuckled, “good one, good one.”
Steve’s conversation jolted Dan’s memory enough to recall when Claude said goodbye, he said he was looking forward to seeing them in September.
“Is anybody planning to visit the ORION Institute in September?” He asked.
“I won’t, Haley and I will be heading to Chapel Hill next month.” Chris answered.
“None of us will,” Steve said. “We’ll all be in college.”
Dan shrugged in halfhearted agreement, and then decided to ask again. “Are you sure, because Claude sounded pretty confident?”
“Not gonna do it, wouldn’t be prudent.” Matt joked with a pathetic George Bush imitation.
Becky was pouring coffee and listening. Chris thought it was odd how she looked directly at him when she said, “You might be surprised how things can change.”
“Not gonna do it, wouldn’t be prudent.” Matt joked again as he sipped coffee.
A few minutes earlier, Chris had looked out the window and seen Haley in the garden. She enjoyed dead-heading flowers in the morning, so he thought nothing of it. He looked again and this time saw her talking to a well-dressed elderly man.
“Who is that with Haley?” He asked Becky.
“Doctor Augustus Richter. He was a professor at Cornell when Ben and I were there. He led the dig in New Mexico where we found Haley. He’s an old family friend, and has been like a second father to Haley. She calls him Uncle Auggie. I’m sure she’s mentioned him to you.”
Chris’s pulse was starting to race. Haley mentioned Uncle Auggie many times when they discussed her favorite subject, archaeology.
In her desire to support Chris, Haley was registered to study Classical Civilizations at Duke. That would have been enough a year ago, but things had changed. Dozens of major colleges across the country were trying to recruit her, and she had grown more independent.
Chris noticed lately that Becky’s career in archeology was a frequent topic of conversation for Haley. He didn’t want to hold her back, but was afraid Haley was having second thoughts about attending Duke. She might be planning to follow in her mother’s footsteps to attend the Cornell Institute of Archaeology in New York.
“What do you think Dr. Richter wants?” Chris asked Becky.
“I’m not sure. You’ll have to ask Haley.” Becky replied.
Chris suspected Becky knew why the Doctor was here. Her comment, “You might be surprised how things can change,” made him very nervous.
Everyone was eager to go home and start getting organized for college. Jamie had returned to Wildwood with her parents, so Brian caught a ride with Matt. Steve rode back with Dan, but Chris stayed to talk to Haley.
He went to find her after breakfast. She was at the dock, sitting alone on a bench Renee had built for her. She was praying.
“I thought I might find you here,” Chris whispered when she looked up.
“And I knew you would come looking for me. We need to talk.” Haley replied.
Chris dreaded those words. He braced himself for the bad news.
“I can’t go to Duke,” she whispered. Haley was asserting her independence. For the past five years, Chris and Haley had not been apart for more than a week. Haley had become such a part of Chris’s life that the thought of an extended separation made him dizzy. He sat beside her while she explained.
“I want to study archaeology at the ORION Institute. Uncle Auggie, I mean Doctor Richter has spent the last two years developing the curriculum.”
“Are you sure? I expected you to say Cornell, but the ORION Institute? What do you really know about it? Is it even accredited?”
“Dr. James Campbell who is the most famous archaeologist in the world is serving as Dean. That alone is good enough for me.”
“But what kind of instructors can you expect at such a small school?”
“I had that same question, but Uncle Auggie showed me the faculty list. Many of the best college teachers from around the world will rotate through on a guest program. The organization which owns the institute attracted them by offering unlimited resources for their research while they teach.”
“Can they provide you with practical experience? You might get laboratory and museum training, but is there any field work?”
“That’s the main reason for my decision. The ORION Institute maintains the most prized archaeological dig site on the planet, and I may be studying my own family history!”
“What happens to us? Aren’t you and I meant to be together?” Chris asked and then added, “please don’t say it’s all part of God’s plan.”
She didn’t. Her expression said it for her. Have a little faith.
The drive home to Wildwood seemed much longer than the one hour it usually took. Chris felt Haley was making the right choice for her, but couldn’t imagine spending so much time apart. And how did this relate to the dreams he interpreted as visions of him in school with Haley and his friends?
He prayed, but there seemed to be no good answers. When he arrived home, a perfectly preserved 1956 Chevrolet Bel-Air was parked in the driveway. Strangely, the canary-yellow classic was the ideal complement to the flamboyant purple house. Mom has a new car, he thought.
“Nice car Mom.” Chris yelled as he entered the house.
“We’re in here,” Sanya replied from the Florida room. The house had an elegant living room, but Sanya insisted on taking guests to her own personal creation, the Florida room she called “the Jamaica room.”
Tropical plants packed the room from one end to the other: Gingers, Frangipanis, Bananas, and even a large Mango tree touched the raised ceiling. The furniture was waterproof and glass doors were added to protect the rest of the house from the humidity.
“Your mother has created a wonderful sanctuary. I think we may offer her a job as landscape designer,” echoed a man’s voice. Chris entered the room to find Claude Gautier from the ORION Institute.
“Claude is here to see you Chris,” Sanya announced. “He says he wants to offer you a scholarship.”
“I don’t need a scholarship Mom. I’ve been accepted at Duke. They have the best Department of Religious Studies in the country, and Aunt Leslie made sure I could afford it.”
“Just because you have money in your pocket doesn’t mean you have to spend it. You should at least listen to what Mr. Gautier has to say.”
“I will Mom, but it won’t make any difference.”
“Well, at least you have an open mind,” Claude said with a smile. He pulled out a sealed letter from Dr. Kevin Flanagan. Dr. Flanagan was an esteemed alumnus of Duke University, pastor of the largest Baptist church in Orlando, and Chris’s primary reference for admission to Duke.
“What’s this?” Chris asked.
“It’s a personal letter to you from Dr. Flanagan. I haven’t read it, but I hope it will help you decide what to do.”
“Excuse me for a minute,” Chris said as he opened the letter and began to read.
Duke is a superb school and their Department of Religious Studies is second to none. They will provide you with the finest education available and open doors to the most prestigious seminaries and Doctoral programs in the world.
The ORION Institute is a small obscure enterprise that may add little to your resume and find you pursuing outrageous theories which could bring ridicule and alienate you from your peers.
Having said that, if it were my decision, I would choose the ORION Institute without hesitation. I’ve known Claude for many years, and believe his love for God is deeper than anything you can learn in seminary.
Good luck and please know whatever you choose to do, I will always support you.
Chris wasn’t sure what to make of the cryptic letter. Dr. Flanagan made it clear which institution he would choose, but his reason was very ambiguous. Chris put the letter away and looked at Claude.
“O.K., you’ve got my attention. This is the way I see it. The ORION Institute is dedicated to human achievement. You want to use technology to create your humanistic vision of Heaven on Earth.”
“You’re wrong Chris, it’s the exact opposite. Do you think Haley would want to be a part of anything that didn’t include God?”
It wasn’t a surprise that Claude would use Haley as an argument to convince Chris, but it still irritated him.
“I love Haley, but she’s naïve. I think you’ve taken advantage of her desire to uncover her heritage. She’s a very trusting and vulnerable person.”
“Haley is a lot tougher than you know, and you couldn’t be more wrong about us. We accept God as the source and center of all things. We may even have scientific evidence to support it, but that isn’t our goal.”
“Then why put so much emphasis on technology at the Institute?”
Claude glanced at his cell phone. “Technology can be a wonderful thing. It can make our lives more productive and meaningful if used properly. But when Haley’s civilization reached its pinnacle thousands of years ago, technology replaced God. In pursuit of progress, they forgot the meaning of life, and so life no longer had meaning.”
Chris rolled his eyes and groaned in disbelief. “Haley’s civilization? You’ve already labeled her before you even know her, and isn’t the ORION Institute founded on materialism? Aren’t you spending billions of dollars to uncover ancient technologies?”
“That’s precisely why we need people like you and Haley. The world is approaching a tipping point. Haley can help us recognize the mistakes of the past, and you can help us build a path to the future, a course that will take us closer to God instead of leading us away.”
Sanya was still in the room, trying to understand the conversation. Chris looked at her and asked playfully, “what do you think Mom?” Sanya stared back with an empty gaze. Chris turned back toward Claude.
“You said you have scientific evidence of the existence of God?” He asked.
“In two days, we’ve been able to use Haley’s DNA to decode thousands of ancient Nina Nizhoni documents. Are you familiar with quantum consciousness?”
“I’ve read a little. It’s a theory, based on quantum entanglement asserting the essential component of your mind exists separate from your brain, and continues even after the brain ceases to function.”
“That’s right,” Claude replied. “We think the Nina Nizhoni proved it. They used quantum physics to discover a force which encompasses and binds every particle of matter and anti-matter. Our best translation would be the ‘OMEGA Quotient.’ It’s a little like string-theory.”
Chris struggled to comprehend what Claude was saying. “O.K., Let’s assume the Higgs Theory is correct and we find proof that everything in the universe comes from a single source. Why would you assume it is God instead of a natural physical phenomenon?”
“This is where it gets interesting.” Claude answered. “Once the Nina Nizhoni scientists were able to identify OMEGA Quotient impulses, they discovered an unnatural concentration directed at the human brain in a very non-random manner. They theorized it might be a compendium of all knowledge encoded on a spiritual plane like the Akashic records.”
Chris rubbed his eyes and groaned, “How does that prove anything?”
“The impulses were composed of incomprehensibly complex equations. They were able to decipher only two words, ‘I am.’ It isn’t irrefutable proof, but it got my attention.”
“Wow!” Chris mouthed the word. He was overwhelmed and thought, maybe the Institute is where I belong. Instead of studying history, I can be a part of it. Is that what Kevin was trying to tell me?
“Claude,” Chris said as he reached out to shake hands. “I’d like to take some time to think it over and pray.”
“Of course, take as much time as you need. I know you’ll make the right choice.”
Dan would be living on campus at the University of Florida in less than a month. His grades were excellent, but his academic achievements weren’t anything like those of his four best friends. That’s why it was such a shock when Claude Gautier showed up at his house and offered him the equivalent of a full scholarship to the ORION Institute.
“Why me?” He asked. “I’m a good student, but you gave me the impression only the smartest people in the world are recruited to the Institute. That isn’t me.”
“We recruit anyone who has something special to offer. You’re very talented with computers and we want people who can help us get our message out.”
“I’m no Steve Jobs.” Dan replied.
“You have something even more valuable to offer, your DNA.”
“What?” Dan started to laugh. “I’m no Nina Nizhoni either. In case you haven’t noticed, Haley and I are very different.”
“We’ve noticed,” Claude said with a laugh. “The problem is the Nina Nizhoni including Haley are a separate species capable of interbreeding with Homo sapiens. They have spread their genes to nearly every person on the planet.”
Dan was stunned. He knew Haley was different, but learning she was another species came as a shock. It took a minute to catch his breath before asking, “What’s special about my DNA?”
“We traced your family lineage back through South Africa before your visit to the Institute. Based on your family lineage, we suspected you might have pure unaltered Homo sapiens DNA. I hope it doesn’t upset you to know we tested a sample. It confirmed your Genome is untainted.”
“But I thought the whole idea was the superiority of Nina Nizhoni DNA.” Dan said. Claude appeared to be offended by Dan’s comment.
“First off, there’s no such thing as superior DNA. The Nina Nizhoni learned the hard way when they started tampering with genetics. There were a large number of unintended side effects. They didn’t establish a baseline DNA, so they had nothing to refer to when things went wrong. It was a fatal mistake.”
“So why don’t you avoid the problem altogether? Don’t tinker with people’s DNA. Why play God?” Dan asked.
“When people realize they can prevent birth defects and avoid hereditary diseases by adjusting a few genes, there will be no way to stop them.”
“I still don’t understand why my DNA is important.”
“Your DNA can be used to identify differences between the two species. We want to map your DNA down to the molecular structure of the amino acids. When things go wrong, and they will, it will provide a template to start over. It’s like going to a giant mall and trying to remember where you parked your car. Your DNA will provide directions when we get lost.”
Dan explained his existing University of Florida enrollment to Claude and the many reasons why it was too late to change. Claude said ORION would cover the costs and take care of the paperwork.
For Dan, the decision was easy. He might miss the experience of life at a major university, but college was expensive. His father was willing to make up the difference beyond the financial assistance, but it would dig dip deep into Mr. Naidoo’s retirement savings.
A month ago when they were leaving the Institute, Claude said he was looking forward to seeing Dan in September. He was right. Dan wondered how he knew, and then he wondered if his friends were having a similar experience.
Dan was wide awake by the time the alarm clock went off at 5 a.m. on Tuesday, September 4, 2001. Personal vehicles weren’t allowed at the Institute, so a limo-bus was scheduled to pick him up around 7:30 at his house in Wildwood. His father was already awake. Dan could smell the wonderful aroma of Gilchrest County sausage frying in the pan.
“Mornin Dan, gotta send you off right.” Mr. Naidoo called from the kitchen.
This would be his first trip back to the Institute since the tour, but Dan spent so much time on the ORION’s encrypted website it already felt a little like home. He knew his class and work schedules, where he would be living, dining etc. One thing he didn’t know was who his roommates would be.
Two suitcases were packed and carefully placed at the door along with a laptop. Dan hadn’t talked to any of his friends except Chris in weeks and was wondering if their college plans had changed. He was a little jealous Steve, Matt, and Brian would be experiencing regular college life while he attended something akin to a boarding school. At least he wouldn’t be alone. Chris had decided to join Haley at ORION. It also didn’t hurt to remember the whole thing was free.
“The breakfast is delicious!” Dan told his father as he scarfed down three sausages, four eggs, two slices of buttered toast, two glasses of fresh squeezed orange juice, and a large cup of hot coffee.
“I love you son.” Mr. Naidoo said as he started to tear up.
“Don’t get emotional on me pop. This is hard enough as it is.” Dan remembered the day when Becky King asked Ernie, “What are you going to do with yourself when Daniel goes to college?” Dan wished his father had answered because the prospect of leaving him alone was troubling. Father and son talked and shared old memories for over an hour until the bus driver arrived.
Dan felt a tinge of despair as the driver helped him load the suitcases. This should be a happy day, he thought while waving goodbye. His legs felt heavy as he walked to the limo-bus and climbed the steps. “Dan!” A chorus of voices called out in unison. It was a parody of the old TV show “Cheers” when the crowd shouted “Norm!” as George Wendt’s character entered the bar.
Dan’s four friends were on the bus headed for the ORION Institute. The whole crew was back together again! This was the biggest shock since lightning struck on their sixteenth birthday. Dan couldn’t have asked for a better beginning to his college experience.
“What are you guys doing here?” He asked.
“Same as you Danny boy. We’re going to college.” Chris answered. “And we still have to stop in Bayport to pick up Haley.”
“What happened to Duke, North Carolina State and Florida?”
“ORION made us each an offer we couldn’t refuse. Beside, we get to keep our band of friends together.”
Chris had already explained that he and Haley were going to the Institute because of the research, but Dan didn’t think anything on Earth could convince Steve, Matt, and Brian to change plans. They sounded so excited with their college choices. He asked them, “What made you guys choose an obscure little school in the middle of nowhere?”
“It isn’t that simple,” Steve replied. “J. Alfred Weston, who is one of the richest men in the world, visited each of us personally. Then he took the three of us for a ride on his private jet. He promised the school would be state-of-the-art and showed us signed contracts with leading instructors from some on the best schools in the world.”
“We’re all a little nervous, but it sounds like one heck of an adventure, and it’s free!” Matt added. “If it doesn’t work out, Mr. Weston has guaranteed we can reenroll as we originally planned, and he’ll pay for it!”
“But won’t you guys be giving up some of the fun of regular college like football games?”
“You haven’t read the fine print, have you?” Steve said with a chuckle. “We aren’t giving up anything. There are tickets to major college football games, field classes on Friday off campus in either Tampa or Orlando, and an incredible culture trip at least once each year.”
“Yea, I read something about the culture trip in the letter from Claude, but didn’t think it applied to me.”
“Who did you think it was for?” Steve asked. “It’s specifically for Haley and whomever she chooses. Chris has it on good authority that’s us! At the end of each year, our little troop will take an all-expenses paid trip to places like Sydney, Australia, Hong Kong, London, Bermuda, Singapore or Hawaii. We’ll be traveling in style on Mr. Weston’s private jet and staying in the finest hotels!”
“Wow!” Dan said. “Why do we get such special treatment?”
“I don’t know, and I don’t care,” Steve answered. “Like I said, we aren’t giving up anything.”
When Haley boarded the bus, the boys called “Haley” like they did for Dan. It didn’t sound quite right, but she seemed to appreciate the effort. The whole day felt as if it was predetermined, friends were being reunited. Haley and the boys were embarking on a great adventure together. Dan thought it was odd, but Haley didn’t appear surprised to see Steve, Brian, and Matt on the bus. He thought, it’s like she knew before they decided.
On the first night at the ORION Institute, Dan dreamed he was at the Hogwartz School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in the J.K. Rowland children’s novel Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. He knew ORION was unusual, but didn’t think things couldn’t get any more bizarre than their experience on the original tour. Oh boy, was he wrong!
The atmosphere was relaxed as they talked, laughed and acted silly on the ride to their new school home. The large stone gate opened as before when the bus arrived. But this time, instead of following the road like they did on the tour, the vehicle began to sink. An elevator lowered the limo-bus twenty feet into a room designed like a bus station, but more elegant.
An escort led them to a stylish waiting area stocked with food, toiletries, magazines, and clothes. There were many amenities including a wide screen TV, well-stocked library, immaculate restrooms, and a massage chair which Steve quickly occupied.
Dan looked back and saw the limo-bus spinning on a turntable. When it completed the rotation, the entire luggage compartment was ejected and loaded onto a fast moving conveyor.
After stretching their legs, eating snacks, and taking bathroom breaks, an attendant called Haley to a staging desk.
“This is an honor,” she said. “Are our Prophies ready to continue?”
“We’re ready to go.” Haley answered. Since no one else was present, Haley assumed the attendant was referring to her group.
“What did she call us?” Steve asked Haley.
“It sounded like profies. Maybe it’s a nickname for new students.”
They followed the attendant into a small chamber and climbed into giant vacuum tubes which resembled the little plastic thingamajigs seen in the drive-thru at banks. Once seated, the tubes shot off like a rocket.
“If it weren’t for the dampening field, our brains would be splashed on the windows of the vehicle like a Jackson Pollock painting.” Steve remarked. They came to an abrupt stop within a few seconds and heard a clear female voice.
“Welcome to the Hub!” The doors to the claustrophobic little chambers opened and they gladly disembarked into a large circular room.
“How may I be of assistance?” Asked a young woman from a raised platform in the center of the room. Although her appearance was attractive, she seemed cold and detached.
“We’re new students.” Haley announced. “Where do we need to go?”
“Please state your names,” the woman said with mechanical efficiency.
Haley provided the names and within a few minutes, three excessively cheerful older students came through one of the many tunnels to greet them.
“Welcome to the ORION Institute or as I like to call it, ‘Hogwartz’ for gifted muggles. I’m Tim Taylor. This is my brother Tom, and my sister Tammy. We’re identical triplets, all theoretical physicists, and your humble sponsors.”
Haley and the boys were trying not to laugh. The three older students looked like life-size versions of Howdy Doody, with Ronald McDonald hair, conspicuous freckles, and huge smiles.
“Well hello there triplets Tim, Tom, and Tammy Taylor.” Haley replied melodiously. There was a brief silence, then Dan couldn’t hold it any longer. Steve, Matt, and Brian started chuckling at the same time. Suddenly, everyone in the room except the girl on the platform was laughing.
“That’s a good ice-breaker.” Tammy said as she, Tim, and Tom began shaking hands and hugging everyone like family members.
“What’s with her?” Steve whispered to Tim as he nodded toward the lady on the platform.
“That’s the Ice Queen. She’s the interface for the central computer.”
“You mean she isn’t human?”
“Nooo,” he said rolling his eyes. “She’s synthetic and can even be dangerous. That’s why they keep her on a stage away from people. One of our second-year students climbed up there on a bet and kissed her. She broke his arm!”
“She looks so real,” Steve said as he stared at her.
“Come on guys, let’s get this show on the road. We have a long tour ahead,” Tom announced from the first of three vehicles that looked like sleek high-tech golf carts.
“This cart will be yours when we’re finished Haley. The guys get the other two.”
“Hey!” Steve protested in jest. “Why does Haley get her own cart, and we have to share?”
“Actually, no one else on campus has private carts. The other students walk or use the public carts located at the various charging stations.”
“Why are we so special?” Haley asked.
“I suppose because you’re famous.”
“How can we be famous?” Steve asked. “We arrived less than an hour ago. We haven’t done anything.”
“It isn’t what you’ve done, but what you’re going to do. I haven’t witnessed it personally, but I’m told the six of you have massive shadows on the Quantum Biomolecular Interactive Field Indicator. Tammy has seen it.”
After an awkward pause, Steve starting smiling and said, “Very funny, you’re joking.”
“No,” Tom said calmly. “The QBIFI is the most advanced piece of technology at the Institute! It’s like a computerized fortune teller. In fact, your arrival was prophesized by the machine. The students have a name for you, the Prophies. We’ll stop by the QBIFI on the tour if we have time, but we should get started.”
Steve put his nose in the air. “Prophies,” he said. “I like the way it rolls off the tongue.” Tom cleared his throat to get everyone’s attention.
“There’s a lot to see. The facility includes sixty-four primary satellite buildings on four levels, with over a thousand connecting passageways. You can get anywhere in the complex without ever going outside, or you can get hopelessly lost.”
After more than two hours of non-stop cheery commentary, hundreds of identical tunnels, classrooms, laboratories, bathrooms, shops, dormitories, dining stations, offices, and on and on, Steve was the first to complain.
“I’m hungry. This place is a giant ant colony! I should have eaten more back at the bus station.”
“Perfect timing,” Tim replied as he parked the cart. “Gentlemen, this will be your home. Tom and I are across the hall. Haley, you will be sharing an apartment with Tammy in the next module.”
“Is anybody else hungry?” Tammy asked. She was answered with “it’s about time,” an “oh yes”, two affirmative grunts, and one “hallelujah!”
“Check out your apartment, freshen up, and meet Haley and me back here in thirty minutes,” Tammy said as she and Haley rode away.
After Tom demonstrated how the carts were connected to the charging station, he programed the apartment door entry system which used biometric facial recognition access control.
“It’s a brave new world,” Steve remarked. After entering, Dan led a race to the curved back wall of the apartment. It was completely transparent providing a spectacular view. The apartment was on the far side of the complex, positioned thirty feet above ground. The sun was setting like a giant pumpkin over the marsh. They stood awestruck, staring at the unlikely union of technology and nature.
“Look at the alligators!” Dan said. There were a dozen on a dry bank below.
“And get a load of the size of that turtle,” Brian added. A turtle which had been sunning in the same area was over three feet wide. The view seemed so peculiar and out of place. Observing the wetland from the high tech apartment was like being in an enormous space ship landing on an alien planet.
Their luggage had already been placed in the assigned sleeping cubicles, so they hastily toured the apartment and prepared for dinner. By the time Steve figured out how to open the door to leave, Tim, Tom, Tammy, and Haley were already waiting in the hall.
“That’s a fire hazard,” Matt said, pointing to the door as they exited. “It took us five minutes to get out!”
“You’ll get the hang of it,” Tammy assured them. “And in an emergency, all the doors open automatically.”
“You’re in for a real treat tonight,” Tim said. “All first-year students are served their initial meal in the Planetarium.”
“And it’s a clear night!” Tammy added. “Look, up there.” They gazed out the corridor window. The Planetarium was the highest structure in the complex. It had the shape of a giant flying saucer with a clear dome which glowed orange from the setting sun.
They arrived at the Planetarium six corridors and three escalators later. It also served as a conservatory and was the largest meeting room at the school. A dozen tables with eight to twelve chairs each were sporadically placed amongst the camouflage of lush and fragrant plants.
“Here’s our table,” Tim called from behind a large fern. The Prophies found their assigned seats and began sampling the warm bread and tropical fruit. Tim cleared his throat to get their attention.
“The Director is preparing to speak.” A man who was illuminated by a faint spotlight appeared in the middle of the room.
“Good evening ladies and gentlemen. I’m Claude Gautier, Director of the ORION Institute. Welcome to the twenty-second century.” He was wearing an expensive suit with a more impressive appearance than when he led the tour.
“Every person here has been carefully screened and selected to participate in a vital project. We at the ORION Institute are determined to shape the future of mankind on planet Earth. In exchange for your help, you will receive the finest education available anywhere, and participate in astonishing technical and societal innovations.”
When Claude activated the sky dome, the audience gasped with astonishment. The chamber had darkened and the stars in the sky shinned unnaturally bright, even more luminous than on the blackest night at the river.
“How is this possible?” Steve asked Tim. “I’d expect the curve of the dome to produce a fisheye effect which would make the stars appear smaller, but they appear much larger and brighter than usual.”
“The dome isn’t the simple clear substance it appears to be,” he replied. “It’s a giant telescopic camera. What you are seeing is a digital projection of the night sky, magnified with atmospheric distortions removed. You couldn’t get a better view if you were on the space station.”
Claude continued speaking, “You’ll learn more about our goals over the next few weeks and months, and I’m confident you will be as excited as we are. Tonight, enjoy your meal and welcome to our family.” The dim spotlight on Claude faded and he disappeared.
The meal was spectacular and the new students talked, laughed, and watched the stars until midnight when the lights came up and everyone was ushered out. The boys were so tired by the time they arrived back at the apartment they went directly to bed.
Dan closed his eyes and found himself dreaming, welcome to Hogwartz!
The first two days at ORION were spent in orientation. Learning the layout of the sprawling Institution was a major undertaking, but the amount of time spent studying the benefactors was a surprise.
The background of J. Alfred Weston was well known, but the list of supporters included many of the wealthiest and most influential people on the planet. It was heady stuff being a part of an organization so powerful and influential, but Dan and Matt were determined to stay objective, avoiding the allure of the rich and famous.
The ORION Institute was like a cult in many ways. All of the students, including Haley, were entranced by the goal of creating a better world. Dan and Matt couldn’t argue with the objective, but the millennium had just passed and New World Order conspiracy theories were plentiful. They wondered, are we being used as pawns by a few billionaires who want to control the planet?
The Institute wasn’t like other schools. Most students weren’t sure how to react at first because it was different from anything they had ever experienced. One advisor had a standard spiel.
“You won’t need money here. We don’t use it. Anyone who lives on campus participates in a resource based economy inspired by futurist Jacque Fresco. He founded the Venus Project.”
The Venus Project, what is that? Matt wondered. The idea of a resource based economy sounded complicated, but Matt tried to keep an open mind as he listened to her explanation.
“It’s a system centered on resources rather than money. In other words, it cuts out the middle man by distributing resources directly to the people who need them in the most equitable and efficient manner. Of course, it isn’t quite that simple, but for practical purposes,” she opened her arms gesturing to the entire facility. “If you need it, it’s yours.”
Matt asked, “If everyone takes what they want, how do you keep track of inventory? How do you know how much to order and how much of what to keep on hand?”
“Our inventory control system is cradle to death cutting-edge technology,” the advisor answered. “Each item and student have distinct biometric readings which enables the system to identify who took the item, the current location, how long it’s been there, and how much remains until the item is completely consumed or discarded.”
“It sounds like we’re being watched every minute. Is that necessary?” Matt asked.
“The short answer is yes. A resource-based economy is much more efficient and equitable than using money. The goal is to encourage an incentive system that isn’t founded on shallow and self-centered goals of wealth, property, and power. We envision a world where the material and spiritual needs of every person is satisfied, allowing individuals to pursue self-fulfillment. The institution provides students a first-hand account of how the system might work in the real world.”
Matt was a little uncomfortable with that much big brother. It was beyond anything he considered possible, so I took solace when Steve whispered sarcastically, “This sounds a lot like a high tech commune.” An unsettling vision was playing in Matt’s mind; he pictured a mysterious machine tracking the sandwich he ate for lunch until it was digested and flushed down the toilet.
Although Matt was trying to avoid being brainwashed by the Institute, it was difficult to avoid falling in love with the place. ORION was located in the middle of nowhere, but felt like the center of the universe. An endless stream of celebrities, politicians, famous scientists and billionaires could be seen wandering around the campus. Most were gawking with the same childlike expression Haley and the boys had on their first visit.
A different person arrived each evening of the first week to speak in the conservatory. They were world leaders who seldom spoke at venues smaller than the United Nations. They came unannounced with no fanfare, talking impromptu with the students and faculty for an hour. There was no official record of the visits, but they felt compelled to speak. Matt wondered, why?
Classes were as inspiring as the instructors. There were ten or less students in each classroom, and the lecturers were famous scientists or popular instructors visiting from other universities. The laboratories and equipment/materials were beyond cutting edge, more like science fiction. The textbooks were maintained in adjustable binders because they were being continuously updated.
Haley and the boys from Wildwood looked forward to the lessons with anticipation like everyone else, wondering what innovative new concepts they might learn or what mysteries would be revealed.
The six of them were so involved in classes they forgot Tom’s comment about them being famous. When Brian remembered, he asked a passing student where the Quantum Biomolecular Interactive Field Indicator was located. The student responded, “The what?”
“I told you it was a joke,” Steve said.
Haley said, “That still doesn’t explain why we were treated differently.”
“Were we?” Steve asked. “Think about it. As far as I can tell, the only special treatment we received was the souped-up golf carts. But those carts don’t have our names on them, and they don’t look any different than other carts positioned around the facility.”
“Yea,” Dan added, “How would anyone know it was one of our carts if we left it at one of the other staging areas?”
“Exactly,” Steve continued, “Tom also said he would show us the machine, but he hasn’t. Face it, this is an initiation prank.”
“I don’t agree,” said Brain. “Anastasius described the Quantum Biomolecular Interactive Field Indicator to me when I visited him at Archbold. He didn’t call it by name, but he described it.”
Steve shook his head and laughed. “Suckers. We’ll talk to Tom after class this evening and you’ll see.” Steve made some good points, but the other boys figured if Haley thought the machine existed, it probably did.
Matt, Brian, Steve, and Dan went back to their apartment after dinner. Chris returned a few minutes later with Haley and Tammy.
“Tammy’s going to take us to see the QBIFI when you guys are ready.” Haley announced.
“What’s that?” Steve asked because he didn’t remember the acronym.
“The machine you claim doesn’t exist.”
“Oh, I’ll believe it when I see it,” he said with a wink.
Tammy explained the QBIFI was located in a secure vault at the farthest end of the facility, so they would take the carts rather than walk. The tunnels looked familiar for the first fifteen minutes, but then the corridors widened without windows or decoration of any kind. As they raced through a long straight corridor, they passed a dark passageway on the right. It appeared different from the others, and they felt a cold blast of air.
“What’s down there?” Steve asked.
“That’s where we keep Walt Disney’s frozen head.” Tammy replied with a straight face.
“Very funny.” Steve quipped.
They arrived a few minutes later. The end of the tunnel appeared smooth and metallic. Tammy stepped from the cart and spoke to the wall.
“This is Tammy Taylor with the Prophies.”
The wall looked as if it turned into dust and drifted away in little clouds of smoke. The others followed Tammy inside what appeared to be an enormous cavern. Strange colored lights flickered and winked casting peculiar shadows, bathing the room in a cool green glow.
“Welcome to the Vault!” Boomed a young man’s voice. Brian recognized it immediately. It was Anastasius who leapt from the shadows wearing a cape like the one he wore years ago at Archbold. Everyone was startled.
“My Queen!” Anastasius dropped to one knee and bowed to Haley like a knight in a medieval play. Haley stiffened uncomfortably.
“Please don’t,” she said softly, but decisively.
“But your Highness, I am,” Haley raised her hand and stopped him in mid-sentence.
“I know who you are.” She said, an angry tone was in her voice. Light was escaping around the edge of her contacts. A whirlwind encircled her. “My name is Haley King. I am a student at the ORION Institute like any other.”
Haley’s countenance softened and the wind subsided. She turned toward Chris and said “I’m sorry. That was a very poor joke.” He pulled her close and said, “It’s forgotten.”
Except it wasn’t. Dan was genuinely frightened, not of the strange man who jumped out of the dark in a vampire cape, but of a beautiful young friend who was possessed by something he didn’t understand. He thought, this place just keeps getting stranger.
“Tammy, will you introduce me?” Anastasius asked as he looked away from Haley.
“Yes, this is our laboratory technician, Dr. Anastasius Custer. We call him the caretaker. I think he wants to be an actor because he tends to be a little over dramatic,” she said with a nervous laugh. “Follow me, but be careful to avoid tripping.”
They climbed several steps and gathered around the machine. It looked like a large pipe organ, except it had a twenty foot wide, three-dimensional display screen.
“This is the Quantum Biomolecular Interactive Field Indicator, or as most students know it, the QBIFI. It’s pronounced Q-bifi. We think the QBIFI was built by an advanced civilization we call the Nina Nizhoni. The Indian name translates roughly to ‘people with glowing eyes.’” Haley began fidgeting uncomfortably.
“Legends tell of an ancient people whose eyes were as bright as the stars.”
Chris put his arm around Haley, and she put hers around him. It was the light in Haley’s eyes that first attracted Chris. When they first met, she turned away as they were introduced, afraid Chris would be repulsed. Instead, his hand softly guided her cheek until they were nose to nose. He whispered with undeniable adoration, “Your eyes shine like the stars.”
Tammy continued speaking.
“The vault was first excavated in 1981 by an archaeological team which included our own Dr. Claude Gautier and Haley’s mother, Dr. Rebecca King.” The stunned expression on Haley’s face was unmistakable.
“You didn’t know?” Tammy asked. Haley shook her head, so Tammy continued.
“It wasn’t until recently that we began to understand what the QBIFI does. Through the efforts of Dr. Custer and his father before him, we’ve learned that the QBIFI is a super sophisticated quantum computer which measures human interactions on a massive scale.”
“But what is the purpose?” Steve asked. Tammy paused and took a deep breath.
“Well,” She stuttered nervously. “It a, a, it taps into the fundamental fabric of reality.”
“What? What does that mean?” Steve asked. Tammy regained her composure.
“It tells the future.”
“That’s got to be the biggest pile of crap I’ve ever heard.” Steve looked at Matt, Brian and Dan, “You guys are going to be embarrassed when you realize this is a part of the freshman hazing. I’ll bet Haley is in on it, and Chris too.” Tammy reached out and touched Steve’s arm.
“I was as skeptical as you, but I stood in this exact spot last December when the machine predicted a huge biomolecular shift would take place in the western part of India on 26 January. Then on that day, an earthquake devastated the area and twenty thousand people died.”
“So you say, but I bet the cape crusader here (he was referring to Anastasius) is the only one who can read the tea leaves, so we have to take his word for it.”
“You’re not listening,” Tammy said, her voice filled with irritation. “This machine predicted the earthquake. Follow me and I’ll show you proof.” She led them to a display area with dozens of projections, each measuring approximately four feet square. The sheets of information were lined up like dominoes suspended in mid-air with dates on one axis, geographic coordinates on another, and strange symbols on a third, giving each three dimensions.
She proceeded to manipulate the machine to one specific page. It was heavily marked with lines and dots and had six names marked on it. Haley King, Christopher Hagan, Steve Davis, Mathew Jackson, Brian Adams, and Daniel Naidoo.
“This single projection is composed of over trecentillion discrete biological events in quantum space. The QBIFI uses qubits to measure interactions as 1s, 0s, or quantum superposition which is both at the same time. Combine that with the quantum effects of entanglement and tunneling and the QBIFI is the most powerful computer ever built on Earth.”
“Are we supposed to be impressed because someone scribbled our names on a three dimensional spreadsheet?” Steve laughed sarcastically. “That doesn’t prove anything. It convinces me even more that this is part of an elaborate hazing.”
Tammy was struggling to stay calm. “I agree it doesn’t prove anything, but this is the first time the QBIFI has been specific enough to list names. We think it’s important for you to understand the magnitude of your biologic impact on the planet.”
“What? Are each of us going to have a thousand kids or something?” Steve asked, his voice half sarcastic and half angry.
“I don’t know what you’re going to do.” Tammy said seriously. “But I do know the ORION Institute was founded because of Haley.” Tammy paused before adding, “Also Chris, Matt. Brian, and you!” Her hand flipped the display to another page.
“Look at this.” The page identified the northeastern United States as the location, the date was September 11, 2001.
“The QBIFI predicts something very significant will happen on that day, but we can’t identify the specific event. The President has been informed.”
“The President of the United States?” Steve asked. You’ve got to be kidding, and on our birthday too. What a coincidence! I’m looking forward to it.”
Tammy looked like Steve had punched her in the gut. Tears ran down her face and her voice trembled.
“Steve, the readings predict you will suffer more than anyone else. I’m so sorry, but next Tuesday you’ll know this isn’t a joke.”
Steve was angry. The hoax was getting a much too personal. Regardless of his skepticism, he was shaken by the sincerity in Tammy’s voice. He shook his head and said, “I’ve seen enough.”
There was an awkward silence on the ride back to their rooms. As the cart passed the tunnel where Tammy joked about Walt Disney’s frozen head being stored, Haley heard voices and a powerful humming noise.
One of the perks provided by the school was a free shuttle bus to Tampa, Orlando and points in between. To schedule a trip, five students were required to register in advance. Dan managed to entice his four friends from Wildwood and a few other students to sign up for a trip to Disney World the first weekend. That was on Monday, but everyone was second-guessing the request by Tuesday afternoon. Monday was full of happy talk and orientation, but it was a struggle to keep up by the end of the second day.
When Dan went to the office to cancel the trip, he was surprised to learn it hadn’t been scheduled. The office manager had been one hundred percent certain he would withdrawal the request. The faculty wasn’t surprised by the cancellation either. In fact, nothing the students did surprised the faculty or staff.
The school collected a dossier on each student with in-depth psychological profiles in addition to scholastic strengths and weaknesses. They also collected personal information, details the students thought no one else knew.
It was creepy, but the results were undeniable. The school had a precise understanding of each enrollee’s capabilities and limitations. By the weekend, students were putty in their hands like little automatons following preprogramed instructions. And they loved it. It was an adventure that rivaled any in Orlando’s theme parks.
The mood was different as students headed back to class on Monday of the second week. The date was September 10, 2001. The happy, optimistic presentations which defined the first week were gone, replaced by a tense, nervous atmosphere. New students wondered if the first week had been a pretense to prevent a mass exodus of first-term enrollees.
Dan asked Tim Taylor if he knew what had changed.
“Tomorrow,” he said. “Haven’t you heard the QBIFI forecast? Something bad is going to happen tomorrow. We just don’t know what it will be.”
Steve was still convinced that the prediction was part of some elaborate freshman initiation with his birthday being the best time to spring the trap. He thought he had it figured out, but Steve was the only one that felt that way. Chris, Matt, Brian, and Dan could see genuine concern in the eyes of other students and faculty. None of them got much sleep that night.
“Time to get up birthday boy,” Chris called out as he prodded Dan who was still in bed. It was 7:30 a.m. on Tuesday, September 11. With the frantic pace of the first week, Dan had forgotten it was their birthday. He hurriedly dressed and followed the other boys to The Breakfast Hole, the single place to eat in the morning other than biometric vending machines.
Haley was already there waiting when Tammy, Tim, and Tom brought out a giant birthday omelet. Large lettering made of chopped red peppers read, Happy Eighteenth Birthday! There were six names inscribed in small letters underneath. Chris Hagan, Steve Davis, Matt Jackson, Brian Adams, Daniel Naidoo, and Haley King.
Dan didn’t know Haley had the same birthday until now. The little he knew concerning Haley’s background was a few details Brian shared after their initial visit to the Institute. He felt left out as usual, but then someone else admitted not knowing.
“It’s your birthday?” Steve asked Haley with a mixture of confusion and hurt. She answered, “Yes, I thought you knew.”
“How do you know it’s your birthday? Weren’t you abandoned as a baby?”
“The person who left me attached a note with information including my date of birth, September 11, 1983.”
Steve looked at Chris. “You must have known. Why didn’t you say something?”
Chris shrugged and tried to explain. “I thought you knew. Haley moved to Bayport long after we started celebrating our birthday together. We were fishing, so the subject didn’t come up.”
Steve failed to recognize what was obvious to the others. Haley’s birthdate made the miracle of their births even more extraordinary. He was acting like Haley was crashing the party, diminishing the miracle.
But then Steve remembered the Etz Chayim scar on his foot, Chris’s prediction they would all go to the same college, and the Etz Chayim pattern on Haley’s medallion. It hadn’t registered until now, but he’d even seen the same pattern in the vault on Friday. Haley was without question, a member of their little miracle. In fact, she was the heart of it. He started to welcome her to the birthday club, but before he could utter the words the Director’s voice rang out over the public address system.
“All students, faculty, and staff are requested to assemble immediately in the conservatory.”
Dan stuffed a couple extra bites of omelet in his mouth and followed the crowd. Tammy hurried off in the opposite direction.
The three hundred seat capacity of the conservatory wasn’t large enough to accommodate everyone. Extra seats had been set up, but dozens of people were left standing. A news report of the World Trade Center attack was being projected on a lower section of the dome. The sound was off. Claude Gautier walked to the center of the circular room and began speaking from a few hand written notes.
“At approximately 8:46 a.m. Eastern Standard Time, a United Airlines Boeing 767 crashed into the World Trade Center.”
A huge collective shriek from the audience startled Claude, and he turned his view to the news projection which was showing a second plane crashing into the Towers.
“My god, it’s really happening,” he moaned. He turned the sound on to the news report and listened with the students and faculty for the next fifteen minutes. Then he turned the sound off again and addressed the assemblage.
“As you are aware, we have certain technologies at this facility which are unknown to the outside world. One of those technologies predicted a significant event would take place today. It projected grave danger for the people of the east coast, so we felt a responsibility to notify the Federal Government in advance.”
Claude paused and hung his head slightly, as if embarrassed.
“Naturally, they’re apprehensive that we may be involved. The Vice President called within minutes of the initial plane crash. He informed me due to the suspicious nature of the prediction and the resulting events, this facility, staff and students are under quarantine until further notice.”
A quiet chatter filled the room as the crowd strained to understand what was happening, the reason for a quarantine, and what it meant for them.
“Please call your families, tell them you love them, but we are requesting everyone stay on campus for the next few days. I know it will be difficult, but I’m requesting no information concerning the quarantine or the reason for it be shared with anyone on the outside, including loved ones.”
What Claude didn’t tell them was he had refused a direct order from the Vice President of the United States to institute a blackout of all information into or out of the facility, including phone calls to family. He told a very angry Vice President he alone would take responsibility for any leaked information.
A few people went back to their rooms and offices, but most stayed and watched as the towers fell, the Pentagon was hit, and flight 93 crashed. They experienced some therapeutic effect by being together.
Dan saw Tammy standing at the entrance to the conservatory looking for someone. He waived to her as she looked in his direction. She saw him and hurried over. Her face was more red than usual and her eyes were swollen as if she’d been crying. He couldn’t help but wonder if she was overwhelmed by the disaster or if someone in her family was involved.
“Are you O.K. Tammy?” He asked.
She seemed to ignore him and spoke to Steve.
“I want to talk to you.”
“Sure,” Steve replied as if numbed by the morning events.
Tammy pulled Steve away from his friends. She was holding his hands while speaking to him. Dan didn’t hear much, but heard her say, “I’m so, so sorry.”
Steve screamed like a wounded animal and Tammy was hugging him as tight as she could. Dan had never seen Steve cry, not even after the death of his brother John, but tears were running down his face. No one except Tammy knew what had happened, but Haley had joined the hug within seconds, and then Chris. By the time Matt, Brian and Dan joined in, the whole conservatory was gathering into one giant embrace.
It wasn’t related to the terrorist attacks, but Steve’s mother and father had been killed in an automobile accident on their way to work that morning. Tammy’s prediction “Steve would suffer more than anyone else” had come true.
Steve’s Uncle Frank was the first to be contacted after the accident. He lived near Wildwood and went to the high school to pick up Steve’s little sister Linda. In spite of everything that was happening, Claude found the time to contact Steve’s Uncle Frank and asked if Linda would like to be with Steve. She said yes, and despite the quarantine ordered by the Vice President, Linda was with her brother before the end of the day. They were a great comfort to each other. She went off to stay with Tammy and Haley a little before midnight. When Dan’s head hit the pillow at the end of that horrible day, he could still hear Steve mumbling “it’s a joke, it’s all a joke, it’s a sick joke.” Then the last thing he heard was Steve’s tearful voice, “Dear God, It isn’t a joke.”
For the next few days after 9/11, the ORION Institute looked more like an armed camp than a college campus. In addition to military personnel, there were more men in dark suits than students or faculty. Secretive arrivals and extra security indicated the highest ranking officials were spending most of their time at the QBIFI. Entrances to the area were heavily guarded.
The Vice President was still fuming over Claude’s insubordination, but Claude had a few enigmatic friends who were even more powerful than the V.P.
The quarantine was partially lifted, allowing Steve’s friends to attend the Davis’s funeral. Steve left school to take care of personal matters and figure out what he was going to do with his future. Both of his parents were from large families, so there were plenty of aunts and uncles for support.
As teams of experts deliberated and debated the authenticity and utility of the QBIFI 9/11 prediction, they came to a consensus. Since the 9/11 readings registered three times higher than the earthquake in India which killed twenty thousand people, they concluded other attacks were imminent.
Based in part on that information, the Federal Government reacted much stronger than it may have otherwise. The QBIFI statistics had a direct impact on the length of time nonemergency civilian aircraft were grounded, implementation of the President’s Surveillance Program (PSP), Stella Wind data mining, the PATRIOT Act, and the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security.
After months of study, experts began to understand what the QBIFI does. It registers and records strong thoughts and emotions on the sub-atomic level rather than physical manifestations in the observable world.
“We screwed up,” a high-ranking official told the President. “We overreacted because that machine (the QBIFI) was simply reflecting people’s emotional response to the massive media coverage which included the death of people from seventy-eight different countries.”
It became clear that the Quantum Biomolecular Interactive Field Indicator was an effective tool for gauging the mood of the general population, but of little use in influencing human events.
“The machine may even enable us to predict the future,” a top scientist reported. “But processes we don’t understand at the sub-atomic level prevent us from changing the future. It’s like looking in a mirror. We can see what’s happening, but we can’t get ahead of it.”
Once the Feds realized the ORION Institute neither caused the 9/11 attacks, nor could have prevented them, they lost interest. Life at the Institute returned to as near normal as possible, but the nation struggled to make sense of senseless acts.
The first quarter classes were as expected, mind-blowing. But more significant was the sense of purpose. Instead of demoralizing the students, the terrorist attacks intensified their desire to make a difference. For most, it wasn’t a matter of getting a degree or making a profit, but doing something important. They couldn’t change the past, but they could change the future by making the world better.
There were a couple things bothering Dan. The first was his inability to contact Haley, and the second was the uncertainty surrounding Steve. No one knew when or if Steve was returning to school.
Haley was working long hours in the vault. Security guards followed everywhere she went and wouldn’t let anyone near, even to visit. Her friends didn’t know whether they should be worried for her or be upset that she was ignoring us.
Steve was busy tying up loose-ends in Wildwood. Between managing the family household and keeping his parent’s medical clinic open, there was a lot to do. Fortunately, his Uncle Frank was a medical doctor and available to take over the family practice. Steve’s little sister Linda was taking accelerated classes and only a few credits short of her high school degree.
J. Alfred Weston invited Haley to take the first culture trip during the Christmas break. Even though she had been enrolled for less than three months, Mr. Weston believed an excursion was needed to refocus after the terrorist attacks and the death of Steve’s parents. It would be an eight-day visit to Sydney Australia. His offer seemed awkward after the recent tragedy, but he insisted and promised to have Haley and her friends back home a full week before Christmas.
After a couple days relaxing with his dad, a stretch limo with Matt and Brian already inside pulled up to the Naidoo’s house. It was there to take them to the plane.
“Hey guys, where’s Chris?” Dan asked as he climbed in.
“I think he and Haley are going to meet us at the airport.” Matt replied.
“Has anybody heard from Steve recently?”
“Yes,” Brian answered. “He’s doing fine, but I bet you can’t guess who’s been staying at his house the last few days.”
“Gee, how should I know? Ashley from Science Camp?”
“Pretty close, but think red hair.”
“You’re kidding, Tammy? Tammy Taylor?”
“Bingo! They haven’t been separated on a weekend for the past two months.”
“That makes sense.” Dan was thinking aloud. “Tammy’s mother and father died in a plane crash a few years ago, and it’s pretty clear she became the parent. Both Steve and Tammy were childhood prodigies and when you get past the red hair and freckles, she’s very pretty.”
“Am I detecting a little jealousy? Do you have a crush on the Wendy’s girl?” Brian was teasing.
“You don’t have to worry about Dan,” Matt said. “Steve’s little sister has dibs on him.”
“She isn’t a little girl anymore!” Dan said with a defensive tone.
It took the limo thirty minutes to reach the private airstrip located somewhere in Marion County. In that time, they managed to catch up on local hometown chatter and empty the snacks from the limo’s minibar.
They rode through thick woods for the last ten minutes before a large clearing revealed the private airstrip. Claude waived from the door of the gleaming new Gulfstream G200.
“Is this real?” Brian asked. “We’re flying to Australia on a gas-guzzling private jet! I don’t think my parents wouldn’t approve.”
Chris and Haley greeted them as they boarded the plane. They were pleasantly surprised to see Steve and Tammy. Dan was particularly happy to see one additional unexpected passenger, Linda.
“This is gonna be epic!” Dan said as they greeted one another. Matt claimed one of the plush bucket seats.
“I counted eight individual seats. Looks like you’re stuck on the couch Claude.” Matt kidded.
“I’m in the catbird seat,” Claude replied.
“I’m your pilot.” Then he asked Brian, “I wonder if your parents would approve of a ninety-three year old pilot?”
Steve thrust his arms in the air and wailed, “Oh my god, a ninety-three year old pilot, we’re all going to die!”
Everyone was encouraged to hear Steve making light of the situation. After his parents’ accident, he sank into a depression. Even now, it was obvious he was hurting. He had bags under his eyes and tracks from his tears.
They were all together again. It seemed no matter what life threw at them, Haley’s friends would always find each other.
There was plenty of time for conversation on the flight. The plane cruised at over 500 miles per hour, but it was still a long trip to the far side of the world. There were brief stops in Texas, California, and Hawaii. Then a customs agent cleared the plane at the Gulf Coast Airport in Queensland before the final brief leg to the Sydney Bankstown Airport. Everyone was dead tired. A van was waiting to drive them to the Park Hyatt Sydney Hotel. The rooms were cleaned and ready, so they checked in and went straight to bed even though it was the middle of the afternoon.
At around 6:30 p.m. local time, Claude knocked on doors to ask everyone to meet in the lobby an hour later. The plan was to go out for dinner together to establish a few ground rules during the visit. They were still too groggy to be hiking around searching for a place to eat, so Claude promised to make reservations at the hotel restaurant. It sounded like an impossible undertaking. The Park Hyatt Sydney was a 5-star luxury hotel with an unparalleled waterfront location between the Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Opera House. The restaurant was one of the most popular in Sydney, and the normal wait time for a reservation was at least two weeks. No one was surprised when Claude managed to get a reservation for ten people in less than an hour.
The table overlooked the Sydney Opera House, but Matt and Brian were more fascinated by the dozens of sailboats which appeared to be playing chicken with a giant cruise ship departing the harbor. As the sun set, warm pink streaks of light reflected off the Opera House superstructure, gradually supplanted by the illumination of street lamps along the quay.
Most of those present were happy to ignore their empty rumbling stomachs while continuing to watch the harbor lights, but the food presentation was even more entertaining. A carefully choreographed procession of waiters and waitresses delivered mouth-watering meals fit for kings and queens, and which were as appealing to the eyes as to the palate. Each dish was designed with a personalized decoration. Dan’s steak was topped with an intricate sculpture of the Opera House, which he scoffed down without hesitation.
“I can’t believe you ate it,” Linda said. “It was a work of art!”
“And it was delicious too,” Dan replied.
A mysterious young man named Carlos Ferrer was dining with them. He wore an expensive Armani suit, was handsome, and looked like a bodyguard. Linda and Haley couldn’t keep their eyes off him. Near the end of the meal, Claude announced Carlos would be the liaison (i.e. chaperon) while Claude was taking a four-day trip to the mountains.
He was leaving in the morning for the Lamington National Park to see the rainforest and visit an old acquaintance. He said two friends cancelled at the last minute, so there was extra space for two people if anyone wanted to join the excursion.
Linda said, “I want to go.” Then Dan asked. His request elicited adolescent snickers from Matt and Brian. Claude smiled and appeared happy to have the company. Steve trusted Claude to take care of Linda, so plans were made. The three of them would leave early the next morning.
Claude and Carlos went back to their rooms after the meal. The students spent the rest of the evening on a leisurely stroll. They walked for over an hour, taking in the sights and sounds along the quay. The sky was clear, but even the stars couldn’t compete with the twinkling city lights of Sydney. By the time they returned to the Hotel, their minds were filled with pleasant memories, but Matt couldn’t shake the notion someone had been watching them.
Claude met Dan and Linda in the lobby at 6:30 a.m. the next morning and took a taxi to the airport. They flew back to the Gulf Coast Airport in Queensland to meet Claude’s friend Samantha. She was a tall woman in her mid-thirties with ivory complexion, azure blue eyes, and long raven-black hair.
“Hello sweetheart,” Claude said as the two embraced.
“Hello Dad.” The words felt like a nail scraping across an old phonograph record. Dan looked at Linda with a shocked expression, but she looked back as if to say, “How sweet.” Dan knew Claude as the mysterious young-looking old man who made things happen like Merlin the magician. He didn’t picture a family.
Claude held reservations high in the mountains at a place called O’Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat. The four of them loaded the rental van and began their adventure. Samantha insisted, “This is my territory, I’m driving!”
She sped along the narrow mountain ridges like a stock car driver. The only stops were at a fern garden and two distilleries which the passengers needed to steady their nerves. When they arrived, an older couple welcomed them with open arms. The greeting seemed odd to Dan who assumed the pair had mistaken them for someone else. He soon realized the proprietors treated everyone like long lost children. It was part of the retreat’s charm.
The Retreat was isolated like an island, floating on top of the world. It was designed to help visitors forget their tedious lives back on Earth. Linda and Dan walked together through the ancient forests on a suspension bridge high in the tree tops. They peered over Moran Falls with a majestic view of nature’s grandeur. Spectacularly colorful birds flew from the trees to eat out of their hands, and they dined in a cozy rustic restaurant with new friends.
Meanwhile the other students back in the “Harbor City” were seeing the sights. Brian and Matt had begun their challenge to visit as many beaches as possible in four days. Chris, Haley, Steve and Tammy were taking a more traditional approach to sightseeing.
Even in Australia, Haley had become a minor celebrity. Carlos was concerned because she didn’t have a bodyguard. He asked for a copy of her planned itinerary.
“These are our plans,” Haley told Carlos, “but this is a beautiful and fascinating country. I can’t guarantee we won’t venture off course.”
“Just remember,” Carlos said. “You’ve been described as the protégé of one of the richest men in the world. You’re visiting an international city on the far side of the planet. This would be a good place for a kidnapping. Please be careful.”
“Thanks for the encouraging words,” Haley said sarcastically, “but I can take care of myself.”
The two couples began their first day out with a tour of the Opera House where they attended a play, followed by lunch at the ARIA Restaurant. It didn’t take long before they started seeing a familiar face pop up in the crowd, Carlos. It soon became a game, find the hidden Carlos.
After visiting the Botanical Gardens, they walked along the Farm Cove perimeter path to the well-known tourist photo spot, Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair. Tammy won the game by spotting the hidden Carlos five times. On the following day, Chris convinced the others to ride the ferry to the Taronga Zoo. They compromised late in the day with a shopping trip to Darling Harbour and wound up eating pizza at Pancakes on the Rocks.
They were enjoying the harbor view in front of the convention center when a gang of ten young Asian men approached and surrounded them. Steve, Tammy, and Chris were very nervous until the men began performing a magic act. Every time one of them touched Haley, she disappeared and reemerged somewhere else.
Steve started to applaud when the apparent leader said something in Chinese and another revealed a knife pressed against Chris’s side. It wasn’t an act.
Haley began speaking to them in Mandarin which surprised everyone. Even Chris had forgotten Haley was trilingual.
“They want me to go with them,” Haley said calmly.
“No way,” Chris shouted as Steve and Tammy joined in the protest.
“I’ll be O.K., you need to trust me. They won’t hurt me.” Haley tried to calm the others, but it was too late. Her companions were shouting and trying to draw attention. The leader took Haley while other gang members held Chris, Steve and Tammy.
It happened so fast that by the time security personnel and bystanders came to help, the gang members had slipped into the crowd. Haley was out of sight with the leader. Chris, Steve and Tammy were screaming and trying to find Haley as officials worked to gain control of the situation. As soon as Tammy finished dialing Carlos’ cell, she heard a ringing phone coming toward them. It was Carlos. He was wheezing heavily.
“Haley’s been kidnapped!” They all shouted at the same time.
“I know, I followed them through the convention center, but they got away.” Carlos replied, gasping for air.
“You said her name is Haley?” Asked an official.
“Yes,” Carlos answered.
“We’ve got her. She’s O.K.,” the official reported.
“Thank you God,” Chris wept, his hands still trembling.
“I can’t say the same for the guy who was with her,” the official said, his smile revealed morbid amusement.
“What happened?” Carlos asked.
“We don’t know exactly, but we found him writhing on the sidewalk. His right hand was severed. The girl was trying to comfort him.” He shook his head and smiled. “Imagine that, the man kidnapped and tried to rob her, but she was worried about him.”
The man with the severed hand was rushed to the hospital for replantation, but the others were taken to the Rocks Police Station where Haley was being questioned.
The rest of the evening was very confusing. Police were struggling to make sense of what happened. Haley had explained when the man tried to pull the medallion from around her neck, his hand got tangled in the cord. He panicked and his hand was torn off.
The police had three problems with Haley’s account. First, the necklace was a thin leather cord that should have snapped long before sawing through the man’s wrist. Second, the cut on the man’s wrist was smooth like a laser rather than being ripped off. Third, although blood splattered the sidewalk and area where the hand was severed, there wasn’t a drop on Haley.
“I guess we’ll never know the complete story,” the police woman said when Haley was released a little after midnight. “In all my years, this is the first time I’ve seen anything like this. We’ve been ordered to stop the investigation, close the case, and let you go. You must have friends in very high places.”
Carlos didn’t leave Haley alone for the rest of the trip. When Claude returned from the rainforest, Carlos was eager to discuss the Darling Harbour incident. Carlos felt some responsibility for letting it happen, but was also a little angry for being put in a difficult situation. He believed Haley needed more protection. Dan overheard him and Claude arguing in the hotel lobby. Carlos sounded angry and frustrated.
“She could have been injured, or even killed.”
“I don’t think so,” Claude replied. “You don’t understand.”
“What I know is that she’s an eighteen year old girl. She’s flesh and blood. No amount of training can protect her from the Qabalah.”
Claude took Carlos by the arm, pulled him to the side, and lowered his voice.
“Look. It’s a lot more than training. Her physiology is different in ways you can’t imagine. And she’s protected by the medallion.”
“That thing around her neck?” Carlos asked.
“Yes, it’s a sophisticated symbiotic device. Quite frankly, we don’t understand how it works, but Haley in practically invincible with it around her neck. You saw what it did to the thug who grabbed her. I’m certain the Qabalah hired him to steal it. They knew he would fail, but wanted to find out what would happen. Now they know.”
Instead of ruining the trip, the attempted kidnapping added an extra air of excitement. Every time Steve told the story, (and he loved retelling the story) it grew more sensational. In his version, the gang was twice as big and Carlos fought them hand to hand. Linda and Dan considered their romantic trip to the mountains equally memorable. Matt and Brian insisted their beach adventure was the most authentic Australian experience.
Everyone stayed together the next two days for security. They scheduled a city tour, harbour lunch cruise, and a day trip to the Blue Mountains. Claude arranged a twilight bridge climb the last night before leaving. It was requested by Mr. Weston who considered it a good “team building” experience. It was also good exercise!
Steve admitted to a slight fear of heights. He made it to the top of the bridge by firmly clutching Tammy’s hand. Tammy enjoyed the panorama of sparkling city lights even though she no longer had feeling in her left hand. Chris embraced Haley, Dan embraced Linda while Brian and Matt flirted with the tour guide. The harbor lights danced on the water while sounds of happy tourists drifted up from the waterfront, barely discernable on the breeze.
Haley whispered to Chris, “Do we have to go home?”
Becky’s restaurant was closed on Christmas day, but it wasn’t empty. Ms. Shelby, Camille, Becky and Linda were preparing the Christmas meal. Haley was spending the day with Chris’s family in Wildwood, but Becky made sure their seats weren’t left empty. She convinced Steve and Linda to stay for the holiday.
Dan and his father considered themselves fortunate to be on the regular guest list. Becky said the meal was a Christmas gift to the people who helped her during the year, but she was being kind. The guest list also included Renee, Haley’s Uncle Auggie, and Mr. Pearson who was the widower from down the street. It would be safe to assume none of the above would’ve shared in a proper Christmas meal if it weren’t for Becky. Her one request was the men wear a coat and tie.
Dan enjoyed a light breakfast on Christmas morning with his father. A traditional seat at the table was set for Mrs. Naidoo despite her having been dead for eight years. Ernie offered his Christmas prayer of thanks for anything and everything that came to his mind.
Dan asked why it was necessary to be so long-winded. “Why don’t you say, ‘thank you for all the blessings?’ God already knows the specifics.”
Ernie answered, “Because God blesses us again, each time we give thanks. It forces us to focus on what we have rather than what we’ve lost.”
After some thought, it made a lot of sense to Dan. He recently read a multi-millionaire had committed suicide when his company went bankrupt. Even after the default, the man still had his house, a couple million dollars, and his beautiful family. But he couldn’t see the blessings, only what was lost. Many people were like that after 9/11. The holidays were restrained, but Becky refused to be subdued. She reminded everyone what was most important, they had each other.
Dan and his father arrived at Becky’s before noon. Steve, Mr. Pearson, Renee and Auggie were already inside. Becky greeted them wearing a long green velvet dress, leading them past an exquisitely decorated ten-foot spruce Christmas tree on the way to the porch. It was midday and Dan lagged behind to enjoy the melody of Westminster Chimes echoing in the great room.
“How do you do it?” Ernie asked Becky in admiration.
“How do I do what?” Becky asked modestly in a heavy southern accent. She knew what he meant, but didn’t want to presume too much. Perhaps she wanted to hear him say it. If she wanted to hear the words, she may have been disappointed.
“All this,” Ernie gestured, looking around the room at the decorations. “And this,” he nodded up and down at her stunning dress, her carefully brushed hair, and flawless makeup. “And this,” he turned as Linda, Liz (Ms. Shelby), and Camille paraded in with a ham, a turkey, and a sweet potato casserole. They were dressed in elegant gowns.
Becky nodded to the other ladies and replied, “We’re a good team.” Auggie initiated applause and the other men joined in with a whistle from Renee and a “Bravo” from Mr. Pearson.
The meal didn’t begin until Auggie offered a long toast, followed by an even longer prayer from Ernie. They ate too much, laughed until their sides hurt, and talked until throats were dry. Life at school and the trip to Australia were the main topics of conversation, but Mr. Pearson spent the afternoon lavishing Liz Shelby with extravagant compliments. His flirtations were entertaining, but it was obvious her affections were reserved for Renee.
Mr. Pearson realized the futility of his efforts and was the first to leave at four o’clock. The other guests were still there when Haley and Chris returned from Wildwood. By the time Haley finished telling several amusing Christmas stories describing Chris’ family, everyone was immersed in conversation again. After that, Becky broke out the board games. Then she insisted guests stay and share some of the leftovers. Dan and Ernie helped clean up the mess and it was midnight before they departed. Despite efforts to consume the remaining food, Dan and his father carried home generous portions of pecan pie, turkey and ham.
As Dan prepared to return to school, he worried the mood would be gloomy. The Feds had officially cleared the Institute of wrongdoing in the 9/11 attacks, but a shadow of suspicion remained. Claude was also concerned, and determined to steer the school in a positive direction.
The first day back at the Institution was declared a day of celebration. It was an enormous party with celebrities and A-list musicians. The students were having fun, but there was another purpose for the events. A long list of well-known motivational speakers inspired crowds from a temporary stage erected in the conservatory. Each student was given a simple assignment; propose ways to improve the quality of life based on your field of study. It forced them to focus on what they had and what could be done rather than what had been lost.
Most were getting back into the academic routine within a couple days, but Haley’s memories of a former life were distracting her. She had no idea what her dreams meant or what to do. They were no longer childish daydreams that could be disregarded, but vivid and sometimes frightening memories of events she couldn’t understand.
When she was recruited by her Uncle Auggie, he said “the Institute needs a translator for the archeological study of the ancient Nina Nizhoni civilization.” He didn’t mention her relationship to the Nina Nizhoni, maybe he didn’t know. Haley realized from the beginning the ORION Institute was more than a school of archaeology, and understood much of the technology was beyond cutting-edge. She was willing to overlook the mystery for the hope of uncovering her past.
The time for being polite was over. Haley needed answers. Her very sanity was in doubt, and the attempted kidnapping raised even more questions. She had been patient long enough. It was time to confront Claude.
Haley entered Claude’s private office and closed the door. Her hair was glimmering with static electricity and her eyes were glowing through her contact lens. Claude took a deep breath as he considered how much she looked like a Cobra preparing to strike.
“I don’t like being used,” she said.
“I didn’t lie to you Haley. I wasn’t sure you were ready for the whole truth.”
“Well, I’m ready for it now. I need to understand! I don’t know who I am anymore.”
“Please, have a seat.” Claude said. “This may come as a shock, but you’re more than a descendant of the Nina Nizhoni people. You’re the full reawakening of Queen Mahu Kuwanlelenta. It means….” Haley interrupted him.
“I know what it means. The mythical queen who will bring balance to the Earth.” She paused, remembering her mother’s bedtime stories. “Was she a real person?”
“No,” Claude answered with a touch of sadness in his voice. “She was and is a product of genetic research and development. Despite their technological and biological advancements, the Nina Nizhoni civilization faded away. They tinkered with their genetics to the point of no return.”
“Then who am I?” Haley looked bewildered. “What am I?”
“You are the last hope of an extinct race, the pinnacle of their technology, and their gift to mankind. As misguided as it was, the Nina Nizhoni tried to become immortal. They almost succeeded through a method of self-cloning and a technique to preserve memories from one lifetime to the next.” Claude paused to choose his next words with care.
“What happened? Clearly, something went wrong.” Haley said, growing impatient.
“They ran out of time. They wanted to live forever, but repeated cloning damages the natural reproductive process. After a few generations, there weren’t enough fertile people alive to maintain a viable genetic pool.”
“So where did I come from?”
“Their best scientists gathered in an effort to create the most advanced human genetic design. The DNA was then embedded within recessive genes of the local Indians. When the atmosphere reached a certain level of specific chemicals indicating advanced technology, the recessive genes were activated and you were born.”
“But why, for what purpose, and how many others are there like me?” Haley asked.
“The Nina Nizhoni didn’t expect you to resurrect their civilization. They were attempting to pass along some of their knowledge to future Homo sapiens. The DNA which is rearranging your cellular structure at this very moment represents the pinnacle of their technology. Your genetic code is linked to the vault and everyone on the planet with Homo princeps DNA. Your birth triggered the deactivation of similar recessive Homo princeps genes in other humans.” Claude touched Haley’s hand. “In other words, you’re the only one of your kind.”
“So I’m the example of a failed civilization,” Haley sighed.
“You’re so much more than that. You’re here to show us what is achievable, but at the same time warn us of what can go wrong when we play god. You’re a gift from the past, a teacher, and your transformation couldn’t come at a better time.”
“What do you mean, it couldn’t come at a better time?”
“There are a few powerful men determined to destroy this institution and keep the world in a constant state of chaos. They were once Nina Nizhoni.”
“What do you mean by ‘once?’ Didn’t you say the Nina Nizhoni are extinct?”
“Yes, but these are clones. They have the ability to self-replicate with most of their memories intact. They also have other technologies which they’ve used to acquire enormous wealth and power. You won’t find them on the Forbes Fortune 500 list, but they are wealthy beyond description. They’ve had thousands of years to accumulate riches and manipulate world events in their favor. We refer to them as the Qabalah.”
“And you want me to fight them?”
“Oh god no! Fighting and killing is what they do best. We need to bring them out of the shadows before we can defeat them, and you can help.”
Haley still had a million questions, but her mind was spinning. She wanted time to think, analyze and organize the information.
“This isn’t over.” She said while turning to leave.
“I know,” Claude mumbled. “It’s just beginning.”
Claude’s revelations didn’t bother Haley as much as the realization her mother helped excavate the vault. Becky’s involvement raised some worrisome questions. Did Mom and Dad know about me from the beginning? Did they love me, or was I a part of the job?
Even though she knew in her heart Becky loved her, Haley couldn’t find the courage to confront her mother. She put up a brave front on the trip to Australia and on Christmas vacation, but now she was feeling more and more frightened and alone. Questions were swirling in her head, what did Claude mean when he said I was genetically engineered? Was my birth mother a Hopi Indian or was I created in a test tube? How will Chris react when he learns I’m not human? The answers were terrifying, but she had no choice. She had to go back for more answers.
Haley steadied herself and went to answer a knock at her door. It was Becky.
“Oh Momma,” she cried as they embraced.
“Claude called. He said you might need me,” Becky whispered as she held Haley and wiped away the tears.
“Come in Mom, you haven’t seen my place.” Haley sniffled as she took Becky’s hand and led her to the back of the apartment. She pressed a small button and the exterior wall became transparent, like the back wall of the boys’ apartment. A half-moon was perched a few degrees above the horizon in the clear night sky. It lit up the marsh like a giant spotlight.
Haley’s mood improved with her mother’s arrival. She asked, “What do think of the view?”
“It’s amazing sweetheart. This whole campus is incredible! Ben and I completed our work here before you were born. The last time I was here was in April of 1983 when they were breaking ground on the college. This whole area was nothing but woods, swamp, snakes and alligators.”
“Come sit down Mom,” Haley said as she settled on a leather couch. “Why didn’t you tell me?” She asked softly.
Becky gazed at Haley with an expression of remorse as she sat beside her.
“I didn’t learn of your connection to the Nina Nizhoni until last year, and still don’t know much. I should’ve told you right away baby, but I didn’t know how. I hoped you’d find some answers here at the Institute.”
“Too many answers Mom. Every answer brings up a dozen new questions.”
Becky realized what Haley needed more than anything else was to know she was loved. She spoke from her heart with tears running down her face.
“When we adopted you, Ben and I knew fate had brought the most beautiful child into our lives, giving us an opportunity we didn’t think possible. You see, Claude knew an accident left me unable to give birth to a child of my own. You are a gift from Heaven, the best thing that ever happened to us sweetheart.”
“How did you find out?” Haley asked.
“Your father never knew. I became suspicious when Claude called to insist we cancel the surgery set up by your ophthalmologist. I hadn’t heard from him in years and couldn’t understand how he knew so much about your medical condition. I told him I wouldn’t cancel unless he explained.”
“What did he say?”
“He wasn’t very forthcoming at first, but admitted he and J. Alfred were the ones who left you in the motel room in New Mexico. He said he knew for a fact the surgery wouldn’t help your vision, but it could be very dangerous.”
Haley collected enough nerve to ask the most troubling question, not knowing if she was prepared to hear the answer.
“Do I have a birth mother or was I created in a laboratory?” Becky reached out and held Haley’s hands as she often did when Haley was a little girl.
“Yes, she’s a Hopi Indian. Do you remember the stories I told you about the Kachina spirit Earth Mother?”
“Yes,” Haley paused, lost for a moment in reflection of her childhood. “I loved those stories. The princess Kachina spirit rescued the world. The Hopi said she saved us from the koya, nis….” Haley couldn’t remember the word and asked, “What was it called?”
“Koyanisquatsi, it means ‘life out of balance,’” Becky said as she gazed at Haley. “That story is part of an old Hopi legend that I thought made a pleasant bedtime story. I’ve come to realize it wasn’t a fairy tale, and it was no coincidence that you had glowing eyes.”
Becky leaned back as she shared everything she knew.
“Claude told me that when you were born, a medicine man declared you to be the physical reincarnation of the Kachina spirit Earth Mother and carried you to the Catholic Church. He said that’s where he and Mr. Weston found you.”
Haley stared at Becky with an expression of confusion. “What were Claude and Mr. Weston doing there?”
“Claude and Mr. Weston were looking for you. The man you call Anastasius sensed you had been taken from your mother. He used the equipment in the vault to locate you.”
Haley asked, “Why would a Hopi medicine man take me to a church?” Becky paused before answering.
“Many of the Indians were forced to convert to Catholicism in the late sixteenth century. My guess is the legend of the Nina Nizhoni was altered to fit the new religion.”
Haley smiled. “Whatever the reason, I’m glad I was left with you and Dad, but was it a coincidence that you were in New Mexico at the time?”
“No,” Becky replied. “We didn’t know then, but J. Alfred pulled some strings to get your father and I assigned to the dig in New Mexico. Looking back, the whole situation was suspicious from the day we arrived in New Mexico until we adopted you. It was just so perfect we didn’t dare question it.”
Becky grabbed Haley’s hand to emphasize her next statement. “You should know Claude and his wife Noreen wanted to adopt you, but Anastasius stressed how important it was for you to grow up in a normal family, away from the vault. He insisted keeping you away until after your eighteenth birthday was critical.”
Haley acknowledged the answer and continued with her questions.
“How did you meet Claude?”
“This is beginning to feel a little like an interrogation,” Becky said with a smile. “He recruited Ben and me for the initial excavation of the vault. It was very mysterious and the most exciting archaeological project your father and I ever participated in. You are the only thing in our lives that has been more rewarding.”
“I love you Mom.” Haley said.
“I love you too.”
Haley spent the next hour telling her dreams to Becky and describing the subtle changes in her perception of other people. Becky comforted and reassured her. Haley was laughing and relaxed when there was another knock at the door. She opened it to find Chris holding a bouquet of flowers. He didn’t wait to start talking.
“Claude stopped by to see me. He said you’re a Queen. Of course, I already knew that from the first moment I saw you. When I touched the medallion, I realized you’re more than flesh and blood. I thought, she’s an angel, and you are just by a different name.”
Chris pulled Haley close and whispered in her ear, “This changes nothing. I will love you forever.”
“Hello Chris,” Becky called from the couch.
“Oh, Hello Mrs. King. I didn’t see you there.”
Chris had phoned a few people and before the evening was over, most of Haley’s friends had dropped by to support her. In a single night, her feelings of despair were erased. Anastasius was correct when he insisted she needed to grow up in a devoted family. All of the knowledge and power she was developing was meaningless without the support of those who loved her. The following day, Haley was back in Claude’s office, but in a much better mood.
“Thank you Claude for sending in the cavalry last night,” Haley said with a smile.
“You’re welcome. Did you get the answers you wanted?”
“Most, but I’d like to understand the connection between you and Mr. Weston and how the ORION Institute was started?”
“J. Alfred Weston is my stepson. The ORION Institute was his idea and it wouldn’t be here without his hard work and financial support. I need to go back a little over fifty years to explain how it all developed.”
Claude shared his story with Haley, beginning with J. Alfred Weston’s father.
John Weston was J. Alfred Weston’s father. After returning from military service in 1946, he read a quote from Woodrow Wilson regarding the Federal Reserve Act. “I have unwittingly ruined my country…no longer a Government by conviction and by the vote of the majority, but a Government by the opinion and duress of a small group of dominant men.”
A widely-held theory of that time suggested a few bankers had orchestrated the Federal Reserve Act of 1913, giving them control of the United States money supply. One of John’s favorite hobbies was debunking conspiracy theories. After reading Wilson’s statement, he decided to investigate. The inquiry may have eventually led to his death.
John Weston was a very busy man. He married soon after enrolling at Yale University and his wife Noreen soon gave birth to a son, John Alfred Weston. Before he could finish his studies in archaeology, John was called up for military service.
When he returned from active duty, his part-time job, academic studies, and family responsibilities left very little time for conspiracy theories. By the summer of 1947, both John and Noreen felt overwhelmed.
John’s Advisor, Professor Arthur Wilson had received a package with relics from a very secretive Frenchman who claimed to have discovered the remains of an ancient civilization. He wanted the professor to meet him at the Archbold Biological Station in Central Florida.
Even though the artifacts appeared genuine, the professor was skeptical because the man wouldn’t reveal the location of the archaeological site. The man wanted the school to fund an exploratory dig without providing any additional information.
There was no way the professor could spare the time to go on a possible wild goose chase, and the University wouldn’t fund even a minor expedition so soon after the war. But Professor Wilson could send a handpicked student on a low cost fact finding mission.
John and Noreen jumped at the chance to take a working vacation to Florida with the University picking up most of the tab. As a bonus, they would be driving down in a 1946 Ford coupe. It was going to be a surprise gift for the professor’s brother Jimmy who was assigned to the Air Technical Service Command at Hendricks Field outside of Sebring.
“What’s the name of this place we’re going?” Noreen asked John.
“Sebring. It’s where a lot of the rich and famous people go in the winter. We’ll drive down in style and come back on the train. Professor Wilson says the place to stay is the Kenilworth Lodge. We might even see some celebrities.”
Noreen seemed unimpressed. “I’ve never heard of it, but if Professor Wilson says it’s nice, I’ll take his word for it.”
John spent most of his spare time for the next few weeks planning the trip. He plotted a leisurely detour down the west coast of Florida to Tampa, then across to Sebring. The professor gave him phone numbers for the Archbold Biological Station and his brother Jimmy.
The trip was exciting at first, but after two days the Ford coupe’s soft luxurious seats felt more like hard wooden pews in the church of eternal discomfort. Noreen and little Alfred were both irritable following a sleepless night at a roadside motel in Valdosta, Georgia. John was determined to stay positive and continued on his planned route down the west coast of Florida.
Even though it was the last week of October, the sun sizzled on the dashboard. There was no air conditioning and only a few signs of civilization had been seen for hours. Then two pretty girls in bathing suits appeared along the roadside like a mirage. They were waiving at cars as they passed. It was impossible to tell what they wanted.
Noreen was startled and thought the girls needed help, but no excuse was necessary to make John pull into the parking lot. He wanted a break and something to revive their hot, tedious vacation.
They had arrived at the Weeki Wachee Springs roadside attraction. John bought three cherry snow cones and they chomped on the refreshing delicacies while enjoying the underwater ballet. The subsurface theater was dark and cool. Little Alfred’s eyes were open wide as he imagined the endless possibilities of this strange sunken world.
The exquisite creature swam effortlessly through the cool clear water. Her hair flowed gently behind, like a shimmering waterfall within a blue ocean. Her gaze met his, and her smile made him tremble. His outstretched hand tried to touch her…
“Alfred! Come sit down. Other people can’t see the mermaid show,” Noreen pleaded.
“Oh Mom! Please! I’m not hurting anything!” The little boy responded.
“He isn’t bothering us,” said a middle-aged woman sitting near the little boy who was practically glued to the clear wall of the small underwater theatre.
“Well O.K., but stay there and be quiet.”
The unexpected stop revived the family’s outlook. They relaxed, cooled off, and the little boy’s imagination kept him quiet for the rest of the trip.
The afternoon was going well until they arrived at the Kenilworth Lodge in Sebring. It was a winter-only resort that didn’t open until after Christmas. The other option was to see if any rooms were available at the local Sebring Hotel.
John decided to call his contact phone number before checking in. A young woman’s voice answered. “Hello, Archbold Biological Station. May I help you?”
“Yes, this is John Weston from Yale University. I’m trying to get in touch with Claude Gautier.”
“Oh yes Mr. Weston, Mr. Gautier is away for the afternoon. He asked me to let you know that Mr. Archbold has invited you to stay here on the Station.”
“Well that’s very kind of him, but my wife and son are with me. I’m hoping to find a room at the Sebring Hotel. It may be a little more comfortable than roughing it on the station.”
The woman laughed. “I assure you, a stay at the Roebling Estate is not roughing it. It’s a beautiful home with lovely gardens and peaceful trails to explore. We would love to have your family stay with us. And I would be more than happy to show your wife and child around the area while you and Mr. Gautier are at work.”
John covered the phone with his hand. “They want us to stay at their rambling estate, is that O.K.?” He whispered to Noreen.
She whispered, “La-di-da,” then smiled. “O.K.”
“We’ll accept if we can find a way to get there. Our car is a loaner that we’re delivering to Hendricks Field for a friend.”
“Do you mean the Sebring Air Terminal?”
“No, I was told Hendricks Field.”
The young woman laughed again. “Well, unless you’ve got a time machine, it’ll be the Sebring Air Terminal. Hendricks Field was closed two years ago.”
John was silent for a moment. He was wondering, what now? He responded, “I’ll have to call you back after I find out what’s going on.”
“Don’t worry about a thing Mr. Weston. We’ll be expecting you, and if you need a ride just call.”
It turned out Professor Wilson wasn’t aware of the Army air field transfer to civilian control. He knew his brother had retired in Sebring, but they hadn’t discussed the base closure. The professor didn’t tell his brother he was sending the car because he wanted it to be a surprise.
John called Jimmy and they agreed to meet at the entrance to the air terminal.
“She’s a real beaut,” Jimmy said, referring to the Ford coupe. “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your driving her down here. I’m sorry for the confusion, but for a college professor, my brother can be a little scatterbrained. I’ll be happy to drive you to the Biological Station.”
John accepted Jimmy’s offer and in less than an hour they were approaching Archbold. The first thing they noticed was a tall water tank. It looked large enough to serve a small town. The residence looked more like a hotel than a house, and the landscaping was simple scrub with a few scattered pines trees. Where were the beautiful gardens? It was impressive in size, but most of the buildings had loading bays like some type of industrial complex.
“Oh my, this isn’t what I was expecting,” Noreen said as she peered at the rugged landscape.
“Well it is a biological research station honey. I’m sure the inside is nice.” John said, trying to reassure her.
It was slightly past 6 p.m. when they pulled up to the residence. A very short dark-skinned woman greeted them. She looked to be no more than eighteen years. Her voice was soft and sweet.
“Welcome to Roebling Estate. I’m Elizabeth Shelby. Please call me Liz. I’m the receptionist, housekeeper, cook, and tour guide if you need one.”
Liz invited Jimmy to stay, but he declined and sped off in his new car. She then led the Weston family inside. The home was decorated with elegant furniture creating a warm and welcoming atmosphere. John and Noreen were both relieved, but still wondering, why this location? It was in the middle of nowhere.
“I hope you’re hungry. I’ve prepared supper.” Liz said. The house was filled with the wonderful aroma of fresh baked bread.
“Starved!” Noreen answered.
Liz showed them around the house before they prepared for supper. A man was already seating at the table when they entered the large dining room. He stood to introduce himself.
“I’m Claude Gautier. It’s so nice to meet you. I’m sorry I wasn’t here when you arrived.”
Claude reached down, pulled out a model airplane and gave it to Alfred. The gift delighted the boy, but irritated John. Then Claude turned to Noreen, gazed into her eyes and kissed her hand hello. He spoke with a sensual French accent and exhibited a sociable nature. A little too social, John thought.
John knew Noreen was a loyal wife, but sometimes he wondered why she agreed to marry him. Her modest beauty went far beyond the glistening chestnut hair, deep blue eyes and creamy peach complexion. She radiated charisma that excited men and charmed women.
“Mr. Gautier, we’re here on business, nothing more.” John stated.
“Nonsense,” Claude replied. “Florida is beautiful this time of year, and you must take this opportunity to enjoy it.” Claude looked directly at Noreen, “I would love to show you around.”
John was a gentle man, but Claude’s unconcealed flirting was more than he could stand. His face turned red, his fists tightened, and he stepped toward Claude. Fortunately, Noreen recognized the anger in John’s eyes. She put her arm around her husband’s waist, pulled him close, and said, “Thank you Mr. Gautier, but we are very much looking forward to seeing the sights as a family.”
Liz brought out the main course and joined the others at the table for supper. She reached out to hold hands with Noreen on her left and Claude on her right.
“Claude, would you like to say grace?”
“Thank you Liz.” Claude replied. “Dear Heavenly Father, thank you for this food. Thank you for this beautiful day. Thank you for bringing this wonderful family safely to our community, and all the other blessings in our lives. In Christ name we pray, Amen.”
“Amen,” John, Noreen, and even Alfred said.
“Must be Baptist,” Liz said with a chuckle.
“Well, tell me Mr. Gautier, when are we going to visit this mysterious archaeological site you claim to have found?” John asked.
“Call me Claude. I plan to take you there first thing in the morning, but tonight we’ll sit on the porch and get to know each other.”
They discussed weather, conservation, and the beauty of nature as the evening progressed, but Claude avoided mentioning the archaeological site. They sat on the porch enjoying a lazy orange sunset, a comfortable fall breeze, and the solitude of the countryside. Alfred marveled at the number of stars he could see in the night sky away from city lights.
The official purpose of this trip was to determine if the undisclosed archaeological site was genuine and worth the investment of time and money. John realized Claude saw it the other way around. Claude was trying to decide if John or Yale could be trusted as a partner.
After breakfast the following morning, Noreen helped Liz with the dishes as they planned how to spend their day. Liz was going to take Noreen and Alfred on a tour of the facility.
The men prepared for the trip to the undisclosed site.
“I’m sorry to have to ask you to do this, but you’ll be wearing a hood for the first part of the trip,” Claude told John as they climbed into the truck.
“You must be kidding!” John said.
“I’m very serious. I’m taking a risk by bringing you this far. If certain people found out about this site, it would be plundered and destroyed in a matter of weeks.”
John reluctantly agreed, but felt like an idiot riding in the truck with a bag over his head. They traveled for forty-five minutes before stopping. Then Claude removed John’s hood. The truck was parked in a small clearing surrounded by scrub. There was no trace of any road in sight.
A small corral confined a large army horse. Claude saddled the animal, helped John up, and the horse galloped into a wooded area with both men. After a half hour, the growth became very thick. When they arrived at another corral, they enclosed the horse and continued on foot.
“The vegetation in this area is different from the scrub back at the biological station. It’s like a tropical rainforest. We couldn’t have traveled more than twenty miles. How is that possible?” John asked.
Claude didn’t respond. John noticed a machete in Claude’s right hand which wasn’t being used.
“I’m getting scratched up pretty bad back here Claude,” John said. “Do you think you could cut away a few more of those vines and brambles?”
“Sorry John, but I don’t want to leave an obvious trail. The machete is for protection from Cottonmouth snakes. This place is full of them.”
John stopped for a moment and looked around. “Thanks, that’s one more reason to love this place.”
“Relax, we’re here!” Claude announced.
John recognized a major inconsistency in the local geography. They were standing in front of what appeared to be a fifty-foot wide granite mound.
“This definitely isn’t Florida Limestone,” John quipped.
“You haven’t seen anything yet, look over here.”
Claude pulled back a tarp, camouflaged with a thick coating of leaves and other debris. Underneath was a circular area three feet across in the middle of the stone. It appeared to be pure gold door, engraved with an accurate representation of the Orion Constellation.
“My god!” John’s mind was racing, but he was at a loss for words.
“Now you understand the need for secrecy. I think there’s a lot more here than precious metals, but if word of this place gets out, it will be plundered for the gold.”
“This may be the greatest archaeological find in history!” John said. “This granite is located hundreds of miles from the source. There’s enough gold here to rival the pharaoh’s tombs, and these astronomical drawings appear to be pointing to the third planet in orbit around the red star Betelgeuse (Alpha Orionis). If this is authentic, the implications are beyond comprehension.”
Claude sat down on the granite as if relieved, and smiled. “You don’t know how long I’ve wanted to share this with someone. To see someone else express the things I’ve been thinking for years, but I didn’t know who to trust. I began studying archaeology and read Dr. Wilson’s work. I believed I could trust him, but I was concerned when he sent you in his place.”
“You can trust me,” John said.
“I know. I could tell by the expression on your face. You’re more interested in the mystery than the gold. Knowledge is more important than wealth to men like us.”
The two men spent the next three hours studying the site and the inscriptions. They could barely contain their joy as they exchanged thoughts and theories. Then they camouflaged the site and returned to Archbold.
“By the smiles on your faces, I assume the day went well,” Liz stated when the men returned. Both John and Claude tried to disguise their enthusiasm.
“The site may have some potential,” John said with an unimpressed tone.
Liz looked at Noreen with a suspicious smile and uttered a sarcastic, “Mm-hmm.”
“Well, we had the most wonderful time today,” Noreen chirped. “We spent the whole day exploring the station. I don’t think I’ve ever truly appreciated nature, but Liz has opened my eyes. There are so many beautiful wildflowers around us I didn’t notice before. Now I understand why this location is special. I want to show you a rare plant called the Scrub Morning Glory. It’s not far from the house so we can go before breakfast tomorrow.”
“Looking forward to it,” John replied. “Did Alfred have a good time?”
“Oh, he fell in love with this place. He had the most wonderful time. I think he’s decided to become a botanist.”
“That sounds like our little boy. Next week he’ll pick a different career. Oh by the way, where is he?”
“He’s in the attached warehouse helping a nice man named Walter take care of an injured bird. Walter’s the, let me see if I can get this right, Avian Ecology, Endangered Species Management Program Director or something like that.”
“Are we sure he isn’t bothering anyone?” John asked.
Liz answered. “Everyone loves your little boy! One thing I’ve learned around here is a conservationist will talk to anyone who will listen, and little Alfred is a mighty good listener.”
At breakfast the following morning, Alfred was full of energy. He was reciting statistics for plants and animals on the station. When he started to describe the scrub morning glory, it reminded John of Noreen’s promise.
“Oh, I almost forgot. When do you want to go see the morning glory?” John asked.
“I know where it is Mom, let me take him,” Alfred shouted.
Noreen pondered the request for a moment and then answered. “O.K., I think it’s a good idea for father and son to spend a little quality time together.”
“Come on Dad!” Alfred squealed as he led John out the door.
John was amazed at how much information Alfred learned in one afternoon, the name of plants, bugs, birds and even the buildings. Then out of the corner of his eye, John noticed a man walking fast toward them.
The man wore a bowler hat, dark sunglasses and carried a long cane like a blind man. He bumped right into John.
“Oh, I’m so sorry, excuse me,” he said.
John felt a sharp pain in his ankle, but was more concerned with the man who bumped into him.
“Are you O.K. sir?” He asked, but the man didn’t even slow down. How odd, John thought, the man was wearing a heavy cloak, and it’s at least eighty degrees out here.
John began slowing down as they walked farther.
“What’s wrong Daddy? Are you O.K.?”
“I’m feeling a little woozy son. Maybe we better head back.”
By the time they arrived at the house, John had a pounding headache and was having difficulty breathing. He said “it must be allergies” and told Noreen and Liz he was going to lay down and rest for a while. Noreen let him sleep for a couple hours, but then started to get concerned.
When she went to check on him, he didn’t wake up. She saw his right ankle was severely swollen and discolored. Noreen screamed, Liz came running.
“It’s a snake bite! It looks bad. I’ll get Walter, he’ll know what to do.”
But John was already dead. The venom had paralyzed his lungs and he suffocated, or he had a heart attack. Either way, he was beyond resuscitation.
Walter found puncture marks on John’s right ankle. “It looks like a Cottonmouth,” he said. “But I don’t understand how he could’ve been bitten without knowing. A Cottonmouth strike feels like a ninety mile per hour fastball. It isn’t something you can ignore.”
He asked Alfred if anything unusual happened on their walk. Alfred described the man who bumped into his father, and then he took Walter to the place where it happened.
When they arrived, Walter found a dead Eastern Coral snake. Its head had been crushed, perhaps by John’s shoe. How convenient, he thought, but it makes sense because a Coral Snake’s bite can be virtually painless and the venom is deadly. Was it possible John didn’t realize he was bitten?
The coroner’s official report specified “Eastern Coral Snake bite” as the cause of death. Despite the evidence, Walter whispered to Claude, “It doesn’t add up. The bite marks were too precise and the venom was too potent. I think we need to find the man who bumped into John. Who was he? What was he doing here? Don’t quote me, but I believe John may have been murdered.”
The director of the Archbold Biological Station was so saddened by John’s death he paid for funeral expenses and to have the body shipped home. He even purchased train tickets to New Haven for Noreen, Alfred, Claude, and Liz. Although the Weston family stayed at the Station for less than two days, Liz wanted to support Noreen. Claude, who concealed a curious sense of guilt for John’s death, felt an obligation to be there for Alfred.
The funeral turnout was quite large with many students and most of the Yale faculty in attendance. Noreen who was known for her cheerful and bubbly temperament cried without ceasing after John’s death. Many people didn’t recognize her with the red face, swollen eyes and a blank expression.
Liz was a godsend, handling the funeral arrangements and answering questions. Claude kept Alfred busy and helped with legal paperwork.
While standing in the receiving line next to Noreen, Alfred looked over at the casket and said, “He isn’t coming back this time is he Mommy?”
She felt her legs tremble and wanted to collapse in a heap on the floor, but managed to answer between sniffles, “No, you’re the man of the house now.” She immediately regretted her words, as if little Alfred was no longer allowed to be a child.
“Mommy, you can call me John if you want to,” Alfred said bravely. His first name was John, but since it was also his daddy’s name, they referred to him by his middle name, Alfred.
Noreen winced. The last thing she needed was something else to remind her of John.
“Why don’t we compromise sweetheart? We’ll call you J. Alfred. J. in honor of your father, and Alfred because you are your own man.” Noreen believed Alfred would soon drop the “J” from his name, but from that day forward, he insisted on being called J. Alfred.
Liz went back to Archbold a week later, but Claude stayed in New Haven to conduct research at Yale and to check on Noreen and J. Alfred.
Claude became like a second father to J. Alfred. He made it official two years later when he married Noreen. He couldn’t escape a sense of guilt when he remembered John’s death because he was in love with Noreen from the moment he saw her. Part of him was glad John was gone, but he would gladly give her up to remove the pain she suffered when John died.
Noreen gave birth to a baby girl named Samantha soon after they married. Claude decided to keep the archaeological discovery in Florida a secret a while longer. He covered it manually with a shovel and built a house over it. He even laid the foundation himself to prevent laborers from discovering artifacts.
Claude had originally purchased two acres from a logging company when he discovered the site. He told them it was for a hunting cabin. When the depression brought growth in the area to a standstill, Claude was able to purchase a little over two-thousand additional acres with the family inheritance he received in 1931. In 1950, the family moved into the house Claude built over the archaeological site. It was located three-hundred yards from the Tree of Life which he discovered three weeks after finding the vault.
During the move, Noreen found a box in the attic marked conspiracy files. She asked Claude to take a look to make sure it wasn’t important before throwing it out. A scribbled note in the margin caught his attention. It read, blind man, black cape, bowler hat. He remembered Alfred’s description of the man in the garden who bumped into John. It’s probably nothing, he thought, but decided to keep the box and read the files later.
The house Claude built in Highlands county Florida was very isolated, so J. Alfred and his little sister Samantha were home-schooled. Noreen and Claude shared the duties and Miss Shelby came once a week to help. J. Alfred was an excellent student with a natural aptitude for business.
Claude was looking for a way to make history lessons more interesting for J. Alfred soon after he turned fourteen. He remembered John’s conspiracy files contained detailed notes on several significant historical events. Claude gave the files to J. Alfred to study and asked him to make a comparison between his father’s notes and the history in text books.
It was exciting for J. Alfred because these were his father’s personal records, and he was also soon caught up in the allure of conspiracy. It didn’t take him long to find a conspiracy within the conspiracies, and this one was personal.
After a month of studying the files and carrying out some in-depth research of his own, young J. Alfred was ready to make his presentation to Claude. The room was set up like a formal production with charts, graphs, copies of documents, and even handwritten transcripts of his father’s interview of a witness.
“My father was murdered,” he announced, “and I know who did it, well sort of.”
Claude squirmed in his seat, realizing it may have been a mistake to give J. Alfred his father’s personal records. Reliving his father’s death couldn’t be healthy for the boy. Claude continued to listen.
“He was six-feet two, the same as my dad and carried a long walking stick. He wore a black cape, a bowler hat, and dark sunglasses.”
Claude remembered why he kept the files. That was the description J. Alfred had given of the man in the garden the day of John’s death.
“O.K. then,” Claude said. “You need to explain a few things. Why don’t you accept the death certificate when Eastern Coral Snake venom is consistent with your father’s symptoms? How did the man manage to carry out the act in the brief moment he passed you on the trail? And most important, who was the man and why would he kill your father?”
J. Alfred began to methodically present his case.
“Two people who are experienced in poisonous snake bites have said the puncture wounds on my father’s ankle didn’t look like those of a Coral Snake. Even the doctor who signed the death certificate admitted the docile and secretive Coral Snake doesn’t strike like other venomous snakes, they need time to inject their venom. No more than twenty percent of untreated Coral Snake bites are fatal, even after a sustained strike. In my father’s case, three times the typical amount of venom was injected.”
Then J. Alfred showed Claude numerous pictures of poison tipped canes. They were from different sources confirming similar instruments had been used to commit assassinations in the past.
One particular passage from “A History of Murder,” by Thomas Rosol read, “The weapon of choice for assassins of the Manchu dynasty was a poison tipped staff. The poison could be injected from the tip of the staff into a victim’s foot or leg in an instant, allowing the attacker to escape without detection.” Another passage indicated the injection marks were sometimes mistaken for a snake bite.
“O.K., I’ll admit it’s possible your father was poisoned, but the Manchu dynasty ended forty years ago. Are you suggesting a Chinese assassin killed your father?”
“I’m just showing you how it could’ve been done,” J. Alfred said. “My father’s conspiracy documents answer a lot of questions. I’ve found numerous files where he mentions a man similar to the one I saw at Archbold. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.”
J. Alfred laid out several files on the table. The first two described a shadowy person who wore a black cape and carried a long staff.
“The Order of the Illuminati were said to have met regularly with a man matching the description in 1777, and a man with the exact same description was said to have asked Cecil Rhodes to establish the Society of the Elect in 1877 to extend British rule throughout the world.”
Claude scowled, then laughed. “That’s enough, this is silly. I think we’re getting off track. You’re talking about events that go back two hundred years.”
“I know, I know,” J. Alfred said. “It was too much of a coincidence to ignore, but I found two other more recent cases. In each of those, the man matched the description exactly including the bowler hat.”
“Go ahead,” Claude said reluctantly as he sat back in his chair.
“Before passage of the Federal Reserve Act in 1913, two senators on the banking committee had a clandestine meeting with a man matching the description. Several sources have documented the final version of the Act was changed after that meeting. The altered version gave twelve privately owned banks legal authority to issue money, but most of the government oversight was removed.”
“What does any of this have to do with John’s death?” Claude asked.
“I think he was getting close to identifying the people who secretly changed the Federal Reserve Act. Those changes gave a few private bankers control of the U.S. money supply. That would make them the most powerful people in the world. I believe they may have murdered my dad to prevent the information from getting out.”
J. Alfred pointed to John Weston’s handwritten interview notes. “My father interviewed the only known surviving witness to the secret meeting. The man was one of two reporters who observed the participants entering and leaving the building. He told my father the other reporter died of a snake bite one week after revealing the meeting in an article for the Washington Star-News.” John Weston’s notes quoted the man saying, “My friend was murdered.”
Claude glanced at an obituary which stated the cause of death was snake bite. A separate clipping described snakes in the D.C. metropolitan area. It listed Copperhead as the only venomous snake. It also said they are uncommon and bites are rarely fatal.
“My father wrote it was very difficult to get the surviving witness to agree to an interview. The man demanded anonymity. He was afraid for his life, telling my father anyone who was aware of the meeting was in danger.”
“John didn’t publish anything, did he?” Claude asked.
“He was working on it.” J. Alfred responded. “I found a letter in his files from the editor of ‘Intrigue’ Magazine. It was dated one month before my father was killed. They offered to pay him for the second half of an article titled ‘The Federal Reserve Conspiracy.’”
“Did you find the complete story?”
J. Alfred handed Claude a copy of the article his father had written. It linked the 1913 Federal Reserve Act with the alleged 1933 conspiracy to overthrow President Roosevelt.
“The one thing both cases have in common is a person called the blind assassin. He was described as tall, wearing a cloak, bowler hat, dark glasses, and carrying a blind man’s cane.”
“The part about him being blind makes sense, but why was he called the assassin?” Claude asked.
“That description came from the 1933 story describing the plot to overthrow the President. The coup d’état didn’t happen because one of the original conspirators, Senator Babson, exposed the plan. He claimed the strange man in a cape changed the original plot from a non-violent overthrow to an assassination. He said the man appeared eager to kill Roosevelt and was a demented psychopath. When none of the original conspirators were willing to stand up to the man, Senator Babson exposed the plot to save the President.”
“The evidence still sounds rather flimsy to justify the murder of your father,” Claude said.
J. Alfred handed him a picture which was attached to the article. It was tattered, but showed the senior Senator on the Banking Committee in 1913 entering the building where the clandestine meeting was held. He was shaking hands with an unknown man who was wearing a cape, a bowler hat, dark glasses, and carrying a long cane.
“This might be enough,” Claude admitted. “If the magazine knew about this photo, it’s possible others knew. Your father may have been killed to stop it from being published. We don’t know who to trust, so I don’t think we should go to the police. I’ll see what I can uncover on my own.”
Claude helped J. Alfred start his own business when he was twelve years old. Having struggled with myopia, J. Alfred turned his energy toward improving vision. He started with inexpensive non-prescription sunglasses.
His company, the IMICRON Corporation became one of the largest manufactures of sunglasses in the country. The profits were reinvested into the newly emerging field of corneal contact lens, eye drops, and medicines.
By the time he entered Yale College in 1958, J. Alfred was already a millionaire. He joined the secret society Skull and Bones in his senior year and learned of a clandestine organization known as the “Qabalah.”
The Qabalah was a mysterious organization even to the rich and powerful members of Skull and Bones. J. Alfred learned the Skull and Bones was essentially a good ole boy club where members shared influence and information to maintain their power and wealth.
The Qabalah, on the other hand, was a true underground organization with connections in every corner of the globe. Skull and Bones members referred to them as the Caped Crusaders because of the cloaks they wore. It was understood they were powerful and ruthless. “Don’t mess with the Qabalah,” was a common refrain heard by J. Alfred when he asked questions. He shared the little he learned from Skull and Bones with Claude. They both vowed to continue searching for answers, and to determine if the Qabalah was responsible for John’s death.
Between his passion for business and his paranoia of the Qabalah, J. Alfred had little time for anything else, but in 1962 he fell in love with a mermaid. If there ever was such a thing as love at first sight, J. Alfred experienced it with Angela.
He had recently finished his undergraduate work at Yale and was being haunted by recurring dreams of his father. He packed his Crown Imperial convertible and retraced the route his family had taken to Florida back in 1947 when he was six years old.
When he arrived at Weeki Wachee Springs, he decided to visit the mermaid show to see the American Broadcasting Company’s new theater. He hoped to recapture some of the wonder he felt as a child. The attraction looked completely different, having expanded from a seating capacity of eighteen to five-hundred, but the mermaids had changed very little. Much to his delight, he was once again mesmerized by the girl behind the glass as he remembered his childhood dream:
The exquisite creature swam effortlessly through the cool clear water. Her hair flowed gently behind, like a shimmering waterfall within a blue ocean. Her gaze met his, and her smile made him tremble. His outstretched hand tried to touch her…
“Would you mind sitting down? We can’t see,” barked a large balding tourist irritated by the man standing in the middle of the underwater theater. The man was J. Alfred who slinked back into his seat, embarrassed by his peculiar behavior but still captivated by the girl behind the glass. It was the last show of the day. An attendant told him the mermaid’s name was Angela.
J. Alfred Weston was a rich, handsome bachelor whom girls had vigorously pursued all the way through college. But here he was, pining over a girl he hadn’t even met, acting like an awkward teenager.
“Excuse me,” he said as the woman walked to her car with a friend. “Are you Angela?”
She was a little startled at first. It wasn’t unusual for strange men with uncommon fetishes to stalk the performers. As their eyes met, she felt an inexplicable connection like the discovery of a long lost friend.
“Hi, do I know you?” She asked.
“I was the crazy guy touching the glass during your last show. This is going to sound weird.” He took a deep breath. “I was here fifteen years ago when the theater first opened. I would swear that I saw you then.”
“That was you? You’ve grown!” Angela laughed, but realized he wasn’t getting the joke. Her fingers instinctively reached for his hand as she explained.
“You probably saw my mother. She was one of the first mermaids to perform. People say I look just like her.”
J. Alfred’s confused expression transformed into a mixture of comprehension and relief.
“I guess you could say I’ve had a crush on your mother since I was six.”
“That’s sweet,” Angela said, “But she died fifteen years ago.”
J. Alfred was filled with nervous panic as he struggled to speak. “I’m so sorry, I don’t know what to say. I’m so, so, sorry!”
“I’m the one who should be sorry,” Angela said. “I don’t know why I told you. I had to drag up bad memories when you were being sweet.”
“Do you think, I mean would you consider the two of you letting me take you out to dinner?” J. Alfred asked.
Angela turned to her friend Cathy and they whispered for a moment.
“O.K., but there’s only one place in the area to eat. It’s called the Bayport Inn. They serve great fish and German potato salad. Cathy will ride with me in my car, and you can follow in yours.” Both cars pulled into the parking lot at the Bayport Inn a few minutes later.
“Angela and Cathy! It’s so nice to see you again.” The man said in a heavy German accent as he greeted them at the entrance to the restaurant. “Who is your young man friend?”
“This is, uh, uh,” Angela turned toward J. Alfred. “You know, I don’t think you gave me your name.”
“It’s J. Alfred. Sorry, I’m usually a little less absent minded.”
“Well Jalfred, pretty girls make me forget things too.” The man said. “Right this way.” He led them to a table in the middle of the restaurant.
Angela looked inquisitively at J. Alfred. “Jalfred? Is that right?”
“It’s J., Alfred,” he said, being careful to emphasize the separation of his two names.
“I don’t mean to be rude, but that comes across a little pretentious.” Angela smiled and then added, “I bet you got beat up a lot on the playground.”
J. Alfred didn’t get the joke and replied, “I didn’t attend public school. My first name is John, but I go by the first initial in honor of my father who died when I was six.”
“I’m sorry,” she said softly. “What’s your last name?”
“Weston,” he replied.
“J. Alfred Weston,” she pronounced as if making a ceremonial proclamation. “It sounds very distinguished.”
Angela’s friend realized she was being ignored and interrupted, “Hello? My name is Cathy, I’m sitting right here.”
Both Angela and J. Alfred laughed nervously. They were each trying to conceal their instant attraction for the other, but realized it was obvious to Cathy, the waiter, and the other restaurant patrons.
“Cathy,” Angela chuckled, “I’d like to introduce my friend Jalfred.”
“How do you do Jalfred.” Cathy cackled as she extended her arm to shake hands. J. Alfred accepted her hand, pulling it to his lips.”
“It is a pleasure my dear lady,” he said with a slight bow of his head. “Now tell me, what do you lovely ladies enjoy doing, other than teasing unsuspecting visitors?”
“Most people think we’d get tired of being in the water with our jobs, but we spend most of our free time on the river,” Angela replied. “It’s our home.”
“Angela has a cabin on a beautiful property where the river meets the Gulf,” Cathy added. “It’s the perfect place to launch your boat. If you travel left up the river, you enter a beautiful world of familiar plants and animals. If you turn right toward the Gulf, you enter a realm of endless horizons and infinite possibilities.”
“You sound like a poet.” J. Alfred said to Cathy.
“This place makes poets of us all,” she replied.
“I’m having a few friends over to my place tomorrow,” Angela said. “Would you like to come by and see it?”
“I’d love to,” J. Alfred replied
And so a three-way relationship began. Not an illicit affair between J. Alfred, Angela and Cathy, but a bond of love between J. Alfred, Angela and the river.
Cathy and J. Alfred became good friends, but it was obvious J. Alfred and Angela were meant to be together. J. Alfred spent the summer with Claude and Noreen in Highlands County, but spent most of his time driving to see Angela in Bayport. Noreen kidded him, “You’re going to wear your car out driving to that girl’s house every single day.”
J. Alfred convinced Angela to stop calling him Jalfred when he started mispronouncing her last name of Weisenberger as “Weeeesinbooger.” She relented and agreed to call him “Al” but said, “Jalfred will be my secret code name for you.” She was very serious when she said, “This is important, if you ever receive a message addressed to Jalfred, you’ll know it’s from me.”
Both Angela and J. Alfred lost a parent at an early age, but they had many other things in common. They both enjoyed living close to nature, had a strong faith in God, relished sporting arguments, and exhibited an insatiable curiosity for science. They spent some of the happiest days of their lives at Angela’s cabin that summer. The building was a little tattered, but it was located on a three acre lot with ancient oak trees and endless gulf views.
As they grew closer and shared family facts and fiction, Angela explained how her mother had been struck by lightning and died on Sunday October 26, 1947. That date stunned J. Alfred because he was certain his childhood visit to the mermaid show was on Monday, October 27, 1947. He reasoned, maybe the mermaids all looked alike to a child, maybe.
By the start of fall, J. Alfred sensed Angela had something she’d been struggling to tell him. He decided to force the issue.
“Spill it. There’s something you’ve been wanting to say.”
Angela took his hand and they walked to her front porch. They sat on an old wooden bench and enjoyed the view for a few minutes.
“I have chronic myelogenous leukemia. It’s been in remission after taking 6-mercaptopurine, but it could come back at any time. I wanted you to know before we get any more serious.”
A single tear ran down J. Alfred’s cheek. “I couldn’t be any more serious. I love you and I want to get married as soon as possible. Will you marry me?”
Angela said no. She was afraid J. Alfred’s proposal may have been made in sympathy, or without thinking it through. However within a week, on the third try she accepted. Noreen helped organize an extravagant outdoor Christmas day wedding at Angela’s home.
J. Alfred and Angela moved to a beautiful house in New Haven, Connecticut where his business was located, but they kept Angela’s cabin. In September 1963 their daughter Rebecca was born.
Angela started working for the IMICRON Corporation after Rebecca was two years old. Her introduction of stylish sunglasses in bright colors with sleek contours resulted in skyrocketing profits for the company. J. Alfred reinvested the earnings into development of soft contact lens which led to even greater profits. The couple worked together like zealots the first few years of their marriage and rarely left New Haven except for business.
George Wald won a share of the Nobel Prize in 1967 for his study of pigments in the human retina. He was a good friend of J. Alfred who had been conducting comparable research in his commercial laboratories. J. Alfred and Angela celebrated the award as if they’d won it themselves. They traveled to Florida before Christmas and didn’t return until March, spending most of the time at the little cottage in Bayport.
J. Alfred had diversified the family’s financial holdings to include pharmaceuticals, medical devices, gold, and even farmland. By 1967, he was one of twelve Billionaires listed in Forbes. As Rebecca grew into a rambunctious little girl, Angela and J. Alfred decided to spend an entire month each winter with her while vacationing at the cabin in Bayport.
Angela’s cancer had been in complete remission for over ten years, but she had a relapse in early 1973. J. Alfred hired the best specialists and even moved her to Claude and Noreen’s house to breathe the air from the Tree of Life.
The cancer spread and she died in the fall. Making the loss even worse was a sickening guilt; Claude had warned J. Alfred the effects of the Tree of Life might accelerate the cancer instead of destroying it.
Rebecca was the only thing saving J. Alfred from a hopeless depression. She needed him, and gave his life purpose. They returned to New Haven after the funeral, but a cloud of despair lingered. J. Alfred postponed the annual Florida trip in an effort to avoid the memories, but on a cold Connecticut day in January, they packed the car and headed south. It was sunny and warm when they arrived at the cottage in Bayport. They sat on the porch, laughed, and cried together for hours.
“Daddy, I want to go see the mermaids,” Rebecca pleaded.
J. Alfred didn’t want to go, but he couldn’t say no to Rebecca. Angela had been invited back to perform at the spring on several occasions in honor of former mermaids. Each time, J. Alfred and Rebecca were there to watch and support her, but now the memories were painful for J. Alfred. He took Rebecca to the last show of the day, but he sat on the back row even though the building was almost empty.
Rebecca ran to the front of the theater and pressed her hand against the glass. In her performances, Angela would also press her hand to the other side of the glass in a sign of love and sisterhood.
J. Alfred was relieved when the show ended. As they walked to the car, he was still wiping tears from his eyes.
“Daddy? Do you remember when Mom promised me one day we would build a house like my dollhouse?” Rebecca asked.
“Yes,” he replied.
Rebecca smiled. “Mom said it’s time.”
“Time for what sweetheart?”
“It’s time to build my dollhouse. Mom said you need a project. She said you’re happy when you’re busy.”
“When did Mom tell you this?”
“During the show. She was swimming with the mermaids.”
J. Alfred wasn’t sure how to reply. Was Rebecca’s imagination healthy? Should he explain death to his daughter?
“I’ll think about it sweetheart,” he said.
Rebecca reached out for J. Alfred’s hand. “Mom told me to say hello to Jalfred. She said you would understand.”
The following day, the toilet backed up, the kitchen light switch stopped working, and a heavy leak developed during a rain storm.
“Mom’s trying to tell you something Dad.” Rebecca said.
J. Alfred shook his head at the irony of a billionaire placing a pot on the floor to catch the rain from a leaky roof. “I hear you Angie,” he whispered and contacted a contractor that afternoon.
He flew an architect from New Haven and hired a building contractor from Tampa to design and build Rebecca’s Dollhouse, the most distinctive and beautiful house in the county. He repaired and turned the cabin into a caretaker’s cottage.
J. Alfred lured Elizabeth Shelby away from Richard Archbold and hired her as a live-in au pair for Rebecca. No one would ever replace Angela, but J. Alfred knew Liz Shelby was as close as anyone could get. He reduced his workload and conducted most of the remaining business from their Bayport home for the next few years. Noreen and Claude visited often and little sister Samantha also stayed for long periods, turning the empty house into a family home filled with laughter and love.
From the day she was born, Rebecca was a gentle creature. Her soft touch and tranquil gestures were a part of her charm, but in the spring of 1980, J. Alfred began to recognize some alarming symptoms. Rebecca had leukemia, a different strain of the same cancer that killed her mother. By the time her illness was diagnosed, it was too late. She died within a month. The disease was probably present for years, but her delicate nature concealed the symptoms until it was too late.
Once again, J. Alfred was tortured with guilt. In hindsight, the warning signs were obvious. Did I let Rebecca die because of my unwillingness to face the truth? He wanted to have the house torn down, but it wasn’t what Rebecca would have wanted. Her last request was to be buried under the old oak tree in the back yard, so J. Alfred collected enough strength to ask Liz Shelby to stay and maintain the house. Liz’s love for the community and strong friendship with a local woman named Sarah Naidoo persuaded her to remain in Bayport.
Noreen was concerned for J. Alfred’s mental health and safety after the funeral. She insisted he come stay with them at the house in Highlands County. He grudgingly accepted and went straight to his old bedroom where he slept for two days.
The doctors prescribed heavy doses of antidepressants, and J. Alfred continued to spend most of the next two months in bed. When his misery became manageable, he took an extensive tour of the property. Claude had transformed the entire two-thousand acres from a thick treacherous wilderness into an inviting park-like setting. He had even added a screened gazebo under the Tree of Life, but it was the one place J. Alfred refused to go.
The time had come and Claude was prepared to begin a serious excavation of the ancient site. It would require careful screening of all the people involved. J. Alfred was the first person Claude asked to join the team. He and Noreen were relieved when J. Alfred accepted and threw himself into the work.
Claude had accomplished more than clearing land and building a gazebo during the past twenty years. Samantha discovered a separate cavern under the house containing obscure writings. Claude dedicated himself to studying them. They included the schematics for the first microprocessor and the microwave oven. He sold the information anonymously to a government contractor for millions of dollars through an underground auction.
Claude used most of his original inheritance purchasing the Highlands County property, but with the sale of new technology and J. Alfred’s substantial backing, he had enough money to privately fund a secret dig of the site with his own hand-picked team of archaeologists.
Samantha was jubilant when she learned more people would be allowed on the property. Spending her entire childhood living on a secret archaeological site had put a severe damper on her personal life. She dreamed of attending school in Australia, but wasn’t willing to leave Noreen alone. Claude was a good husband, but spent long hours working. Now with more visitors and J. Alfred at home, Sam felt free to go.
Claude had attended many archaeology seminars over the years and developed friendships with many of the preeminent scholars in the field. Two of his favorites were the husband and wife team of Ben and Becky King.
They had recently returned from an overseas excavation searching for the Ark of the Covenant with archaeologist Ron Wyatt and his sons. Claude invited them to dinner.
“You have a beautiful home Noreen,” Becky said as they were preparing to sit down for supper.
“Tell me Claude, what did we do to warrant an invitation to the most enigmatic residence on the planet?” Ben asked with a grin.
“We do enjoy our privacy, but I didn’t realize we’d garnered such a reputation for it,” Claude answered as if a little surprised.
“Oh yes,” Ben chuckled. “Some rumors say you’re hiding an alien space ship. Others say you’re hiding the Lost City of Z.
“What do you think?” Claude asked.
“I think you’ve found the Fountain of Youth because your lovely wife never gets any older.”
Claude looked at Noreen and winked. “You’re right Ben,” he said and paused before adding, “Noreen looks as beautiful as the day I met her.”
After supper, the four of them sat down for a long philosophical conversation on the balance between sharing information with the public and protecting the integrity of an ancient site. Claude discussed the situation in hypothetical terms, but was so impressed with Ben and Becky he offered them a job on the spot.
They accepted without conditions and were glad they did when Claude led them to the basement where they witnessed relics unlike anything they had ever seen. The site was clearly ancient, but many of the artifacts were of futuristic or alien design.
Ben and Becky used vacation time and shuffled their schedule to disguise their visits to the site. Before opening the main vault, they helped Claude construct a climate controlled chamber around the main entrance.
In January 1983, they used a hydraulic tool resembling the Jaws of Life to open the door. Claude, Noreen, Ben, Becky and J. Alfred were there. They entered an enormous cavern, but it wasn’t a natural structure. It was filled with what seemed to be technical equipment. The room appeared dark, but warmer than the outside ambient temperature. Something was generating the extra heat.
As they studied and tagged the artifacts, they came across a large crate which looked like a casket. It was different from anything else in the room. When they lifted the lid, they jumped back from fear. There was a man inside who looked like Count Dracula, except his hair was blonde. His height was over six-feet, he wore a black cape and appeared to be alive but in some form of stasis. They closed the crate and put a hotel room Do Not Disturb sign on it as a joke. More information would be required before anyone would try to resuscitate the mysterious stranger, if it could be done. It wasn’t as much fear of the man as concern he might be harmed or even killed if they tried to revive him.
Claude, Noreen, Ben, Becky and J. Alfred were intelligent people, but it was obvious this was way over their heads. It was time to get more help. People on the outside were becoming more and more curious. The question was, how do we bring in the scholars, scientists, and other experts we need without raising more suspicions?
J. Alfred suggested they create the ORION Institute as a cover. It would be a university with the stated mission: “To seek the most exceptionally qualified students of all backgrounds from around the world and educate them at the highest levels to change the world for the better.” Noreen laughed at the charter, “It’s a little corny, but I guess it serves the purpose.”
The vault had already revealed many innovative architectural discoveries and J. Alfred used the technology along with his immense wealth to build some of the most advanced structures on the planet. Within a year and with fewer than a dozen students, the institution’s staff grew to over three hundred. It appeared impressive on paper, but there were very few instructors. Most of the staff were archaeologists working in the vault.
The construction of the Institute was progressing smoothly, but some information leaked regarding the archeological site. Most people didn’t take it seriously because the ORION institute was actively encouraging alien spaceship rumors. Claude and J. Alfred’s wealth also enabled them to obtain the best security on the planet.
Then Haley was born, and everything changed.
There were at least two dozen scientists and technicians in the vault on the morning of September 11, 1983. They learned a great deal from the complex devices in the room despite being unable to get them to function. Various experts tried for months, but with no success. At precisely 8:06 A.M., every artifact in the room lit up, started humming, or in the case of the man in the box, sat up in his casket.
The blood curdling screams of at least two technicians rattled the windows as they witnessed Count Dracula coming to life. His black cape and pasty white complexion accentuated his bizarre appearance. As he blinked hard, rolled his glowing eyes and moaned, the room was emptied of humans within thirty seconds.
Dozens of distinguished scientists could be seen hiding behind bushes and peering around trees as the tall pale man emerged from the vault. His walk looked more like Frankenstein than Dracula. He staggered into the sunlight and covered his eyes with what appeared to be welding goggles.
Claude, J. Alfred, Noreen and a few others ran out of the house where they were finishing breakfast.
“Hello,” said the strange man.
“Hello,’ Claude gasped. It took him a minute to realize the man came from the casket in the vault. “Do you speak English?”
“Yes, I seem to have a rather extensive vocabulary,” the man replied with an expression of satisfaction.
“How, how is that possible?” Claude asked.
The strange man cocked his head slightly. “It appears in your efforts to translate our writings, you downloaded much of your language into our collective processing unit for conversion. The information was passed to me through my continuity pod.”
“Do you have a name?” Claude asked.
The man replied with an unintelligible sound, “Blosviduixxxtp.”
“Is there a translation into English?” Claude asked.
“Yes,” he replied. “Custodian.”
Claude considered the stranger for a moment and then asked, “Do you mind if we refer to you as Dr. Custer?”
“I don’t mind, but it isn’t necessary to give me a title.”
“It’s for our benefit,” Claude responded. “We have occasional visitors, they may find it odd if the scientists keep asking the custodian questions.”
Dr. Custer seemed amused and smiled. Claude found it somewhat reassuring to know he had a sense of humor.
“What brought you out of stasis?” Claude asked.
“It was initiated by the Queen’s birth.”
“The queen? Who are you talking about?” Claude asked.
“She was born early this morning. We refer to her as Queen Mahu Kuwanlelenta. Her birth produced a biological signature which was released into the atmosphere. My resuscitation and the activity in the area you call the vault is in response to those signals.”
Claude asked, “What does this queen person have to do with anything?”
“Without her, nothing in the vault will operate. If anything happens to her, everything will shut down.”
“Why, who is she?”
“She is the genetically engineered culmination of the Homo princeps species, purified through many generations within the human genome.”
Claude and J. Alfred were both getting nervous.
“Aren’t you the interface with the vault,” Claude asked.
“No. I am the Custodian,” He answered. “My function is to maintain the vault for the Queen. She is our gift to you and will help you avoid the mistakes our people made.”
Claude, J. Alfred, and several scientists met with the man for several hours. He recounted the Nina Nizhoni’s growth and eventual demise. He explained the purpose of the vault was to preserve technology and teachings, including mistakes which led to his civilization’s virtual extinction. He claimed to be a clone who had been in stasis for over ten-thousand years, but was now the human equivalent of sixty years old. Normal aging would resume outside of his continuity pod and he could clone himself once more in ten years. Then he would die of old age within eighty years.
J. Alfred was interested in Dr. Custer’s resemblance to the person suspected of murdering his father. He asked, “Are there others like you?”
“It’s possible,” he answered. “If they still live, they are the powerful and dangerous remnants of the technologists who betrayed the Nina Nizhoni ten thousand years ago.”
“They’re still alive? How could that be?” Claude asked.
“They’re clones,” Dr. Custer replied. “But unlike me, there is no limit to the number of times they can replicate. Each of our individual lifespans is similar to Homo sapiens but memory cloning technology enables them to replicate with their memories intact. The cloning procedure was eventually forbidden by the Nina Nizhoni, but it was too late.”
“Too late for what? Why was it forbidden?” J. Alfred asked.
“After repeated use, it leaves the host infertile. The Nina Nizhoni became so addicted to extending their individual lives, they could no longer support a viable population. Natural offspring couldn’t be produced, even in the laboratory.”
“So who are these technologists you spoke of, and why do you think they may still be around?”
“In their final days, the Nina Nizhoni’s Elder Council voted to accept the inevitable extinction of the species with dignity and allow Homo sapiens the opportunity to rule the Earth. When the vault was being completed, they excluded the technology responsible for their demise, memory cloning. I was to be the only living example.”
Claude asked, “So what happened?”
“The same faction of technologists who created memory cloning, rebelled against the council. They left with the most dangerous and destructive technological devices and vowed to prevent inferior Homo sapiens from controlling the Earth.”
J. Alfred wondered if the clones had any connection to the people in his father’s conspiracy files. “I learned of a secret society called the Qabalah,” he said. “They’ve been around for centuries and linked to numerous assassinations. I think one of them may have murdered my father.”
“That wouldn’t surprise me,” Dr. Custer said. “A side effect of memory cloning is the impact it has on the Ventrolateral Frontal Cortex region of the brain. Repeated cloning results in a complete lack of conscience. If the clones still exist, they’re certain to be psychopathic.”
“Will the equipment in the vault tell us if these clones are still alive or if they’re part of the Qabalah?” J. Alfred asked.
“Yes, it doesn’t provide a lot of details, but a device called the Quantum Biomolecular Interactive Field Indicator will indicate how many Homo princeps clones remain, if any.”
Claude interrupted, “I’m still thinking about this queen you mentioned. I have a lot of questions. When will we meet her?”
Dr. Custer laughed, “I don’t think you understood me. She was born early this morning. She didn’t pop out of the womb as a full grown woman. Don’t worry, I’ll watch over her as she grows, and after eighteen years living as a human, we’ll send someone to initiate her transformation.”
“Eighteen years!” Claude said. “That’s in the next century! What are we supposed to do until then?”
“Prepare,” Dr. Custer answered.
And they did. ORION scientists learned more about the artifacts in the next few months than was discovered in all the previous years. The mysterious man in the box continued to maintain the equipment and would become known by many names: Custodian, Dr. Custer, Archie, and Anastasius.
Over the next eighteen years, Claude and J. Alfred helped Dr. Custer to ensure the Queen we know as Haley was protected. They used what they learned from the vault to build a preeminent institution of higher learning, unparalleled in faculty, facilities, political connections and innovative architecture.
As Claude finished describing J. Alfred Weston’s life and discussing the history of the ORION Institute, Haley found herself wondering more about her own childhood.
“Please don’t take this the wrong way. I’m glad I was adopted by the Kings, but I still don’t understand why you didn’t bring me here. This is where I belong. Just imagine how much I could have learned in eighteen years.”
“There is much for you to learn here, but the most vital lesson is what it means to be human. It’s a lesson you could only learn in a loving family away from this place.”
Claude gazed at Haley with affection. “Noreen and I wanted to adopt you, but Dr. Custer (Anastsius) assured us you couldn’t reach your full potential without experiencing life away from here, unaware of your genetic history.”
Haley sighed in resignation, “It would have been so much easier if I’d known why I was different.”
“Maybe,” Claude said, “but your perception of humanity would be altered. You’d always be an outsider.”
Haley couldn’t let his comment go without a response. She popped out one of her contact lens and said, “I’ve been an outsider my whole life!”
Claude smiled. “There isn’t a person on Earth who doesn’t experience loneliness at some point, even if they don’t have glowing yellow eyes. We have a deep yearning to belong, and try to find it in our families, churches and a thousand other places. It is part of what makes us human, and you are human.”
Haley smiled as if she was imagining something funny. Claude asked, “What’s so amusing?”
“This is where Chris would say, ‘We are all born with a hole in our heart that only God can fill.’”
Claude studied the tender expression on Haley’s face. “You love him don’t you?”
“Yes, but I didn’t come here to discuss my social life. I’d like to know what the Etz Chayim symbol means and why Chris, Brian, Matt, and Steve have it burnt on their feet?”
“We aren’t sure,” Claude replied. “It was engraved on the outside of the vault and on your medallion. Our best guess is it relates to a piece of technology stolen by the Qabalah. Anastasius thinks it’s an interface between Homo sapiens and the Nina Nizhoni.”
Haley was troubled by his answer. “I thought there was very little difference between our two species. Why would we need an interface? I’ve had several physicals and except for my skin and eyes, the doctors haven’t found anything unusual. You said my eyes were genetically altered. Maybe my skin was…,”
Claude cut in, “It’s more than skin deep. The differences are at the sub-atomic level. The vault describes the Nina Nizhoni or Homo princeps as a species which arose on planet Earth fifty-thousand years before Homo sapiens. The writings on the outside of the vault indicate it was brought here by a race of beings from a planet orbiting the red supergiant Betelgeuse.”
“What does that mean?” Haley’s face filled with panic. “Are you saying my ancestors came from another planet?”
“We don’t know what it means.” Claude spoke carefully trying to comfort Haley, but his hesitation increased her anxiety.
“Is there anything in the vault which would make it possible to contact the planet?” Haley asked.
“The planet was six hundred and forty light-years from Earth.” Claude answered. “Even though we are still seeing the light from Betelgeuse, Anastasius has determined the star has exploded in a supernova. The planet was destroyed.”
“So I’ll never know where I came from?”
“I promise we won’t stop looking for answers.” Claude reached out and held Haley’s hand. “We’ll figure it out together.”
Haley took a deep breath. “Claude, if you hadn’t come along, I don’t know what would have happened to me. I’ve been blessed with a wonderful family and friends. I want you to know I’m thankful.”
“You’re welcome, again,” Claude said with a loving smile. “Now, let’s discuss the Qabalah.”
“Ah yes, my arch enemy. They sound like the villains from a movie.”
Claude shook his head. “I wish it were funny, but there’s nothing humorous about the Qabalah. With the help of the QBIFI, Anastasius was able to determine at least twenty technologist clones, i.e. the Qabalah, are still alive. They’re like ghosts, manipulating world governments and resources from behind the scenes.”
Claude explained that after WWII with the formation of the United Nations, many world leaders expected international relations to improve. Inexplicable conflicts kept developing at the worst possible times. They occurred too often to be coincidence. The Korean War was one of the most perplexing.
By the end of WWII, Korea had been liberated from the Japanese. The United Nations divided it into North and South. China and the Soviet Union set up a government in the North while the United States did the same in the South. The United Nations recognized the separation, but in June of 1950 an undisclosed source convinced the Soviet Union and China of an imminent invasion of the North from South Korea. North Korea launched a preemptive invasion despite assurances from South Korea and the United States.
Before leaving office, President Truman ordered a study by the CIA to determine why China and the Soviet Union supported North Korea’s offensive. The study, known as the Haney Report, found covert agents not associated with any known government provided misleading and provocative intelligence for the sole purpose of instigating the war.” We now know it was the Qabalah.
“The Qabalah has demonstrated unparalleled intelligence gathering capabilities. They use the information to manipulate governments and organizations into actions which prevent cooperation and progress.”
“Do you think they were responsible for the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center?” Haley asked.
“Not directly, but we believe they provided assistance.”
“So how can we stop the Qabalah from helping other terrorist groups?”
“We’re learning to use the QBIFI as an early warning device and countering them with special agents. We recently had three former students pass the Foreign Service Officer Test and they’re already working in the field. Many countries check with us to verify or refute claims made by unidentified sources. Even though the vault contains the most sophisticated equipment in the world for collecting information, it’s difficult to get the information out because the Qabalah have human surrogates within the Chinese, Russian, and U.S. governments.”
“Then I guess the question is, what can I do?” Haley asked.
“For now, keep doing what you’ve been doing. Help Anastasius in the vault and continue your studies. Rest assured you and your friends will have a bigger role to play in the future.”
Claude removed several graphic images from his desk and laid them out for display. They looked a lot like three dimensional X-Rays.
“These are quantum bioscans of your brain taken over the last four months. There is increasing activity at the sub-atomic level. You’re undergoing a dramatic metamorphosis.”
“What does that mean? Am I going to grow horns and turn into a monster?”
“No.” Claude said with an assuring tone. “It’s occurring at the sub-atomic level, so we don’t expect to see any physical changes. We also don’t think it will change who you are. Your personality shouldn’t be effected.”
“That’s a relief,” Haley sighed. “So what do you think is happening?”
“If Anastasius is correct, you may develop abilities such as telepathy.”
“Chris won’t be too happy about that.” Haley laughed.
Claude pulled out eight additional images and laid them on the desk.
“These are bioscans of Chris, Steve, Brian and Matt. They were taken one month apart and also show a similar increase in brain development at the sub-atomic level. Only time can tell us what it means, but at least you’re no longer alone.”
The world teetered on the brink of chaos during the early part of the twenty-first century. Every disgruntled outcast, radical organization or mentally unstable psychopath was inspired by the 9/11 attacks. It proved a powerful nation could be brought to its knees by a few determined fanatics.
At the same time, those fortunate enough to be part of the ORION Institute were witnessing technological advancements and social engineering on an unprecedented scale. Fear of climate change, pandemics and social unrest was gripping much of society, but the QBIFI was predicting a bright future. It seemed like nothing could stand in their way. That is until they received a very personal wake-up call.
The most vital person at the Institute wasn’t an archaeologist, professor, or genetically gifted individual. It was Noreen. Her modest personality and unrivaled ability to empathize with people made her the perfect choice to become the Institute’s “Life Coach.” She also had a Master’s degree in psychology. Claude relied on her unique talents from the day they were married, but for the past twenty years Noreen served as surrogate mother for students, negotiator for instructors, and counselor for overwhelmed scientists. Her combination of intelligence, charm, warmth and genuine compassion made her the indispensable glue holding the organization together. No one on campus was loved by more people than Noreen.
“There is no longer any doubt, you have stage four ovarian cancer,” the doctor told Noreen after surgery. Claude leaned over her bed and melted into her arms with tears streaming. Noreen caressed and reassured him, “We’ll get through this together.” It was no surprise she was the one giving comfort.
The cancer continued to grow after four months of chemotherapy. Steve and the entire staff of the Department of Genome Sciences was devoted to finding an effective gene therapy, but research takes time, one thing Noreen didn’t have.
Claude was beyond desperate. “If the smartest people and the most advanced technology in the world can’t help her, what’s left?” He gripped Haley’s shoulders with his hands and pleaded, “You’ve got to help. I know you can do it.”
“What can I do?” Haley asked.
“You saved Rodney. You can save Noreen!”
“I didn’t save Rodney, God did,” She said.
“We don’t know that. It may have been God or the Wyeth anti-venom, or it may have been you. The truth is we don’t know, but you have to try.” Haley looked into Claude’s eyes and saw a man on the verge of madness. She took a deep breath.
“Okay, I’ll do what I can.” Claude took Haley’s hand and practically dragged her to the room where Noreen was resting.
“You can do this, I know you can!” Claude sounded desperate. Haley placed her palms on Noreen’s chest and began concentrating, envisioning the cancer cells melting away. Noreen shuddered and woke up with a huge gasp, like someone struggling for air.
“What happened, what’s going on?” She asked.
“How do you feel sweetheart?” Claude asked.
Noreen sat up and stretched. “Better than I’ve felt in months,” she said smiling. “What did you do?”
“We brought in a specialist,” Claude answered with his hand on Haley’s back.
“Let’s not read too much into this,” Haley whispered with obvious discomfort. “We don’t know what or if anything has changed. I don’t think we should jump to any conclusions until the doctors run tests.”
Despite Haley’s caution, Noreen was up and moving around with renewed energy. She and Claude were both convinced the cancer was gone. Claude ordered tests and exams, but was confident the results would be negative for cancer. His optimism was short lived. The tests showed a miraculous improvement in Noreen’s general health, but the cancer remained. Claude ordered additional tests, but the results were the same.
A week later, Claude was talking with Noreen at the gazebo beneath the Tree of Life. “This is my favorite place in the whole world,” She whispered. Claude knew how much she loved being there, but nervously recalled J. Alfred’s theory that the tree had accelerated Angela’s cancer. He wondered, where is J. Alfred? “Have you seen Al?” He asked Noreen.
“No,” she replied. “I think my sickness is more difficult on him than me.”
At that moment, J. Alfred was entering a part of the Institute he rarely visited, the chapel. He heard a familiar voice. It was Chris.
“Welcome Mr. Weston. I was hoping you would stop by.”
“I need a miracle Chris,” he said. “If God can raise a person from the dead, surely he can save Noreen.”
“Why do you think God hasn’t already cured her?” Chris asked.
“That’s a hard question to answer Chris. Noreen is more deserving of a miracle than anyone I know, and she has hundreds of people praying for her.” His face grew angry. “God has taken the people I love most. My father was murdered, my wife and daughter perished from Leukemia, and now he’s taking my mother. Is God punishing me?”
“I don’t think so,” Chris replied. “But I believe sometimes painful situations are permitted in order to change our hearts. Are you familiar with the story of Jesus feeding the multitudes by miraculously dividing the bread and fishes?”
“Yes,” Mr. Weston answered, wondering what it had to do with Noreen’s illness.
“Some theologians argue the conventional interpretation of what happened is incorrect. They say it was common practice to take extra food along when people journeyed out from the city during ancient times. They argue that when the multitudes witnessed Jesus’ act of sharing, the people also began to share which resulted in an abundance of food.”
“So you don’t believe Jesus performed a miracle?” Mr. Weston asked.
Chris smiled and said, “I believe Jesus gave the people what they needed.” Mr. Weston grimaced, “I don’t understand.”
“I’m sure you’ve heard the old Chinese proverb, ‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.’ Maybe Jesus was teaching the multitude to feed themselves by sharing.” The question is, ‘What is God trying to teach us?’ Which is the greater miracle, ‘Dividing the loaves and fishes or changing men’s hearts?’”
J. Alfred was disappointed and confused when he left the chapel. What was Chris trying to tell me? Was he saying Noreen must die to teach me a lesson? Fear of breaking into tears had prevented him from visiting Noreen for two days, but J. Alfred knew she would be wondering why he wasn’t at her side. He was determined to stay strong, even when Claude told him she was resting on the gazebo under the Tree of Life.”
He swallowed hard and walked toward the gazebo. Noreen had fallen asleep while reading the Bible. The book slipped from her hand as he approached. He lunged forward and caught it in mid-air. The pages fell open and his eyes focused on Mathew 21:22. “And whatever things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive.”
He felt a rush of confident emotion, this couldn’t be a coincidence. J. Alfred’s sense of isolation and abandonment was suddenly replaced with a boundless presence. He was not alone, and realized he never had been. For one precious moment he believed and prayed for Noreen. Her eyes opened and she smiled.
“Hello sweetheart, I had the most wonderful dream. God was embracing you.”
“How are you feeling Mom?” He asked.
“Maybe it’s a reaction to the pain meds, but I feel wonderful, renewed somehow.”
Noreen underwent repeated tests over the next few weeks. The doctors found no sign of cancer. They decided the miraculous cure must have been a delayed response to one of the earlier treatments. J. Alfred didn’t tell anyone about the prayer. Must have been a coincidence, he thought, but he didn’t really believe it. J. Alfred never felt alone again.
The Institute remained unknown to the general public for over forty years, but it was no secret to most world leaders who were happy to remain silent in exchange for new technology. There was one type of person who could not be bribed, the curiosity seeker and conspiracy theorist. These people were relentless in the efforts to uncover secrets of the mysterious site.
By the time the Prophies arrived at ORION in 2001, the Institute was already attracting the attention of inquisitive locals and amateur ufologists from around the country. Unlike Area 51, the facility was in the middle of a densely populated state. Some of the most popular tourist destinations on the planet were within an easy drive.
Even the ten foot high perimeter fence and a small army of security guards couldn’t prevent at least one unauthorized entry onto the main campus each week. Trespassers were promptly escorted off, but the vivid descriptions of the futuristic architecture encouraged more to come.
The Security Department relied on technology from the vault to create a multi-layered veil of secrecy. The first level consisted of an imperceptible electronic dome which projected a photographic representation of the area surrounding the facility. Photos taken from above by plane, drone or satellite revealed nothing more than undisturbed woods and scrub.
A second level of security was provided by the dome itself, composed of an electromagnetic field which disabled most small mechanical devices. Birds, insects and animals could pass through unencumbered, but remote-controlled devices were disrupted, falling to the Earth like insects exterminated by a bug-zapper. It worked pretty well, but a significant flaw was detected after 9/11.
The Vice President of the United States tried to come onto the property unannounced and the dome disabled his pacemaker. He almost died, and so Claude asked students to submit new ideas for improving perimeter security. It took a year to tweak the technology, but Steve submitted the winning suggestion, with a little help from Dan.
Steve discovered the floating sensation people experienced at Becky’s Restaurant was caused by a small device taken from the vault. They called it an “Optical Displacement Regulator (ODR).”
J. Alfred found the device, but a team of technicians couldn’t determine its function. He took the ODR and had it installed at the entrance to his Bayport house. He explained why to Claude.
“The device creates a slight feeling of intoxication, like inhaling a breath of nitrous oxide. It’s a great welcome for guests when they enter the front door.”
Steve speculated the sense of being intoxicated could be used to disorient would-be trespassers. After completing a short class in optogenetics (the biological technique of using light to control cells in living tissue), Steve began to understand the science behind the sensation.
“I think I have the answer to our security problems,” he told Claude after studying the device. “The Optical Displacement Regulator is emitting a pulse of light which creates pressure on the optic nerve. It’s invisible to the naked eye, but distorts our sense of direction. We may be able to adjust the pulse to misdirect any would-be trespassers.” Instead of building barriers, Steve’s plan addressed the problem by altering the trespasser’s perception.
Claude agreed to let Steve proceed with his plan, but added, “You’re going to need a test subject. Any volunteers?”
Dan jumped at the chance to help. It was an opportunity to spend more time with Steve. Lately, his friends had shown little interest in anything other than research. Dan missed spending time with them. Mr. Weston arranged a trip to Hong Kong a couple months earlier, but it was cancelled when Dan was the only one of the Prophies who wanted to go.
Dan and Steve spent a couple hours on the project each week. Dan tried to walk from point A to point B while Steve directed pulses of non-visible light at him, then recorded the response. Steve discovered In addition to altering Dan’s sense of direction, it affected his emotions. Sometimes it made him happy, sometimes sad, angry or confused. After several months of calibrating the device, it created the impression Dan was walking forward in a straight line when he was actually staggering in circles.
Anastasius produced camouflaged replicas to install inside the perimeter of the property. Large sections of fence were removed so trespassers appeared to have easy access. The security team entertained themselves by watching footage taken by the perimeter cameras. Intruders who tried to sneak onto the facility would stagger without direction until arriving back at the perimeter. Once outside the device’s range, most fell to the ground laughing. Some would try dozens of times before giving up. Over time, a few creative individuals found ways to block the pulses by covering their bodies with tin foil. Not only did they look ridiculous, but the foil set off proximity alarms which allowed guards to intercept them before reaching the main complex.
During their time together, Dan realized Steve was obsessed with understanding his deceased brother’s behavior. Through work done with the Human Genome Project from its beginning in 1988, the ORION Institute had amassed a huge database of genetic information. Steve used the information to identify the gene which triggered John’s death.
“I’ve done it!” He told Dan. “I’ve found the gene responsible for John’s death.”
“How could a gene cause your brother’s death? Didn’t he commit suicide?” Dan asked.
“The gene causes extensive development in the part of the brain controlling emotions and empathy. Every time John witnessed a tragedy or heard a sad story, he experienced those emotions as if he was directly involved.”
Steve turned to Dan and smiled. “I just remembered something Chris said at John’s funeral. ‘Some people have too much empathy to survive in this world. For every ounce of compassion, a pound of strength is required.’ It didn’t make sense at the time.”
After spending months hearing Steve explain how brains handle emotions, Dan began to understand. Psychopaths feel nothing and can’t be emotionally hurt. People like John feel everyone’s pain.
Steve chose the study of genetics to understand his brother’s death. The mystery had been solved, so Dan asked Steve if he would continue to conduct genetic research. Steve’s expression revealed the absurdity of the question.
“You’re kidding?” He replied. “My work is just starting! Now that we understand what made John emotionally fragile, we can begin helping others with that same problem. It doesn’t stop there. We may be able to help people with the opposite problem like psychopaths who experience little emotion or have no compassion.”
Gene therapy was being used outside the Institute to treat physical and mental disorders. Steve was a pioneer in genetic modification techniques, but he realized his work could be used to identify people like his brother before they were born. Rather than raising a child who might be ill-suited to face the realities of life, some mothers would terminate the pregnancy. The thought sickened Steve. He continued his work, but dedicated his life to the study of ethical, legal and social implications (ELSI) related to human genome research. He was there for completion of the Human Genome Project in April, 2003 and continued working with the National Human Genome Research Institute for many more years.
Large commercial companies also participated. Steve worked with scientists from Lifecode Health which was acquired by MedGenome in 2016. He eventually published his doctoral dissertation “The Code of Acceptable Practices in Human Genetic Modification.” It became the model used to resolve differences in standards around the world, and the first pillar of The Great Coalescence.
Brian traveled with J. Alfred Weston to the Third National Conference and Global Forum on Science, Policy and the Environment in Washington D.C. He noticed an attractive young woman during a break and was trying to work up enough nerve to introduce himself. As he approached, he found himself staring at her eyes.
“Do I have something on my face?” She asked.
“Na, nnn, no,” he stuttered. “You have the most unusual eyes. I’ve never seen multi-colored eyes before.”
She appeared to be embarrassed and looked away. “It’s a condition known as central heterochromia. It’s not contagious.”
“I didn’t mean it that way. Your eyes are beautiful,” Brian explained.
She turned her nose up and said, “I don’t want to discuss it.”
Brian would have walked away under normal circumstances, but he found the girl stimulating. He explained to her his passion was designing genetically altered plants. She said her goal was to save the planet from people like him. Brian’s pulse was racing. He hadn’t met anyone like her before. Maybe he could impress her with his expertise.
“I know it isn’t the whole solution, but genetically modified plants provide the most realistic solution to the world’s impending food shortage. We can develop insect and disease resistant plants, requiring less space, less water and containing significantly more nutrition than anything found in nature.”
Brian sounded like a true nerd, but the young woman seemed interested and asked him, “You know what we call that don’t you?” He looked at her with a puzzled expression and said, “uh, innovation?”
“Frankenfood,” she replied. “Every time some faceless corporation says they have the solution, it ends up with an environmental disaster. That’s what happens when greed controls the process.”
Brian was preparing to reply when Mr. Weston returned from a meeting with several corporate executives. As he approached Brian and the woman, he asked, “What are you young people up to?”
“Oh, hey Mr. Weston. We were debating the benefits and dangers of genetically modified plants,” Brian answered.
“J. Alfred Weston?” The woman asked Brian. “You work for J. Alfred Weston? And I suppose you flew in on his private jet.” The contempt in her voice was palpable.
“Well, yea but,” Brian started to speak as the woman exhaled in disgust, shook her head, and walked away.
“Sorry to crimp your style there buddy. She was cute! Real nice eyes.” Mr. Weston patted Brian on the back. “Until today, you’ve only seen the benefits of working with one of the richest men in the world. Now you know being associated with me doesn’t always open doors. In fact, sometimes they slam in your face.”
J. Alfred Weston wasn’t the kind of person with whom you often disagree, so Brian inhaled deeply to steady his nerves before complaining.
“I don’t understand why it’s necessary to be so secretive about the things we’ve accomplished at the Institute.”
This was a sensitive subject for Mr. Weston. After investing over a billion dollars of his personal fortune, the need for secrecy didn’t allow him to reveal many of the accomplishments made by the Institute. The general public considered him a wealthy fool. In an effort to goad him into releasing more information, a journalist for the Wall Street Journal wrote an article describing J. Alfred as “an eccentric billionaire who squandered his wealth building a third-rate college in a swamp.”
“There is only so much we can tell the public,” J. Alfred responded. We’ve already given away significant technology and have gained important allies.”
Brian whined like a small child. “But if we could announce a few details describing the vegetables we’ve developed, I’m sure people would recognize the potential benefits of genetically enhanced plants.”
J. Alfred’s expression softened a little. “I feel the same way Brian, but people are uncomfortable with the idea of tinkering with genetics. It doesn’t matter if it’s plant or animal. Half of them think we’re playing god, the other half think we have no idea what we’re doing and we’ll wind up destroying the planet.”
“Do you think they’re right?” Brian asked.
“They may be, at least in the short term,” J. Alfred replied. “According to Anastasius, the QBIFI predicts premature disclosure of anything relating to genetics could cause a disaster. What we’re doing at the Institute doesn’t appear to be a part of Earth’s natural development. That’s why we must be cautious and maintain secrecy.”
“Are you saying we can change the future based on information from the QBIFI? I thought the investigation after 9/11 determined that isn’t possible.”
“While it is true there’s no action which will change the natural future as predicted by the QBIFI, we’ve discovered the timing of certain events can have a major impact. In this case, if we publicize our genetics research now, the QBIFI predicts chaos. If we wait until 2026 or later, the information will lead to a positive outcome.”
“Why 2026? That’s so far away.”
“We don’t know the reason, but it has something to do with our ability to understand and use genetics research responsibly. We’re not going to release anything substantial to the general public before that date, end of discussion.”
When they returned from the conference, Brian worked even harder on genetic plant research. He spent long hours in the lab with no social life, obsessed with his experiments. He was frustrated by the inability to publish his research for another twenty-three years. He found a way to discuss his discoveries in a hypothetical setting. It was an online forum called the Green Warriors, a site for dedicated conservationists. Radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh referred to them as the “Environmental Whackos.”
The Green Warriors site was the perfect place to discuss environmental theories and fantasies. Brian met a girl on the site, or at least someone who claimed to be a girl. She was everything he dreamed of, but the only thing he knew for sure was her online name, Ranebowgurl. When asked for an online ID, Brian chose Prityboy. He hated it, but wouldn’t forget it. Brian and Ranebowgurl communicated every day. He grew to trust her advice and relied on her companionship. Even if it was virtual, she was the closest thing he had to a girlfriend. Whenever he had a bad day, Brian would change the details and share his experiences with Ranebowgurl. She would always send a warm reply and end with, “I believe in you.”
Brian’s research led to several productive crops. In field studies at the Institute, they contained less insecticide and herbicide contamination than food grown on farms certified by the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI). If the world could see the incredible things we’re doing here, Prityboy bragged hypothetically to Ranebowgurl.
Most people wouldn’t even know the ORION Institute existed for two more decades. Meanwhile, several large commercial companies were using a primitive form or genetic modification to infuse insecticides and other dubious components into major crops such as corn. The Qabalah used these abuses to fan the flames of public fears, making rational public discussions impossible. They controlled over half of the world’s news media and used them to promote their interests while destroying their competition.
Genetically modified food provided an easy way for the Qabalah to spread misinformation. They published fake scientific articles, opened phony internet chat rooms, staged protests and convinced millions that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) were being used to reduce population by causing infertility and cancer.
Brian understood better than anyone the dangers involved with GMOs. They could be a greater benefit to society than antibiotics if produced and managed properly. If they were misused, they could be a greater threat than a Hydrogen bomb. A simple genetic protein modification could change a formerly healthy food into a deadly poison. The Qabalah weren’t lying when they claimed some genetic modifications were causing biological changes in the body leading to cancer.
By the year 2005, Brian was already working on his doctoral dissertation “The Code of Internationally Accepted Standards for Environmental Conservation.” He began attending more conferences and conventions, but spent most of his time establishing connections with members of the Global Environment Facility (GEF), and the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Meanwhile, people living at the Institute served as perfect lab rats for testing his genetically modified foods. Claude set a goal to produce and recycle 90% of everything consumed on site. The Agriculture Division grew larger than the Department of Archaeology.
A strange internet romance bloomed between Ranebowgurl and Prityboy. Brian wanted to meet her, but was afraid what might happen if she discovered the Institute was real. He was confident Ranebowgurl wouldn’t do anything to hurt him, but couldn’t take a chance. He dreamed they would meet some day at an environmental conference where he would recognize her in a conversation without having to reveal his online identity. In the meantime, his favorite part of each day was contact with the mysterious Ranebowgurl, her closing words, “I believe in you.”
After finishing four years of study at the Institute in 2004, the last scheduled culture trip was on track to depart for London in a couple weeks. Claude wanted to cancel the excursion for security reasons. It wasn’t Haley’s safety that concerned him, it was Matt’s.
Matt dedicated a significant part of his life to the study of government systems, trying to determine which was best. He considered problems with central planning and worker incentives associated with communism, socialism, and capitalism. If there was ever any hope of wresting power from the rich and powerful (especially the Qabalah), a major change was required. Matt wasn’t as absorbed in his Christian faith as Chris, but he felt it was no coincidence the Bible identified money as the primary impediment of a fair and efficient economic system. Matt often paraphrased a line of scripture stated in a letter from Paul to Timothy, “Money is the root of all evil.” If Chris was in the room, he would chime in, “It’s not money, it’s the ‘love’ of money.”
Money was an absolute necessity for trade and stability in early civilizations. It provided a method of exchange, didn’t decay or require significant storage space like most food products, and was easily transported. It came to represent power and security. Kings and other dominant people controlled the money supply, and contrived methods to amass enormous wealth, often at the expense of the general population. These schemes became even more sinister and less fair-minded over time.
By 2004, it was said, “Bankers rule the world.” The Qabalah ruled the bankers. Financial institutions developed systems which charged the highest interest rates to those least able to pay. They created convoluted securities including collateralized debt obligation derivatives even bankers themselves couldn’t explain.
With the advent of computer technology and real-time worldwide communications, Matt realized it was theoretically possible to replace money with a more efficient and equitable system. The ORION Institute was confronting many of the greatest scientific and technical challenges mankind had ever faced, but Matt’s task would be the most difficult to achieve. He envisioned a world without money, selecting Jacque Fresco’s sustainable resource-based economic system as an alternative.
Playing devil’s advocate, Brian asked, “If a resource-based economy is so efficient, then why hasn’t anyone tried it before?”
“I can think of at least two reasons,” Matt answered. “Those who control the wealth don’t want to give it up, and we haven’t had the technology until now. For the first time in history we have the ability to track resources worldwide on a real-time basis.”
“So what makes you think the rich are willing to give it up?”
“Some won’t, but there are others like Mr. Weston who are fully behind us. You’ve seen how well the resource based economic system works at the ORION Institute. Our studies have proven when people aren’t afraid of being without resources, a large majority stop hording and wasting. Less resources are needed resulting in an enormous improvement in efficiency and productivity. The most astonishing and unexpected benefit is a wide-spread sense of well-being. In the end, even the rich are better off.”
“You don’t have to convince me. I have faith in you buddy, but the Qabalah isn’t going to give up control of the money supply without a fight.”
Brian was correct and that’s what worried Claude. The Qabalah controlled U.S. banks and through them manipulated the world’s money supply. It was their primary source of wealth and power. If Matt’s plan was successful, the Qabalah had a great deal to lose.
The Qabalah operated with impunity for thousands of years, few people were aware of their existence. They influenced the Chinese dynasties, the Mongol empire, Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Saddam Hussein, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and major national governments including the United States.
They exploited differences between cultures, resources, and religions to manipulate the world’s civilizations to their advantage. When they became bored, they chose sides and pit nation against nation for their amusement. But the ORION Institute was starting to introduce technologies and improve communications. The internet, which had become one of the Qabalah’s most effective weapons for spreading misinformation, was now being used by ORION and sovereign governments to reduce miscalculations.
Anastasius developed a software program to help identify possible communications within the Qabalah. The Medium was the code name they used to identify Matt. The name started coming up frequently after Matt’s advisor approved his dissertation, “Converting the World to a Resource Based Economy.” Mr. Weston and Claude used their money and connections to set up consultations for Matt with financial representatives from over fifty different countries. When it became apparent governments were seriously considering the idea, the tone of the Qabalah’s messages became threatening.
Despite the threats, Claude approved the London excursion when everyone agreed to stay together with him serving as chaperon. Matt was the only student who had work to conduct on the trip, a brief unofficial meeting with Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The Chancellor is the equivalent of the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, and it required the considerable influence of both Claude and Mr. Weston to arrange the visit. The simple fact the meeting took place added considerable weight to Matt’s PhD dissertation.
Two weeks later, on a hot sunny July day, Mr. Weston’s private jet departed the tiny Sebring Regional Airport. Arrival at the luxurious Corinthia Hotel London on a cool misty night in the bustling city offered a dazzling contrast to the scorching rustic origin of the trip. A porter greeted them at the door. Tired and hungry, they inhaled the fragrance of flowers from nearby Whitehall Gardens and the aroma of fresh food wafting from one of the hotel restaurants.
As Claude requested, the Prophies remained together the following day while accompanying Matt to his meeting with the Chancellor. Haley was looking forward to having her picture taken in front of No. 10 Downing Street, but was disappointed to learn she couldn’t get past a security gate at the end of the street. An attractive young woman was waiting at the gate on Whitehall to escort Matt inside.
When Matt returned, it took him twice as long as his visit to describe what happened. Even though it wasn’t an official meeting and lasted less than ten minutes, he said the Chancellor was intrigued and seemed open to the possibility of a resource based economy. The meeting took place at No. 10 Downing Street because Chancellor Brown had swapped apartments with Prime Minister Tony Blair who wanted more space for his family.
The rest of the week was spent on typical tourist activities including visits to the British Museum, the Tower of London, and St. Paul’s Cathedral. They attended performances of Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera in the evening. Dan said his favorite memories of London were the roar of the underground, double decker buses, and the sound of a half dozen different languages being spoken in the same restaurant.
Matt remarked, “Even the vehicle congestion with beeping horns and diesel fumes create a distinctive setting, somehow more civilized than back home.”
On their last day, Claude led the students across the Hungerford Bridge for a visit to the London Eye. It dominated the skyline on the other side of the Thames. A street performer wearing a cape, bowler hat and dark glasses started performing for the crowd while tourists waited in line. Haley and Claude were immediately suspicious. The recent threats from the Qabalah made Claude nervous.
The performer jumped, kicked and danced a bizarre combination of Kabuki and Kung Fu. His cape flowed artistically and he carried a cane which he wielded like a sword. As the crowd delighted in his acrobatics, he lunged toward Matt. Three feet short of reaching the target, his body was suspended in midair for a full five seconds before dropping to the ground. The crowd gasped and applauded. Two security guards watched nervously.
Dan was terrified, but Matt appeared to be enjoying the show. The man continued to dance and jumped in Matt’s direction several times before falling to the ground. Matt would shout, “Way to go Chief!” The intensity of the performance grew and the man made one final run at Matt. He jumped so high into the air it looked like he was catapulted from a trampoline, but this time he fell flat on his back. The crowd groaned as his head hit the pavement with a disgusting thud.
His body turned bright red and then disappeared, leaving nothing but ashes. The spectators whooped and cheered for an encore. It didn’t happen.
Dan turned to Matt and asked, “Was that a street performance, or did that guy try to kill you?”
Matt looked at Dan with a smug expression. “He tried, but never stood a chance. Do you remember when we were kids and went to Arcadia for Thanksgiving? Do you remember the Indian Chief I described?”
“Yea, but I thought that was your imagination. It wasn’t real. What does your imaginary friend have to do with what happened here?”
Matt patted Dan on the back. “It was real to him,” he said while looking at the ashes.
Rodney Reynolds was a mathematics phenomenon and the most intellectually gifted student at the Institute. With an IQ higher than Einstein, Rodney developed the most complex equations required for the Institute’s advanced technology, but his insatiable search for answers made him perpetually miserable. He had a knack for spreading discontent and became a bit of a pariah among the students. He enjoyed making provocative statements to see how people would react. His favorite target was Chris.
“Face it Chris. Technology is our Christ, the savior of mankind. Steve is using genome tech to make humans stronger and smarter. Brian will soon be using bio-tech and renewable energy to create a sustainable environment. Matt is applying computer algorithms to perform previously impossible calculations for a resource based economy, and your little buddy Dan is utilizing the Internet to sell the whole package. So why do we need God?”
Chris sighed and hung his head. There was some truth to Rodney’s words. The Institute’s focus was primarily on technology, Chris’s main concern when he enrolled.
“You think you’re clever Rodney, but I’m not buying it. Despite your arguments and protests, I know you believe in God.”
“I don’t deny it. I was raised as a Christian, but what I don’t accept is Biblical inerrancy, or the supernatural interpretation of most of the events in the Bible. My faith in God is based on rational observation. I don’t need some religious authority figure in a pointed hat or holy text book to tell me that God is real. I’m a Deist.”
“So why are you angry with Christians?” Chris asked.
“I’m not angry, I don’t understand them. Many Christians who claim to worship God are in fact worshiping the Bible, a book so full of errors and contradictions that any rational person should reject it as nonsense.”
“O.K., I’ll bite. Why is the Bible inconsistent?” Chris asked.
“Well to begin with, it was commissioned by the pagan Constantine as a way to unify the Roman Empire.”
“So what makes you think God wasn’t using Constantine to spread Christianity?”
“Because Constantine said Christ commanded him to design the cross out of gold and precious stones and have it inscribed ‘By this symbol you will conquer.’ That’s in direct conflict with the twentieth chapter of Exodus, verses four and five: ‘Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.’”
“I’m impressed with your knowledge of the scriptures Rodney, but the Bible isn’t a tech manual. You can’t use mathematical reasoning to critique it. It’s a living document. There are plenty of things we don’t understand, like why the first two verses of Ezra are a verbatim recopy of the last two verses of Second Chronicles. The Bible is still inerrant,” Chris said with a confident smile.
Rodney rolled his eyes, “What? How can you insist the Bible is inerrant? It’s full of errors, and for many the Bible itself has become a graven image. Most Christians worship the Bible, not God.”
“It’s a matter of faith.” Chris insisted. “The Bible is the word of a perfect God written by imperfect men. God uses human inadequacies to teach us to have faith. Everything in the Bible is there for a reason, even those things that seem like errors to an unbelieving world.”
Rodney threw his hands in the air, “I give up, you drank the Kool-Aid,” referring to people who hold unquestioned beliefs without evidence. He was mocking Chris, but understood the argument. He admired Chris and wanted to share his unshakable faith.
By the end the fifth year, Dan had completed his thesis in computer science and was awarded a Master’s degree. That may sound impressive, but Haley and Dan’s other friends were receiving PhDs. Graduates gathered for a celebration trip to Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales.
Even though the gardens at the Institute contained the most impressive collection of plants on the planet, the Bok Tower Gardens had a warm and familiar appeal. Maybe it was the native plants or perhaps the unobstructed views from the 298 foot hill known as Iron Mountain. Whatever it was, students from ORION spent more time there than any other place off campus.
Mr. Weston made special arrangements as usual. He was the highest level member of the gardens and used his considerable influence to convince the non-profit organization to provide on-site housing for fifteen students and Claude for a three-day weekend. He reserved the entire 12,900 square foot estate they called Pinewood.
The bus arrived a little before 10 a.m. It was a sunny Friday morning and a pleasant woman named Mary McDermott greeted the bus. She seemed genuinely excited to have lodgers. The estate was open at times for tours and formal parties, but it was very rare to have overnight guests.
The large Mediterranean-style home was decorated for Christmas, but the public holiday tours hadn’t commenced. Claude was on a first name basis with the staff which wasn’t a surprise since Iron Mountain was one of the first places he visited when he came to America. Haley thought it was amusing when Claude was repeatedly greeted with “You look great Claude, you never get any older.” She wondered what they would say if they knew he attended President Calvin Coolidge’s dedication of the tower and sanctuary in 1929.
Pinewood estate offered a welcome change from the high-tech efficiency of the Institute. In spite of its bold and awe-inspiring futuristic architecture, the school’s lodging lacked the warmth and earthiness of a home. Despite the high-tech conveniences of the Institute’s staff lodging, it’s why Claude and Noreen chose to stay in the simple house they built together.
Upon entering Pinewood estate, one room became visitors’ favorite. It contained an intimate seating area in front of a giant marble fireplace. Friends gathered in front of an enormous hearth, soaking up the ambience, talking for hours. The high ceilings were lined with exposed beams, lighting fixtures were ornate wrought iron. The room glowed from sunlight flowing through huge glass-paned arched doors. Spectacular wood carvings extended two feet beyond the doors to the ceiling. A small courtyard was visible outside. The brilliant green of the tropical plants created a stunning vision against the orange stone walls with scattered red and blue flowers. The building conveyed the character of an elegant home.
Dan was the only one of the Prophies continuing in school, but the others remained at the Institute to conduct research. This was a major milestone for everyone. By the end of the afternoon, Steve was kneeling on one knee at the tower reflecting pond proposing to Tammy. She said yes. Chris and Haley announced their upcoming wedding at dinner, but the greatest surprise came when Rodney said he would be attending divinity school.
“Congratulations Rodney, I knew you were a true believer,” Chris said as he shook Rodney’s hand.
“What is a true believer?” Rodney asked without waiting for a reply. “Don’t lump me in with everyone else preacher man. I’m still searching.”
Claude arranged a private tour in the evening of the Bok Tower. It was dark when the troop of eight started. As they approached the building, massive tile grilles near the top glowed like a stained-glass beacon. There was no moon or city lights to obscure the thousands of stars twinkling in the clear black sky.
They entered through the great brass door into the Founders Room. The interior resembled a palace with delicate pink and gray granite walls, an ornate ceramic tile floor, and a large fireplace. The high domed ceiling looked like it belonged in a grand cathedral. Steve joked, “Where’s the Pope?”
Claude led the way up a wrought-iron staircase. The second level held historical items including important documents, antique furniture, and photographs. As he inspected a picture taken when the gardens opened, Steve discovered a familiar face in the shadows behind President Coolidge. It was Claude. He looked a little more youthful, but it was still hard to comprehend the picture was taken more than seventy years earlier.
“Man, you must live under that tree!” Steve said, referring to the Tree of Life.
“I do most of my reading there in the screened gazebo,” Claude replied. “And Noreen and I dance a waltz beneath the limbs twice each week. You guys are welcome to stop by and breathe the air anytime.”
The troop passed a mechanical room and a maintenance workshop on the third and fourth levels before stopping at the library on the fifth. The Tower custodian was happy to point out library contents, the largest collection of carillon history and music in the world.
The sixth level was a comfortable office and studio with recording equipment. They rested until Claude reluctantly allowed them to climb the spiral staircase to the level with the bells. The massive carillons created an appearance of a scene from the Hunchback of Notre Dame.
“There’s nothing up there but machinery and lightning rods,” Claude insisted, knowing some would want to climb the catwalk ladder to the roof.
Suddenly from behind one of the largest bells, a man bounded off the catwalk toward Haley. Rodney jumped in front of her and took the full force of the man’s weight crashing down.
He was a member of the Qabalah. Rodney grimaced as the point of the man’s cane pierced his leg. Haley turned and was face to face with the attacker before the others could react. The man took one step toward her, prepared to stab her with his cane and turned into dust. His cane, clothes, hat and glasses were left in a heap on the floor.
“What happened? Did your Indian Chief do that?” Dan asked Matt.
“No,” he replied. “Haley did it.”
“Please remind me not to piss her off,” Dan joked without realizing Rodney wasn’t getting up. He laid motionless, without breathing and without a pulse. Claude pulled out a small case containing a vile of anti-venom and a syringe. He injected Rodney and started CPR, but Rodney had already turned pale and cold.
Rodney’s body appeared dead, but his mind was still active. It was locked in mortal combat with the man from the tower. His rage grew more intense as he struck the man repeatedly. He felt extreme pain shooting up his leg, his skin burned as if doused in hot grease. His head was pounding so hard he could barely see, but he continued to beat on the man’s face until he felt bones crumbling under his fists.
A perverse pleasure washed over him as the attacker’s body disintegrated into a bloody pulp. He tasted the man’s blood splattered on his face.
Rodney thought his fight was over, but then he heard a familiar laugh. It was the man who molested him when he was eleven years old. No one believed Rodney when he told them what happened. Filled with rage, he jumped on the man and gouged his fingers deep into the molester’s eyes while kicking him in the groin. As the man fell helplessly to the ground, Rodney began stomping on his face. Yes! He thought, revenge!
Again, Rodney thought his fight was over, but he continued to fight every person who ever wronged him until he no longer knew who they were. He struggled with one foe after another, suffering as much pain and torment as he inflicted. Every unrestrained emotion of anger and bitterness he’d ever experienced had boiled to the surface and he was locked in a perpetual battle with his inner demons. As soon as he would vanquish one foe, another would appear. The perverse satisfaction of revenge faded, replaced with profound pain, disgust and remorse. Rodney was at the mercy of his own hate, and felt himself slipping deeper into the pit of hopelessness.
“Jesus, forgive me!” He cried in a final gasp.
A quiet still nothingness enveloped him followed by a slow drifting upward like floating to the surface of a lake. A light appeared and he imagined he was looking into the face of God.
Back at the tower, Claude was trying his best to save Rodney. He carried a small supply of Wyeth anti-venom whenever he traveled with Haley. He had confirmed Coral Snake venom was the original poison used by the Qabalah to kill John Weston.
Claude continued CPR while Steve and Dan were massaging the body to get blood flowing. Chris and Haley were praying and laying on hands with such passion it looked like a Pentecostal revival. The whole thing might have been amusing if it weren’t deadly serious.
After ten minutes, Rodney began breathing and color returned to his face. He opened his eyes and managed to speak three words, “I saw Jesus.”
He was medevacked to a Tampa hospital where he made a complete recovery. The doctors found no trace of snake venom in his system, and no anti-venom. They couldn’t explain how he survived. Was it the medicine, Haley’s special powers, or did God answer their prayers?
Students were eager to see Rodney when he returned to the Institute the following week. Chris and Haley were with him when Dan and Steve stopped by. The room was filled with cards and flowers from friends. Dan whispered to Steve, “I didn’t know he had any friends.”
Rodney looked different. At first, Dan thought he’d lost weight, but then it occurred to him his behavior had changed. Rodney was smiling. It was a facial expression few students had ever witnessed. His formerly negative outlook had turned positive and it created an entirely different appearance.
“Please don’t take this the wrong way,” Dan said, “but near-death experiences look good on you.”
“Well,” Rodney said, “I’ve been born again, fully immersed this time.”
Both Chris and Haley were eager to hear Rodney’s story.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you a few questions,” Chris said.
“Go ahead. Ask away. I know you’re curious and to be honest, I’ve been itching to tell somebody.”
“Do you remember when you woke up at the tower, you said you saw Jesus?”
“No, but I remember standing at the gates of Hell.”
Chris looked surprised. “You don’t believe in Hell. You said, and I quote, ‘I don’t believe in Hell.’ You said God wouldn’t give us free will to make our own choices, but then condemn us for choosing.”
Rodney paused for a moment and then answered. “The ancient Hebrew scripture describes Hell as a place where unsaved souls are ‘burnt or consumed.’ To me, that meant you cease to exist. Now I know better. Hell does exist, and it’s a place of horrible suffering, but I still don’t think of it as a place of punishment.”
“Then if Christ didn’t die as punishment for our sins, what was the point?” Chris asked.
“He didn’t die as punishment ‘for our sins,’ he laid down his life as a path to save us ‘from our sins,’” Rodney answered. “Maybe it’s just semantics, but it’s important to me. I believe in God, and love him completely, but figured Heaven couldn’t be a very nice place if it was full of people like me. It’s like Groucho Marx said, ‘I wouldn’t want to join any club that would have me as a member.’”
Chris sighed, “That’s an amusing perspective, but if there’s no punishment for sin, then the death of Jesus on the Cross had no meaning.”
“It means everything!” Tears of emotion were streaming down Rodney’s face. “For one brief moment at his crucifixion, Jesus suffered the ultimate humiliation. He gave up his divinity and became a mere mortal. It must have been horrifying and bewildering to be separated from the Godhead. But as we know, it didn’t end there. He was reunited with the Trinity, creating a path by which we may also become a part of the divine. We think Jesus’ resurrection was the miracle, but we don’t experience the real miracle until death. Jesus didn’t change when he passed from this world, ‘we will change.’ Through Christ, our souls will be spiritually transfigured as we join the father in Heaven.”
“So what’s the point of Hell if it isn’t about punishment?” Haley asked.
“All souls must go somewhere,” Rodney answered. “God didn’t want me to go to Hell. At the last possible moment when I sensed the hopelessness of my situation, I cried out, ‘Jesus, forgive me.’”
“And that’s when he appeared to you?” Chris asked.
“No, but as soon as I stopped fighting and surrendered to Christ, the rage vanished and the pain stopped. A force lifted me and I felt a love unlike anything my feeble mind could imagine. Then I woke up in the hospital.”
“Are you saying a person can still be saved after death?” Chris asked.
“I wasn’t dead. Your prayers brought me back.”
Even as a Christian, this was hard for Dan to accept. He started to wonder if Rodney had suffered brain damage or was having delusions, but Chris continued his questions.
“So you didn’t see Jesus?”
“He’s right here,” Rodney replied.
That comment got Dan’s attention. His eyebrows raised two inches as he whispered to Steve, “Brain damage, definitely brain damage.”
But then Rodney lifted his hand to his chest and added, “In my heart.” Then Dan understood. Every Christian has Jesus in their heart.
Brian gazed skyward, awestruck by the giant sequoias along the Crescent Meadow Trail. A few were over two thousand years old, nearly three hundred feet tall, and one hundred feet in circumference. Hazy rays of sunlight pierced the forest canopy, peppering the ground like spotlights on an enormous stage. Even with the many remarkable events in Brian’s life, nothing compared with the sense of wonder found in Sequoia National Park.
It was his first assignment for the ORION Institute following graduation. The first stop was yesterday in San Francisco where he attended an environmental conference. Today’s excursion was a last-minute addition to the schedule. Claude asked him to meet with a representative from the Sierra Club to dispel rumors concerning the Institute’s development of genetically modified plants. Tomorrow Brian’s itinerary would take him to Balboa Park in San Diego for research at the Memorial Botanical Library.
Traffic noise outside the hotel kept Brian awake last night, and the long winding drive from San Francisco left him tense. Cedar Grove Lodge stored his luggage while he went for a hike to unwind on a nearby trail. As a well-equipped band of hikers overtook him, he asked where they were headed.
“Mount Whitney,” they replied.
“How far?” He asked.
“Sixty miles,” an older woman replied as they marched out of sight.
A few minutes later, Brian came upon a young woman sitting alone on a log bench overlooking Crescent Meadow. She was watching two deer at the base of the trees on the far side.
“It’s beautiful isn’t it?” she asked without turning toward him. Brian heard her voice, but didn’t understand the words.
“Excuse me?” he asked.
She turned around and looked directly at him, “I said the meadow is beautiful isn’t it.”
Maybe it was the effects of altitude or the long drive, but Brian was tongue-tied.
“Uh,” he swallowed, took a deep breath and tried again. “Uh, uh,” but was still unable to produce a single intelligible word.
“I’m sorry,” she apologized, “I shouldn’t have disturbed your walk.”
With his face flushed with embarrassment, Brian closed his eyes and struggled to speak. “No!” The word came out loud and blunt.
He tried again. “You didn’t disturb me, and yes it is beautiful,” he said. Brian knew it wasn’t the altitude or the drive which left him speechless. It was her distinctively beautiful appeal. She was the most enchanting woman he had ever met, from her auburn hair with wild streaks of gold to her rainbow-colored eyes, her creamy peach complexion, infectious smile, and quirky dimples. She looked so unusual and yet familiar.
“Hello Brian, I’m Katie.”
“Uh,” Brian was speechless again. This is crazy, he thought. How did she know my name? She smiled and pointed to his name tag still prominently displayed from the environmental conference in San Francisco.
“Ohhhhhhhhhh,” he said. “I’m Brian,” he said like an adoring groupie.
“I know,” she with a shake of her head and a laugh. It was an extraordinary melodious laugh. “Come sit down,” she said while patting the seat beside her.
“How do you know you’re safe?” Brian teased. “I could be a dangerous man.”
“Really?” She said. “I’m pretty good at reading people. I’m sure you aren’t dangerous.”
Brian couldn’t decide if he was flattered or insulted. The next hour was one of the most pleasant Brian could remember. They laughed at each other’s jokes and shared common interests, especially a mutual love of nature. Brian gazed into her eyes and saw the sunrise. Her voice felt like a warm embrace. It was as if they had known each other from birth, but when Brian mentioned the ORION Institute, Katie stood up.
“I have an appointment. It was nice talking to you.”
“Which way are you going?” Brian asked. “I’ll walk you back.”
“No thanks, I can find the way.”
“How can I contact you? I don’t know your last name. Could I get a phone number or something?” Brian was concerned, afraid he might not see her again.
“Maybe I’ll see you around,” she said.
Brian was miserable during the hike back to the lodge. What did I say? What did I do? I thought we hit it off. He finished checking into his room and reviewed some notes. The Sierra Club was adamantly opposed to genetic engineering, so an unpleasant meeting seemed an inevitable but appropriate ending to a disappointing day.
The Institute travel office had arranged a dinner get-together with a Dr. Marglova for 6 P.M. at the Cedar Lodge Restaurant. At least I’ll get a good meal, he thought. Brian soon discovered the restaurant was a snack bar in the lodge market. He wondered what else could go wrong while waiting in a cold empty booth, expecting a bearded old man with a Russian accent to appear at any moment.
His pulse quickened fifty points when he saw Katie enter the market. He stood up and called to her, “Katie. Over here!”
She walked to where he was sitting, extended her hand and said in a very emotionless tone, “Doctor Katerina Marglova.”
Brian’s face turned stone cold. He glared at her and asked, “Is this a game? Because if it is, I’d like to know.”
“You’re the one playing games. You throw the dice every time a plant is genetically engineered, and it’s all for greed!”
“That’s not who we are. That’s not what we do.” Brian’s voice was calm and steady, but his hands were shaking. Then he gave Dr. Marglova a sealed packet of five seeds along with the paper he prepared explaining the Institute’s biodiversity project.
“This packet contains Sigillaria, Lepidodendron, and three other viable seeds for species which have been extinct for three hundred million years. The Institute has recovered over four hundred formerly extinct plant species and haven’t copyrighted a single one nor made a penny from it.”
“Why should I believe you?” She asked. “These could be seeds from common plants or even infected seeds intended to cause harm.”
“I don’t expect you to trust me. Have them studied and tested in a protected environment. We’ll be waiting to hear from you.”
Brian clinched his jaw, trying to hide his disappointment as he walked away. In a single afternoon, he’d met the girl of his dreams and found out she was a nightmare. He felt like an abused child. He wanted to go home.
A few weeks later, Dr. Phillip Warren called to ask if the Institute was willing to host a team of scientists from the Sierra Club. Claude was ecstatic.
“Good job Brian! The Sierra Club was very impressed with your presentation. I’d like you to coordinate a two-day visit for five of their top science advisors. Be sure to include a complete tour with all the bells and whistles. We need to convince them our motives are altruistic and we have the scientific expertise to avoid disaster.”
Claude handed Brian a few written questions along with the list of attendees. One name stood out, Dr. Katerina Marglova.
The Sierra Club contingent came two weeks later on a Friday afternoon. Brian and Dan waited as the limo-bus arrived from the airport, stopping inside the main gate.
“Welcome to fantasy island,” Dan said with a laugh as they disembarked. Brian winced with embarrassment before starting the introductions.
“Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. I’m Dr. Brian Adams. This is Daniel Naidoo. We’ll be your hosts.” (Dan was still working on his PhD at that time.)
The visitors were startled by a loud burst of air from the turntable compressor as it started lowering the limo-bus. As they bounded away from the noise, two of the visitors tripped on the raised concrete. Dan caught an elderly scientist before he fell. Brian instinctively caught Dr. Marglova, but then let go so fast she almost fell anyway.
The Sierra Club’s Dr. Warren was quick to recognize the awkward moment. He began introducing himself and his team. Dan directed the scientists toward the tram. Brian shook their hands in a professional manner as he described the DGV.
“You’ll be riding to the main complex in our diamagnetic gravity vortex vehicle. It operates on the earth’s magnetic energy grid and has a zero carbon footprint. Any questions?”
Brian was calm, his presentation was smooth until Dr. Marglova raised her hand. He began fidgeting. Dan felt Brian’s elbow nudge his side. He knew it was Brian’s way of saying, your turn.
“Yes Doctor,” Dan responded.
“How will we get our luggage? We left it on the bus.”
“It’s already been sorted and is being delivered to your rooms.”
Brian resumed his presentation with a description of the DGV inertia dampening system and identification of flora and fauna along the way. Four of the guests appeared fascinated, but Dr. Marglova remained stoic.
“Our gardens contain over four hundred rare plant species, forty-six of which are considered extinct outside of this facility.”
“Is there a reason why you haven’t shared those formerly extinct plants with the rest of the world?” Dr. Marglova asked. It seemed like a legitimate question to Dan, but he recognized Brian’s combative expression. Dan was expecting a fight, but Brian took a deep, then answered calmly.
“That’s a good question Dr. Marglova. Like the Sierra Club, the Institute is concerned with the potential impact of introducing new plants to the ecosystem. A plant which has been extinct for a million years could have a devastating impact on the environment if it isn’t properly managed. It’s the same problem we face with genetically modified plants.”
“And how do you intend to handle that problem?” She flashed a wry smile as if to say gotcha.
Brian smiled because the answer was at their first stop. It was the Institute’s quantum computer. Dan parked the DGV in front of Claude’s house, and Brian led the scientists into the vault.
“This is the only fully functional quantum computer on the planet,” Brian said as the visitors ogled the intricate control panel.
“Is this thing real? It looks like something from Star Trek,” an analyst commented.
“Without the quantum computer, the intricate gardens you’ve witnessed wouldn’t be possible,” Brian explained. “A complete list of the plant’s biological requirements such as light, nutrition, soil, humidity, and susceptibility to disease are fed into this computer. Then the computer predicts the influence each plant will have on each other and the environment. It’s been 99.9% accurate.”
The look of surprise on the visitors’ faces was unmistakable. They stood motionless trying to process the wonder of the quantum computer. It seemed too good to be true, but the gardens were undeniable proof the Institute’s biodiversity project was far ahead of the rest of the world.
A special dinner and presentation was held in the planetarium that evening. Years of gloomy climate change predictions had weighed heavily on the Sierra Club scientists, so the Institute’s unfettered optimism was a refreshing change. Even though the visitors weren’t convinced the quantum computer could deliver as promised, they were still in a festive mood.
While everyone else was talking and enjoying the meal, Dr. Marglova was focused on Brian. He could feel her cold stealthy glances. After Claude ended the evening with an inspirational speech, Dr. Marglova made a bee-line for Brian before he could escape. She told him “it’s time to clear the air” and asked if there was some place private they could talk. Brian suggested the fire exit. It wasn’t used often because it didn’t have an escalator.
“There’s an open causeway in the back where I go when I want to be alone,” he said.
Dr. Marglova followed him outside and admired the scenic walkway nestled high above the trees. It was a clear night with a slight breeze. “This place is enchanting,” she said with a jealous sigh. “What I wouldn’t give to have a sanctuary like this to escape. I hope you realize how fortunate you are to be part of the Orion Institute.”
“I do,” he replied, his voice cold and monotone.
“Do you remember when we first met?” she asked.
“Of course. It was a couple weeks ago in the Sequoia National Park.”
“No,” she said. “We met at the Global Forum on Science, Policy and the Environment in 2003. You were trying to convince me genetically altered crops could solve the world’s food shortage.”
Brian realized why she seemed familiar when he saw her on the Crescent Meadow Trail. “Oh yes, now I remember,” he said. “You walked off in a huff when Mr. Weston arrived. Then you made me look like a fool in the Sequoias. I don’t mean to be rude, but I’ve had about as much of you as I can take.”
“I don’t blame you for being angry,” she said. “I haven’t been honest with you, but I’m not your enemy. I’m very fond of you.”
Brian felt her fingers reaching for his hand, but he pulled it away. “You have a strange way of showing it,” he said.
She turned and gazed at the moon. “There’s something else you need to know. You and I have been friends for almost three years.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Oh god,” Brian. He felt lightheaded. “I should’ve known. Some of the things I told you in confidence could be used to undermine the Institute. What are you going to do?” He turned, glared at her and spoke in a hushed tone. “Getting me fired is one thing, but the things we’ve accomplished here are too important to be used for blackmail.”
“I’m sorry you think I would do anything to hurt you or your precious institute,” she said. “Let me put it this way, you didn’t tell Dr. Marglova anything. You shared a few hypothetical theories and dreams with a friend. There were no names or details given.”
“But you knew what I was talking about,” he replied. “And now you’ve seen the Institute. You know sensitive information about our work.”
She grabbed both of his hands and held tight. “One of the last things you said before walking away from our meeting in the Sequoias was ‘I don’t expect you to trust me.’ Well, I don’t expect you to trust me,” she whispered. “I’ll prove I’m your friend.”
Brian fought off an enormous desire to say something. This was the girl who left him speechless in the Sequoias, and this was the girl he met online who in some weird way had become his trusted companion and friend. They walked down the steps in awkward silence as Brian led Katie to the guest quarters.
“Good night Dr. Marglova.”
A single tear ran down her cheek. “Good night Dr. Adams.”
When the Sierra Club analysts were prepared to leave, Dr. Warren gave Claude a preliminary summary of their findings. He was lavish with his praise, but said he still couldn’t endorse the Institute’s genetic modification program. “There are too many unknowns. It isn’t worth the risk.”
“What more can we do to convince you?” Claude asked.
“We need more time to study the quantum computer,” Dr. Warren answered. “Would you consider taking on a Sierra Club liaison?”
“Whatever it takes,” Claude replied.
“Outstanding! I’ll stay in touch. Perhaps we can work something out,” Dr. Warren said as the team departed.
Brian avoided Dr. Marglova for the remainder of the visit, but she left a note for him with Claude. Dear Brian, I believe in you. It was signed, Ranebowgurl.
Drs. Warren and Marglova were eating breakfast in a popular Monterey, California restaurant six months after the Sierra Club visited the Institute. Dr. Warren fidgeted as he spoke.
“Katie, I consider you one of our most dedicated environmentalists, but you’ve been distracted the last few months,” he said with an air of concern. “Are you starting to question what we’re doing here?”
“No!” She answered, but then added, “I don’t know.”
“It was the visit to the ORION Institute wasn’t it?” he asked.
“It all seemed so simple before. Don’t mess with Mother Nature. Now I can’t help but wonder if humans not only have the right, but the duty to manipulate the environment.”
“You’ve changed,” Dr. Warren said. “The woman I’ve known for ten years would never question herself. I’m not saying it’s bad to have doubts, but you need to figure out what you believe. I’ve recommended you for a new job. It’s not with the Sierra Club, but I think it will help you get back on track.”
Katie was stunned. Was her friend and mentor shipping her off like toxic waste after all her years of hard work and dedication?
“I’ll admit I’m going through some internal conflict, but my commitment to the Sierra Club hasn’t wavered,” she said.
“I’m not questioning your loyalty Katie, and we’re not dumping you. Whether or not you pursue the job is your choice, but I don’t think the Sierra Club has the answers you’re seeking. You need a different perspective.” Dr. Warren took a deep breath as if to brace himself for her response. “That’s why I’ve submitted your name to Claude Gautier to head up the ORION Institute’s newly created Marine Science Division.”
Katie’s mind was overwhelmed with conflicting thoughts. She was excited to have an opportunity to work with Brian and prove she could be trusted, but she wondered about Dr. Warren’s motives. Was he concerned for her welfare or was he asking her to be a spy? Katie realized no matter what the responses were to those questions, the best place to find answers was at the Institute.
She decided to follow up on the job recommendation and was chosen over three dozen applicants. Claude and J. Alfred considered it a coup to secure the services of a Marine Biologist with the superb credentials and connections of Dr. Marglova, but Brian thought it was a mistake.
“She’s a spy,” he told Claude. “You’re taking an enormous risk bringing her here. She’s been brainwashed to believe any attempts to control the environment are evil. Her idea of a perfect world is people living like animals. We can’t trust her to keep an open mind.”
“I disagree,” Claude replied. “We’ve interviewed her numerous times and conducted an exhaustive background investigation. She admits to her concerns regarding genetic modifications. In fact she’s proud of it.” Claude paused to make sure he had Brian’s attention.
“This institution has grown complacent. We need leaders who will challenge the findings and recommendations of our scientists. We need people like Dr. Marglova.”
Brian reluctantly accepted Claude’s arguments and wasn’t surprised when Katie was assigned to the office across the hall. Claude probably wants me to keep an eye on her, he thought. Then a somewhat disturbing possibility crossed his mind. Maybe Claude put her there to keep an eye on me.
Katie worked hard to regain Brian’s trust by publishing articles is scientific journals which argued for the judicious use of genetic modifications in plants and animals. At conferences, seminars and conventions, she defended a proactive approach to environmental management. Her subordinates in the Marine Division respected her tough questions. They said it made them more vigilant in their work because they didn’t want to disappoint her.
Brian and Katie eventually became close friends and allies, often traveling together and fighting for the same causes.
By the year 2024, an alarming number of people were being diagnosed with endocrine system problems traced to fish contaminated by the Pacific Ocean trash vortex. It wasn’t unexpected to find Dr. Marglova presenting a proposal to address the problem at the annual Marine Biologist Convention in Monterey, California. She was considered by many to be the preeminent Marine Biologist in the country.
But it was a shock to Dr. Warren when his former protégé suggested the ORION Institute could use the quantum computer to genetically engineer a microbe to consume pelagic plastics and chemical sludge without harming the environment in other ways. The Sierra Club opposed any use of genetically modified organisms due to unpredictable unintended consequences. Despite demands for her to back off, Katie continued to promote the plan.
She and Brian began working with Anastasius and produced a viable organism within a year. The plan had widespread but guarded support. Leading scientists from around the world were impressed by the capabilities of the Institute’s quantum computer, but they also understood the potential for devastating environmental damage if anything went wrong. The majority supported the plan because people were beginning to die from the pollution.
The Institute created a one acre saltwater pond with marine life, and contaminated it with the same pollutants found in the Pacific trash vortex. Within two months of introducing the genetically engineered organism, ninety-eight percent of the pollution was gone with no apparent harmful side effects to fish or plant life.
Katie gained approval from the EPA and Pacific Rim nations to begin testing in the Pacific. The Sierra Club cut all ties with her for what they considered a betrayal, but she continued the work. The organism functioned even better than predicted and the pollution level in the vortex was cut in half within two years. Dr. Katerina Marglova was awarded a Nobel Prize and the world began to accept the positive potential of genetically modified organisms.
When the undeniable success of the project became apparent a few years later, the Sierra Club reached out to Katie and asked her to establish a Sierra Club office at the Institute. She accepted.
Claude was pleased with Katie’s work and happy for the personal recognition she was receiving, but he still wanted to keep a low profile at the Institute. Katie was attracting attention like a rock star, so Claude called her into his office to offer her an assignment away from the Institute. As they sat at his desk, he began to lay out plans for a speaking tour around the Pacific. The trip would be scheduled and funded as part of Dr. Marglova’s official duties.
“It will be like a victory tour,” he said. “You deserve it. Don’t take this as a complaint, but we could do with a few less reporters around here. The trip will be good for public relations and hopefully the throngs of journalists will follow you or go somewhere else.”
Katie paused to think, then replied. “I’ll do it on one condition. It has to be a joint tour with Dr. Adams. No matter how many times I’ve tried to give him credit, the news broadcasters ignore me. Ever since the original article was released about a rogue scientist breaking ranks with the Sierra Club, broadcasters have paid more attention to the color of my eyes than the real story. It doesn’t help when Brian disappears every time reporters show up. It’s like he’s got a built-in anti-reporter radar.”
Claude smiled and laughed. “It is true he hates reporters, but he insists the whole project was your idea. He and Anastasius merely helped with the grunt work.”
“You do realize there wouldn’t be a project without the microorganism they created?” She asked rhetorically. “I had the idea, but they did the hard part.”
Claude shook his head in disagreement. “The idea is always the first and most essential part of any plan, and what you did by standing up to your colleagues at the Sierra Club was courageous.” Claude paused to consider whether or not an earlier conversation with Brian was in confidence. He decided to continue.
“Brian said the two of you had a brief relationship. To be honest, he didn’t think you could be trusted. I understand why you kept your identity secret in the Sequoias and as Ranebowgurl, but it was a hard thing for him to get past.”
“Did he? Did he get past it?” She asked.
“Yes,” Claude replied. “He told me you’ve become a trusted friend, but I think there’s more to it than that.”
“What do you mean?” Katie asked.
“I think you know,” Claude answered. “I may be out of line here, but I believe Brian still has feelings for you, and not just as a friend.” Claude stood and walked around the desk as Katie stood.
“I’ll let Brian know what the Institute expects of him on this assignment. I hope you’ll let him know what you expect.”
Brian accompanied Katie to San Diego where they were the honored guests/speakers on a two-week eco-cruise to the Hawaiian Islands, Alaska, and Seattle, Washington. The ship kept them on a busy schedule, but they managed to find a quiet place on deck each night to view the stars and share their thoughts.
They woke up before dawn on the day of the ship’s arrival in Maui. A fragrance of flowers filled the air and the sunrise revealed a vibrant ocean. The captain anchored the ship near the small village of Lahaina. After days without seeing land, the view was breathtaking. It appeared as if God had plucked the most fertile green fields from Earth and plastered them on a giant canvas across the sky. Brian turned to Katie and kissed her for the first time. Katie responded with passion as they embraced like two people starving for love, both wondering how they could have waited so long.
The next two days were the most amazing either of them could remember. It wasn’t just the morning sunrise above the clouds on Mt. Haleakala, shell hunting on the beach or the magnificent scenery along the road to Hana. It was having someone to share the experience, someone who understood and appreciated the intricate beauty of nature. It was having someone look into your soul and see their reflection.
Katie and Brian left the ship in Seattle when their portion of the cruise was finished. They made several official stops before their return flight out of San Francisco, but not before an unofficial trip to Sequoia National Park. It was there, on the Crescent Meadow Trail that Katie said yes to Brian. Their relationship had transformed from an awkward formal scientific collaboration to a marriage proposal in a little over one week, but they had secretly been in love for years.
After returning to the Institute, they worked tirelessly to gain a world-wide consensus for environmental cooperation. With the help of Katie’s celebrity status and the reputation of the Sierra Club, Brian’s proposed Code of Internationally Accepted Standards for Environmental Conservation (CIASEC) was agreed upon in 2030.
Fifteen years after the perimeter security system was installed, Dan began suffering dizzy spells. He recalled serving as test subject for months while Steve tweaked the Optical Displacement Regulator (ODR). His unsteadiness worsened, culminating in a complete loss of balance. After a thorough examination, doctors realized the structure of Dan’s inner ear had been altered. They concluded the ODR caused the damage, but they couldn’t understand why it took so long for symptoms to occur. A medical team performed surgery to correct the deformity. It was a relatively simple procedure and was successful, but Steve blamed himself for Dan’s medical issues.
By the time the Institute lifted its veil of secrecy and started spreading new technology in 2026, Steve and Tammy had two beautiful children and a nice home on Lake Placid. Steve was traveling to promote the Code of Acceptable Practices in Genetic Modification. Tammy completed a second PhD in Biology and was working on a controversial method of gene therapy. Dan was patient zero.
Ten years after surgery, his inner ear had once again become deformed. Steve was overseas. Tammy was determined to find the root cause of the problem. Her main focus was on helping Dan, but also knew how much guilt Steve carried. She performed an exhaustive review of Dan’s medical records and Steve’s notes, plus a meticulous study of his DNA.
Claude directed geneticists to compile a detailed map of Dan’s unique DNA when he enrolled at the Institute in 2001. They repeated the procedure twenty years later due to more accurate measuring devices. Researchers had noted tiny changes in some amino acids, but nothing the geneticists considered significant. Tammy reviewed the data and discovered the genes associated with those amino acids were the same ones responsible for development of the inner ear. She realized the ODR didn’t change the inner ear, it changed the amino acids in Dan’s DNA which caused changes to the inner ear. It explained why symptoms took years to develop.
Tammy used the data from the original tests to adjust the ODR. To the horror and loud protests of the doctors, she planned to treat Dan with long exposures in an effort to change the amino acids in his DNA to pre-ODR condition. The medical team demanded she stop immediately and went to Claude for help. He called her into his office.
“The Optical Displacement Regulator was used by the Nina Nizhoni for gene therapy,” she told Claude. “It’s a device used to change the DNA in living tissue. Treating Dan with the ODR is necessary to prevent his inner ear from becoming deformed for a third time.”
“If that’s true Tammy, the implications are profound. ODR therapy would provide a non-invasive technique to turn-off bad genes and turn on the good. We could extend life, eradicate cancer and manage mental disorders.” Claude’s voice was subdued, he looked worried.
“You don’t seem very excited. Is something wrong?” Tammy asked.
“If you can prevent cancer and mental disorders by altering DNA with this device, you can also cause them. In theory, you could alter a person’s DNA without them knowing. This device could be Pandora’s Box.”
Despite his concerns, Claude allowed Tammy to continue treating Dan with the ODR. He assigned a certified geneticist to track changes at the cellular level. The geneticist was there for Dan’s protection, but his findings provided Tammy with critical information proving Dan’s DNA had been altered.
After successfully treating Dan’s altered DNA, Tammy began considering ways to use the new form of gene therapy. She and Steve spent weeks reviewing the data when he returned. Steve rushed to Claude’s office.
“There is no doubt. Repeated exposure to the ODR changes a person’s DNA. I’d like to head up a project with Tammy to demonstrate the potential of the device. We need to determine if genetic change is a simple side effect or if it’s the ODR’s primary purpose,” Steve told Claude.
Claude’s expression was tense and stern. “I don’t know. This thing could get out of hand real fast. What do you have in mind?”
“I think we should find an extreme case so we’re easily able to verify progress. I’d like to take someone with a severe genetic personality disorder and see if we can help them.”
“And where would you find such a person?”
Claude grimaced and shook his head. “No way! We’ve worked far too long and hard establishing ORION as a preeminent leader in the scientific community. We’re not going to jeopardize our reputation by playing Doctor Frankenstein to the criminally insane.”
“Just think about it Claude. Imagine what it would mean to society if we could rehabilitate violent psychopaths. They make up only two-percent of the nation, but constitute a quarter of the prison population and are responsible for the largest number of violent crimes.”
Claude appeared unconvinced. “You know very well psychopaths aren’t always violent or even criminal. Most are obnoxious SOBs, but they tend to be of above average intellect, productive, and creative. They’re an important part of the human genetic pool and removing them could result in the loss of countless scientists, artists and geniuses. Besides, many couples are already having prenatal screening to detect genes which could lead to psychopathic development.”
“I know,” Steve said as he tried to reassure Claude. “I’m only asking to conduct a low-profile test program with one volunteer.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever turned down a request from you Steve, but I’m going to have to give this some serious deliberation. Submit your proposal to me in writing and I’ll consider it, but I can’t promise anything.”
In an effort to avoid unwanted publicity, Steve and Tammy suggested no other personnel be assigned to the project. The volunteer test subject would be Robert Lomax who was serving a life sentence for the brutal murder of at least six different victims. He had all the DNA markers associated with a violent psychopath. The prison had indicated its willingness to transfer him and Lomax was happy to escape solitary confinement.
Claude initially said no, but six months later a young man walked into a high school gymnasium and murdered forty-three students before being killed by police. He had sought psychiatric help on at least two occasions.
“The ODR could have helped that man and saved those kids,” Steve said as he asked once again to conduct the test. “This is why we must do this,” he told Claude.
“O.K.,” Claude said in resignation. “But be careful, Lomax is a dangerous man. If anything happened to you or Tammy,” he hesitated, unable to finish the sentence.
Lomax was quietly transferred from the Federal Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas to a high security cell at the end of an isolated tunnel under the ORION Institute. Steve and Tammy were the only people allowed to have contact with him. Even the security guards communicated and delivered supplies via an automated system.
“Hello foxy lady!” The voice called out from behind the caged wall. It was Robert Lomax after his arrival from Kansas. “I thought I was aware of every prison in the country, but this one has me stumped. I didn’t know this place existed, but I’m not complaining. The food’s good, the large screen television is real nice, and most prisons don’t provide memory foam mattresses.”
“We want you to be comfortable,” the young woman responded in an unemotional tone.
“I can’t see you very well through this cage wall. Why don’t you come in and get to know me?” He laughed, taking pleasure in taunting the girl.
To his great surprise, the young woman passed her hand over a console and the door opened wide. He hesitated for a moment, wondering if it was a trick. The pretty young woman was alone with him. She had no obvious weapons or pepper spray, and there appeared to be nothing to prevent his escape.
He lunged and clasped his hands around her neck, squeezing with all his strength. Her neck felt strangely rigid, but she put up very little resistance and her lifeless body fell to the floor within minutes.
“You’re a real disappointment bitch,” he snorted, “I usually have more fun with my quarry before killing them.”
He jumped through the open cell door and started running down the black corridor. The tunnel was darker than midnight, but he kept running and bumping into walls, and running and bumping into walls. There seemed to be no end. The room slowly filled with light when he stopped to catch his breath. He was thirty feet from the cell where he started. “What the Hell?” he mumbled.
The young woman he thought he’d killed was standing beside him looking completely unruffled.
“You’re a real disappointment bitch,” she snorted, “I usually have more fun with my quarry before I put them back in their cage.”
She bent down and grabbed his wrist with so much force he screamed in agonizing pain while she effortlessly dragged him back to the cell.
“What in god’s name are you? Where is this place? Am I in Hell?”
The cell door slammed shut and a man’s voice spoke to him.
“Good evening Mr. Lomax. Welcome to the Institute. The young woman you encountered is a synthetic machine. We call her the Ice Queen. I trust you realize you’re not in Kansas anymore.”
“This isn’t what I signed up for,” Lomax said, still rubbing his arm. “They told me I was going to a comfortable facility for therapy, not the twilight zone with a mechanical doll who breaks bones!”
“This is exactly what you signed up for Mr. Lomax. You aren’t here to be incarcerated, you’re here to be rehabilitated. You can call it therapy if you like, gene therapy. This place can be your worst nightmare, or it can be your salvation. It’s your choice.”
Lomax started laughing. “Better men than you have tried to rehabilitate me. I am what I am. I have no regrets.”
“That’s because you aren’t capable of regrets Mr. Lomax, but we’re going to change you. When we’re finished, you won’t be able to harm others without suffering the pain yourself. And though you don’t deserve it, you’ll also know the joy and intimacy of being a member of the family of man.”
Lomax howled with laughter. “You’ve got to be kidding! That’s the craziest crock of crap I’ve ever heard.” He sat quietly for a moment. “O.K., I’ll play along. This joint ain’t so bad, and the mechanical lady is real easy on the eyes.”
“Since no one else is allowed in your cell, she’ll be your only regular visitor. Please refrain from putting your hands around her neck. She’s on loan from my boss, so we don’t want to get her dirty. Besides, one wrong move and she could snap your spine like a twig. I don’t think she likes you.”
“Aye aye, sir!” Lomax saluted facetiously. “And may I ask to whom the voice belongs?”
“My name is Steve. The other voice you hear will be Tammy. We’ll be asking you several times each day what emotions and sensations you’re experiencing. Answer honestly and you’ll be fine. Lie, and you may suffer brain damage.” Lomax nodded, then stretched out on his bed.
Steve learned a lot from testing the ODR on Dan. The device altered both his physical and emotional perception. One setting made him laugh uncontrollably while another made him sad. Steve identified dozens of points which he used to verify if Lomax was being honest, assuming Lomax had the same response as Dan to the device. Tammy’s study revealed DNA alterations within the brain could result in personality changes within months rather than years.
Lomax’s physical response was the same as Dan’s, but his emotional response was extremely low. Steve and Tammy had to amplify the signal tenfold to get a minimal reading, but after six months of treatment his personality was conspicuously different. It started with little things like saying please and thank you. His favorite television topics evolved from violence to science to romance. His demeanor changed from sour and angry to cheerful, and even playful. Robert Lomax’s brain scans showed a measurable increase in the Ventrolateral Frontal Cortex responsible for emotions as his DNA changed.
Meanwhile, the Qabalah had learned of the project and twisted it into stories that the ORION Institute was taking psychopaths and turning them into super soldiers. Robert Lomax was their “Exhibit A” and they found a nationally syndicated writer to broadcast the story. The publicity was doing exactly what Claude had feared, damaging the Institute’s reputation.
Alicia Welker was a well-known columnist whose sister had been sadistically killed by Robert Lomax. She detested him and felt he should have been sentenced to death, but he got life without parole.
After she discovered Lomax was transferred from Leavenworth, an undisclosed source informed her of the ORION Institute’s connection. She followed the informant’s lead and found prison personnel and a driver to verify the information. When the same source implied Lomax was one of an army of psychopaths being developed into super soldiers, she didn’t ask questions. The story was too good and the kind of deceitful behavior she expected from a shadowy organization.
Ms. Welker was an excellent journalist, but her judgement was impaired in this case. She hated Lomax and wanted revenge. The idea of him living comfortably at the Institute was more than she could stand. Lomax must be properly punished! Alicia felt she owed it to her little sister and the other victims.
Stories describing an army of psychopathic super soldiers were popular in the tabloids. The Institute was being portrayed as the greedy arm of a vast military industrial complex, making it impossible to gain support for other projects. Claude was furious with Steve. He granted Ms. Welker an interview and an unlimited tour of the facility.
He told Steve, “You’re going to do whatever it takes to make this right! I want this whole thing cleared up. Do you understand?” Steve had never seen Claude so angry.
Events were playing out exactly as the Qabalah had planned. Ms. Welker would have access to the Institute’s most sensitive areas, and they would use her to attack the Institute from within.
Steve greeted Ms. Welker at the gate early on a Monday morning. She brought two cameramen along to film the tour. Steve considered cameras a bad idea, but Claude already approved it. The main cameraman was Alicia’s friend. The other was sent by her unidentified informant as a backup. She was told “Cameras have a suspicious tendency to break at the Institute, so a backup is necessary.” She didn’t know the second cameraman was an anarchist working for the Qabalah. His camera was an empty shell containing a 9mm pistol and thermite explosives.
“Welcome to the Institute Ms. Welker. I’m so happy to have this opportunity to clear up any misunderstandings about our mission. We don’t have super soldiers here, but I think you’ll find the ORION story is even more interesting.”
You could see the skepticism melting away as Alicia toured the facility. “This is a remarkable place and it appears you’re doing some good work here, but where is Mr. Lomax. I know he’s here. Why are you hiding him?”
“I’ve been saving that for last. We’ll go there now. You can interview him yourself.” Steve, Alicia, and the two cameramen climbed onto a cart and started the journey down the long corridor to the cell where Mr. Lomax was being held. Steve noticed an intense expression on Alicia’s face.
“You won’t recognize him. He’s a different person.” Steve said.
“He’s a chameleon, an inter-species predator,” Alicia replied. “That’s why he’s so dangerous. He’ll say and do whatever it takes to manipulate people.”
As they rode to the cell, Steve explained the process that was changing Lomax’s DNA, and recent magnetic resonance imaging which revealed the physical transformation in his brain.
“He feels remorse for the horrible things he’s done. In fact, he was so regretful at one point we felt the need to initiate a dampening field to prevent him from hurting himself.”
“I’m sorry to be blunt, but you and your colleagues are fools.” Alicia said.
Steve nodded, acknowledging her opinion. He announced, “We’ve arrived.” The countless tiny metal bars of the cage obscured the view, but Alicia could see a man sitting in a comfortable chair, watching a wide-screen television. Blood rushed to her face as she filled with rage. Lomax appeared fit, even comfortable as he stood and turned off the T.V.
Steve’s phone began to ring. He answered, “What, can’t this wait?” Then he put the phone back in his pocket and spoke to Alicia.
“The timing couldn’t be worse, but I’m needed for an emergency in the vault. This is the first time I’ve been called in all the years I’ve been here, but you’ll be safe. You can use this remote camera feed to film Mr. Lomax during the interview. I’ll be back before you’re finished.”
“I thought you said he’s harmless?” Alicia commented. “If that’s true, why can’t we open the cell door?”
“We’re keeping the door closed to protect Mr. Lomax from you,” Steve answered with a slight laugh before he disappeared down the dark corridor.
“You know this is a sham,” the backup cameraman said. “The real facility is hidden further underground. We’ll need to blast our way in.”
“What are you doing?” Alicia shouted as she watched the man remove explosives from the fake camera.
“You’re crazy! You’ll get us killed.”
“Don’t worry, I know what I’m doing,” the man said as he placed a small thermite charge in the corner. “Hurry, out of the room!” He shouted.
As soon as they rounded the corner, BOOM! A deafening explosion set off alarms and sprinklers. They rushed back into the room to find the cell door had opened automatically when the fire suppression system activated. Robert Lomax had been knocked to the floor and was covered with blood.
“Good, you aren’t dead yet,” the bogus cameraman said to Lomax. “Now get in there with him” he ordered Alicia and the cameraman as he pointed a gun at them.
“Why are you doing this? We’re on the same side.” Alicia asked in stunned confusion.
“Sorry darlin, I’ve got my orders. You and the cameraman will soon join your sister. By the time Steve gets back, you’ll all be dead and I’ll tell him Lomax killed you before I killed him.”
“You won’t get away with it,” Alicia said.
“Not only will I get away with it, the publicity should be enough to put the ORION Institute out of business for good,” the bogus cameraman said. Then he pointed the gun at Alicia and pulled the trigger, but Lomax had struggled to his feet and jumped in front of her. The bullet ricocheted off a rib as it passed through Lomax’s chest. It hit Alicia in the knee, knocking her to the ground. Alicia’s cameraman wrestled for the gun and it discharged into his hip. Somehow he found the strength to keep fighting. The gun went off again, up through the attacker’s chin and exiting the top of his head. He died instantly.
The heat from the thermite was too much for the fire suppression system. Smoke was filling the room as the flames were spreading out of control. Even the metal bars on Lomax’s cell were burning. Neither the cameraman nor Alicia could walk. They embraced each other before passing out, certain they were going to die.
The next thing Alicia heard was a cheerful voice, “It’s good to see you awake!”
“Where am I?” she asked.
“You’re at Tampa General Hospital,” the nurse answered. “You’ve had surgery on your knee, been treated for smoke inhalation, and it appears you’re well on your way to recovery.”
“My cameraman, Larry Nichols, is he O.K.?”
“He’s undergoing a second surgery on his hip, but his prospects look good.”
“How did I get here?”
The nurse shrugged, “I wasn’t here when you were admitted, but you have a couple visitors who may be able to answer your question.”
Steve and Tammy were waiting at the door. “Well hello sleeping beauty. You gave us quite a scare.” Tammy said.
“I thought we were going to die. How did I get here?” Alicia asked again.
“I brought a tablet with me to show you the security videos taken on Monday during the fire. I think it will explain a lot.” Tammy answered.
The video showed Robert Lomax in agonizing pain, his body revoltingly burnt and bloody as he dragged Alicia and Larry a quarter mile down a smoke-filled passageway. It stunned Alicia to see a selfless act from such a monster, but it was what he did just before he died that affected her most. He gently cradled her head and spoke to her like a beloved child.
“Your sister asked me to tell you how much she loved you. I didn’t understand it then, but I do now. God forgive me, I can’t forgive myself.”
As he took his last breath, tears were running down his face. They weren’t caused by pain, but by unfamiliar emotions he was experiencing for the first time.
Alicia recovered and wrote a series of articles describing her experience and the ODR project. The good publicity repaired the Institute’s reputation and earned Steve critical support for the Code of Acceptable Practices in Human Genetic Modification.
Matt and Brian shared an office on the third level of module twenty-three, section four of the ORION Institute. Dan brought lunch and joined them at a table set up to take advantage of the panoramic view. Brian apologized to Dan for Matt’s tattered Man of La Mancha poster hanging on the wall.
“Why do you still keep that ugly thing?” he asked Matt.
“For motivation, the so-called experts say the Resource Based Economy (RBE) is an impossible dream.”
Brian nodded in agreement, but then asked Matt “Why?”
“It’s more than an economic system,” Matt answered. “It’s a quantum leap in social evolution. An RBE is a philosophy which considers all goods and services to be common property.”
“It sounds like Communism,” Dan said with a roll of his eyes. Matt nodded.
“You’ve identified the problem. We Americans have an inherent distrust of anything resembling Communism. The United States was founded on a classic free market economy. It’s been the most successful economic model in history.”
“If it works so well, what’s the problem? Dan asked.
“It’s time for the next step in social evolution; we can do better. Our current system is based on scarcity which results in needless inequality. Today’s technology has advanced to a level where production makes it possible for everyone on Earth to enjoy a high standard of living.
“It still sounds like Communism,” Dan replied.
“Definitely not!” Matt countered. “First off, pure Communism exists only in textbooks. The economies of nations like Russia and China are hybrids, and they maintain political control through hierarchies more like dictatorships than Communism.”
“Then how can your system avoid the pitfalls of Communism and Capitalism? How can everyone be well-off?”
Matt smiled. “How do you like working at the Institute?”
Dan knew why he asked. ORION was constructed with an RBE interface. It was unlike any place on Earth. Computers linked everything: buildings, machinery, and equipment. They coordinated every detail of the daily routine a thousand times more efficiently than humanly possible. People were free to pursue the tasks they enjoyed. As a result, worker productivity and job satisfaction were extraordinarily high.
“I love working here,” Dan answered. “I get to concentrate on my work rather than worrying about scheduling, supplies, payroll, and other extraneous stuff. But Mr. Weston’s billions helped pay for this place. Who’s going to pay for it on the outside?”
“It pays for itself,” Matt answered. “The system more than makes up for the cost by allowing people to concentrate on activities which add to the common good. Think of how much human ingenuity is squandered by professions such as bankers, insurance agents, lawyers, stockbrokers, marketing/advertising, and sales. Do we really need a thousand brands of shampoo? There are countless manufacturing plants which produce similar products with no additional benefit. It’s insane!”
“But if everything is free, aren’t you worried criminals will abuse the system?” Dan asked.
“No,” Matt answered. “The result will be less crime. A crucial function of any government should be to ensure citizens have the necessary tools to meet basic needs for themselves and their families. If a person can’t meet those needs, they’ll do whatever is necessary, including committing crimes.”
“Isn’t a free market like the one in the U.S. the best way to give the greatest number of people a chance to succeed?” Dan asked.
“Maybe, but we can do better. I always thought the U.S. was the world leader in human rights, but per capita, we have more people in prison than any other developed country. Most of them felt crime was their best or only option. You could argue, many of those people are political prisoners. We spend a ridiculous amount of money locking people up rather than giving them the tools they need to be contributing members of society. The result is enormous expense, loss of potential human productivity, and the unnecessary destruction of lives.”
Matt truly believed in his work, but a world where everything is shared was too much for Dan to accept. It’s against human nature, he thought.
Dan walked through one of the family housing areas after lunch. A few pre-teenage Children were playing near an area where a variety of toys were neatly stowed. He asked, “Who owns those toys?”
One of the boys answered, “Nobody, anyone can play with them.”
“Wouldn’t you like to have your own toys?” Dan asked.
The boy answered, “When we share, there are more toys for everyone.”
Dan realized the children had grown up at the Institute. They had been taught how to use money on the outside, but were more comfortable with the RBE system where nothing is owned. The boy’s answer made him think, maybe selfishness is a learned behavior. Perhaps Matt’s brave new world is possible.
A few years after graduation from ORION, the class of 2005/6 were starting families. Matt married Brian’s sister Jamie; Dan served as best man. At the rehearsal dinner, he asked Jamie how she could reconcile the RBE with her faith. The RBE movement was considered a secular humanist movement.
She replied, “WWJD? What would Jesus do?”
“I don’t remember seeing any mention of Jesus in the RBE,” Dan replied. “Personally, I believe in free enterprise.”
“Would Jesus approve of our system which charges higher interest rates to people least able to pay and makes some wealthy while others suffer in poverty?”
“Probably not,” Dan mumbled.
“Or,” she continued, “Would Jesus prefer a method that allows everyone to share in the abundant resources God has provided?”
Matt was marrying the right woman. The two of them were a perfect mix of logic and heart. They went on the road to promote the new philosophy, but they failed to realize how difficult it would be to get countries to participate.
They expected small socialized countries to eagerly join the program. It didn’t happen, so they decided to suggest an incremental approach. Rather than implementing the program all at once, one free resource would be offered at a time. Since the Institute had developed efficient solar cells and a method to tap into the worldwide electromagnetic energy grid, energy was the logical choice. Who could argue with free energy?
The problem with the incremental approach was governments would still be using money for other parts of their economy, but would receive no money for the energy they provided. Even with the Institute’s help, most countries couldn’t afford it and the program put them at a disadvantage in dealing with other nations.
A few businesses and schools like the Institute had implemented the RBE, but they were on a small scale. Nations weren’t willing to put their entire economies at risk for such a radical concept.
From the beginning of civilization, various forms of barter had been used to allocate resources. It was difficult to envision how the world could function without it. Some of the most powerful people on Earth made their fortunes from energy, so they had a lot to lose if fossil fuel companies and private utilities were shut down. Matt knew the United States would be one of the last to embrace the idea. He began every speech in the U.S. with his favorite words from the U.S. Declaration of Independence.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
A year passed with no takers. Claude’s support for the RBE was starting to slip when the tiny country of Iceland volunteered. They had a strong Socialist tradition and surprised the world when they nationalized most of their energy sector and transformed from one of Europe’s poorest countries into one with a high standard of living.
In 2027, Iceland began a test program providing free energy. New industries sprang up to take advantage of the program. Instead of economic collapse, their economy became far more efficient. Two years later they became the first country to implement a total resource based economy.
Their homogenous society enabled them to establish voluntary standards for food, housing, clothing and other resources. Instead of the bleak unimaginative results many in the U.S. expected, creativity and prosperity flourished. The results were irrefutable. Iceland’s economy was the most efficient in the world, and their Gross National Happiness was so high it made the proverbial “Great American Dream” sound like a bad joke.
Denmark was the next to implement the RBE, followed by other Scandinavian countries. Greece, Italy and Spain weren’t far behind. By 2040, most of the world, including the United States, had either converted or were in the process. As each country joined, the system became more successful.
The ORION Institute was becoming a major gathering place for world events. Chris, Steve, and Brian were also making progress and it seemed like their view of a utopian world was in sight.
In spite of their progress, the Qabalah was preparing to unleash a diabolical plan which would enslave humanity.
The Qabalah continued to support terrorism while provoking domestic and international disagreements in the year 2042. Claude questioned why the clones hadn’t attempted to sabotage the electromagnetic energy grid. He called the Prophies into his office to ask for help.
“We recently completed construction of the fiftieth relay station on the global energy grid. There’s been no terrorist activity and very little political opposition.”
“That’s great news Claude, so why do you sound worried?” Chris asked.
“I think the Qabalah is up to something.”
“They sure are,” Chris responded. “They’ve mixed a few well-known facts with a lot of lies to claim Haley is the Anti-Christ.”
“We know Chris; we’re working to counter the stories. I understand how disturbing it must be for Haley, but that isn’t why I called you here. Our priority should be on why the Qabalah hasn’t tried to disrupt the energy grid. They stand to lose more than anyone when the system becomes fully operational next year.”
“Is it possible we’ve weakened them so much they no longer have the ability?” Steve asked.
“I wish” Claude answered, “but our sources tell us they’re as powerful as ever. We’ve received several reports of Qabalah agents helping to implement the project. We need to know why.”
“Maybe they see the energy grid as a good thing,” Steve said. “Could the Qabalah be on our side for a change? The energy grid makes the world more productive. Doesn’t that mean more for them?”
“Actually Steve, the energy grid makes the world more efficient. It won’t necessarily produce more. Efficiency means less excess; the Qabalah takes their cut from the excess. Besides, they relish power. The energy grid eliminates their control.” Claude looked around the room. “There has to be something we’re missing. I want you to keep your eyes open for trouble. Be ready to respond when the time comes, and it will.”
When they finished the discussion, Haley asked Dan to meet separately with her and the other Prophies.
“You need to be brought up to speed on a project we’ve been working on. Meet us at the usual place around noon.” The usual place was a small clearing in the woods with no surveillance cameras or listening devices. It was their preferred hangout as students, but it had been quite a few years since their last meeting.
The others were already there when Dan arrived. They were standing ten feet apart in a circle with their backs to each other. Chris was holding a soccer ball. He turned and threw it hard toward Brian’s back. Brian spun around to catch the ball seconds before it hit. Chris turned around while Brian threw the ball at Haley who whirled around at the last second to catch it. Dan thought it looked like a bizarre circus act. They continued playing the game until each caught the ball several times. Then without anyone saying a word, they turned to walk toward Dan.
“How do you like our new trick?” Steve grinned.
“So is this some kind of mental telepathy?” Dan asked.
“We’re working on it,” Haley replied. “But it takes practice. That’s why we’re doing this exercise.”
“It looks like you’ve got it mastered.” Dan said. “Nobody came close to dropping the ball. Even if you shouted directions to me, there is no way I could turn around at the last second to catch it like you guys.”
“You should’ve seen us the first time we tried.” Matt said, laughing. “It looked more like a dodge ball tournament.”
“We don’t communicate in the normal way,” Haley said. “We share consciousness. It’s a great deal more personal.”
“What do you mean by personal?” Dan asked.
“Well, for instance,” Haley looked at Steve. “I know exactly how it felt down to the most intimate detail, when Steve kissed Tammy for the first time.”
“Whoa!” Steve yelped, “That’s quite enough thank you very much.”
Dan was puzzled. “How can you think straight when someone else’s thoughts are in your head? Isn’t it confusing?” He asked.
“Less than you’d think,” Haley answered. “Each of us share the other’s memories. It’s no different than the memories you have. We aren’t aware of the information until we recall it.”
“Then how do you explain the way you’re able to catch a ball thrown at your back?”
“Practice,” the five of them said in unison.
“Then I have one more question. Why tell me?”
“You’re a part of our team, always have been, always will be,” Chris said.
“But I don’t have any special abilities like you guys.”
Steve patted Dan on the back. “The Institute didn’t recruit you for your pretty face. You’re one of the few people on the planet whose DNA isn’t tainted with Nina Nizhoni genes. You are pure Homo-sapiens, whatever that means. None of us knows why it’s important, but the QBIFI predicted you have a vital role to play.”
Haley reached out and held his hand. “We love you Dan; it’s that simple.”
Claude’s instincts were correct. Members of the Qabalah were actively supporting the energy grid in pursuit of their own agenda. They infiltrated the militant outlaw group Amalgamation Alliance whose goal was to establish a one-world order. Of course, the world envisioned by the Qabalah would be under their control. The twenty-one surviving clones had revealed their secret existence to assume key positions within the Amalgamation Alliance. This made them more powerful than ever, but also more vulnerable. A spokesman wearing the familiar black cape, bowler hat, and thick dark glasses addressed an assembly of high-ranking Alliance members.
“We are offering you the means to establish a one-world order which will unite the planet. Claude Gautier makes flowery speeches to deceive and avert your attention from the full potential of the energy grid. He claims the ORION Institute wants nations to work together, but their real goal is to keep the world divided while they selfishly hoard the technology. They dole out little crumbs to keep corrupt politicians under their control.”
The cluster of alliance members were mesmerized. They began chanting, “Qabalah, Qabalah, Qabalah!” The speaker continued.
“The ORION Institute offers half-truths. They say the electromagnetic energy grid will bring the world closer together by providing a free resource, but that doesn’t begin to reveal its true potential. The energy grid can serve as a conduit to a collective consciousness, an interconnected state of mind. We in the Qabalah have enjoyed this ability for thousands of years, but Claude Gautier and the ORION Institute fear losing their power if humans are given the gift. I am prepared to demonstrate to those who seek knowledge.”
One by one, Alliance members stood before the clone and conversed telepathically while witnessing awe-inspiring scenes from the Qabalah’s memory. They were moved by the experience and offered their unquestioned allegiance. The clone spoke again to the crowd.
“Human brain waves are similar to radio waves, transmitted at the sub-atomic level. By piggybacking a signal within the electromagnetic energy grid, humans may share consciousness as we do. You will truly understand each other, achieving an unprecedented level of harmony to establish the one-world order. You will be like gods!”
The Alliance joined forces with the Qabalah. They attached small transmitters on each of the electromagnetic energy devices within the fifty major relay stations. The Qabalah gave specific instructions not to active the devices immediately. They said time was needed to calibrate the conscious-sharing device.
As the Qabalah requested, the conscious-sharing devices remained inactive when the energy grid was turned on. The whole world celebrated the new energy grid and recognized the ORION Institute for initiating the project which produced a virtually unlimited source of clean energy. It seemed Claude’s dream of a more peaceful world was nearing reality.
But peace quickly turned into conflict as the Qabalah secretly instigated dozens of international conflicts. They spread false intelligence reports of each nation trying to interrupt the energy grid to nearby nations. Iran prepared to invade Saudi Arabia. India and Pakistan were on the verge of war. North Korea sank a South Korean trawler, and China destroyed an American submarine. The world was on the brink of chaos within weeks. Peace and tranquility promised by the Institute was falling apart.
It was time for the Qabalah to activate the conscious-sharing device. The internet was flooded with rumors of how the energy grid was being used by the ORION Institute to destabilize the world. Under the control of the non-human entity known as Haley, the Institute was pretending to be saviors when their actual goal was world domination.
Everything changed when the conscious-sharing device was activated. Dan was developing a computerized scheduling program for Claude, becoming frustrated because he didn’t understand what Claude wanted. Suddenly, it hit him. He knew exactly what he wanted and why. Dan completed the work and was rushing over to Claude’s office. The first person he passed was a student he didn’t know, except he remembered every detail of her entire life, and she knew him the same way. They stopped and began talking like long-lost friends. Their bond was more intimate than identical twins.
Dan shared the thoughts and memories of everyone he met along the way. It was the most wonderful day he had ever experienced. He never imagined such a sense of belonging.
World conflicts melted away overnight. Virtually all murder and violent crime ended. Everything belonged to everyone. The word “family” is pathetically insufficient to describe how close people felt. Within a week, the word “I” had no meaning. Only “we” existed.
Dan missed Haley and the other Prophies at first, but they seemed distant and cut off. They were the only five people on the planet who weren’t part of the new reality. In less than a month, Dan could barely remember them.
Even though the Qabalah wasn’t part of the unified consciousness, people felt gratitude to them for making it possible. They had no way of knowing the Qabalah remained detached for a reason.
Brain waves can be manipulated and altered, much the same as digital information on a computer. The Qabalah established a link to manipulate thoughts within the consciousness. With a few simple memory and attitude adjustments, the Qabalah had complete control of everyone on the planet, except Haley and Dan’s former friends. If they could find a way to destroy Haley, the others could be controlled.
It wouldn’t be easy to kill Haley. She was the most advanced genetically engineered being on the planet. They tried to assassinate her before, but she detected their presence. She could visualize interactions even the QBIFI couldn’t predict. She was virtually untouchable, but the Qabalah had a plan. There was one person close to her without any Nina Nizhoni DNA. One person she couldn’t detect. One person she trusted and who could deliver the fatal blow, Daniel Naidoo.
Efficiency was maximized under the unified consciousness, but it didn’t take long before the thrill of oneness began to wear off. It’s hard to explain how an indescribable sense of belonging could so quickly transform into isolation. It may sound contradictory, but without the daily interactions of different perspectives and points of view, the masses felt alone. Eight billion people existed as a single mind. They were like a colony of ants with no purpose except to work together for the good of the collective.
Instead of anger directed at the Qabalah for creating the melancholy, humanity was even more dependent on them. The Qabalah were like a light in the darkness, providing texture in their lives. They programed humans to trust them, to believe Haley was their enemy who used her supernatural abilities to manipulate Chris, Steve, Matt, and Brian.
It became obvious to Dan, Haley’s special powers and the Etz Chayim symbols.
As the only person who could get close to Haley, the Qabalah separated Dan’s consciousness from the others. It would enable him to perform the special mission without her being suspicious. Dan was no longer connected to the others, but the collective was still in his memory. He knew what he had to do, kill Haley.
The Qabalah made Dan believe Haley would try to make contact and turn him against them. He laughed, thinking nothing could turn him against them. They were saviors. It would be an honor to kill Haley and free his childhood friends from her control.
The ORION Institute had become the home of the Qabalah Temple. Haley wouldn’t dare contact Dan near the Temple, so he was sent to the river where he knew her as a teenager. He was instructed to bring back her medallion as proof of her death.
The river was even more peaceful than Dan remembered. There were no children, boaters, or fishermen to disturb the tranquility. People didn’t waste their time fishing and swimming. They were part of the collective consciousness now. It looked like no one had been at the river for years. A dirty canoe was still hanging from the side of Mr. Naidoo’s old house. Dan dragged it to the river’s edge and tossed it over the same seawall where he celebrated his sixteenth birthday. Tears ran down his face as he recalled how wonderful it felt to be an individual, but he couldn’t forget his responsibility to the collective. Haley was evil and must be destroyed.
Dan searched the area, but there was no sign of her. He retrieved a paddle from the shed and started making his way up the river. Blue crabs scurried along the bottom. He could almost hear Chris shouting “Crab!” as he did when they went for their morning swim.
A half dozen alligators were sunning on the shore of a deserted Rogers Park. There were no teenagers jumping off the bridge, no music, no laughter. The only sounds were the ghostly echoes of memories in Dan’s mind: “happy birthday to us,” “Yabadabadoooo,” “I think I’m falling in love.”
He suddenly knew where to find Haley, at the hidden spring. It was the place he would be most emotionally vulnerable to her deception. He continued and when he arrived at the entrance, the old tree limb was gone, the hidden creek exposed. He followed the stream and found Haley sitting beneath an oak tree beside the spring.
“Hello Dan,” she said softly. She looked more like an angel than the devil he knew her to be. “You’re here to kill me aren’t you?”
“If you know that, then why am I still alive?” He asked.
“Because I love you. It’s as simple as that,” she answered.
He moved closer and stepped onto the shore. She stood within inches of him, but there was no fear in her eyes. She is the devil, he thought.
His hand was trembling as he pulled out the dagger the Qabalah had given him.
“Do it!” she screamed. “Kill me!”
“I can’t,” He said, paralyzed from fear.
Suddenly before he could move, she reached up and pulled the medallion from around her neck. She grabbed the dagger and thrust it deep into her chest.
“No!” Dan screamed. “Please God, no! Why Haley, why?”
He looked into her eyes and could see into her soul. They shared consciousness by some means even the Qabalah couldn’t explain.
“Take this medallion to show them I am dead. The Qabalah will trust you and allow you to again share consciousness with the others. Then they will know the truth.”
She died in his arms. There was no expression of pain or sorrow, only a kind smile and her last words, “Don’t be sad, it’s all part of God’s plan.”
The Qabalah welcomed Dan as a hero and even gathered at a ceremony in his honor. They considered Haley’s death a great victory. A celebration was planned to reconnect Dan to the worldwide consciousness. The Supreme Leader’s address was broadcast around the world.
“Although we in the Qabalah aren’t part of your collective consciousness, we rejoice with you in the extermination of our common enemy. We present to you the conqueror, Daniel Naidoo. He will rejoin you this night, so you may all share in this victory and be aware of the Qabalah’s infinite power.”
Dan was relinked to the collective, but the reaction wasn’t what the Qabalah expected. Through Dan’s eyes, the people saw Haley as she truly was, pure and innocent. Haley knew the Qabalah would kill him if he didn’t carry out the mission, so she chose to die in his place. She wasn’t the Anti-Christ the Qabalah claimed, but rather a true disciple of Christ.
The Qabalah’s plan was exposed. Humanity saw them as evil manipulators. People also understood what was lost by giving up their independence. Every member of the Qabalah was dead before sunrise, and the collective consciousness was disconnected. People were again free to make their own choices and mistakes.
The world mourned the loss of Haley, but the memory of the collective consciousness remained strong. Peace and prosperity continued.
Haley’s death haunted Dan. He hadn’t seen Chris, Steve, Matt, or Brian since they went into hiding. “Where are they?” He wondered. J. Alfred suggested he go back to the river to look for them. Dan understood why Haley did what she did, but he was still responsible for her death. How could his friends forgive him when he couldn’t forgive himself?
Dan arrived at the river to find it alive with activity. He paddled his canoe past hundreds of homes and docks packed with people laughing and socializing. When he reached the hidden spring, it was silent except for the song of a Carolina Wren.
“Cannonball!” The sound of Steve’s voice boomed as a huge splash erupted in the middle of the spring. “Welcome back Danny boy!” he shouted as he emerged and grabbed hold of the canoe.
“Steve!” Dan howled with excitement. “Where have you been and where are Chris, Matt, and Brian?”
“Over here,” Matt answered from the shore. Dan looked around and the three of them were standing together, smiling as if they were concealing something.
“What are you guys hiding?” Dan asked.
“Hello Daniel,” a familiar voice sounded like a beautiful melody to his ears. It was Haley! Tears of joy welled in his eyes. He jumped out of the canoe, swam over to hug her.
“Hey, that’s enough. That’s my wife, remember?” Chris said, laughing.
“Are you O.K.?” Dan asked. “I don’t understand. I thought you were dead.”
“I wasn’t hurt,” Haley explained. “I’m sorry I had to fool you, but if you didn’t believe I was dead, the Qabalah would know. They would have killed you.”
“But how did you do it? I watched you die.”
“An old Jedi mind trick,” Chris said.
Haley reached out and touched Dan’s cheek. At that moment, he remembered. She didn’t grab the dagger from him. She placed the medallion in his hand which created the memory of her death.
“People will be overjoyed when they learn you’re alive.” Dan said.
Haley’s smile was full of compassion as she shook her head, no.
“I don’t want anyone other than my friends to know I’m alive. Queen Mahu Kuwanlelenta is dead. I want to be Haley Hagan: wife, archaeologist, and soon to be mother.”
In an ironic twist, humanity’s greatest enemy had imparted the greatest gift. The world was no longer under a single consciousness, but the memories of their unity remained. Cooperation and understanding continued. For the first time in human history, mankind recognized the opportunity and seized the moment.
National leaders came together, and in 2046 the world established The Four Pillars of the Great Coalescence:
1. The Treaty of Religious Acceptance
2. The Code of Acceptable Practices in Human Genetic Modification
3. The Sustainable Resource-based Economic System
4. The Code of Internationally Accepted Standards for Environmental Conservation
The ORION Institute continued its goal of creating a better world for humanity. Claude and Noreen were cherished celebrities who traveled around the world, returning home each month to dance under the Tree of Life. J. Alfred didn’t remarry, but stayed busy as Director of the Institute.
Steve and Tammy performed research while serving on the Institute’s Board of Directors. They remained in their comfortable Lake Placid home with three adorable children, each with flamboyant red hair and conspicuous freckles.
Matt and Jamie both became esteemed ORION professors, living with their two children in the house Claude built on the Institute.
Brian and Katie served as joint directors for the Archbold Biological Station. They spent their vacations visiting the world’s most spectacular conservation sites.
Chris and Haley moved into Becky’s place. Chris was pastor of a large local church, while Haley spent most of her time taking care of their four children, all of whom had beautiful emerald eyes. The most peaceful spot on the property was a small cemetery where Elizabeth Shelby-Rogers was buried with her husband Renee.
Linda and Dan moved to be closer to his father in Ocala. Mr. Naidoo died in 2052, a week short of his 100th birthday. Dan helped Linda run an equine rescue foundation. He also traveled the country giving lectures describing how the Four Pillars of the Great Coalescence were created.
No matter what other things were happening in their lives, the Prophies traveled to the Weeki Wachee River every year to visit the hidden spring. Many other kids had discovered it, but they shared it with the old folks who had become legends. For a moment each year, the Prophies were young again.
Linda and Dan had two children who were grown with children of their own when Dan received an invitation to speak at the University of Georgia in 2076. Though his short-term memory was failing, he remembered the dream on his sixteenth birthday. He knew it ended with a heart attack.
Dan made sure his affairs were in order and kissed Linda goodbye. She knew this day was approaching because they discussed the dream many times. They agreed it was his destiny, but Linda didn’t want to know the exact date. He could tell from her kiss goodbye she suspected.
“Don’t forget me,” she said, holding back tears.
The visit to the University went exactly as Dan remembered. It was as if he couldn’t change his fate even if he wanted to, which he didn’t. He remembered details from the last seconds of the dream on his sixteenth birthday. He saw the faces of young people in the audience, realizing his boring lecture was the most excitement many of them had ever experienced.
Dan’s life had been exciting and challenging, but the world the Prophies helped create for the next generation was dull and predictable. Those people lived in someone else’s version of the perfect world, an artificial, non-violent, asexual world. It wasn’t much better than what the Qabalah had in mind. Dan realized there is no perfection on this Earth, only the dream. A familiar nursery rhyme played in his head as his heart stopped beating.
“We are all God’s children – he allows us to play – but he calls us home safely – at the end of the day.”
An infinite number of universes with an infinite variety of life appeared before him in the multiverse. He could see planet Earth in all its beauty and variation while remembering the words of Jesus as quoted in the fourteenth chapter, second verse of John. “In my Father’s house are many dwelling places….”
There were loved ones from previous generations, and those from generations yet to come. He was there for a moment and there for all eternity. How can this be? He wondered as he sensed a comforting voice.
“You’re thinking in linear terms. Time has no meaning here.”
“Renee?” He thought. It was his old friend from Bayport.
“I see you have many treasures to offer,” he said.
“I don’t understand. What treasures?”
“Your life,” Renee answered. And suddenly Dan’s existence as Daniel Naidoo passed before him: the good and the bad, the wonderful and exquisite, the tragic and painful.
The memories were beautiful, but a tiny part of this new reality. It was an eternal dwelling that had no beginning and no end. His life on Earth had been a dream, a mere shadow reality. He would travel again without leaving his eternal home. A small part of him was being reborn on Earth or some other world. As that part of his consciousness drifted away, it heard Renee’s voice.
“Life is a journey, not a destination. Live valiantly my friend but always remember, this is not your true home.”
A million years before the Florida peninsula existed, a chain of small islands arose from Earth’s primordial oceans. Today, people call it the Florida Ridge. It was there an ancient and highly advanced civilization established a final sanctuary containing an underground library with historical records and remnants of technology. The archaeological site was discovered in 1930 by French explorer Claude Gautier, but remains a closely guarded secret to this day. Sleep was difficult for Haley King. For as long as she could remember, her nights were filled with recurring dreams of a strange civilization. Everyone in her community knew her. They all loved the little blind girl, everyone except Brian. He learned of her true identity from a strange old man with glowing eyes, but he didn’t dare tell anyone. They wouldn’t believe him. She was the biological offspring of two full-blooded Hopi Indians, but her DNA was very different. Her eyes were fluorescent yellow, hair blond, and her skin was pale. An ancient Hopi legend predicted her birth, but the tribe’s partial conversion to Catholicism in the late sixteenth century resulted in a serious misinterpretation of what to do with her. The medicine man took Haley from her mother and gave her to the Catholic Church. Haley was adopted and moved to Florida when she was twelve years old. She became close friends with five boys who had the suspicious happening of all being born on the same day. While the boys were on a fishing trip celebrating their sixteenth birthday, their boat was struck by lightning. Four of them (including Brian) were nearly killed. A tattoo of a leafless tree was burned on their feet. The fifth boy experienced a vision of the future. They were all changed by the incident and their lives became more intermingled with Haley. Eight years after learning Haley’s identity from the old man, Brian began searching for answers. The man gave him a golden medallion to present to Haley. It was embossed with the same leafless tree pattern burned on the boys’ feet. When Haley touched the medallion, she was instantly drawn to the site where the ancient civilization had been. The boys went with her, but had no idea what to expect. They found the French explorer. He was in his nineties, but looked like a man is his mid-fifties. He had enlisted the help of one of the worlds’ richest men to build a futuristic city on the archaeological site and establish an institute manned by some of the greatest scientific minds on Earth. The city contained a quantum computer capable of predicting the future, a source of virtually unlimited energy, and research which could solve many of the Earth's environmental challenges. The institute worked to create a better world, but found much of their effort thwarted by a sinister organization which had been manipulating mankind for ten thousand years, ever since the time of the ancient civilization. They were called Qabalah. The Frenchman realized Haley was key to unraveling the mysteries of the chamber and ending the Qabalah’s interference in human affairs. Haley was strong, but had no way of reconciling the sub-atomic changes taking place in her anatomy with her Christian faith. The answers she needed weren’t written in any textbook. She would need to trust in God and follow her heart.