By Julia Zhang, age 11, Seattle, Washington
Ring! Ring! Ring! The loud alarm woke Carbon, as it did every Sunday morning. He yawned and stretched, then jumped out of bed and felt the morning haze leave his brain. Never one to waste time, Carbon reset the alarm and hurried downstairs to start breakfast.
He sat down on the mat he had made himself, woven from a material he had invented and was quite proud of. It was a strong, flexible, durable material he called carbon fiber. A moment later, he was done with his food, had washed the dishes, and was out of the door on his normal school route, a path that wound through the city, passing some of the most famous structures in Mota City—the government building, where Neon, Helium, and Argon worked; the statue of the governor, Boron, constructed completely from the super-strong crystal that Boron himself was made from; and the famous Museum of Elements.
The route also took him past the radio shop, where the broadcast was set to The Element Times, proudly proclaiming that they had been rated Number 1 in the city as the top radio news channel—a type of news that used the projecting radios with a narrator reading the news to you. It was for people whose eyes were bad or who didn’t like TVs.
Then came his favorite part—his friend Iron’s house. It was constructed completely from iron, except a few parts that Carbon and Iron had made out of steel together. Walking on, he saw his friend Fluorine’s house. The lights were on, unlike Iron, so he knocked on the bright and colorful door and then stepped back.
The door opened, and Fluorine stepped out, ready to go. “Oxygen’s house?” Carbon grinned.
“You just read my mind, Fluorine. Let’s go!” Racing down the street, they were at Oxygen’s house in minutes. The lights were off. Carbon sighed. He really hoped to see Oxygen today, just so he could play the traditional jump-out-from-behind-the-bush prank. It was hilarious to see Oxygen, never a happy one at the best of times, jump and smile for once.
Carbon looked around and saw something strange. It was a mound of freshly moved dirt and a spot that looked like the ground had been patted down. He laughed. “Look!” he said to Fluorine.
“Maybe Oxygen buried some treasure!” he said, giggling.
Fluorine grinned, getting into it. “Maybe it’s a mysterious box that will kill the one who digs it up!”
Carbon laughed again. “Maybe it’s a troupe of monkeys that will attack us!” Fluorine laughed along with Carbon. Giggling now, they left, going back the way they came.
After walking to Iron’s house, they saw that the lights were on. Iron saw them and hurried out, smiling in the sun. “Iron!” Fluorine yelled. “We gotta tell you what we saw!”
A few minutes later, Iron was laughing with Carbon and Fluorine. “Hey!” Iron suggested. “Let’s go dig it up!” So the trio went to Iron’s house again and got some shovels, and after a couple minutes, they found a small wooden chest buried in the ground.
“Let’s open it up!” Fluorine said.
Suddenly, Iron interrupted. “Hold on, guys…are you sure we wanna do this? Do you really think Oxygen will be okay with us digging in his yard?”
Fluorine snorted. “Of course! I mean, what’s the worst we’ll find? Don’t think too much.” Feeling defeated, Iron reluctantly agreed. Carbon unlatched the box. Inside was a simple collection of folders. Carbon pulled out the folder on the top. It was labeled HYDROGEN-1N. Inside was a single sheet. It had information on Hydrogen, including his friends and his address. Iron looked around nervously. He was always a dependable, down-to-earth person, but this made his palms sweat.
Fluorine wasn’t nervous at all. He was made of gas, after all. Carbon was also a solid, but he transitioned easily from diamond hard to rock soft. Fluorine was stuck. Iron nervously glanced back over his shoulder. “Maybe we should do this in a house…” Carbon agreed. They definitely shouldn’t be seeing this, but it was super exciting.
Back in the safety of Carbon’s bedroom, they opened up the box again. The second folder was labeled HELIUM-2Cl. The third was LITHIUM-3F. Carbon thought. He knew he was six, Iron was twenty-six, and Fluorine was nine. He shuffled the papers, looking for six. It was right where he expected it to be, underneath BORON-5O. Iron saw what he was doing and leaned over. He opened up the folder stamped with CARBON-6O. It had a bold word written on the inside of the folder. The word was FIRE. Carbon shivered. It was his least favorite word.
Fire. It turned him into carbon dioxide. It was like carbon monoxide. It turned him impure. It made him feel dirty. He looked at nine. Fluorine didn’t have a folder. He looked around. Where was Fluorine? He looked at all the folders. He thought. He looked down and thought some more. He peeled back five layers. He looked again. No folder for Oxygen. Now he realized. He quickly looked down. No…it couldn’t be…it was. He quickly checked again. Seventeen. Oh, no. It wasn’t there. He started to panic, and with a sinking stomach, he checked the numbers that he knew wouldn’t be there. The gap between 34 and 36 and 52 and 54. Because now he had good idea of where Fluorine would be.
Fluorine tended to hang out with a group of people that had the same qualities he had. They were his group. It wasn’t surprising. Every element was in a group. But Fluorine’s group, the Diatomic Non-Metals, was a particularly sneaky group. All the adults in the group were the same—just like…Oxygen? He thought. He knew the others in the group were Chlorine, Bromine, Iodine, and of course, Nitrogen, the leader. But what did it mean?
But while all this had been going on in Carbon’s head, Iron had been more productive. He had been getting the standard map in Carbon’s house, the one with every citizen’s physical description on it. “Carbon!” he called. Carbon looked up, thoughts clouding his brow. Iron pointed. “Maybe this handy table with—I don’t know—a complete list of all the elements in Mota and beyond might help us find Fluorine, you know?”
Carbon sighed. “I have a pretty good idea of where he is, actually. And more importantly, whom he’s with.”
Several minutes later, the pair was walking along the path. Iron had his hands in his pockets. He kicked a pebble, and it flew out of sight. “So now the best friend we’ve known for years is part of the gang trying to spy on us to collect information for the government?” he said disgustedly.
Carbon sighed again. “Apparently, yes. But more importantly, what are we going to do about it?”
“I have an idea!” said Iron. “Let’s break into the mayor’s house and sue him for privately sending spies after us!”
Carbon snorted. “Yeah, he’s going to tell us the rural countryside has decided to revolt!”
Iron thought about the problem. “I can’t concentrate. Let’s go to my house, get some snacks, then crash in the bed and think about this predicament some more.”
Now that Carbon was full, it was much easier to concentrate on the problem. He sat in Iron’s spinney chair and spun once, then turned to the computer in front of him and searched “Diatomic Non-Metals spying Mota.”
The first link that popped up was an old newspaper clip from 12 years ago, back when they were too young to read the newspaper. It said, “SEVERAL ELEMENTS ACCUSE THE DIATOMIC NON-METALS OF SPYING ON CITIZENS IN MOTA.” Carbon excitedly clicked the link. But instead of a newspaper clipping filling the screen, a web blocker popped up. “LINK RESTRICTED BY OXYGEN 8 APPROVED BY MAYOR BORON 5.”
He frowned. Iron nudged Carbon aside. “Let me do the work, and besides, you’ve been hogging the seat.” Carbon got off the seat and let Iron have the chair. Iron’s hands flew across the keyboard, and soon he had passed the firewall.
You have 60 seconds before you trip the mayor’s security and probably Oxygen’s, too.
“Sixty seconds!” Carbon exclaimed. “I’ll never finish this in time!”
“No need!” Iron winked. He pulled out his phone and went through the pages, documenting each one carefully.
Carbon collapsed on Iron’s bed. “You’re a lifesaver, Iron. What would I do without you?”
Iron grinned and turned around. “All done, Captain. Wanna see what comes out?”
“Obviously!” Carbon replied. Iron pulled up the photo shopping software. He projected the images onto his hologram and started editing. Carbon turned around and said, “By the time I count to ten and turn around, you’ll be done!” True to his word, ten seconds had passed, and he had turned around. Iron was already done and waiting. Carbon read the first page. Then the second. He read all the way through. Iron was doing the same. By the end, he stared at Iron, shocked. What was on that newspaper would throw the community into unrest. The mayor would probably be overthrown, which, reading this, he wasn’t very annoyed about.
The paper had revealed that Mayor Boron had, during his inauguration, hired several bodyguards. The community was suspicious about how all of his guards seemed to belong to only one group—the diatomic non-metals. A citizen had noticed how he had seemed to always be with someone from that group. When they left, it was only because they couldn’t enter his house. He had grown suspicious and reported to Mayor Boron, who dismissed his accusation as “something not worth bringing to the police.” He then consulted with several other officials, who then put Nitrogen, Oxygen, and Mayor Boron in separate trials. They were not allowed to confer with each other. It was revealed that Oxygen had been the leader of this scheme. He had had support from Mayor Boron and was praised by him as a very sensible and secret way to ensure the safety of the city. Nitrogen was forced into the agreement. Both Mayor Boron and Oxygen were convicted guilty and sentenced to three years of prison.
Unfortunately, the event was quickly forgotten, and Mayor Boron was re-elected. Apparently, he had decided to start up the business again. There was only one way to stop him—propaganda. They would have to bring this event back to the minds of people and give more evidence—namely, the box, which they had left in Carbon’s house. They decided the best course of action would be to start with Carbon’s house and then bring evidence to a radio news channel. This would let them immediately prove they were right. And this was the perfect time. The election was five days away. Boron’s opponent, Ruthenium 44, was fighting a losing battle. You were only allowed to vote from the day after tomorrow, so now would be excellent. It would catch all the people about to vote for Boron.
But when they got to Carbon’s bedroom, they saw Fluorine with the box behind him. He was nervous—it was obvious. His hands were sweating, and even the gas looked gaunt and unhealthy. He was biting his lip. “I’m sorry, guys. I can’t let you take this box.” His voice was shaky and filled with stress.
Carbon could feel Iron’s temperature rising. “Look, Fluorine,” he spat. “We don’t need to deal with traitorous friends like you!”
“I c-can’t.” Iron blew his top.
“Eleven years, Fluorine! ELEVEN YEARS! Eleven years of my life wasted being a friend to someone like you, made from gas and totally transparent. All those times we had each other’s back, and it was wasted in the end! You would just betray us, choose your group over your friends and family? You chose to abandon the people who’ve supported you all this time! All for a harebrained plot to get money and get a pat on the back from a mayor who invades others’ privacy? You would lose all our trust and respect for a chance to grow up like Oxygen! So you can’t smile and so you can stalk people around!” Carbon had never seen him this angry before.
Fluorine looked surprised. “How do you know about that?” he asked curiously.
Iron scowled. “None of your business, nosy little traitor,” he muttered. Carbon was starting to hope Fluorine would just let go of the box. But he wouldn’t.
So the only option was to use force. He pulled his fist back. “I think this little backstabber could use a big smacking for his crimes.” Iron smiled, but it was a cold smile filled with anger. At the same time, they punched him. In truth, Carbon didn’t really do anything. Iron punched him 11 times. One for every year wasted with him. They walked up to him. He was unconscious. Carbon felt a little twinge of guilt. But they had a more important job waiting.
A quarter-hour later, they were waiting to be introduced to the reporter for The Element Times. He finally came out, and Carbon and Fluorine both went into his office. He sat down and listened to the entire story, from the top. They showed him the box. After all the talking was done, all he could say was, “WOW. That was a long story. Do you two want to be broadcasted on our station, live? Then you can explain why you shouldn’t vote Boron for mayor.”
The news went wild through the city. Carbon and Iron were famous. People were shocked that they could have elected a mayor like this. When Carbon grew older, he became mayor. Iron found a living building and selling computer software. Fluorine eventually saw the wrong in his allegiances and became group leader after a while. Ex-Mayor Boron was angry, of course, but what could he do about it? He blamed “those two darned kids.” Both Iron’s and Carbon’s parents were very impressed with them, and it was a happy ending for the community and our heroes. But when will they be needed again?