On Midgard, more than a thousand years after the founding of the colony, life is steady and settled, civilization is comfortable stable. With the assistance of the network sentient AIs, each of whom is styled after a god, goddess, or character out of Norse mythology, each serving a specific purpose, the world runs smoothly. If society isn’t the perfect dream established by the original colonists, at least it feels that way to most of Midgard’s citizens.
But there are hidden cracks in the foundation of Midgard’s society, spawned by a mystery going back hundreds of years, and every AI who knows about it is held to an enforced oath of secrecy by Odin, the ultimate network administrator. The human population of Midgard lives in unknown ignorance of the mystery’s existence.
Until the day Loki drops a hint to an archaeology professor struggling with an ancient poetic form.
Rasmus sprawled across the couch, watching the first dim shafts of light struggle through the treetops of the Inner Forest, and tried to tell himself inspiration had driven him from bed to greet the late Spring sunrise.
He squeezed his eyes shut against the dull needles and stifled a yawn as he opened them again. Just having such a view should be inspiration in itself, and it had kept him from moving into a larger apartment in a newer building for several years. Living on the perceived edge of wilderness won against a little more cubic every time, and his sticking to his budget would cost him the connection to nature he gained just by looking out the window.READ MORE
He stretched, turning his body to fling one leg over the arm of the couch, and looked back down at the data flimsy in his lap. Brushing the surface with one finger, Rasmus grimaced at the text that sprang into existence, his work still escaping standby intact and just as he’d left it. No electronic elves had come to improve the verse while he’d ignored it and they certainly wouldn’t bother while he watched. Several taps changed the order of two words on one line and fixed the resulting capitalization errors. He stared at the flimsy and the words on it stared back, obstinately refusing to make him happy.
Leaning his head back against the soft cushion, he closed his eyes for a moment, half hoping to fall asleep. It might have worked, if he’d still been lying in bed, but he’d been away from that warm comfort for too long to easily drift back into dreams. He snapped his head forward and the motion seemed to pull him from the couch, pushing him a few rigid steps forward to stand in front of the window.
Rasmus sighed, looking out over the blue-green expanse of vegetation as inspiration still failed to arrive. Holding the flimsy at eye level, he took a deep breath. Poetry, after all, was a spoken art. Did it really matter if the speaker made up the audience? And since the poem wasn’t fit to share with other company, it wouldn’t hurt anyone.
Clear and cold, a comet’s path
Searching among stars, seeking home anew
Bright and brilliant, bold and strong
Colours clear the void, chasing and leading
Silence seeking, and slow to die
From far beyond, the arrow’s flight
Time’s crawling tales, cease their telling
All in ancient sleep, late to awake
Rasmus jerked around, inhaling to shout an alarm for the apartment system, but he let it go again when his brain registered the intruder’s identity. Legs dangling over the arm of a soft chair, a textbook representation of Loki propped his head up with an elbow on the opposite side. He shimmered in the suddenly bright morning sunlight and grinned. “An excellent first attempt. The alliteration’s a bit weak, but that was easier in Old Norse. Fornyrðislag, no?”
It took Rasmus a long moment to reply, wrapped up in wondering why Loki would choose to appear in his living room. A hard question not to ask and he wondered how long he could keep it in, along with the affront at the sudden invasion of his privacy. Probably not very. “It’s supposed to be. I’m not happy with the seventh line.” Or most of the others, truth be told, but he felt the seventh was the worst.
Loki nodded, rubbing his close-trimmed beard with two fingers, the hair thickening as Rasmus watched. “That’s the one. I do like the kenning at the beginning though, ‘the comet’s path’. Clever, and it sets the tone for what may follow. You’re telling the colonization story?”
Rasmus nodded. “Trying.” Curiosity drove the question to his tongue where self control left it incomplete. “Um, why…?”
“Am I here?” Loki sat up, swinging his feet to the floor. The dark purple fabric of his pants seemed to swish across the chair’s arm and black boots appeared to touch down on the carpet. “I’m interested whenever someone takes up one of the ancient arts. Poetry is more interesting, even if it is technically Bragi’s line of work—he much prefers modern efforts, by the way, doesn’t really bother with the old stuff anymore—but I might have come even if you’d taken up the Lur, and please don’t.”
Rasmus had listened to a reconstructed Lur chorus several months ago. The sound might be odd to modern ears, but it had spoken to him on a deep level and he wondered what Loki might personally have against the instrument.
The projection stood and crossed the room to look out over the Inner Forest. “I’ll ask a longer question. Why is an archaeologist trying to revive a poetic form, more or less extinct for several millennia on a planet a hundred light years away?”
A ripple passed through Loki’s body in front of the window, the barest breath of the sun’s warmth not touching him at all. Purple drifted into a pale blue and the boots changed to white, putting Rasmus more in mind of winter than spring, but then winter never seemed all that far off.
Rasmus frowned, embarrassed by the question. Smiling, Loki appear to stay focused on the forest, letting the poor human attempt to pick words that wouldn’t make the idea sound stupid when spoken aloud. “I’m looking for insight, trying to see the world through more primitive eyes.” He shook his head. “Well, maybe not more primitive so much as less advanced.”
“By writing a poem about space travel? Seems a little weak to me.” Loki’s laugh bounced against the window plastic. “Yes, you’d be far better to talk to Bragi, I think, if poetry is what you really want, but it seems to me that if you want to see the world through their eyes, you should go outside and actually look at it, experience it.” Loki turned, leaning his head back to give his chin an almost pointed profile. “Go hunting or fishing, maybe hike across the Bjorn Glacial Fields as they once did.” Furs sprouted from Loki’s back and shoulders while a fishing pole appeared in one hand and a bow in the other. Peeking up over his far shoulder, Rasmus could see a quiver of arrows.
“What’s left of them, you mean.”
Loki batted a hand, suddenly empty of rod, and turned to face him fully. “The Fields will come back someday. Midgard getting a little warmer for a few hundred years isn’t necessarily a bad thing. A little more space to explore, a little milder in the winter. And think about what the Melt might reveal.”
Or what it might have already revealed, bits and pieces of a vanished culture just lying around waiting to be found. He thought about that all the time. “It’s an interesting thought.” If not necessarily a new one, since it had driven his career.
“Obviously.” The AI grinned. “It’s mine, after all.” He shrugged. “I do applaud any effort to understand the Ancestors, but the ancient dwellers here are not your ancestors. Poetry will not help you unless it’s their poetry, and they never breached the age of stone, by all accounts so far. Do you even know if they had poetry?”
Rasmus didn’t know if they’d had anything beyond the cave paintings and handful of artefacts he’d spent so long studying. He suspected music, and therefore poetry, but he didn’t really know, and he never truly would.
But the AI didn’t give him a chance to respond. “Sitting here won’t help you, even staring out at a forest barely large enough you can pretend there’s no city just out of sight. Go out into the new spring. See what they saw, hear what they heard, smell what they smelled. Maybe you’ll find your insight that way.” He winked. “If nothing else, some sun and air would do you well.” Loki grimaced suddenly. Furs shriveled away, contracting into black tunic, pants, and boots. “Ah, I have to go. Someone is actually playing a Lur.”
Frowning, Rasmus opened his mouth, but Loki disappeared, blinking out of existence to leave him with an empty room again. He turned back toward the Inner Forest, watched the sun crest over the tallest tree in his line of sight, and wondered whether or not the AI had made a good point, or at least one worth considering.
Was he trying too hard to fit the natives into a human view? He didn’t actually know if they’d had poetry. No one did, though speculation filled libraries and arguments ranged across decades about every fragmentary discovery. If they had voices, it seemed likely they had songs, at least. Why not poetry?
The long departed natural sentients of Midgard may not have had writing beyond the few simple pictographs already discovered. The elements hadn’t left much, really. A few sparsely scattered cave paintings, a few polished stones with scraps of leather cord, a few preserved skins that might once have been clothing, a few bits of shaped bone that might once have been tools. These made up everything the academic community knew about the arts and science and existence of a species they hadn’t even been able to settle on a name for in four hundred years of trying. So much of Midgard remained essentially unexplored, basic satellite images notwithstanding. How could they know anything?
See what they saw.
Rasmus rolled up the flimsy and stuck it in the pocket of his robe. Hunting and fishing didn’t appeal to him, at least not without more data. No, that was a lie to himself. Hunting and fishing didn’t appeal to him at all, unless it was to test methods the native sentients might have used, and not so much even then. A hike across the Glacial Fields seemed excessive for a first expedition, but simply wandering the Inner Forest wouldn’t give him the same experience. It was too sculpted, too civilized, too tame, however it looked from his window.
Think about what the Melt might reveal.
The glaciers had been retreating for longer than he’d been alive, and the rate of retreat had been accelerating for most of that time. How much land had they released? What treasures had been locked in ice for thousands of years? What was waiting for human eyes to see for the first time?
Mobile drones typically did most initial field research, at least in terms of scouring the landscape for possible native sites and artifacts, leaving the actual analysis to human eyes and brains, amateur and professional both. If the amateurs who spent their spare time searching for new sites accounted for more finds, the professionals did more to advance the analysis and understanding of what had once been.
Rasmus didn’t need a database query to see who might currently be walking the edges of the retreating glaciers. He knew someone who’d made searching the borders her life’s work, not of the Bjorn Fields, but further to the east, and much closer to home for him, in the Hvaskald Valleys. It had been a few years since he’d left Copenhagen for any reason, much less gotten away from the museum or university. Maybe he should think about a change in scenery for just a few days.
He wondered if Alexa would take his call.
A breath of wind stirred Karol’s thinning hair, the tiny bite of chill air sending a ripple down his neck. It would be a few weeks yet before the buds around him grew large enough to provide any shelter from the breeze, and by then it might be warm enough he’d rather feel it.
Running a hand across the white cloth covering the flat to make it table smooth, he breathed deep to settle his thoughts before reaching into the worn pouch with the other hand. One at a time, he pulled three tiles from among their brethren, knowing by touch how to place them face down to remain hidden from him. Two small adjustments created an even row to his eyes and Karol fixed the Question in his mind.
“What was.” He slid the first small slice of wood to the left, then tilted it up and let it fall over, already knowing what it would be.
Three sides of a rectangle, the top and bottom shorter and bent inward, Perthro shone silver in the sunlight, brilliant against the wood and cloth. He traced its lines with one finger, searching for some point of power, some insight into the Question. Images and concepts rippled through his mind and he let them find their paths, but none settled enough to give him hope or pause.
The bone-white kilnwood tiles came to him through ten generations of family, almost halfway through time to Landing. More than four hundred years of handling had polished the squares until they reflected enough to show pale images of the world around them. Until Karol’s grandmother pressed them into his hands on his sixteenth birthday, they’d passed from mother to daughter. But she’d had only sons and only Karol among her grandchildren took any interest in matters of the spirit beyond the simple ceremonies that bound families together.
He remembered her early lessons every time he cast. Each rune held many meanings and led to many more. Interpretation came from the caster and the questioner, especially if they were different people, and both flavoured the meanings that might apply. Sorting through those meanings to find any clarity often took time and meditation. Sometimes it took hindsight.
Perthro twisted through Karol’s mind, throwing shadows in every direction. Woman, destiny, mystery all leapt out and pressed at him, and he felt the last most strongly if not to the exclusion of the others. Mystery. Secret. Something hidden. In the recesses of memory, his grandmother’s voice cautioned against quick judgment, so Karol held the words but tried not to let them hold him, still harder than he would like.
He focused his thoughts back on the Question, careful to let it settle back into his mind whole and complete before reaching to the cloth for the second rune. “What is.”
Instead of tipping the tile, Karol watched as his hand closed around the smooth square, the rounded corners smooth against his skin, and he waited long enough for his palm to warm the piece of wood before turning it over. With exaggerated care, he released his grip and pressed his thumb down on one side, sliding two fingers underneath, and keeping the face covered with his palm until it rested flat again.
He saw the deep green painting Raidho reveal itself, in its true old style rather than the slightly rounded version favoured by modern society. Again, the rune brought no surprise. For this Question, it had been the same for weeks. Ride, journey, quest. Search. A mystery that would be solved by some sequence of events. A truth requiring some search. A secret destined to be uncovered, perhaps by a woman and with that thought, he felt by some woman that he knew.
Karol shook his head, trying to clear it of everything but the Question. Distractions poured into his mind as if he’d just sat down for his first Cast alone. Was that why he kept returning to this Question over and over again? Something about it was slippery in his mind. It refused to resolve. Yet with all the distracting thoughts and feelings, with the focus he’d built over a lifetime nearly gone from the ritual, the runes fell into the same pattern nearly every time. Only the third rune, the future rune, ever changed, and that rarely.
Taking a deep breath, he let his hand stray to the cloth a third time.
Gran Vala preferred a Nine Runes cast—more to see, more to know, more to observe—but first taught him how to cast the Norns. Time’s flow always seemed one of the universe’s great mysteries to Karol and he still felt a strong affinity to the Norn Cast, finding that more runes often clouded the issue and made the offered insights even harder to interpret. He’d learned that lesson well enough before his tenth birthday when he’d stolen this same set of rune tiles to ask the Gods what his parents had gotten him as a present. His mind threw up so many images and insights, so many possibilities and ideas, that he’d spilled the rest of the pouch and lost any hint of what he might have learned. And none of the insights they offered him had anything to do with his birthday.
Gran Vala chose that moment to look into his room. She’d said nothing, just helped him pick up the tiles and then took them away. Later that afternoon, he began to find out what it meant to have a Gythja as a grandmother. Eventually, he’d learned to Cast the Nine, but only after learning to make the Question as specific as possible.
“What may be.” The square seemed to jump into his palm and Karol closed his eyes as he turned it over to set the third rune next to the second.
He looked to find a vertical line of gold with a small triangle projecting to the right from its center. Thurisaz gleamed in the dim morning sunlight. Disappointing, but not surprising. He’d hoped for the two sides of an open triangle. Kenaz he might read as revelation, a hint of information and understanding to come, but he couldn’t read Thurisaz that way.
Destruction, conflict, catalyst, change. The words rattled around in his brain, refusing to still long enough for him to focus. His concentration shattered, the Question slipping away to become just another question, Karol closed his eyes again and tilted his head back. He let a long breath slide out through pursed lips then took several more through his nose before righting himself with open eyes and took in the three runes, all different colors, all oriented normally.
Perthro, Raidho, Thurisaz. Meanings and shades of meanings. Each could represent many things and together the possibilities numbered more than leaves in the forest. Impressions faded quickly, and feelings crushed together during the Casting drifted into the shadows of his mind. His desire to know what moved the world, and the human world in particular, drove him to Cast every morning, but the Casts had become unsatisfying of late and the insights he received always slipped just beyond his understanding. Nothing reached through the news or networks to help him make sense of the runes. Perhaps something long hidden would change the path of the world, but he began to suspect it might not be anything he would ever see or know.
He bowed his head over the runes. “Urdh, Verdhandi, Skuld. Past, present, future. I thank thee, Norns, for the insights you have helped me to see and hope for the wisdom to find their meaning.”
With a single sweep of his hand, the runes disappeared back into the pouch. The white cloth followed after a quick shake to clear any bits of leaf or dirt. Karol stood and tried to shake away the unease his Cast had left him with. Shaking his head, he slipped the small pouch into his pocket and turned away from the stump.
He needed to meditate. Silence and solitude he had in plenty this time of year, if you didn’t count the reindeer, but he also had plenty of work to get done. There would be time enough for meditation later. The rest of his morning would be taken up tagging calves. If he could find them in the scattered herd, the network claimed at least another dozen.
“I’ve taken the liberty of pre-downloading today’s list to your data pad, Mistress. It also includes the first ten percent of tomorrow’s list according to your preferences.”
Alviss’ reminder of her daily trip to the Vault had never seemed so welcome.
With one finger, Valborg tapped the window on her desk twice, copying its contents to three separate storage locations, and it shrank to a small icon in the correspondence bubble. She hadn’t felt the passage of time while struggling through the battered grammar of Hans Dergoldt’s article, or perhaps she had but couldn’t believe she’d stuck with it for so long. At the moment, she found it hard to remember why she’d agreed to read through it in the first place. The man needed the services of a good copy-editing program before another human being should read it for content.
She stood and brushed imaginary lint from her jumpsuit. “Thank you, Alviss. Is there anything special on today’s list?” Retrieving the ridiculously bulky—though she had to grant its age, internal power supply, and virtual indestructibility all had something to do with that—datapad from its station on the wall and slipping it into her pocket, Valborg looked at Alviss.
White teeth flashed in the dark, close-trimmed beard and the pale dwarf ducked his head in a mock bow. “Well, mistress, that will very much depend on what you may mean by ‘special.’ There are several engineering texts, some pre-Landing history, and a collection of religious philosophy and lore that includes both some early commentary on the Poetic Edda as well as a slim volume containing several translations and the collected twentieth through twenty-first century commentary on the Alvissmal.”
Valborg looked down at her assistant’s virtual presence. “Isn’t that the poem where Thor outsmarts you?”
“Not me, exactly, mistress, but strange though it is to find Thor using his mind rather than his muscles, you are correct. Stranger still to find that sunlight supposedly turns dwarves to stone.” Alviss shook his head and made a clucking noise.
“Yes, I always thought that was odd. Isn’t it supposed to be trolls?”
“Dwarves, trolls, giants, ogres. Look far enough through the Lore and literature and sooner or later it seems to happen to every sentient creature who isn’t a human or a God. I think it stems from the human need to feel superior to something.”
She laughed. “You might be right.” She took several steps to stand in front of a window and Alviss followed. “I don’t see you turning to stone.”
“I don’t have a physical presence. Perhaps if I were real, we could test the principle.” He shook his head. “As if a dwarf might want an Æsir wife. Strange people, you humans.”
Obviously, he’d retrieved the poem while they spoke. “A mark of high status, I’d assume.” Opening the door, she let Alviss walk through first rather than trying to fit through at the same time. He would make way for her rather than having her walk through his projection, but Valborg held a strong belief in fair and equal treatment for all sentients, regardless of their programming. She wasn’t entirely sure Alviss believed the same, though, and wasn’t privy to his base programming to check, as if she might understand what it said. Still, whatever might be the general perception of the non-AI citizens of Midgard, he was, by all definitions, sentient, so could form his own beliefs about things as he chose.
Bright strips lit the short hall, one of the few places in the above-ground portions of the Archives having no access to natural light. A projected mural of a garden in full bloom ran the entire length of one wall while stylized animals, both Terran and native, graced much of the available space on the other. Valborg walked through the corridor with less thought for the artwork than the multiple redundant sets of data storage that lay beyond them on the far side of the walls. Two other duplicate Archives in Helsinki and Reykjavik held the same structures and each had three sets of redundant backups of its own. Even a complete disruption of the planetary network would leave physical locations intact. Of course, considering the vast stretches of wilderness and glaciations, the network coverage of Midgard wasn’t nearly complete, but it would take a true planetary cataclysm for any knowledge to be lost on Midgard.
And in the event of such a cataclysm, there was the Vault.
The door at the hall’s far end opened into the small public section of the Archives, though very few people ever came in person since everything stored in the Archives’ networks could be accessed by anyone with a network connection from anywhere on the planet. But for those few who made the trip, a dozen tiny desks, miniature versions of Valborg’s own, lined most of long wall under a half dome of clear transparasteel. Four privacy booths clustered in the centre of the open space for those who needed just a little solitude.
As on most days, neither desks nor booths had occupants.
On the far side of row of desks, a thin door neatly blended in with the wall. Without looking for it, casual eyes would drift past. Alviss stared at the door, longing painted across his thick face. “Unsatisfied curiosity is a terrible thing. Worse still, knowing that it never can be satisfied.”
A smile flitted across Valborg’s lips, gone, she hoped, before Alviss had seen. “It’s really not that exciting, you know. Shelves and shelves of books in a moderately lit room. There isn’t much to see.”
The dwarf looked up at her, one eyebrow arched and the left side of his mouth stretched to the side. “Oh, I’m well aware of what the Vault looks like. Drab walls and drab shelves filled with drab books. And it’s not as if there is a scrap of information in it that I don’t have access to many times over. I have the complete inventory of the books it contains and every word printed in those books is available to me as fast as I can execute the search, in multiple styles and translations.” He shook his head. “But I’ve never actually seen it. I have a full understanding of what the Vault is and contains, but I don’t actually know. You can see how that’s difficult for me.”
“For you especially.” She smiled again and put as much warmth in it as she could. Not for the first time, she wished she could touch her assistant, though not nearly so much as he wanted to see inside the Vault. But if she could at least pat his shoulder she might feel as if she made him feel better, though she harboured doubts whether that would work any better with an AI than with a human. “I wish I could take an image for you, but the only thing that works is the inventory function.” Valborg patted the data pad in her pocket. “And that’s just for the inspection checklist.”
Paler in the direct sunlight even than in Valborg’s north facing office, the dwarf turned his back on the door and tried to smile. “I do appreciate the sentiment, Mistress, but I have resigned myself to the situation. Even with my name, there are some things that are not meant to be known. I ask only that you think of me upon occasion while performing your duty.” The smile disappeared, replaced by a frown. “Do you know I’ve never even seen a paper book?”
“In point of fact, and not to be too picky about it, I haven’t, either.” The books in the Vault had pages made of a fine, durable plastic rather than the flesh of dead trees. Full and functional lifespans of centuries could be expected, even with actual use. “But I completely understand and sympathize.” She placed her left palm on the centre of the door and waited for the chirp of recognition. The door slid open and she stepped into the small elevator airlock. “Look after things while I’m gone.”
Alviss bowed and she briefly pictured him as a classic mythical dwarf, dark beard long enough to nearly scrape the floor. “As always, Mistress. I will be here when you return.” The door slid shut again on anything she might have responded with.
Her smile died as soon as she was safely shielded from Alviss’ perception. She always had a moment of panic between the doors closing and the elevator starting its descent. The tiny room was a forced reminder of why the Vault existed. Only a total collapse of computer and power infrastructure would generate a need for the physical books it contained. If some unexpected, unanticipated, and incredibly unlikely event should somehow trigger that collapse during one of her daily short trips to or from the Vault, Valborg would be on her own.
Just before it began to move, the elevator’s controls automatically cut all contact with the outside world, and it switched over to the Vault’s internal power generation units. If something should happen to that power before reaching the bottom, she’d be trapped with no chance of rescue until the power was restored, if it was. Well, not with no chance. Both the tiny elevator and the doors at the top of the short shaft had emergency manual controls, and a ladder ran from top to bottom. She could get out if she had to, no rescue required.
As always, her brief panic meant nothing. The ride lasted three or four breaths and the door slid open in front of her before she could do more than wonder ‘what if?’ At the same moment, sensors in the room registered her presence and fed power to the light strips. The few seconds of anxiety faded into the background, swallowed by the expectation of exercising her core responsibility.
The first room of the Vault, long and thin and lined with shelves of real books, stretched out before her. Built in a single standard size, thirty centimetres long, tall, and wide, each shelf contained as many as eight or nine books, depending on their size, all lying flat on top of each other for binding preservation. At full capacity, the room would store more than two thousand volumes of critical knowledge, but there was certainly more than one third of the space left available. Nine metres away, a manually operated airlock would take Valborg to a corridor connecting the other eight rooms on this level, all entered by identical airlocks, or to the stairway leading to the second and third levels.
In the middle of the room, a small table, bereft of any computer interface or projection equipment, waited for the touch of a book. The act of handling real books in the daily inspections made the rest of her small duties as Archivist easy to forget. That she was forced to do it underground in an artificially lit room cut off from the rest of the world while standing at a chest high table didn’t bother her even after almost four years as Archivist.
Lifting the data pad, she pressed its only available icon, releasing it from standby and sending a coded transmission that travelled no farther than the shielded walls of this first room of the Vault. At the same time, she started scanning the shelves for the two or three indicator lights that would lead her to the books in this room on today’s list. She found the first three sets of shelves toward the other end of the room on her left at about waist height. Comparing the numbered code on the shelf to the code on the list, Valborg bent to find “Introductory Soil Mechanics” by V. Mortensen at the bottom of a stack of six books. Putting the datapad back in her pocket, she carefully lifted the other five before pulling out the book she needed then carried it to the table to begin today’s inspection.
Rasmus let the car pick its own course until it reached the waypoint he’d set. When he needed to leave the road and travel cross country, he might take a closer interest in guiding the vehicle, but for now the automatic system would do fine. He passed the first four hours of the drive watching the replay of a concert held in Lundby the previous month and catching up on some news media and reading. When the car informed him that they were thirty minutes from leaving the road, he triple-checked that the latest satellite imagery for the area had been downloaded into the car systems and went over its projected least-time route. He had no illusions that he could pick a better one or pilot along the selected route better than it could, but leaving the road system always made him just a little nervous and then embarrassed at being an archaeologist with that reaction.
The car slowed, turning off the road at the preprogrammed conversion point and picking a path into the thin, mostly coniferous forest, finding a high flowing creek to follow for the first several kilometers of the trip’s last leg, and he settled back to watch the scenery roll by without thinking too much about it. Beyond the idea of getting closer to nature, he really didn’t know what he’d gotten himself in for. All things considered, Rasmus could probably count himself lucky. Not only had Alexa taken his call, but she seemed receptive to showing off her latest discovery, not that she’d been ready to tell him what it was, only that it was more than he’d expect. “Come prepared to work for it,” she’d told him before hanging up.
North of Copenhagen, the spring forest looked much like it did in the winter, just with a little less snow. Those few trees that dropped their leaves in the cold had yet to push out new ones, content to let their buds swell with the slowly rising temperatures. Thick needles in many shades of blue, and a handful of green, adorned the trees that kept their color throughout the year. Smaller plants and bushes, more impressed by the new spring than the trees above them, took full advantage of the warmth and available sunlight to get in most their growth early before their larger siblings reached out to scoop up the bulk of the free energy the conifers let pass.
The car’s cabin drained away all external sounds, including those of the engines. Removed from the level path of the road, the vehicle had to work harder to provide a smooth ride for its occupant and certainly doubled its power consumption. Rasmus could see graphs or data at will, but knew the vehicle had charge enough to travel cross country for days if he wanted to. He tried not to think about being days out into the wilderness.
The Hvaskald Valleys had never quite been overrun by glaciers, at least not during the current ice age, though they’d often lain in the shadows of the creeping ice flows, never quite succumbing to the lure of permanent winter. A dozen kilometers to the north, the trailing fingers of one glacial group still slowly withdrew, though most had retreated much farther. Small plants and shrubs had begun to colonize the barely unfrozen land all across the lower north.
But in the Valleys, the forests, stunted by brutal winters, had never gone away, giving shelter to animals that would have retreated much further to the south. They were also home to some of the youngest finds of Native artifacts in the north.
Thirty years or so ago, Bjorn Bjarnisson theorized these finds might represent the last stronghold of native culture destroyed by the ice age. Rasmus didn’t subscribe to it, attractive as it might seem to explain the finds so easily, but he still wondered why the lost ones hadn’t moved south with most of the wildlife, away from the creeping walls of ice.
Over centuries of study, the sentience of the natives became undisputed. Prominent tool users, if only those made from stone, wood, and bone, they’d also had art and storytelling at least, clearly shown by the few cave paintings humans had uncovered. Tool use, art, presumably language of some kind. Rasmus imagined a rich oral history. Why would they have let the ice take their world away? It didn’t make sense that they’d collectively give up and die.
Alexa’s camp nestled next to a small lake, three small instant buildings thrown up in minutes by low level AIs. From there, she supervised the slow cataloging of two caves and a butchering site all within ten kilometers and all no more than twelve thousand years old. He’d followed the steady stream of papers and image dumps she’d provided to the academic world and public.
Rasmus let the car glide across the lake. His heart rate picked up for reasons that had nothing to do with being over deep water and he looked for any sign of Alexa in the tiny camp. It wouldn’t surprise him in the least if she’d forgotten he was coming or ignored his approach in favour of whatever she might be pouring over. In her place, it didn’t stretch his imagination to see himself doing the same even without the added baggage of personal history.
But she must have heard the car, appearing from behind one of the buildings with what looked like a backpack hanging from her left hand. From a distance, he recognized her by the bright red hair, loosely curly and hanging down past her shoulders, forever out of control. Closer, her face began to resolve and the almost hooked nose jumped out at him. Her eyes didn’t become more than spots until the car coasted to a stop and began to settle then the green circles burrowed into him and he wondered what old argument she might be remembering.
Alexa didn’t smile, didn’t do more than nod as she approached the car, moving around to the opposite side. He brushed the control to open the door and before it rose more than a decimeter or two, Alexa’s backpack hit the seat. She slipped in before it reached halfway and touched the control herself to close the door again. With the other hand, she held out a small data crystal. “It’s got the coordinates and a best plot path to where we’re going.”
Just like that, they started off. Just like nothing had happened. Just like three years hadn’t passed since the last time they’d even looked at each other. Just like old times.
It took five minutes of silence before Alexa even turned to look at Rasmus, lips pressed together and eyebrows pulled down. The look reminded him of the last time they’d really spoken, and he pushed the memory away, trying to bury old grudges. He thought her jaw might be clenched, but she spoke before he could tell from the tight muscles, or even if her jaw muscles were tighter than usual. Three years was a long time. “It’s weird that you called now.”
Rasmus tried not to frown. “What do you mean?” Brilliant, but the best he could do. He’d been wondering if the call had been a mistake since she picked up, but she’d accepted the idea of a visit without a hint of any of the old issues or conflicts. The long drive to her site hadn’t helped the hard feeling in his stomach, even with the efforts he’d made to distract himself.
Her eyebrows relaxed and the left side of her mouth lifted into something he might mistake for a smile if he didn’t know better. “When you called last week, I wondered if you’d suddenly developed some kind of telepathy. I’d been thinking about you for a week before that.” An old tension he’d thought long buried kick started his heart again, pushed his blood pressure a little higher.
Hoped it had been buried, maybe.
She looked at him, but she didn’t seem angry or upset. Excited, maybe, but not to see him, more likely about where she was taking him. Probably a good thing. “The cave we’re going to is new. One of the roving AIs found it last week. I’ve filed but haven’t done much cataloging. Too much back log.”
He took a moment to gather his thoughts but didn’t want to stretch the mental work beyond the simplest and most obvious response. “There’s something in the cave that made you think of calling me.”
Smiling, she nodded. “It’s full of paintings. Floor to ceiling.”
Not exactly what he had in mind when he called. Better, far better, more than he possibly could have hoped for. He’d spent his academic life studying the art of the natives, what there was of it. Bone flutes, jewelry, a few scattered carvings and wall paintings from a dozen or so small caves, scattered across several thousand kilometers, with representations of hunts and life and, he was fairly certain, spirits or gods. Loki’s words came back to him. “See the world as they saw it.”
Smiling, he shook his head. “Sorry, that wasn’t meant to be out loud. It’s something someone said to me recently. I’ve been trying to figure something out, something that ties together what I do know, and someone told me to see the world as the natives saw it. He suggested I go hunting or fishing, but I thought, maybe, well…” He shrugged.
“That I might show you something to make the connection.” She smiled, and this time it was for him. “Whoever your friend is, you should thank him. I just might myself, but first I’m going to show you something that makes you rethink everything you already know.” Her eyes almost glowed. “This cave is not like the others, Ras, not at all.”
Now his heart raced for an entirely different reason. He swallowed, licked his lips, and opened his mouth to ask, but she cut him off. “I’m not going to spoil it or give you anything that might prejudice your opinions.” He inhaled again, but she still didn’t let him speak. “Yes, I’ve taken video and stills, lots of both, but I left it all back at the camp. We can turn around and get them, if you like, but that will probably cost us twenty minutes that we could have spent getting closer to the cave. It’s up to you.”
And then she smiled that smile. The one he hated. Beyond any doubt, she still knew how to push his buttons and probably took more joy in it than ever. He bit down on any response and let the car drive. If she thought she scored a point, that was fine. He’d finally stopped keeping score three years ago.
“You’re out of shape.”
“How nice of you to notice.” Rasmus wrapped his left hand around a small rock outcrop and leaned in to steady himself. It took two deep breaths to find the words he wanted without using them to start an argument. “I don’t do a lot of field work and this isn’t exactly an easy hike.”
“Think what it might have been like with four legs.”
“They had a lower centre of gravity.”
“And shorter arms.”
And four legs and plenty of muscle mass, Rasmus didn’t say. Alexa made a good point, though. This would have been a tough climb built like one of the lost native sentients, maybe rough enough to be considered a rite of passage. He sighed, but it came out almost like a wheeze. “Are we there yet?”
“Another two hundred metres or so up the slope.”
Slope. Rasmus supposed it was an intellectually fair word for a hill grade that beat most stairwells he’d been in. At least there were solid bits of rock and stubborn bushes to grab onto. Rolling down the hill would not be fun.
And as if he were prescient, his left foot slipped on some loose gravel, an act of betrayal that cost him his balance and all the air in his lungs when he hit the ground shoulder first. His hands lashed out, trying to grab the stone but finding Alexa’s forearm instead. Her fingers wrapped around his wrist and he looked up into her grinning face.
“Saved your life.”
Rasmus let her help him up before rolling his eyes but let the comment pass. He doubted he’d been in any real danger of more than a few scrapes and bruises, but those were two of the many reasons why he hated the great outdoors, at least in an uncontrolled way. “Thanks.”
They took another dozen or so steps upslope before he had enough breath back to wonder how much farther it would be. “How did the AIs find this place?” How would anyone?
“Funny radar echoes.”
Three words that might explain everything with a little background information. Without it, they explained nothing but were also probably the only explanation he was going to get. Ground penetrating radar was a wonderful thing to have access to, but scale issues when you put it on crawlers didn’t necessarily give you as much detail back as you’d like. Funny echoes could mean anything and still didn’t manage to convey why the AI-driven rover had flagged the spot to begin with.
Just like old times, he resolved not to say anything else until they reached the cave. Instead, he tried to focus his irritation into pulling himself up the hill faster. Whether it worked or not, it seemed like only a few more steps before the slope suddenly leveled out and he stood on nearly flat ground, hunched over with his hands on his knees. After a few breaths, he pulled up straight, leaving just a little slump to his shoulders, and looked down at the valley they’d left the car in.
One of the things Rasmus did like about field work–almost the only thing beyond seeing and touching things firsthand–was the view. There were times when you stood up from the dust and the landscape laid out before you stole the breath from your lungs faster than any fall. Rasmus decided this was one them. From half a kilometer above the valley floor, the needle trees hid the leafless, and ripples of blue and green spread out below him. A pine-tinted breeze tugged at damp hair on the back of his neck. He let himself smile a little, thinking that maybe the pristine view might have been incentive for the ancient natives to make the tough climb.
A flying insect zipped across his vision only a few centimetres in front of him and Rasmus sighed. The occasional spectacular view wasn’t worth the bugs and dirt most of the time, or the less than comfortable prefabricated quarters, or the often-unsteady network coverage. He liked his nature a little more sculpted, a little more convenient, and had enjoyed it that way for most of his life. But still—
“If you’re done admiring the trees, we can look at what we came here for.”
Rasmus closed his eyes for just a moment before turning around. When he faced Alexa, it was with a smile, but that disappeared when she gestured at the so called cave she wanted to take him into. A knee-high hole in the side of the hill stared at him, one dark eye peering out from the grey rock and soil. It looked half again as wide as he was, and so was probably wider than that. Not a tight squeeze in his current shape, but that didn’t make him all that eager to dive in.
“There was a rock fall three or four hundred years ago. It’s certified safe by the rover AI, but the entrance turns into a tunnel that stays that size for about three metres before opening up.”
Three metres of crawling on his belly dragging the bag he’d brought. Rasmus sighed and unclipped the helmet from his belt, brushing the power switch for the headlamp as he set it on his head. Field work at its worst. “Let’s go then.”
Crawling down a gentle slope through the short tunnel wasn’t so bad, or at least wasn’t as bad as he’d expected, even if the only view he had was Alexa’s boot soles. He didn’t have any concern following her into an unknown cave since she’d been in at least once before and the tunnel didn’t last that long, anyway, or at least not much longer than she’d promised. After a few metres, she scooted forward and stood up, moving out of the way so he could follow.
His headlamp burrowed into the darkness as he checked the walls, ceiling, and floor. Nothing there, but the passage continued on a little farther from where he stood than the cramped entrance lay behind him. His light didn’t reach far enough past the opening to show him anything of the cavern and its paintings. Fingers twitching, Rasmus moved forward without waiting for Alexa. Four steps past her brought him to the cavern’s edge and the loud echo of his breathing, something he hadn’t even noticed, disappeared into the gloom.
The space was big, much bigger than he’d expected. His headlamp didn’t reach the other side, or the ceiling, but when he swung back around to ask Alexa if she’d brought a bigger light source, the beam swung across the wall next to him and whatever words he’d had stayed in his throat. The small section of wall his headlight illuminated was covered in tiny paintings. They almost fought for space, occasionally even overlapping as newer strokes shouldered aside older ones. He stepped to the side, away from the entrance, shifting his view of the wall in front of him to reveal one not so tiny painting with the others.
Clustered around some huge, six-legged beast, more than a dozen tiny pictographs brandished spears smaller six-limbed figures, obviously representing native hunters. At the edges of the light, more hunters stood or ran, depending on how he interpreted the legs. Hints and shadows lay on the edges, but Rasmus came back to the beast in the middle before he could move on.
As part of his dissertation, he’d done a comparison of native cave paintings to those found in stored images and video of Stone Age cave paintings from Earth. He’d gone further and considered virtual reconstructions of the creatures in them. With those memories occupying the front of his brain, Rasmus mentally traced the careful red strokes crafting a figure that jumped into his mind as a mammoth, albeit one with six legs. He couldn’t think of anything else looking at the tree trunks legs and curved, jutting tusks. Had any fossils or remains been found that could be reconstructed into something like it? Nothing he’d heard. Was this the story of a hunt or the telling of a legend? He wanted to believe the first, but there was little evidence for recent megafauna on Midgard.
His eyes drifted back to the hunters and he leaned in closer to the wall. Reds and browns and oranges. And those painted the same color showed different shades as if they’d been painted at different times or by different hands. Or both.
Behind him, a sudden brilliant light washed the entire cavern, throwing his shadow across the mammoth hunters. Taking two steps back to lighten the shadow, he started to turn slowly through a circle, struggling to take it all in. Hundreds, thousands of tiny paintings clustered and crowded around a few dozen large ones.
They hunted more than just mammoth. Rasmus recognized several of the creatures in the dozen or so hunts scattered around the cavern, but most he couldn’t form a picture of. Hunters with spears clustered around all of them, in more than one case throwing spears at some great beast. Some of the strange creatures weren’t being hunted, but flew or reared or merely stood against rough painted backgrounds of mountains or trees. And in one place, thirty or more six-limbed pictographs formed a ring around a fire, some linking hands as if they might be dancing.
“It’s obviously a holy place of some sort. Or possibly coming here to paint was some kind of life event ritual. Tentative dates range between eight and fifteen thousand years old, depending on which paintings.”
Beings twice the size of the hunters and dancers held out two spears to a pair of natives. A metre to the left and slightly higher, two more giants did the same thing only the spears they held out to the waiting natives had been painted to look as if they were on fire. Rasmus picked out other giants around the cavern, some in the act of gift giving, others with what might be storm clouds or lightning. A shiver ran up his spine as he understood the vanished sentients had a pantheon of gods. “Their whole mythology might be in this cavern.” Something sunk in about Alexa’s last words. “Wait, did you say eight thousand years?” He didn’t break his eyes from the paintings, couldn’t.
“Yes, I did. Tentatively. More analysis needs to be done.”
And then he stopped, eyes glued to one spot on the wall, to one larger painting, spanning maybe twice as far as he could splay his fingers. The image jabbed into his heart. He hadn’t been raised with much in the way of spirituality in his education, and mythology was treated culturally, but no one on Midgard could fail to recognize the symbol. He licked his lips slowly and drank in the sight.
Another circle of natives, these all with linked hands, danced around a circle with a cross painted in it to divide the circle into four equal quarters. Four quarters for the seasons, a circle for the year, for the sun. “Is that a sun wheel?”
“I doubt they called it that.”
He turned on her. She stood with a stern look on her face, beside the lantern that must have already been here since he hadn’t seen her lug it in. “Stop being such a bitch, Alexa! Be mad at me if you want to but stop treating everything I say as if I’m trying to start a fight. I came to see you, but you brought me here. You wanted me to see this. Gods! This is absolutely the biggest discovery of ancient aboriginal culture since humans have been on Midgard. You know that, and you found it, and I’m perfectly happy that you found it.” His finger jabbed out to the painting on the rock wall. “I see a sun wheel. Am I dreaming or is it actually there?”
For a long moment, she didn’t say a word, just stood there, face blank and breathing heavily, but whether from shock or anger, Rasmus didn’t know or care. Finally, she let her face soften and her breath shifted into a sigh. “That was my first thought, but I’m more of a digger than an interpreter, and I didn’t want to prejudice your reaction. You’ve seen the sun wheel. Look down.”
Rasmus looked down at his feet, thinking he might be standing on something. The paintings did not extend to the floor, though here and there he saw drops and smears and splatters of whatever they had used for pigments. Tracking back up to where the wall met the floor underneath the sun wheel, he felt the breath pulled from his lungs in a gasp.
He squeezed his eyes shut but the painting was still there when he opened them again. Taking a few steps to reach the wall, he crouched down in front of the distinctive shape, an inverted T-rune, the bottom thicker, flatter, and clearly drawn to a point in the middle. He reached out to brush his fingers against the hammer and felt a shiver run through his body.
Alexa cleared her throat. “If you look at a few of the giants, sometimes there’s a hammer hanging at the waist on one side, or something that might be one. It’s hard to tell.”
“This is going to change everything, Alexa.” When he pulled his hand back, he nearly fell over, then overcorrected and put one hand on the floor in front of him and one on the hammer to steady himself. The heel of his hand pressed against something cold and very definitely not stone. Lifting his hand, he found a small plastic triangle, five or six centimeters on a side, dark enough to blend in with the stone but easy to see if you knew it was there. He peeled it off the floor and held it up. Not much thicker than the data flimsy in his pocket, there were some discolorations on the surface and he moved it a little to the right to bring it out of his shadow.
“What is it?”
He frowned at the thing in his hand and ground his teeth as he began to seethe. Runes, just a little lighter than the plastic itself, ran the length of each side of the triangle, the same message printed three times. “I don’t know.” He stood up and turned toward her. “I’m really hoping it’s a bad joke.” But the look on her face as her eyes locked on the triangle showed the same anger building in him. The runes sneered at him, taunted him. Someone else had been here and not told the world. Worse, someone else had been here and left something behind to taunt the next person to find it. He read the inscription over and over, turning the triangle around and around in his hands.