A short story by Martin Simonson
The forest reached as far as one could see, even though the base had been set up on a ridge and the view was undisturbed for miles. Uncounted folds of ancient landscape lay covered under furry white pines, pale birch-wands with auras of silvery powder and other trees transformed beyond reckoning by the frost. Ludovic scanned the chaotic jumble of what he knew was mainly spruce, pine, birch and aspen. For a moment, he imagined that this was what the place must have looked like a thousand years ago, but he instantly dismissed the notion with a self-deprecating sneer. Futile illusion! No roads cut through the overwhelming frosty mass of vegetation as in the old days. No fields interrupted the army of marching trees. No smoke rose from clearings. Houses on these latitudes had been built of wood, and they had long since collapsed and merged with the underbrush – together with the rest of the Scandinavian civilization.
Ludovic pushed the chair back from his desk, stretched languidly and watched his arms. They were typically Scandinavian, with light, freckled skin and tufts of red- blonde hair shadowing the forearms. He was still not used to the new body, even though he had worn it for almost a year now, and he could still feel sudden stabs of satisfaction when he looked at himself in the mirror. The body was based on the classic Northern European matrix, with a dash of Southern European bone structure. Mid-blonde hair, light skin, blue eyes. There were people in the team who had chosen the opposite, Southern European features with Northern European structure, but he preferred the lighter build. Better for field work, if not for anything else. Not such a bothersome lot of bones and muscles to drag along.
Ludovic went up to the panoramic windows. It was an early morning in April, and just a fine sheet of nano between himself and fatal disease. The trees thrived and prospered, but not a single C-class individual would be able to survive out there. The D-classers would be fine, naturally, but who wanted to strut around coated in metal?
He was suddenly overwhelmed by the distance between himself and all those lives he had spent the last 130 years studying. Those A-classers who had walked the forests on the other side of the window, with only thin layers of clothing covering their actual bodies… They would swim naked in the lakes, draw deep breaths of authentic, untreated air, perhaps sweating and screaming when the nightmares beset them at night, but laughing again as the sun rose. They had been torn between hope and despair in ways he could not fathom, no matter how closely he studied their ways.
The abyss slowly began to crack open under his feet, and Ludovic retired quickly to his desk to try and think about something else. Lately, the vision of the dark shaft gobbling up both light and comprehension had visited him with alarming frequency, and it was increasingly difficult to rid himself of it. He sat down, closed his eyes and deliberately breathed in slowly and steadily through the nostrils, until his pulse returned to normal by itself.
He was okay.
A rapid glance at the mechanical clockwork on his wrist revealed that breakfast was almost over. He would have to hurry if he wanted some before they closed the kitchen.
The canteen was already half empty when he arrived – the birthplace of Elisabeth Hesselblad was on today’s program and most of the technicians had left the base before dawn. Catholic saints in Scandinavia were not the usual fare, to put things mildly, and the prospect of finding something worthwhile really should have interested him a lot more, especially since they only had a day to explore the site before moving on to Läckö. Ludovic, however, didn’t nurture any hopes they’d find anything exciting and had allowed the team to take off before him. The archives showed a number of owners throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. How big were the chances they would find something now? According to the preliminary reports, only the foundations were left – a classic up here in the damp Le Nord.
He browsed through the text until the droid arrived with his coffee and the croissant, as anachronistic as the wrist watch. All of it served as a reminder of his ties to the ancient world; he supposed this was the reason the technicians considered him a snob. Ludovic couldn’t have cared less. He brought the cup of hot coffee to his lips and smiled absent-mindedly as he watched the impenetrable forest outside the windows, where the trees had begun to steam in the light of the slowly rising sun. All these rituals… He just couldn’t help himself. After all, he was professor of anthropology, archaeology and cultural history, and he loved the ancient customs, the artifacts, the lifestyle of the past. Pipe smoking, for instance, involved a complex and manifold set of sensations that made him feel alive in the old sense of the word: the texture of the tobacco against his fingertips as he packed the pipe, the sudden flare of the match, the warm cherry wood of the bowl against his folded palm, the smooth stem and the bit against his lips… and the forbidden feeling as he filled his lungs with smoke. Such excesses had raised his insurance fees to almost impossible levels, but it was well worth the money. If he really tried, he could almost imagine what it would have been like in the old days, even when, as now, he had to smoke in a sterile metal- and-nano compartment instead of enjoying the ritual in the more congenial surroundings of his murky study, with dusty volumes on the shelves and well-worn leather armchairs.
A ringtone woke him from his thoughts. He had chosen the sound from the classical twentieth-century phones in a vain attempt to imprint a sober and old-fashioned atmosphere in his communications with the rest of the team, but it was practically useless–the feeling was instantly ruined by the uncultivated voices, marked by pre- programmed accents, and above all the invariably trivial exchanges.
“Ludovic?” panted Friedrich as soon as he had approved the call, and the bronze-coloured face appeared above his steaming cup. “Sir?”
“Yes?” said Ludovic, with a tinge of irritation. “I’m in the middle of my breakfast.”
“I’m sorry to interrupt, sir, but I think you’d better come over. We’ve, uh… found something.”
“Yes, well, it’s a… some sort of… subterranean space”.
Ludovic hearkened. “What’s that? Where?”
“Well, that is to say, uh… under the house”.
“I’m not sure, but I think…”
“The correct term is cellar, if it is situated under a common living space”. “Well, it’s not exactly a cellar, sir. We were exploring the remains of this here,
uh, saint’s house, and found a trapdoor. It was sealed from the inside in some way, so we opened up and…”
“You opened an air-raid shelter? Without informing me first?”
Friedrich was silent for a few seconds.
“Not exactly,” he said at last. “We… I didn’t have time to stop them. But as
soon as I found out what was going on, I gave orders to vacate the… uh…” “Did they touch anything down there?”
“No, I don’t think so. I searched them when they came out”.
“Who went in?”
“Stahl and Villeneuve.”
“All right. Put them in quarantine immediately. What have you found?” Friedrich hesitated. Then he said:
“It’s probably best if you came over. So you can see for yourself.”
Ludovic sighed. “Okay, I’ll be there in…” – he turned his wrist slightly to check the watch–” … about fifteen minutes”.
Ludovic put the cup back on the table together with the croissant, still untouched, left the canteen and went straight to the locker room, where he began putting on the protective suit. If he had chosen to work as a droid, like Barbusse and many others in the crew, he could have taken off without any of these annoying procedures, but as it was he had to undergo the complete safety protocol, with tedious measurements of oxygen levels and blood pressure and so on. He railed impatiently at the personnel in the hangar as they helped him check out one of the smaller hovercrafts.
An air-raid shelter under the saint’s house. He didn’t want to admit it, even to himself, but Friedrich’s words – above all, his tone – had tickled his curiosity. If Friedrich dared to interrupt him in the middle of his breakfast they had obviously found something interesting.
Ludovic would usually travel slowly over the topography in search of subtle remains the scanner might have missed, but once he disengaged from the base and reached hovering altitude he brought the craft up to an almost reckless speed, just above the tree tops.
Barbusse received him at the landing area the engineers had prepared the day before. They had felled a good number of trees and even though they had pulled the trunks and branches aside it was still difficult to get a good view of the ruins, situated about thirty meters from the clearing. Barbusse strode over the branches on his tall, whirring legs without getting tangled and Ludovic followed in his yellow protective suit. Friedrich was waiting for him at the entrance, where the team had established a lab tunnel according to standard procedure.
“Show me in”, said Ludovic without saluting.
Friedrich nodded nervously behind his visor and led the way through the tunnel. Some ten meters ahead two technicians were standing, chatting. They straightened up when they saw Ludovic’s yellow suit with the green shoulder stripes, and took a respectful step aside. Friedrich made a sign towards the ground, where a steel trapdoor, partly covered with moss, had been unveiled. One of the technicians opened it. Ludovic activated his searchlight and began climbing down the iron steps into the darkness below.
“Air-raid shelter with sealed trapdoor”, he mumbled into the microphone and let the camera take in the details of the bottom side of the door. “Approximately 2030’s. Probably Bofors.”
A few more steps and he stood on the shelter’s floor. He looked around as he waited for Friedrich to arrive. The technicians had left footprints everywhere, but there seemed to be few other traces of contamination. The sleeping area was untouched, judging by the unbroken layer of dust that covered the wrinkled sheets. The walls were dominated by old screens, a standard feature of the shelters from this period. The kitchen area was full of mugs and glasses, also covered in dust.
“I stopped them as soon as I heard what they’d found,” said Friedrich behind him. “I don’t think they…”
“So I can see”, said Ludovic drily. “Give me the prelims.”
“Yes. Well. Two main areas, the second one behind the door over there. No signs of intrusion. Sleeping area and kitchen both intact”.
“Yes, yes,” said Ludovic, waving his hand. “What’s in the other room?”
“Well, that’s what I think you will find interesting. The technicians found relics after three Class-A individuals, and a series of written documents”.
People and books, translated Ludovic to himself and felt his heart beat a little faster. He went up to the door and opened it. Another rectangular space, but here the walls were covered with shelves, crowded with books of different size and shape. In the far end of the room was a table and a few chairs. On the table stood two transparent bottles, something that looked like an old camera, a few more books and a chandelier. A jacket hung on the back of one of the chairs and the tattered remains of a couple of pants lay on the floor by the table’s legs. Pale bones protruded under the cloth here and there. A cranium with a broad crack over the forehead rested on the floor next to the chair, and on the other side were similar heaps.
Skeletons and skulls, in the old language. Remains of real people, Ludovic reminded himself. Those skeletons had been forged in real wombs.
He turned slowly in the door.
“Thank you, Friedrich,” he said. “I’ll take it from here.”
“Okay, but…” began Friedrich, but Ludovic just shook his head, entered the room and closed the door behind him.
He remained by the door for a moment, shut off the search light, activated his own luminous filters and took in the scene. He had been waiting for ages for something like this to cross his path. The regular troops usually managed to destroy any valuable remains in the country during the campaigns to exterminate the B-class scum, but this seemed to be a virgin tomb.
Ludovic took a few steps into the room and scanned the bookshelves. As he advanced he spoke absent-mindedly into the microphone. “Seven or eight hundred volumes, give or take. Many with hardcover bindings and in reasonably good shape.” Enough, in itself, to trigger the interest of any respectable tomb raider.
Ludovic took a reverent step towards the books and passed his gloved hands over the spines to remove the dust and get a view of the titles. Mostly European works, written in different languages: Spanish, English, Swedish, French. Philosophy, poetry and history in the main, but also a few novels. Chiefly twentieth and twenty- first centuries – the collected works of Pope in an early nineteenth-century edition was one of the seemingly few exceptions. Nothing of real value at a first glance, perhaps, but still a decent library, considering the circumstances. The only thing that broke the symmetry of the parade of books was a solitary, black Olympus camera, placed just in front of a volume of Lucretius in Spanish translation.
Ludovic shut off his own camera and the microphone but did not yield to the temptation to pull out some of the books and look more systematically for goodies– there would be plenty of time for that over at the base later. Instead he went up to the table. The relics of the three A-classers were spread out over the chairs and the floor. Hopefully, in due time they would acquire more solid identities. The mere fact they were A-class individuals was obviously of sufficient interest, but what if… What if it was something more than just vulgar middle-class this time? Ludovic’s area of expertise was the provinces and he knew he couldn’t compete with the urban archaeologists’ findings in terms of sophistication. Still, he never lost hope that one day he would come across something unexpected. He didn’t ask for much; anything beyond grocery receipts would do. Anything that could help him gain a more subtle understanding of how these people had lived.
Next to the bottles and the book was an album with covers made of coarse fabric. Ludovic felt a sudden pang of expectation as he carefully removed the artifact from the table to take a look at the contents.
The album was full of black-and-white pictures, 20×30 cm according to the eye scanner. Judging by the scenes they were probably taken in the area: there were pictures of rivers and waterfalls with long exposures, trees covered in snow, a wooden landing stretching over a black lake and people with gasmasks holding… lamps?
Ludovic fixed his eyes on the picture and zoomed in. The gas mask seemed to be an authentic Russian model from the middle of the twentieth century, but the lamp looked more like a decorative item from the early twenty-first century than a real artifact.
Ludovic turned the pages. The pictures gradually changed in tone, from contemplative nature scenes to empty highways, abandoned houses and cars, corpses by a kitchen table, gas stations going up in flames… The progression was apparently arranged so as to document the different phases of the Shock in a narrative sequence. Towards the end was a photograph of recently dug graves on a field. Next to the graves were two men in gasmasks, long raincoats and rubber boots, leaning on spades. On the opposite page, pictures of women and children.
Ludovic kept turning the pages. The last ones were dominated by photographs of a house, similar to the archival pictures of Hesselblad’s home, and interior shots from the shelter. The very last photograph showed three bearded men, around fifty years of age, sitting by the very table in front of him. One of them, a tattooed fellow with a bulky digital camera in one hand, looked straight into the lens, proposing a drunken toast. Another one, a long-limbed man with worn-out pants, leaned back in his chair with hanging arms as he looked up at the ceiling. A ballpen stuck out languidy between his fingers. The third A-classer, a fairly short, wiry character wearing a basketball cap, was leaning over the table with his head in his hands. He watched the others with a melancholy smile.
Ludovic stared at the picture. It was difficult to say if it was arranged or just a spontaneous snapshot. But who was the photographer? He turned the pages backwards, scanning them for possible references, but found nothing. Perhaps they had taken the picture with a timer, using the camera on the shelf.
He put the album back on the table, picked up the book and blew the dust off the cover. A title in Swedish: “Movements in the woods”. The cover picture resembled those he had seen in the album: a black-and-white photograph of naked white birches beyond dark waters, and an indistinct silhouette of a person wearing some sort of hooded monk outfit, moving among the trees. Below the picture were the names of the authors: “By Per Johansson and Martin Simonson. Illustrations by Thomas Örn Karlsson”.
Ludovic put the book away, activated the system and ordered visuals of the three names from the Swedish A-class archives. After applying the appropriate filters they appeared on his retina: Per Johansson, Swedish writer; Martin Simonson, associate professor of English literature at a Spanish university; Thomas Örn Karlsson, photographer and the last known owner of the Hesselblad house. He opened the album on the last page and compared. Karlsson, the tattooed photographer with the grizzly beard, was easy to recognize. The other two were a little harder to identify, but after a while he realized that the man wearing the cap responded to Johansson’s profile, while the long-limbed fellow staring at the ceiling must be Simonson.
He put the album back on the table, shut off the system and sat down cautiously on one of the empty chairs. His eyes fell on the bottles on the table. One of them was open and practically empty, but the other was untouched, corked and sealed with red wax. He turned it and wiped the dust off the handwritten label: ”Karlsson’s aquavit”. As usual, the angels had taken their share during the hundred and fifty years or so that had passed, but there were at least three quarters left in the bottle.
“Aquavit…” The very word was like a spell, and he was transported to sweeping views of pastoral Carl Larsson landscapes, with meadows and cattle and lakes bordered with ethereal birches, farmhands and maidens under leafy oaks, kitchen gardens and tubulars pulled out of a black, rich soil. Aquavit had been a popular drink in Scandinavia. Distilled from potatoes and mellowed with… well, there had been different recipes. As a cultural historian specialized in Mid-Sweden, Ludovic had tasted the beverage a few times for strictly scientific purposes, but it had been newly produced and he wasn’t even sure the ingredients really came from Le Nord. And it had definitely not been produced by A-classers, so the soul of the craftsmanship had been lost.
Ludovic stared greedily at the bottle for a few seconds, and then he surprised himself by suddenly breaking the wax seal, uncork the bottle with his multi-tool, and fill up the emergency deposit on his left hip. He poured and poured, as if in a trance, until the bottle was completely empty. Then he closed his lips around the emergency mouthpiece and took a sip.
His tongue and throat stung sharply before an imposing warmth began to spread in his stomach. He felt the heat in his cheeks. Then he closed his eyes and took another sip, a little more cautiously, to try to identify the taste.
St John’s worth.
That’s what it was.
He took a third sip and tasted it with the intellect this time. In spite of the
herb’s name, no spontaneous associations to the Christian saint were established – instead, an irrefutably pagan atmosphere gathered momentum within him. The yellow flowers of the herb took shape in his head, and then the photographer with the grizzly beard appeared on a forest track, bare-chested and with a camera dangling around his neck. He was humming an old tune as he nipped off flowers and leaves here and there.
Ludovic took yet another sip of the aquavit. Then he opened the book and began to read.
Several hours passed. At one point, Friedrich knocked on the door and asked if everything was all right, and if he needed anything. “All is fine”, Ludovic replied, and added that there would be no further interruptions, under any circumstances.
Then he continued reading.
When he was done, he put the book on the table and sat staring at the cover for
a long time. “Movements in the woods. By Per Johansson and Martin Simonson. Illustrations by Thomas Örn Karlsson.”
The cover picture showed the monk of the story moving among the trees. Or was it perhaps the partisan girl, returning ghost-like after an attack in the Borderlands? Impossible to tell. One thing he did know: those bones on the floor had once belonged to real bodies – and the bodies had been true parts of the world out there. Not like himself and the other C-classers, who had to waddle along in their protective nano suits, self-contained and detached from everything outside themselves.
His own memories stretched as far back as 2060, more or less, after the Shock, and they had been stored over three generations. His consciousness was connected to his body merely through the nervous system. The ties of the A-classers, on the other hand, had been solid. They may have had short lives, but at least they had been real.
The first wisps of hopelessness began to dance around him. When he sat down with the book a few hours earlier he had felt a growing excitement; a logical consequence of the presence of ancient artifacts on the table, and the effects of the aquavit. But now the bottomless abyss started to groan and widen again.
He would never fathom, on any deeper level, how these people understood their place in the world, the width of their relationship with the environment. The art they produced, the passions that burned, the despair, the myths about the extinction that everybody had to undergo; it was all beyond him.
Or was he mistaken?
Was there a way of bringing forth the old gods again, to ask them for relief? To actually feel the world before it was over?
Ludovic stared hard at the cover of the book, as if to elicit some sort of response. Then he got up on shaky legs, extracted the bag for samples from the front pocket of the nano suit, opened it and shoved the book, the album, the camera, the chandelier and the bottles inside. He dropped to his knees and gathered the relics of the three A-classers, put them inside the bag, sealed it as well as he could and stumbled out of the room.
Friedrich saw him exit the lab tunnel and make his way towards the hovercraft. He must have realized something was wrong because he tried to catch up and exchange a few words, but Ludovic brushed him aside and climbed into the cockpit without answering any of the assistant’s questions. Then he engaged the ship’s system and asked Christophe to program a trip to the nearest fjord, as fast as possible. It took a while before he was able to activate the autopilot, but at the fourth try he finally managed to place his index finger on the right spot on the screen. The hovercraft wheezed upwards, turned ninety degrees and shot off over the trees.
The journey took twelve minutes all in all. They landed on the water next to a sandy beach surrounded by irregular granite rocks that shifted in colour between pink and gray. Chris manoeuvred them closer and nuzzled the ship halfway up on the beach.
Ludovic sat motionless in the cockpit, watching the fjord’s uneven surface of battered steel, and the reeds, colourless under the pale afternoon sky, that had conquered one end of the beach.
This was the Idefjord. On the other side was a land that had once been known as Norway. It was historical territory: not very long ago, Vikings had entered these waters from Skagerack, and this was where the mad Swedish king Charles XII launched his last campaign in an attempt to seize the neighbouring kingdom.
Now, however, it was Le Nord, an empty province in the French-German Empire.
Ludovic grabbed the sample bag, opened the door and took a drunken step into mid-air. He fell in the sand, cursing between his teeth as he got up. Then he dropped the bag and went over to the reeds, where he began breaking off the dry, brittle stems. He carried the broken stumps back to the bag and took another turn, and then another, and when he felt it was enough he began building a big heap on the water’s edge. “Ludovic.” The humming voice of Friedrich in his left ear. “Return to the craft. I repeat: return to…”
Damn. He had forgotten to shut down the system. They had located him long ago, of course. Just a matter of minutes now before they’d be here.
Ludovic cut Friedrich’s voice in mid sentence and began pulling off the protective coveralls. Alarm tones went off in his ears, lights flared on his retinas, vibrations shook his arms and legs, but in the end he managed to peel off the yellow nanosuit. It fell on the sand with a mournful rustle.
He drew a deep breath and then he pulled off the helmet. It was madness, of course, this body has cost him a fortune. But he just couldn’t stop – he had to find out what it was like.
He drew another deep breath and filled his lungs with the poisonous air. Nothing happened.
He let the air out, and inhaled once more.
His heart kept beating.
Then he felt the wind against his face for the first time. It was cold and wild.
The sand was rough against his naked soles. It shifted under the weight of his body.
He remained still for a while, took it all in.
It was real. No nano between himself and the world. The real world. And he was still alive and physically operative. For the time being.
Probably not for much longer.
The heap of reeds swayed slightly on the water’s edge, but it was sufficiently solid and voluminous not to disintegrate under the pressure of the small, choppy waves. Ludovic lifted the sample bag and poured the contents over the reeds. The stems cracked and rustled as the bones fell on them. Some of the relics tumbled off and hit the water. Ludovic picked them up with shaky hands and placed them next to the book and the album. Then he pushed the whole thing further out, wading after the heap in his thin pants. His feet ached in the shockingly cold water. Shivering, he managed to pull out the lighter and the pipe of the shirt’s breast pocket, produced a flickering flame and held it to the reeds until he saw strokes of smoke surround the relics. After a few seconds the first flames broke through.
He placed the pipe next to the book and gave the bonfire one last push. It sailed slowly towards the main current of the fjord.
Ludovic pulled off his pants and shirt and waded further out after the burning heap of reeds. Wisps of smoke were caught by the afternoon breeze and made his nostrils twitch. He no longer sensed his feet, but he could feel his testicles contract and withdraw as he waded deeper into the water.
This is what it is really like.
This is. What it.
A golden cluster of fire spread over the dark waters of the fjord. He now
realized that the skulls looked like giant eggs in a burning bird’s nest. Would they come? He felt like screaming, but he knew there were no words to bring forth the gods, only pain and sacrifice.
That was how it had to be.
He heard a gurgling sound deep in his throat and felt his lungs wheeze as he tried to fill them again.
“Come…” he whispered, and coughed. “Please come…”
He was struggling to breathe now and darkness settled around him. As if in a
dream he perceived a great black bird that slowly descended from the pale sky. The bird screamed at him in a language he had never heard before. It grew bigger and finally settled on the water beside him, huge and black and shrieking.
Ludovic, his senses mollified, slowly let himself go. The gods had arrived. They would carry him to regions beyond waking, where no pain ever was or could be.
Because he was their offspring.