|The Best-Laid Plans of Gods & Men|
|Authors Name||James Robinson (Buckshot Bill)|
|Number of Chapters||4|
Dagr stared out of the dura-glass windows of the Aesir collection facility Skinfaxi and sighed deeply. Ten thousand feet below, scintillating in the oppressive darkness of the Fimbulwinter, Midgard – last of humanity’s cities – awoke to yet another cold morning. Hundreds of transport vessels, carrying supplies, fuel and laborers, rose slowly from numerous docking bays, bustling toward countless destinations. Weaving complex patterns throughout the veritable labyrinth of the city’s skyline, they seemingly danced symbiotically side-by-side, choreographing to a rhythm that only they could hear. A pillar of effervescent light, serving as both a method of navigation and Midgard’s central clock, sundered the maleficent winter’s night. Each day the pillar would degrade from a dazzling brilliance to a somber glow over twenty-four hours, accurately synthesizing a standard planetary rotation and lending the city’s population a large, although futile reminder of a simpler world. It was a mockery of the sun that had been mostly obscured for decades. Sunlight now only clearly shone down over the vast tundra of the northern steppes, a country possessed by the machines and off-limits to even the Aesir. Only Loki – ODIN’s latest foolhardy experiment – had returned from the barren wasteland, carrying the secrets of Jotunheim and the abomination Fenrir.
“Status report,” Dagr snapped, abruptly concentrating on the task at hand.
“We’ve completed our analysis of the cloud cover and estimated our chances of success at a promising seventy-five percent,” Hildr replied. Serving as Dagr’s assistant for over fifty years, Hildr was human – unusual among the scientists of Midgard – although she had the appearance of a young, vibrant woman. Forty years ago, Dagr had petitioned Heimdal that she receive a few of the Aesir’s upgrades toward perpetual youth, a request that sparked a fiery debate. Eventually Heimdal had relented and allowed the human access to Idunn’s “golden apples”, forcing the woman to swear that she would never reveal any facet of Aesir technology. Hildr had quickly proven she was worthy of such trust, slaving diligently beside Dagr as they struggled to provide Midgard with a means of survival.
“Seventy-five,” Dagr whispered, closing his eyes. “We saw such a percentage only yesterday, and watched ourselves fall short. Leave nothing to chance. Have the command teams recheck the secondary systems and then run a diagnostic. Failure is not an option.”
Hildr smiled. “I anticipated such an order, lord. I took the liberty of already making that request.”
“What would I do without you?”
“You’d more than likely be lost and alone, lord.” Hildr replied, catching Dagr’s eye and flashing another characteristic smile. Should either of them been overhead while traversing the hallways of Asgard, Hildr would have been punished for taking such a conversational tone with an Aesir. However, Midgard was a world away - separated by the Fimbulwinter’s shroud - and now all that mattered was the task-at-hand.
“Very well then, take us another sixty thousand feet and prepare the collection arrays.”
Hildr nodded and turned to the small team of crewmen who stood close by. Each of them was posted at a holographic terminal that was periodically lit by Aesir runes that scrolled across it’s transparent surface, casting eerie shadows along the metal walls and bathing the command center in soft light. She quickly relayed Dagr’s orders and the team snapped to attention, punching commands with military precision. Moments later, everyone abruptly grabbed a handhold as the facility lurched upward with sudden acceleration, expulsion boosters propelling the craft out of the troposphere.
Looking around, Dagr cast a practiced eye over each frightened expression and smirked, knowing the cause of the crew’s concern. Height was always a constant factor when exiting the safety zone. The Skinfaxi was never meant to fly beyond the tropopause, lacking the necessary cooling system to survive the temperatures of the stratosphere. Instead, Dagr had to rely on the perpetually cold conditions of the Fimbulwinter to prevent the nuclear-reactor at the facility’s heart from overheating. Outside air was fed through a complex network of ventilation tunnels and circulated throughout the engine room, forcing engineers to use enviro-suits to protect themselves. It was a relatively minor annoyance that had the potential to be extremely hazardous should Dagr make a mistake. The temperature at the top of the stratosphere could rise to 26.6 degrees Fahrenheit, and would quickly cripple the facility’s ability to adequately maintain altitude. Each flight was a calculated risk, and a necessary evil to escape the dense cloud coverage.
“We’ve exited the troposphere, lord,” Hildr said softly. “Outside temperatures are steadily rising and correlating with our expectations. Thirty seconds until maximum altitude.” As the craft shrugged off the last of the stifling cloud-cover, brilliant light suddenly poured through the command center’s window and flowed along the floor, coupled with a soothing warmth that eased the cares from Dagr’s weary frame. The sun shone across the eastern sky with an almost heavenly radiance, welcoming the facility with each honeyed ray that wrapped around them, and whispering mute words of ancestral comfort. Behind him, Hildr sighed with satisfaction and he knew, without asking, that she was recalling when they’d first explored the skies. Another crewman, a relatively new addition to Skinfaxi’s personnel was weeping softly, swiping away tears with noticeable embarrassment.
“Behold,” Dagr whispered. “Our salvation.”
The craft continued to accelerate for a few seconds more, gradually decreasing speed and then coming to a smooth, seemingly well-practiced stop. There was a period of uncomfortable silence, as the crew looked questioningly at each other, and then relaxed as the facility leveled out.
Hildr walked over to a nearby holographic terminal. “We’ve reached seventy-three thousand feet, and with our current fuel supply we can maintain that altitude for exactly eighteen minutes.”
“And our safety parameters?”
“Engineering reports that we’re approaching fifty percent and requests permission to flood the nuclear-reactor with our reserve coolant,” Hildr answered.
“Permission granted,” Dagr replied. “That should allow us some additional peace-of-mind.”
“Done,” Hildr reported, a few moments later. “We’re holding at twenty-eight percent, although that will rise swiftly.”
Dagr nodded. “Then let us proceed directly to the task. Activate the solar collection arrays and prepare the storage tanks. We’ve a quota to fulfill.”
Energy. It was the sole concern of the Aesir. The War of The Machines was a constant drain on Midgard’s unfortunately limited resources. Seventy years ago, Dagr had been summoned to Heimdal’s hall and was quickly ushered past the parallel columns of heavily-armored warriors that guarded the gravity lift to the director’s lofty office. Standing straight and completely fearless as the lift drifted lethargically skyward, Dagr looked out over the holographic landscape that was populated by pine trees, towering cliffs, verdant green grass and breath-taking waterfalls. They were testament to an ancient world. Nothing more than a memory, and Dagr stared at the façade with a wistful expression of concealed sorrow. He was relieved when the lift docked with Heimdal’s office and allowed him to disembark. A tall, fair skinned man wearing the black-and-gold uniform of an Aesir administrator was waiting for him, offering an open hand.
“It has been far too long since you’ve graced my hall, Dagr,” Heimdal observed. “I do so miss our conversations of old.”
Then you should have called on me sooner, Dagr thought angrily.
“Aye, Brother. I’ve missed them also.”
“We’ve much to talk of you and I,” Heimdal replied. “Follow me.”
And Dagr had done as requested, walking quietly alongside him as the other duteously studied the massive amount of data that was constantly relayed across a pair of cybernetic glasses. They strolled casually over to the edge of Heimdal’s hall, which consisted of nothing more than twin statues of eagles with outstretched wings and a spartanly adorned desk, resting atop thin sheets of dura-glass. Below them, a deceptively deep chasm swallowed the landscape akin to a monstrous mouth.
“I’m sorry, Dagr. My work never ceases,” Heimdal apologized.
Dagr shrugged. “I understand. We all do. But why don’t you cut to the chase and tell me why I’m here.”
Heimdal smiled. “You’ve always been direct, Brother. Its your most defining characteristic. Let us hope that serves you well.”
“You’ve a new task for me?”
“Aye. One that requires your special talents.”
Dagr laughed. “I wasn’t aware I had any.”
“You never relent, Dagr,” Heimdal explained. “Your determination against the Children of Ymir has earned you a place among our legends. Soon you shall accumulate a reputation as well-known as Thor’s.”
“You place too much honor on my shoulders, Brother.”
Heimdal’s eyes widened. “How so?”
“Three squads of Wolves accompanied me on my many quests,” Dagr explained. “The humans deserve equal praise.”
“Yes…Yes,” Heimdal replied, waving a dismissive hand. “We are all familiar with your fondness for the humans. Perhaps that compassion will mean you’ll agree to my proposal.”
“We’re losing the war, Brother,” Heimdal said softly. “We use much of our dwindling finances to suppress that knowledge, yet ultimately the facts will be known. Our troop movements are seriously hindered by our lack of a consistent energy source to power our transportation vessels. We’ve tapped every geo-thermal vent we’ve found and still we’re desperate for more. We need an answer. We need hope.”
“How can I help you? I am a simple warrior,” Dagr whispered, after a moments pause.
Heimdal nodded. “And only a warrior possesses the tenacity that we require. I need someone who won’t take no for an answer. Someone like you.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“You will take over the supervision and construction of a new prototype collection facility,” Heimdal explained. “You’ll have a team of scientists, engineers and laborers exclusively under your command. Your task is relatively straightforward: harness the power of the sun. Once our people provided entire cities with energy through solar technology. We must do so again.”
Dagr thought for a moment. “That technology was lost along with our civilization, Brother. It cannot be resurrected anymore than the rest of our race.”
“We must. All predictions utilizing the statistics from our energy processing plants, lead us to the same conclusion. We have less than a century. After that, we will be unable to power the heating systems that allow us our… - Heimdal spread both arms out wide - small oasis.”
Looking at the director’s honest expression, Dagr knew he couldn’t refuse. “And I will have unlimited resources at my disposal?”
“No one…meaning myself also, possesses unlimited resources. Yet I will send you everything I can. You mustn’t fail, Brother. Everything depends on you. Today you must start a new legend. We have all heard that you are a prince of war. Now you must apply yourself toward peace. I no longer have need of your sword. Now I need your perseverance.”
The Skinfaxi was christened thirty years later, while all of Midgard watched on holographic displays and cheered wildly. Heimdal declared a day of rest, calling the craft “the dawn of a new age” and publicly praised everyone who’d worked on the top-secret development of the facility. Dagr could still see the smiling faces of the crowd as he shook Heimdal’s hand, later accepting the position of commanding officer. It was a wonderful moment, and he hadn’t experienced such a day since the world’s end. Although the technology was rudimentary, solar collection supplemented the city’s steadily fading energy supply until they eventually stopped falling and started to rise.
“My lord,” Hildr whispered, evidently concerned. “Are you alright?”
Dagr nodded, mentally chastising himself for allowing the past to muddle the present. “Yes. I’m fine, thank you. Please continue.”
Outside of the command center, clearly visible through the window and contrasting sharply against a backdrop of clear skies, metal tendrils of shining silver uncurled from the facility’s arms. Each of them was coated with a thin layer of specially designed mirrors, manufactured through a process that had lain dormant for thousands of years. A dedicated research team, as well as Mimir, - an Aesir data decryption specialist - had explored countless files until they had discovered the correct alloy. It was still another two months until they perfected the fabrication technique. Dagr watched as more tendrils rose toward the heavens, thousands of them waving languidly around each other, twining as one and then separating moments later. The Aesir had once made the foolhardy mistake of telling Hildr that they looked like a horse’s mane, - a creature of the ancient world - and the men had quickly adopted the nickname. Now they waited for the words that would set them to work.
Dagr turned to Hildr and smiled widely, treating the woman to a roguish expression. “Let her loose.”
A female holographic horse - courtesy of a talented crewmen - rose from the floor and stamped noisily, neighing with unmistakable excitement. She reared upward, almost touching the ceiling, and snorted as her mane suddenly caught fire. Then she walked toward one of the nearby terminals and all activity on the view screen ceased. A previously unlit Aesir rune flared to life, mimicking the flames that flickered along the horse’s fiery mane, and the mare turned to look over at the facility’s commanding officer. Her eyes reflected the hungry flames as she stared patiently through Dagr’s own, melding with the Aesir nano-technology that flowed through the other’s bloodstream, and cross referencing DNA against company files.
“Identity acquired, lord,” Hildr commented, seconds later.
Dagr looked over at the holographic horse and nodded. “Proceed.” All of the crewmen paused, watching with anticipation as millions of mirrors along the tendrils outside, twisted on cleverly designed axels until they faced eastward. As the sun’s rays gently caressed the polished exterior of every reflective surface, each tendril was completely enveloped by a resplendent light, so-much-so that even the distant clouds wilted. Each man felt something unique, yet everyone would always confer that not even spring could have summoned such radiance. Only Dagr could have disputed such a claim. The Aesir were the last remnants of the old world. Humanity knew only constant winter.
“Collection process at seventeen percent, lord.”
“Excellent, now we’ll…” Dagr was abruptly silenced as the command center rocked violently sideways, knocking every crewmen accept Hildr to the floor. A loud, shrill alarm echoed from an overhead speaker, momentarily drowning out the sound of a tremendous explosion. The Aesir watched helplessly as twenty of the tendrils outside were consumed by fire and snapped off, falling toward Midgard.
Several large assault drones, modified for long-term flight, flew by the dura-glass window. Although Dagr had observed them for only a moment, he had seen dozens of war-machines clinging precariously to each ship’s underbelly.
“Ymir, lord!” Hildr observed, struggling to be heard over the alarm. “Vulture-Class!”
“Damage Report!” Dagr replied, helping a crewmen to stand.
“We’ve lost power to sectors three and four…losing atmosphere on decks five, nine and seven. I’m activating the primary defensive turrets.”
“Relay a communication to Midgard,” Dagr ordered. “Advise them to evacuate all public open-areas and prepare emergency services.”
A second explosion reverberated throughout the facility’s structure, rattling Dagr’s teeth as that was also followed closely by a third. One of the holographic terminals shut down, leaving only four now operational, and the crewmen who was previously stationed there lay dying on the floor.
“The defensive turrets have been disabled and we’re tracking multiple missiles that will cripple our navigation system. Ten seconds until detoation.”
“Reroute the atmosphere from decks five, nine and seven to both starboard docking bays! Prepare to open them on my command!” Dagr checked the fallen crewman’s pulse. “And get a medical team up here!”
“Five seconds until detonation,” Hildr said loudly.
“Three seconds,” Hildr continued.
Everyone fell over one another as the atmosphere of the docking bays explosively decompressed, propelling the facility to port with a sudden blast of acceleration. Meanwhile, Dagr looked down at the fallen crewman’s eyes and saw they were fixed.
“Cancel the medical team,” Dagr ordered, suddenly weary. “Status?”
“We successfully evaded the missiles by a margin of 4.7 feet, lord,” Hildr replied, smiling despite herself. “An unorthodox, yet undeniably effective manuever”
“Vulture-Class carry only three payloads. However, I doubt they‘re through. Scan the facility’s surface. Look for any non-organic anomalies.”
“War-Machines!” Hildr shouted, moments later. A nearby view screen showed surveillance footage of several goblins crawling along Skinfaxi’s hull.
Dagr walked over to the dura-glass window and watched as-the-now visible antagonists crawled antlike along the surviving tendrils. “We’re only a skeleton crew…and we lack the weaponry to defend ourselves. Issue the order, Hildr. All crew are to follow escape protocols. These people are not warriors.”
“And what shall you do?”
“I think I’ll take a walk,” Dagr replied, smiling slyly. “A little sunshine never hurt anyone.
TO BE CONTINUED. Send me an email (email@example.com) with comments!