Castle Varrich. Scottish Highlands 1010 AD.
Erika the Red split the talisman from the runestones, breaking the celestial compass, ending the five hundred year reign of the Viking. With her final breath, she commanded it be returned to Svalbard and hidden in the ice, the place from whence it came. The warrior queen who’d discovered America five hundred years before Christopher Columbus closed her green and gold eyes for the last time. The prophecy of the talisman was blurred in Scottish myth and Norwegian legend, the world waiting millennia for the next in the bloodline to carry the mark of the Viking in her eyes.
1 Cat & Mouse
From the fury of the Northmen deliver us, O Lord.
Frels oss Herre, frå nordmennene sitt raseri.
Present Day, Sunday 21st December, Svalbard. King Oscar Ice Flows
“Frels oss Herre, frå nordmennene sitt raseri! From the fury of the Northmen deliver us, O Lord!” Runa Erikson shouted, sliding down the handrails on her elbows and heels. Her determination and courage made her Groundswell’s natural leader from the beginning. “At least we know who’s trying to kill us. Help me hide the evidence.”
“Here we go again,” groaned fellow environmentalists Scott McMurdo and Chase Hudson, in hot pursuit from the wheelhouse, as the game of cat and mouse in the Arctic Ocean continued.
“Brace, brace, brace!” yelled the captain, as the submarine made to ram Harrier’s port side.
“Hard to starboard!” the helmswoman hollered, sending plates flying in the galley, rolling the two hundred and eighty foot dive ship on her rail to avoid the collision.
“Where’s that NATO warship?” the captain roared, rising from his knees, watching the sub vanish beneath the iceberg-ridden waters.
“Coming right at us, captain,” warned his dive superintendent, his stare fixed on the gray hull filling the wheelhouse window.
“Sound the collision warning.” The helmswoman lunged at the alarm.
“Negative,” the superintendent overruled. “She’s gunning for the Russian icebreaker on our stern.”
“Good luck following her in that lot.” The captain resumed course for the North Pole. He waived to the destroyer cutting through Harrier’s wash in pursuit of the Russian pirates smashing their way through the pack ice.
There seldom is a single wave.
Ei einsleg bylgje kjem sjeldan åleine.
Sunday 21st December, Svalbard. Oscar II Ice Flows
Harrier entered the ice minefield four hundred miles north of the Pole. Her captain navigated the treacherous passage at three knots, skirting the bergs, brushing the growlers on the one hundred nautical mile journey to the launch site in Svalrak.
“Ei einsleg bylgje kjem sjeldan åleine. There seldom is a single wave,” Runa quoted the Viking Creed, surfacing from beneath the sacks of stolen cargo in the belly of the ship. “They’ll be back,” she warned.
The teenagers took the moment they needed before restoring order to the hiding place of the world’s most precious resource, the contents of the global seed vault, the Ark.
Runa heaved on the nose cone, her friends supporting the body as they returned the rocket payload tube to its cradle. “Groundswell’s environmental mission remains the same,” she hesitated for effect. “but NASA’s died with the start of my growth spurt. We remain one hundred percent focused on launching the Ark into orbit, not dreaming about floating in space and being studied as part of the agency’s weird science project. Right?”
Chase frowned. “Runa, if they find out you’re worthless to the Accelerated Evolution experiment, they will kill their support for our mission too.”
Scott nodded. “Project Bones is all they care about. And it won’t be long before the ship’s medic tells NASA you’ve grown an inch in a week, right Chase?”
“Then let’s hope she snitches on me after the satellite launches.” Runa stopped packing the contraband, even she was having doubts. “Having your growth spurt in zero-G on the International Space Station is the most insane thing I’ve ever heard of. Don’t lose sight of our gameplan. We only agreed to bail NASA in return for their help protecting this stuff. A quid pro quo.”
“Dude, is that Norwegian?” Chase asked.
“Nope,” Scott grumbled. “It’s the worst trade in history. We save NASA’s future by morphing into mutants on the ISS in return for saving a bunch of seeds.”
“It’s the Ark, the world’s food source, not a bunch of seeds.” Runa resumed packing. “If we’re disqualified from the trial because of me, then so be it.”
“I was getting sick of NASA’s Mission-X conditioning program anyway,” Scott lied, “with its constant diet, exercise, and study. The idea of putting three kids into orbit to wait for their bodies to evolve was wild.”
Runa locked eyes with her two best friends. “We still need NASA and their launch sites, so we keep my secret, agreed?”
Her conspirators nodded, Chase vigorously. The son of the legendary diving superintendent Fingers Hudson had everything to prove. “Dude, do you still think stealing the Ark was a good idea?”
“We’re protecting it, with NASA’s help,” Runa replied. A native of her precious Svalbard, she had watched the threat of piracy escalate for years. The global seed vault—the Ark as its Norwegian creators crowned it—was buried deep within Svalbard’s Plata Berget Mountain and guarded the world’s food source in triplicate. But that was before the heist when Groundswell had stolen it first, or at least one of the three copies. The Russian mercenaries had left her with no choice. Groundswell had foiled their plan to steal everything and hold the world to ransom. The chatter on the polar airwaves blamed the Russians for the theft of the priceless haul—property of a hundred and seventy countries—and a NATO warship had been dispatched to investigate.
Scott disguised his nerves with humor. “It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why the Russians have been following us—blackmail. They need the whole Ark.” It was only the second time he’d left his fishing village of Finkle in Scotland, and like his friends he was in it up to his neck.
“They’re not the ones we need to be worried about,” Runa said. “Aquila’s the one to watch.”
“Aquila, the most fanatical treasure hunters on earth.” Chase looked at his friends. “Heck, they own a submarine.”
“Five, and one of them’s following us,” Runa replied. “They bought the entire fleet of Ula class subs from the Norwegian navy, according to the Svalbard Posten. The Nordic cult now controls the world’s most valuable sovereign wealth fund.” Runa hadn’t seen Aquila coming either. Their agents had masqueraded in the Ark as World Food Program inspectors and had almost certainly stolen their copy the same way Groundswell had, through the mountain’s back door in mine three. Chase and the crew of the Harrier had fared no better. Aquila’s leader, Fin Gal, had posed as a naval historian for a week on the dive ship, spying as Chase unraveled the legend of Erika the Red on the seafloor. Aquila’s stealth and resources made the Russians look crude by comparison.
Scott frowned. “Aquila, the Russians, and Groundswell each have a copy of the Ark—”
“—and the NATO warship wants them back,” Chase added.
“NASA launches ours into orbit, the Russians ransom or sell theirs to the highest bidder, but what’s Aquila’s end game?” Scott asked.
“My best guess,” Runa said, “is a return to the old order when the Vikings ruled the world.”
Sunday 21st December, Svalbard. Oscar II Ice Flow
Hand to hand, deck to deck, every available body helped ferry the remaining payload to Groundswell below. The process blurred day into night as the trio packed and NASA prepared for the launch sites.
“Where is NASA’s finest when you need them?” Scott asked. He referred to the agency’s interns sent to monitor the teenage candidates during their month-long recess before returning to space school and the commencement of their astronaut training.
“Pearl says Fox and Sing are beating on the launch crew at Svalrak,” Chase replied.
“And what’s she doing?” Scott asked after his chaperone.
“Promoting Runa’s story on Social,” Chase grinned. Runa winced at the prospect of media attention.
“The world needs to know what Harrier found on the seabed during Operation Red Legend,” Chase continued. “The evidence of American colonization by the Viking five hundred years before Christopher Columbus, and your ancestral link to Erika the Red.”
“Alleged link,” she countered. Runa carried the mark of the Viking in her eyes—one as green as the amethyst she wore around her neck, the other as yellow as Inca gold. Between the bullying and her mother’s sacrifices on the Norwegian mainland, she had paid a heavy price for it. Raised on myth and legend, the local children had been unforgiving. But that was behind her now.
“You can’t kill a legend, but you can spin a story, according to Pearl,” Chase said. “That’s what she promised. Your link to the warrior queen who discovered America is the controversy Groundswell needs to go global. We agreed.”
“It seemed like a good idea at the time,” Runa grumbled. She knew the world thirsted after the macho violent legacy—it wasn’t ready to accept that the most famous Viking in history was a female. “Hopefully Pearl’s spending as much time defusing the international incident we created in Spitzbergen by stealing the Ark. Back to work, guys.”
Fatigue stalked them, pursuing them like a third enemy. Chase’s yawn spread to Scott, but Runa felt great. She’d enjoyed the first full night’s sleep since she could remember because her nightmare had vanished. Her obsession with her ancestry had created the dark dream. Tormented by the visions and robbed of sleep, she’d wake to find the ancient wisdom of the Viking—the Creed—written in her diary. But the nightmare had been vanquished by her mother’s forgiveness. Runa’s only crime was to believe she was responsible for their return to Svalbard because of how she looked. Freed from her guilt, Runa could now follow her destiny.
Groundswell continued splitting, packing, and stashing the cargo. “You think we’re safer doing this at sea than on land?” Scott asked, looking out the porthole into the darkness.
“We need to be ready to transfer the payload and launch the moment we arrive in Svalrak,” Runa replied. “With the warship after the Russians, we look out for the sub.”
“Black sacks for the Svalrak launch site, red for Melness?” Chase asked wearily, too tired for humor.
“Careful,” Runa replied. “Black for both launch sites. We packed the Russian seeds in the red sacks when they threatened to make a last minute withdrawal from the Ark. Put them to one side; we’ll leave them to last.”
“Black Russians, Red Svalrak,” Chase acknowledged, his body functioning, his mind asleep.
The trio crammed the tubes bound for Svalrak with the precious seeds. Thousands of foil sachets sparkled like diamonds, their luster only lost as each of the six launch tubes was capped with its nose cone, the hypnotic routine completed without spilling a single seed.
Scott slumped onto the mountain of black sacks next to Runa’s husky sleeping on the red pile. “Shall we start on the Scottish launch tubes?” he asked wearily, as the ship’s medic appeared at the doorway. Marina eyed the teenagers with concern.
“Yes,” Runa said. To prepare the payload for fast flight was Groundswell’s priority.
“No,” Aqua Marina countered. They had to eat, sleep, and repeat their Mission-X chores. That was the commitment she’d made to NASA before and after her protégé Chase had suffered from dehydration. She wouldn’t fail him again.
Runa knew it was only a matter of time before Marina would inform NASA of her growth spurt—revealing her deception and secret—the news that disqualified Groundswell from NASA’s orbital experiment and guaranteed her friends were focused on protecting the Ark.
Marina supervised the mealtime then lured Runa’s husky Flint out of Harrier’s sickbay with a pancake, the only place she could guarantee the trio a good night’s sleep. She dimmed the lights, gathered NASA’s files, and tiptoed into the observation office to update the agency.
Midnight loomed. Marina hesitated before pressing send, staring at the manila envelopes marked Mariner, Highlander, and Viking. She returned to the child’s file that concerned her the most—Candidate Viking. NASA used their gaming handles from Season Nine, the world’s favorite online game, hijacked by the space agency to snare the team of tough, competent, teenagers for their theoretical experiment. Designed to cheat Mother Nature, Accelerated Evolution morphed a candidate’s DNA to survive the rigors of deep space on one condition: the selected adolescent had to experience their growth spurt in zero-G. Marina snapped the file closed. According to the body mass index and height charts, Runa Erikson’s growth spurt had already started, so it was game over for Groundswell.
She hit send, but not before keeping Runa’s secret. The only way Marina’s protegee Chase Hudson was getting off that ship was via the NASA scholarship.
The high-pitched squeal of a sharpie interrupted her dictation. She stood to investigate, peering through the partitioned window at her patients.
Runa knelt on the floor, eyes closed, her talisman in one hand, sharpie in the other, scribbling on the wall. Marina approached silently. Careful not to wake the girl from her dreamlike state, she watched her drop the marker, then the talisman, and curl into a ball. Marina rested a cushion under her head, covered her shoulders with a blanket, and sat by her side as the tears flowed down Runa’s cheeks.
It was clear to Marina that her patient was hiding more than just the lie.
4 Beauty & Light
Monday 22nd December, Svalrak. Spitzbergen
Chase was the first to stir, woken by Harrier’s main engine as it changed pitch, slowing. Scott groaned loudly, roused by the creak of the sickbay door as it opened. Fox balanced a tray of fruit and fresh coffee as he entered. The apples hit the floor one by one as he stared at the scrawl on the sickbay walls, every inch covered in the same two star constellations.
Runa gave them the warning look. She couldn’t explain it either.
Groundswell wolfed down their Vegan breakfast and avoided any talk of the cosmic graffiti. They reported to the wheelhouse and stared out the window in awkward silence as Harrier crept north through the Kongs Fjord. The moonlight shadow, the only glimmer of light in the eternal darkness of the polar winter, played tricks on their eyes, bathing the desolate glaciers and frozen fjords flanking their passage in an unworldly glow.
Runa welcomed the distraction from the talk of her drawings, willing the ice harbor’s appearance that would mark their arrival at the launch site.
“I thought you said your nightmare had vanished?” Chase finally asked.
“It’s gone without a trace, thanks to you and NASA’s search engine, DeepSix, cracking the Viking Riddle,” Runa replied. His relentless research of her ancestry had proved that the legend of Erika the Red was real, but it had nothing to do with the disappearance of the dark dream that had tortured her for years.
“But I haven’t cracked the riddle yet,” Chase said. “The trail led to Varrich in Scotland, where it died along with the reign of the Viking era in 1010 AD.”
“Are you going to explain why you turned the sickbay into a celestial map?” Scott asked.
Runa steadied herself against the bridge. It was time to tell them. NASA, and now Chase, had forensically analyzed her past. But his obsession with proving Erika the Red’s impossible journeys had cut the deepest. “I think I know how she did it—Erika the red, goddess of beauty and light.”
“Did what?” Scott asked.
“How she made the two thousand mile journey from Newfoundland to Varrich five hundred years before the invention of the marine compass—”
“Forland Straits, we’re close!” announced Aqua Marina at the helm, saving Runa from the revelation.
“Not close enough,” Fingers Hudson said, passing her the ship’s binoculars.
The trio squinted aft, searching for the sub, spying the Russian icebreaker appearing out of the darkness.
“What happened to the NATO warship?” Chase asked his father, reaching for his inhaler.
“She followed the icebreaker into a trap. Foolhardy, but nothing that the summer melts can’t fix. Chase, wake the captain.” Fingers called the radio room. “Hershey, hail the skipper of the Ice Maiden. Invite her to pass on our port side before we reach the Sarstangen pack ice.”
“Copy that,” Hershey replied, forgetting to mute the game.
Captain Voss arrived in the bridge, impeccably dressed in his night robe, and joined the command. The silence over the airways goaded them.
“Negative contact, captain.” Hershey sounded exasperated, digital swords clashing in the background.
“Continue to hail them in five-minute intervals. And Hershey! Quit the game!” Fingers shouted.
Voss straightened his hat and stared at his crew in the wheelhouse as the Ice Maiden matched Harrier’s course and speed, five hundred meters off her stern.
When arrived at the goal, one should not turn back. Snu ikkje attende om målet er nådd.
The Sarstangen ice fields flattened, surrendering to the sea of Greenland, marking Harrier’s arrival in Svalrak, three hundred miles from the North Pole.
The launch site was alive with activity as NASA readied their alien-looking equipment for fast flight. The telescopic tower was fully extended, boosters were spewing gas, and the launch stack smoked like a chimney in the minus forty as it waited impatiently for Harrier’s payload.
“Take her as close as you dare to the ice, Marina,” Captain Voss said to his helmswoman. “The faster the transfer, the better.”
Any whiff of action and diving duo Ace and Blades volunteered. Fingers’ men launched the port and starboard transfer boats in an explosion of water.
Dressed in full survival suits, Groundswell grimaced as the divers maneuvered the rigid inflatables under NASA’s Canada Arm and waited to receive the most valuable payload on Earth.
Runa waited with Chase in Ace’s boat for the first silver payload tube to be lowered. All three braced and shielded their eyes as Harrier’s powerful spotlights guided the drop. The sea smoked with cold anger, goading them to make a mistake.
“At least the water’s flat ass calm,” Ace said, the moment the crane slings slackened, their keel riding deep in the water. He revved the engine as the silhouette of a second ship loomed. Runa wrapped her arm around the bowline and urged Ace to hurry over the licorice black water.
NASA deployed their crane line before Ace’s boat kissed the ice harbor wall. The scream of the winch confirmed the payload was away. The single red flash from Ace confirmed to Blades they should repeat the exercise another five times despite the Russian ship stalking ever closer.
The Maiden’s searchlight raked the launch site, probing the ice harbor, its beam glinting off the titanium payload.
“What are they waiting for?” Chase asked.
“For us to finish,” Runa said. “But they don’t know what we’re offloading. It could be anything as far as they’re concerned, rocket fuel, supplies, why would they suspect it’s the Ark?”
NASA fired a green flare from the jetty the moment the sixth tube was lifted from Ace’s boat. Runa flinched at the signal confirming they should re-join Harrier and retreat to Prins Island. The fate of the Ark was now in the hands of the space agency.
The voice from NASA Wallops filled Harrier’s bridge with the sound of seasoned confidence. “Harrier, this is Svalrak mobile launch control. Radio check. Over.”
“Wallops, Harrier reads you loud and clear. Over.” Chase replied.
“EISCAT Radar, this is Wallops launch control. Confirm system status. Over.”
The voice of Runa’s mother from the Breinosa mountain broke the silence of the airwaves. “Copy that, Wallops. EISCAT confirms all tracking systems are GO. We are GO for launch. Over.”
Runa no longer felt anxiety at the sound of her mother’s voice. A new calmness embraced her as she approached the wheelhouse window. She stared at the sinister ship closing on the ice harbor.
“They know,” Scott said, zooming the binoculars in on the Russian ship. “Somehow, they’ve figured out the payload is the Ark.”
“Impossible,” Runa replied. “Only we knew the plan.”
“Based on what we’ve witnessed over the last month, nothing’s impossible,” Chase remarked.
“Then NASA better have a plan B,” Runa said. “Because for the first time in my life, I’m out of options.”
Wallops issued the warning. “Ice Maiden, Ice Maiden, you are entering a red zone. We advise you to retreat to a safe distance of two thousand meters immediately. End of Message.”
Runa watched in horror through the binoculars as the Russians dropped anchor and prepared their launches.
“Ground crew, confirm payload tube Alpha One is loaded. Over.”
“Alpha One is good to go. All systems are GO, Wallops. Over.”
Harrier arrived in the safe zone, two thousand meters from the ice harbor.
“Wallops confirms all systems are green. We are GO for countdown. EISCAT, launch in T minus five minutes.”
Faces and cell phones filled every porthole on Harrier’s starboard side. Pressed hard against the glass, they squinted for the best view. The wheelhouse remained in darkness, except for the green glow of instrumentation. The tension was unmistakable as the voice of NASA echoed over the tannoy, counting down.
Runa passed the binoculars to Scott and Chase. “Here they come!”
“But they’re already at anchor?” Chase was confused.
Scott squinted through the glasses midway between Harrier and the Ice Maiden. “Oh my giddy aunt.”
The submarine resurfaced.
“Nothing they can do now,” Runa said defiantly. “Focus on the Russians.”
“T minus sixty seconds.” The tannoy announced.
Scott whispered to Runa. “To think we could have been riding the mother of all rockets to the ISS for NASA’s crazy experiment in a few months.”
“Ain’t happening, dude,” said Chase. “We’re of no interest to them now that Viking’s had her growth spurt.”
“Guys, keep it down,” Runa looked concerned. “If the Russians launch their boats, Wallops will cancel the launch.”
The flash hit Harrier before the sonic boom ricocheted off her hull, sending all but Voss and Runa to their knees. The launchpad erupted in anger, changing from tar black to an explosion of fire on ice. Every pain of glass vibrated. Every loose object moved as the sound of rocketry clashed with the spectacle of light. The payload gained speed exponentially, screaming its way through the perfect night sky, seeking polar orbit, avenging gravity. The trio gripped each other gleefully. Groundswell’s impossible mission was now a reality. Their gaze returned to sea level, where the Russian ship spun against her broken anchor and the sub had vanished.
“Wallops, this is EISCAT radar. We have trajectory control,” Fraya Erikson confirmed. “Alpha One’s altitude ten thousand meters. Systems amber. Repeat amber. Trajectory three degrees off plan. Over.”
“Copy that EISCAT. Houston is monitoring.”
“Five degree divergence on plan. Fifteen thousand miles an hour, increasing. Two minutes until—” Fraya’s voice sounded distracted. “Flight. EISCAT has lost contact with Alpha One.”
“Copy that EISCAT. Standby—” The sound of hesitation and confused voices was followed by an agonizing delay.
The explosion seared the sky like a Saharan sun, transforming the polar region from deep winter darkness to piercing daylight. Silence enveloped Harrier’s bridge, her windows iced over as the heavens flashed blue green like the Northern Lights. The cosmos darkened, choked by a fog of NASA’s making.
“EISCAT, this is Launch. Houston confirms mission failure. Stand down. Obey Radio Silence.” Wallops confirmed the worst possible outcome.
Runa stood silently. The lights in the wheelhouse flashed on. Scott’s jaw gaped. His face was ashen white. Chase slumped into the nearest chair. He puffed on his inhaler, his father’s hand on his shoulder. The realization that space travel was neither safe nor easy etched was into all.
Runa quoted from the Creed in the playbook that had got them this far. “Snu ikkje attende om målet er nådd.” When arrived at the goal, one should not turn back.
Captain Voss stared at the radar and addressed the Bridge. “We can’t stay here—” his words interrupted by the Ice Maiden’s collision horn vibrating through Harrier’s hull.
Marina pitched the ship hard to starboard.
The Ice Maiden swung her battering ram meters off the dive ship’s stern at full speed.
Harrier rocked violently in the wash and the wheelhouse heard the sound of Teflon’s deck crew exchanging insults with the jeering Russian sailors.
“What’s their hurry?” Fingers asked.
“That,” Captain Voss pointed at the NATO warship appearing on the horizon, firing a shot over the Russian bow, chasing her into the ice flows. “South to Varrich, Scotland. Now!” He ordered.
The radio dismissed Runa’s protest. “Harrier, this is EISCAT. Do you copy?” The voice of Fraya Erikson crackled over the speaker.
“Radio silence EISCAT!” demanded Wallops launch control.
“Bright sky tonight! Seks lanseringer å gå.” Six launches to go, Fraya said, ignoring them.
Fraya’s message contained their safe words, her last statement confirming the launch sequence remained unchanged.
All but Runa looked confused.
“Full speed to Varrich,” Runa said, a wry smile transforming her face.