Erik the Red unleashed fire and fury from Svalbard, the land of the banished Viking. Sacking Iceland, vanquishing Greenland, he colonized Vinland—land of the vines—named by Amerigo Vespucci, claimed by Christopher Columbus, and crowned America half a millennium later.
The victorious Viking set sail for Norway in a fleet of dragonships weighed down by the treasure of conquest, but none was more valuable than the talisman—the mystical runestone by which he navigated.
Mother Nature was in no mood to ease their passage, unleashing the storm of storms, shredding sails, and shattering masts. She devoured all but Erik the Red’s ship in the Labrador straights.
With the proof of conquest lost, he abandoned course and made for Bruich in Alba, the land where it all began. The last of the sea warriors stormed the former Scottish stronghold, craving the sacred place. The banished Viking knelt in the home of the runes and held the talisman aloft. Vengeance flamed in the green and gold of Erik’s eyes as he pointed his sword at the heavens, demanding answers from the gods themselves.
The legend of the runestones was lost to millennia, blurred by Scottish myth and Norwegian legend. Until the girl with the green and gold eyes returned.
1 Kill House
Friday 29th November AM: World Wide Web
Folkvan, Hall of the Slain, where the souls of female warriors
who died nobly in battle are received. Folkvan, Odin sin hall, der sjelene til vikingar
som fell i edel kamp havner.
Fear not death, for the hour of your doom is set and none may escape it. Frykt ikkje dauden, for timen kjem, og ingen kan flykte unna. Runa Erikson savored the second rule of The Viking Creed – the hundred rules she lived, loved and fought by. Folkvan, Folkvan, Folkvan. She repeated the word three times in her head. The meaning gave her the strength to continue with the game – Hall of the Slain, where the souls of female warriors who died nobly in battle are received. The Creed, written by the hand of her ancestors it had got them this far. With the passing of millennia, myth and legend had blurred fact into fiction; creating a fearsome Viking legacy in a man’s world, but Runa aimed to fix that.
One day the killing, the bloodlust and deceit would end. But today was not that day.
“This changes everything,” Viking cursed, her chest heaving, the glow from her battle axe declaring their position. Runa was here to fight to the death, like the rest of them. But if Mariner was right, they were already dead.
“It sucks when your rescuers are sent to kill you,” Mariner warned again, this time without cussing. His face sprawled in the dirt next to hers. “Dude, look on the bright side. Death is good for the ratings.”
“Call me that again, and I swear—”
“Man, y’all Norwegians have zero sense of humor.” Mariner checked himself for fall damage, spitting blood on the ground.
“Repay treachery with lies,” Highlander grumbled, inching his way towards their voices in the darkness, his weapon smoking. “It explains why they keep coming. There are no winners in this game. We should blow our ‘friends’ out of the sky, if they ever arrive.”
“One last attack, one last wave. That’s what we figured,” Viking said. Everything they’d trained for, everything they stood for, came down to this moment, yet she’d missed it. The double-cross. One central truth—survival—surrounded by a hundred lies. There were no rules in the finale. Mariner had been right from the start; Highlander too. But Groundswell could still succeed, even as death circled them like vultures; The environmental movement craved controversy, its membership depended on it. And Runa would use Groundswell to change the way the world thought. Her ancestors weren’t marauders. They were fisherfolk with crofts, and crofters with boats, hounded from their shores for the way they looked. Not as victims, but explorers they had found new worlds and achieved the impossible. It was the injustice of it all that flowed through her veins like fire and made her Viking.
“Y’all Scots are only happy when you’re miserable,” Mariner said, looking for his wingman in the chaos of the derelict building.
“Aye, and you Americans have an answer for everything. So, make me happy by zipping it.”
“Chill!” Viking demanded.
The stress of battle lurked behind her team’s humor. High adrenaline masked their nerves and fatigue dulled their senses. But the playbook—their code of conduct—their Creed and its thousand year old wisdom—wouldn’t fail them now. “Ho døyr utan ære som lever utan styring. She who lives without discipline dies without honor.”
“Dude, isn’t it he who lives?”
“Enough!” Viking snapped, furious at the way history had exploited the Creed. One day she’d prove the wisdom was written by a woman.
“I’m just saying,” Mariner replied defensively. He’d follow his leader into battle without hesitation. The fact she was a girl never crossed his mind.
Viking buried her axe, plunging the room into inky darkness. “Weapons, ammunition, life systems check. Now!”
“Aye, Aye, Cap. I’m on your left side,” Highlander confirmed, checking his bolt-action sniper’s rifle. “Fifty-cal intact. Five rounds. Life systems fifty percent. It was a hard landing.”
“Dude, same. I took some heat covering Highlander’s ass back there,” Mariner scoffed before his wingman could protest. “I’m still on your right, boss.”
“Gives me centerstage.” Viking checked her weapons, whispered the instructions, and issued the warning. “Heavy shotgun, rocket-launcher, two shots each. Life systems, eighty percent. We’ll need to rock-paper-scissors to balance energy levels. Contact imminent. Cover the windows. I’ve got the door. Highlander, you take the left. Weapons low and ready. Standby for the counterattack.”
The situation stank like a rotting corpse. Her team was right - nobody was getting out alive. The injustice burned through Runa’s veins. Ho veit kvar vegane går som har sett og lidd mykje. She who has seen and suffered much, knows the ways of the world. She would take their enemy with her to the afterlife.
Det har ein årsak, alt som skjer. Everything happens for a reason. The alarm bell went off in Viking’s head. The Creed cautioned. Surely, Runa could salvage something. Three questions circled; would their rescuers finally reveal themselves? And if so, could they help with Groundswell’s insane mission? But mostly, was it all worth it?
Viking remembered to breathe. She knew that their every move, every word, every doubt was being analyzed. A thousand eyes watched, millions by now. The spectators thirsted for controversy.
“Y’all hear the booming music down the street? Man, it’s messing with my head,” Mariner complained.
“Not your genre then? Guess it beats the cap’s playlist,” Highlander teased.
“What? Her ‘hands in the air’ rave music? It might be appropriate if this play doesn’t work,” Mariner winced.
Highlander’s voice turned serious. “The music’s a decoy. Hud your tongue; listen, it’s stopped. They’re close.”
Viking rolled to her side, avoiding the smoldering launcher, rehearsing the play in her mind. “Guys, all I can hear is an American heartbeat and Scottish banter. Both of you calm it, else we’re going to make a mistake. This isn’t the first time we’ve been here, but it will be the last if you don’t trust our playbook.”
“Dude, that thing you shout, when you do crazy—” Mariner queried.
“Folkvan,” Viking answered.
“What’s it mean?”
“Hall of the Slain,” Viking explained. “Where the souls of female warriors who died nobly in battle are received. Norse Mythology.”
“I thought that was Valhalla?”
“A men’s club, hijacked by history.”
“Why’s it not in the playbook?”
“Nobody wants the truth that women ruled the world. And I don’t do myth and legend,” she lied. Before they’d met, all she’d done was trawl the internet searching for clues about her ancestry. Her nightmares that delivered the Creed and robbed Runa of sleep had to stop. The answers were out there in the Ether. “On my mark, sixty seconds. Feel the vibration in your hands. They’re coming. The final fight.”
Month after month, battle after battle, house to house, hand to hand, it had come down to this.
Muzzle flashes illuminated their excuse for shelter as Viking called the play. “Enemy’s close range. Small arms. They’re light on weaponry. Woah! Airblast! RPG!” She’d made her first mistake.
The rocket-propelled grenade obliterated the upper deck. Rafters burned, lighting the room, as embers rained down on them like fireflies.
“Called that one wrong, dude!” Mariner grimaced, staring at the stars through the ceiling.
“For Odin sin kjærleik. For the love of Odin,” Viking cussed. “Watch those timbers. Kick out those fires,” she warned, as the rest of the roof collapsed, forcing them to roll left and right.
“Down!” Mariner yelled, as heavy machine gun fire wreaked havoc through the room at waist height. “The threat’s on us, man.”
“Nothing like stating the obvious,” Highlander said, flicking his weapon off safety.
“Guys, their triangle of fire has failed,” Viking announced, seizing the initiative in the moment of silence that followed. “Three Uglies reloading. Break out now! Window, window, door!”
Viking knew it was down to muscle memory. Nothing more could save them now.
“Aye, Cap. I have visual,” Highlander trained his weapon. “Two targets acquired. Ugly one at one-eighty degrees, a thousand yards out. Ugly two at two-seventy degrees, closer by half. But I cannae take both. Engaging Ugly one now. Snap!”
“Copy that, Highlander. Ugly two’s mine.” Mariner’s nerves distorted his voice. “Eyeballed Ugly three. He’s coming at us full frontal. Boss, you fix?”
“Copy that. Ugly three’s mine,” Viking confirmed, taking up position behind the door. “Guys, call your kills. Be my eyes.”
“Cap, this joker’s got auto-aim,” Highlander warned. “I’m down to my last two rounds. I need to lure him out with a decoy shot. Steady does it. Ugly one down. I’m out of ammo!” Highlander shouted, crouching behind the remnants of the wall.
“Dude, Ugly two’s shooting round corners. Sounds like a Gatling. A hundred yards out. I’m switching to semi-auto. Mariner dived to avoid the heavy machinegun peppering the bricks around them before returning fire recklessly, missing his target. He kissed his last bullet and dialed in the new range. He prepared to loose off the round, talking himself through the killing process, before squeezing the trigger from first to second stage. “Steady, breathe, psych, understand this—Ugly two neutralized. I’m out.”
She knew it was now or never. All eyes were on her. A million voices were yelling Kill at the screen. She had one image in her brain. One thing on her mind. “Heads down, stay down!” Viking warned, bracing herself against the back wall. Betre det er i strid å falle om enn å leve utan von. Better to fight and fall than to live without hope. Runa would change the world for good and fight injustice like her misunderstood ancestors. She just had to figure out how.
“Too close,” Highlander whispered urgently.
His captain removed the safety with a click, aiming the launcher at the door.
“Runa, don’t!” Too late, he realized he’d named her.
Her cover blown, she snapped out of her killing trance. “That one’s on you, Scott,” she grumbled, making the same mistake.
Friday 29th November AM: The Ether
One must howl with the wolves one is among. Ein lyt tute med dei ulvar som er ute.
Their identities revealed, their call names abandoned, the teenagers entered a new world of risk. Runa knew she was exposed—they all were, due to her friend’s slip-up. The GameMaster was now free to profile their private lives, along with spectators and the rest of the world. “Tenn eld med eld. Light fire with fire,” Runa Erikson said, squeezing the trigger. The RPG’s exhaust tail thrust her forward, the point blank blast launching her back, surprising their assailant at the instant she needed to reload. But she found herself facing the back wall, life systems wailing, frantically searching for the launcher. Her gameplay crumbled along with the building. Her fingertips found the axe as the enemy bore down, and her hand closed around its wooden shaft in the darkness. The marauder’s footsteps quickened. Runa acted on instinct, hurling the ancient weapon backward toward the hole that was the door and awaited her fate.
The double-headed axe spun wildly, blade over shaft, accelerating through the air. Its razor-sharp edges sought, found, and impaled the marauder swooping in for the kill, sending its murderous intentions to the grave.
Runa got the second she needed. Her team was right, they were doomed. It was more than a feeling; betrayal approached. Yet the Creed goaded her. The flame of vengeance flickered in the green and gold of her eyes. “Søk noko, risiker alt.” Seek something, risk everything, she whispered, reminding herself of the gameplay she’d yet to write.
Mariner was the first to speak, hamming up his American accent. “Cover’s blown now, dude. Just like the door. Y’all thinking ratings?”
“My bad, Chase. Rats!” Scott repeated the mistake, rolling the r’s of his apology in his gruff Scottish accent.
“Share the love, dude. We’re all out in the open now.” Chase tossed the empty rifle.
“Crackerjack play by Runa,” Scott said sarcastically, pushing through the debris.
“Amen to that. The Dude didn’t see it coming. Gonna dance on its grave for the ratings?” Chase asked, the American dusting himself off.
“Guys, chill. It’s all about the rescue now. We need the maximum number of spectators for the sake of Groundswell.”
“What are up against now?”
“Rather who?” Scott murmured.
Runa had a hunch who was trying to kill them, yet this was not time for discussion. “Det er ikkje langt til ulvens tenner der ulvens øyrer er. Where wolfs ears are, wolf's teeth are near.” She picked out the launcher from the debris and disguised its broken trigger. She stood for the first time since they’d entered the kill house and checked her visual feed. Her voice laced with suspicion. “Life systems check.”
Groundswell thirsted for controversy. The membership craved it. With her last breath, she’d give it to them, with or without a weapon.
“Dude, twenty percent.”
“I’m also showing twenty percent after the blast damage. So our life signs are even. It means they can’t extract a clear winner,” Runa confirmed, breathing deeply to control her heart rate.
Scott joined his leader, flexing his hands as he looked to the artificial night sky. “Did you feel that? Thunder?”
“Rotors! Airborne rescue.” Chase’s voice.
“Extraction,” Runa corrected him. “Guys, we stick to the plan.”
“A or B?” Scott asked, already knowing the answer.
“B. Always B.” Runa patted the launcher. “This makes me the negotiator. The stakes have never been higher. If we’re going to do this, we need to vote.
Battle or no battle, they stuck to the Viking creed laid down in their playbook. That’s what made them different, and that’s what made them winners.
“Are we really going to do this?” Chase asked excitedly.
“We vote,” Runa replied. “Hand on heart for go, head for no. After three, two, one—” The trio closed their eyes and voted for the hundredth time.
Runa took three short breaths. Swept along in the moment, she thought of her ancestors, hounded from the shores of the mainland. The pain of her childhood and the injustice returned—she too carried the mark of the Viking in the green and gold of her eyes. She felt the anger welling inside her as she quoted the Creed. “Ein lyt tute med dei ulvar som er ute. One must howl with the wolves one is among.” Her voice as cold as Viking steel for the benefit of the blood-lusting spectators
“In the next life!” They repeated their pact, pledging allegiance to Groundswell with their customary three-fingered salute to the heart.
“Die well,” she muttered, gifting her friends the shotgun and two rounds. Axe in one hand, broken launcher in the other, she yelled the war cry of the Viking. “Folkvan!”
“Gold is the falsest of friends. Stick to the plan Runa!” Scott shouted after her.
“Man, we’re so busted. They’re so onto us,” Chase said, picking up the weapon of last resort and watching their friend charge into digital darkness.
3 Tough & Competent
Friday 29th November AM: Mission-X Game Control, Houston, Texas
“Houston, this is Evac One Ten. We have a problem. Over.”
“We read you loud and clear One Ten. Over.”
“Houston. No eyes on the prize. Repeat. Nobody to extract. It could be heavy camouflage or an invisibility play. Over.”
“Copy that One Ten. Standby,” Sky Symphony confirmed. She had everything to prove and everything to lose in NASA. The rookie flight director looked up at the tinted glass panel, as the heart of the agency looked down. The two silhouettes would have been invisible were it not for the aura of white light behind them. The founders of the Mission-X selection process surveyed their experiment. Their door wedged open, guaranteeing them a fast exit.
“Better not muck this up for me,” she murmured, her stare returning to the array of screens encircling her team. Hand-picked, barely out of high school, yet playing a vital role in command of assets on the ground, the rookie punched the ‘all stations override’ button, seizing control of the communications channel, and requested their status. “Settle down people. Months of planning comes down to this moment. Let’s go to work. Going around the horn—”
“Surgeon is go!”
“PAO is go!”
“Flight is go!”
“Evac One Ten is go!”
“Go all the way,” Flight confirmed into her headset, snatching a look at the smoked glass as the rescue began.
Surgeon, the operations doctor, waivered over her console which was flashing amber.
PAO, the public affairs officer rocked, his brow glistening as his console changed, pulsing red.
Evac One Ten, the pilot, fifteen hundred miles away, closed his visor, bearing down on the trio.
“Surgeon. Confirm target life signs?”
“Confirming three heartbeats. Status 20%, 20%, 20%.”
The flight director sighed. “No clear winner then.”
“Houston. Evac One Ten is sixty seconds from the rendezvous point. Requesting orders. Over.”
The rookie’s eyes returned to the glass as if she knew. The whole team was in it up to their necks, swimming in risk. Mission-X’s funding was in jeopardy and its future rested on her shoulders. Flight glanced up for a final time, her mentor’s invisible stare burning down.
“One Ten, this is Flight. Prepare for a single evac. Prime hellfire for launch. Over.”
“Houston. Confirm order. Is evac for one friendly? Over.”
“Affirmative, One Ten. Rescue only the leader.”
“Copy that, Houston. Over and out.”
Flight hit PAO’s intercom. “Confirm the number of Snitch spectators? We need to think of witnesses.”
The Snitch app allowed the agency to spy on the candidates from every angle using random spectator battlefield footage. It gave Mission-X their edge, but it guaranteed the world was watching Groundswell.
“Millions,” PAO confirmed, his voice sounding faint. “It’s gonna be a public relations disaster.”
“Let’s just hope it doesn’t come back on us,” Flight muttered offline.
“One Ten. Offer friendly half a million US dollars for a single evac,” Flight instructed.
“Copy that, Houston. We confirm a friendly has broken cover. A single figure, standing on what’s left of the second floor. Wielding an axe? Over.”
All eyes were on Flight and her orders. The veneer of youth masked her cold intentions. Her career had barely started, yet her future with the agency was sinking.
The crackle from One Ten’s radio broke sixty seconds of silence. “Houston. Offer made, but we have weapons lock on us! Over.”
“Copy that, One Ten. Standby.”
The Mission-X control room fell silent. “Gimme all ya got, PAO,” Flight announced, looking directly at the public affairs guru who was feasting on his nails and turning a shade whiter, remaining mute as the command facility descended into newsroom chaos. Flight waved her hands in the air, returning her team’s attention to the battle lines. “Keep the chatter down! One Ten, confirm reaction to offer.”
“No reaction, Houston. Zero response. And we still have weapons lock on us. Over.”
“Copy that. Standby, One Ten.”
“PAO. Request to increase offer to one million US dollars. Contact Nine for authorization,” Flight demanded.
PAO nervously made the call.
Nine was the force of good within the agency, a secret organization within the organization, headed by the two silhouettes. They conferred. “Flight’s a hothead alright,” said Professor Cornelius Allbright, the agency’s chief scientist.
“The best kind,” replied Huck Chambers, his deputy.
“Yet our candidate, Viking, is as cool as the icy land she comes from,” the professor approached the opaque glass and stared at the cinema-sized screen.
Chambers approved the offer and checked their exit. “Let’s see how this plays out.”
“Building 9 authorizes one million US dollars for the rescue,” PAO confirmed. “For the leader only.”
Flight relayed the offer. Her voice was devoid of emotion. “One Ten. Offer friendly one million dollars, for a single evac.”
“Copy that, Houston. Over.”
Mission control held its collective breath.
“Houston. The friendly has made contact. It sounds like it’s a kid. A girl. Over.”
“Affirmative, One Ten. Confirm response to offer?” Flight sounded unsurprised.
“Negative response to offer, Houston. She’s demanding a pass for three. Over.”
“Drop smoke and launch flare countermeasures. Show her this is no longer a game.”
“Copy that, Houston. One Ten out.”
“This is ridiculous!” Flight shouted to PAO across the room, ripping off her headset, glaring at the gallery window. “I’m calling Nine direct.”
Sky Symphony killed the call as the silhouettes stalled for time. “This is all going south,” she murmured, ignoring her vibrating cell and the banging from behind the black glass.
“One Ten. Offer nine million dollars. Repeat. Nine million US dollars. Pass for one. Final offer. Over.”
“Copy that, Houston.”
Thirty long seconds passed before the air force extraction team responded. “Houston? The friendly, the girl? She hurled the axe!”
“One Ten. Drop hellfire. Bug out. Finish this now!”
“Copy that, Houston. Dropping hellfire.”
The blast wave of silence overwhelmed Mission-X’s control suite, shattered seconds later by the pilot. “Houston. The last thing the girl yelled was Folkvan?”
Sky Symphony slumped into her seat as the pilot’s voice disappeared, his words still reverberating around the room. Her controllers looked towards their screens blankly. “Shame, I kinda liked her style. Runa Erikson,” she murmured, looking towards the smoked glass, closing the file marked Viking. The whirr of the air-conditioning replaced the sound of radio static as the command center drowned in white noise.
The men behind NASA turned to face each other. The professor spoke in a low and calculated tone. “That was our unbreakable team,” he pointed at the darkened screens. “Of tough, competent, teenagers.”
“I just hope hijacking the world’s most popular game to find them was worth it,” Chambers replied, redialing Sky’s cell. “I have a job in mind for our rising star, the rookie.”
His call was interrupted by the alarm swamping the room in sound and blue flashing light. Heads rose on both sides of the glass as the computerized voice rang out. “Cover broken, evacuate Mars mission control center immediately.”
“We’re busted!” Chambers said.
“We always were,” the professor said.
Friday 29th November AM: Spitzbergen, Svalbard, North Pole
To be without silver is better than to be without honor. Betre pengelaus enn ærelaus.
Svalbard. Land of the Banished Viking. Home to the descendants of Erik the Red and Lucky Leif Erikson.
Runa Erikson engaged the emergency power in KHO observatory manually and was back online—a task she’d learned four years before at the tender age of ten. You grow up fast living at the end of the world. The outage, and the storms that were responsible for it, were daily occurrences in midwinter Spitzbergen, the largest in Svalbard’s archipelago of small frozen islands. It was a remote, mysterious, and extreme land, forged by ice, wind, and sea, five hundred miles from the North Pole.
She sat in the observatory’s radio room, gluten-free taco in one hand, caffeine-free coffee in the other, and commanded the virtual assistant, “Call Groundswell.”
“Connecting you now, please wait,” responded the smooth electronic female voice. Runa used the delay to check the environmental monitors. Internal temperature +19C. External -38C. Wind speed 70mph, forecast 140mph by 9pm. Sunrise: none. Sunset: none. Three solid months of polar blackness tricked day into night, returning all but the hardiest of souls to wherever they called home. She glanced at the station clock—just enough time for the detour and to arrive at her destination, the Ark.
The Global Seed Vault, or the Ark as the Norwegians called it, was tunneled deep into the Plata Berget Mountain. It concealed the most valuable room on Earth—the world’s food source, protecting every seed, for every crop, from every country on the planet.
Runa’s thoughts were interrupted by the grinning faces of Scott McMurdo and Chase Hudson flickering on the comms screens.
“Gaming is good!” The trio of fourteen year olds chorused the catchphrase, pledging allegiance to Groundswell, their environmental movement, with the customary three-fingered salute to the heart.
“Betre pengelaus enn ærelaus. To be without silver is better than to be without honor,” announced the leader, Runa’s face expressionless as she quoted the Viking Creed enshrined in their playbook. She stared at the two faces on the display and counted on her fingers. Including her parenting tribe, and the chained beast outside, made for only six souls on the planet that she trusted.
It had been three hours since the teenagers had bombed out of Season 9, the world’s most popular game, leaving both the players and organizers wondering if the risks were worth it.
“What happened to plan B, Runa?” Scott asked. “We’d agreed to down any chopper with the launcher.”
“Lat ikkje fienden få fred eller kvile. Make no truce or treaty with foes.” Runa hesitated. They didn’t need to know she’d broken the launcher, anyway abandoning plan B and sparing the enemy ensured her team were the ethical winners. Den kan skuffe deg mest som du lit på som best. The one you trust most can disappoint you most, the Creed was never wrong.
The exchange was interrupted by machine gun laughter.
“Dude, outstanding! Like I thought they’d change the level and skins, but man, the game’s gone,” Chase Hudson said in his most convincing Californian accent, leaning as far back as the chair would allow.
“Chase, you can drop the surfer slang,” Runa said ruefully. “And no, I won’t call you Mariner, before you ask. We don’t have a million Snitch spectators hanging on your every word anymore. For an east coaster you crack me up.”
Scott moved closer to the camera, preparing to ask again. Runa anticipated his move, disarming him with an attempt at humor. “You too Highlander! Any more of that Aye Aye Cap Star Trek nonsense and I’ll beam you up.”
“Two million spectators,” Chase heckled, pointing to the app, watching Scott grin and back down.
“The numbers doubled in the space of fifteen minutes. Groundswell’s membership trebled and is still growing. How could you not check the stats, Runa?”
“A power outage. I’m just back online, guys. We were fortunate it didn’t happen mid-play.”
“The joys of Svalbard and Spitzbergen. The most northerly inhabited place on earth. Right, Runa?” Living in the Scottish Highlands, Scott was familiar with the curse of no-signal.
“GameMaster sure offered a lot of loot,” Chase sighed theatrically, making the V for victory sign at the camera. “When the team works, the dream works,” he added, quoting Season 9’s new motto.
He was referring to the largest gaming corporation on the planet, creators of the most successful team game ever. At what point the software was highjacked, and by whom, was unclear, until NASA changed GameMaster’s motto to theirs, and Runa Erikson noticed.
“We agreed that plan A—take the money—was never going to work,” Runa said.
“And for some unknown reason, we didn’t go for plan B either?” Scott said sarcastically. “Guess we lost our silver but boosted Groundswell’s ratings,” he conceded.
Chase waved his copy of the playbook at the camera until he had Runa’s full attention. “‘I don’t do myth and legend?’ You’re kidding me. You live and breathe the stuff. ‘The ground will shake and tyrants tremble—'”
“‘—when free men take up the sword,” Scott completed his favorite call to action, swearing the wisdom was stolen from his countrymen.
“‘—when free women take up the sword,” Runa corrected him.
“What would three fourteen year olds do with nine million dollars anyway?” Chase grumbled, forgetting to mute.
“You live on the high seas,” Scott teased his friend. “I’m thinking surfboards, sunscreen, gills?”
“It wasn’t GameMaster. It was bigger. Much bigger.” Runa countered, then backtracked. No way could she share her insane hunch that NASA was involved in case they got spooked. She reached for the charm around her neck, a talisman bearing the ancient mark of the Viking, and rubbed it between her forefinger and thumb. “Guys, we had our plan and we stuck to it. Months of work. Countless battles. Same outcome every time. Except for today. They broke cover. They tried to negotiate. We’ve lit the fuse. Let’s see who comes to put it out.”
Runa was in the business of keeping secrets, it was in her DNA. Det éin veit, er utrygt hos to. Det tre veit om, veit alle. Safe to tell a secret to one, risky to tell it to two, to tell it to three is thoughtless folly, as everyone else will know.
“Dude, they weren’t the only ones blowing their cover,” Chase reminded Scott.
“I still don’t understand why we didn’t blow them out of the sky?” Scott asked, flushing pink.
It was Runa's turn to look away from the camera. Any one of them could have negotiated with the enemy. But could she have trusted two friends she’d never met to reject the million dollar prize money? She’d never know, but Groundswell was also theirs. She knew it and they did too.
“The axe was more of a statement. It worked, didn’t it?”
Chase returned to the stats. “It certainly made you the world’s youngest superhero.” He waved their app.
“Yeah, for all the wrong reasons,” Runa said sharply, she didn’t want to be thought of as some axe-wielding warrior queen. Their mission was double edged—build Groundswell’s army of environmentalists to protect the Ark and re-write history by vanquishing the violent Viking legacy.
KHO’s Ultra High Frequency radio crackled into life, the voice metallic and distorted by static.
“Got to go, guys. Duty calls.”
Chase whistled before hollering, “The Creed in the playbook. I’ll crack it, Runa. Rid you of the nightmare and make it all go away,” he said, enjoying the drama in his voice.
“Nothing to crack, Chase,” she replied a little too quickly.
“He will one day,” Scott said, his grin widening.
Runa knew he was only trying to help. She’d searched the internet for years in vain. Her obsession: to disprove her Viking ancestry, end the hurt, and stop the bullying. It had cost Runa her childhood and her mother the job on the mainland. The deeper she dug, the worse it got. The visions lay in wait each night, lurking behind her eyelids.
Friday 29th November AM: JSC Space City, Houston, Texas
When the Team Works the Dream Works. Når gjengen arbeider saman vert draumen oppfylt.
NASA’s Johnson Space Center, referred to as Space City by its devoted employees, was as integral to the human space flight program as the sun is to the universe. It was also home to Building 9, a windowless giant, where echoes have echoes. The six hundred long by one hundred foot high structure—the beating heart of the campus—was orbited by hundreds of government buildings, referred to by number only. The single-story behemoth guarded two treasures. The first, on show, was a generation of full-size spacecraft. The second—secret—was hidden deep within its foundation.
A thousand yards away, the exodus from Mission Control Building 30 was neither orderly nor unnecessary. Over four levels, it housed three mission control centers and fifty years of space flight professionalism, with one notable exception between 11.30am and 12.00pm that day. Mars Mission control on the top floor, still under construction, its rows of hybrid consoles, retina screens, and computing arrays used for months by Huck Chambers’ Mission-X division, lay abandoned. The Head of NASA’s human space flight program was neither alone nor innocent of hijacking the room, or The Game. He had less than five minutes to evacuate his team and get from Building 30 to the safety of Building 9, before NASA's Director One caught them.
Huck shouted over his shoulder to his chief programming intern. “Sing. Call the twins. Get one to meet us at the back entrance of Building 30 with transport, the other to fast track us through Building 9 security. Ask Darcy on reception to hold the elevator. Tell her I have the professor. And get her to stall Director One when he arrives.
To commandeer the Mars suite for Mission-X selection was risky. To dupe the US Military’s Space Command to fly virtual rescue missions from Cape Canaveral was the reason they’d been caught. To offer nine million dollars of taxpayer money to a bunch of teenagers gave Director One, NASA’s notorious bureaucrat, as many reasons to end Huck’s career. But Chambers was passionate about everything he did, and everything he did was for NASA.
Lights flashed and warnings sounded as the thirty Mission-X gamers burst into level three's sacred Apollo mission control. The room oozed with moon landing memories, the evacuees blind to its historical importance as they stampeded toward the nearest fire escape. The curator's presentation already ruined, his guests dodged the hordes of skinny lattes racing through the national historic landmark.
Huck turned again to Sing. “Get hold of your ex-colleagues at GameMaster. Do not admit to hijacking Season 9, return full control immediately, blame Ransomware. We need to disguise NASA’s involvement. While you’re at it, tell them to change the season skins, and revert the Game’s motto to theirs.”
To use NASA's motto When the Team works, the Dream works had been both dangerous and arrogant, and had not gone unnoticed by Runa Erikson.
“But most of all, get ‘em to tighten their security!”
Now it was the turn of level two to be invaded—the ISS International Space Station mission control suite, formerly Space Shuttle Command, its walls adorned by a hundred trophy plaques recognizing missions flown from within the iconic room. The nerve center was humming with intellect and concentration. Plaque STS 100 crashed to the ground as the fire doors burst open to reveal five lost gamers led by the rookie flight director herself.
Sky Symphony needed to remain anonymous. So stumbling onto the floor of the ISS mission control room a week away from her first day and offering the trio the multi-million dollar prize without her mentor’s permission hadn’t been the smartest move she’d made that morning. But if she found Chambers in the exodus, she planned to ask for his forgiveness.
“You're early,” remarked the ISS flight controller of thirty years.
“A full week,” the rookie replied to her superior.
The ISS operations team ignored the commotion. The controller continued with the emergency, purging the ammonia gas into space and the gamers back into the stairwell. Sky hid behind the collar of her leather jacket, spying Huck rushing down the fire escape.
“No doubt the professor’s behind this!” The controller shouted after her.
She feigned a bow and rejoined the rabble.
“All non-essential personnel out now!” the controller announced, glad to be rid of the reporters in the gallery.
The press core followed the fleeing gamers, looking for a back story and someone to blame. Entering the emergency stairwell, they found them, their feet pounding down steel steps as they yelled at moms, listened to attorneys, and ordered Ubers.
Huck, sprinting, slammed through the ground floor fire doors, a lifetime of exercise disguising any trace of physical effort. The second of his three interns, Fox Washington, readied their transport, the mechanical ace waiting impatiently at the rendezvous point. One conspirator became three. “Where's the professor?” Fox asked in disbelief.
Sing shrugged on his cell as he listened to Fox’s twin, Pearl Washington, the third intern and social media guru busy smoothing their fast-track entry to the depths of Building 9.
“Moon watches!” Huck exclaimed as he raced back toward the building. “He'll be reminiscing at the Omega wall of fame.”
The professor stood spellbound, staring at the forgotten display case in the deserted tourist tunnel behind Building 30. Its shelves showcased the rows of iconic Omega timepieces. “Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Skylab, Shuttle,” he murmured, remembering each campaign fondly.
The priceless watches detailed a generation of space exploration. Gifted to astronauts, entrusted to NASA, they represented the genesis of cosmic adventure and human determination. To the professor, they defined his career of fifty years of devotion to the agency. And if it were the last time he’d gaze at them as NASA’s chief scientist, he’d savor every second.
Huck tapped gently on the bulletproof glass as the distant siren wailed. “Professor, it’s time to go,” he mouthed. “Now!”
“Get me Runa Erikson and her team. Do whatever it takes,” he replied.
Friday 29th November AM: JSC Space City, Houston, Texas
NASA’s chief scientist, Professor Cornelius Allbright, cycled like he thought. Chaotically.
Referred to by all as the professor, his age was uncertain, although he’d returned from retirement twice. At six foot six, his knees brushed the handlebars of the 1960s Schwinn bicycle, two hundred of which formed the principal mode of transport around Space City. The front tire wheelied, struggling to contact the ground due to the dead weight of Huck Chamber’s riding on the back. The professor’s grey ponytail struggled to keep up with his equally long beard, as the fugitives careered towards Building 9.
Allbright’s mind was already back in the laboratory, planning how to secure his team of tough, competent, teens, his body merely a vehicle needing to catch up.
Only five hundred yards separated Building 30 from Building 9. It was a sweaty hike in Houston’s summer, but a glorious stroll under a cloudless November sky, unless pursued by Building 1’s director of everything, Wade Carrera, supported by a detail from Building 110 security.
“Time for a shortcut, my boy,” the professor announced, mounting the sidewalk amidst a shower of coffee and donuts while scientists dived for cover.
“If it was anyone else on the planet,” grumbled NASA’s head of space nutrition, mourning the loss of his espresso. His not so respectful colleagues gestured their displeasure, picking the grass off their guilty pleasures as the interns followed in their bosses’ wake. The professor was already engaged in his next conflict.
Space City celebrated its heritage as a nature reserve. Spread over seventeen hundred acres, it was home to over three hundred Whitetail deer. Like the free range Schwinn bicycles, they were owned by nobody and respected by all, save one.
Four things happened in quick succession. The professor hurtled around the final corner. Huck Chambers misjudged the severity of the turn and was sent flying with his papers into the long grass. The slumbering Whitetails scattered as if set upon by a coyote, hoofing it in one direction. And the East West doors to Building 11 opened, presenting the shortest route for the deer to the orchards behind.
Running at thirty miles an hour and jumping ten feet high, the herd chose NASA’s main cafeteria as their refuge, sending its diners fleeing for their lives.
“There’s only one person capable of such destruction,” uttered the canteen director, hiding behind the taco stands.
“No time to be lying around sunning yourself, “the professor said unsympathetically, parking his Schwinn lovingly in the bike rack. “There is much work to be done before Director One and his security goons from Building 110 arrive.”
The director of human space flight was seeing more stars than usual as Pearl dashed to his aid from the rear of Building 9. Joined by Fox and Sing, all three interns exchanged glances as they recovered the confidential paperwork marked Accelerated Evolution.
110 security arrived outside Building 9’s front entrance leaving long tire marks on the sunbaked tarmac. Director One exited the patrol car at speed, the act of braking heard from the back entrance and the sound of the siren campus wide.
“Quick as you can, Level 9.” The professor urged, as he skipped the retina scan, nodded courteously to Darcy, the Wisewoman, left guarding the elevator.
The Wisewoman had worked for Allbright since the beginning. Her heritage traced back to Rice University, the organization that sold the plot of land to NASA, creating JSC’s Space City in 1965. Her real name, Darcy, no secret, but rarely used. Notorious for being the Professor’s gatekeeper, it was her wisdom that defined her, sending fear down the spine of all those seeking access to the great man without good reason.
“Hold the lift,” Darcy requested. “Where’s Sky Symphony?”
“Gone dark,” Huck replied winking. “I’m keeping my powder dry with that one. We need to keep her out of whatever happens next.”
Friday 29th November AM: JSC Space City, Building 9
Director One and his security detail approached Building 9 from its east side, having found the front entrance chained. Their frustration grew as they squeezed in single file through the tiny Judas hatch fitted within the giant shuttle bay doors. Hordes of paper-waving hampered their progress, Huck’s signature-seeking administrators lying in wait.
“Later, later, later!” Director One yelled, scolding them like puppy dogs. The career-obsessed ex-airforce pilot, a product of West Point, decorated for services behind a desk, was in no mood for games.
His goons muscled their way towards Building 9’s elevator, forming a defensive ring around Wade Carrera. His mission was to access NASA’s top secret subterranean testing complex and infiltrate Professor Allbright’s private residence.
The detail, blind to the asteroid catchers, ignorant of the Martian rovers, immune to the racks of Valeri robots, homed in on the target. Their progress was halted in front of a desk staffed by a cheerful lady of senior years. The Wisewoman folded her arms, dwarfed by a backdrop of two spaceships flanking her and the elevator like colossal doormen. The size of a football field, the International Space Station loomed on her left, a full-scale shuttle simulator on her right. There was no mistaking the importance of the spot, or the woman.
Darcy smiled coldly at the VIP’s security detail. “Inside voices, gentlemen. Let’s start again, shall we,” she said, adopting her goodbye look, waiting for silence. “How are you all doing today? State the purpose of your visit.”
Director One pushed through his men, glaring at the receptionist. “Lady, it's 11.59am, technically still morning, a bad one, likely the worst in history for your boss. You know perfectly well who I am. What you don’t know is why I’m here. Something so far above your pay grade it makes the real ISS look close.”
The Wisewoman looked Director One in the eye, fearing nothing mortal. “If you don't adopt a civil tone with me, young man, you've got more chance of landing on the moon today,” she said, buying the minutes the professor needed, delaying the security detail until 12.00pm—her mission.
Wade Carrera fumed at the woman’s defiance. He clenched his fists and composed his next threat, anticipating her counterattack. He took a step forward. His jaw opened to deliver his final demand as the minute hand of the antique clock behind her chimed midday.
“One at a time,” the Wisewoman said, motioning Carrera to the retina scanner with a flick of her wrist. "Have a nice—" the elevator doors clipped her words as she separated him from his men.
8 The Hub
Friday 29th November PM: JSC Space City, Building 9
Building 9 was as deep as it was high, disguising a complex descending nine levels to the Hub.
NASA’s chief scientist believed in sacrificing sleep for success, and landing folks on the moon in the 1960s had meant sleep deprivation for a decade. The Hub became both Allbright's laboratory and home, destined to stay that way as his workload and appetite for human space flight remained unchanged. Collectively known as the Underworld, the subterranean facility was off limits to all but Allbright's closest allies, the man himself rarely leaving but for his love of super hot lava latte.
The professor slumped into his favorite leather reading chair; its arms worn bare from years of contemplation. Comforted by the sound of his experiments as they bubbled and hissed, he smiled wryly at his predicament. Gazing into the firepit’s dancing flames, he reflected on his most audacious theory to date, Accelerated Evolution. Convinced this experiment would be the one to eclipse all others, he chuckled at its codename, Project Bones. Like most breakthrough theories, it was beautifully simple but hugely risky.
The telltale change in air pressure derailed the professor’s thought train. Huck noticed it too, his eyes locked on the elevator, watching the indicator descend slower than usual. He glanced left and right before standing. Cornelius Allbright was supremely calm. The three interns chattered nervously.
The antique ping warned of the whoosh of escaping air marking the arrival of Director One. Unsmiling, he stood alone, his security detail marooned in reception, having failed the retina scan.
The bull faced the matador—one composed and the other seething, nostrils flared, hooves raking the arena floor. It was the agonizing moment before the death charge, and Director One was at the pause. With the mind of a pilot, he considered his next move tactically, fighting the urge to rage forward and grab either man by the lapels.
Professor Allbright was NASA. He epitomized the agency—the very definition of what made it legendary—and Carrera knew he had to be careful to avoid a mutiny. The same could not be said for the director of human space flight, Huck Chambers.
Director One stepped into the professor’s domain. It was his first time in the hub, despite three years running the agency. The smell hit—faint traces of cordite and gunpowder—familiar from his days in the air force. Then there was the noise. Sound from movement in all directions, winding, cranking, whirring. Carrera sensed an ambush in the dimly lit room. He rubbed his eyes as the steam rolled across the ceiling, billowing like an angry cloud, sparking red, yellow, and blue. He covered his mouth against the dry ice vapor that oozed from the ground, feeding the storm above.
“Enough of your pathetic distractions!” Carrera hollered, approaching the two men as the flames rose inexplicably from the fire pit. He folded his arms, the veins in his neck bulging. “So, our final confrontation is to be in this circus. Fitting. Your actions have created an international incident involving three sovereign countries. You’ve triggered a US Air Force Space Command investigation and abused NASA property. Prepare to clear your desks and kiss goodbye to your pensions. I haven’t even started on the state, federal, and international legal implications.”
When they didn’t answer, his face flushed scarlet. “Explain!” Carrera demanded.
Huck hadn’t blinked throughout the tirade. His voice harbored more than a whiff of contempt when he spoke. “We did what we had to do to locate our unbreakable team. Sir. We’re now in a position to prove Accelerated Evolution.”
Wade Carrera glared at the professor, who ignored him and sat staring into the flames. “Accelerated Evolution is nothing more than a mythical, unproven dream. A ludicrous quest consuming an old man throughout his entire career.”
Director One resumed his attack on Huck, having received no reaction from the professor. “Chambers!” Carrera momentarily lost his composure, spit flying from his mouth. “I’ve sanctioned your Mission-X scam without knowing the full facts. Insane. Sponsoring the diversion of NASA resources and capital towards your selection and preconditioning program. Madness. The contempt your division has shown to offer anybody, let alone three kids, nine million dollars of taxpayer money to win Season 9, an absurd game. Inexcusable. Worse still, the whole debacle was witnessed by millions online and involved the US Air Force.”
For anyone listening to the outburst, there was little doubt that the fallout would jeopardize even Director One’s career.
Carrera returned to the professor, like a tiger circling its prey, his voice brimming with venom. “Your antics could not have been worse-timed. The cross-party political climate has changed irreversibly towards satellite defense systems. Human space exploration is officially a luxury. Monday’s presidential insight committee will scrutinize NASA’s budget, and force us to make wide-reaching cuts. You two have single-handedly signed over our budget to Air Force Strike Command!"
The professor continued staring hypnotically into the fire without a flicker of emotion.
Carrera paced in the opposite direction, shaking his fist at Huck. “You and your department have collaborated with him to willfully and deliberately mislead my organization. No more! I’m issuing you with an immediate cease and desist order for both Accelerated Evolution and Mission-X.”
Carrera dismissed a nervous giggle from the interns as he surveyed the strangest room he’d ever seen. His glare returned to study the faces of the accused for any sign of acknowledgment or remorse. Receiving neither, he straightened his tie. “You have brought this on yourselves, and for what? The amusement of teenagers?”
“Fourteen year olds, to be exact,” the professor said, tearing his gaze from the firepit, addressing Carrera for the first time. “As the director of human space flight has already said, Mission-X has identified the unbreakable team. Bonded by a common purpose, motivated by friendship and a fundamental belief in each other, their loyalty was tested to destruction in the Game. Surely, I need not lecture you in NASA’s motto: When the team works, the dream works. It must survive to bridge another generation. The difference being the dream of Accelerated Evolution is now a reality." The flames lit Allbright’s face as he stared through Carrera.
Director One backed into the elevator, reluctant to break his glare on the accused. A cruel smile transformed his face. “Wild words from a desperate old man clinging to a fantasy. Congressional insight committee in seventy-two hours. Leave no trace of your Project Bones or Mission-X. They never existed. The carnival ends here. Disband your teams. And one more thing, Allbright. Put the fire—” The antique doors cut him off, whisking him back to his career.
9 Bio Flaw
Friday 29th November PM: JSC Space City, Building 9
To be tough and competent. The price of admission to NASA’s ranks. From that day, it got a whole lot harder.
Huck reflected on the crushing conversation with Director One as he ascended to level two in the underworld. His contempt for the man rose faster than the elevator delivering him to the home of Mission-X and his Department of Astronaut Selection and Preconditioning.
He poured an Arabian strength coffee, silenced his virtual assistant, and dropped into his swivel chair, stealing the moment he needed before the digital world devoured him.
He lashed out at the trash can from his seat, spinning full circle to face the screen. The whoosh of incoming mail interrupted his darkening thoughts, luring his eyes to the message. NASA’s email filter flagged it as suspicious, warning ‘potentially harmful content’ and ‘recommended not to trust external sources with attachments.’ Huck straightened his back, all too familiar with the sender and his paymaster. He hovered the cursor over the message sent by the second most powerful organization on the planet, issued by the man who ran it, Dr Woe, the Director-General of the World Health Organization. WHO, a specialized agency of the United Nations, focused on international public health. Established in 1948, it was headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, and their emails stopped time.
Titled Global Press Release 29th November, Dr Woe’s work bore the name Human Physiology Deep Space Crisis Report. Seconds later, the same title appeared in his social media account, re-tweeted.
Escalating from media shower to meteor storm, it began.
Chambers checked his watch; it was only 12.30pm. He’d already witnessed the disintegration of his cherished Mission-X program. What more could there be to lose?
His face transformed into bewilderment as the tweets fell like acid rain. For the immediate attention of the Global Scientific Community. Author Dr Woe PhD.
He skipped to Woe’s executive summary. Human Space Travel is biologically flawed, lethal, and from this day forward illegal.
Huck exhaled coffee simultaneously through his mouth and nose, but at no time did his eyes leave the list of damming accusations ending the future of NASA’s crewed spaceflight.
Human Physiology Crisis Report Section Summary 9.1.1. Bone Density Deterioration in Zero & Reduced Gravity: Status, Lethal. International Space Station studies unilaterally proved humanoid bones degraded at 2% per month in zero gravity. In reduced Mars gravity of 38%, bone deterioration projected at 1% per month. Anticipated astronaut bone deterioration during a standard return mission to Mars estimated at 50%, comprising of two hundred and sixty million miles, twelve months in transit, twenty-four months on a planetary surface. Casualty damage defined as permanent and irreversible.
Dr Woe’s findings worsened as Huck read on.
Section 9.1.2. Pulmonary heart deterioration. Status, Serious,
Section 9.1.3. Optical deterioration in reduced gravity. Status, Dangerous
Section 9.1.4. Solar radiation exposure. Status, Critical.
As Huck reached Woe’s conclusions, his heart sank with the future of his beloved agency. The NASA company man struggled to see how the professor, his oldest friend, could realize his life’s work.
All fifty-one member states were to revoke funding immediately for human deep space exploration, on the basis that such endeavors are biologically flawed and incompatible with human ethics.
Every line on his desk flashed. The ex-director of human space flight watched his cell vibrate across the table in slow motion. Only after it clattered into the dented trashcan did he loosen his collar, spin in his seat, and march towards the elevator.
Of the 15,000 personnel working in Space City that day, 14,996 were coming to terms with the same damming information and shared a similar sense of dread. The future of NASA’s human space program was in mortal danger.
Of the remaining four, three oblivious astronauts parachuted into the storm unfolding below, leaving one subterranean soul sitting in his favorite armchair, massaging his brow, warming his toes against the fire pit. Professor Allbright watched the elevator descend from level two, and waited for the ping.
“NASA needs Runa Erikson and my experiment now. More so than ever,” he said, offering Huck Chambers a wry smile.
Friday 29th November AM: Spitzbergen, Svalbard, North Pole
KHO, or Kjell Henriksen Observatory by its full name, was home to both Runa and her mother, but mostly Runa. Fraya Erikson, a free-spirited PhD planetary scientist, spent most of her time either measuring the Aurora Borealis or tracking space debris at the remote EISCAT radar station.
The facilities were separated by a glacial crevasse, the women by an emotional void. Their relationship was as complex as the commute, and navigation was made worse by winter’s perpetual darkness and a mother’s foolish pride.
Weather locked and isolated them for days—usually weeks—and the radar station was both Fraya’s prison and her playground. She loved her daughter, but since the disappearance of Runa’s father and the misadventure on the mainland forcing their return to Svalbard, she’d become a disciple to her work for ESA, the European Space Agency. She now shared the responsibility of motherhood with Saskia Galin, her best and only friend.
Runa reached for KHO’s UHF radio as it crackled, the voice unintelligible. The trusted system required etiquette and patience, but it had its enemies, weather and eavesdroppers the worst at twelve degrees north of the Arctic Circle. The life-critical tech had no sense of humor, especially if dealing with the office of the governor, her mother, or the mainland.
The Norwegian mainland. The mere thought of the place sent a chill down Runa’s spine. She'd been set upon the moment they’d arrived from the frozen north, bullied for carrying the mark of the Viking—her strange and alluring eyes. In the land where kids were suckled on myth and legend, lore made it true. They fled, hounded by their enemies, returning to Svalbard, like her ancestors a thousand years before.
The radio barked again, this time louder.
Runa waited for the warbling signal to stabilize. Her thoughts returned to the mainland. That’s where it started. That’s where it all went wrong, she thought. The last thing she needed was the nightmare haunting her during the day. She swallowed, punched her pack and reached for the receiver, her conscience retaliating at the sound of her mother’s voice. It was all my fault. Everything, she cursed, battling the guilt to the far corners of her mind, banishing it to a land where darkness reigned supreme.
“I read you EISCAT, this is KHO Base. Over.” Runa responded, a hint of weakness in her voice disguised by static. She remembered Saskia’s well-meaning advice for her mother: short visits, no meals, keep the communication to as few words as possible, and just listen!
Fraya greeted her daughter in the customary Norwegian way—practical, unemotional, cutting straight to the point. “God morgen, Runa. Er du ok? Noen storm skader?” Are you okay, was there storm damage?
“Mother, you promised. It’s Friday. We practice English. I’m fine. Only light damage to the observatory. A bent transmitter on the mast. We’re currently on back-up power. And before you ask, I’ll do a quick perimeter check before I leave for the Ark.”
Every time they left the habitat, they were in danger.
Fraya Erikson’s breathless monologue began. “Bra, forsiktig— good, be careful, use the weather window. Do not miss your studies with Saskia at the Ark, and radio ahead to make sure everything is in order. I’ll be listening, and call me upon arrival. Respect your turnaround time. No exceptions! A weather bomb’s coming. Barometric readings are off the scale, so don’t take any chances. And leave early. Remember to return the station power to mains before you leave, else you’ll burn out the back-up generator. And you know what that means!”
Runa swallowed hard at the veiled threat of the boarding house at sea level. No way did she want to live there with the other workers’ kids. It would be a setback for Groundswell and a disaster for her.
“I can see the lights of Longyearbyen, so that means the grid will be on soon. Don’t forget to feed the dogs, all of them. And Runa—take the rifle, not the American’s gadget. Remember what happened when you got caught with it last time. You’re on your final warning with governor Berg!”
“But Chirp’s the best bear-scare tech out there.”
“Runa, the rifle, not Chirp! Over and Out.”
11 Zone 4
Friday 29th November AM: Spitzbergen
One to warn, One to wound, One to kill. Ein for å åtvare, ein for å såre, ein for å drepe.
Svalbard, home to the King of the Arctic—the polar bear. Permanent population, 3,000. Permanent human population, 2,000.
“ARK, this is KHO Base, comms check. Over.” Runa tested the radio before venturing outside. Item number two on the survival checklist after ‘obey weather forecast.’
“KHO, this is ARK. I hear you loud and clear, my Runa. Over.” Saskia’s Russian accent was unmistakable; fierce, protective, and proud, but her questions lay in wait like the dangers of the plateau.
“Hi hi, Saskia. Expected time of arrival at ARK 3.30pm. Over.”
“Repeat Runa, I lost you in the static.”
“ETA 1530 hrs. I have a special delivery for the Outpost en route. Over.” Runa could tell by the delay in Saskia’s response that she wasn’t happy.
“Respect your turnaround time, don’t risk using that Chirp gadget, and take the rifle. Like your Mama told you!”
“Roger that. Over and out.”
Saskia waited a full sixty seconds, knowing the Outpost was listening. “Attention, lazy Cossacks! You know who this is. Get mail yourselves next time. Anything happens to my Runa in zone three, I’ll rip your throats out and feed your liver to the bears. Da?”
After a few seconds, the anonymous “Da,” confirmed receipt of the warning.
Svalbard was split into four zones. Only zone one, encircling the town of Longyearbyen, was designated safe. Zone two required a rifle, zone three was feared by the Vikings, and even the bears avoided zone four.
Check now or die later, Runa reminded herself. The next five minutes were critical. The first half of the list was easy, performed in the luxury of the habitat’s +19C. The second was more challenging, the last chance to zip up in the comfort of the porch’s +0C. And then there was outside.
She worked in a khaki T-shirt, her survival suit tied around her waist, and attacked the list with gusto. Her statuesque build, broad sporting shoulders and defined arms were the product of Viking DNA and more than a match for any boy her age. She pleated her long blonde hair in the style of a halo, declaring her striking Scandinavian features—high cheekbones, sleek jawline—to be beautiful yet understated. Her eyes told the stories of old—one as green as the amethyst she wore around her neck, the other as yellow as Inca gold.
She caught her image in the polished aluminum of the habitat and looked away, hating her reflection. It was her fault. Runa scolded herself as the guilt eked through her armor. She was the cause. She was the reason they’d been banished from the mainland.
“Sucks being different,” she murmured, rechecking the inventory aloud, a habit of extreme isolation. “GPS, check. Emergency pack, check. Bodycam, check.”
She circled her arms uncomfortably in the harness. Vlogging had become essential. Flashes of life at the Pole boosted Groundswell’s ratings. While the footage was unexciting to her, it was addictive for their followers, especially the journeys into the high-risk zones.
“Weapons, flares, rifle, ammunition three rounds.” Runa hummed the Arctic nursery rhyme she’d learned as a child. Ein for å åtvare, ein for å såre, ein for å drepe. One to warn, one to wound, one to kill. She inspected her weapon of choice, Chase Hudson’s Chirp—in her mind the world’s best scarecrow technology, adapted for the King of the Arctic. She turned to the package for the Outpost. Finally, the chance to make the drop in zone three.
Since she’d hidden Chirp around Longyearbyen’s outer limits, sightings of scavenging polar bears in safe zone one were rare. The same was not true for zone two, where the great beasts would still risk the guns of the tourist police. Zone three was their domain.
Runa cursed global warming for the lack of sea ice and seals, the bears’ natural food source. It wasn’t their fault they had to stray and forage the eco dumps for scraps. She grabbed the exposure jacket, beat the button, and braced herself for what lurked outside.
Runa entered the habitat’s airlock—the porch—hauling the supplies with her. The temperature plummeted twenty degrees. “Never gets easy,” she murmured, sealing the door behind her, the porch pressurizing with a hiss. Head torch on, camera on, her mental check She held her breath and punched ‘open.’ Forty layers of frozen centigrade wrapped her like a jacket of ice. Every loose object was stolen by the hundred mile per hour wall of wind invading the porch. Head down, she attached her carabiner to the yellow lifeline and made for the dog yard, hauling the load. She stopped after twenty meters to yank the racing sled from its container and called his name.
Flint was a giant in size and reputation. He howled, his eyes burning with energy. “Go pick your team for the Outpost.” She released the lead husky from his chain, allowing him to point with his muzzle at the fittest of them all.
Stooped against the storm, Runa tethered the team, one through seven, attaching them to the sled’s bridle line. The remaining forty-three dogs were left howling in their rows of suspended kennels, their turn to stay home.
Last chance to check, she reminded herself. The huskies panted, pulling insanely against the sled, Runa’s foot hard on the brake. No snow bridges. No short cuts. No cheating on turnaround time. Her mind processed the dangers, her body distracted by the storm. And in that second, it came to her. Flip from back-up to mains grid before I melt the generator. She scolded herself, dismounting to fix.
Runa hauled the snow anchors and lifted off the brake. “Harr mush!” She hollered, launching the team into the jaws of zone four.