Star Viking

By Hugh B. Long

Sci-Fi, Fantasy

Paperback, eBook

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1390
40 mins

Prologue

Siobhan started with a gasp when the first explosions shattered the peace. She hurried over to a wall of windows in her third-floor laboratory and looked down to the street. The low buildings surrounding the Ministry of Agriculture burned, dozens of her friends and neighbors scurried around like panicked rats.
The chaotic scene below was in stark contrast with her own tidy appearance reflected in the window; ginger curls framed her pale face and tears welled up in emerald eyes.
Purple flashes drew her gaze—weapons fire. Soldiers, clad head to toe in gruesome black armor, fired into the crowd of unarmed colonists. Each person shot paused in an agonized-rigor before collapsing. New Midgard had no armies or soldiers. She swallowed hard, still in a state of shock and inaction. That ended when monstrous humanoids with limbs as thick as trees and grey, elephantine skin, came shambling behind the soldiers. They piled up the bodies of the colonists onto contragrav-sleds, like limp bags of sand.
Her stomach turned sour as she thought of her son, Ailan; the panic suffused her. He was in school today, and his school was across the street—across the line of soldiers and grey giants.
She sprinted to the elevator, stabbing the down-button five times. "Come on!"
As the elevator doors cracked open, she thrust a hand in and tried to pry them open faster. She hammered the down button inside the elevator car, then remembering to press the close-doors button.
Fingers of ochre light lanced through the windows and into the elevator, as its doors began closing in agonizing slow-motion. Another explosion, she thought.
Siobhan’s hands shook as she tried to come to terms with the chaos. She had no weapon, no training. She was a botanist, not a soldier. Where would she go? They'd built no roads beyond her farm, and Norvik was the only city on New Midgard; much of the planet was covered by a dense boreal-wilderness.
The elevator sounded off with an innocent—ding—as she arrived on the first floor, as if everything were fine—a normal day at the office. She almost laughed.
With her back pressed against the wall, she sidled along the corridor of elevators towards the lobby. She peered around the corner and through the glassed-in front of the building. The soldiers and their grey giants had moved on. She took a few deep breaths, then moved.
She placed one foot around the corner. A flash of light struck her face. Her hands went up instinctively to save her eyes, but all went dark.
Consciousness returned with a shrill droning in her ears and the odor of burnt hair creeping up her nose. Her head spun when she opened her eyes and her face itched as something oozed down her forehead. She put a hand to her head and tried to stand, but faltered, needing both hands to get up.
She coughed for few moments and finally touched the moisture which now ran into her eyes—blood. Tender gashes painted her forehead and cheeks, and her mouth was sandpaper-dry. Foul tastes of charred plastics and stone dust coated her tongue. She set aside all these strange sensations and discomforts. Her five-year-old son was out there.
Through the dense cloud of dust and smoke, she noticed the glass-wall at the front of the lobby had been obliterated. Nothing remained but twisted wreckage of the metallic-frame. Through the gaping hole she could see all the way through to the next block, right up to Ailan's school. Though she shouldn't have been able to.
A smoking depression marked the former location of Stellar-Joe's, which had faced the MoA building. She sprinted across the rubble and wended her way around the crater, arriving on the other side of the former coffee shop, then crossed the street to Chris Hadfield Elementary School. As she came in view of the cross-street, she froze.
A line of children marched down the sidewalk towards her. One of the soldiers, carrying a large rifle, led them. He was flanked by a pair of the grey-giants.
"Momma!" A red-haired boy screamed. Gods, it was Ailan. He was in the column of children.
A wave of ice crashed down her limbs. She couldn't run. They had Ailan. She stood paralyzed until a soldier in full battle-armor ran up and snatched her by the arm, and dragged her toward the line. She saw a few adults as well—the teachers.
Ailan grabbed Siobhan's legs as she was dragged passed him. Another soldier made to grab the boy, but the first one barked something in a foreign tongue, and they let Ailan stay with her.
Norvik's populace were being rounded up like cattle.
"Momma," Ailan sobbed. "Who are they?"
"Shhh," she said, "I don't know. It'll be ok, sweet-pea."
"Kar shal!" One of the soldiers bellowed in an electronically-augmented voice. Siobhan saw that a teacher had bolted out of line and was sprinting down the street. The first soldier raised his rifle, settled the chin of his helmet onto the stock, aimed, and fired. A purple bolt of energy seared into the teacher's back and seemed to paralyze him before he finally slumped onto the sidewalk.
"D'ar kut albe," the first soldier said, pointing to the still form of the teacher.
One of the grey-giants lumbered past Siobhan. The beast stood at least three-meters tall and reeked like death, its odor a combination of feces, urine, and long-dead meat. Its skin hung like elephant hide, thick, wrinkled, and rough-looking. It was like a troll from the old stories, she thought; and it had to weigh five-hundred kilograms, at least.
As the grey giant ambled to the teachers' body and bent to pick him up, an old woman wearing a pink beret, strode over to the creature, bold as anything, and began pounding at the its back. Siobhan recognized her as Ailan's teacher—Amy Kahn.
"Leave him alone, you bastard!" Mrs. Kahn wailed.
The giant turned with a feral snarl and backhanded Mrs. Kahn, sending her airborne all the way across the street, to slam into the side of a building. The old woman made no further sounds.
Ailan pressed his face into Siobhan's leg and sobbed. None of the adults made any sudden movements after that.
The first soldier barked a few more orders and they prodded the line of colonists into motion. They marched. To where, and to what end, Siobhan didn't know. As they moved forward, she glanced down at the still form of Mrs. Kahn, her pink beret lying a few meters away.
Siobhan gasped as Ailan darted out of line and stooped on the street. She went to grab him but stopped. He'd picked up Mrs. Kahn's pink beret and tenderly placed it on his teacher’s head. He returned to Siobhan's side and said nothing as they continued the forced march.
They walked for several long minutes until they arrived at Colonial Park, outside of town. The park was a haven for species of flora from Earth—a little piece of home to remind the colonists of how far they'd come. White and scots pines, birch, and a variety of other northern european species of trees surrounded the field of hardy fescue grasses.
Scores of the grey giants encircled the park, hemming in hundreds—perhaps thousands—of colonists, while soldiers ushered them into several drop-ships. My gods, where were they taking them?
She did a double take as she saw one of the soldiers without a helmet; blue skinned with humanoid features, but not quite human. Who? Not Alfar, no. They were pale, white-skinned creatures. But these had a similar, if more brutish, appearance. One of the soldiers shoved her forward, ending her rumination. Ailan whimpered, and she shushed him again.
The columns of captives were directed at a row of soldiers, who, aided by their giant helpers, sorted the people by sex and then by age. The giants shoved men into one column, women into another, and children ... into a third.
The realization struck her like a hammer blow. No! Like a wild animal, Siobhan shot a look left and right. She was completely hemmed in.
Mothers and fathers screamed as their children were torn from them and marched off to a different drop-ship. She and Ailan were still four rows behind the split.
Like an elastic stretched to breaking, Siobhan snapped. She swept Ailan off his feet and tried to run, but was immediately frustrated by the dense mob of her own people. Every step she took, blocked or slowed by another colonist. Until finally she spied a break in the mob. As fast as she could, she ran. With Ailan in her arms, she managed only an awkward loping, but she pushed and pushed. Every ounce of her determination spent on this last and desperate gamble. She headed to the evergreen forest on the edge of town. The dense trees should provide good cover. She might elude capture in there—for a while at least.
Ten meters from the tree-line, searing agony suffused her body. Her limbs went into uncontrolled spasms and Ailan fell from her arms. She was paralyzed. She couldn't even maintain her balance now and fell forward into the damp grass.
She heard Ailan crying out her name but she couldn't feel anything.
"Momma! Momma, please! Get up!" Ailan cried.
He must have been lying across her back, because she heard his voice like he was yelling in her ear.
Next she felt a rumbling under her belly coming from the grass beneath her. A baritone voice snarled, but she understood none of what the giant said. Ailan was still sqawking. Suddenly she was spun onto her back, and saw one of the grey giants grabbing Ailan, but Ailan still held onto her arm. Her son kicked and slapped—like a fly swatting an elephant.
She couldn't move her head and lost sight of the grey giant taking Ailan away.

Hal bolted up, his heart pounding, his breath ragged. He wiped the back of a hand across his forehead. Gods in Asgard, he was soaked in sweat. It had been a nightmare about Siobhan and Ailan, again. One of several versions that haunted him, though less frequently in the last few years.
He hadn’t actually been there when his wife and son were taken and killed by the Hrymar slavers. He was supposed to have take Ailan to school, but instead, had left the previous day, eager to fly off to some new discovery.
These horrific movies played for him at night showing him what might have happened. They were both long dead, which was a small mercy perhaps. The thought of them in the hands of a slaver would have been too much to bear.
His mind wandered back to the last time he'd seen Siobhan. He'd left the morning prior to the attack. She'd kissed him goodbye, and he'd said ... What had he said? For that matter, what do you say to the one you love when they'll be the last words you ever share? See you soon? He would have chosen differently had he known Siobhan and Ailan would both die that day. 

Chapter 1

Year: 2137 CE / Location: Patrolling in hyperspace

As his starship careened through hyperspace, Haldor Olsen stood in his bathroom, leaning in toward the mirror, one hand on the edge of the sink, the other pulling the pale skin taut under his chin so that he could shave around the three-inch scar. He remembered getting that one. It’d been a boarding operation, and some bastard had a small knife hidden, literally, up his sleeve. Haldor paused and stepped back from the mirror to get a view of his entire upper body and the myriad scars and marks. Here was his resume, rendered in lumps of healed flesh. He imagined the date tattooed on each one.
Today was his forty-third birthday. But the body in the mirror didn’t seem forty-three. He’d always looked very young for his age. Good genes maybe? He leaned in again, scrutinizing one of his downturned, hazel eyes. They didn’t match the rest of him—that’s what always made him feel like he was joyriding in someone else’s body. It was the eyes. They were forty-three, sixty-three even. The body, maybe thirty. He was like a new car, without the new-car smell. There was just something off.
He supposed he shouldn’t question looking young. A blessing, right? But he’d rather have looked old and still had his wife and son alive. That would have been a true blessing. No, no time for a pity-party today, he chided. I was shaving. Right.
He ran a hand over his cheek and chin. Just like granddad’s, he thought. Good square jaw-line tapering into a shallow v at the chin. Proper Viking stock. Except for the pine-bark-brown hair; some ancestor from southern lands had snuck into the chicken-coup one night. Maybe two.
As he finished shaving, he did the two-finger test for his side-burns. There he stood, one finger poking horizontally at the bottom of each sideburn. Gods damnit, crooked again. But it wasn’t the side burns, it was his ears. Why hadn’t they come level at birth? Maybe his internal scales were imbalanced. Could he add some ballast to one ear? He smiled at that thought. That felt better. He had a great smile, didn’t he? But then he relaxed his face. Smiling invited the crow to dance, his grandmother used to say, referring to the crows-feet by her eyes. That had been her excuse for being a cranky old horse.
Morning routine complete, he began work in the office just off his state-room. He began pouring over a star map projected by the surface of his desk. He glanced at each of the red and blue dots; the red dots represented the network of runestone-portals, the blue, the interstellar-bridge-nodes. Constructed by some ancient race, or perhaps the gods themselves as many believed, these networks enabled instantaneous travel across the stars.
How they worked was still a matter of debate and scientific inquiry. The working theory posited that the networks took advantage of the lines and clusters of dark matter. The man-sized portals, or ship-sized nodes, were activated by a complex signal which mimicked human brain waves, and was known as a thalamo-cortical-resonance-pulse. Each of the portals and nodes had a finite number of destinations, and each destination required a unique TCRP. Only a handful were currently known; one of the Solar Inclusive Democracy’s highest priorities was to find the keys to additional destinations.
With an expanded network mankind could travel across the galaxy with greater ease, and colonize or trade with other species and polities. The networks were the new frontier. But all this was a distraction at the moment. What Haldor needed to do was review the crew roster for his new ship, the Drekkar.
He waved a hand across the desk, closing the stellar-cartography application, then picked up his half-drunk mug of coffee and took a swallow. He heard a groan and glanced down at the carpeted deck where a two-hundred kilogram direwolf lay, her eyes questioning him.
“What?” he asked her.
His long-time companion, Venn, groaned again in response. But she was sending him a feeling of danger through their shared telepathic-bond, or at least that’s how he thought of it. She was the only one of her kind known to man, as Hal had rescued her from a slaver camp nine years ago.
He hefted the mug and examined the brown liquid, then looked back at the wolf. “It’s only my second cup today. Quit being such a mother-hen.”
Venn rose and padded over close to Hal’s chair, then lay back down with her warm, grey body in contact with his legs. He smiled as she licked his arm.
“Is that what you’re complaining about?” When she didn’t answer, he said, “All right, this’ll be my last mug.”
She begged him with her massive black eyes.
“I promise!” he said, laughing at her.
An alert chirped from his wristcom, startling him. “Yes?”
“My Lord, we’ve made contact with several Hrymar slave-ships,” said his comms officer.
“Be right there, Kappa” he said. He looked down to Venn. “Time to get to work. You ready?”
Venn stood, her tail wagging.
Beside the door to his state-room hung an antique Viking sword. As was his tradition, he touched the handle as he left, a reminder to keep his weapons close.

The bridge’s forward view-screen tracked five Hrymar slave-ships in normal space, which the combatives officer had designated: H1 through H5.
Most of the enemy’s ships were converted freighters—better to haul their sentient cargo—with armor and weapons cobbled on to enable them to reap the harvest of less defended worlds. The ships themselves were no match for the Longship-class, which had been purpose-built for raiding and the destruction of other ships. The problem came in preserving the slaver’s cargo; their cruel ships held sentient beings. Without that innocent cargo, he would have attacked them without mercy or regard for Hrymar lives. The blue-skinned bastards were parasites and deserved no less.
“Can you give me a life-sign count across the five ships, Meiriona?” he asked.
Currently on sensor duty, Meiriona had been a rising star in the Alfar physics community, recently abandoning academia to join the Tyrmundr. “Yes, my Lord.” The young woman glanced at her console. “I’m detecting 4,212 life-signs. That includes any Hrymar crew. Accounting for approximately thirty Hrymar per ship, that leaves- ”
“That’s close enough, thank you,” he said.
Meiriona blushed, tucking long strands of brown hair behind an ear.
She was eager, he had to give her that. There were so many young people on his bridge now. They were another of his anchors to this life, more threads the Wyrd Sisters wove to bind him to his duty. He reckoned that was a good thing.
“Shizari, any chance we can take them out all at once with EMP torpedoes?”
“No, Captain. They’re spread too far. We might disable two before the others could react,” the combative-systems officer replied. Shizari was a promising young officer of Arab extraction with a serious demeanor and hawk-like features.
It was always risky engaging the enemy and Hal didn’t want to put his people in any more danger than was absolutely necessary; the Hrymar had taken too many lives already. He peered up at a tiny red light on the ceiling of the bridge and asked, “Skallgrim, recommendations?”
The disembodied voice of the ships’s Level-6 Emergent Intelligence replied, “Based on the current sensor data, we have a 95% chance of disabling two of the five Hrymar vessels with EMP torpedoes, as your combatives officer advised. I suggest that we deploy the Atgeir to the third vessel, as we pursue the fourth. There is a 75% chance that the fifth vessel will escape.”
The Alfar made extensive use of artificial intelligence, and this new breed of Emergent Intelligences, could evolve and learn, much like any crew.
“All-righty then, two birds with one stone it is.” He tapped his wristcom. “Gina, are the Atgeir ready to go?”
“Damn straight, Captain. We’re in the tubes and ready for a kick in the ass,” Gina Russo replied.
Hal nodded to himself. “On my mark, drop out of Hyperspace, then fire EMP torpedoes at H1 and H2, launch the Atgeir at H3. Combatives, prepare to close on H4 immediately after and target its engines. Ready … mark!”

The sleek, muscular form of the Drekkar translated down into normal space; nine-thousand tons of advanced composites and organic armor, suddenly materialized a mere 10,000 km behind the slavers—spitting distance in space.
Through the arms of his command-chair he’d felt a slight shudder as the black of hyperspace was replaced by a flash of soft light, suffusing the bridge momentarily. Then, the familiar tableau of stars and galaxies met his eyes via the main view-screen.
The Drekkar had appeared directly behind the five Hrymar slave-ships; simultaneously, two flickering-blue fireflies—EMP torpedoes—leapt from the Longship. A second later, fifty smaller projectiles exploded from the starboard launch-tubes.
He watched anxiously as his Atgeir—veterans specialized in breaching and boarding—were launched into space, wearing only their Extravehicular Combat Armor. Each ECA suit was a tiny spacecraft, armored, but vulnerable to a ship’s Point Defense Batteries. Specially designed launch tubes catapulted them into space at unholy speeds. The suits looked like metallic lobsters; the claws being external thrusters that could rotate to vector thrust where needed.
He followed the two EMP torpedoes as they arrived on target. Bright, azure ball-lightning engulfed the ships as the EMP current penetrated the vessels, conducted through any metallic wire, conduit, or surface, and frying any circuits in the process. Each of the ships began to list and float away under their current momentum.
His eyes bored into the view-screen as Gina and her team approached the third enemy ship. He relaxed his hands as he realized he’d been squeezing the arms of his command-chair, his knuckles now bloodless and aching; he might have seen them go white if not for the bridge’s red battle-lighting.
Fifty dots on the view-screen converged with a representation of the enemy vessel H3, now appearing as one entity on the targeting-sensors.
“We’re on the hull. Cutting through now,” Gina said.
Hal inhaled sharply and switched his focus to the next target. He had to trust Gina—and he did, but the team she’d designed to go EVA and attack ships—well—he knew it worked, but it was damned risky. That was Gina though.
“Fire on H4’s engines,” he ordered.
The Drekkar’s particle-beam cannons belched out a dozen, short bolts of highly-charged particles designed to disrupt the structure of its targets. The ethereal purple-bolts slammed into the aft section of the Slavers’ ship, causing it to lurch several degrees as sections of its hull de-stabilized; its thrusters sputtered, then went out.
Suddenly the Drekkar shuddered and lights flickered on the bridge.
“Meiriona, what happened?” He shouted.
“Not sure, Captain. It appears we’ve also been hit by an EM pulse of some kind.” Meiriona glanced back over her shoulder at him. “Engineering reports several impact zones. It appears we may be in an EMP mine-field.”
“Engineering, damage report?”
“Edvit here, Captain. The hyperdrive has been damaged. All other systems are operational. I will provide an ETA for repairs as soon as I can.”
Hal thanked the gods that their new ships made extensive use of Alfar organic technology, which was much less susceptible to EMP. Certainly, even organic circuits conducted electrical impulses—as the human body did—and these could be disrupted by EMP, but they wouldn’t burn out like normal conductive circuits; they had the innate capacity to suppress excess current and could regenerate most damage.

Magnetically clamped to the enemy ship’s hull, Gina watched as one of her Atgeir, the elite of the Tyrmundr, burned through the outer-hull. The plasma cutting-torch made quick work of the thin alloy. The Hrymar’s reuse of old freighters as their main ships, was a chink in their armor, she thought. If they’d bothered to invest in real warships it would make her job much more interesting.
“We’re through,” the soldier on the torch said.
Five teams-of-ten were simultaneously breaching the ship at a variety of critical locations. Gina’s squad had taken on the most sensitive objective—that of safeguarding any sentient cargo.
“Go!” Gina ordered, and waited for the nine Atgeir in front of her to enter. She turned back toward the Drekkar before she slid through the breach—and gasped. Through the screen on her HUD, she witnessed tiny electrical-explosions pelting the bow of the Drekkar as it closed on the fourth Hrymar ship. It was like a gods-damned hailstorm. Bastards, she fumed, it was a trap. But it didn’t matter, she had a mission to complete.
“Eyes open! These blue fuckers are getting crafty. We’re likely heading into trouble,” she barked.
Several of the Atgeir cheered, relishing the challenge. They needed a fight. Most of the soldiers had family who’d been killed or captured by the Hrymar—this was payback.
Despite their bulky ECA suits, they flowed through the corridors like liquid mercury, killing any Hrymar on sight. Most of the enemy were innately cowards, and tried to ambush their foes. But Gina knew and expected this. She’d boarded dozens of Hrymar slave-ships now, and killed hundreds of these subterranean dwellers—some with her bare hands; those were the best, she mused.
She glanced at the map now displayed on her HUD. It indicated a series of cryo-berths ahead. The Hrymar used these to freeze their slaves, as it saved money they’d otherwise spend taking care of them on the journey to market.
“Around the corner. Ready?” She asked.
Nods all around, and they rushed the chamber, weapons ready. And … it was empty.
Gina cursed silently. “Teams two through ten, report. Have you seen cryo-berths? Or live cargo?”
None had.
“What in Hades?” Then Gina saw some kind of glinting machine in the corner. As she walked close to the device, she could see it was the size of a small ground-car, and judging by the pulsating orange-glow of the core, appeared to be powered by a fusion reactor. “Somebody please tell me what this is?”
One of her soldiers began a scan of the device. “Gina, this is where the life signs are coming from.”
A Decoy. Another trap. Fuck.

“Captain, I’m detecting an energy build-up on the ship the Atgeir are currently assaulting. Reactor overload, probably?” Meiriona said. “Looks deliberate, sir.”
“How much time do they have?”
“Two-minutes—maybe a few more seconds.”
Hal took in a sharp breath. “Comms, do you have them?”
Anouk Kappa nodded. “Aye, Captain, lots of interference from the reactor build up though. Patching through … now.”
“Gina, do you read me?” He asked.
Static, heavy with popping and hissing, came through the comm system.
“Cap…w….an…arely…era…ou. Device he…fak…ife..sig.”
“Gina, get out. Get out now.
“Rog…ving..n. Ou.”
Hal spun to Meiriona. “Is there anything we can do to stop this?
The Drekkar rocked as weapons fire raked her hull.
“Sir! Incoming torpedoes. Two bogies, eta sixty-seconds,” Shizari shouted.
Hal ignored combatives, and kept his eyes locked with Meiriona’s. “Well? I asked you a question.”
“Captain, it’ll take them four to five minutes to get out of there,” Kappa interjected.
Meiriona shook her pained face. “Nothing I can do from here, sir.”
“Fifty-seconds to impact, Captain,” Shizari reported.
Hal stared down at his feet, ignoring the update, and flipped through the course of actions open to him. He jerked his chin up at Meiriona. “Where’s the buildup?”
“Aft section—in the engine room.”
“Is there a team in that area?”
She nodded. “Yes, sir, but they’re moving out of the area now.”
The bridge shook as more energy weapons seared the Drekkar’s hull.
“Ok, as soon as they’re clear, let me know. Shizari, when they are clear, fire the Dark-Matter-Lance. I want to cut the aft section off that ship.” He peered upward, as one might when begging favor of the gods. “If you have any other suggestions tin-man, I’m all ears,” he said.
“Not at present, sir,” Skallgrim said.
“Forty-seconds remaining. And … they’re … clear!” Meiriona shouted.
“Firing.” As Shizari engaged the dark-matter-lance, a humming vibration suffused the entire ship. From stern to bow, the dark-energy cannon ran the entire length of the Drekkar-class starship. The hum raced to a whine, then exploded in a magnificent crescendo, releasing its deadly energy.
Hal watched as a black finger reached out to the Hrymar vessel. In point of fact, there was no color to a dark-matter-lance. The path, from weapon-to-target, was a window into an alternate reality—D-space—where dark matter and dark energy resided.
As the dark-matter-lance pierced the Hrymar ship, the Drekkar’s nose pitched up, so that the lance cut through the enemy vessel like a laser-torch through butter. Anything in the path of the lance was transported from this reality to D-space. It didn’t destroy matter per se, it simply moved it elsewhere.
The effect was awesome. The aft end of the Hrymar vessel was severed cleanly, except for the atmosphere and debris raining from the pressurized hull.
Meiriona projected the event-timer on the view-screen. “Thirty-seconds.”
“Combatives,” Hal said, “disarm the warheads on two anti-matter torpedoes and fire them at the aft section of that ship. Now. Let’s see if we can give it a push.”
“Twenty-five seconds.”
“Is Gina’s team out yet?” Hal asked.
Meiriona shook her head. While they watched, the timer continued to race. “Fifteen seconds.”
“Shizari, where in Niflheim are my torpedoes?”
“Firing … now.”
Hal watched as two points of red light on the view-screen raced toward the aft section of the Slavers’ vessel.
“Ten seconds,” Meiriona reported.
“Time for torpedo impact?” Hal asked.
“Twelve-seconds to target,” Shizari said.
“Gods damn it, Gina, move!” He shouted impotently.
“Five.”
“Four.”
“Three.”
“Are they out yet?” Hal asked.
Meiriona shook her head somberly.
“Two.”
“See you in the next life, old friend,” Hal whispered.
“One.”
The aft section of the Hrymar ship nova’d in utter silence, concentric spheres of light and debris moving outward in all directions. This wreckage struck the forward section of the Hrymar ship and shattered the remaining segment of hull.
Venn whined as she studied at Hal from her place beside his command-chair.
He looked down and nodded, eyes closed. In a quiet voice, he said, “Meiriona, scan for survivors.”
“Are you planning my funeral already?” Gina asked through comms.
He smiled, eyes still closed, and shook his head. That is one hard bitch to kill, he thought. “In fact, I was writing your eulogy in my head.”
Gina laughed. “I hope it was epic. Lots of good stuff for you to say about me, right?. Saved these people, killed those bad guys, etc, etc. Ad-nauseum?”
“Something like that.”
The Drekkar lurched and rumbled.
“We’ve taken two torpedo hits, sir,” Meiriona reported.
“Damn it. Gina, we still have a target to deal with here.”
“Roger that. Pick us up when you can. I’ll pop my beacon once your friend has been put to bed.”
“Olsen out. Alright folks, lets kick some Hrymar ass. How long for the dark-matter-lance to re-charge?”
“Two minutes, Captain.”
Hal nodded. “All energy weapons batteries, fire at will. Shizari, ready a spread of six anti-matter-torpedoes. Helm, bring us around. I’m sick of getting shot in the ass today.”

Gina flopped into one of Hal’s leather chairs in his stateroom. Hal loved the smell of real leather. Synthetics could self regulate temperature, and lasted for decades, but he’d held on to a few anachronisms. Gina let out a long sigh. “Well, that was interesting. Who knew the Hrymar could be so crafty?”
He nodded knowingly. “Indeed. I feel a shift in the weather.”
She peered at him, her eyes narrowing. “Why now, I wonder? What’s changed? They’ve been on the defensive for seven years.”
“We need to find out. That little mouse-trap might have snared one of our less experienced Captains.”
“Might have,” she agreed. “Um, by the way, happy birthday?” She offered tentatively.
“Thanks, I guess.” Birthdays were another of the ghosts that continued to haunt him. They’d been such contented times with Siobhan and Ailan. He could even remember the last birthday gift Ailan had proudly presented him—a captain’s hat made of stiff paper. Ailan’s kindergarten teacher had help him put it together for Hal’s birthday. Every year since their deaths he’d declined to celebrate.
“Hey, aren’t you going to offer a girl a drink?”
He chuckled.
“What are you snickering about?”
“I have a hard time thinking of you as a girl, Gina.”
Gina leapt up with mock indignation. “Excuse me? I might prefer guns to dolls, but I’m all girl, old man.” She returned to the chair shaking her head with a playful smile.
“Consider me re-educated.” He stood and walked over to a small bar and poured some whiskey. He looked over his shoulder at her. “It’s really great to be together on a ship again, Gina. I miss these little lessons in humility.” He chuckled.
“Ditto, boss. Nice to get off planet for a while. Training our new crop is rewarding, but sometimes …” she made a fist. “I just wanna smack the shit out of those recruits.”
“I believe you have occasionally ‘smacked the shit’ out of some of the recruits.”
She shook her head innocently. “Never been a report filed. Vicious gossip, I say,” Gina finished with a faux-pout.
“So, how’d you like the new ECA suits?” He handed her a crystal glass with three-fingers of Myken whiskey.
“Seemed to work. I’d like to see a portable shield generator added though. I got a bit fidgety when we got in range of their point defense batteries. One shot—dead.”
“We’re working on that. Need to get the form-factor shrunk first. Otherwise boarding operations could be awkward.” He took a sip of his drink and closed his eyes. “Damn that’s good. And people think only the Scots can make good whiskey.”
“Your people make this stuff?” She asked,
“Indeed. The first whiskey ripened under the midnight sun and northern lights.” He raised his glass. “To Norway.”
Gina returned the toast, and they drank in silence for a few moments, decompressing from the stress of battle.
“So, sensors detected a planet close-by. Might be the Hrymar were protecting it with their little mouse-trap. We’ll head over and do some recon.”
Gina took another drink. “Sounds good.”
The door to Hal’s stateroom whisked open and Venn padded into the room.
“Hey there, you big furry thing!” Gina beamed.
Venn trotted over to Gina, nearly knocking her off her chair when she nuzzled into Gina’s shoulder.
“Easy, Venn,” he said.
Venn just grumbled, and plopped down beside Gina—close enough to have her ears rubbed.
“I like dogs and all, but I always wanted a cat,” Gina commented.
Venn cocked her head and whined in protest.
“Kidding, buddy.” Gina chuckled, rubbing Venn’s fur more vigorously.

The Drekkar’s main view-screen filled with starlight as the Longship translated down from hyperspace.
“Entering the Kusi System, Captain,” helmsman Eino Timonen said.
“Sensors,” Hal asked, “what have we got?”
“Scanning now,” Meiriona said. “Hmm, it’s a busy system. There’s a G5V Yellow Main Sequence star with a companion M8V Red Dwarf. Eight planets around the G5V. Two are terrestrial: Our database says Veni J’otopp, and an unnamed terrestrial, designated Kusi II. Kusi II has four moons. It’s actually quite pretty. All data now on the view-screen. You’ll note a small colony on Veni J’otopp.”
Hal scanned through the planetary and stellar data on screen. “Run a detailed scan on the colony. Give me lifeforms and any energy emissions.”
“Aye, sir.”
Gina strode onto the bridge sporting her red, form-fitting bionan-suit. She stopped beside Hal, inspecting the data and images scrolling across the ship’s massive view-screen.
“Captain,” Meiriona said, “neural sensors detect life-signs down there … in the order of fifty-thousand or so.”
“Any human?” He asked.
Meiriona gasped.
“What is it?” Hal and Gina said in unison.
Meiriona turned back to them, her face slack. “Children … thousands of them.”

Chapter 2

Planet: Orbiting Veni J’otopp / Star: Kusi

Hal placed his palm on the door’s DNA-sensor. A horizontal beam of blue-light scanned his hand.
‘Identity confirmed, Jarl Haldor Olsen, High Commander of Rigsvaka Armed Forces, Captain of the Drekkar. Access granted,’ the system informed him.
The massive armored-door slid sideways, like a predator opening its jaws, revealing the ship’s armory. Six Berserkers—heavy shock-troops, and his most elite force—were donning their Ursa-class Powered Battle Armor. Each suit was like a small tank: weighing in at nearly 1,000 kilograms, standing three-meters tall, heavily armored, and sporting a fearsome array of weaponry.
The defining feature of each suit though, were three-foot claws, projecting menacingly from each finger of their massive gauntlets; not only were they made from nearly unbreakable alloys, they conducted a matter-disruption field, giving them the nick-name MAD-Claws; anything they touched would have its sub-atomic bonds disrupted, allowing them to rend a vehicle’s armor, penetrate fortified walls, and what they did to men … well, that was a gruesome sight.
“Captain,” Gina said, as she stood. “Come to wish us well?”
Venn padded in behind Hal.
“And to suit up.”
Gina cocked her head. “You’re coming with us? Is that wise?”
His basilisk-stare could have frozen her in place. “There are children down there.”
“Sir, I understand, but we don’t know what else might be there. Could be another Hrymar trap. They surprised us during this engagement. I don’t like that.”
He nodded. “I want to get my own eyeballs on the ground. I’m not taking any chances with children in the picture, Gina.”
“Captain, it’s too risky. You’re the leader of Rigsvaka. It’s just too- ”
“Don’t ever tell me it’s too risky!” He snapped. “Not until you’ve lost your wife and son.” He took a breath.
The Berserkers, with all their lethal kit, turned away meekly.
“I appreciate your concern,” he said in a more even tone.
“That is my job, boss.”
“I’ll have Venn with me. She’s more than a match for any Hrymar.”
“You are the boss, boss. Just don’t make me sorry I didn’t put up more of a fight, yeah?”
He just shot her a smile that didn’t quite make it to his eyes.

The Drekkar pierced the planet’s atmosphere, buffeting under the variations in wind speed and air density.
Hal leaned forward in his command-chair. “Still no planetary defenses?”
Kappa shook her head. “No, sir, which is peculiar. At almost every Hrymar installation we’ve encountered some resistance while landing.”
“Agreed,” he said. “Another trap, maybe.”
“I’m not detecting any major energy sources—other than what you’d expect at any colony. There was a gravitic fluctuation on the planet, maybe an ERBT?”
He cocked his head. “A stellar-comm, here? Unlikely. That would be another anomaly for the Hrymar.”
“Captain, the majority of the life-signs are located in one building. The data’s on your HUD now,” Meiriona said.
“Thanks.” He looked to the Helmsman. “Timonen, did you find us a nice spot to touch down?”
“Aye, Captain. There’s an open field one-click south of the colony. There’s a landing pad north, but that could be guarded. Touch down in two-minutes.”
“Gina, you hear that?” Hal asked.
“Sure did. We’ve kept the comms to the bridge open. We’re lined up and ready to hit the ground.”
After completing a final systems check of his Ursa suit, he considered Venn, now encased in a custom-tailored suit of armor purchased from the Dvergar. She was ready.
He was mulling over Gina’s admonishment. But he wanted to get in on the action—no, he needed to get in on the action—especially this time. And it was good to get his own eyes-on-the-ground to really get a sense of things. Where children were involved, he’d take no chances. But could this be another Hrymar trap? There had been a shift of late. The tide of Hrymar were flowing again, where they had been ebbing for years. What had changed, he wondered? Was Devrim still their Over-Chieftain? Perhaps he’d been supplanted? All questions for another day, he supposed.
“Chandra, you have the bridge,” he said to his first officer.
“I have the bridge, aye Captain,” Chandragupta Maurya confirmed.

The Drekkar’s over-sized ramp began to lower. It seemed as though the ship was being cut open and bleeding, as blood-stained light seeped through the widening gap. They were under a yellow sun, but had landed during the local dawn, and the red light fit his mood, and his intentions for the battle.
The ramp struck the ground with a shudder, and over two-hundred heavily armed soldiers crashed down the ramp like wave. It was a sight designed to strike fear and awe into the Tyrmundr’s enemies. And it had done so, time and time again.
Six Berserkers, in their Ursa suits, led the vanguard. The sheer weight of their footfalls caused the ground to tremble, as if in fear of these metal demons and their wrath.
Hal flexed his powered-gauntlets around the haft of a three-meter long hammer—Ice Breaker. His was the only Ursa suit without claws. Venn loped along beside him.
“Move out!” He ordered
At 50 kph, the Berserkers hit the compound gates in two-minutes flat. A couple-dozen Hrymar began firing on them from a fortified-position inside compound’s wall.
The first Berserker to arrive sent the metallic gate flying with a single kick, his armor deflecting and absorbing most of the laser and plasma hits.
Hal sprinted past his first soldier, heading straight for the defended position. When he was within twenty-meters, he stopped, raised his hammer, and slammed Ice Breaker into the ground. A three-meter wide shockwave of rippling-earth undulated toward the enemy. When it struck, they toppled like bowling pins, the ground beneath them yanked and heaved. The standing-wave Ice Breaker created, affected most materials. It was designed to take down fortified walls and disrupt entire troop formations, by undermining the solid ground on which they stood.
The other Berserkers shot past him now, arms wide, claws gleaming, ready to butcher the slavers. It was ghoulish business, but he’d decided that they needed to strike fear into the enemy, and so, these Berserker claws were designed to dismember bodies with a single stroke. In short order the soldiers were knee-deep in a sea of gore. The only sounds on the field were the Ursa suit’s systems, humming and whirring, cooling the units after their grim exertion.
A dozen soldiers shimmered into existence as they dropped out of the shadows, the stealth fields of their Recon Combat Armor switched off. The E-5 that commanded the recon-squad approached Hal.
“My Lord, orders?”
He didn’t make eye contact with the soldier. He was still focused on something, a thought yet unfinished. “Spread out and give me a full report on any defenses we didn’t see from orbit. We’ll hold here until I hear from you.”
The E-5 bowed slightly and barked orders to his squad. After which, they dispersed across the front of the compound, disappearing back into the shadows.
He’d just noticed that Gina was standing beside him, also in a Recon suit; she’d once said she preferred a scalpel to cleaver.
“Does this seem a little too easy for you?” he asked Gina.
“I’m not sure yet. This doesn’t feel like a Hrymar facility.”
“One they commandeered, maybe?”
Gina shrugged. “Probably. I have a few thoughts, but let’s wait to get a report back from the recon squad first.” She walked back to the wall and knelt, picking up a handful of dirt. “Boss, come look at this.”
He obliged. “What am I looking at?”
“The dirt—it’s fresh. This wall hasn’t been here long.”

The recon squad returned inside of five-minutes. “My Lord, it appears this was, or perhaps still is, a mining-operation of sorts. Our Neural Activity Detectors indicated that the children are underground. There are four elevator shafts,” the E-5 pointed to a map on his tablet, “here, here, here, and here.”
“Defenses?” Hal asked.
“None on the surface. All the life-signs are crowded together. I would hazard a guess that the Hrymar are using the kids as human-shields below the surface.”
Hal exhaled sharply. “Damn it. That does complicate things. Alright. Gladden!” He shouted to an O-3. Hal had introduced the SID and Alfar numeric ranking-structure into the Rigsvaka forces. He was not overly fond of hierarchy, but structure and organization were crucial beyond a single ship or platoon.
“My Lord.” Gladden dipped his head.
“I want you to deploy a squad to each of the elevator shafts. Nobody goes up or down. Got it?”
Gladden nodded curtly.
Hal returned the nod and Gladden spun, mobilizing his troops.
Now, he wondered, how to get down there and keep the children safe? If they used an elevator shaft, surely the Hrymar would open fire as soon as they reached the bottom. Hal wasn’t worried for themselves as much as he was for their return-fire, which might hit a child. No, he couldn’t do that. “E-5, is there any other way down?”
The E-5 shook his head. “I’m afraid not, my Lord.” Then cocked his head.
Hal noticed the thoughtful look. “You think of something?”
“I’m not sure if it’s imortant, but there is a tiny shaft. Might be big enough for a kid to climb down. I believe it’s an ore escalator. None of us would be able to get in though.”
Hal smiled. “That will do nicely.”
“It will?” The E-5 looked perplexed.
“Gina!” Hal bellowed.

Six Tyrmundr descended the first elevator shaft, weapons ready. They expected stiff resistance.
The elevator clanged as it reached the bottom. The soldiers tensed, glancing at each other briefly. Three of them kneeled, giving the trio behind them a clear shot over their heads.
The door rattled open, revealing an empty corridor.
“Report,” Gina ordered through the comm system.
“No contact yet, m’am. The corridor seems clear. We’re proceeding now.”
The front row of soldiers stood, the barrels of their plasma-rifles tracking back and forth as they swept down the corridor.
A clanking sound alerted the soldiers to a small object skittering across the hall.
“Shield-wall!” A soldier shouted.
The first three soldiers whipped their cloaks in front of them, lowering their heads. The overlapping red and white, striped-fabric went rigid, forming a defensive shield-wall across the corridor in front of them.
The soldiers leaned in as an explosion crashed upon their defensive barrier. The rearmost soldiers began firing over the shield-wall toward the enemy; bolts of blue lightning arced down the corridor, scorching the far wall. They stopped firing, but saw no bodies.
“Gods damned bend in the corridor!” One of them said. “Move forward, slowly!”

The Berserker suits were never designed for civil-engineering, but, Hal had to admit, they performed admirably. The Berserker in front of him used his suit’s claws, and their matter-disruption-field, to dig, widening the narrow ore-escalator-shaft.
He heard Gina laughing, and turned back toward her. “What?”
“A badger!” She said. “He looks like a rabid badger! Oh, I pray to Zeus the suit designers never hear about this.”
“It does seem to be working rather well,” he said. “I wish I had one of these during my military training. We had to dig holes with an entrenching tool.”
“I remember them well,” Gina said.
The Berserker broke through the final section of the shaft and dropped to the floor.
“Breaching teams one through four, press your assault, now!” Gina ordered through the comm system. The four teams assaulting the elevator shafts would now distract the Hrymar while the Berserkers secured the children.
As he followed the other Berserkers down through the widened-shaft, he felt a wave of fear punch him like fist to the temple. He buckled at the knees momentarily, which was barely noticeable inside his Berserker suit. What in Odin’s name was that? He probed his own mind, trying to suss out the source of the intense emotion. There was no rational reason for any fear. No enemy lay before them, as far as he knew. But wait, it was not his fear. It belonged to someone else.
“Gina, go slow. The children are close.”
“How in Hades do you know that?”
“Trust me.”
The Berserkers were all through the widened shaft, accompanied by several of the Valkyrie medics, ready to tend to the children if needed. While marching down one of the subterranean corridors, a door abruptly opened. A wrinkled, grey creature, as big as a Berserker, stormed out—a Graal. He’d seen them before. Troll-sized creatures the Hrymar and Dvergar employed as guards and shock-troops. They were fearless, and as he expected, this one charged!
Like a rhinoceros, the beast barreled toward the front line of the Berserkers. It held a long staff-like object, which it thrust into the first Berserker. An explosion of white-light arced over the Berserker’s armor, and the Graal switched to its next target.
Gods damned EMP, he thought.
One of the Valkyries, clad in black armor, and wielding her own staff, leapt forward, slamming the butt of her weapon into the ground, sending a kinetic stun-wave forward. The Graal was swept off its feet. It lay on its back, shaking its thick leathery-head as one of the Berserkers tackled, then disarmed it.
A second Graal exploded from a door opposite the first. The same Valkyrie spun around, her back to it, extending a set of black wings. They went rigid as the Graal crashed on them like wave, and bounced back. She spun again, firing another kinetic-stun-wave, toppling the second beast.
The Berserkers poured into the two auditorium-sized rooms where the Graal had emerged. As Hal entered, his heart wept at the sight. Thousands of children, milling about in squalid conditions. They were sorted, it seemed, by race and size, separated by flimsy pens. A pair of Hrymar in each room surrendered without a struggle.
“Teams one through four, children secure,” Gina said.
He felt a wave of relief wash over him. Then, once again, he was struck by another’s emotions. He tried to focus on the source and subtleties of the feeling. His eyes and mind sweeping across the sea of pitiful children. There was so much mental-noise in the room. He walked down the aisles of the Hrymar’s livestock. He wanted to scream as he witnessed each of their helpless, little faces. Visions of Ailan, and Siobhan, coming unbidden to rip into his soul.
There. A little girl. Human. She was in a wretched state; her face and fingers filthy, her brown hair matted and tangled. Then he felt a wave of horror hit him as she saw his terrifying Berserker suit. He raised his helmet visor immediately, then smiled at her, his face now visible. She might have been eight or nine, if that. Just a little older than Ailan, when he was murdered—by these—bastards.
He tried to dampen his rage, and bring out the soothing paternal warmth he knew lay buried deep inside him.
‘You can hear me?’ He thought to her.
Her green eyes went wide, but she remained silent. She finally nodded. “Yes,” she thought to him.
Venn padded up beside Hal, and for a moment, he panicked, thinking the beast would terrify the girl. But she lit up with joy. Venn padded right up to the little girl and licked her face. She giggled.
Hal slid down his visor to hide the tears he could no longer contain.

Hal, now free of his Berserker suit, sat in the cavernous room at a table, talking with the little girl—without actually talking. He'd suspected for years that the connection he shared with Venn was more than just Venn’s ability to empathize. He had some kind of gift. So did Venn, and so did this girl. But what? And how? The communication he and the little girl shared went so far beyond words, that Hal knew this girl’s life as if he’d lived it; and she, his. She shared his sorrow for the loss of his family, but equally, shared the joy of their lives. The little girl had instantly bonded with Venn, as Hal had.
Later that day, she was riding on Venn’s back, brimming with delight. The sight played his soul like a master pianist, the melody so joyful, he could barely stand it.
The poor child had no name. She’d been born in captivity, taken from her mother at birth. Many of the children had been similarly ripped from their parents, and were broken; their little hearts shriveled without the love and nurturing a parent should have provided. They’d been cared for by older Humans, which was something at least. Even the older humans had been born, and lived, like cattle.
As the girl was playing with Venn, Gina sat at the table with him. “How you doing, boss?”
He exhaled and gave her a nascent smile. “I guess I’m ok.” He dared not say more; he was at a tipping point right now.
“Listen,” she said, “we can handle wrapping up down here. The kids are ok, and we have the facility secured.”
“I know. You did a great job today. Let the troops know how proud I am of them. I’d tell them myself … but, just … not today.”
“You got it. They did mop up those bastards good, didn’t they? And I will never get the image of the burrowing-Berserker out of my head. I wish someone had recorded that.”
“Oh, you can bet someone did.”
“So, if I’m not out of line, what’s your interest in the kid?”
“She’s a very special girl.”
Gina seemed ambivalent. “A great smile, I’ll give her that.”
He shook his head. “There’s much more going on here, Gina.”
One of the Valkyries approached their table. “My Lord.” She inclined her head. “The children are doing as well as can be expected. Physically, there are no emergencies. Psychologically and emotionally, well, time will tell I suppose. We can safely evacuate them now.”
“Thank you.” He turned to Gina. “I want the corpses of these things hung up for their masters to see, should they come back. And let’s raze the buildings. I want nothing for them to return to.” He tapped his wristcom, opening a channel to the Drekkar. “Kappa?”
“Here, Commander,” Kappa said.
“I want you to schedule a message as soon as we’re in range of a stellar-comm. Addressed to Jin Wudai, he’s an applicant for our intelligence service. I want him to start investigating any connections between the Hrymar and all these children. I want to know what in Niflheim they’re doing with them here. Oh, and tell him he’s got the job. Olsen out.”
“Aye, sir. Message queued. Kappa out.”

Chapter 3

Planet: Alfheim / Star: Kepler 22B

Gwynahra felt decidedly anxious as she approached her mother’s house. She tried to concentrate on the cool moss beneath her bare feet; that sensation had always soothed her. She was glad of the shade the leafy, ywen branches provided; that way passers-by couldn’t read her anxiety. She was ninety-three—seven years shy of adulthood, and the decision which would shape the rest of her life. She already knew which of the nine-classes she’d choose—Wydonwyr. They were the keepers of all things scientific, including medicine.
The last seventeen years, she’d studied the healing arts, specializing in trauma surgery, and was more or less finished with her studies. As far as she was concerned, there was no need to wait seven more years before committing to the Wydonwyr. She wanted to get off the planet and out into the stars. There was so much to see, and do. Her concern, was her mother’s reaction; she had to get Ambassador’s Saeran’s permission to commit to her class before she was of age. Would her mother give it?
Certainly, it would be mildly scandalous—especially for a former Ambassador’s daughter—but she had not been grown from the same seed as her friends and classmates. Where they were cautious and slow, she was daring and impulsive. Maybe she was adopted? Maybe she wasn’t even Alfar? A refugee maybe? No, she quite resembled her mother—except for hair color. She shook her head. Don’t be silly, she chided herself.
She placed her hand on the white bark of her mother’s door. A smooth section slid sideways, revealing a spiral staircase at the far end of the confines of the ywen’s titanic trunk. She strode the ten-meters with poise, trying to bolster her confidence as she crossed the indoor fungal-garden. Her lithe form made swift work of the twenty-meter ascent to the first floor.
She performed a cursory scan of the kitchen and dining room, but found no one. Another few meters up the staircase, and there she found her mother, book-in-hand, reclining in a chair on the balcony. Gwynahra took a deep breath, trying to slow her heart rate. Confidence. I have to be confident and certain. I can do this, she thought—not so certainly.
“Hello, mother,” she said.
Former Ambassador Saeran set her book on her lap and smiled at her daughter. “Gwyn, what are you doing home?”
“Mother, I’d hoped for a warmer welcome?” she said with a pout.
Saeran shook her head and stood, her face beaming. “Come here, darling. Give your mother a hug.”
She danced to Saeran, her jet-black hair bouncing as she did. Mother and daughter embraced. Saeran pulled back a bit, brushing some of the hair out of Gwynahra's face. The warm afternoon sun bathed her mother’s face in a radiant gold.
“It does me good to see you. How’s school?”
“It’s going well. Almost finished, in fact.”
“How so? You have seven more years, unless my faculty for mathematics is fading like my youth.”
She lowered her gaze. “That’s why I came home. I need to speak with you.”
“Oh?” Saeran said. “So you’ve decided then.”
Gwynahra cracked a half-smile and raised her eyebrows. “Does that mean you approve?”
“I approve of you, my dear. Whatever you do, whatever you are, you are mine. And how can anything of mine be wrong?”
They both smiled. Saeran gestured to a mossy sofa back inside the tree.
“Where will you practice your healing skills?” her mother asked.
“I want to work on Rigsvaka.”
Saeran’s smile evaporated.
“Mother?”
“Daughter, that is a war-zone,” she said evenly.
“Yes, mother. I know very well what it is. Where better to be a healer?”
Saeran remained silent long enough that Gwynahra felt compelled to continue.
“Mother, is that not a noble place to offer my gifts? They fight to defend us from the Hrymar.”
“We are in no danger from the Hrymar here!” Saeran said, voice raised.
Gwynahra was taken back by her mother’s reaction. She’d not expected this; resistance that she was choosing seven years early, certainly. But this? Gwynahra felt a mélange of intense emotions brewing inside her mother; equal parts grief, fear, anxiety and anger. She’d never seen her mother angry. Not through all her time Saeran had been the Earth’s Ambassador, or member of the White Council.
Saeran finally spoke. “I lost your father, Gwynahra. And I miss him terribly. I cannot lose you as well.”
“Mother, you won’t.”
Saeran wore a sad smile now. “Your father said the same thing when he went off to battle the Ysgar.” A heavy tear trickled down her face. “And he never came back to me.”
What could she say? Her mother was right, of course. Working in a war-zone, though she’d be a non-combatant, was still a perilous occupation. But that was the key, wasn’t it? Peril, adventure. Gwynahra craved some kind of stimulation to feel alive. What was life without risk? But what would it do to her mother if she did die? Her father had died young and her mother had never loved again. Alfar lived long lives and that meant, for Saeran at least, centuries of loneliness.
“I feel as though the Norns have woven this path for me. It’s as if I’m being pulled.”
Saeran said nothing.
“I suppose I can’t promise nothing could happen, but I can promise you I’ll not take unnecessary risks, and be as safe as possible.”
Saeran stroked Gwynahra’s cheek and tried to smile at her daughter. “Every parent dreads this day, my love. When the seed is blown from the tree, carried on the winds of Wyrd to find her own fertile ground, and there, to grow in her own way. It’s a part of life, but one we deep-rooted, old trees still find hard to bear.

Planet: Entering Rigsvaka orbit / Star: Heimdall’s Star
Gwynahra squeezed her eyes shut and clenched her hands on the straps of her acceleration-chair harness, as the shuttle ferrying the recruits to their new homes broke atmosphere. The shuttle shook and rattled and lurched as it was buffeted by gale force winds. She clenched her belly to prevent the sour contents of her stomach rising into her throat.
She remembered her mother’s words about being a seed blown on the wind; she’d imagined a gentle summer breeze, not brutal, hurricane-force winds. The dark interior of the shuttle was broken only by the flashing red light, indicating that it was not safe to leave your harness. She was a seed, she reminded herself, floating on the wind. Lord and Lady help her.
For the next two months, she would eat, sleep, and breathe under the watchful eye of Tyrmundr instructors. The Tyrmundr were the ‘Hands of Tyr’, an elite, military organization formed with one purpose: to meter-out justice in an increasingly chaotic region of space. Their mission was, firstly, to defend against further Hrymar incursions into human and allied territory, and, secondly, to take the battle to the enemy. They raided Hrymar outposts and struck at the heart of the enemies seats of power.
Gwynahra's heart pounded as she imagined what lay ahead. Part of her anxiety was anticipating the high-gravity. Alfheim was a 0.9g planet. Rigsvaka boasted a torturous 1.58g. It was chosen to be brutal and to turn the Tyrmundr into iron-clad warriors. This would be a cruel test, she had but to endure.
She had specialized in trauma-surgery, specifically to deal with any battlefield wounds, ranging from laser and plasma burns, to projectile trauma. What better place to practice her craft and be of service to her deities, Freyr and Freya? Her skills would do the most good where there was conflict, not at home on peaceful Alfheim. At first she’d resented her mother’s negative reaction to the choice. She understood a parent’s concern, but not to risk everything in pursuit of your passions … well, it seemed a hollow attempt, a shadow of a life.
From the short-lived humans, she’d learned the concept of sacrifice. The Alfar were normally conservative, cautious. But that made their lives so predictable, so banal. She was clearly grown from a different seed.
She’d been so preoccupied with her own thoughts that she hadn’t even noticed the girl beside her—also Alfar. The woman shared a nervous smile when Gwynahra glanced over at her.
The flaxen-haired Alfar proffered a hand to Gwyn. “Greetings, sister. I’m Lythrael.”
Gwyn tried to appear happy to meet her, but failed. “I’m Gwynahra. My friends call me Gwyn.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you Gwyn. It comforts me to see another Alfar on the shuttle. I thought perhaps I’d be alone among our people.”
She shook her head. “Many Alfar are counted amongst the ranks of the Tyrmundr now.”
Lythrael beamed. “That’s welcome news. What’s your chosen class?”
She tried to mask her feeling of discomfort, but squirmed at the question. “I … have yet to officially pledge,” she said tentatively, but followed up in a more confident tone. “Though in my heart, I have. I will be Wydonwyr, specializing in battlefield surgery. My training is almost complete, and I was given special dispensation to join the Tyrmundr prior to my one-hundredth birthday.”
Lythrael’s face betrayed a mild hint of scandal, for Gwyn's actions were virtually unheard of. “I’m certain our Lord and Lady must be guiding you.”
“And what of you?” Gwynahra asked.
“I chose the Rhyfelwyr. Though I’ll be a warrior, in some ways we’ll be performing similar functions.”
Gwynahra was curious. “How so?”
“The Tyrmundr cross-train warriors as their battlefield medics—the Valkyries.”
She’d heard of this order; composed of all woman, which harkened back to the ancient myths. “That’s a noble and brave path you’ve undertaken.”
“No more so than the years of study and dedication to which you’re devoted. I simply enjoy the use of a weapon from time to time.” Lythrael grinned.
The shuttle dropped abruptly and Gwynahra’s stomach flipped. She squeezed the arms of her seat as she looked over to Lythrael, who appeared completely unfazed. Finally the shuttle landed, slamming onto the ground and jarring its passengers. Almost at once, the shuttle’s ramp dropped and a grizzled, old man burst in shouting.
“On your feet! You’re here to train not sit on your arses! Move! Move! Move!” He motioned out the door.
Like a startled herd of grazing animals, the recruits stampeded through the shuttle and onto the bleak, sub-arctic landscape. Another instructor began prodding them into lines and columns. Several other instructors screamed orders and dressed the lines.
Sitting in the oppressive gravity had been a strain; walking had been an exercise in lunacy. Gwynahra had stumbled and tripped several times just getting off the transport. Now, as she stood, she felt fingers-of-cold probing into her flight-suit.
The land about her was mountainous and frozen; a collage of greys, blues, and white, speckled by dark evergreens. Though the trees were more like shrubs, to her mind. On Alfheim they grew a hundred times taller. But then the gravity here was burdensome.
The recruits now formed near-perfect lines and rows, standing tall—as far as was possible under the relentless pull of the planet. A man with long, golden tresses, hands clasped behind his back, approached slowly. His eyes wandered to the ground, as if lost in thought. Another Alfar, she noted, though older, and sporting a battle-scarred face.
He stopped when he was in front of the center rank and glared at them. “I’m Hersir Cadfael, in the service of our Jarl. I am Alfar, of the Rhyfelwyr class. I’ve lived as a warrior for almost a hundred years. Far longer than any of you have lived. So if you begin to think you know more about battle and war than I do… you are in error.
I fought along side Lord Haldor in the first Hrymar War. Before that, with my people against the Ysgar. I’ve taken many lives. Though I regret each. I am a warrior because our peoples need warriors. The Hrymar kill, other races kill. But what makes us different, and the Tyrmundr in particular, is that we kill for a noble cause; that of justice. We kill to hold back a dark tide that threatens to wash away our civilizations.
The recruits listened wordlessly, many with trembling legs as they fought against Rigsvaka’s heavy hands, pulling them to her core.
“What lies before you,” Cadfael continued, “is pain. Misery. Torment. This may well be the most unpleasant two months of your lives. But don’t hold too tightly to that thought. As we battle the Hrymar you may well see misery beyond anything we dole out here. You may be captured. Sold into slavery. Sent beyond the reach of the Tyrmundr to rescue you. You may die a horrible death—short, or protracted. I don’t say these things to frighten you, only to prepare you. You must set your mind to these possibilities, and accept your coming death. Only then will you be able to drive our foes back to their dark homes. You’ll see me often in the coming weeks, and I wish you well and much luck in your training. Your act of simply coming here does great honor to your people and your families.” Cadfael bowed deeply to them, then left.

The first two months of training at the academy had been almost entirely strength conditioning; now they were building endurance.
The 20 km course wound up a frozen mountainside. It was a day when any recruit would have preferred a crackling fire, but instead they had a frigid wind cursing at them; its shrill bursts and icy threats, blowing and gusting.
This was the recruit’s first time running the course, and since they were allowed no timers or other electronics, Gwynahra had no sense of how far she’d come, or how much lay in front of her. On such a long and treacherous run, time seemed to have no meaning. She was forced to push her body and mind to extremes she’d not thought possible. The Alfar weren’t known to be sedentary, but this was beyond anything she’d experienced. And that’s exactly why I’m here, she reminded herself.
Given the ice and snow surrounding her, she’d expected to freeze on this course. Owing to the arduous incline, quite the opposite was happening; her legs were on fire. With each step, a searing bolt of agony thundered up her lower extremities. Then there was the vicious gravity, chasing and hounding her; there was no escaping it.
Lythrael was in far better physical condition, but she too, was struggling. The small handful of stout Dvergar were much more at ease, contending with a mere 30% increase in gravity, as opposed to an extra 75%, as the Alfar did.
Gwynahra tripped on a stone jutting up from the slick trail. “Rot!,” she yelled, as one leg flew backward and she lost traction. Lythrael caught her arm and pulled her up.
“Thank you!” Gwynahra said loudly, trying to be heard above the screaming winds.
Lythrael simply nodded, mouth open, panting.
Nearly one-hundred recruits snaked ever higher around the mountain. The trail began to narrow to perhaps two-meters across, which would have been wide enough, if not for the icy conditions and the abyss that bordered the trail. Recruits had been slipping and sliding on the even-ground approaching the mountain: now on this wicked gradient, they were in danger of falling thousands of meters to a rather gruesome death.
A Gwynahra labored, she kept her body as close as possible to the left side of the trail, and the relative safety of the mountainside. Occasionally glancing down into the precipice between peaks, it occurred to her that this was a perilous method for endurance conditioning. Wouldn’t an indoor machine have been more efficient? And safer?
Just then a sudden gust slammed her into the rock face. She thanked Freya and Freyr that it had not pushed her toward the chasm on her right. With both palms and her left cheek pressed hard against the rock-face, she felt the chill of the mountain creeping into her skin. She pulled her face away tentatively and regained her footing.
Above the near-deafening winds, Gwynahra heard a piercing scream and trudged ahead to investigate. One of the human’s had simply fallen on the trail, but he’d shattered his leg on the toothy-surface. Bits of bone and gore protruded from a foot-long tear in his bionan suit. Instinctively, she bent down to help the man, but one of the instructors shouted at her to move on. She shook her head and pushed forward, now well behind Lythrael. The incident had diverted her from her own misery, to someone else’s. That short respite was a small blessing, her mind reset, if only for a moment.
Her lower legs began to itch. A quick look down, and she realized she’d torn her bionan suit on the shin, compromising its ability to maintain her temperature. Now she risked frostbite, or at least frostnip. The suit would repair itself, but not before she finished. One more hardship, she thought.
She rounded a tight corner and found Lythrael on her knees. “Are you all right?”
Lythrael nodded, lifting a hand. “Just- slipped.” She began to rise, steadying herself, but her foot hit a tiny patch of mirror-like ice, her balance destroyed. Once again she fell, this time, on her stomach. But her body didn’t stop there. Her legs, pointed toward the abyss, rocketed down, the cruel gravity pulling. Lythrael’s hands reached out impotently, her face a mask of terror.
There was no thought to what Gwynahra did next. Her body and mind acted on instinct. With her left hand she withdrew a small dagger—the only piece of gear they were issued on the run—and in one fluid motion, leapt forward onto her stomach, stabbing the dagger into the ice, stretching out with her right hand to grab Lythrael. The dagger acted like pivot-point, and Gwyn's legs arced toward the ledge like a pendulum.
Now both women careened over the edge of the cliff. Gwynahra’s dagger in the ice was all that kept them from plummeting to their deaths. Her left arm holding the dagger, still crested the lip of the cliff, but her right arm and leg dangled over the hungry chasm. Lythrael’s entire bodyweight hung on Gwynahra’s right arm. Lord and Lady, help me, she prayed. She felt the dagger begin to move, to lose traction as the combined weight of the women, and Rigsvaka’s ravenous gravity, conspired to devour them.
A quick-thinking recruit jumped on Gwynahra’s arm, keeping the dagger firmly embedded, and the women alive. In short order they were dragged to safety, both trembling.
Their head instructor Lord Cadfael, arrived on scene—apparently he was bringing up the rear column of recruits. “You’re both uninjured?”
Neither answered, instead, each performed a cursory exam of their bodies.
“They seem to be, sir,” another recruit said. “We checked them over. Damn close call though!”
“Gwynahra, Lythrael, if you’re not seriously hurt, then I expect you to get up and move. Motion is life. If you standstill in hostile territory, you’ll soon dine with the Lord and Lady.” Cadfael glanced around at the dozen or so recruits milling around. “Everyone, move!”
Lythrael got up first and proffered a hand to her. “I owe you my life, sister. I’ll not soon forget that debt.”
Gwyn took her arm and stood, and they both ran.

Location: Lyfjaberg / Planet: Rigsvaka
----------------------------

Thousands of Rigsvaka Military Academy recruits and instructors crowded the training grounds at Lyfjaberg—the Hill of Healing. It was the RMA’s version of a medical school. It catered to the needs of future ship’s surgeons, as well as Tyrmundr combat medics—the Valkyrie.
Gwynahra sat in the top tier of raised-benches, overlooking the simulated battlefield. A platoon of soldiers in Powered Battle Armor was closing on an enemy-held position. Their red and white-striped amdifynn-cloaks fluttered in a biting-breeze that tore across the field. They marched at a deliberate pace, neither too fast, nor too slow; relentlessly closing on the enemy.
The shrill bark of energy weapons warred with the howling wind. Red beams of low-energy laser-fire speckled the advancing Tyrmundr. None would be permanently injured—as this was only a demonstration, but their intelligent armor would inject the site of a hit with a powerful neural stimulator, causing pain far beyond what they might expect at the hands of the enemy. It ensured they did everything possible not to get shot.
The Tyrmundr re-deployed their amdifynn-cloaks in front of themselves; they went rigid like shields—which was exactly what they were designed to do. The barrage of weapons fire was deflected by their shield-wall.
As the fire on their frontal position began to die down, another assault came from their flanks. This time, area-of-effect munitions, such as stun-grenades, rained down on them. Like a hard-backed millipede, the Tyrmundr curled around each other, their shields facing outward. As they bent their ranks, the shields curled above them as well, forming a near dome-like structure. The maneuver complete, they charged.
Several soldiers dropped from the defensive bubble, which ancient humans—the Romans—called the testudo—the tortoise. The wounded were abandoned by necessity as the testudo continued moving. But were they really abandoned? Of course not, she thought. Gwynahra looked for Lythrael in the sky above the fallen, but couldn’t yet pick her out. Then she saw her. Under great, black wings, the Valkyrie glided down to her charge.
An enemy began firing at Lythrael as she bent to tend to the wounded soldier. With augmented-speed, Lythrael rolled, got up on one knee, and fired back, taking out the threat. Without a breath she was back over to her patient. Her black wings spread above him and around him, completely encircling him. Under this defensive structure, she could administer whatever healing he needed. If he was gravely wounded, she would evacuate him from the battlefield.
It seemed that this recruit was lucky, his wounds only minor. Her charge healed, Lythrael straightened her black wings, crouched, then leapt up; the contragrav in her Eir-class Medic’s Armor pulling her skyward. Then she vanished, stealth engaged, hovering invisibly above the battlefield. The Valkyrie would wait until she was needed again.


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