Winter Song, Chapter 4



The world through your eyes is full of pain and wonder, made even stranger by the whirlwind of voices shrieking for your attention:
“The Mizar Quartet are Sol-type hydrogen-fusing dwarf stars–”
“Isheimuri lingua confirmed as mix of Standard and Icelandic–”
Some voices verge on making sense, but most babble gibberish. Each is accompanied by a dizzying sense of vertigo, and little shocks deep inside your body. Occasionally you smell burning. Sometimes you taste colours, can hear, flickering jeering shadows.
“Absolute magnitude uses the same convention as visual–”
You are dimly aware that the nanophytes within you that keep your muscle tone even as you waste away are locked in a desperate fight against the cannibal predations of the remaining lifegel in a near sub-atomic battle of the idiots. Either through accident or a design flaw, the inhibitors appear to have failed, and if left to themselves will eat you alive.
“The Long Night was the longest conflict since the Hundred Years War–”
A strangely familiar voice cries out, “I won’t lie down and die!”
“The Isheimur populace is likely to suffer genetic drift and disease–”
The man Ragnar’s voice is a rumble from a mouth full of misshapen teeth, his words unintelligible.
“Pappi: estimated height one-metre-eighty, mass eighty kilos–”
The woman beside him answers, her voice lower. Her hair is lighter, but her features equally mismatched, one shoulder slightly higher than the other.
“Oedipus: son of King Laius and Jocasta of Thebes–”
You realize that the voice refusing to die was your own, but it sounds strange. It should be alto but is tenor instead. Perhaps your voice-box was damaged in the accident?
“Pantropy lost favour as Terraforming grew easier–”
The accident. The pain increases as a shard of memory brings with its suddenly perfect recall the accompanying agony: The smell of burning dust, the isolation, the heat. After a while your throat hurts with the scream – which tails off into a whimper.
“A quasar at absolute magnitude −25.5 is 100 times brighter than our galaxy–”
The girl – barely a woman – Bera strokes your head. “Hush, Pappi, he kannske skilja you,” she says. Her breasts ooze milk, and a part of you realizes that while she has given birth in the last three weeks for there to be lactation, there is no sound of a baby. The rational corner of your mind tucks this away for later, but the animal part that has control has you lunging forward on all fours, scrabbling at her clothes.
“Humanity only found other sentient life after four centuries of spaceflight–”
“Neh!” The sting of her palms raining down on your face and head are microscopic compared to the waves of agony that ripple across you, but still they are enough to make you pause. You stare up at her dark hair, wide-set eyes and full mouth and wonder what her lips would taste like if you ripped them from her face.
“Oedipus left for dead with a shepherd but adopted–”
“He eats like an hungradur dyr,” Bera says, becoming more understandable with each sentence, as the lingua-weave begins to take effect. “He almost choked on that meat we fed him before. But he can eat elda food now. No more breast-feeding–”
“An Icelandic chieftain was politician, lawyer, and policeman combined–”
Some residual decorum makes you lurch away from her into a corner.
“Grain was only grown in limited quantites in Iceland–”
“Agh, he’s vomiting! He splashed my best boots!” Pappi kicks you. You growl, but you are too busy gazing at the pool of vomit to attack.
“The Mizar B pair mass approximately 1.6 times that of Sol–”
“No, Pappi! He doesn’t know what he’s doing. The horsemeat was too much for him to digest at this stage of his bati.”
“In Iceland, the chieftain’s position could be bought or sold–”
“Well, keep him away. Oh, what’s he doing now? He’s eating his own puke!”
“Nanotechnology requires vast consumption of energy–”
The undigested horsemeat still tastes much as it did before, though now with a rancid flavour that may be the bile that you’ve brought up with it, but there are also others; salt and a metallic taste. By squinting you can zoom right in and see shapes invisible to an unenhanced human eye crawling among the chunks of meat. You have vomited up nanophytes with the food. From somewhere comes the knowledge that vomit is as corrosive as battery acid – their tiny carapaces must be almost indestructible to withstand it.
“Sheep farming was the most common type in Iceland–”
You know you must eat it to get the nanophytes back into your system, but Bera clings onto you, trying to pull you away as you gobble the vomited meat.
“Isheimur has a lower water content than Terra–”
“No, no, Loki! Don’t eat that! Here!” She undoes her blouse but you ignore her, concentrating on re-ingesting the refugee nanophytes. You don’t know whether they’re still locked onto you as their source/target, but you can’t risk them eating the planet in some long-term runaway disaster. You brush against her face; you feel wetness, and note that she is weeping, and another corner of your broken mind wonders why.
Finally, when you’ve eaten all the meat and licked up the liquid, you allow her to guide you to her breast. “It’d give Palli’s death meaning if his milk were to save another’s life,” she whispers.
“Isheimur’s mass is 0.80 of Terra, but it’s gravity is only 0.67 – sub-optimal for atmospheric retention–”
“Jao,” Pappi growls assent.
“At 1.7 AUs, its year is 2.85 Terran years–”
She sobs, even as she strokes your head. “This is the last time I’ll do this,” she says to the Ragnar-man as you nuzzle her nipple. “I wasn’t going to let him feed today, but if it stops him eating his own puke, then I’ll make an exception. But after this, no more breastfeeding: You can whip me or starve me, but I’ll not do it again. I can’t cope with this. It’s like an eighty kilo baby with the habits of a wild animal.”
“Isheimur’s year comprises 1096 days of 22 hours 37 minutes–”
“Agreed,” Ragnar says, and you see the surprise dart across her face. He turns to go. “I’ve no desire to see any more of this sick, feral creature, anyway, even if he has displayed almost superhuman powers of recovery. Odinn’s Beard – to think that he only came out of his stupor yesterday!”
“Hunger is my friend.” The words echo through your mind as you swallow the warm, rich milk. “When I’m trying to lose weight, I embrace my hunger–”
You release her nipple, which she rubs.
The fool that said that clearly never had hunger eating them from within like a black hole, sucking everything into it, consuming it yet still wanting more more more-
“Isheimur is so cold, its air so thin that the colony’s long-term survival is marginal–”
“Stop it!” you scream, clutching your head. Bera frantically hushes you, tries to pour sugared water into your mouth, but you gag.
For a while, as if taking pity, the voices fade away almost to nothing…
“We’ll feed him from our stores for another few days,” Ragnar says.
“You still here?” Bera says. “I thought you’d seen enough of him?”
His laugh is bitter and mocking, devoid of humour. “I can’t help it. I get no pleasure from watching him, but there is a sort of horrible fascination.” Ragnar sighs. “If he keeps this up, we won’t be able to put him to work.” He says, “Just my luck that I’ve probably saved someone with an advanced psychosis. If it’s schizophrenia, that would explain why he was wandering.”
“Schizo–” Bera tries to wrap her lips around the word, which is clearly unfamiliar. Part of you would like to plunge your rigid member into her, but you have suckled at her breast, and another part of you analyzes your memory of mores to determine why this is wrong.
“Schizophrenics,” Ragnar says, “were often considered possessed in the olden days, before people understood personality disorders. Most likely that his family tried to care for him, but finally gave up when he became too much trouble.” When he continues, he seems to be talking to himself. “Food’s always so scarce even at the end of a good summer that we can’t afford to pour it down an invalid’s throat if there’s no chance of recovery.”
“What are you going to do?” Bera asks, moving between you and the Ragnar-man.
But he doesn’t seem to have heard her, instead saying, “The climate, even down here in the tropics, is so harsh that still the toughest Terran-descended crops grow poorly, and we live on the very edge of survival.”
“What are you saying?” Bera says. The fear in her voice hooks your attention away from the pain and the whirling madness of the world.
Ragnar shrugs. “What if we had left him where he lay? No one would have blamed us, leaving an outlaw to die at the teeth of trolls or snolfurs.”
“But you didn’t leave him, did you?” Bera says. “When you brought him here, you made him your responsibility.”
“Aye,” Ragnar says. “No good deed goes unpunished.”
“So what are you going to do now?” Bera says. “Take him back up into the hills? Murder him and toss his body into a geysir? Eat him, if we get hungry enough?”
“Don’t be silly, girl,” Ragnar says. “Remember who you’re talking to.”
“I know who I’m talking to, my lord,” the girl says. You hear the wobble of fear in her voice, but she ploughs on. “A man who’s sworn to uphold the law and customs our forefathers embraced. And now talks of leaving a sick man in the snow?”
“I can remember who I am without needing your reminding.” He leans into her face; you see her swallow, but she doesn’t flinch. “I’ve worked long and hard to earn and keep my people’s respect. I fought off three tribes of trolls at the Battle of Giri Pass. I’ve won the Silver Shield for my verse from the Althing, and been compared with the legendary Egil Skallagrimsson.” He bangs the wooden pillar supporting the barn’s roof as if he is one of the Viking warriors of Old Earth beating out his defiance on his shield. “What have you ever done, girly? Apart from open your legs the minute a man looks at you. Bringing shame on yourself and I, who was foolish enough to take you in! That’ll teach me to think out loud in front of a chit of a girl who misunderstands the processes of thought! I know who I am, girly – remember who you are!”
He stalks from the barn, leaving her shivering, but when she looks up at you, her eyes blaze with triumph. “The danger with myths and heroes, Loki, is that sometimes the myth starts to become more real to the heroes than the truth.”

Copyright Angry Robot Books, used with permission.

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