When she leaves you alone for a little while, you taste the straw that is your bedding. It’s almost inedible, but overwhelmed by hunger you force it down. When she returns and catches you, she scolds you. “I’ve bought you extra gruel,” she adds. “It’s all there is.”
You get most of it in your mouth, finishing it within seconds. You lick the plate clean with what the rational part of your mind flags with inappropriate haste (inappropriate to what?), then you nuzzle amongst the straw and lick it clean.
“Oh, Loki.” Bera gently touches your arm. “You have to start behaving more like a man, and less an animal, or Ragnar will have all the excuse he needs to get rid of you.” You look up at her, drinking in her features. She says, “Does my looks repel even you, my child-man? Or do you not care? He didn’t.”
Then, as if the food has awoken some animal from its slumbers the world is again full of voices shouting mostly meaningless words:
“Iceland had no fruit-bearing trees–”
“Humanity has split into a myriad of factions–”
“Isheimur’s low gravity and inability to generate carbon dioxide through vulcanism render the colony sub-optimal, unlikely to return the company’s investment–”
People behave as if you’re a zoo exhibit. Like the tides the pain that accompanies the strangeness (and yes, the terrible beauty) recedes for a while, before sweeping in to the shoreline of your mind and you start gibbering again.
One of the gawpers is a pregnant woman who nudges her friend, an older woman. “See? He’s possessed: Jabbering like he’s got a head full of spirits. I reckon that he’s a seidr.”
“Don’t let our Gothi hear you talk like that,” Bera says from the doorway. Even though part of your mind is still in the here-and-now and you’re aware of your surroundings, you hadn’t noticed her arrive. “He’ll flay you alive if he hears you talking about warlocks and spirits. You know how he is.”
“Who are you to tell us what we should talk about, girl?” The pregnant woman backs toward the doorway. “His science is failing. Our founders wanted us to keep to the old ways. Well, the Norse Gods and magic are among the old ways.”
“The old ways included birth without anaesthetic, Salbjerg,” Bera says. “Think that that’s one old way we should return to? Our founders wanted us to cherry-pick the best of the old ways, not embrace every superstition.”
“Perhaps Pappi’s grown tolerant in his old age?” Salbjerg says to her friend. “I remember a time when a chit of a girl who got herself knocked up without keeping hold of the man’s dick would have had the skin peeled from her back one layer at a time.”
“Or maybe Pappi is the Pappi,” the older woman says, leering.
Bera doesn’t answer at first. Then she looks up. “Do you fear that I lay with your Bjarney, Salbjerg? You’ve nothing to worry about. He’s never even glanced at me. I promise you that.”
“Of course I wasn’t worried, you little slut.” The flush rising to Salbjerg’s face gives the lie to that. “Why would my man want a nothing like you?”
You watch Bera’s jaw work, and a part of you feels a surge of protectiveness toward her. She shouldn’t have to take such abuse. Ignoring the voices momentarily, you let out a low growl and both the women step back.
“You should go now,” Bera says. “Before Loki decides that he prefers cannibalism to starving to death. He might take a chunk out of you, Salbjerg.”
The women back away, muttering, and when they’ve gone, Bera laughs softly to herself. “Quite the lioness defending her cub, aren’t I, Loki? Who’d have thought milk-and-water Bera would bare her teeth so?”
But you arch to let the voices out, and clutch at your head, she holds you, shushing you.
Later, when the smell of burning has faded away, and the pain has receded to a level that’s almost bearable, you fall silent.
Bera is joined by a ruddy faced giant. She says to him, “Help me get him into the wheelbarrow, Yngi.”
You whimper when you try to stand, but when they ease their grip, you grab a pillar, and hold yourself up with it. They grip you under an arm each, and Bera nudges you toward the wheelbarrow, where they settle you into it.
“Thanks, Yngi,” she says.
“What are you going to do with him?” Yngi says.
“I’m going to wheel him outside,” Bera says.
The Other is pushing at you, pushing you down into a pit of blackness. Your skull isn’t large enough to contain both of you. You moan and clutch the sides of your head. The Other has awoken, and his voice is the loudest of them all, begging to be allowed his body back – as if it is his, the madman.
“Hush, now,” Bera croons. She pushes the wheelbarrow, grunting with the effort, and the world tilts alarmingly. You would get out, but the effort makes the barrow lurch, and at her urging you sit still.
“Ooh, look!” calls out the woman Thorbjorg who visited the barn earlier. “Bera’s got herself a pram! Taking baby for a walk?”
There are subdued laughs at this, but Hilda says fiercely, “Thorbjorg! She may have lapsed, but no woman deserves mockery after losing a child!”
Thorbjorg looks sulky.
“What are you doing, Bera?” Hilda says.
“He’s permanently hungry,” Bera says. “And then I realized there are lichens he can eat.” Your world tips and she half-laughs, half-cries, “Aagh! He’s falling!”
The grass is sweet and juicy, and as you lie prone on the ground you tear at it with your teeth, feeling some trickle down your chin. “Don’t eat that, Loki,” Bera says. “You can’t digest grass. Come on now, leave it!”
A noise catches your attention, just for a moment. A man whose name you don’t know – he has never been into the barn – dances on stilt-like legs. “Bera haad a little lamb,” he sings as he stops. “Baa, baa,” he bleats in that thin little voice that disrupted your eating.
A part of you notes, The young of all species share common characteristics; large eyes, small, thin voices. Although from his size he’s merely mimicking a cub, what’s more interesting is that you responded to the stimulus of what you thought was a youngster in distress. Maybe that’s a sign that this pseudo-autism is losing its grip.
You ignore the voice, and return to chewing the grass. At the same time the man stops his little dance and stands normally as Bera shouts, “Stop it, Thorir!”
Your chewing is again interrupted, by the man bleating, “I’m another of Ra-a-gn-a-ar’s little lost lambs; please let me suck on your titties, Bera-a-a–” His bleating is cut short by a thud, and he topples forward.
Ragnar stands over him, opening and closing his right hand, rubbing at its knuckles. “If you weren’t my son-in-law, Thorir, we’d be duelling at dawn tomorrow for that insult.”
“I– I didn’t mean to insult you,” Thorir says. “I was merely teasing Bera.”
“Even if what you say is true,” Ragnar says. “Your insult of my foster-daughter is an implicit slur of me. Though I would expect nothing more of Thorir the Stupid. How did you persuade Hilda you were worthy of her at the Spring Fair? Ye Gods, you must be good at shagging, because you’re good for nothing else. Get up, you cur!”
Thorir drags his knees toward his head, and pushes himself upright.
Your head is yanked back, the pain so excruciating that you your fugue is broken, as Bera shrieks, “Don’t hurt him!”
“You were eating grass?” the red-faced chieftain bellows over background laughter that subsides instantly at his glare.
“It’s the nanophytes,” you say, though you don’t understand half of the words that the Other pushes out of your mouth; he’s wresting control from you. “I’ve lost so much weight to the lifegel that the nanophytes have taken control. They’re assimilating them, but that requires energy. I’d need to eat a lot anyway to regain the lost mass, but on top of that I need thousands of calories a day. Every day. I’m so hungry, I’ll eat anything – even if I can’t digest it the nanophytes are swarming up into my gullet and converting the fuel directly.”
Ragnar is staring at you with both pity and revulsion. “You can talk. Even if half is gibberish.”
“The lingua-weave,” you say. “It intercepts what you say in your tongue while it’s still in my auditory nerves. That’s why I can’t watch your lips – it confuses the signals. When I reply in Anglish, it intercepts the signal again, takes control of the mouth and vocal cords, and turns it into Isheimuri.”
Ragnar clearly doesn’t understand. “Stop. Prattling.” He separates the words for emphasis. “Do something useful. Help the women work.”
You stare at him, still chewing on a mouthful of cud, as he stomps away.-
“The AIs’ presence is probably the one unifying thing that stops humanity from exterminating itself–”
“Come and help us pick lichens, Bera,” a woman says, baring her teeth in a rictus that you catalogue as a smile. Her teeth are crooked and irregular, but her lips are full, and again you feel a surge of desire for her.
“This report’s conclusion is that without constant access to technology the Isheimur colony’s long-term survival is unlikely –
She looks down at the gown that Bera draped over you, and her face is red, but she smiles. “My,” she says, “he certainly is a big boy, isn’t he, Bera?” You interpret this as reciprocatory interest, but before you can reach for her, Bera pushes you back into the wheeled device.
“Hormonal imbalance,” the Other says in that too-deep voice. “Testosterone and adrenaline will be re-absorbed into the bloodstream.”
You find it difficult to concentrate on anything. The sky is too big, the suns too bright, the wind too chill. Absently, the cataloguing part of you notices the absence of odours, as if the weather is so cold that it’s frozen them. You rotate your head around, staring at the sky and grassy hillocks that lead up to hills dotted with white blobs, that the cataloguing part identifies as sheep, domestic animal kept for meat and wool.
“Sheep,” you say, tasting the word.
Bera laughs. “You’re getting better!” Her words turn into a sob.
“You see this?” Bera says, pointing to a plant that covers several nearby rocks. “It’s edible moss, called lichens. We’re going to pick it, and you eat what you want, Loki, and we put the rest into this bag, here. You see?” She crouches on all fours, and you notice her haunches straining against her dress. She picks some of the plant, shows you, then loads it into the canvas bag that she is carrying. “Okay?”
You don’t answer, but pick at the lichen. However, it all goes into your mouth, and none of it into the bag.
Suddenly Bera stiffens. “Loki, do not move – not if you want to live.”
You stiffen, and watch her climb slowly to her feet. She calls out, “Asgerd, there’s a snolfur here. Can you make some noise?”
On cue, the others let out whoops and shrieks and yells, and stomp toward them in a long straight line. Bera nods, and you slowly turn your head, and follow her gaze to where something like a metre and a half-high weasel is backing away, baring sabre teeth. It turns and speeds away with a liquid, rippling motion belying its stocky frame.
“That,” Bera says to you, and lets out a long sigh, “Was a snolfur. It probably wouldn’t have attacked you. They prefer to feed on carrion. But then again, they’re not usually this far north so early in the fall. So maybe things are changing.”
“It’s likely to be a sign of a hard winter,” The woman Asgerd explains. “The longer the snolfurs stay toward the South Pole before venturing north the better.”
She seems one of only a few people, with Bera and the man Yngi, to be friendly.
You sketch a smile, and return to picking the lichens. They are dark-green and have a curious musty odour.
Most of the lichens end up in your belly rather than in the sack, but no one seems to mind. The others seem content to ignore you as long as you do not eat grass. The cataloguing part of your mind describes this as appropriate behaviour.
Eating grass is clearly not appropriate behaviour.
There are days of this routine. Some days you have pangs of hunger, and you eat straw or rip bits of wood from the beams if you are indoors, or if you are outside, grass or even earth (the grubs in it are tasty). Little by little you totter around the barn. Your legs are still unsteady, but your body grow stronger every day. Your mind, however, is still fragmented. There is the cataloguing part, there is you, and there is the Other.
Then one morning you awaken, and you feel completely different. The pain has gone. Your head feels clearer than – you don’t know when, because one moment your feet were on fire, and the next you’re here. Wherever here is. You’re lying on straw in a dark building that smells faintly of animals. The smells seem as ingrained as the stains on the dark wooden beams.
A woman, barely a girl enters. Her name is Bera, you realize, although you don’t know how you know. You suspect that your companion has been assimilating data while you’ve been – where?
“Gon t’ayn,” she mouths before you can look away, and her voice in your head says “Good morning.” The translation module will soon synchronize – you hope – but in the meantime you’re careful not to look at her lips, which will be moving in the local dialect.
“Gon t’ayn,” you say back, in your too-deep voice, in what you hope is a serviceable accent, and her eyes widen, and slowly, shyly, she starts to smile.
“Well, well, this is progress, indeed,” she says. “Ragnar will be delighted with this, Loki.”
“Who’s Loki?” you say, wondering whether you’ve misunderstood something. “My name’s Karl. Karl Allman.”
Copyright Angry Robot Books, used with permission.