Crossing Ginnungagap

The long sleep

Originally published: 13th October, 2003

By Gror

(C)opyright is a nasty word but the real author would appreciate being given the credit/blame they deserve and a link back to this site.

Crossing Ginnungagap 1

Originally published: 13th October, 2003

Excerpts from the Encyclopaedia Mimirica:

Palomar 5 Globular Cluster

Globular clusters are relatively dense groups of stars that are typically at least 12 billion years old. They formed with the Milky Way but often orbit not in the main plane of the galaxy, where the Sun and most other stars reside, but in a vast and sparsely populated halo that surrounds the entire galaxy.

The newly studied cluster, called Palomar 5, is now calculated by the researchers to be at the furthest point in its orbit, high above the plane of the galaxy and 75,000 light-years from Earth. Its streams span more than 13,000 light-years in space. On the sky as seen from Earth, the structure occupies the space of 20 full moons. In about 100 million years it will plunge down through the galactic plane.

Meanwhile, the cluster is being torn apart by a process similar to what generates ocean tides on Earth, Odenkirchen explained. The Moon pulls the Earth more on the near side than the far side, but centrifugal force creates a bulge in the oceans on both sides of the planet.

Stars from Palomar 5 undergo similar tidal forces, Odenkirchen said, due to the relatively tremendous mass that exists at the center of the Milky Way. Stars on the near side of the cluster are pulled slightly closer to the center of the galaxy. They then have slightly less far to go to make their orbit around the galactic center, so they move ahead of the rest of the cluster.

Stars on the far side of the cluster are pulled away from the galactic center. Forced to trace a longer orbit around the galaxy, they then lag other stars on the cluster, creating a trailing stream.

Odenkirchen said the patchy nature of the two star streams indicate that the tidal disruptions must have been episodic in the past, rather than continuous. He said the data, collected as part of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, represents the first observational proof that globular clusters are in fact torn apart in this manner, as astronomers had suspected.

The Milky Way is also known to disrupt other galaxies, called dwarf galaxies, generating similar star streams as a smaller galaxy -- which originated somewhere else -- is swallowed whole.

Eventually, studies of Palomar 5 and other globular clusters being torn apart should help astronomers improve estimates of unseen "dark matter" that is known to make up a healthy percentage of the Milky Way's mass budget, the researchers said.

Source; Eva Grabel and Michael Odenkirchen, Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, in a report to the 200th Meeting of the American Astronomical Society, 03 June, 2002.

Noto bene: This record is from extremely ancient archives, some of the oldest in the Empire; their authenticity is dubious. Many of the oldest archives were lost or deliberately altered during the Time of Troubles. Be wary of arcane references; at no other point in the records is there any mention of the 'American Astronomical Society,' if indeed it existed at all.

The Space Ark Sleipnir

The Space Ark Sleipnir carried mostly evacuees from the Scandinavian nations of Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Iceland; thus its name (Sleipnir was the eight-legged mount of Odin, the chief god of the ancient Norse pantheon). It carried a crew of 100, and a human cargo of 200,000 passengers, the last of whom entered their cold-sleep capsules in late 2104 A. D. (Old Reckoning; see conversion tables in the Appendices).

The Sleipnir's first destination upon departure from Earth was the double-star system of Procyon. The system has no planets, it was not the ship's ultimate destination. Procyon B, however, is a white dwarf, a dead star of extremely compact mass and high gravity. The ship was to pass within a few thousand kloms of Procyon B, in a gravity whip manuver that would increase its velocity dramatically with no comcomitant expenditure of fuel (always in short supply on the Arks). With careful use of directional thrusters, the Sleipnir would emerge from the manuver on a proper course for its destination of the Rigel system, moving at a signifigant fraction of lightspeed.

Astrogation, however, was in its infancy in those days; there was an unknown third companion in the Procyon system, a neutron star which travelled a wildly erratic orbit. For most of its orbit, it was further from its system than the Oort Cloud is from Old Sol. It was the Sleipnir's misfortune to arrive in-system when the neutron star was at perigee. Rather than the planned close approach to Procyon B, the ship encountered the fierce tidal pull of the neutron star. The crew, through prodigies of exertion and valor, managed to avoid impacting the neutron star, but the ship passed less than 10 kloms above its surface. Its trajectory was altered by only a few degrees of arc, but this was enough to send it hurtling at 30% of lightspeed above the galactic plane. They were gradually moving further and further off into intergalactic space.

After a period of despair, during which time almost a dozen crewmembers took their own lives, Assistant Astrogator Lars Herulfsson discovered the one chance they had to avoid becoming the fastest tomb ever launched by humanity; a small remnant of the Palomar 5 Globular Cluster (small by astronomical standards - upon arrival, they found that it contained more than 5000 stars), that over time had been drawn further in towards the ecliptic. It lay close enough to their computed trajectory to be reached by using their directional thrusters to alter their course enough to intersect the Cluster. It would require the expenditure of every last iota of their remaining fuel. After a long, fierce, and bitter debate, this plan was adopted.

The course-altering manuover was performed, and the crew settled down to routine maintenance tasks. At their present speed, they would reach the cluster remnant (hopefully renamed Yggdrasil, the great tree which contained all the worlds of ancient Norse mythology) in 150 years.

Time passed; the original crew aged and, one by one, retired to their cold-sleep capsules, replaced at their positions by their children. These too, grew old, and went to their frozen rest, while a third generation assumed the duties of maintaining the ship and its human cargo.

When the ship finally arrived at the outskirts of the Yggdrasil Cluster, frantic calculations were performed to determine the precise order of stars they must use in their gravitational braking manuver (their only hope of shedding their frightful velocity, and the exact opposite of the gravitational whip which had launched them on their journey). At last, they were able to calculate that by passing through the exosphere of a red giant star on the very borders of the Cluster, they would be able to scoop enough hydrogen from its outer layers to provide them with sufficient fuel for manuvering purposes. This was vital, as they could not be certain that they could alter their trajectory enough to achieve the series of stellar encounters they would need to finally come to rest, by the braking manuver alone.

Finally, after a series of nerve-wracking close stellar encounters, during which the crew suffered terribly from exhaustion, sleep deprivation, and mental fatigue, the Sleipnir lost all of her excess velocity. The crew were able to manuver her at normal speeds, and came to a unanimous decision to search for a habitable planet within the Cluster itself, rather than try to fulfill their original mission to reach the Rigel system.

Luckily, they found the Cluster abrim with planets; most of them were uninhabitable, requiring extensive terraforming to allow Earthlife to achieve a toehold, but they found enough gas giants to allow them to replenish their fuel as needed.

After a search of several years, they found a planet circling a G-type star at the limits of viability, with the basic requirement they needed; a reducing nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere. The planet was slightly larger than Earth, with approximately 75% of its surface area covered by ocean. There was one major landmass, extending southwards from the northern polar regions. Several small island chains dotted the equatorial seas, but the southern hemisphere, aside from the ice-covered polar region, was almost completely landless. The planet must have recently undergone a period of extensive, world-wide tectonic activity, for there were tall, sharp-peaked mountain ranges all through the northern continent, and even the island chains were mountainous.

The new world was generally somewhat colder than Earth, due to its orbit being somewhat larger than that of the Homeworld, and the sun (named Skinfaxi, after the bright horse that drew the chariot of Day) cooler and dimmer than Old Sol. Also the axial tilt was more extreme. Therefore, the seasons were longer, with winter starting earlier and lasting longer in the northern latitudes.

Due to the planets frigid, mountainous nature, and in keeping with their tradition of Norse mythological nomenclature, they named it Jotunheim.


Crossing Ginnungagap 2

Originally published: 12th November, 2003

Bey hated coldsleep.

He always felt frozen through when he woke. The meditechs assured him that it was psychosomatic; the sleep capsule wouldn't allow him to wake completely until his internal temperature was nominal.

He didn't care what they said; he was cold.

He sat up slowly, feeling the stiffness of decades of immobility in his limbs. Despite the micromanipulators that massaged his muscles during the long process of awakening, every joint felt as though he had wrestled three falls out of four with his older brother Bjorn the night before.

The night before, he thought as he climbed gingerly out of the capsule; that was thirty years ago.

He was approached by a meditech with a clipboard as he began a series of stretching exercises. "Good afternoon, Captain... Lindstrom;" said the tech, with a glance at the board. "How are we feeling?"

"He's three hundred years old, junior, and just climbed out of a frozen coffin - how do you think he feels?" said a sardonic voice behind Bey. He turned, and winced at a twinge in his neck. Rags Johannsen, short, blond, and burly, stood several capsules away, massaging the small of his back.

"We have to ask, sir," said the tech, somewhat defensively; "it's procedure. And besides," he continued in a surer tone, "we want to catch any ill effects quickly."

Ill effects, Bey though sourly. You mean hibernation sickness.

It still happened; despite thousands of years of perfecting the process that allowed humans to survive the long years required for interstellar travel, on rare occasions, something went wrong. Microscopic ice crystals could form in the brain while the body's temperature was being slowly lowered to the point where hibernation was possible. The crystals destroyed the tissue they formed in, and often damaged surrounding tissue as well. When the affected person awoke, pieces of their mind were missing. Since the damage mostly occured in the neocortex, very often critical thinking abilities were lost. The affected person would still know himself, have memories, be [i]almost[/i] who he was before the lid of the capsule closed over them, and they began their long sleep.

But there were things they could no longer do; like the irritating memory that hovers just on the edge of emergence, tasks that were once routine proved impossible to grasp. Bey's friend Ivar, an astrogator, had suffered such a loss. He had seen him sitting frozen at his console in the testing room, where you went immediatley upon awakening, hands that once flew over the controls like those of a concert pianist poised uncertainly in mid-air, as though they had never touched a board before. And the look on his face - the haunting, stricken knowledge of loss, of reaching for something once known that was no longer there. He had begged - Ivar had begged! - the evaluators for chance after chance, his face taut with concentration, as though he could will himself past the hole in his mind.

Finally, he had sceamed in frustration, calm, unflappable Ivar, and pounded his fists against the board until they were bloody. The staff had had to restrain and sedate him to make him stop.

Bey began performing simple quadratic equations in his head, just to be sure he still could.

"Gentlemen," said the 'tech, in a long-suffering voice, "we'll need you to report to the testing room as soon as you're ready. We're kind of pressed for time - we're waking the entire crew this time."

Bey started. Rags burst out, "The entire crew? Why? That's never been done!"

"I don't know," the younger man said, "but I've heard it's happening throughout the entire Fleet. There must be something big up - no one is saying anything."

The buzz of conversation that followed that statement was cut short by a curt voice from the hatch opening into sickbay proper. "And some people say too much."

Bey turned - damn my neck! - to see a tall, spare figure in black fatigues dominating the hatch. Commader Palmqvist, the XO. His lupine features contrasting with an immacualtely-trimmed goatee, he continued while the occupants of the coldsleep chamber snapped to attention, "These gentlemen will have to forgo testing for the present. Captain Beowulf Lindstrom, Captain Ragnar Johansen, officers call in half an hour - attend in fatigues, this will be a working meeting. The rest of you -" this to the NCO's and enlisted men - "report to your sections and stand by for orders." He turned his mild brown gaze on the uneasy young medical tech, but his voice was anything but mild. "I'd keep a lid on the scuttlebutt if I were you, Mister; unless you want to be assigned to patching micrometeorite punctures - from the outside"

Palmqvist spun on his heel and strode out of the compartment, with Bey and Rags running to catch up to him. "Sir?" said Rags, "can you tell us what's up?" Palmqvist spoke over his shoulder as they left sickbay and entered a general corridor; "You know I can't, Mister. You'll find out what you need to know in the Wardroom."

He stopped and turned so quickly that the two Jotunheimers nearly collided with him. "I can say this, however," he said, in a softer voice, "prepare for planetfall drills commencing immediately after the briefing." He turned again and resumed his rapid pace down the corridor, leaving his subordinates staring at each other.

Planetfall! It sang through Bey. They've found a system!


Crossing Ginnungagap 3

Originally published: 14th December, 2003

Excerpts from the Encyclopaedia Mimirica


Class M planet, orbiting the G-type star Ever Bright (the name the giants of Norse myth gave to the Sun). Located on the outer fringes of the Yggdrasil Cluster.

First Landing in 2254 A.D. (Old Reckoning) by the crew of the Space Ark Sleipnir. Discovery and settlement of Jotunheim was accidental, following the Sleipnir's near disaster at Procyon B. Jotunheim is slightly larger than Standard (Note; all Standard measurements are based on the semi-mythical Homeworld, Earth [Terra; Tellus]: see Origin Theories in the Appendices), at 48,000 kloms. Its orbit is larger than Standard at 1.2 A.U., and its axial tilt more extreme, leading to a climate signifigantly cooler than optimal.

While the planets larger size might indicate a stronger gravitational field, this is not so. The nickel-iron core is actually somewhat smaller than Standard, leading to a field of .9 'Gs.' This, and the colder climate, have selected for mean body sizes larger than the human norm. The height of the average Jotunheimer is 2 meters, although individuals of 2.5 meters in height are not uncommon.

Native life consisted solely of lichen-analogs on the sparse arable land at the time of discovery, while the planet-wide ocean teemed with plankton-like plant life. In areas where vulcanism heated the normally frigid waters, however, these often grew in amazing size and complexity. These proved unable to complete with the more vigorous and adaptable Earthlife which arrived with the first settlers; especially after these had undergone genetic alterations to accomodate them to the harsher environments of their new home. The aboriginal lifeforms exist now solely at the polar regions, in areas specifically maintained for their preservation.

Bey had not thought that he could possibly sleep while they approached the unknown world awaiting them, but the past few weeks of intense activity had caught up to him when he settled into his acceleration couch. Twenty days of constant planetfall drills in the simulators, often to the point of exhaustion ("If you can guarantee that you'll always be rested and fresh when you have to go down," Commander Palmqvist had said, in his best 'you-idiot-must-I-explain-everything-to-you' voice, "then I'll let you perform the drills only after a full sleep shift. Otherwise you'll prepare for every eventuality.") and beyond, had taken their toll. He dozed while the pilots manuvered to put them into geosynchronous orbit.

The world had been thouroughly surveyed while the Fleet was still decelerating. There had been no trace whatsoever of any technological civilization; no neutrino or radio emissions; no evidence of the by-products of manufacuring processes; no evidence of any extraplanetary travel. The night side of the planet showed no lights at all.

Which signifies nothing, thought Bey; Jotunhein had been extensively settled for millenia, and only the capital of Utgard was visible from orbit.

He dreamed uneasily of his home as he had last seen it; a star of violet radiance, as the light from massive laser batteries drove the Fleet out and away into interstellar space. Violet light flared before the Fleet as well, reflected from the huge solar sails, tens of kloms across, that impelled the last free children of Jotunheim away from their homes.

Those laser batteries should have been used as planetary defenses, to try to fight off the massive flotilla from the Asgardian Empire that was fighting its way through the skeleton-crewed ships of the Home Defense Fleet. The Althing, however, had known for years that, when it finally came, the Asgardian invasion would have been too powerful to defeat. One world could not fight off an Empire.

So they had done what they could to preserve their people. Constructing Arks of their own, they had long planned the evacuation of every citizen they could. The Jotuns had never been as numerous as those peoples blessed with more congenial worlds; so evacuating a signifigant portion of the population had not been the impossible task it might have.

When it became clear that the Jotuns and their allies had lost the decades-long war with the Aesir, the space elevator had begun operating incessantly between the planet and the Arks, ferrying men, women, and children to the vast ships and their coldsleep capsules. When the last Ark had been filled, the orbiting factories had begun producing military vessels to escort the civilians.

Bey's parents had refused transit. "There's been a Lindstrom here at Torshaven since the First Settlement," his father had growled, standing on the rocky strand that contained the pounding surf of their home, "and there will be one here to greet the Aesir when they land. This is my home - should I run from it?" When Bey had protested, the old man had silenced him with a glare from his eyes, cold and blue as the glaciers in Niflheim in the southern seas, his grey-shot red beard bristling. "It is enough that I've allowed you and your brother to go - ask no more of me."

The remainder of Bey's visit had been subdued, and the subject had not been broached again. But when he left, looking back through the rear port of the last military transport to the space elevator, the old man had raised a hand in farewell; and then, in a completely unexpected gesture, clenched his fist; the sign of Thor's Hammer, a blessing. Bey had kept looking out the port long after his home had faded into the distance; not in hope of seeing anything more, but so the crew of the transport would not see the tears that shone upon his cheeks.

He awoke from his uneasy slumber as he sensed a difference in the motion of the small orbiter. A moment later the pilot's voice had crackled over the intercom; "Sir, we've achieved stable orbit - ready to begin planetary scans."

"Very well, Mister," the young officer said, "carry out your orders. I'll come forward in a minute." Standing, he shifted his vacuum suit to a more comfortable position, and left his tiny stateroom to begin learning whether or not they had found a home at last.

The boy and girl laid together in the grassy field, hand clasping hand, and watched the stars as boys and girls had done since the race had first noticed the stars. The boy was pointing out the constellations.

"There's the Harp; see that bright red star? That's the base. Then look north, that's the grip. And right next to it, see that long row of six stars? That's the Shepherd's Crook. If you look close, you can see the - look! A falling star!" He squeezed her hand, and tried to catch her gaze. "Let's make a wish!"

The girl snorted. "You mean a meteor - what good would wishing on a meteor do? Besides, what would you wish for?"

"It's good luck!" he protested. "If you see a falling star, and wish on it, your wish will come true! And I'd wish," he continued in a softer voice, "I'd wish that you'd love me forever, Emmy."

She caroled laughter. "Piotr, please! Sometimes you're so immature! Besides, I don't think that it's a meteor at all." She could sense him stiffening in hurt, and squeezed his hand to take the sting out of her words.

"What do you mean, 'not a meteor?" He bridled. She sat up and pointed at the moving light.

"Well, a meteor is a space rock that burns up when it hits the air, right?" He nodded, knowing himself defeated, when she put on that pedantic voice. Realizing that she couldn't see his nod in the darkness, he said, "Yeah, I guess."

"Well, it's not burning; where're the flames, and the smoke trail?" Suddenly she bounced to her feet. "I know what it is! It's a ship - a spaceship!" He could hear the excitement in her voice, and sighed. She had never gotten that excited about him. He rose to stand beside her.

"A space ship? Emmy, don't be silly - nobody ever comes here. The Elders see to that." She turned a gaze on him that shone in the starlight.

"I know - that's why we have to go and wake the Elders! To tell them about this ship! C'mon!" She bounded away, towards the village, leaving him open-mouthed in surprise and dismay.

"Wake the Elders? Now? It's the middle of the night - we'll be cleaning the public sty for a week! Emmy, wait!" Piotr began running after her, vowing that the next time he took a girl stargazing, it would be Niobe's daughter, Leah. She wasn't as pretty as Emmy, but she didn't know as much science, either.


Crossing Ginnungagap 4

Originally published: 19th January, 2004

Excerpts from the Encyclopaedia Mimirica


Class M planet, orbiting the G-type star , in the interior of the Yggdrasil Cluster.

First Landing, 2342 O.R.

When colonists had first begun settling Jotunheim, the crew of the starship Sleipnir had assumed a superior position in the hierarchy of command. There was, originally, no objection to this from those who had slept their long sleep while the crew, in turns of duty one year (Old Reckoning) long, had remained awake and performed prodigies of labor to preserve their lives. All were grateful to them, and it seemed right and proper that the crew should take a leading part in the difficult task of forging a civilization on an unknown world.

The Crew insisted on shipboard discipline; and, while there was only one base camp where humans could learn of their new homes intricate wonders and seemingly endless dangers, the colonists were more than willing to comply.

However, as they grew more comfortable with the planet, and their settlements spread further and further afield, there seemed less reason for the Crew, who remained either aboard ship (where they felt most at home), or at the Main Base, to exercise such tight controls. The Crew wished to restrict the expansion of settlements to a radius of a days travel by aircar from the Base. The colonists, however, seeing an entire world stretching out before them, and believing that lots of room makes for good neighbors, were claiming vast tracts of land for their individual farms. They saw no problem with this - after all, there was always more room just over the horizon.

After twenty years had passed, a generation was nearing maturity who had never been aboard the ship, and knew nothing of Earth, aside from tales from their elders. They saw themselves as native Jotuns, and felt that the restrictions on further expansion were designed to keep them within easy reach of the crews controlling technology. They chafed under what they felt was the Crews arrogance, and, unlike their parents, felt little gratitude towards them.

They were not far wrong. The Crew had also birthed a second generation, and these children grew up expecting obedience as their right. Raised in their parents paramilitary traditions, succeeding to positions of command by birth and not ability, they began to crowd the children of the colonists out of their society. The best a colonist's child could look forward to was the inheiritance from his parents, or perhaps, if they were subservient enough, a job at the Main Base that Crewmembers found 'beneath' themselves.

Eventually, this second generation of colonists began disregarding the arbitrary limits on their freedom of movement, and moved into areas proscribed for settlement. At first, this movement was performed in secret, younger sons and daughters leaving their homes in small family groups, to homestead in areas beyond the auspices of the crew at the Main Base. Later, however, after drawing nothing but protests from the crew, these groups began leaving openly, and in larger numbers. The further they settled from the center of control, the less willing they became to heed any protests.

After a period of ten years of increasing dispersal of the younger colonists, and increasing defiance of what the Crew saw as lawful commands, a crisis was reached at a recently-established communal farm more than a thousand miles from the Main Base. A second generation Crewman, flying patrol over a proscribed area, noticed a large structure under construction. Landing his aircar, he demanded an explanation from the inhabitants. These, however, were unwilling to comply with his orders to demolish their half-built homes and return to a controlled area. Tempers flared; it was uncertain, afterward, who threw the first punch, or how the violence escalated so rapidly (the survivors accounts were garbled and contradictory), but the result was the young officer dead, along with four of the illegal settlers, including a child of three.

The Crew immediately declared the entire planet to be under martial law, and ordered all those living outside the limits of lawful settlement to return to areas under their direct control; their orders were enforced by armed patrols. More violent incidents occurred, with both sides suffering further deaths. When the great majority of the original colonists vowed to support the rebels, by armed force of their own, if necessary, the Crew sealed the Main Base, cutting off all technological support to those outside. Their thinking was to strangle the rebellious movement by denying them those necessary, high-tech items they believed that only the bases factories could supply.

Unfortunately, they had miscalculated; many of the colonists were skilled in high-tech trades themselves, and had appropriated equipment from the base over the years (they had, after all, been selected for intelligence, not tractability); enough home workshops had been set up that the colonists were able to supply most of what they needed themselves. This included the advanced weaponry, or innovative versions of it, the Crew had deemed they alone possessed.

An insurrection against the Crew began, quickly growing in strength and spread over the entire area outside the Main Base and its immediate environs. Military expeditions sent out by the Crew soon found themselves in the same situation the British had, facing the Boers, several centuries before; well-trained, superbly equipped, competently led, and completely outmanouvered. Aircars were damaged or destroyed by simple yet effective handheld missles, smaller forces were destroyed or captured, larger ones were led in circles, refused battle and harassed (following the simple dictum, Enemy advances, we retreat; enemy stands, we harass; enemy retreats, we advance).

Following a series of crippling defeats, the Crew found themselves besieged in the Main Base. The rebels, knowing that by cutting off all supply of foodstuffs to the base, they could avoid damaging what was the most advanced manufacturing center on the planet, settled in for a long siege.

Each day for ten days, the rebels attempted to negotiate the surrender of the trapped Crew, but the commanders of the Crew sent no word, neither defiant nor suppliant. On the eleventh day, they received their answer; every shuttle on the base lifted off, as quickly as they could be prepared and launched. Realizing that the Crew was abandoning the planet to return to the ship, the Jotuns made a desperate effort to breach the bases automated defenses and stop the exodus, certain that most if not all of the sophisticated technology the Crew possessed was being taken with them. In this they were correct; but reached the spaceport just as the last shuttle lifted off.

A quick search of the base revealed that the Crew had destroyed what they could not remove. And less than twenty four hours later, the engines of the [i]Sleipnir[/i] flared into life, after more than thirty years of quiescence, and she departed orbit, and Jotunheim, forever. She was last seen on a heading that would take her into the center of the Yggdrasil Cluster at high velocities.

The Crew thought thus to take their revenge on those they had begun to see as subjects, a people who owed them service and obedience for their long labors on their behalf. But their actions merely forced the Jotuns to become self-reliant,innovative, and leery of centralized authority.

As for the Crew, they searched among the clustered stars of the interior of Yggdrasil, until, after almost forty years, they found a world circling a friendly yellow star, that seemed to have been made for them.

Although this new world had plant life in abundance, from pseudolichens to redwood-analogues, it had evolved no higher lifeforms more advanced than a large, harmless, winged insectoid. Rich in untapped mineral wealth, in its fertile soil carefully gene-tailored earthlife flourished, and food animals grew fat on it. It seemed a paradise after the chill gloom of Jotunheim, so they named it Asgard. Its gravity was so close to Standard as to make the difference negligible, and the radiation it received from its sun was almost Earth-normal.

It possessed two moons, the larger a carbon-silicon sphere only slightly smaller than Luna, and the other a nickel-iron irregular rock, obviously a captured asteroid. The former they named Valhall, and it became their primary military facility and headquarters; the latter, where their heavy industry was founded, they named Alfheim.

In 2342 they made landfall on the surface, and the foundations of the Asgardian Empire were laid.

Bey grinned inside his battle armor; at last the word had come down from on high - the high alert status had been cancelled!

In the eight days since they had landed, he had walked, rode, and flown over every square inch of the LZ that had been assigned to him, and he had yet to smell its air or see its sunlight except thru filters. But now.

He stepped into the inflatable, modular plasteel shelter that had served as his LZs headquarters, and said to a nearby comm rating, idling and obviously off duty, Hoy - give me a hand getting out of this mobile coffin, will you?

The soldier came over and helped him remove his helmet, and Bey took a deep breath of air, sweet and untainted by the smell of lubricants and his own sweat. He saw the rating wrinkle his nose and take a backward step, and said, grinning, Yeah, I reek a bit - but sod you, after a week and a day canned like a Thrymheim salmon! Cmon, help me shuck this rig!

After he had set the armor aside, taking care to make sure that all systems were shut down, and had exchanged his soiled fatigues for a fresh set out of his pack, he stepped out of the shelter into bright sunshine and a gentle breeze. For a moment he stood thus, head back and eyes closed, remembering the brief summer days of Jotunheim. He inhaled deeply, and the green smell made him dizzy with its richness.

The shelter was placed on the edge of a vast meadow where wildflowers bloomed in a blanket of scarlets and azure blues, under the overreaching limbs of tall trees that marched away to a distant rise of hills. On the far side of the meadow, the ground sloped away to the lowlands of a river valley, affording an excellent view of a broad stretch of countryside.

And what a countryside! Bey felt his heart swell with the magnificence of it; vast forests that seemed to have never felt the blow of an axe, plains that stretched beyond the bounds of sight, waving with flowering grasses that bent before the wind like a green and white sea, and a range of mountains that split the continent from north to south, as high as anything on Jotunheim, with snow-capped peaks that caught the dawn light and sent it shivering back until they seemed crowned with gold.

I don't know what the other continents are like, Bey thought, but I'm ready to stake my claim right here! What a wonderful place!

And this made the disappearance of its inhabitants even more of a mystery.

The patrols he and others had led had found dwellings, both individual homesteads and small towns, all of a seeming great age, and all ruined. Not from human destruction, or even a wrathful nature, but as though they had been abandoned and left to fall into disrepair. Herds of Earthlife cattle wandered those sweeping plains, in uncountable numbers, and were quite unafraid of humans; they could be approached easily, and were docile enough to take a handful of sweet grass right from your hand.

There were birds here, too, real birds from Earth; nightingales sang heart-achingly from the trees, crows croaked, in the night owls hooted as though they were on sentry-go. One evening at dusk, he had heard the plaintive cry of a loon; even through the aural filters of his helmet, it had pierced his heart.

They had even found cats. Or, rather, the cats had found them. They disdainfully passed every sensor, sneaking into the camp at night to steal morsels let fall from foodpacks and supply deliveries, and passed out again as easily. Only on the vids from the autocams had anyone seen them.

People lived here once, thought Bey; they built houses and towns and raised their flocks and herds. Where did they go? It's as though they just got up one day and walked away, leaving everything as it was.

Where did they go?

The old man watched from the eaves of the forest, as still as the great trunk he leaned against. He nodded as he watched the strangers from space remove their armor, and walk again as men should, free under the sky, not wrapped in metal.

Now it begins, he thought, now we must learn who they are, and what they believe. We must learn what dwells in their souls.

We must learn this, in order to make them go away.

Slowly, he began moving closer to their camp, to begin the learning.