August 27th, 1294
Alania Province, Georgia
Ask blinked, more slowly than he was used to. The wine the monks had given him had been laced with something; marijuana, perhaps? Whatever it was, he ought to see if it could be imported to Norway; he felt calm and relaxed, and the sight of the stone – coffin? tomb? – chamber the monks were urging him into bothered him only distantly. It was about half filled with scented water, and large enough for two men to float in, three if they were good friends. He lowered himself into the water – blood temperature, and salted so he floated effortlessly – and the monks closed the stone lid with a scraping thud.
It was very quiet. Even the sound of his own breathing was absorbed by the velvety darkness. After a while he realised what had been bothering him: Where had these primitives come up with the idea of a sensory deprivation chamber? It was a good one, too, within the limits of the technology. He worried at the problem for a moment, then set it aside and blanked his mind as instructed. If the monks knew what they were talking about, he’d have answers to his questions shortly.
He drifted for a while, half asleep. Some time later – days? hours? – he became aware that he was not alone, that a presence – the Angel? – had been floating in the chamber with him for a long time, and that he had known of its presence, but not been aware of the knowing. The feeling was dreamlike, but unmistakable: Something was in the chamber with him – something that made no sound, projected no menace, and yet was an unfathomable threat merely by its existence. His breath caught, and there was a quite unintentional quaver in his voice when he asked his first question.
“Who are you?”
No words came back out of the darkness; but a flood of images sprang into his mind, memories, thoughts, associations long buried. Skiing across the Jotunheim, a rifle on his back. Swimming, a fiord somewhere, icy water and hot sun. Women – Jorunn, Gunhild, a dozen stril girls whose names he had forgotten. Commanders, teachers, officers who had impressed him. Soldiers he had commanded, in the Rockies hunting for tribesmen, on the Russian border, smuggling weapons in the Spanish colonies. He almost cried out with the feeling of thoughts not under his own control; the images flitted madly, one, another, gone before he could think or assimilate them. Cold sweat sprang out all over him, and he understood the purpose of the tank; here indeed was a reply that could drive a man to madness from sheer overload. The tank helped, freeing all his mind to work on the images. Gradually he mastered them, and a single thought/feeling came to to fore, and dominated. The Yngling stands on a mountain, broad-shouldered, legs apart, hands on hips. He is master of all he sees. No law, no outside will binds him. He is truly free, and men will follow him merely for the privilege of serving their superior. Nothing can stand before him, and between him and his naked will there is no more than a wolf has. He is outlaw, rebel, vigilante. He is Yngling.
Ask gasped with the effort; something was wrong. He could feel his mind buzzing in turmoil, and mentally apologised to the Georgians who had warned him this was dangerous. There was something alien here, a form of communication fundamentally mismatched to the human mind. Whatever it was, the Angel was surely no Yngling, and certainly not the cliched Overmann of uptime power-porn; but somewhere in that image lay the closest match between truth, and what could be ripped out of Ask’s memories. For all his work to get here, the answers he got might well be useless. Nonetheless, any answer was better than none. He pressed on, bracing himself for the flood.
“How did you come here?”
The return chamber of the Quantum Device. Quiet technicians punching buttons, countdowns flashing. Dovre Mountain disintegrating, a malignant radioactive mushroom punching to the top of the atmosphere. A tsunami washing over an Indonesian coastline. A man washed away. A child crying.
Accident, disaster, frustration; Ask knew all about that. An accident triggered by the Quantum Device? The old timeline should have been destroyed, but – here was Ask. Just how good had the Secret Hird’s theoretical physicists been, anyway? The best scientists disliked working in secret. Perhaps, just perhaps, it wasn’t impossible.
“Where are you from?”
A cloudless sky, a pitiless sun. Blackness, scattered with stars. An old diagram from a school book, Sun-Mercury-Venus-Earth-Mars-Jupiter-Saturn-Uranus-Neptune.
Not China. Or it might be lying – but no, if the Chinese had had the means to fake this, the Long War would have been long over. Which left – perhaps something worse. Ask considered, grimly. There were enemies and enemies; better human rule, even if Communist, than… not. Still, the Angel didn’t actually seem hostile. Surely it might have taken over the world by now if it wanted to, not that the Seljuk Empire wasn’t a fine starter-set for that ambition. But the overtones were grief more than triumph, regret more than anger.
Distantly, he could feel himself shaking with the strain of the communion, and knew it for a bad sign. Already he was numb, dissociated from his body. It could not take much more of this to kill him from brute overwork overloading his heart and brain. He would have one more question, at most, before the stroke or heart attack finished him, and even that would be a gamble. Coldly, he gambled. His kin knew where he was; if he died, they would send another.
“What do you want?”
A long pause, then: Boots of the Ynglinga Hird trampling through the streets of Beijing. Heroic bronzes toppling; others going up in their place. Guerrillas hiding in the Rockies. Farmers on the Polish plains, working as they had for generations. The technicians tending the Quantum Device again, and the countdown – but it was reversed, the numbers flashing upwards. Vegard dying with the Russian bullet in his lung – and the blood went back into his mouth, he rose, his gun was back in his hand, and when time went forward again Ask was just a little quicker with his own shot and the Russian went down.
Slowly, Ask translated into words; the strain was a little less now, as he and the Angel became more familiar with each other. Survive until victory; correct a mistake. The words, “What mistake?”, trembled on his lips – but no. He could take no more; another flood would finish him. He had the information he needed, now, and now right to gamble further merely to fill in the details. He had to survive, to return to Norway and warn his kin. He had to get home.