And Rumours of War: The Old Gods Fail

October 30th, 1671
Uppland, Norway

The diagnosis was clear enough: Rash, discoloured tongue, fever, flushed cheeks – scarlet fever. The untreated death rate would be about a third. But a day of penicillin should have the girl on her feet again, needing only a few follow-up doses to make sure the disease was completely out of her system. Grete smiled, and told the girl’s mother not to worry; her daughter would surely be well. The voluminous robes that were the standard outfit for Idun-goddess-of-youth-and-healing were good for concealing pockets; she got out the bottle with the brown liquid and carefully poured a measured spoonful. The penicillin was difficult to make, and not to be squandered. “Here, drink this and you’ll soon feel better.”

The child was old enough to make no fuss, and in any case the liquid was flavoured with honey and clover; it went down smoothly enough. That was when things went wrong. The girl began to thrash about, her hands going to her throat; her breath came in a thin whistle. Was she choking? On what? Grete sat her up – she weighed almost nothing – and pounded her on the back, then when that didn’t help grasped her stomach for the Heimlich. Nothing; the girl continued to choke and wheeze. Desperately Grete laid her down again and pounded her chest, then bent down to blow air into her mouth. Her lips were swollen and felt blazing hot. She could feel the girl’s heart pounding, fast and arrhythmic. She was doing her best to suck in air, and failing in spite of Grete pushing with her own lungs. Something must be blocking the airway, but what? There was no time to be delicate; Grete pushed a finger down the girl’s throat; the airway was constricted, closing hard on the finger. The girl coughed and spasmed, but breathed a little easier for a minute. The spasms didn’t cease, though, and her heartbeat grew rapidly weaker. Her eyes bulged, and she coughed up droplets of blood. Dimly Grete heard the child’s mother shouting, “Hanna, what is it? Are you all right?” But there was no time for that. If she could only keep her breathing through the attack, whatever it was, surely she would be all right. Again she pushed her finger down the girl’s airway, trying to keep it clear. But this time Hanna did not inhale when she pulled the finger back; she spasmed a final time, then went limp. Grete and the girl’s mother stared in horror.

March 9th, 1672
Dovre, Norway

The inner sanctum of the temple at Dovre was packed with Ynglings; the air stank of their anger and worry. As he rose to present the bad news, Bjarte found himself unconsciously groping for a gun; in the uptime, this many furious Ynglings would have meant deaths before the day was out. The downtimers weren’t individually as deadly, since there was not enough economic surplus to devote their entire childhood and teens to training, but fifty of them could do him in easily enough. Fortunately they also didn’t have the security of position that let uptime Ynglings take offense for trivial slights. They had to work together, and wouldn’t take out their frustration on each other. But it was still intimidating to stand in front of fifty of his own caste and smell their rage.

“Comrades, these are the conclusions of Gerhard and myself, with the assistance of the medical-intervention working group, regarding the penicillin problem. Data: Our molds have been contaminated. They are still producing penicillin; that is to say, they kill bacteria cultures. But they also produce massive doses of allergens, enough to provoke anaphylactic shock and almost instant death when administered. It follows that they are utterly useless as medicine; we are now producing extremely expensive disinfectant. Worse, it is not a matter of the working cultures being contaminated. We have tried replacing them with molds gathered from the wild, and most lately from as far afield as England. They all have the same effect.”

“First conclusion. We are the targets of a massive biowarfare attack, aimed specifically at our breeding program and the source of our local prestige.”

“Second conclusion. Our attacker has access to uptime genetic modification techniques.”

“Third conclusion – tentative. Since our attacker clearly could have wiped us out had he so desired, he may be worried about human casualties, his ability to maintain control of his altered disease agents, or both. Alternatively this may be in the nature of a warning shot.”

“I have nothing further. Gerhard will now present our thoughts on countermeasures.”

The older uptimer rose, nodding. “Unfortunately, there’s not much we can do. Changing DNA for a specific purpose like this needs labs on a scale we can’t hope to get for centuries, short of giving up secrecy and guiding this timeline through a full-scale industrial revolution. And in that case we would have to abandon our breeding program anyway. We’ll have to triage; antibiotics are going to be ineffective for the foreseeable future, all we can do is damage control.”

“First, our prestige among the population, which comes basically from our cures. We will tell the exact truth: To wit, that an enemy sorceror has attacked our medicines, and this is why they are no longer working. Our goal here is short-term: When parents have sick children die that might have been cured, they get angry. We want them angry at someone other than the gods who just failed them; an outside enemy is perfect. It even happens to be true, which is pretty rare in propaganda! Longer term, we will still lose massive face. We might even get widespread Christ-worship again, and lose the tribute system that maintains the temple. We can still do a few miraculous interventions with our pink bottles, but the supply is strictly limited; we have thirty-six doses in our possession now, and cannot expect more until 1791. We will need to come up with a different way to maintain our prestige. We might try our breeding stuff on animals and grains; these downtime strains have a lot of room for improvement, and nobody will mind if we just slaughter the culls. But we’ve taken a heavy blow, no doubt about it.”

“Second, our breeding program. Here we are slightly lucky: Our people have noticed the traits that bring the favour of the gods, and assign them prestige in themselves. Doing well at the Dovre Games is worth as much as a large farm in the marriage market, these days. This cultural trait is going to save our asses for the next few decades. Still, a differential breeding rate of a few percent isn’t anywhere near so strong a selection pressure as the death-rate differences we were imposing before. And before anyone gets ideas, we absolutely cannot afford to make anyone’s death rates higher by direct intervention; the last thing we want is to become the angels of death on top of losing our position as angels of healing! We must therefore accept a very much slowed improvement of our breeding stock. We might get some traction out of vaccines to specific people, but that will only help a bit, because we can’t vaccinate everyone or there’s no eugenics effect. So we won’t get herd immunity and a lot of people will still die of the diseases, vaccinated or not.”

“Third, retaliation. We cannot be having unknown enemies seeding biowarfare attacks in our valleys every so often. We must therefore find some way of punishing our attacker. Our first step here is to find out who the attacker is. We’ve got our work cut out, but we can narrow it down a bit from “anyone not in this room.” Grete will present the results from her archive trawl.”

Grete was Gerhard’s daughter, a woman twenty-four years old. A fortunate combination of genes had given her an open, smiling face that made her perfect for playing a youthful healing-goddess; but at the moment she looked tired and rather drawn.

“Yes. The problem is, our archives are incomplete. We’ve got very little from before the Diaspora, and no originals. It’s all hearsay. Einar Magnusson wrote down what he had heard from Ingvar, who heard from the Yngling kinfolk at Geirvirke. But the chain of uptimers breaks with Gunnar, and the actual papers at Geirvirke were burned with the farm itself in the Diaspora. So we have no details. But we know that Anja Sigridsdatter went to Georgia in her exile, and we know that she sent a letter warning us about strange things in Russia. And we also know that her descendants said there was something strange about Gora Dzhimara. And Ask told Gunnar, who told his son Karl, who told Ingvar, who told Einar, who wrote it down and we still have the paper, that he had spoken to a powerful, nonhuman sentient in that mountain. But that’s filtered through so many layers, Odin alone knows what he actually saw. Our best guess is that Anja, or one of her children, started something similar to what we have here; although it is strange that such a program should be able to maintain itself both secret and effective through the centuries with no influx of uptimers to keep it on track. Human organisations should flow like water over that timescale. Still, it’s a start, and the only lead we’ve got, short of investigating the whole world one peasant at a time. Georgia, Russia, the Caucasus, and Gora Dzhimara. That’s where we should look first.”

The people of the valleys weren’t the only ones whose morale could be improved by having an external enemy. A snarl went through the room as a target for the Ynglings’ anger was identified. Teeth were bared, shoulders braced. “Georgia… Russia… Gora Dzhimara.”

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