Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Saga and the Bog People

A post peak piece of speculative fiction.


I, Saga Axelsdottir, disgraced scholar of Continuity and daughter of master silver skinner Axel Flink, have a confession to make. This is my story and I swear by Woden that any falsehoods in its retelling are the product of a dimming memory wrought by the erosion of time rather than by any mischief. My chief concern with the recounting of this tale is to assuage the hidden ones and apologise for the ill luck I have brought down on my family by my selfish actions. Gods know it will not be long before I join my beloved Bran, who lies in the barrow a thousand miles from his homeland awaiting the day when I join him to make the last journey together.

Yes, this story shall go with me to the grave. The hidden ones have no interest in the earthly deceits of pride and ego and it serves nobody to make my confession public. As I finish committing this shameful confession to paper I will seal it in a bonded metal flask and offer it to the hidden ones as I cast it into the sea from the cliffs of the Nordcap. Thus, as any adept of Continuity knows, my story will float along the currents of time and space like a seed upon the wind, and shall only come to rest in the minds of those whom the gods see fit to read it. Thus, by the waning light of this oil lamp, I offer my shame to the hidden folk and pray that whatever fury its telling invokes will be swift and merciful.

But enough of this self-pity for, in truth, I cannot complain about the life that I have lived. Although I am an old woman now, barely able to fetch water, I was once young and full of the zest of life. The fourth of six, I was born to Axel Flink and Frida Fridasdottir on a small farm on the rocky western shores of our beloved Numark. Three of my siblings never found souls to inhabit their tiny bodies, but I thrived and my parents became convinced that I was destined for things greater than the daughter of a silver skinner could ordinarily expect. Some of my earliest memories were of going out on my father’s boat with him, watching his strong arms as he hauled in another wriggling gasping silverskin beneath the light summer skies. My father was the light of my life. Although his station in life was a lowly one he had an education of a sort and was a collector of tales and myths from the past. To indulge his passion he kept a small library of books below decks on his boat that he would read and re-read on long voyages. He had amassed the books by trade and, putting in at some new foreign port, he always sought out any local book sellers to add to his collection. He had an affinity with the sea and people spoke of his uncanny ability to know where the rare and elusive silverskins were hiding in the murky depths, and it must have been true because his fame spread across the Numark and everyone called him Axel Fisk. 

But his passions lay with books rather than silverskins and I, wrapped in seal furs on the deck, listened to his tales of the old world as he read them out slowly and meticulously in his soft voice, his eyes glinting with wisdom and love as he did so. In this way, while other children had to settle for tales of dragons and giants, I was raised on the no-less-remarkable tales of people flying through the skies in giant winged ships and birthing Sol's babies which got loose and burned down whole cities. At the end of every tale he would close the book, lean in close to me and say “And that, my dearest Saga, is truer than true.” My favourite story was the one about the the time when they flew all the way to Møn and gazed into the faces of the hidden folk. The Møn folk, so my father said, had giant milky eyes so that they could look down on us and all the men who looked at them lost their minds and turned back into children. The Møn folk, in turn, punished us for our impudence, and in their fury caused both Møn and Sol to hover closer to Jord, causing all sorts of cataclysms for us mortals. Water boiled up from the seas, flooding the land in some parts, while in other parts Sol scorched the peoples and the forests leaving nothing but yellow dust and white ashes where once there had been forests and houses. And then there was the Great Shudder and the story of how the ocean ate up our land and most of people on it in one great hungry gulp. 

So the story goes anyway. Whether my father really believed this or not I’ll never know, but my mother chided him for filling my head with such stories. No good would come of these half-baked stories of the onder folk, she reckoned. Because that’s what we called them in my language—the onde, or evil—ones, who had broken into the realm of the Møn people and cursed all of our race with their wickedness. We’ll likely never know if these things actually happened, and perhaps it is not for us to question, but one thing we know to be true is that this glorious land of ours, the Numark, was bestowed on us by the old gods who came to our rescue just in time. It was to here that our ancestors were led away from the chaos of the world and offered a new start. That much is historical certainty and it was the honour and privilege of the Guild of Continuity to research new proofs of this.

I paid no attention to the concerns of my mother but perhaps if I had done so I would not be sitting here now, scribbling this shameful note in the half-dark and preparing to cast its message upon the winds of space and time. Nevertheless, my mother soon changed her tune when a message arrived from Nuukobenhavn stating that sisters from the Order of the Kendt would be coming to our village in the spring and they wanted to meet with ‘the renowned Axel Fisk and his remarkable daughter’. I was barely eight years old at the time yet word seemed to have travelled that I could read and write not just in our own tongue and the dialects of the three tribes of the Numark, but that I had learned the ancient language of Ingelsk and had read a full half of my father’s library. 

The day they arrived the whole village had been cleaned up in preparation. Houses were painted a fresh white, gardens were weeded and laid out with fresh strips of seaweed, and even the silver skinners were persuaded to clear up their tangled nets which had been sitting in huge piles by the shore for as long as anyone could remember. The village was expecting some kind of huge entourage, but in the event only three Sisters turned up that day, riding on white horses and wearing the robes of the Order. They moved into specially-scrubbed rooms at Ib’s Krog, the only hostelry in the village, and stayed for over a week. During that time I was taken into their care and my mind and soul were examined under intense scrutiny. I was subjected to stresses, both emotional and physical, and my tolerance was sorely tested. The Sisters made notes as they went along, communicating with each other in their language which sounded so peculiar to me back then. Their tone was flat  and sometimes harsh, and I felt they were not agreeable people and longed to be back with my parents.

At the end of the week I was returned to my parents. Despite my best efforts and the hopes of everyone I was not deemed worthy to enter the Order and the Sisters left the village without so much as a farewell. My mother was angry, but not as angry as Ib, the innkeeper, who demanded 200 crowns from my father to pay for the Sisters’ unpaid bill. My father refused to pay it but eventually the local magistrate ordered him to settle half of it and he had to put his books aside that summer and venture out into the deeper and more dangerous waters to catch enough silverskins to erase the debt. By the end of September most of the money had been repaid but we had barely any heating fuel for the long winter ahead. So busy had my father been trying to pay off the innkeeper that he had had no time to cut the peat down in the Black Marshes. He struck a deal with a travelling fuel man, but the price was high and the man would only deliver when he had been paid. 

I begged him not to go, but my father said he could catch enough silverskins to pay off both the innkeeper and the fuel man if he ventured out to the seas beyond Disko. To do so was risky at the best of times because of the violent storms and treacherous seas that beset the area, but the other silver skinners reassured me that if anyone could make a successful voyage there it was my father. Of course, I never saw him again, and my mother blamed me for the rest of her days. Ib Storlik, the innkeeper, still demanded his money, and he watched us without feeling as we shivered in the darkness, alone with our sorrows for the whole winter. Others were kinder towards us, for my father was a good man and had been held in high esteem. The local catchers’ guild paid off our debts and brought us a little hvaloil to light our lamps and cook our meagre supply of food. We didn’t starve or freeze, but when the spring melt came and Sol returned to her skies I had lost another member of my family for my youngest brother had coughed himself to sleep over the solstice, never to awaken. 

In truth, I blamed myself for all that had happened, and I missed my father with his sparkling eyes and his soft tones more than I could ever tell anyone. My mother was steadfast in her blame. After we had laid our poor little Ivan to rest in the icy cave at the edge of the sea she turned to me and clipped me across the face with the back of her had. “See what misery you have brought to this family,” she screamed at me in front of the crowd of mourners. Afterwards as everyone filed away and the tears froze to my cheeks I walked out onto the ice, heading towards the same dark horizon to which my father had ventured three months before. The icy winds tormented me as I struggled through the snow to my destiny, and it was not long before my skins froze solid and it became a labour just to put one foot in front of the other. I fell to my knees and said a prayer to the old gods, imploring them to give me a swift end. Let the ice crack and swallow me up, I begged. Yet it wasn’t a god who answered me but my own father, brought alive from his watery grave to stand before me glowing with love and wisdom that seemed not of this world. “Father,” I tried to say, but no sound came out that could be heard above the howl of the winds. He knelt down and caressed my frozen hair with his strong weather-beaten hands and then leaned forward and whispered something in my ear. In that moment warmth and happiness flooded my soul and I knew that there was nothing to worry about any longer. And as the darkness engulfed me I sank into eternity with half a smile on my frozen face.

But eternity was not to last. Ib Storlik, who had been lurking in the background at the funeral, had seen me walk out onto the ice and followed me. It was he who scooped up my inert body in his arms and pulled me on his sledge back to our village. Everyone had been looking for me but the cold had forced the search parties back inside for the night. Ib Storlik told them he had found a hungry white bear standing over me, and had had to fight it off with only a hunting stick and his quick wits to save me. Nobody have ever seen a white bear before, but they were said to appear in times of great sorrow, and most seemed to believe him.

At first they thought I was dead. They laid me out on a bed and warm oils were rubbed into my skin as the gods were implored to be merciful. The colour slowly returned to me and I opened my eyes the following day. I was fed spiced seal soup and the hot blood of musk oxen yet it was three days before I was well enough to stand again, and for once my mother looked happy. She hugged me tight and told me I was forgiven and that it was she who was to blame for everything. I felt her tears as she clutched me to her, and for the first time in months I sensed that the worst of our ordeal might be over. I turned to her and was about to tell her that I had seen Father and that he was dead but that everything would be alright. I was about to tell her all this but instinct warned me against doing so. I wrestled with my feelings—it didn’t feel right to keep such a secret inside me. In any case I was straining to remember the words he had whispered to me as I lay dying on the ice. But the words were gone and only the feeling of the words remained. I wiped a tear away from my mother’s cheek and said “Things will get better for us from now on. I promise.”

And they did. The spring brought a change in our fortunes in the form of another message, again from Nuukobenhavn. The report made by the Sisters had been passed onto the Royal Akademy. Although I may not be Kendt material, the message informed, the Akademy was willing to provide me with a scholarship and train me in the ways of Continuity. Everyone was thrilled for me and for the village. It would bring prestige to have raised an Akademy student, and as the icicles melted in the spring thaw a great party was organised to celebrate my scholarship. The messenger also carried a disbursement to cover the Sisters’ stay—something that nobody had expected, least of all the innkeeper who, seeking to bolster his new-found popularity, publicly gave a portion of it to my mother to cover her loss.

Within weeks a group of masons and carpenters arrived bearing the Dronning’s coat of arms and work was begun on my school. It was to be situated on a bluff overlooking the village, and the area was cleared of trees and bushes before work could begin. It took the men only two months to construct the pod from stone and wood, and when they were finished it was outfitted with a desk, a bed and other sparse items of furniture. The pod took the form of a stone bunker, eight sided and with a single window facing south. When the workmen had finished the teknik crew arrived on a boat from Nuukobenhavn and their valuable cargo was transported to the schooling pod on a flat-bed carriage pulled by two large work horses. The ether-gram was a large brass machine, brand new from the workshops of Island, the smoky isle. It was encased in brass metal, and the numerous dials and switches on its gleaming face unnerved me. How would I, a silver skinner’s daughter, ever learn to operate such an instrument? Finally, when the equipment had been fitted, all that remained was for the schooling pod to be sanctified by an Akademy-sanctioned priest in the name of Woden, the god of knowledge who had sacrificed his eyes in order to achieve wisdom. 

My enrolment was sanctified by an Akademy acolyte, who then stayed with me for those first few months, tutoring me in the ways of operating the ether-gram and establishing the disciplined routine I would follow for the next eight years of my life. After she left I was on my own. I lived in the school pod and the small garden surrounding it, receiving visitors only once a week. To begin with, food was prepared for me and left at the door, but over time, as my learning progressed, I grew and prepared some of it myself, and a weekly parcel of sea veg and salted meats—seal, silver skin and swine—was delivered. From my school pod I could look down on the village below and, lifting my eyes a little, gaze out across the vast sea with its white-topped waves. In this way I eased my loneliness, imagining my father out there beyond the horizon. Closing my eyes and opening my senses to the ether worlds, a warm feeling would seep into my body and it was as if my father’s ghost illuminated me from within. He would speak to me, urging me to study hard, and it was in this way that I began to learn that this acceptance by the Akademy was his gift to me.

Of course, I was not alone. The ether-gram was always on and it was through this that I communicated with and learned from the Akademy Masters. Each morning, after I had risen, performed ablutions and ceremony and eaten my morning food, the ether-gram would come alive and the voice of my Master would fill the learning pod. I never knew his true-life name, just to call him Master was enough, but he was a continuous thread running through the fabric of my education. The voice was sometimes soft and warm, but sometimes stern and chiding and as the years rolled by it became, to my ears at least, wiser and more wearied. Perhaps I was a trying student.

Although Continuity was my allotted subject for mastery, there were other spheres I had to contemplate along the way. In this way my mind wrestled with the mental abstractions of numerology and the sciences of kemi, systemiks and fysic. The Seven Books were delivered to me at the end of my first year and it was to these weighty folios that I would refer for the rest of my training, sometimes being made to learn entire chapters by heart to recite to my Master, who always claimed he could see if I was cheating and looking at the page. The life sciences were more enjoyable to me as they involved growing plants in the garden, and studying the ways they interacted, but the lessons I relished most of all were the Continuity studies. I devoured old texts and learned to read five or six of the old languages, pleading with my Master to send more books and pestering him endlessly with queries so that he sometimes became irate at my persistent questioning. So much of the old world seemed rich in magic to me, and I wanted to know so much about it. 

Over the years I grew into an astute, if somewhat hasty, young woman. By the age of seventeen I was ready to leave the schooling pod, as well as the village where I had grown up. In the intervening years my mother had remarried and the innkeeper had passed onto the great beyond having drunk too much akvavvit and inadvisedly brawled with a harpoon man over a card game. And so I went to finish off my studies at the Akademy in Nuukobenhavn, being allotted a small room within the mighty stone walls of that citadel of learning.

As a novice I was regularly called away to participate in exploratory digs with the Akademy, although my role was usually a lowly one. At first the digs were local to Nuukobenhavn. Mostly they involved mapping and examining the first settlements, laid down by the early arrivers following the Great Shudder. The buildings, or what remained of them, were usually of poor construction and were made of materials such as metal and composite stone-like materials, as well as a powdery white substance which had not fared well in the harsh climate of the Numark. These ruins were sad places and we often found the white bones of their inhabitants mingled with the crushed remains of their dwellings.  Artefacts from this period were plentiful and it was often my duty to carefully prise them from the compacted soils and wrap them carefully in soft skins, making notes as I did so. Usually it was everyday objects that I uncovered; cooking pans, cheaply-made jewellery and moulded toys made from plastic. I remember the first time I set eyes on a plastic toy—an odd abstraction of a human figure with over-sized eyes and pink skin. It was a child’s doll, and I wrapped it reverently for delivery to archivers, but not before making several sketches of it in my note book. 

I seemed to have a knack for finding such oddities—perhaps I had inherited my father’s capability for knowing where things are hidden—and soon I was being asked to go further afield and help with digs on forgotten islands and Woden-forsaken strands. Over three years I ventured across the sea to the smoky isle of Island and helped uncover ancient weapons left over from a battle site of the War of Seventy Summers. Many of them were in good preserve and they were cleaned, documented and delivered to the Dronning’s technical academics—the tekniks—with a view to possible re-creation. If it were possible to remake such a weapon it would be of great use in securing the Numark against the bandits and pirates which plagued the seas, and of even better use in pacifying the massed hordes of some of the less civilised lands to the south which seemed to be in a constant state of rebellion against the stewardship of the beloved Dronning Queen Ingrid the Fair.  

But it was neither the plastic toys nor the powerful metal guns that secured my ability as a finder of antiquities. Instead, it was an object of far greater power—something that generations of Continuity antiquarians had been searching for but had never found—which should by rights have secured my reputation.

I had not long since graduated from the Akademy and had been initiated into the Guild of Continuity when my chance came. Barely 22 years old, I was to head out across the vast ocean with a salvage team to investigate a site on the Scotian isle they called Long Cloud. By studying a number of old maps and wading through some of the ancient texts left by my father, I had concluded that a particular area on Long Cloud was likely to be rich in finds. A scout was sent out and returned saying the area was promising, and I began to secure support and funds for my proposed mission. When permission was granted and funding approved I could scarcely sleep at night for the anticipation. We were to leave three months hence.

Before setting off on our voyage we prayed to the hidden ones to deliver us from the brigands which roamed the seas intent on robbery and mayhem, and to keep us from straying off-course into the Sickening Lands, where death comes invisibly. We prayed to Saekonungar, the protector of sailers and explorers, to keep away the great storms which could lift a cargo ship clean out of the seas and smash it onto rocks ten leagues distant, and we prayed that we would return safe to the Numark after venturing to the cruel and godless lands of the south where bloodshed and mayhem stole the place of civility and law. To this end a cow was brought and a kendt priestess pulled a dagger across its throat at the bow of our ship. Its blood was smeared onto the oak timbers of the foredeck, and its gouged eyes were taken to the top of the mast so as to better see danger from afar.

The Visund was one of the largest ships in the Dronning’s mercantile navy. She was both sturdy and stealthy, rigged for twelve sails and had a crew of some eighty sailors. In normal service she carried a cargo of grain, wine and pounded metals up from the southern lands and returned with exotic items such as furs, liquors and salted silver skins for the nobles of the various countries we deemed friendly. Often there were weapons, too—still warm from the Islandic smiths and ready to help our allies in the southern lands maintain the peace. At least that’s what I thought then, for what else was I to believe? There was an engine too, in case of becalming or swarm attacks, or in case the ship needed to outrace a tempest, and the heavy logs stacked neatly in the hold acted as ballast to keep the ship steady. Our small band of antiquarians was to be accompanied by a task force of 30 soldiers who would be on hand to ensure the Scotians yielded up any finds without fuss. Also with us were four other sister ships, as it was always safer to travel as part of a convoy than alone.

We slipped out of the fjord under the midnight sun on an outgoing tide. I stood on the deck and watched Numark, the peaceful and prosperous land of my birth, slip by and eventually disappear over the bright horizon. I need not have worried about the voyage, it passed peacefully enough, with only one sighting of another ship. It soon fled when we hoisted Dronning Ingrid the Fair’s blood-red battle flag and fired off a sonic boom in its direction. The summer weather was mostly calm, with the sea only broiling once as we rounded the Orks, and we put into harbour at Cloud Island on the twelfth day, having stopped at the smoky isle of Island to take on board a cargo of heavy arms. It was a chilly and misty morning as we were brought ashore in a fleet of rowing boats and I stepped onto soil for the first time in my life that was not a part of the Numark Empire. A group of locals had gathered to watch us arrive, and I had never set eyes on a more wretched bunch of people—although I was later to see worse. Clothed in tatters and with matted and lice-ridden hair, the Scotian islanders gawped and stared as our smartly uniformed soldiers carried a gleaming ether-gram aloft on a shoulder borne platform. And when the horses arrived on the transporter, fully liveried in polished brassware, one of the Scotian children rushed forward with a view to touching one. Perhaps these people had never seen such marvellous beasts before, but the child’s reward for his impudence was a sharp butt on the head from a soldier’s rifle, and he scampered whimpering back to the folds of his mother’s dress with a look of accusation and hurt on his face.

By evening we had set up camp a few hours’ walk inland and the ships set sail once more and disappeared from our sight. A meeting was called for the next day with the local headman, who went by the name of Grunwal and rather grandly called himself the Pryminister of Scotia. I found the landscape pleasing and went for a short walk away from the camp at sunset. A soldier followed me and ordered me back to camp, warning me about the bad things that could happen to a young woman in a place such as this. I obeyed, but my curiosity of the foreign had been awoken, and although I could scarcely have known it then perhaps this was the moment that the seed was sown to travel to wherever the four winds would take me. If so, that lonely evening stroll through the heather as Sol sank low over the western sea was the first step on a journey that would take me from the wild islands of the Britons and beyond to the parched deserts of Afrika and even the mysterious and Loki-begotten badlands of the Merikas. 

But I am getting ahead of myself. No doubt these tales may one day be told by whoever inherits my diaries but as I sit here on this wild and dark evening it is this tale which must be told before the ink or the lamp oil runs dry, whichever comes first. Grunwal turned out to be a thick set man with human finger bones tied by ribbons into his knotted beard. Negotiations were conducted between himself and Stein Erikkson, a top-ranking diplomat sent on behalf of the Dronning and the Akademy. It was important for us to be the first to get hold of any ancient technology left by the onder folk, as we were the only ones with a chance of breaking into its secret codes and harnessing whatever powers it hid. These same powers, used so unwisely by the onder folk, would be safe in our hands we told ourselves, guided as were were by the infinite wisdom of Woden. Grunwal knew our game and was trying to extract the best price from us, even though we had discovered nothing yet. His manner was crude and his look threatening, but he was no match for the might of the Numark Empire and by late afternoon he led us at the point of a bayonet to a site where he said ‘something interesting’ lurked below the boggy peat.

Two volunteer soldiers were sent down into the bog attached to ropes where they wallowed and dived, with no small degree of complaining. On the second day they located something ‘hard and large’, and the rest of the evening was spent attaching ropes to it. The next day four of our strongest horses sweated and strained to extract the buried object while the rest of us dug feverishly with picks and shovels, flinging the peat, rocks and soil aside. What I saw on that warm late evening still rests in my memory as though it happened only yesterday as, after two full days of heaving and digging, there came a loud sucking sound and the black peaty slime yielded up its treasure.

It was a vehicle. Long and sleek and, by the looks of it, the right way up. Its front portion was crushed, as though from some sudden collision, and as it sat there on the grassy bank with black water draining slowly from its metallic innards the horror of what appeared next will stay with me until my dying day. For there, slowly and by degrees, appeared the heads, then faces and then bodies of four onder folk—blackened and tarnished as if they had been boiled in a vat of tar—but otherwise entirely preserved and looking ready to draw breath and feel Sol’s warm rays on their skins once more. Some of the Scotians who had gathered to watch yelped in fear as the faces appeared and fell wailing to the ground making representations to their god in the east. We antiquarians stood there slack jawed, stunned to the possibilities of what we had just unearthed.

As leader of the group I pulled myself together and stepped towards the vehicle, pausing to pull up a tuft of grass with which to wipe away some of the black peat which obscured the rear windows. There were more gasps as it became clear that the two smaller old worlders were in fact children, one boy and one girl, sitting in an upright position as if they had been patiently awaiting this moment down the centuries.

The next day, as soon as Sol had risen in her sky, we set to work examining the find. Soldiers were stationed around to keep the Scotians away, and we antiquarians conducted our work as diligently as the situation would allow. The four bodies were pulled from the vehicle and laid out on the ground. This was no easy job in the case of the two adults, whose size and girth were of a proportion that nobody present had ever before witnessed. We agreed giddily that bodies of such immense proportions could only have belonged to high status ancients, perhaps wealthy merchants or even nobles.

Some of the soldiers touched their foreheads and made the sign of the Jord mother Yggdrasil to protect them from evil spirits and any lingering black magic. The two children and the woman were perfectly preserved, but the male, who seemed to have been steering the carriage, had a large gash on the head which was the likely cause of his demise. Objects from within the vehicle were gathered and stored, and excitedly we grammed the Akademy in Nuukobenhavn that very evening and reported the find. Photo imprints were taken, as well as detailed drawings and castings of the bodies. Grunwal, sensing that he had sold the discovery too cheap, made trouble with the soldiers and shouted demands for more money at us.

We worked feverishly as long as there was light. And even at night we lit up the site with lanterns and sent as many details as we could back to the Akademy. They responded saying that another team of antiquarians were on the way, these ones more senior than my group. Indeed, they had already set off by fast boat and would be arriving in only a couple of days. This news panicked me. I knew how things worked at the Akademy, and how these seniors would likely take the credit for the work my team was doing, and so I stepped up the pace. 

The number of artefacts we discovered and the state they were in was beyond my dreams. The clothes on the bodies, although similarly stained black, were in perfect condition, as were the time pieces worn by the adults and the horde of objects found stored in flimsy carrying cases in the rear of the vehicle. There was a further major find—the body of a small dog of a breed nobody had ever seen before. But the most intriguing item I found was a small black box, shiny with glass on one side. It had been in the possession of the man with the bashed-in head, clutched tight for the span of eight lifetimes in his cold dead hand. I knew immediately what it was. It was one of the old computers and I had seen them before, but never so well-preserved. Often they were little more than clods of soil containing glass and metal fragments, but this one gleamed in the lamplight and I half fancied that it might still retain its magic. If such an item were delivered intact to the Dronning’s tekniks my fortune and renown would be guaranteed. I tried to prise it out of the old one’s hand but his death grip was too strong and I feared I would damage it. It was late at night and the others had retreated to the warmth of the camp to get some sleep, and the only other people around were two sentries posted nearby. To this day I still don’t know what madness seized me but by the end of that night the man possessed only one hand, the other being wrapped up in skins in the deepest recess of my leather equipment bag.

Perhaps it was this cowardly and stupid act that angered the hidden Scotian spirits of that place because on only the third day of our investigation something began to go alarmingly wrong. I noticed it first on the face of the dead man, whose gash was beginning to weep and ooze fluids. Closer examination revealed it to be writhing with maggots which squirmed free of the wound as I pressed it with my examining blade. 

Others too had noticed that the bodies were beginning to sag, and that the face bones were becoming more pronounced. I didn’t know what to do—ancients were supposed to be just yellowed bones and dust rather than flesh and blood. Furthermore there was astonishment among the team that the left hand of the man had disappeared. I concocted a story that I had seen the shambolic figure of a man hiding in the shadows during my night work, and that I had dozed off only to awake and find the hand gone. Grunwal was of course blamed for this outrage and our soldiers slapped him in irons and tied him to a tree to make him confess. I kept silent.

When the second team arrived three days later the bodies had putrefied and sagged into the ground. White bones poked out through the dark swollen bellies of the adults, and a foul stench hung in the air along with the clouds of black flies. Bo Kepp, the most senior antiquarian in the Akademy was with them, and he was furious with me. Perhaps I had been blinded by inexperience, but it had not occurred to me to place the bodies back into the preserving peat and send out an emergency call for a suitable kemi to be sent from the Numark’s laboratories. He raged at me in front of my team and I hung my head in shame. The next day I was sent back on the returning packet ship while my team stayed to assist the senior antiquarians.

Sure enough, news of my error had reached Nuukobenhavn upon my return and my scholarship was put under review with immediate effect until the seniors decided what to do with me. I travelled back to my own village, a distance that took almost two weeks to complete by third class carriage, and upon my arrival the place seemed smaller and more remote than I had ever remembered it. My mother had moved away to another village in the frozen north, and the schooling pod was abandoned but for the sheep that now called it home. I moved in with my surviving brother, who had grown tall and strong and looked not unlike our father. I was welcome there but some of the other villagers were less friendly for even here news of my folly had reached their ears. “Killed her own father so she could lord it over the rest of us and then waste it all in a foreign land,” some of them whispered. “That’s what you get if you think you’re better than the rest of us,” gossiped the women as they spread the seaweed on the fields. 

When the next season’s Guild of Continuity journal was published a copy of it found its way to me in my village, which seemed so far removed from Nuukobenhavn. Twice as thick as normal, the Antiquarian Blade was full of news about the Scotian find. I read it from one cover to the other but could find no mention of my name. Instead, a photo simile of Bo Kepp was pictured on the cover with the words ‘The Missing Link’ printed large above him. Around his neck he wore a thick gold chain from which dangled the metallic badge of interlinking circles from the front of the onder folks’ chariot. Inside, he explained that it likely symbolised the source of perpetual power that almost lay within the grasp of the Dronning’s tekniks. A mysterious glassy black box that might hold the key to the puzzle had gone missing from the site, the article explained, and was presumed stolen by a local chief. The article went on to assure us that the Dronning’s police were getting closer to extracting a confession out of the Scotians and that it would soon be found. 

I put down the journal and reached in my travel pack to extract what was rightfully mine. Unfurling the soft and clammy skins that wrapped the man’s hand and its treasure from the past I made a vow that if this ancient could hold onto something so tightly for eight lifetimes then I would not let go of my ambitions in the span of only one. I looked out of the window at the sea. For the first time in years I felt as though my father was with me again. His body lay out there in its watery grave, but his spirit was nearby. I broke down and cried like a child. Everything I had dreamed about seemed lost, and I had brought shame down on my family and my father’s good name. The September rains beat against the window panes as the wind whistled around the sharp rocks on the shore. And as I watched the drips roll down the pane I saw my own face reflected back at me in the glass. Behind me stood my father. I gasped and turned to face him. The apparition stood there, glowing in the dim light.

“My child, my dearest Saga,” he said, his voice full with the sweet compassion I remembered from all those years ago. “Do you not remember what I told you on that cold night so long ago?”

I shook my head slowly. “I have tried and tried but it has always been just out of reach father,” I replied, sobbing.

His ghost reached out and touched my shoulder. I felt a warm sensation in the spot where he touched me. “Never stop,” he said. “That’s what I told you. Never give up because the world is full of darkness and evil, yet it will ever remain full of beauty and wonder, and looking at an ending is just another way of looking at a beginning. I stand before you, no more than a spirit with a foot in each world, and yet you still have the blood running through your veins and the air in your chest. You must seize your chance!”

My father’s ghost smiled and began to fade. “But how do I … ?” I stammered, willing him not to leave. “The waves,” he whispered. “The world and all within it passes like the waves.” And then there was silence.

The apparition of my father had disappeared and never appeared to me again in all my long years, although I knew him to be there in the trees, and the sky and the wind that whistles around the sharp rocks by the shore. I knew what I had to do. And that is why a week later I pulled a finger bone from the dead man’s hand and took it to the old priestess who spent her life in devotion to Hlin, our goddess of protection and devotion, living in the cave up above the tree line on the Naarwik Heights. It was she who sanctified it, washing its evil away and threading it onto the necklace I have worn ever since for protection. And it is why I took the rest of the hand and buried it beside the grave of my youngest brother down at the ice cave and and why I walked out onto the frozen sea that winter to drop the crystal box into an ice hole drilled by one of the seal spikers far out on the bay. And it is why I set off the next spring in a silver skinner’s coracle to roam as much of the world as one woman can fit into a lifetime—and why the tomes that now rest under my left hand on this table detailing all that I have discovered are all I bequeath to this world as I go to join my parents, my brothers, my husband and all the hidden ones who surround us. 

And it is why I Saga Axelsdottir, disgraced scholar of Continuity and lowly daughter of a silver skinner, now cast this bottle with my tale onto the seas of time and space, to drift wherever it will. In the name of Woden, may its message wash up on the shores of the minds of those who have one to listen. 

Monday, April 14, 2014

Shooting the Elephant

Elephant by Raphael Riegger
When I started penning this blog a few years ago the idea that we might have reached some fixed limit of oil production and all that entails for our rapacious industrial civilisation seemed rather preposterous to most people. What’s changed in the interim? Not much, by most accounts. Those who accept the reality did so ages ago, and those who tune out reality continue to do so, lumping anyone who mentions ‘peak oil’ into the same mental category as Space Lizards and Mayan prophesies.

There aren’t many rewards attached to being a blogger writing about the grinding reality of the limits to growth and pointing out the presence of a large elephant in the middle of the sitting room becomes quite tiresome. Cornucopian believers send you poisonous emails, friends quietly get married without telling you and you spend those small hours before the sun’s rays lighten the eastern horizon wondering quietly “What if I’m the mad one and you can have infinite growth on a finite planet?” After all, the newspapers are full of pronouncements of ‘the recovery’, with more people buying new cars than ever before, m/b/trillionaires thronging the streets of London and the stock markets testing ever greater heights. Yes, there are the occasional dark clouds in an otherwise sunny sky, such as the recent NASA-funded report concluding that industrial civilisation is doomed, and the latest IPCC report which stated that … ummm, global GDP may be reduced by a tiny fraction by 2100 due to global warming (so, actually let’s not bother doing anything then!)

So anyway, amidst all of the white noise perhaps it’s time to sweep away the clutter from the desk and get back to basics with a pared-down recap of the situation we face and why it actually matters.

Peak oil snuck past us

Let’s deal with peak oil first of all. Yep, that old bugbear that won’t go away - no matter how much guff is pumped out by the mainstream media who take their cues from industrial PR flacks and lobbyists. Listening to it, we might imagine that there’s enough oil to go round for the next few decades or centuries. But they’re wrong. As Kurt Cobb points out, actual production levels of regular ol' crude oil hit a plateau of 67 million barrels per day in 2005 and, despite a bit of minor fluctuating, was at the exact same level in 2012, the latest year we have figures for. And that is despite the ‘boom’ in tight oil in the US and, more importantly, more money being flung at the industry than the average person can imagine.

So, in the last eight or so years, despite rocketing demand from China, India et al. combined with the throwing of mega sums of money at the industry, the amount of crude we can get out of the ground has remained stuck, while the price has risen several fold. How did they get away with hiding this? Simple - they just included all sorts of ‘oil-like fuels’ such as biodiesel into the mix and hoped nobody would notice. Let’s not forget that oil companies always like to inflate their figures so as to attract new investment. An honest oil company who says ‘Actually we didn’t produce as much as we said we had, and next year it will be even lower,’ is an oil company that will shortly be out of business.

Conclusion: Big fat industry lies can only mask reality for so long. Peak oil has been hidden from our view for too long.

High oil prices matter

For the last century or more, economic growth has occurred on the back of cheap oil. We, a single species among millions, have burned through most of the Earth’s accessible store of cheap fossilised sunlight. 99.9% of economists never thought that this would matter because they barely gave it a thought. Instead, we built a global civilisation that simply cannot continue to function unless it is constantly growing on the back of cheap fossil fuels. Now that the oil price seems stuck at around $100 a barrel, meaningful growth has stopped. Instead of productive economic activity we now simply have the growth of the money supply. Some countries, such as the UK, have managed to create the illusion that their economies are growing, but if you strip out the billions added in quantitative easing, Chinese and Russian casino money and the dubious gains of the stock market then an entirely different and more honest picture emerges.

There are now about 99 dollars/pounds/yen of credit/debt for every ‘real’ dollar/pound/yen. It is the mother of all credit bubbles and even if it partially pops it will take down a huge chunk of the global economy with it. The question is not if but when it will pop.

But because all of our economic systems have no reverse gear, this means future payments will not be honoured, no matter how much they are promised. In reality, negative economic growth means no new lending for business, no investments and no pensions for the masses. What will you do if your pension is sharply reduced or taken away just before you retire?

Conclusion: Economic growth is dead for most people and living standards are declining accordingly. The ‘recovery’ is simply the paper wealth rich getting richer at the expense of everyone else, as well as the entire system they depend upon for their wealth. You will probably not get a pension and your kids will be slaves to debt. This is what peak oil looks like.

Peak oil hits

'So what?' say environmentalists. Oil is evil and solar panels are good. We can transition to a world of clean energy and life can continue much as it has but everything will be more pleasant. Except that it can’t and won’t. Peak oil means that from now on in there will be less and less energy available to us. And like a falling tide that reveals all the rocks hidden on the beach, falling energy supplies mean that those who control power will do their best to consolidate that power. This means more privatisations of institutions that were previously considered off-limits, more squabbles over resources and more self-cannibalisations of societies.

Furthermore, we face diminishing complexity in our techno-obsessed cultures. Less concentrated readily-available energy means business slows down and companies go bust. The thousands of components that make up a tablet computer, for example, are produced in a web of specialised factories spanning the globe. Add a credit crash, a currency war or a bog-standard economic panic and the whole ultra-complex just-in-time model for producing an iPad shatters into a million little useless pieces.

What is a million times more complex than an iPad? A national electricity grid. To keep all that electricity flowing from the wall sockets takes an enormous amount of complexity and the whole system relies on global supply chains functioning perfectly. Add renewable power into the mix and we’re okay for a certain percentage, but beyond that the grid becomes unstable due to the inevitable unwillingness of wind, sun and waves to conform to our precise human desires. An unstable electrical grid means industry is unable to operate and relocates, causing more economic damage as it does so. In actual fact, it may not even be possible at all, because renewable energy systems rely on a very high level of socio-economic complexity - the kind that only concentrated forms of energy can provide.

Conclusion: Renewable power is great on a small scale, but we can’t power an industrial scale civilisation on it. 

Too high, too low - but never just right

What does peak oil look like from the top? At the moment we are existing in a kind of oily no-man’s land. Oil prices are too high to allow economic growth to happen, but too low to make it profitable to produce the stuff in the first place. That’s why big companies such as Shell are walking away from the North Sea, the Arctic and the US. All of the low-hanging fruit has been picked and it is just the hard-to-reach stuff at the top of the tree which is available. Oil companies cannot make a profit if it costs them $150 to extract a barrel of oil using all the latest technology and drilling techniques, which they will then only be able to sell for $100.

Conclusion: Expensive oil kills economies. Cheap oil kills oil companies. Dead oil companies don’t produce oil. Less available oil kills growth-based economies. Rinse and repeat and this is what peak oil looks like.

Grabbing what’s left

As the US struggles with a moribund economic situation, unpayable debts, high-level corruption and falling access to real energy supplies - it is becoming ever more desperate. Just like George Orwell shooting an elephant in Burma to maintain face in front of a mocking crowd:

“I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the "natives," and so in every crisis he has got to do what the "natives" expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it. I had got to shoot the elephant. I had committed myself to doing it when I sent for the rifle. A sahib has got to act like a sahib; he has got to appear resolute, to know his own mind and do definite things. To come all that way, rifle in hand, with two thousand people marching at my heels, and then to trail feebly away, having done nothing — no, that was impossible. The crowd would laugh at me. And my whole life, every white man's life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.”

Is there any way of seeing John Kerry posturing over Ukraine or Obama with his red lines not looking like Orwell’s ‘hollow posing dummy’? Because Ukraine is not about freedom or democracy or any of the other words that are subject to the laws of diminishing credibility, but about energy. Ukraine is all about getting a natural gas fix to Europe’s needy energy markets and the power play between east and west threatens to crush Ukraine like a nut between two grind stones. The US didn’t spend all that money installing a friendly government only to see it be overthrown - even if it did mean cosying up with some unsavoury people. And Putin may be the largest shark circulating the floundering figure of Uncle Sam, but he is not the only one.

We must ask ourselves - would we be willing to risk a major war over fossil fuels if those same fossil fuels were as abundant as many claim they are? Just why are US energy majors such as Chevron and Exxon salivating about fracking natural gas in Ukraine?

Conclusion: Increasing hostilities over who has access to the remaining fossil fuels, combined with a changing worldwide power dynamic as one big growling dog faces down another is the new reality. This is what peak oil looks like.

What to do about it

As I’ve been writing here on these pages for a while, there is no single action that you or I can take which will steer this ship away from its suicidal course. Our systems of governance are a system for ensuring that we are only ever ruled by sociopaths, so the best course of action to take is to avoid them and the systems they have created. This system is not reformable, so the best thing to do is help build a new paradigm that can run in parallel until the old one inevitably expires. What this means in practice is disassociating yourself as much as possible from a global economic system that is collapse-prone and which does not have your interests at heart. You need to learn to cover the basics of food, fuel and shelter for you and your family, and learn new ways of living that are in harmony with nature as much as possible.

This doesn’t mean, as I’ve repeatedly said, filling a bunker with tins of corned beef and guns, but instead requires that you get out there and make some friends with a community of people who share the willingness to put in the work rather than just talking about it on internet forums. Get hold of a bit of land, if you can, and practice permaculture. Share stuff. Teach what you have learned to others. Write about it, talk about it, but most importantly do it. Every day thousand more are tossed onto the scrap heap by an economic system which is isn’t fit for purpose. Try not to join them.

If you find that depressing - don’t. There are some silver linings to this cloud - such as our inability to fry the atmosphere. If you come along for the ride then you’ll likely be fitter, happier and your brain will not be frazzled by working a 60 hour week to pay off endless debts with no prospect of an easy retirement at the end of it. That, at least, has to be worth something.