Out Of Asgard

"Valkyries!"

The word is barked, thrown at us. We jump to our feet, salute as we've been taught. With thirty of us crammed into the hard, narrow seats of the Sessrúmnir, there's barely enough room for the movement. Years of practice make it fluid, automatic.

I spot our commanding officer immediately. She's dressed just as we are, strapped into a standard issue Aesinjur ceremonial dress app for smartmatter clothing. Blocky wedges of white ablative armor flatten her chest and waist to sleek and sexless, bulk out her abdomen, but the synthetic fabric analog is soft and cool to the touch, feels like a second skin. Her dark eyes are deftly outlined and winged in black with digital warpaint composed of subdermal pigments generated by her smartmatter skin lacings. Like the rest of us, her black hair hangs in a tightly-woven braid, but the cord drops to only a handful of inches below her collar. The length is conservative for a woman of Luna, and gives her appearance an edginess that makes me both excited and uncomfortable. The rest of us wear more traditional braids, cords that run nearly to our beltlines.

“At ease,” she says, and as we drop back into an even stance, she eyes each of us with a dark, piercing stare that cuts over her harsh-angled cheekbones. She's been a Major with the armed forces for longer than most of us have been alive, and that's impressive. She carries a high rank for a lab grown, especially a first-gen model. Most of us privates are sixth or seventh generation recombi-clones. Some of the Valkyries I know think we're better than the first-gen models, but I admire the Major too much to think we're anything more than the product of better science.

“You’re all wondering why you’re here,” Major Skadi says, clasping her hands behind her back. “Had it been left up to me, none of you would have been kept in the dark about our mission. Suffice it to say, our orders, including the order for utmost secrecy, come from the highest levels at Asgard Command.”

Every one of us waits in silence. I'm nervous, but I refuse to show it. I can't imagine what could be so important about our mission that the brass would have to keep it secret. We're supposed to be an open society, better than our forebears in that nothing is hidden. That's what I've been told Luna is since I first awakened in the maturation tube, at least. It's what I'm programmed to believe, programmed to repeat. To be forced into silence, to be shuffled blindly into an operation of any kind– it feels wrong, very wrong.

“The archive that the GlyphPath left for us on Charon, the one that was recovered only last year, has finally been deciphered. Like the previous archives found in the tower of Sinus Medii on Luna and in the pyramids of the Cydonia region of Mars, this latest archive contains a map to the next archive. Speculation was that the map would follow the pattern we've come to expect, that our extraterrestrial benefactors would encourage us to journey further out, and that the next archive might be located within a Kuiper Belt object or perhaps on one of the worlds orbiting a nearby star. Instead, the map recovered from the Charon archive points in the opposite direction. Against all of our researchers' expectations, the map indicates that the next archive is to be found on Earth.”

Earth. Discipline waivers at that point. There's a ripple of conversation, a shifting, a shuffling of feet totally uncharacteristic of Valkyries. We've all heard stories about Earth, about what happened there, but no one from Luna has actually walked on the surface in the last seventy years.

"Earth," I hear someone whisper, and there's an undercurrent to the word, a tone of apprehension and reverence that we're all feeling. Silent and stoic, Major Skadi calls a display onto her left sleeve from the smartmatter of her uniform, rolls back the opposite cuff and activates the utility optics embedded in the skin on the underside of her arm with a series of quick, precise thoughts. Images flicker as the lenses in the optics come alive, render holographic projections of points that snap together to form a landscape, the wireframe lines of a three-dimensional terrain map floating over chrome-edged optics and exposed skin.

"Three ships are participating in the recovery of the Earth archive.” The Major puts a finger into the projected map, turns it. A trio of dots glow where she points, each picking up tags that list names and alpha-numeric identity codes.

“The Bolverkr will be the first to arrive on site, and will deliver an advance fire team of Valkyries who will secure the area around the archive,” she continues. “The second ship to arrive, the Darrathur, is carrying a team of translators and scientists experienced in the decoding and activation of GlyphPath technology. Our mission will be to provide security for the research team. We'll be on Earth, but our assignment will likely be uneventful." The map hovering above the utility optics of the Major's arm shifts, zooms out to show a larger area of Earth's surface. Mountains come into view, massive and snowcapped. A low-lying coast more swamp than beach, and islands beyond it that run north-south in a chain, like a wall separating the boggy inland sea from the greater body of a larger ocean. "The area where we'll be operating is geologically isolated. Census data from before the collapse indicates it was sparsely populated at the time when our ancestors left, and satellite data hacked out of what's left of the old orbital network seems to indicate that it remains largely uninhabited. In all probability, the advance fire team on the Bolverkr will drive away anything or anyone that might present a danger to the expedition, leaving us with nothing more to do than to guard the doors of the portables where the research team will be working. Currently, there appears to be no VN presence in the area, but that may change."

"Major,” I speak up, swallowing past the tightness in my stomach, trying to ignore the way everyone turns and looks at me. Major Skadi fixes me with her dark, fierce eyes, regards me for a moment before answering.

"Private Váli," she recognizes me, and it takes every ounce of resolve I have not to look away from the iron in her stare. “You have a question?”

“Yes ma'am,” I nod, pulling in a breath in the pause. “What's the time frame allotted for the operation?"

"Command's estimates range from ten days to as long as three weeks." Major Skadi turns, her eyes roving across the other Valkyries, and I breathe a silent sigh of relief as soon as her stare is off of me. "The truth is that we do not know. The ultimate aim of this operation is to locate and extract the alien archive without damaging it or the data contained within it. The bulk of the decoding and translation of the scientific and technological data it contains will be conducted once we return to Asgard on Luna."

“Ma'am,” someone else speaks up, and the rest of us look toward the voice. Skadi turns her dark stare on the Valkyrie, looks her up and down.

“Private Sigrid,” the Major gestures. “Speak.”

“Pardon my doubts, but,” Sigrid hesitates, gestures. “Earth is a highly dangerous environment, isn’t it? The stories that are told of bacterial warfare, of chemical and thermonuclear weapons that were used liberally during the Collapse War—“

“Assume that everything you have heard about Earth is true,” Major Skadi cuts her off, addresses all of us equally. “The cradle of humanity is a toxic wasteland haunted by murderous machines and violent mutants who will not hesitate to kill you and eat you should they catch you unaware. I will tell you now that you’re not prepared for what is waiting down there. None of us are prepared for it, but the armor app upgrades I’ve been authorized to give you during this briefing might just be enough to keep you alive.” She pauses, sends another series of precise mental commands to the computer woven into her smartmatter clothing. “You should have the specifications now.”

There’s a collective shuffle as everyone calls displays up from the sleeves of their clothing with their own series of thoughts. Simple personal login codes delivered mentally through the strip of silicon lining my corpus callosum trigger a screen, call up a list of military apps for my smartmatter clothing. I tap through the data with ivory-nailed fingers. The upgrades they've given us to modify our combat armor paint an uncomfortable picture of what we can expect to find Earthside. A pressurized combat vacuum suit packed with auxiliary equipment in case of a breach. Heavy filtration systems built in, patch-delivery antibiotic and antiviral medications spaced liberally throughout– and then there are the performance upgrades that bulk out the coils of synthetic musculature augmenting our arms and legs. I swallow, suddenly very nervous, and as I look around, I can see the echoes of it here and there in the faces of my sister soldiers.

“If you haven’t noticed them already, I’d like to call your attention to the musculature upgrades in your combat armor.” Skadi taps through the projection hovering over her arm, calls up a wireframe of a human body encased in the harsh lines of an app designed to turn the smartmatter clothing we’re wearing into combat armor. The density of the synth-muscle coils in the arms and legs is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.

“On the moon, these performance-enhancing modifications would be overkill,” Skadi says, regarding us again. “On Earth, you’ll need them just to walk your rounds.”

There’s another murmur, a few flickers of precise movement as several Valkyries tap through displays of the finer coding involved. Skadi dismisses her own projection, pulls in a deep breath before she continues.

“You aren’t ready for Earth’s gravity. After a life in Asgard, I can say that without an ounce of doubt. Even with the upgrades, this mission is going to be difficult for all of us. I was with the team that recovered the archive on Mars, and I can tell you that the gravity there is hellish. It’s twice what you’re used to on Luna, but it’s also only a fraction of what we’re going to encounter on Earth. That’s where the muscle-augmentation mods to the combat armor apps come in. Even before we land, you’re going to feel the difference. Earth’s gravity is almost seven fold what you’re used to.”

One of the Valkyries to my right raises her hand tentatively. I recognize her by her soft brown eyes, the thin gold lines she's programmed to cut through her own subdermal warpaint. Eira.

“What is it, soldier?” Skadi asks, rolling her sleeves down, clasping her hands behind her back.

“Can I ask why Asgard Command felt the need to keep this entire operation a secret?”

Major Skadi pulls in a deep breath, seems to study Eira with those hard eyes. I try to keep my feelings in check, end up holding my breath in the pause. There's a tenseness to the moment, with every one of us is waiting for the answer to Eira's question.

“There are,” the major hesitates, choosing her words. “Political reasons for the secrecy. I can't go into details, not at this time, but once we have the archive, I will reveal everything I know, I promise.”

Eira nods, swallows. Further down the line, one of the older Valkyries folds her arms but says nothing.

“I know it's not the answer you were hoping for,” Major Skadi says then, addressing us all. “Nor is it the answer you deserve. I wish I could have given you a thorough briefing before we left Luna, but too much rides on the success of this mission. The secrecy, however abhorrent, however much it goes against the core tenants of our united society, is absolutely necessary until the Earth archive is secured.”

“Setting approach vector,” a voice crackles through the Sessrúmnir. “Forty-five seconds to entry. Expect some chop.”

“Strap in, Valkyries,” Major Skadi says, reaching up to steady herself with a bar bolted to the ceiling. “You'll start feeling the gravity soon. Embrace it, and think of home. We'll be back in Asgard before you know it.”

“Thirty seconds,” the voice comes again, cut with the hisses and pops of stellar static. Already, there's a murmur building against the hull, a subtle roar of braking thrusters and rushing air. “Fifteen.”
I force my breathing to steady, try not to look at my sister soldiers to see how they're handling the suspense. Making her way from one end of the Sessrúmnir to the other, Major Skadi looks at each of us in turn, reaches out here and there to indicate with silent gestures where nervousness has caused warpaint and other skin-apps to flicker. Each Valkyrie she points at snaps up in her seat instantly, locks down her fear, and the lines around eyes and across cheeks come back sharp and crisp with the sudden focus.

Nervous, I check my own features in a window reflection before the major can reach me. Cobalt blue eyes stare back at me, my eyes, and I'm proud to see the lines around them are dark and crisp even still.

“Váli,” the major's voice comes soft, and my eyes snap back to meet hers. The stare she levels at me is softer than any I've ever seen from her, and that is enough to make me swallow. I try not to think about the fact that I'm the youngest Valkyrie on the Sessrúmnir, the fact that I was probably only picked for this mission because of my unusually high accuracy scores in marksmanship with an infantry-grade light rifle. “Are you afraid?” She asks me.

“No!” I blurt, too fast, then quickly add: “No, ma'am.”

Skadi opens her mouth to respond, but the jolt and scream of the Sessrúmnir braking suddenly against rough air cuts her off, shakes her. Instead, she grins at me, then turns back toward the rest of the Valkyries.

“Feel that!?” She shouts, seems to revel in the uncomfortable expressions spreading across every face but hers. “Gravity, sisters! Earth gravity, and that's just the beginning–“

“Major!” The pilot's voice cuts across the intercom, shaky and frightened. Skadi's grin falls away in an instant, and with enviable grace, she turns and starts toward the cockpit. “There's something–“

That's when it happens. The sound hits us like a shockwave, tears its way through the ship, and then the door between the cockpit and the rest of the Sessrúmnir explodes open, fire belching through the breech.

There's a shout, a cacophony of screaming. The blast hits Skadi with enough force to throw her halfway across the Sessrúmnir. I hurl myself to standing against the thickening gravity, turn to face the wild flames roaring through the ruins of the cockpit. It only takes half an instant for me to register that through the ragged breech I can still see stars, faint and boiling into blue. Too high. A thought, quick and precise, and my smartmatter uniform begins to shift around me, starts to reconfigure itself into an armored vacuum suit.

“Suits! Suits!” Skadi barks, brushing burning shrapnel off her armored torso. The first lines of her helmet spin out from her collar like arms, meet and mate in the middle, then shake as they extrude a thick curve of sun-shaded faceplate up toward the arms forming an inch above her scalp. In an instant, our helmets are sealed, our sleeves spinning into gloves, boot-soles thickening against deck plating. I lick my lips as the sky beyond the fire lightens steadily, as the cold bites at me and the gravity builds, makes my bones feel like they're turning to lead. Six other Valkyries are watching the sky as their own suits spin and bulk out around them. Six of us. The rest of our sister soldiers are gone.

“Ma'am!” Eira uses the overhead handles to drag herself toward Major Skadi and I. “With no pilot and no guidance, we're a meteor.” She shakes her head, and even over the comm I can hear her quick, fearful breathing. “We're going to burn up unless we do something quick.”

“Are we under fire?” I ask. “Is it the VNs? What happened–“

Skadi cuts me off with a gesture, calls a display from the fabric over her arm, starts to tap through it.

“Ma'am!” Eira shouts.

“Stow it, private.” Skadi barks back. Her fingers move fast, and when she looks up, my own smartmatter clothing pings with an update. “Yes, we're under attack, but not from the VNs.” Skadi says, as calm as if she were announcing the weather. “These ordinance signatures look human, Lunan. It can't be.”

I tab through the specs of the update, watch as my sister soldiers install it without question. It's weird, instructs the rear surface of our armor to grow explosive bolts and spin up an unwieldy amount of heavy cabling and sheer sheeting.

“What is this?” I ask, shaking my head.

“It's called a parachute.” Skadi gestures at me. “Install it, private. That's an order.”

I nod immediately, give my armor permission to install the app. Within seconds, I can feel the software bulking out the plating at my shoulders, spinning elements into being from the air around us.

“You knew about this?” Eira asks.

“I knew it was a possibility,” Skadi fixes the younger Valkyrie with her dark stare.

I see Eira start to speak, hear the first edge of sound, and then there's a second explosion, a deafening shearing as the Sessrúmnir splits and rips into two. I see two of my sister soldiers fall away into the endless blue, see Eira reach out and seize a bar so hard that it bends under the force of her augmented grip. Gravity yanks me toward the breech, and I reach for Skadi, fight to catch her hand. Our armored fingers spark as they glance off one another– and then she's gone. I shout, watch in horror as the safe darkness of the burning Sessrúmnir falls suddenly upward and away from me.

“Váli!” Eira's shout is eaten with so much static that I can barely understand it. Within seconds, the two fiery halves of the Sessrúmnir are little more than tiny dots in the sky. Fighting the urge to scream, I press my hands flat against my faceplate, squeeze my eyes against hot tears.

“The parachute!” Skadi's voice tears through the howl of the wind, the shrieking static. “Váli! The parachute!”

My hands fly away from my face. In the endless blue distances, I can see chunks of the Sessrúmnir dropping, flinging smoke and shrapnel into the air as they tumble, burst and shatter. It takes me a breath to steady my thoughts, to get the precise command from my mind to the computer in my armor. When the bolts fire and the sheet rips itself from its pack on my back, I shriek, claw at the air as everything stops, as the sheet yanks me back, slows my too-fast descent to a steady drift.
“Major!” I shout into the sky, but there is no answer. “Major Skadi!”

Only the thunder of another chunk of the Sessrúmnir tearing itself apart echoes back in reply, and I'm too lost, too terrified to tear my eyes away from it. The streaks in the sky are black and inky, ominous.

I can't even imagine what waits for me below.

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