The Lorelei Signal
Mortal ex Machina
Written by Charles Kyffhausen / Artwork by Lee Ann Barlow
The old man in the grey coat parked his eight-wheeled car and walked into the British Museum. He carried a tall staff, and a wide-brimmed hat hid his face.
"No dogs, Sir," the museum attendant told him. The man's two companions actually looked more like wolves.
"They are housebroken and well behaved," he answered in a voice like a chill winter's breeze.
"It doesn't matter, dogs aren't allowed in the museum—" The old man raised his head a little, and the attendant's face turned slightly pale. "It's all right, Sir, your dogs are all right," he stammered.
"Thank you. Diana Morgan?" he asked as he walked over to the heiress of the Morgan Armory, the world's largest defense contractor. A blonde ponytail came to the middle of the young American's jacket, and she wore slacks and flat shoes. It was rare that she had any spare time, but she had completed her visit to BAE Systems; a major defense company whose origins were almost as old as that of her family's company. Her flight home was tomorrow, so she had decided to put the spare time to good use.
"That's me. You have the advantage of me, for I have never met you before."
"I am Mr. Bolverk."
"Bolverk is Scandinavian for 'worker of evil.' Do you claim to be the Devil?"
"The Vikings called us gods, but we Aesir do not presume to compare ourselves to the supreme All-Father. The one whom you might call the Devil is, however, on the Other Side: the side that wants to bring disorder, chaos, and terror to the world. 'An axe age, a sword-age, shields will be gnashed: there will be a wind-age and a wolf-age before the world is wrecked.' I assume that you are aware of the object that is heading toward Earth."
"The Morgan Armory built the surface to space missiles that the Air Force launched last month. Their nuclear warheads can penetrate fifteen meters of reinforced concrete, and they will go right into that asteroid's heart—"
"—where none of them will explode. The asteroid will then strike the earth to throw millions of tons of dust into the atmosphere. The wolf Skoll will eat the Sun, his brother Hati will seize the Moon, and the stars will disappear. Fimbulvetr, the Winter of Winters, will follow. Three icy winters will grip the world with no summer or harvest between them."
"Shouldn't you have a sign that says, 'the end is near?'"
"It is very near. The Norns who weave the world's destiny stretch their thread every day to see what tomorrow might bring, and the thread snapped this morning."
"I am familiar with Scandinavian mythology, but I read such stories only for entertainment."
"I do not deal in entertainment, Ms. Morgan," the man said while he raised his head as he had done with the museum attendant. Diana looked into a single ice-blue eye, for an eye patch concealed the other.
"Then in what do you deal, Mr. Bolverk?"
"Only Siegfried dared to look at me as you do, and you are everything I expected. We," Diana could sense that this word would be capitalized anywhere in a sentence, "need your help."
"Aerospace engineering, engine and servomechanism design?" she asked. "I work for my family's defense company full time, so I have no time for consulting."
"You are a creature of what you call Reality, and you do not believe in Magic. Your bloodline, however, allowed Us to contact you. I'm sure you have read Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Mr. Clemens distorted some things deliberately to avoid influencing history, and Merlin and Hank Morgan were both on Our side."
"There might be some truth to that story," Diana admitted. "Our family uses a coat of arms that purportedly dates back to the time of King Arthur, and we have always been ahead of the rest of the world technologically. Both sides in the English Civil War, and the American Civil War, used our weapons with very destructive effects. Had it been up to us, neither conflict would have happened, but kings and politicians are not the most enlightened people."
"Come, walk with me."
"Why not? You are an amusing eccentric, and my museum ticket will let me back in later."
A dense fog had risen, so Diana was glad that she had walked and could take a subway, or tube, back to her hotel. She would not have to drive in the fog, and on the wrong side of the street in the bargain. "Are you allowed to park there?" she asked. The eight-wheeled car's vanity plate said, "SLEIPNIR."
"They won't give me a ticket, and they cannot tow that vehicle."
"What kind of car is that, anyway? I'd love to see what's under the hood."
"I do not think you would, Ms. Morgan. On second thought, I think it would interest and not frighten you. Later, perhaps."
She followed him past the museum to a park. There was a large pool, almost like a miniature lake, and a boat waited on the shore. "Get in, and I will row," he said. "There is something here that we need."
"I'm a good swimmer, but I don't get into a boat without a life jacket. That's basic water safety."
Mr. Bolverk produced two from under his coat, one for each of them. "How could he have had room for those under that coat?" Diana wondered as she put hers on. They got into the boat, and he rowed it out into the middle of the lake. The fog was now extremely dense, and the water was perfectly still.
Something stirred in the water. Then a woman's arm in a white sleeve emerged to hold up a sheathed sword. "Take it, Diana Morgan," Mr. Bolverk said.
"A diver with a rebreather to prevent bubbling?" Diana thought while she did so. "Somebody went to a lot of trouble to pull this practical joke." She thought the hilt would be too big for her, but it seemed to fit her hand perfectly.
"When King Arthur lay dying at Camlann, he ordered a knight to throw Excalibur into a pool of quiet water. He said it would rise again when it was needed, and it is needed now. You look incredulous, so I shall persuade you," Mr. Bolverk said while he rowed back to shore.
"Pick a large rock, any large rock, and strike it with that sword," he continued.
Diana pulled it from its sheath, but she hesitated. "The blade is polished like a mirror. I don't want to ruin it."
"If it is what I say it is, there is no chance of ruining it. If it is but a cheap replica, who cares?"
Diana knew from her karate practice to hit through and not at the target. She expected the large stone to dull or notch the sword's edge, but the blow produced a loud crack while the stone split in half.
"That sword once belonged to Hector, Prince of Troy," Mr. Bolverk explained. "It was King Arthur's before it came into the hands of the French hero Roland. When Roland lay dying at Roncesvalles, he tried to break Durendal against a rock to prevent its capture by the Saracens. The rock split instead, as you have seen here."
"This sword also was Nothung, or Needful," he continued. "It once broke against my lance, but Gungnir's shaft is a piece of the World Ash Tree. Siegfried recast and reforged Nothung, and he tested his work by splitting an anvil with it. No natural force can break the Sword of the Champion, and it protects its wielder from all natural forces."
"I know better than that," Diana objected. "Achilles slew Hector, and Mordred killed Arthur. Roland and Siegfried also died."
"Achilles had supernatural assistance, and Arthur was holding a spear when Mordred killed him. Roland died from exhaustion, and Hagen killed Siegfried treacherously while Nothung was sheathed."
"Every hero who has owned this sword has died, Odin," Diana replied, for his story about Siegfried had told him who he really was. "I believe you now, for no known metal can do what this sword just did."
"Does that frighten you, Diana Morgan?"
"My father the Vietnam War hero and my grandfather the General raised me to respect genuine danger but to fear nothing."
"Come, then," Odin said as led her back to his car. She was about to get in on the passenger side but Odin said, "You must ride in back. Two cannot ride abreast, as you shall see."
Diana did, and suddenly she wasn't in a car any more. She was sitting behind Odin on an eight-legged horse that was climbing a rainbow. The two wolves followed, and two ravens flew alongside.
~ * ~
Valhalla, the Hall of the Slain, was exactly as the books described it. "She doesn't look like a fallen hero," one of the burly warriors said when he saw the slim woman in slacks and a jacket.
"She's not dead, Eric," Odin said.
"We will all be dead by nightfall," the Viking replied. "This is the day we prepared for, and I hope to take a dozen of Loki's people with me."
Diana tried the bread that was on Odin's table, and it was the best that she had ever tasted. Odin's wife Fricka offered her boar meat, but she refused. "Meat is bad for your cholesterol," she explained.
"Oh, I suppose mortals have to worry about chol— whatever-it-was you said," Odin replied.
"An advantage of being a dead hero is that I can eat and drink as much as I want without getting fat or drunk!" one of the Einherjar, or fallen heroes, bellowed.
"Do you eat salmon?" Fricka asked.
"Yes," Diana replied, and a plate of salmon appeared in front of her. "This is delicious! Norway has always produced good salmon, but nothing like this."
"Loki turned himself into a salmon to escape my vengeance after he arranged the murder of my son Baldur," Odin said.
"Loki didn't even have the courage to do his own dirty work," Diana said with disgust, for she knew the story of how Loki had arranged for a rod of mistletoe to pierce Baldur.
"That is how Loki does things. The Aesir finally chained him in a cave, but now he has broken his bonds. The giant wolf Fenris also has broken the chains that have held him for millennia."
"You know what will happen," Odin continued. "Fenris will slay me, and then my son Vidur will avenge me. Heimdall will fight Loki until they are both dead. Thor will fight Jormungand the Midgard Serpent, and they also will slay each another. Fire, and the ice of a triple winter, shall destroy your world of Midgard. A few people will survive to rebuild, and my son Baldur shall return to life in that new era."
"Where do I fit in?" Diana asked. "I learned how to fight in my father's virtual reality simulators, but you already have an army of heroes."
"We are creatures of Magic, so we cannot escape our destiny," a red-bearded Aesir explained. "I, Thor, must meet Jormungand even though he will certainly slay me. Neither I nor the Midgard Serpent can avoid our fates, but you are a mortal. That means you are not subject to predestination."
"I can't build my century's weapons for you. No single person can design an Abrams tank or an F-22 fighter plane, and you don't have the tools to build those weapons." Diana thought for a moment and continued, "I can probably reproduce the rifles that my country used during its Civil War. Grenades are easy, and I could also show you how to make a Gatling gun. How long do I have to work with your blacksmiths and, um, alchemists?" She would need the aid of the latter to make gunpowder.
"None," Odin replied. "The Norns' thread snapped this morning, and there will be no tomorrow unless you find a solution. We do have magic, and you can use it. I, for example, know a rune that will turn one material into another. I can change iron to mercury, lead to gold, and even flesh to stone."
"Can you turn a piece of steel into a Maxim gun?"
"No, for I do not know what a Maxim gun is."
"Even I can't visualize the entire mechanism," Diana admitted. "Does the Other Side have similar powers?"
"Yes, but the Other Side is as helpless against Destiny as we are."
"This rune will turn anything into anything, right? If I know what it is, I can create it."
"Yes. If you know of something that the Other Side does not, you could tip the balance in Our favor. We must go now, for Heimdall the Watchman blows his shrieking horn to summon us to Ragnarok."
"I do know of something, Odin. I will need a ball, of anything, that weighs about thirty pounds."
"That is all?"
"I promise you that it will be more than enough."
"Then let all Aesir and heroes assemble for the ride to the Last Battlefield." Odin mounted Sleipnir, and he motioned for Diana to get up behind him. Two ravens flew at their backs while two wolves ran beside them, and they rode to the field of Vigrid.
"Are the enemy leaders all in one place?" Diana asked while the two armies massed for the Battle of Ragnarok.
Heimdall could see a bird ten miles away, and he identified those individuals easily. "Loki, the Fenris Wolf, and the Midgard Serpent are advancing together," he affirmed.
"This isn't my field of expertise, and I don't know the correct weight," Diana warned while she lifted the ball. "This is more than enough, but it might be too much. It may seem cowardly and undignified, but you must now lie on your faces. If this works, there will be a very bright light in that field, and you must not look at it. If you do, it will be the last thing you ever see. Now I must go forward a mile or so to leave this ball in front of the enemy army. Odin, how far away will this rune work?"
"You must touch the object that you want to transform. How do you escape the cataclysmic force that you intend to unleash?"
The color left Diana's face while she swallowed hard, for she had just heard her own death sentence. "I suppose I don't. I should have asked about the range of your magic earlier, but it wouldn't have mattered. There is no other way to do this."
"What do you mean? The Sword of the Champion will protect you from any natural force."
"You don't have to sugar-coat this for me, Odin. Nothing can protect me from what I have to do, but it's me or my family, country, and entire world. I don't have a problem with that choice. Tell my family what happened here, all right? I don't want to just vanish." Then she laughed almost hysterically.
"You laugh even though you do not expect to survive," Thor observed. "That is how a hero faces death, and I will remember to laugh when I face Jormungand."
"There was a scene from Dr. Strangelove in which the B‑52's bomb bay door wouldn't open," Diana explained. "Major Kong managed to open it, but then he made a fatal mistake. I suppose I won't feel a thing, and I promise that none of you will ever forget me."
"Teach me what you want to do, maiden, and I shall do it," an Aesir volunteered. "As you can see, I lack a hand. I put it into the Fenris Wolf's mouth as a pledge that we would release him if he could not break the bonds we placed on him long ago. I knew we didn't plan to let him go, I knew the price, and now I will die in your place."
"You are Tyr, bravest of the Aesir," Diana realized. "My Dad is Army, and so is my brother. An officer doesn't ask somebody else to do what he won't do himself, so I can't let you take my place."
"My fate is to die at Ragnarok anyway."
"Do you know the Periodic Table of the Elements?"
"You can't do it, Tyr. I am the only one who can."
"Take my horse," Odin said. "Remember to hold the Sword, for it will protect you."
"I guess it won't hurt. I'd like something else: a Stetson hat. You'd have to have seen the movie to understand, but I am going to enjoy my last moment of existence." Odin made one for her, and she put it on.
Sleipnir carried Diana across the field toward the approaching horde. The horse understood when she dismounted and told him, "Get away quickly, and don't look back." She then stood proudly and defiantly while Loki and his companions surrounded her. They could not understand why one person faced them alone.
"Where is Odin?" demanded a wolf that was as tall as a small horse. "I am fated to slay him before I die at his son's hand but I find only a maiden, naked of armor but bearing a sword."
"Do you know who I am?" Loki added.
Diana could sense the incredible evil behind Loki's handsome face, but she looked him squarely in the eyes. "You murdered Odin's son Baldur by treachery."
"Baldur's death was my greatest accomplishment," Loki giggled. "It tops my arrangement of Jesus' crucifixion, the rise of Hitler, and that little prank at Sarajevo that started the First World War." He looked aside for a moment before he continued, "I have shut down your country's nuclear missiles. My magic will last as long as I live, and it is at least a few hours before I must meet Heimdall. I believe that asteroid is roughly one hour its impact with Midgard."
~ * ~
At Cape Canaveral, three banks of green lights turned red. "What happened?" a mission controller said while the color drained from his face.
"Can't you fire our strategic missiles at the asteroid?" a news reporter stammered.
"This isn't Deep Impact," the ashen officer said. "Those are intercontinental ballistic missiles, so they can't even reach orbit."
"Then we're all dead, aren't we?"
A general turned to the mission controllers to ask, "Aren't there backup fuzes for those warheads? Hell, detonate them by radio signal if you have to!"
"We are trying, but we can't even get a response from the payloads."
"Call Richard Morgan."
They did, and Diana's father listened with stunned disbelief while the general explained the situation. "Are you sure it's not radio interference?" Richard demanded. "Each warhead has four delayed impact fuzes, and three timers as backup."
"The telemetry signals confirm failure on all impact and time fuzes, Sir. Is there anything we can do?"
"No, General, there is not." Richard Morgan tried to identify the emotion that he was experiencing for the first time in his life, and he finally realized that it was fear. None of his ancestors had ever failed their country but he had, as far as he knew, failed the entire world.
~ * ~
"Loki, considering what I'm about to do, you can't imagine how happy it makes me to hear you recite your crimes," Diana said.
"And what will you do, mortal? Will you say, 'Get thee behind me, Satan?' I do not make mortals commit evil deeds, but I inspire those who are evil. I inspired the Nazis, for example."
"No, I don't want you behind me. I will look you in the face when I do this."
"You will die horribly when I give the order. Your whole world will die, but I have something special in mind for your family."
~ * ~
"I heard that," Heimdall told the other Aesir. "They are going after Diana's parents and brother."
Odin called to his daughters, the Valkyries. "Axe Time and Raging, Host Fetter, Wrecker of Plans, Shaker, Mist; leave the field now and protect Diana Morgan's family." The Valkyries' armor flashed like the Aurora Borealis as they rushed down to Midgard.
~ * ~
"Loki, this is for Baldur, and for everything else you've done," Diana said while she looked into Loki's face, and she spoke the rune that Odin had given her. Then she waved the Stetson hat while she let out what she expected to be her final breath in a defiant Rebel yell: "Yaaaah-hoooo!" The ball changed, not into lead or gold, but into something far denser. The red lights at Cape Canaveral turned green as Loki's magic died with him, and the warheads blew the asteroid apart a few minutes later.
~ * ~
A second sun had just risen on Vigrid, and its blazing light forced its way through the closed eyelids of the Aesir and heroes while they hugged the ground for all they were worth. The dry foliage around them burst into flame, and then the ground shook while enough overpressure to level all but the strongest structures hammered their bodies.
Blast does not, however, kill by itself. The flying debris that would have slain anyone in their path meanwhile flew over the Aesir and heroes harmlessly. Only after the light dimmed and the heat died away, though, did they dare to look at the incandescent dust that was now spreading into a mushroom cloud. Diana had explained that the cloud would be poisonous, so Thor invoked his powers over the winds to blow it away.
"Look at where Loki, Jormungand, and Fenris were standing," Thor exclaimed. "There is nothing left but a crater, and I don't even see any bodies!"
"The soil around the crater has turned into glass, but there is a wolf-shaped shadow on it," Heimdall reported. "The shadow next to the wolf's has a helmet ornament that resembles the one Loki was wearing. The bigger shadows nearby look like the frost and fire giants in Loki's army."
"Today isn't the end of the Aesir and of Midgard, it is a mopping-up operation!" Odin proclaimed while he mounted Sleipnir, and his wolves rushed to his side when he raised his spear to signal the advance. "If the remnants of Loki's army don't surrender, we will wipe them off the face of the earth. Heimdall, what about Diana Morgan?"
~ * ~
"Ya-hoooo! Eeeeyaahhh-hah!" Diana screamed with hysterical elation. Odin's rune had, as she had planned, changed the ball into a spherical, and critical, mass of plutonium. The resulting atomic explosion had then blasted the Other Side into ionic plasma.
Then Diana realized that she had to be alive to feel elated about anything. Major Kong had waved his Stetson hat while he rode the Bomb down to Ground Zero, but the Sword of the Champion was keeping her a finger's breadth ahead of the destroying energies that were advancing at the speed of light. She was within inches of a piece of the Sun or its equivalent, and she realized that she could reach out and touch the nuclear fireball. That was, however, an experiment that she decided to forego. Then she found herself on the grass outside the museum.
Diana was still holding the Sword, and she was afraid it might get her in trouble with England's anti-weapon laws. "This is a nice sword, and I hope I can get it home," she thought. "I'll have to declare it at Customs, though, and I don't even have a receipt." Then she felt something in her pocket. It was a receipt for an "Excalibur replica," and it had been signed by one "B. Harbard." Harbard meant "Hooded One," and it was another of Odin's many names. Diana wrapped the sword in her jacket, and then she headed for the subway. She returned to her hotel room in time to receive her father's telephone call.
Very little could rattle Richard Morgan, but he had to sit down suddenly when Diana finished her story. "I had to kill a man today, Diana," he said. "An axe-wielding lunatic in Viking armor smashed his way through our front door while he described what he was going to do to your mother and me. He said it was part of 'his master's' revenge for something 'my daughter'—I won't repeat the adjectives he used to describe you—was doing. I don't know what his problem was, but a forty-five caliber bullet fixed it for him. A mounted woman in armor that shimmered like the Aurora Borealis meanwhile appeared out of nowhere to kill another Viking psychopath who tried to break through our back door. 'Battlefather ordered my sisters and me to protect you, but these fugitives eluded me for a while,' she explained before she disappeared."
"There was something else about those Viking warriors," he continued. "They had very bad sunburns on their exposed skin, and the last time anybody saw injuries like those was at Nagasaki in 1945. It looks like the Bomb not only saved our world from the asteroid, it saved another one as well."
Diana still had the Stetson hat, and she almost doubled up with laughter as she remembered another line from Dr. Strangelove. "Well, Dad, maybe we really should stop worrying and learn to love the Bomb."
"Step under the mistletoe with me, Einar!" one of Diana's coworkers invited the new employee at the company's Christmas party.
"I'd rather not, Jane," the tall blonde man answered. "It has nothing to do with you, but I once had a very bad experience with mistletoe. Is Diana Morgan here?"
"I see; you want to step under the mistletoe with her. She's right over there."
"Believe me, I don't want to get anywhere near mistletoe with anybody, or by myself. Hello, Diana," he then introduced himself. "I'm B. Einar Harbardson, graduate of the University of Stockholm."
"'Harbardson' means 'son of the Hooded One,' doesn't it?" Diana asked.
"I don't go by my first name because it would be too obvious," Baldur said more quietly. "The Norns got themselves a new thread thanks to you. When your life ends, there will be an honored seat at my father's table, along with vegetarian food in case you are still watching your cholesterol."
"Does a handsome hero instead of a Valkyrie come to get me?"
"I will do the honors myself. Now, Diana Morgan, would you like to dance?"
"I'd be delighted, Einar." They spent a good part of the evening on the dance floor together, but they were very careful to stay away from the hanging mistletoe.
Charles Kyffhausen is the SF/Fantasy pen name of the author of stories published in Fear and Trembling, Strange, Weird and Wonderful, Lorelei Signal, Dragon Soul Press, and others.