The Strangest Places
by Sylvia Kelso
Strange places where people find themselves in very strange situations … and what happened then.
An upheaval on the Greenland ice-cap; gods and battles on the border of Kush just before Ancient Egypt’s 18th dynasty; dark fantasy based around the Wurzburg Prince-Bishop’s Palace; some post-human-diaspora SF on Tau Ceti B; an alternate history moment in Cretaceous Laramidia. Strange places where people find themselves in strange situations … and what happened then.
- Table of Contents
- The Price of Kush
- Sister Anne
- At Sunset
- The Horses of Buhen
- The Honour of the Ferrocarril
- A Moment in Laramidia
- Not So Loud
- The Isle is Full of Noises
Sylvia Kelso lives in North Queensland, Australia. She mostly writes fantasy and SF set in analogue or alternate Australian settings, and likes to tinker with moral swords-and-sorcery and elements of mythology. She has published 8 fantasy novels, including Amberlight and The Moving Water, award finalists in Australia.
Read a Sample
The few people I’ve told about this say, Hallucination. But I didn’t imagine anything: I just looked in the viewfinder, and there it was.
Dave and I were checking cameras, up on the Petermann, the big Greenland glacier. We work for HIW, High Ice Watch; they’re a copycat of James Balog’s Extreme Ice Survey, and they try to pick up all the glaciers he doesn’t cover; sometimes, as with the Petermann, we overlap.
That’s because the Petermann is a big so-and-so: it’s a—relatively—narrow river of ice that runs down from the Greenland Ice Cap to the Arctic, and it’s been upsetting the ice-geeks ever since it started calving, first Manhattan-sized, then double, then sextuple Manhattan-sized pieces, back in 2010, right up through 2016 and on. Ten years later, the Ice Shelf, the full tongue that used to stick out into the ocean, is almost chewed away.
If you ask ice-geeks why this is such a deal, they’ll twist up their mouths and start side-dancing about yeah, there really is climate change, and yeah, there might be warm-water melt underneath all the ice, and fresh water coming in, and yada, yada, yada … The thing being that top to bottom, the Petermann is deeper than the US Grand Canyon, and it sits over an ancient river bed that stretches six-fifty kilometres back into Greenland’s guts. And the Petermann is also a kind of giant plug, holding enough ice to lift the global ocean level by near twelve imperial inches, if it ever got released. All by itself.
Think about that, and that warm water deep down under, and you’ll figure why the ice-geeks twitch.
So beside EIS and the national weather-data sites, HIW has had cameras up on the Petermann ever since we began. Dave and I had flown in on the little Bell from our Arctic ship, Bestla, loaded up with spares for everything from tripods to lens caps, plus a full pack of film canisters. Usually Dave sticks to the fly-boy part, and I’m the ice-trotter; but on the Petermann we go both ways from the chopper, doing our best to run tippy-toe. HIW has a real lot of cameras there. And no matter how many tonnes of ice you know’s under you, that dirty, slippery, mud-coloured surface never feels—safe.
Of course I was right down at the most seaward site when I felt the tremor start. Felt it through my boot soles even before the camera’s seismo attachment twitched. My own mouth was already open when Dave said inside my earmuff, “You feel that?”
“Felt it.” Just a twitch, I told myself. The Petermann, snoring in its sleep. “You done up there?”
“Headed back. Maybe three hundred metres out. You close?”
“Just gotta check the viewfinder here.”
The headset crackled. Wind whispered. Dave didn’t whisper, but he wasn’t shouting, however sarky he sounded. “Just look out for Manhattans, hey?”
He meant the guy from EIS who checked a viewfinder and caught a Manhattan-size calving in real time, back in 2012. “Don’t hex me, dude,” I said, and bent over the camera. And another shock went through the ice under me, and there it was.
At least, there was the calving’s start. Across the width of the glacier under the far mountain wall, deep among the forest of ice-spires and coombs, just an insignificant little white dust. Spreading and falling, and after it …
You can watch that part for yourself, on the EIS film. The sudden release, the lightning-quick roar, and next second ice towers higher than skyscrapers crashing down like the Big One onto an Arctic San Francisco, ruin racing both ways along the glacier wall as the whole giant section, longer than Manhattan, comes slithering forward, starting to slide …
The ice was shaking under me and I landed on my knees with a death-grip on the camera mount. An ounce of brains’d have made me run like a frightened mouse. A quarter pound of brain screamed that I’d break my neck on the Petermann’s murderous surface: keep still, you fool, stay where you are!
So I saw the slipped section collapse, a mile of ice-scrapers falling headlong, hills toppling, canyons opening grey and green and dream-time black, as ice from down too deep for guesswork burst into slabs bigger than city blocks and came heaving up, smooth-surfaced as window-glass, rolling over like a liner in slow motion, up and out and back down into the maelstrom of foam and waves and whirlpools underneath.
And among all that, I saw—the rest.
At first I thought it was another monster deep-berg section: a double block-length of smooth, sheeny black flank curving up, slow and inexorable and almost silent amid the other uproar, deep under the new glacier wall. But then the light shivered and altered and I saw the scales.
Patterns first, just patterns in the light. Refracting, mottling, it could have been an ice-effect, except I’ve watched ice these last fifteen years, and it’s never made a pattern like that. I moved by sheer instinct, knowing it would matter to record this, pulling up the zoom.
They were snake scales: I don’t expect you to believe that. Without the evidence of their own eyes, nobody would. But they were snake scales: they were mottled and patterned like the hide of a decorative python, only these scales were the size of hotel doors, glistening and shimmering and cracking apart the light.
And moving. The whole whatever-it-was was moving, sliding forward the way the big ice-sherds do as they break the surface and roll and sink, and I can clearly remember I tried to pan the fixed camera to follow where it went. But the camera wouldn’t move.
And where the camera looked, the—whatever-it-was—just kept coming, more and more of it, rolling up smooth and deadly silent, rising, rising, I know the scale of that whole picture and this—thing—was half the height of the two hundred metre glacier wall.
I couldn’t say anything. I don’t think I breathed. The headset was full of the calving’s roar, loud as the end of earth itself. The—the—coil—just kept on coming, rising up out of the whirlpools, flowing dream-smooth and silent up into an enormous arch and back down out of sight. The crest of it was more than halfway up the wall, the edge of the underside only just showed, now and then, through the bucking surf. And it kept coming, and kept coming, and I might have been there, mesmerised, paralysed, frozen solid, even now—
Except the ice suddenly bucked and kicked and almost humanly screamed underneath me on a note that crescendoed like an approaching train, a train tearing in toward the camera from the glacier rim, and then the surface itself erupted on a long line inward from the margin with a sound like a hundred tree-trunks splintering at once. And that time I didn’t listen to reason. I ran.
I must have covered two hundred metres better than the best Olympic sprinter, and over that surface I can’t explain how I didn’t break my neck. I can physically recall the impact of the eight metre stalagmite that almost slammed the wind out of me as it brought me up short as a fielder colliding with the fence, swinging me clean around, three hundred or so metres from the glacier edge.
So I saw the camera whip like a leaf into the opening crevasse; and where that ended, not fifty metres from where I stood, I saw how it was made.
The thing stood out of the ice like a nuclear sub’s conning-tower and it ripped through like Godzilla’s own ploughshare—my ears have never, really, been the same. But I saw it at that fifty metre distance, and it wasn’t a conning-tower, and it wasn’t anybody’s ploughshare. It was a tail.
Fifty, a hundred metres of it visible, long and tapering and pointed, stippled, all over, with those ice-black and ocean-grey and foam-white scales. Rearing up into the white-lit sky, while I must have gawped and waited, paralysed, to go where the camera went.
Before the point arched over and down in a trajectory like a fireworks rocket and whipped away back above the glacier rim and I saw where it was going.
The coils had come halfway up the glacier wall, but the head lifted over it. It was small in comparison to the belly and barrel, but it was still the size of a railway locomotive. A locomotive-size snakehead, scaled, skinned, with snout and jaws and nostrils. And eyes.
The one I saw had the diameter of a petrol drum, black and convex and glistening, but this wasn’t water: this was the shimmer of life. The pupil split it from top to bottom, and the rest was all iris, speckled gold on black. They have no eyelids; it never blinked. But I knew it was alive, and sighted, and sentient. And the cold, the remote and colder-than-Arctic malevolence in that eye stopped the heart in my chest.
It may have seen me. Or not. I had two, three seconds to look. Then it opened its mouth.
The bottom jaw dropped the way snakes’ do, but this one went down like the clam-shell portal of a Herc. Dropped and dropped and kept on dropping, till I was looking down a red maw bigger than the Channel tunnel and my bones and blood had superseded thought in the body-wide certainty we were going to die.
Then the tail-point whipped over the ice-rim and shot straight down that enormous throat.
I think I fainted. Or maybe the din just blacked out everything. I have a memory shard of the—head—disappearing below the rim. I can remember cold wet dirty snow under my backside and the incipient bruise that was almost going to break my ribs. My ears were still full of avalanche thunder. But it must have subsided a decibel or two. Because presently a tiny tinny voice drilled through it, repeating over and over, “Iain, can you hear me? Can you hear me? Where are you? What happened? Jesus Christ, Iain, are you there?”
I’m still on stress leave, but the shaking’s almost stopped now, except sometimes at night. Now the docs are finished, there’s been a lot of time to think. And to do some research. On Google, of course, where else does anybody go nowadays, and the worst problem was knowing what to ask. After all, what sort of search results do you get if you type in, “Giant snake?”
But I’ve done a lot of wading, and a lot of read-and-discard, and I’ve narrowed the chances down from anacondas and boa constrictors and megafauna fossils, through hearsay to mythology, and through that, past Hercules’ serpents and Australian rainbow ancestors and various Indian infernal nasties, to whatever kind of giant snake you might ever encounter on the Arctic’s verge. And I’d call the answer mythology; except I saw it with my own eyes.
Jörmangandr, the Norse named it: the son of a giantess and the god Loki, about the worst pedigree the Norse could dream up. Jörmangandr, the Midgard Serpent, so big that it lies, with its tail in its mouth, in a girdle round the living world.
That’s the only answer that makes sense. The only one that will fit something that size, and more to the point, explain what it did.
Of course, with the camera gone, there’s no hard evidence. There’s only Dave and me, and what we saw that day, and who’s gonna believe that?
We wrote the camera down as “lost in a sub-glacial tremor.” None of the others were covering just that arc, of course, and Dave saw very little in comparison to me. Just a weirdly coloured deep-ice floe rolling over, and one hell of a hole in the Petermann’s top.
I’m not going to ask what happened under the Petermann, to make Jörmangandr let go his tail and stick his head up in the open air. You can read the stats on climate change and global warming as well as I can. But in the mythology, the Midgard Serpent only rises at Ragnarök, otherwise known as the end of the world. Because Ragnarök is the last battle of the gods, Odin and Freya and Thor and the rest, with their long-time enemies: ice giants, fire giants, monster wolves, monsters, you name it, it’ll be there. Lots of it’s one-on-one. And the myth says Thor, the god of battle and thunder, is slated to tackle Jörmangandr.
They’re already supposed to have met twice, and both times, it was a draw. So Ragnarök’ll be the tie-breaker.
I’ve never had a lot of time for Thor, even after that movie when I was a kid. God of battle and thunder, sure. King of macho bellow and bash, yeah. Champion smash-and-thumper, waves the lightning round every day. Probably bigger than King Kong, when he manifests on earth.
Not my mythology. Not my kind of hero, if it were. Just a story, anyhow. But this is what I saw in the viewfinder. So nowadays, when I wake up in a screaming sweat at midnight and see that mouth again, opening like a cargo-portal—you know, sometimes I can be almost sorry for Thor.