Bjørg walked through the tall grass, gently skimming it with her palms. She turned her smiling face against the sun. Her black hair flowed in the wind. Three huge isbos waddled in front of her. Now and then they stretched their long necks and put their noses up in the cold air, sniffing.
Weak, but clear, a human voice. She shuddered.
“Hello? Who´s there?”
The wind roared in answer. Bjørg crouched down in the grass. She raised her hand silently, ordering the isbos to stand still. Their large muscles trembled under the white fur. Their leader, Gard, lowered his massive head. Bjørg let the rifle slide slowly down from her shoulders.
It came from her left. She straightened her shoulders, steadied the rifle in her hands, and got up slowly.
He was on the ground, against a rock that sheltered him from the harsh wind. Huddling under a piece of thick cloth that looked like canvas, he looked up at her. It would not protect him against the night chill, she thought. High cheekbones, bushy eyebrows, strong nose. Bjørg frowned as she studied his face. Something was different about this man. He reminded her of someone.
His eyes widened at the sight of the isbos lurking behind her in the tall grass. He started to shake.
“Please,” he begged, his voice cracking “Please.”
“Get up!” She spat the words out and pointed the rifle muzzle at him. “Get up!” The isbos growled behind her.
He shook his head. “I can´t. Look.” He lifted the cloth from the lower part of his body. The wound was not old. The blood glistened. His leg twitched. How had he managed to get here with that leg?
“Please.” He craned his neck, looking. The sun shone in his dark eyes, made them twinkle. Bjørg startled. She had seen eyes like this before, in her own mirror. This man had her eyes.
“I came to see you. I need to talk with you. Please,” he begged.
Bjørg lowered her rifle.
His eyes never left her while Bjørg cleansed his wound and stitched it. He cried out when she straightened his leg and a loud cracking sound made them both jump, but he made no other sounds, just clenched his fists. She wondered where he had gotten the scars that traveled all over his body. One of the scars on his stomach was fresh, probably only a few weeks old. He had the word ‘Annaassiniarneq’ engraved on his back. She did not know what it meant. Gard shuffled his feat outside the open door, but didn´t enter the room.
The man spoke only once. “What is your name?” He lied on his back under the fur covers, drowsy from the sedatives, naked, but warm. She had left the room and was about to close the door behind her.
He inclined his head. “A good name. Old. From the South.” He hesitated. “It means to rescue. Or save.” It seemed like he wanted to say more, but didn´t. Then, as she turned around, he said quietly, because she had not asked, “my name is Simik.” He pronounced it with a soft curve at the beginning. She repeated it in her head, nodded. He closed his eyes. “Thank you, Bjørg.”
Bjørg ordered Gard to lie down outside the room. The isbo curled up on the floor with his stocky legs and put his long nose deep into his thick fur, sighing heavily. She patted his big head and went to finish her evening routine.
Later that night, as she prepared herself for bed, she stood staring into the mirror in the bathroom for a long time. The only light was the penetrating yellow glare from the bulbs in the roof. It made the birth mark on her left chin look dark purple. The thought of a man laying, a few metres away made her uncomfortable.
He had managed to arrive unnoticed and wounded. Why had she not seen him or his boat on the monitors? She thought of the word on his back. She had pored over the files in the database for hours, but had not found any information about it. What language was it? Was it something new? It could be. They had not received information from the Commander for many years now.
Bjørg wondered why she had let him live. It would have been easy to let the isbos have him. Her dark eyes in the mirror stared back at her. He made her weak. She did not like it. She glowered at herself.
She was certain that Simik was honest when he said he was searching for her. Or not her, she corrected herself, but what she protected. The vault. They all wanted what was in the vault. She didn´t believe he would be any different than the others.
Never trust the humans. Her father´s voice echoed in her head. They might seem innocent and friendly, but they are parasites. Never forget why we are here and what our duty is.
They usually came in the sun season; hollow-cheeked, dressed in thin clothes. Bjørg found their sailboats at the south shore, where the wind was calm. Not all made it to the shore alive. Bodies lay on the beach too, the faces swollen from the salty ocean water. She burned them, keeping a cloth over her face so she wouldn´t smell the fire. One time she found a woman with stretch marks and scars along the stomach, but there was no sign of any child. Bjørg didn´t sleep for days after that.
She burned the boats, too. They became large fires that lasted for hours. Thick black smoke would drift upwards before the winds carried it away. She always paid close attention to the monitors in the days afterwards. Be sure that smoke does not attract any further attention, her father had instructed her.
He also taught her how to stay cold when killing a man and not let the feelings overwhelm her. Do not hesitate, his mild voice echoed in her memory. Look them in the eye and pull the trigger. It is your duty. Never forget that, girl.
She seldom had to kill the men herself though. The isbos would see to it.
You have to be strong, girl, her father used to say. We are helping them to survive in the future. So she would say it aloud to block out their cries. “I am helping them.”
It did not stop the men from haunting her in horrifying nightmares. She dreamt that the ocean was filled with burning sailboats. She dreamt that she was a little girl locked up inside a cage, too scared to open her eyes, because if she did, she would see the faces of the dead people outside the cage, staring at her with empty eyes.
Not once had she thought of trying to sail one of the boats. The wind would sometimes shift its direction and blow with full force from the island for months before it returned its powerful attention to the island. The thought of not being able to return to the island scared her.
Her mother had sailed out shortly after giving birth to her. The waves had been strong that day, her father told her. It was like a monstrous arm had reached for her mother from the ocean and dragged the boat under. He could do nothing but stand on the beach, watching.
Bjørg did not remember her mother and had never seen any pictures of her. But she knew what she had looked like. You have her eyes, her father said. Her beautiful eyes. He seldom spoke about her mother and Bjørg learned not to ask questions about her.
The next morning Bjørg looked in at the sleeping Simik before she started her daily chores. He had gained healthy colour in his cheeks. She picked up the furs that had glided down to the floor and covered his naked body with them. His steady breathing caused his black hair to dance in the air. He mumbled something and cuddled under the furs in his sleep. She left the room. There would be time later.
Lingering in the monitor room, she watched the recordings twice. Not one of them had pictures of his arrival on the island, but one of the cameras in the abandoned town up north did not send signals. It meant she would have to drive up there earlier than she had planned. She shivered.
Bjørg didn´t understand why the northern part of the island had such a grip on her. She was on the edge of panic whenever she was up there, barely able to breathe normally, jumping at every sound; a rusty swing at the playground that made creaky sounds, a door that flapped in the wind, sand that murmured and hissed as it swept across the ground, sounding like voices.
She would do the breathing exercises her father had taught her and hurry, not look at anything more than she needed, not even the spectacular view of the ocean from the cliffs. Not until she had passed the old mine and the massive crater and reached the plains would she furl the sails and stop the rover. There she would get her breath and mind back, watching the boundless ocean of tall grass.
Even when safely at home deep underground in the monitor room, she covered her face with her hands when she watched the recordings from the north area. She peeked out through her fingers, holding her breath, waiting to see humans appear on the screens, walking in the streets, living in the houses as if they’d never left.
Her father would go alone on exploration trips to the north that could last for days. She would do her tasks absent-minded, hardly sleep, waiting for him to come home. The isbos would sense her mood and become restless. She feared her father would not return. And then one day he did not. She found his sailrover on the airfield on the northern cliffs. She had lain down on the ground on her stomach, staring over the edge of cliffs and down in the foaming ocean. But there was no sight of him.
She sailed around the island on her rover for many days, calling for him over and over until her voice were hoarse from tears and shouting. Then she reluctantly had to cease the searching and start preparations for the dark season.
Three dark seasons had passed. She had accepted that she would never see him again, but she would not touch his things or his bedroom. But Simik needed clothes, she thought. “I am sorry, Father,” she whispered.
Simik was awake when Bjørg entered the room in the afternoon. She had been down at the south shore to check if there was any trace of his boat, but without success. She moved angrily around in the room, slamming bread and water on the table. He whined when she helped him limp to the bathroom. When he was back in the bed, he watched her with calm eyes. It made her even more furious.
He ate slowly, chewing for a long time on each piece of bread. She tapped her foot, impatiently. She couldn´t bear it any longer. “Who are you?” she asked angrily. “Where is your boat? Where do you come from? What do you want?”
He took a sip of the water. “I´ll give you the answers,” he said. “But I need to know something first.” He glanced up at her. “Why are you killing us?”
She gaped at him, and then, because she couldn´t speak, she shook her head and headed for the door.
“Bjørg?” She turned. “Why do you hate us so much?”
“I do not hate you,” she whispered. Then after a moment, “I am helping you.” She closed the door. Tears flowed down her cheeks. She swept them away, angrily.
The next morning she woke up with dry and swollen eyelids. She stared up at the ceiling. Her thoughts whirled. Simik knew what happened to the other men that had arrived on the island before him. But how? She had done exactly what her father had taught her and she was sure she had left no traces behind. Did anyone else know?
Tears swelled in her eyes when she remembered what Simik had said the night before. No, no, no! No more crying. She could not let herself grow weak. She shook her head to clear her thoughts.
Her father´s face came into her mind. Do not cry, girl, he used to say. Tears are a sign of weakness. Do not let the weak part of you win, girl. Remember what our duty is. No one else can do this. When she was a child, he would slap her in the face when she cried. She learned to hide her tears.
She smiled up in the ceiling. He was a tough man, her father. She understood why the Commander had chosen him to guard the vault. Her father had been loyal to the Commander, she thought, even when it was painful and exhausting.
When they had finished the daily routine they would usually be so tired that they just sat silent in the monitor room, lost in their own thoughts, before muttering a “good night” as they went to their bedrooms.
Some rare evenings her father would go and fetch a bottle of potato spirit and pour two glasses, not spilling a drop. It was his pride, something he had experimented with for many years. It tasted horrible, but it brought a happy shine in his eyes so she swallowed it and made approving noises, to his delight.
They were treasures in her memory, those nights. The dark season´s wind hammered and shook the little island. The darkness would surround them and they would not know when the day started and when it ended. The isbos would lie curled up inside their warm sheltered pen, growling in their sleep. The underground would feel like a warm cocoon and the world outside was only a distant memory. For some hours the horrible pictures and the pain would disappear from her mind.
Those nights, her father would turn into a talkative man she hardly recognized. He would talk for hours about the past and she would listen, warm in her heart because he sounded so happy. Images and fragments of a world she did not know would flow into her mind. Buildings that reached for the sky, streets filled with humans, the aquarium in Nook where they kept an old killer whale, the last whale that was not made in a laboratory. It was so beautiful, girl, he said, staring into the distant, The most beautiful thing I have ever seen.
She sat curled up at the other end of the couch, more watching him than listening. She could imagine then what he had looked like as young, without any burdens or duties weighing on his shoulders. Before the island.
When they reached the bottom of the bottle he usually changed his mood. She knew his body language so well that she could see it coming, so she usually started yawning and stretching and after a while, she would kiss him good night and quietly leave the room. He rarely noticed her at that stage, too sucked into whatever dark thoughts he visited when drunk.
Her father would have known what to do with this man, Simik. He would not have hesitated, but killed Simik right away. He would have been strong, not weak like her.
“I miss you, Father,” she whispered to the ceiling.
Simik stared curiously around when she helped him out of the bedroom, supporting his weight with her shoulder. He was not much taller than she and had to stretch his arm a bit. Her father´s clothes were too large and he had rolled up the trousers and the sleeves.
They went into the narrow and steep tunnel that led to the vault, several hundred meters down. The door opened with a whooshing sound. She turned on the light. In front of them was a huge room, filled with row after row of shelves and drawers, all labeled.
“The Commander built this seed vault to make sure the humans have food in the future,” she said, looking at him intently.
“Yes, I know,” he nodded. “I didn´t imagine it was this great, though,” he said with awe. “You must have several tons here.”
Bjørg inclined her head, but didn´t say anything. So he knew of the vault, she thought with a sinking feeling in her stomach. What else did he know? She leaned against the wall, thoughtful, while he hobbled on one leg examining some of the labels along the nearest row.
“It´s amazing,” he said with shining eyes as he came back to where she stood waiting. “You have species here that we thought were lost. This is truly a chamber of treasures.” He noticed her face and became silent.
When they walked back up in the tunnel, stopping several times so he could rest. They did not speak with each other. She felt his gaze on her a couple of times, and felt that he wanted to speak, but he didn´t say anything.
“The seeds in the vault have a long duration, but they will not last forever,” she said and opened a door into an enormous room. “Now and then I need to plant them and harvest new seeds for storage.”
The room contained three large fields under an artificial sun in the ceiling. Bjørg loved to work in the fields. The light from the ceiling was pleasant and the room smelled strongly of the variety of plant life housed within. In the corner of one of the fields she even had fruit trees and berry bushes.
“What is in those rooms?” Simik asked and pointed towards the other side of the fields.
“My laboratories,” Bjørg answered with pride in her voice.
They walked across the room towards the two laboratories. In the left Bjørg experimented with the seeds and plants, in the right she had several chambers where she made and fostered new isbos, all male. The babyroom as her father used to call it with a smile. She´d loved to be in there since she was a child. It was so exciting to follow the development of the fosters and when they were ready, the feeling of holding the tiny bodies in her hands as they opened their eyes for the first time and saw her, their mother. It was the best thing she had ever experienced. Her father laughed at her, but had let her have the responsibility for the making and fostering of the isbos ever since she made her first one successfully when she was eight years old.
In the inner part of the room a small isbo cub looked up at them from a large cage when they entered the room. He yawned against the lights and stretched his little forepaws in front of him. She opened the cage door and called for him. He came bouncing to her, happy. She laughed and hugged him. “My little bear,” she said to him with a proud smile and put her nose in his soft fur. The little isbo nestled in her lap and licked her in her face with a tiny tongue.
Simik patted her shoulder awkwardly, but removed his hand quickly when she cringed. He had rested quietly against a bench just inside the door and she had forgotten about him for a moment. He smiled down at her, but his eyes were sad. He stroked the cub gently on the back. “So soft,” he murmured.
The cub growled at the man, which made them laugh. Her baby, she thought fondly. His genetic ancestors had been wild and free majestic beasts that feared no creatures, Kings that roamed the lost ice. Her bears were much smaller. But Gard was still a magnificent sight, she thought, 600 kilos of raw muscle, flesh, and fur. She wondered if this little cub would become that huge.
As she closed and locked the doors behind them and they walked back to his bedroom, she glanced sideways at Simik, thoughtful. When they reached his bedroom, she said, “Tonight we will talk.” He nodded and limped into the room.
After dinner they went into the monitor room and sat down in the corners of the couch. It reminded Bjørg of the evenings with her father. A warm, fuzzy feeling embraced her. She thought for a second that she should go and fetch a bottle of potato spirit for them to drink. Then she shook her head, amazed about the direction her thoughts had taken. Simik had a bizarre impact on her. She scowled at the thought of him.
He did not notice it, but peered at all the screens on the wall, lost in his own thoughts. It was dark outside, so they did not see much on the screens, only contours of a rock on the beach and one of the roofless houses in the north. One screen was pitch black; the broken camera in the north. They could see all parts of the island on the screen except the mine in the north. It was so damaged that it was impossible to install cameras.
Simik straightened his shoulders and looked at her. “What I´ll tell you now may come as a shock,” he said. “I´ve seen these images before.” She opened her mouth, but he raised his hand towards her. “Please, let me finish.” She shut her mouth.
“I also need to tell you that the Commander is dead.” His words sunk in. It explained why they had not heard from the Commander for several years. “I think I´ll start from the beginning,” he said. She curled up in the corner of the couch.
“I don´t know how much you know about the world around this island?” he asked. “The Commander sent us information,” she said. He bowed his head so she could not see the expressions on his face. “That´s what I thought,” he said.
“The Commander was a soldier, did you know that?” he asked. “He led the riots, forcing them to give us back the land. They should have done it centuries ago.” His eyes burned. She nodded. Her father had told her about it. When the ice melted, scientists had discovered new metals hidden underneath. All the negotiations and processes towards their independence halted. They had a government, but it was controlled from the South. When the new mines were ready, it was people from the South who opened them, while the governor stood in the background. There were pictures of it in the database. Her father used to take the pictures out and scrutinized them with contempt. Puppets, he used to call the government, laughing. They did not make a single decision, girl, without calling the South. They let the South rob this land.
“I know about this,” she said, bitterly. Simik studied her for a moment. “Yes, I guess you do. He must have told you a lot about it.” He stretched his wounded leg in front of him. “The Commander was an impressive man,” Simik said. “He came from a privileged home. All former southern families were privileged. He was born here and regarded himself as a native and he was angry at the government and the people from the South. He managed to raise the money and form an army of angry men and women.” She knew this as well. Her father had been one of the Commander´s freedom fighters.
“When the Commander and his army killed the governor, I believe many thought of him as a savior,” Simik continued. “He did much for the people, gave them food, built this vault, built laboratories and fish farms. It might not have been wise to destroy the mines, but it was symbolic and won many people over to his side, people who wanted to save the land and the climate. The South did nothing to stop him either and I think it was a sign to many that the Commander also had won independence from the South.” He paused. “Of course today we know this was not the truth.”
Bjørg gaped at him. “What do you mean?”
“There was something that never was right about the Commander and why the South stayed away. Some of us started to wonder. Why was it only men from former southern families that he put in charge of the vaults and laboratories? Why didn´t we get food from the vaults? People tried to find out what happened on this island, but didn´t return.” He glanced at her.
She nodded “Go on.”
“Some of us formed a network on the quiet. We are all of the old people, the ones that were on this land from the beginning, in the ancient times. You are one of those too.” She startled. “I am?” she asked with a tiny voice. He smiled at her.
“We didn´t feel that the Commander made any difference for us. We still had limited rights, and our culture was looked down on.” He paused. “We hacked the Commander´s database and his communications with the men he´d put in charge of the vaults and farms. We hacked his communications with the man on this island. We found out that the Commander ordered him to kill all people that came to the island. Then we linked up to your cameras.”
She jumped up from the couch, stunned. “What?” She became dizzy and sat down again.
“You should know that we never had access to the cameras indoors here. Today was the first time I saw the vault. But we´ve had access to all the cameras that you´ve placed around the island. We have seen what you have seen. We have seen it all, Bjørg. We have seen your father and you kill all the people.” Simik hesitated. “We saw you when you searched for your father, too.” He shook his head at the question that burned in her eyes. “No, we didn´t see him fall off the cliffs. I´m sorry that I can´t give you any answers on that.” Tears flowed down her cheeks.
“You should know that I saw your grief,” he said gently. Bjørg blinked, surprised. “That´s why I´m here. You see, we found out that the Commander was a puppet for the South. It was them who gave him the money to raise an army. We killed him and made an agreement with the South. We had good cards in our hand, with the evidence of them using the Commander to kill the last government, and giving him the order to control the vaults and laboratories, to kill innocent people. It wasn´t a good publicity, I assure you. We are a free country now,” he said with pride in his voice. She smiled at him.
“The others wanted to come here and kill you,” he then said and she felt her stomach turn. “Don´t be afraid. I persuaded them that I should fly here and try to talk with you first.”
“You said I hated you,” she said thinly. He examined her for a moment. “Yes, we couldn´t understand how you could kill innocent men in such a cold way. But I´ve watched you these last few days, and I know now that you´re in pain. You don´t like to kill people,” he said with a sad voice. She cast a glance at him, relieved. “My men arrive soon and there won´t be much you can do about it, Bjørg.”
Simik looked at her intently. “As a friend.” He hesitated. “As a friend I advise you not to fight them. I believe they´ll understand when they learn to know you and I´ll be on your side.” Bjørg looked down, shaken. Do not trust the humans, her father said in her head. “But he called me his friend, Father,” she whispered.
Simik got up from the couch and hobbled towards the screens. “I landed my plane in the north. We manipulated the cameras so you wouldn´t see me come. The weather was very rough. I injured myself in the landing. Otherwise I would have investigated something that has puzzled us for years.” He turned towards her. “Why is it that there are no cameras in the mine?”
“I do not know,” she answered, dazed. This new confident Simik was foreign. There was an air of command around him. He reminded her of her father.
“Did you know that he was in the mine when he went on those trips alone to the north?” he asked. She shook her head once more. She had no words.
“What´s in the mine, Bjørg?” he demanded. Then he noticed that her body trembled.
“I´m sorry,” he murmured and sat down on the couch. “I really think you should find out what is in the mine. I feel it´s important.” He paused, studied her. “Do you want me to come with you?”
“Yes, thank you,” she said, grateful. Simik nodded. “We can go tomorrow morning,” he said. “I need to rest now.”
Not long after they stood outside his bedroom. Bjørg stood quiet for a moment, scrutinizing his face. He waited patiently.
“I am not sure what to think of all you have told me,” she finally said. “I do not know if you are telling me lies or if you speak the truth. I am willing to let you show me the mine. But if I find out that you have lied to me, I will kill you.”
His eyes were pitch black. She locked the door behind him.
She had never been in the mine. Her father had never said anything about it, and there were no cameras there that requested her attention. The mine was something she had forgotten about. How odd, she reflected as she stood in the entrance, because it was enormous. And it was not damaged either. She wondered why her father had lied to her about it.
Simik and she walked slowly through a tunnel and came upon a row of doors. They were all locked. She shook the door handles angrily.
“Bjørg, this door is open,” Simik called from further down the tunnel. They entered the room and he turned on the lights. A laboratory. A thick layer of dust covered everything in the room. The air was thick and filled with a strong penetrating smell of mold and something rotten. Bjørg felt herself becoming nauseated. Simik covered his nose and mouth with his hand. His dark eyes gazed at her over his fingers.
Some of the instruments on the workbench were familiar, but most of them were foreign. In the corner she saw a chamber for growing fosters and there were cages along the wall. A babyroom? Here? What kind of animals had been made here? Her thoughts whirled. The room was strangely familiar. Had she been here before?
Simik peeked into the cages. “They are all empty,” he said. When he approached the last cage, he froze. Then he turned around, slowly. Tears glistened in his eyes.
“What is it?” she asked, walking towards him. “Is there an animal in there?” He didn´t answer.
The small body lay on its stomach, close to the edge of the cage, a hand stretched out between the bars. Bjørg startled, thinking for a moment it was alive. The dry cold air had preserved the body well. She bent down. Dark eyes looked at her underneath black hair locks. A little girl. A birth mark stretched over the chubby cheek.
Her screams echoed inside her, but Bjørg couldn´t get any sound out. She ran all the way out, where the roaring wind filled her lungs with fresh air.
When Simik came hobbling out after a while, she sat on the cold ground with her back against the sailrover, staring into the distance, her face pale. He stood for a moment before he sat down on the ground beside her. It was comforting to feel the heat from his body.
“I´m so sorry, Bjørg,” he finally said, sadness in his voice. “We suspected this, but we were not sure. I´m so sorry that you found out this way”
“I do not understand,” she said.
“We suspected that the Commander and his men experimented on making humans,” he said. “We´ve never had any evidence of it, though, until now.”
Make humans? Did her father make humans? Why had he not told her? The world fell into pieces around her. “The little girl. She resembled me. Who was she? ” Her voice broke. Tears ran down her cheeks. “Who am I?”
Simik studied her with kind eyes. “We should leave this place now. There is enough time to talk about this later.”
As they sailed across the plains she heard mysterious sounds through the roaring wind and the flapping sails. Bjørg stopped the rover and listened. The sounds were getting stronger, approaching. Simik leaned forward.
“Don´t be afraid. We will not harm you. Everything will be okay.” He patted her shoulder and pointed. She followed his gaze. In the distance she saw three machines in the air. They were approaching fast.
She climbed down from the rover and stood watching the flying machines. Simik came up beside her. She startled when his hand grabbed hers and glanced sideways at him, bewildered.
“Are you all right?” he murmured. Bjørg shook her head. “I am so confused right now,” she whispered.
“I examined some of the papers in the laboratory,” he said. “Journal notes mostly. It appears that he was experimenting for many years. There were many girls who died.” He looked sad. “It seems that you were his only success, until the girl we found now.” Simik hesitated and stroked heThe r wet chin.”I don´t know if he made you, Bjørg, or not. But I believe he loved you.”
Numb, Bjørg listened, wondering if she was dreaming. She peered at the flying machines. They were close to the air field now. The landing ground was nearly indistinct in the sand. A few posts were still standing, defeating the wind. She wondered if the men were similar to Simik. Were they of the old people too? Like her? She shuddered. No, maybe not like her. Bjørg took a shallow breath, then another deeper one, calming herself.
“Simik, what does the word on your back mean?” she asked. He gazed at her, considering her question. A tiny grin blossomed and spread over his face until he smiled broadly.
“It means rescue.” He said and squeezed her hand. It felt oddly comforting.