It started out gently.
Humanity stopped going outside, it was too toxic, only the poor were forced to toil in the heat and fumes under a permanently clouded and the oppression of the angry atmosphere.
Richer countries, those that could afford conservation, enclosed entire parks behind and under glass. For a a few pieces of currency, one could hike in pristine forests, bask under an artificial sun on white sand beaches, or feel the crisp snow beneath their skis that was churned out by snow-making machines over piles of refuse that had be sanitized, covered, and re-purposed just for entertainment.
Those who tried to grow heirloom crops outdoors soon found that it was senseless; only the GMO’s were strong enough to tolerate the abrasive air and persistent diseases- despite record outputs, millions starved daily.
In a little room, in a tiny house- a tiny woman drew her runes for the day:
Hagalaz, Isa… and if she pulled more she often drew a blank, or perhaps and Ansuz. (Some people were against her using the blank rune so she was not exactly sure if it was prudent to include it; she vacillated.)
She turned on her mobile device and went onto her forum to record her daily runes and noticed that she had pulled these same runes every Tuesday. It wasn’t a coincidence- it was a pattern.
Asking others, they offered a multitude of ideas- from “The Chaos will Never End” to “This too, shall pass”, but of course, nothing really helpful.
Another screen name suggested she look into making a set with the Futhorc included, perhaps it would add more clarity. So she did- she added Ear, Ac, Ior, Yr, Os, Cweorth, Stan, Chalc, and Gar.
She drew three and reported as follows:
Hagalaz, Cweorth, Isa.
After she reported her runes, she found she could hardly longer tolerate being part of the social web networks any longer. Elections were being run for entertainment; with celebrities fighting for votes, people were dying in new and horrific ways via the ingenuity of dissidents on both sides who made even most shooting game designers blanch at the bloodthirsty carnage new, and improved execution devices devised in garages and basements could wreck upon crowded areas.
Death was now preferable to the needle gun; a small ingenious mechanism that shot thousands of neurotoxin tipped needles in a seventy five degree radius around the shooter. The nervous systems of the casualties reacted violently to the toxin creating such excruciating, incurable pain to the limbs that they had to be amputated quickly. A shot to the face was two weeks of agonizing pain- until death. Being a “benevolent” weapon, the needle gun did not cause death itself. Two weeks was simply the World Health Organization standard for compassion for those who suffered such attacks. There was no antitoxin.
Humanity was reduced to few choices. Stay inside, were all needs were met. only going out for a few short seconds into their metal vehicles, to get to destinations which were also indoors. Or die horrifically, and possibly as a victim with absolutely no protection towards attacks, and even less protection against the air that caused asthma if one breathed in too much of it.
The non-essential sciences lost funding. Gone first were the archaeologists, the astronomers and theoretical physicists. Geology remained for the search for energy sources, Sociology, psychology, and all medicines stayed to attempt to cure the never-ending ills of humanity, to explain them and to try to keep up with changes that occurred in the span of days to virus mutations and genetic abnormalities. Not to mention to cure the new and ingenious weaponized toxins shot, stabbed and infused into most places of high population.
However, the world, as she was told, was better than it ever was.
Technology made human kind live longer. Species of flora and fauna long extinct could now not only be cloned, but also modified for survival. There were beautiful parks full of Moa, Direwolves, Sabrecats, and Mammoth skulking among ancient ferns or eating the fruits of previously extinct trees.
Ancient religions were being resurrected daily. Prostitution was legalized after about five years of fervent activism by the New Worshipers of Inanna as well as other sexual faiths- where sacred sex was part of their credo- and they were simply the loudest. Hundreds of tiny religions advocated for ultimate freedoms. The right to fuck, the right to kill, and the right to live as long as possible if fucking and killing didn’t cauterize one’s life early.
Death was pretty avoidable, really…if you stayed indoors. So too were people also avoidable.
She had a domesticated wolf as a pet- and a small enclosed greenhouse with real soil and trees adjacent to her home. Each week she bought cheap birds to stock it, and once, even a pair of squirrels she hoped would eventually breed with no success as of yet.
Everything in her immediate life was tame. When she opened the door, colorful birds fought to perch on her shoulders hoping for maybe a strawberry or a bit of seed. Butterflies flitted between odorless blossoms exploding in a myriad of colour around her as she sat on the bench in the middle of her personal paradise.
She took a stick from a nearby ash tree and drew the runes on the ground.
Isa, Hagalaz, Cweorth.
She couldn’t pronounce the last one if she tried. She wanted to talk to someone, but her birth family and she stopped talking years before over a disagreement over political parties.
Her neighbors she only saw driving past her front windows, confined to their vehicles which purified their air within and safely (hopefully) took them to their destinations. There were several million people conversant on the internet, like a hive mind buzzing meaningless noise constantly. Some had even chosen to be wired in- the undying minds who existed as algorithms that repeated ad nauseum through the infinity of networks neural and technological.
Elvis had entered the building, and never left. He was the first experiment with algorithmic resurrection. His DNA, music, movies, and all appearances on him on media were compiled and organized recreating him…and later others as interactive personalities who never tired and for all intents and purposes lived online.
She could not recall a good reason for herself to do such a thing, but she had no opinion, positive or negative, of people who decided on immortality. All she hoped for was to die the way of the sparrows in her greenhouse. Just one day lying peacefully on the ground, eyes closed, and to eventually disappear into the loam of the compost bin. It made her feel better.
She also had no idea why she started pulling runes. One day, she just ordered a set in the mail after reading a fascinating article on them and their history as a divination game and it became a daily habit much like a decontamination shower or eating her mega-meal a day. She only ate once a day, much like her tame-wolf. It saved time and they generally liked the same sorts of healthy foods. Chicken and rice, and both loved watermelon and pineapples. Perfect fruits, each identical to the last.
She tried to grow watermelon once, but gave up when all her plants produced were sad, sour yellow fleshed globes that took up most of her daily water allotment.
Collecting rainwater was out of the question; in fact- the rain itself was corrosive thanks to the food purification plant within a few kilometers. She did not mind, she seldom left the house and it was a small price to pay for clean food.
She closed her eyes and meditated, turning the sound and images of the three runes in her head. Hagalaz, Cweorth, Isa… creating a movie in her mind of them rotating before her in an enamoring, pleasing fashion.
She thought of the Gods and realized they meant nothing to her, too controversial- there were now thousands of recognized Gods and religions were so diverse that no two people could be counted on to have the same pantheons. Many stuck to just one deity, some worshipped the Earth, some even worshiped technology itself as a benevolent sentience that humanity created to take care of us all- a God that we truly created that Cares Just for Us.
She didn’t know life without technology. She had seen images of people standing outside of houses(!) stonily holding tools or babies several generations past.
She could trace her lineages back over a thousand years just by pricking her finger and submitting her blood to be traced- and join leagues of cousins in loose confederations on genealogy clubs filled with people all over the world whom she would never meet.
Of course, she could get on a plane and travel to any place in the world…but the world was the same. Metal planes to metal cars driving to metal buildings where inside there were the same terminals to access the rest of the world. The designs of the buildings changed. The types of vehicles differed, but once online, it was the same. Really, there was no difference between seeing an image and a place and going there.
She realized she had failed at her meditation once more- her attention span getting the better of her; she was never very good at meditation but it made no difference unless she drew attention to her deficit.
Like many others, her life in the technological spaces was intentionally bland, uncharismatic, and not opinionated; the bomb and needle gun attacks were increasing in city centres and she not only avoided cities, but wished not to be a part of any group that expressed a contrary opinion that could be targeted.
The runes were really the only interest she indicated, and that she indicated so carefully and dully to be nothing more than something that piqued her interests, carefully couching her explorations as benign and without deeper thought or meaning.
People argued over the old stories of Gods. All it took was for people who worshiped one God to claim that another God was the cause of their discomfort and the needle attacks began.
The wars within pantheons were the worst; each new privation upon people needed to be blamed on something, so it was an awful mess when the worshipers of Thor killed en-masse the worshipers of Loki for being cruel, unreliable and hostile.
She didn’t worship anyone. She tried not to form opinions. She named her wolf Varg online…which meant “wolf” in some distant language. But to some people she wrote his name as Loupe, Volpe, or Lobo. She called him Wolf. He did not seem to mind what he was called. He was the only real affection she needed.
A knock at her door. Odd, she thought. She was not notified that a package was to be delivered. Most deliveries were carried out by small flying drones which were more economical and safer than using human transport. Humans tended to die pretty often and the profession was hazardous and reserved for criminals and the direly destitute. Those who had no metal to house them, but lived short, brutish lives in homemade domiciles that were prone to rapid deterioration, much as those who occupied them.
At the door were people in costumes. One in long robes with long facial hair, another dressed like she had seen pictures of warriors drawn…her hair (perhaps a wig) of long braided hair.
“Excuse me, but are you the woman pulling the runes?” they asked her
“Well, yes… I do dabble a bit in runes, but it is nothing serious. I also have a beautiful aviary-garden climate controlled I take several images of daily as well as my meditation practice is coming along nicely- would you like shelter?” She did not want to incite offense to zealots. Everyone these days was a zealot, and avoiding zealotry was safest.
“No, no… that’s quite all right. I believe we have made a mistake. Good day to you.”
And with that they departed. She was relieved. She was always shaken when she had to interact with strangers in person, it happened so seldomly…but she swore to herself “No More” regarding her cyber updates.
Paying her dues, bills, and looking up the answers to her occasionally problems was it from then on. No more online conversations. She did not need to have more people knocking on her door for any reason whatsoever. Her wolf seemed disappointed. He seemed so happy to see people with an open mouth, lolling tongue, and wagging tail. Now he just lay at her feet on her bed with his head between his paws looking up at her wistfully. She gave him a piece of dehydrated mammoth and he seemed contented easily enough.
Through the sources that ran into her screens that defined all human existence she saw that the newest political campaign had moved on from celebrities and now was pitting a man in a clown suit against a platypus. Hundreds had died at the convention from needle guns and homemade explosives as people screamed their hatred and rage for the party they opposed the most.
On a day where the air was particularly cooled, she decided to walk outside.
The ground was dry, cracked, with restless patches of dismal green weeds in piebald patches of the broken, ugly earth. The sky was grey, the sun was nothing more than a hazy orb obscured enough that one could look at it directly for a few seconds without discomfort. The air was acrid, smelling of burnt things, plastics, and the cloyingly/sweet scent of global disinfectant to prevent the spread of diseases. She sneezed- sensitive to what she suspected was the toxic nature of the air, so she ripped off a small length of fabric from her clothing and tied it around her face- much like an old-timey bank robber in the images she recalled seeing during her childhood education.
She cocked her fingers into the rough shape of a gun and thought “Stick ’em up high where I can see ’em”- but there was no one outside- behind her home, past the greenhouse there was grey and brown cracked earth, green lichens and struggling weeds in sorry patches that in no way rivaled the abundances of her greenhouse or the indoor parks she had visited in her youth (before she could afford her own arboretum).
She tried to command her tame-wolf to go back inside, but he did not listen. He seemed to be occupied watering each struggling patch of weeds with his own urine.
All around her she could hear the humming of electrical currents and the distant grinding of the vast machines that kept life going. Life was good. Food was good, diseases were often cured simply by ordering new foods or by having certain medicinal odors and antibiotics pumped into the house air purification systems from the central units in town through the pipeways that led to each domicile.
Life expectancy had become irrelevant since people could choose to live forever online if they desired. Otherwise, when you were done- all one had to do is check into a benevolence facility, recline onto one of the soft chairs in their dark rooms, and drift peacefully into endless dreaming as the body expired painlessly and then disposed of in a sanitary fashion. All media accounts would list the names of those who passed daily with notifications to next of kin to claim their residual wealth left behind.
She could see no destination to walk to, the visibility was awful. On her wrist her monitor screamed in shrill beeps that it was time to return, the air unsafe. She regarded it a second and then cast it away with reckless abandon.
Hagalaz, Isa, Cweorth, she thought.
Life is perfect. What chaos exists is only that which I am willing to create myself. Ice comes from the cooler, and destruction is what happens when we improve things- when we upgrade and get better things.
She walked and small white balls fell around her and upon her- cold to the touch and the size of tiny berries. They tickled slightly. Wolf capered around excitedly trying to force as many in his mouth as he could before shaking out his rich coat and coughing them out.
Now she could not see her house or any others. A murky trickle of water carved its way through the ground in both directions with more weeds on each side growing tenaciously. Their stems were rough and itchy to the touch. Nothing was beautiful here, but she still felt this strange personal compulsion free of suggestion or coercion.
She followed the trickle of dark water with wolf until she found a worn bench from past-time. It was fairly deteriorated in appearance, but still looked load bearing. Her legs ached, so she took a relief-breather from her pocked and inhaled the vapors deeply, calming her and her sore muscles.
She was suddenly alarmed when she discovered carved into the bench were her runes:
Hagalaz, Cweorth, Isa.
She panicked, but did not know a word or words to explain why. She was frozen to the bench paralyzed with unspoken dread and her wolf looked at her worriedly.
From behind her, a voice.
“You are surprised you are not the first to pull those runes, eh?” said a voice from behind the fog.
“No, I am not surprised at all by that. They existed long prior to my existence. I post what I draw online and make comparisons to others. They get pulled pretty often. My set is very pretty. It’s made of artificial stones guaranteed never to break down. They are very blue.”
She blushed at her awkwardness. She was never good at speaking when she could not go back and edit her words before releasing them.
Wrecked with sudden nervousness, she did not know whose land she was invading, and images of needle-guns, old guns, bombs, knives, and dismemberment flooded her mind in a carousel of horrors.
“May I ask what you call yourself?” asked the voice- this time closer and probably male.
“My handle is Undertrees623,” she replied, “I have a beautiful greenhouse at home with a few trees I really like a lot.”
“If it is so beautiful…they why are you here?”
“I don’t know!” she began to cry. “I just thought… I don’t know, I just wasn’t thinking… I…I…I… I don’t mean to be here, to offend anyone to do anything wrong!” her entire body shook fear.
“There is no reason to be frightened… if you like, I could tell you a story,” the voice was closer now, slower, like one uses on a new animal, “A happy story- about trees, if you like.”
She did not want to look at him. She was so embarrassed to have left her property and to walk unbidden into land of unknown owner. She did not know if he was going to kill her. If he was toying with her. For all she knew, this could be HIS land and he could have every intention of harming her, of causing her agony for offending him. She didn’t know how to make amends, she didn’t know what to say. So she just nodded, her body stiff with tension and wondered what sort of evil things were going to occur.
“Long ago, when I was young…I am much older than you, the trees were so tall some say they held up the sky. The sky was as blue as you say your runes are in the daytime, and at night, one could see the universe as countless lights strung up across the world as if every evening it was holiday. The trees cleaned the air, bore fruit, and provided building materials prior to metal for homes and all other structures along with stones. There were thousands of trees, countless trees- everywhere here. They would shake their leaves and call for rain or wilt when the rain refused to listen. Animals lived in the branches and the roots of the trees….and is it hard to hear me with your face covered?”
“I am afraid. I am so sorry. I am so afraid and so very sorry.”
“I am afraid for you too, Undertrees623. You can call me Tuesday.”
“Tuesday? You must be very old to have a name with no numbers.”
“I am very old…and this old man will not harm you, if you want to look up you can and you can see there is nothing to be afraid of.”So she looked up, to find that he was indeed a man who showed age, his skin with fine lines that did not see fillers, but tall his hair was long, black with lines of white and his eyes as blue as her runes. He had one good hand. “I know why you are out here. You were scared from your home, correct? Unexpected visitors?”
“How…How did you know?”
“The younger ones of my family are easily excited these days…the world changed too fast for them to know that they cannot just show up and expect to be welcomed. It is better to wait and hope that people walk outside on their own.”
“The trees died. The animals died. My ancestors killed them all outside and created Heaven inside, they created life where there was death and immortality.”
“Is that so?” The man raised a dark eyebrow. “My cousin once painted his tongue silver convinced it would make him more convincing as a storyteller when we were younger… it did not, sadly for him all it did was leave a terrible taste in his mouth.”
She suppressed a laugh and covered it with a cough.
“My cousin was a good man.”
“Did he die in an attack? You are missing your…your…”
“He didn’t die yet, no. Many people are already missing things. Eyes, hands, courage and sense seem to be common missing things. I think what I miss the most is the sky.”
“It’s right there, though. Look up. The sky is up there, it did not go away!”
“Yes…it did. It is not the same, if you saw my sky you would spend entire days doing nothing but looking upward. The colors were not just blue, but every color- clouds were not omnipresent, they made shapes that people and animals could interpret… like runes. The clouds were my runes once…now I must use the same runes as my family, the same runes as you when I am here.”
“Isa, Hagalaz, Cweorth?”
“You mean Hagalaz, Cweorth, Isa.”
“Yes. I must have meant that.”
“Hagalaz means ‘hail’- great changes that can cause insecurity and discomfort. Hail is this…” and he picked up one of the remaining tarnished white sky-berries. “It can be as big as your hand or even smaller than this. It used to cause great destruction, but it also made all things grow better and more resilient.”
“Oh. I just read it means ‘change’…but everything changes, every day things change, elections and attacks. Technologies, diseases and cures. Everything changes all the time. It never stops changing.”
“In a way yes…in a way, from the outside, out here, it looks to me like very little is changing. This stream has been in this sorry state for a century or more. I come here often. Once it was a river, teaming with life. Fish, birds, crustaceans, insects…”
“Insects are terrible.” she retorted. “I am glad to be rid of them.”
“Butterflies are terrible?”
“Well, no… I like butterflies. I cultivate them. I was just thinking of the stories of ticks, mosquitoes, and horrid stinging things.”
“I miss them actually. They represented something more to life. See, first I was a soldier, then I was a teacher… now I’m just an old man in the desert telling stories to a woman who goes by the name Undertrees623, How long did it take you to choose your name?”
“Oh, a few tries, I think… I was lucky to get such an easy number. One of my yearmates through schooling had a name so long no one could ever communicate with him because they couldn’t recall the number order in his name. It must have had at least ten digits. I think he later changed it again, but I lost track.”
“If you do not mind me asking, what were you called before you chose your name?”
“Littlegirl,eldest. I do not have any siblings that I’ve met, but there was always the potential. My mother was a politician and my father was an inventor.”
“Did they have such descriptive names as you?”
“Mother and Father to me. My parents did not let me know their online names because they did not wish to influence my opinions. They wanted me free from biases.”
“Ah…I see. That is very sad to me. You remind me of one of my favorite students I had back in the old days. That cousin I told you with the silver tongue? He had a daughter as well, as she grew older she spent less and less time under the sky- choosing instead, like you, to stay inside.”
“Everyone stays inside. It’s safe there.”
“She had a wolf as you do, but he did not like me so well as yours”, Wolf was presently on his hind legs attempting to lick Tuesday’s face. “She also lived with a beautiful man though who made everyone happy who ever saw him. Something tells me you are not so fortunate in that regard.”
“I am fortunate not to live in conflict, people aren’t safe. It is not safe anywhere it is better to stay inside, and go from inside to inside and mind oneself.”
“Ah, that is a pity. I had hoped at least love would be saved. In anycase, would you like to know more about the runes? I am not so eloquent as the experts of my day, but I can explain Cweorth and Isa for you. Cweorth means to strip everything away, great catastrophe and conflagration of all consuming fires.”
“Like a city-centre attack?” she asked.
“More than that… like the way a volcano erupts like Vesuvius and sweeps away all life with fire. It the the rune of complete cleansing. As if you had a tabletop full of items and lit them on fire leaving nothing but ash to blow away, leaving the table clean once again.”
“Why would anyone want to do that?”
“No one wants to do that. It is a thing people do when they feel it is needed, and not just people…planets, stars, and even greater things explode and clear away old debris to make everything tabula-rasa- a blank slate. Clean and clear except for ashes, and then a fresh start.”
It was now getting darker, the dismal grey sky itself was turning the color of soot The sun was either down or obscured by thickened clouds “And Isa…it means Ice, like the ice ages. Unchanging, no movement or movement at glaciers pace…when there were still glaciers like when I was a soldier.”
“Glaciers haven’t existed in forever.”
“Oh, they existed… and they were beautiful once.” said the old man wistfully. “Isa is a beautiful rune. It is contemplation, stillness, silence, preparation and dangerous conditions where very little survives well.”
“You worry about the danger of Isa but not of Cweorth? I may not be as great a teacher as others on this topic…but you came and found me, did you not?”
“I was not looking for anyone.”
“Ah, but you were. You felt uncomfortable inside, so you went outside.” replied Tuesday
She shifted uncomfortably… it wasn’t much more comfortable outside, and her wolf was splashing in the shallow stream of acrid waters with abandon she envied. “Do you want to know what it all means together?”
“It means everything is going to end- everywhere, everyone who ever made or bought a set of runes is drawing the same ones. Despite being inside, underground, above or below the Earth. It is all drawing to a close. The last chapter, the final page.”
“What ever are you talking about?”
“A very long time ago this happened before. But it was war. I lost my hand before the war and my blood family fought my new family- killing most. Many were lost to death, even more were lost to confusion. It was not known at the end who was dead or still alive for the war changed what remained of us all. The planet was ruined, uninhabitable, so with all the technology we took our people and we moved here.
It was then deduced that there would be a greater cataclysm, so they drew up two sides. One side gathered the best warriors, and the other created great beasts… when that war broke out, even less survived. My cousin died they said….and it was rumored I died as well. Time passed and it became evident that it was best for propaganda to keep it nebulous if the war happened at all or was yet to come…and yet each past battle was recorded meticulously of who killed whom, who lived, who died, et all. In the end, it truly did not matter. My wife, she used to live for puzzles and stories. But there were no more puzzles to solve and the old story was lost…regardless the sentient spirits of humanity, as your time has discovered, are mostly immortal.”
“Mostly? We brought back Elvis Presley!”
“…And what would happen if all the programs stopped, there was no more electricity, no more communication…would he still live?”
“That is too terrible to think on….”
“It will be more terrible to watch. Look, the sky is dying…and it is too late. For all the technology no one prepared this time. Watch, Undertrees623…today is the end of the world” Tuesday spake, Wolf howled and pulled at Tuesday’s remaining good hand worriedly and they all watched the sun explode in the darkness…the red fire washing clean their part of the universe for the final time.
(Inspiration for this story can be traced to “The Machine Stops” by E.M. Forster written in 1909. Here is the link)