Here’s the third free preview chapter of Greg van Eekhout’s debut novel, Norse Code, a Spectra mass market paperback which goes on sale May 19, 2009.
Again, if you haven’t read Chapter 1, go to Tor.com, here, and then come back to us to read Chapter 2, here. Believe me, you won’t necessarily miss anything by reading this first, but Greg went out of his way to write them in order for a reason, so why don’t you try it his way?
I’m really excited about this book, and I hope you will be, too.
by Greg van Eekhout
NORSECODE GENOMICS WAS housed in a three-story cinderblock cube in the back of a Needham, Massachusetts, office park. Its only distinctive architectural feature was the logo etched into the glass doors of the front entrance: a DNA double helix entwined around a tree with nine roots. Mist pushed through the doors into the reception area, where some dozen men sat on stylish but uncomfortable chairs. Most of them had clipboards and were busy filling out forms. Since NorseCODE was paying fifty dollars to males willing to complete a questionnaire and provide a mouth-swab DNA sample, the waiting room was usually packed with people willing to brave the snow and ice. Fifty dollars could buy gas or oranges or batteries.
Mist gave the men a quick visual assessment as she crossed the floor. They represented a broad range of age, race, dress, and body type, but none looked particularly impressive.
The ice-queen receptionist behind the granite-slab desk gave Mist a respectful nod and buzzed through another door. Mist paused in the doorway. “Is Radgrid in today?”
“She’s at the home office,” the receptionist replied, and Mist concealed a breath of relief. Radgrid was the last person in the worlds she wanted to encounter right now, and having her as far away as Asgard was better than she’d hoped for.
She continued down a long corridor lined with glass partitions, behind which bleary-eyed technicians in lab coats manned computers and centrifuges and gene sequencers. Everything gleamed white and clean, so far removed from the actual sweat and blood and urine that their work culminated in NorseCODE maintained branches in São Paulo, Singapore, London, Johannesburg, Dubai, and Basel, each staffed by Valkyries, Einherjar muscle, and techs. As far as the techs knew, NorseCODE’s work focused on genomics for pharmaceutical application, not on recruiting soldiers for Odin’s army. That dirty business stayed hidden in places like the New Jersey warehouse, where Mist had left the bodies of Grimnir and Adrian Hoover.
An elevator delivered Mist to her third-floor office, overlooking a landscape of office parks and, just beyond them, a freeway overpass half lost in the fog, like a ghost road. A dim line of brake lights barely moved down the snow-choked blacktop.
Mist eyed her coffeemaker longingly, but this office visit had to be a surgical strike. Considering the severity of the wound she’d dealt Grimnir, she figured on three days until he’d recover enough to report in to the office–less if he had been injured on the fields outside Valhalla, where the Einherjar trained for battle by disemboweling and dismembering one another.
Mist settled behind her desk and keyed her computer to life. Logged in, she searched NorseCODE’s intelligence dossiers for references to Helheim. She’d read some of the material before, but Radgrid had kept her too busy over the last three months to spend much time in the office, and these records weren’t accessible off-site.
Helheim was one of the nine worlds that made up Yggdrasil, the World Tree, which Mist tended to think of as some kind of metaphor for the cosmos. But every Asgardian at NorseCODE, from Grimnir to Radgrid to all her Valkyrie sisters, insisted that it was an actual tree, that its roots ran through all the worlds, and that the worlds themselves were part of the tree’s living tissue. Mist figured that this conception was a product of some ancient worldview rather than literal truth, but she allowed that she might be indulging in comforting, self-serving thought.
The reports didn’t offer much more than some descriptions of Helheim and a few cryptic mentions that Mist couldn’t make sense of. No map, no hints about the route or anything about how to walk the road if you weren’t among the dead claimed by Hel. Nothing about how Helheim was guarded, how it was organized, nothing that would help her find her way in and then back out.
And maybe that was just as well. The fight over men’s souls was an eons-old feud waged between Odin and Hel, and sometimes just knowing that these gods existed was enough to make Mist doubt her own sanity. Radgrid and Grimnir called her a Valkyrie, she’d seen and done things that challenged her ideas of what the world really was, but she was still Kathy Castillo, UCLA student, granddaughter, sister. Maybe she wasn’t quite mortal anymore, but she felt mortal, and she had no business challenging gods and death.
She almost shut off the computer but instead resorted the file listings in reverse chronological order and opened one named Hermod.
“Back so soon?”
Mist barely managed to conceal a startled gasp at the sight of Radgrid in the doorway. Red curls spilled over the shoulders of her ivory pantsuit, a contrast so sharp that Mist expected to see clouds of steam rising in the air. She met Radgrid’s eyes, bright as burnished steel, and knew the same jolt of fear and mute wonder she’d felt the first time she encountered the Valkyrie, three months ago.
To this day, Mist still didn’t understand why she’d been selected as a Valkyrie while Lilly, a kind of warrior in her own right, who’d braved bullets while trying to help farmers plant trees in the Congo, who’d been Tasered and beaten by police batons in dozens of protests across the globe, was left to meekly walk the road to Helheim. Kathy had tried to stop her sister from leaving, but, as with Adrian Hoover, the road had faded from her sight, and Lilly with it. And then Radgrid had appeared, towering over Mist in white furs and chain mail, glimmering in the colorless morning like a polished knife.
Radgrid entered Mist’s office and took the seat across the desk. Casually, Mist closed the window on her computer. “I thought you were in Asgard,” she said, congratulating herself on managing to sound only mildly interested in Radgrid’s unexpected presence.
“I was, and longer than I’d have liked. The Einherjar are deserving of their honors, but, truthfully, I have more pressing matters than serving them drinks in Valhalla.”
Mist felt fortunate to have mostly avoided that duty, and on the one occasion when she hadn’t been able to duck out of it, Grimnir had assigned himself as her menacing bodyguard to make sure nobody harassed the new girl. Grimnir had been a loyal friend. And she’d rewarded him by slicing his head open.
“How did things work out with Adrian Hoover?”
“He didn’t work out,” Mist said flatly.
She watched Radgrid’s face warily, waiting for an explosion. But Radgrid’s expression barely changed. “That’s too bad. I had high hopes for him. His Y-chromosome match was as close as they come.”
A Valkyrie’s job had always been to find soldiers for the Einherjar, and the corpse-choosers’ traditional method had been to pick their way through combat zones, sorting through burned bodies and piles of guts and limbs, selecting the best of the fallen to be brought to Valhalla.
Radgrid had devised a new way to find recruits. She realized that many of the best warriors among the Einherjar–like Volsung, and Sigurd the Worm-Slayer–were descendants of Odin, from a line established on earth in the early dawning of man. Over the ages, the records of lineage had been lost, but Radgrid believed the bloodline was still unbroken. If geneticists could learn the deep language of blood and find the descendants of Genghis Khan, then couldn’t they also find the many-generations-removed sons of Odin? So she’d built and staffed the NorseCODE labs.
“How’s Grimnir?” Radgrid asked, setting her valise on the floor. It was a black kidskin number, thin as a blade.
I should just confess now, thought Mist. Admit to trying to save Hoover’s life, to splitting open Grimnir’s head, throw herself on Radgrid’s mercy.
“He’s okay, I guess. I think he was heading for Atlantic City or somewhere.” That was a vague enough lie, consistent with Grimnir’s proclivities. He liked to spend his time where the drinks were cheap, where he could relax by intimidating gangsters and security goons. She knew Grimnir’s habits well, having spent most of the last few months in his company, either being trained by him in everything from horse riding to hotwiring cars or surveilling Hoover from inside the van, the air filled with his jovial grumble and the smell of take-out pizza grease.
She could still fix this, somehow. She could make things right with Grimnir and get back on track with NorseCODE’s work and do her bit to counter the end of the world. And kill and leave the innocent to waste away in Helheim.
Radgrid idly removed a letter opener from the cup on Mist’s desk and ran a long white finger along its edge. “It really is a shame about Hoover. Grimnir hates it when recruits don’t work out.”
“What if we gave them a little training before the test? No army just shoves a gun in a new recruit’s hands and sends them into battle without some training first.”
A tiny shift in the angle of Radgrid’s head was the closest thing she had to a shrug. “I prefer to concentrate our efforts on the ones who have already proved themselves worthy of Valhalla. Our resources are finite, and time is the least plentiful among them.”
“But if we could determine if they were Einherjar without killing them first . . . it would be more humane. Killing men needlessly, men who might have families, loved ones . . . does that make sense?”
Radgrid’s eyes glinted like icicles in sunlight. “The sense of it was determined when our ancestors were still living in caves. The sense of it was formed by beings who count among their elders only the ground you walk upon and the stars above your head.”
Radgrid returned the letter opener to the cup. Then, from her valise, she withdrew a file folder and slid it across the desk toward Mist. It lay there, dark against the warm oak.
Mist opened the file. The assignment specifications took only a few pages. She flipped through them, glancing at a printout of fuzzy pink caterpillars–chromosomes–and phenotype data with references to the O-Prime sample. There was an 83 percent likelihood that this recruit was descended from Odin, which made him a high priority. The recruit’s name was Lucas Wright, of Las Vegas, Nevada. He was smiling in the surveillance photo, riding a skateboard, his braces gleaming. He was fourteen years old.
“I’ll get right on this,” Mist said, her voice steady and confident.
Apparently satisfied, Radgrid stood and took her leave with only a brisk nod. The office seemed to warm by a degree or two a few moments after her departure.
Mist sat motionless in the dark room for several more minutes. The turnpike traffic outside her window had become a blurry trail of brake lights slowly engulfed in the fog. Eventually Ragnarok would manifest itself in spectacular ways, with disasters and monsters, but now it was more like a lingering whimper. A lot like what Grimnir had once told her Helheim was like.
She reopened the dossier on this Hermod character, and when she finished reading the report, her heart was pounding. According to the file, Hermod had ridden to Helheim to retrieve another of the Aesir, his brother Baldr, and though he had failed, he had come back alive. He’d severed his ties with Asgard long ago, but last week an agent of NorseCODE had spotted him in Los Angeles.
Across the country lived a god with the proven ability to travel in and out of Helheim.
Mist knew that, if their positions were reversed, Lilly would be on her way to Los Angeles right now.
GRIMNIR WOKE up in the warehouse to the sound of his own groans. He gingerly felt the back of his head. It had been a long time since he’d been so badly injured, and for a while all he could do was sit with his head between his knees and force himself to breathe. If this had happened to him in Valhalla, Odin’s hall in the city of the gods, he would have been healed in time for supper. In the men’s world of Midgard, recovery took longer.
Grimnir badly missed Valhalla.
Mist had done this to him. He couldn’t believe it. She’d seemed like such a nice kid.
Well, actually, that was the problem. She was a nice kid. He’d known that three months ago, when Radgrid had assigned him to be Mist’s assistant, her trainer, her mentor. In the time they’d spent together, he felt they’d become friends. And now here he was with a split skull, plus a ruined hat. He picked up his homburg and stared glumly at the fissured brim. He loved that hat. He’d looked very smart in it.
He reached into his pocket for his cell phone, only to find it missing, and laughed a little. Despite his disappointment in Mist, he was proud of her for having thought to nick his phone. Any delay in his ability to notify Radgrid about what she’d done would buy Mist a bit of time.
Slowly, he got up and stood over the corpse of Adrian Hoover. Judging by his color and smell, he’d been dead for a few days. Mist had given herself a good head start.
“Buddy,” Grimnir said to the dead man, “Mist really put her ass into trying to save your life. I hope you appreciate it.”
Leaving the warehouse, Grimnir started looking for a car to steal. He had a renegade Valkyrie to track down.
Greg van Eekhout is a science fiction and fantasy writer with around two-dozen short story publications. His first novel, NORSE CODE, is due from Spectra in summer 2009. Greg currently lives in San Diego, where he obsesses about martial arts classes, coffee, Moleskine notebooks, and giant squid.
Remember, Norse Code is out this coming Tuesday (May 19th) – pick it up!