The Elders tell stories about these ancient things called Trees. In these legends, the Elders say that they were bright green and that they covered the earth so well you could see one in every direction.
It was said that the Trees, some of them with these things called ‘leaves,' were flat as paper and could change their color as bright as flame. Like the landscape burned with fire. The Elders also speak that the ocean was once blue, warm, and full of swimming creatures. Life. It hadn't always been a frozen, barren sheet of death.
Before, the world had been alive.
From the ridge of a mountainous snow drift, Rune watched over the valley below. It was boneyard of capsized tankers and skeletons of numerous ships. The butt end of a jumbo jet had swept inland and was set half-buried under ice. One massive, skeletal structure stood out over the rest. It was an aircraft carrier fused to the top of a petrified swell. The USS Abraham Lincoln (the name written on the hull of the ship) had been flash-frozen decades ago. The carrier, stuck where it was, looked as if it wanted to tip over and plummet, precariously stuck hundreds of feet in the sky. But there it remained, untouched since the dawn of the Tempest storms.
This ghost ship was impossible to reach even though many had tried. Himself included. It was a child's game to dare each other to climb the spine of the wave and touch the hall. The incline was so steep none had made it half way before they slid back down with pants full of snow, and the potential for frostbite.
Rune’s gaze scoured the horizon through a flurry of gray flakes. The hazy light sunk beyond the USS Abraham and the frozen swell, the sun beginning to set. Even at high-noon, the light was always cold, and the sun remained a dull sphere behind a perpetual storm. The scarf around Rune’s face almost stuck to his lips as his breath froze against it. The end of the day crept forward and the time left on the surface shortened.
He turned his back to the ghostly wreck-yard to look at the small hub of humanity that lived within the frost-crusted towers; the gravestones of Old Francisco half buried under a long-dead tsunami.
Rune had listened to countless stories of how the waters flooded the world and the first Tempest that clutched the planet a century ago. But his favorite tales were always about the Trees.
“Rune!” A man’s deep voice carried over through the wind’s guttural howl. “If you’re going to stand around like that, one might think you’re Lost.”
The salvager’s features were concealed under layers of thick scarves. His polar bear parka had the hood pulled over a fur trapper hat. Heavy boots wrapped in sealskin and thick mittens made his feet and hands look larger by comparison. Dark-tinted goggles protected his eyes from the icy weather.
Pulled taut from a sled behind him, Rune shrugged at the rope looped over his shoulder. “If I’m becoming Lost,” He said, just as loud, “I’d be an idol with this handsome face.”
He could almost see Bjorn’s mind churning. After a long moment, his uncle shook his head and turned to stalk across the snow. Rune cracked a secret smile.
Bjorn replied, “Let’s get back before we die. Idol boy.”
Bjorn’s years of physical work in salvage showed as plowed the way with remarkable efficiency, gaining traction across the dune. The collective weight of the harvested parts cut sizable ruts into the landscape as he moved. In these sleds, piled with no particular order, were coiled wires of all colors, black boxes with knobs, some with switches and buttons, various speakers, and other odds-and-ends.
Rune followed a moment later. He leaned into his haul with a grunt as his arms protested against dragging a sled any further. His thigh muscles burned with a deep ache, the kind of ache that was close to locking your knees or turning them to seal blubber. Rune’s typical work day was hunting seals, fish and tracking whales on the northern icecap, not delving into wrecks from dawn ‘till near dusk, tugging back what felt like the weight an adult bear.
Rune knew that his humor was a bit unconventional just like his father’s had been. Bjorn had to be aware, on some level, that it was a stupid joke even if the Lost were things of reverence and not necessarily objects for wisecracking. The Lost stood in the Void Lands for over a century, the frozen remains of those-who-came-before caught in the Tempest Eye. They were the eternal effigies trapped in the moment of death; the grim relics of a world long ago. But the word also meant death. The loved ones who were taken by the storms and by the cold and harshness of the world.
“Bjorn?” Rune spoke above the sound of old snow rake over ice.
He only got a grunt in response.
“It wasn’t your fault,” Rune said. “My father’s death.”
Rune saw Bjorn’s steady strides hitch in a quick spasm, but he didn’t stop.
His uncle’s voice sounded worn, “We’re not talking about that, Rune.”
“We’re not talking about it. I’m just saying-”
Bjorn stopped in mid-step and turned, so Rune held his tongue. He couldn’t decide if that was better or worse, not to have been there when it happened. But by how Bjorn drank on any given night, maybe it was for the best that Rune had been elsewhere.
Bjorn’s shoulders lowered and dropped the rope to the snow. His heavy feet made deep impressions as he made his way over and placed his hands on Rune’s shoulders.
“Your father was a good man, son,” Bjorn said, “That day out on the Voids may have been his last but he lives on through you. He lives on through those journals he wrote. That research- his life’s work...He was the smartest man I ever knew. And someday I hope to see that dream of his come to pass.”
“I guess if those books were readable it would make a difference,” Rune said. “So far, he spent his entire life making something that you can’t even read.”
Bjorn smiled. He could tell because his uncle’s wind blistered cheeks press against his goggles. Somehow though, he could feel rather than see that it was a bitter grin.
“You and I both know that Nolan didn’t do anything without a good reason.” Bjorn slapped Rune’s shoulder. “He was too smart for his own good and more than a little cautious when it came to the Equator. Maybe even a little jealous of it.”
Rune was going to agree but his words caught in his throat. A plaintive siren blared over the slopes in an eerie echo. It started as a small, moaning wail and crescendoed into a high scream. The alarm oscillated back-and-forth from one octave to another. Both men stood fixed in place with an unspoken dread. Something was happening back home.
Bjorn was first to act as he slid down the slope at breakneck speed, and after a nervous second Rune followed after him. Sharp bits of ice clawed at his hip before he skidded to the bottom, and scrabbled to his feet to keep pace behind Bjorn. Once he reached the top of the second snowdrift, Bjorn had already raised his goggles to rest on his forehead. His uncle was looking through binoculars at, from what he could tell, the cluster of Old Francisco towers where their clan lived.
"What's going on?" Rune asked. He tried to peer through the storm in vain. There was no way to see anything beyond the massive skyscrapers in the distance. He didn’t think Bjorn would see much either.
But then Bjorn whispered, “...Snowcats.”
Rune frowned, not understanding. “Leopards?”
He hesitated. Snowcat machines? Rune tried to create a mental image how something like that would look. A lithe, wild animal with parts instead of meat and hot oil instead of blood.
Bjorn dropped the binoculars from his eyes. “The Summit Soldiers...Strahd. They weren’t supposed to-”
His uncle looked at Rune. “No one.” Bjorn stuffed away the binoculars and said, “Rune, let me handle this. Whatever happens, don’t say a word.”
“I don’t understand. What’s going on?”
“Boy.” Bjorn’s ice blue eyes locked onto his. “Get to the tunnels. Let them have the journals unless you want blood.”