Promethean hubris in the 27th centuryThe Iceland-Greenland Venture
Döblin wrote the Iceland-Greenland chapters first, in an almost hallucinatory state of imaginative intensity that nearly brought on a nervous breakdown. The beleaguered elites of the 27th century decide to solve the problem of disaffected idle masses by opening up Greenland for exploration and settlement. How to melt the icecap? – By destroying Iceland for its volcanic energy! The dreadful plan works… at first. Here we present the two central chapters of Döblin’s dystopia. (More chapters will follow.)
PART SIX – ICELAND
THE PLAN TO MELT GREENLAND
THE PLAN to melt Greenland jolted the cities like an earthquake. Astonishment bordering on horror sent thoughts haywire. Engineers physicists became engrossed in the plan. Senates everywhere recorded full attendance at debates. There was a sense of an existential decision. Senates were on edge, as wary as they had been of the free distribution of synthetic food.
The experts aimed to put the unparalleled power of melting glaciers to work for them. Their ambitions went farther: they would not rest at an ice-free Greenland, but would aim to change the climate of the whole northern hemisphere. The Greenland venture required exceptionally extensive sources of heat; there was no need to limit these to Greenland. The campaign could take in all the lands of the Arctic zone: Spitsbergen Zemlya Norway Baffin-land Grant-land the Parry Islands.
Delvil’s adviser on physics and hydrography, Escoyez, a man born in Spain with a trace of Berber in him, half-merman who explored the most perilous ocean depths in constructions of his own devising, proposed to alter the salinity of Atlantic waters. He had studied the Gulf Stream along the coasts of Britain and Norway. He said: the Gulf Stream is more saline than the seawater through which it flows. The driver of the Gulf Stream is the change of seasons: summer expands the salt water, sends it flooding over colder water. That’s all there is to the current. But salt water pulls salt water, one viscosity with the other. The quantity of warm water flowing from the equator northwards can be increased by seeding the vast bed of the ocean with salt won from the ocean floor itself. The seafloor in the region of the great current can be fissured at wide intervals, the uplifted rock crushed. The leachate – Natrium chloride Magnesium Magnesium sulphate Calcium sulphate Potassium chloride Calcium bicarbonate – will pass into the water. What we must do is systematically widen the bed of the Gulf Stream with these salt-spewing fissures, from the coasts of Cuba Florida Newfoundland outward. The summer expansion, the flood of warm saline water, the transgression dragging adjacent salty waters along with it will grow tenfold, will stretch from the North Sea to Newfoundland.
Escoyez, tough tanned water-creature, declared: all you need do is enlarge the equatorial cauldron. If up till now folks on Greenland have shivered and those on Spitsbergen have cold noses, they shouldn’t be surprised. If you’re waiting for Nature to send roasted larks flying into your mouth, you are wrong. It just goes to show how dreadfully stupid people are, the way they treat climate and other earthly things as if they were divine law. Here’s a divine law: a man goes hungry if he doesn’t find himself some bread. And another divine law: a man should use his brain. You make your bed, you lie on it – his mocking words meant: same goes for the stream in its bed; – but only up till now. Humans can make their own divine law for the bed of the Gulf Stream. The Gulf Stream can’t outsmart humans. Throw salt on its tail and it’ll come straight away and sing to you.
Behind Escoyez’ levity lay a deadly earnest. He and his colleagues were tasked to produce charts, scrape up rock samples. Above all he was encouraged to spread the enthralling rumour of a changed northern climate.
The eyes of other men were fixed on Greenland, on the shrinking glaciers. It was all the same to them what would become of the new continent, what benefits the new plan would bring. All they wondered was how to harness the unleashed forces; forces whose power their imaginations could never match. They made calculations of the extent and mass of the receding glaciers, of avalanches sliding into valleys, of the stores of pent-up water. The torrents cascading into the sea must represent a tremendous energy slope, a propulsive mechanism beyond calculation.
Energy technologists flung themselves at plans to exploit the Greenland energy slope. They aroused passion in those close to the Senate. They knew about avalanches that destroyed mighty forests by air pressure alone. Now, in a continent the size of Australia, an avalanche-swarm such as no continent had experienced would triggered more or less simultaneously. The energy slope must not be dissipated; it would be absurd to let avalanches and entire seas slide untamed into the ocean. They must be captured, must yield up their energy. What the energy would be used for was irrelevant. No one in the Brussels Senate, briefed by the old phlegmatic Dane who was spokesman for the energy technologists, asked about it. No one was thinking of the waves of settlers and their dreams. What was certain was that the energy-slope all around the coast of Greenland must be tamed. The horse must not be allowed to gallop unharnessed out of the wilderness. Even if you end up with more energy than you need.
Already before comprehensive plans had been drawn up, dwellers in the zones felt an anxious urge to give up everything and spread out among neighbouring peoples. It was like a safety fuse, a need for connectivity, a sense of immersion: we don’t want to be alone. Agents of the senates flitted through the towns of the northern continents; intense repetitious narrating reporting describing snooping. Everywhere eyes lit up. In Algeria, dissolving out of the landscape around Constantine and south of the Atlas Mountains from the shores of the Shott-el-Djerid, came bands of Arabs drawn magnetically northwards. From Sicily, from the still teeming city of Raha on the Niger south of the Saharan sea, dark Gandus appeared; they sliced through the air in their flying cars, came down to land in London. A shiver went through them when they landed, heard in more detail what was planned.
PREPARATIONS FOR A WEDDING
OFF THE north coast of Scotland, bare rocky islands reared jagged spray-drenched from an angry sea: this was the gathering-ground for ships machines humans. Engineers physicists mathematicians geologists and their assistants made London Brussels their headquarters. They flourished a succession of blueprints, alluring stirring up. Everyone could see Greenland emerging, the continent hidden behind coastal mountains. The coastal mountains would be levelled like the stones of a castle wall. Greenland was an enchanted princess, surrounded by dragons. The mountains would sink away to reveal something proud, fabulous. Ice disintegrating over thousands of square miles, emergence of an ancient hidden land.
Initial preparations were made as early as spring. They considered every last detail of the coming campaign. They began to set up factories in Welsh valleys, on flat land outside Nivelles in Belgium, where they manufactured energy storage devices for electrical and other novel forces to be won from a demolished Iceland. Cages for the birds about to be trapped; giant nets: butterflies would be chased across the ocean, would yield to Europe and the heat. Into muddy Dutch soil they dug walls dunes concrete channels, as if preparing traps for monsters. Blasted passages and caves on the Irish Sea coast in the Berwyn Hills along the River Dee, underground runs through rock many miles long, to house the monstrous forces they would trap. In Chester Stafford Denbigh, buildings sprang up like sheaves in a field, sprawled among the settlements of people who had fled the cities – who decorated them with leaves stones secret spells. In the lowlands of Brabant, along the burrowing Maas, beside the sodden course of the broad surging Rhine, sunken vaults and low wide installations were constructed.
They were making preparations for a wedding. They flung themselves into the planning. The long dismal austere time had brought to fruition an abundance of inventions. They bypassed the elementary; powers were poised to reveal themselves; feelers were sent out respecting what they had in mind. People in the zones recalled a fable of Egypt’s Pharaoh: seven lean-kine years, seven fat. Better build food warehouses for an endless age. We’ll find new strengths. Now human potential would be unleashed, gambolling across the Earth, arms waving.
THE WATERS of the Atlantic washed the long coastlines of America and Europe. Their fluid mass filled the enormous rift between the sundered continents. The gneiss mountains of Canada and Labrador had become separated from the Scottish mountains. Ragged and fractured the islands off the top of Scotland: Shetland and Orkney. Shetland a hundred islands. They rose out of leaden rolling waters from the submarine protrusion that carried the Irish landmass, the mountainous Highlands, southern lowlands.
Ships of the western city-states set course for Shetland. They anchored at sixty degrees north in the bays of Mainland. More and more vessels arrived.
High tide rolled over jagged claws; low tide revealed thousands of cliff-girt islets that showed their teeth, their stony bite. Then they were buried by the insinuating stumbling towering tottering spattering water that blew spray across them. Onto crunching beaches of shingle and shell, onto wild sea-stacks surf hurled itself, strands of hair from the sea that bared its breast offshore, bent its back to the dark Earth. Banks of shingle scrunched as water beat against the unclothed land, washed rubbed ground scrabbled scraped. It wore down promontories edges corners spits, so that it could heave benignly back and forth out in the open; Ocean, wide Atlantic waters, hundreds of miles, dark shackled being, heaving in an endless latticework of waves. At the rim of little cliffs islands Mainland, it allowed itself a hundred-yard drop for its restless heaving, then plunged miles down into lightless deeps, clung to the outer edge of Earth’s rocky plinth, uniform rippling surging water, swept ruffled pushed along by tenuous breezes. Flying calling creatures flapped over it, vessels cut through it with caressing screws rudders wheels. People on its back. It conversed with the air. Thunder and howling around reefs, swirling around ships. Menacing mutterings, rolling roiling gurgling plashing gulping swinging bursting rattling shattering artillery fire under a cloud-covered sun, licking whip-cracking swinging at the sun. Evaporating in the heat, steaming melting vanishing as clouds under the white radiant sun.
One May day Kylin, a man grown up in the fjords of Scandinavia, flashed the green signal-lamp on the mainmast of his tall ship. Now the first two hundred vessels left the steep braes of Sumburgh Head at sixty degrees north. An hour later the summit of Ronas on Mainland had disappeared. The whir and clamour of the last bird-islets died away. Muckle Roe and Foula lay behind them, the jagged islands Yell Hascosay Samphrey Fetlar Uyea Unst.
They were encased and cradled in their two hundred ships. Decks of wood and steel, gentle soughing of the breeze. Sounds of plashing. Distant murmurs. Encased, hemmed in. Thin fluttery banks of cloud above. The sun white, caught in the watery mirror, flashing. It floated winking glittering shining.
BILLOWS OF OXYGEN NITROGEN 40 MILES HIGH
BILLOWS OF oxygen-nitrogen forty miles high, miles of hydrogen sent swirling by the Earth’s globe through the dark energy-soaked diaphanous ether. The uppermost fringe of the gassy fabric slipped away, vanished like smoke from a burning torch. No ear heard the slinking sliding, the silky billowing of that distant fringe. The roll and tumble of the globe that carried it along perturbed the air. It swathed the Earth, snuggled up to the headlong body, spun in pursuit like a top let go.
Stood there, clanking ghostly apparition in the darkness that shrank from it, gathered for attack. In its body metals burned, metallic clouds collapsed back onto it. Zinc Iron Nickel Cobalt, creeping into the rocks of the congealed Earth, Barium Sodium. They fell back as slag. Flares stood proud, were funnelled from the sea of flame out into the vibrating ether: a cyclone of burning hydrogen soaring seventy thousand miles. No splash when the gouts hurtled back onto the sun-body, were smelted anew, blazed. The standing flames that welcomed them bent like a cornfield in rain, stood straight again. No thunder from those primal forces. No avalanche or hurricane makes a noise like that of the living alluring sun. The raging sea of flame, everywhere simmering seething, exploding throwing up sheaves – if it came nearer, planets would turn to ashes and smoke – its song swallowed every sound far and near. Chirruping chirping of cicadas magnified a millionfold. Chattering metals. In between, the never-fading clash and drumroll that imposed itself on every earthly burning thing and lurked behind every roaring noise. Strontium bright purple-red, Magnesium crushed beneath the heavy mountains of the Earth, fiery breath upon fiery breath. Primordial beings – Helium Manganese Calcium – bloom and smoulder freely, dazzling when they light up in a light beyond what any eye can see, draining every colour. Radiant streaming this hundred-voiced chattering sea of flame, flare-hurling primordial world in the ether.
A long way from the sun’s surging crashing streaming burning: little grey Earth. Running like a weasel across a field. Laced about with vapours, damp mists, its fires encased in a crust of slag, damped down by oceans rivers ice. No clouds of burning metal driven by their own ferocity rain down on it. As a glazier uses force to press glass and wood against putty and it sticks tight, as a fist squeezes snow between curled fingers and palm and presses it to a hard ball and the snow no longer drifts, just so the Earth, its embers fading radiating helplessly away, is caught by ethereal ice, and yields creaking. Its interior seethes and burns; the body is impounded beneath ashes.
This is Earth. Above and below, a primordial world of light and fire. An undulating mantle of rock clothes its torso. The rock goes down for miles and rises miles high. Continents and islands carry mountains plains steppes deserts. Water breaks out from its sources in the mountains, oceans flood the basins. Mountains gneiss slate float heavily on molten flowing burning masses that break out now and then through stony crust to soften them with stabbing flames and shake them back and forth.
Asia spreads its body wide across the northern half of the Earth, over a hundred and forty six degrees of longitude and eighty seven degrees of latitude. With Gondwana, Angaraland, the China plates it rose from the mirror of the great oceans, allowed its seas to dry up. Its spine is the Altai, the Himalayan massif from the Hsing’an to the Pamirs, from Karakorum to Bhutan and the bend of the Dihang Gorge. The Caspian-Ural depression, abandoned by the sea, sucks in the Volga and Ural rivers, feasts on their silt. Glaciers cover the Kunlun. Its borders are snow mountains, sandy deserts in the east, Tibet of the yak, the green hills and loess plains of China, Manchurian meadows. Mountains fall steeply south to the flat swampy expanses of Hindustan, the hot land of Bengal. Blooming shores of India, paddy-fields, plantations of sugarcane, sago, coconut palms. Swamp forests of the Sundarbans, Terai where bright royal tigers prowl, long-eared elephants, four-handed gibbons. River after river northward to the sea of ice through Siberian grasslands, marshy tundra freezing steppe. The long-haired Kashgar panther prowls as far as the Lena.
Attached to this eastern stronghold, many-limbed little Europe. The young soaring Alps, ancient horst mountains in Thrace Corsica Spain, rock layers thrust up by pressure, decked in rubble. Sunken land in the south where the Mediterranean has burst into the yawning basin.
Africa besieged by rainstorms and the sun’s heat. Land extending over eleven million square miles, a table laid flat. Rice sorghum coffee maize fiery spices shoot from the earth. Bare ancient massifs of granite and mica-schist stand tall, a blanket of sandstone stretches away. Under the sun’s burning, rocks crumble to rubble, are transformed into soil and clay, coloured red by iron. Lakes Tanganyika and Nyasa fill the highland rifts, their ramparts volcano-fringed. Ten big lakes feed the Congo Niger Zambesi. The savannah sends up enormous grasses. Gallery forests along riverbanks. Lemurs and apes, the elegant zebra, okapi in the forests. Tree-like stems of the banana with leaves six yards long; the mighty leaves are enclosed in sheaths; dense clumps of the great berry-fruit hang down.
From Cape Murchison to Cape Horn, the western stronghold: America. A severely folded mountain belt runs through the continent from the southern extremity to the Mackenzie River, a lowlying basin from the sea of ice to the sultry Gulf of Mexico. To the north, deep beds of five Great Lakes. The mighty Mississippi surges south through plains, to it from the Appalachians comes the Ohio, and the Missouri from the Cordillera. Having rolled Earth’s stiff skin in the west, the double chain of mountains follows the western ocean like a wall. Primal forests surround the Amazon, called Tungurahua in its upper course, then Marañon; the Earth gives birth to it in Lake Lauricocha; it carries with it two hundred rivers, black and white from soils of chalk and iron, until it spills into the ocean.
Primordial beings have entrenched themselves in the seas: Hydrogen, Oxygen. They stream across the globe, Arctic Atlantic Pacific waters. Water, steady flowing entity, heavy changeable being that sprays and steams, forms clouds, drifts as snow, tremulous being along low shores, menacing black ragged phenomena of hurricane and storm flood. It sucks itself full of salts, Sodium chloride Magnesium Calcium, makes itself heavy, milk-white in the Gulf of Guinea, cinnamon coloured the Gulf of California, yellow-brown the Indian Ocean. Warm and cold currents surge through the oceans, coloured bands; silvery mists lie over them where they meet.
Primordial beings waft around the globe, burn and flow in its body, overburden it with solid and motile masses: they are Friction Gravity Heat Light, are Sulphur Chromium Manganese Silicon Phosphorous. They are soil and sand. Are silent crystals, flowers, lichens doggedly germinating all across the land, flowering plants, fish that swim, birds that sing and call to one another, creeping predators, pounding fighting people, snailshells on seashores, bacteria vines dead trees, rotting roots, worms, beetles laying eggs.
Kylin’s two hundred ships set off from sixty degrees north, left the Shetland Isles behind, swept across the ocean. They travelled in the warm drift that washes against Norway, melts the ice of Finnmark. Beneath them a long underwater mountain ridge extended down the Atlantic southward, widening near the islands of Ascension and Saint Helena, chains branching off to America and Africa. Silent seas atop valleys mountains sunk in darkness. Beneath the ships the ocean fell away two miles deep. Birds whirled in the wind over the roaring sea alongside the giant ships, animal species just like people, with eyes bones skin. Stormy petrels dived onto threshing fish, herring-gulls with serrated tails, pointed wings. The water through which the giant ships plunged, black-green deliquescent glassy mass, brimming with animals and plants, tracked the ships’ advance. Slimy clumps of primal beings glued themselves to the hulls, clung to the screws, accompanied them across the sea trailing little threadlike feet. Sea-angels like butterflies emerged in the damp dark of evening, uncountable hordes of cliones, at daybreak sank back down. On the sea-floor snailfish lurked, holding fast with their adhesive disc. Tender sea-cucumbers, rattails grew deep down on reefs alongside sea-nettles. Animal skeletons sank, clothed the sea-floor in ooze; small-eyed bristle-worms slender bloodworms crawled through and over them among clumps of seaweed. In the sunlit surface zone, comb-jellies went on their way, silent greedy creatures, siphonophores that lit up like garlands of flowers, each a whole city of countless transparent glassy animals strung on a line that nourished them. Salmon sped beneath the keels, tiny crustaceans clinging to their skin their gills. The fleet crossed over the silent underwater sill of Thomson Ridge. It hit ten degrees west.
ICELAND WAS an island below sixty-five degrees north at fifteen degrees west; the Arctic Circle just touched its northern edge. Two islands spewing lava from volcanoes had created this mountainous plate whose jagged flanks, claws of a giant crab, reached into the misty surging sea. The people on the ships drew near. They planned to rip open the island’s volcanoes, convey their fires to Greenland.
The south of the island was covered by glaciers. Hekla and Skaftar-jökull were mountains whose vents emitted sulphurous fumes. In the north the Lake of Midges steamed with thirty-four lava islets; Krafla and Leir-hnjúkur hurled into it blue and honey-yellow boulders from their broad calderas. Boulders shot househigh, crashed back into the crater, tumbled steaming downslope. The island’s wastelands many miles across; lava-fields, wrinkled congealed rivers of rock, bare brown boulders, shattered cliffs. Burnt dead plains. Water sparkled in crevices in the lava. Springs fountained hot water. At the southern edge of the wasteland were Geysir and Strokkur; their wide basins contained bright blue water that pulsed. Now and then the basins erupted: water rose hissing, arced over the edge of the crater, fell back with a gurgle.
When the calm blond Swede Kylin and his company came ashore at the mouth of Eyja-fjord and flew over the island – whirlwinds went across the land, the burning mountains, pitted terrain – they found human settlements near the coast. There was one near their landing place; sheep and small children wandered the hills. What they must do would be done without these. Hostility to the expedition could be expected. Kylin and his companions swarmed over Krafla, near the Lake of Midges. It was active: the island groaned for miles under the pounding from hot magma breaking through deep rock. Quakes rippled across the island. Pilots circling high above the flanks of dead mountains suddenly saw chasms and long black fissures opening. Often, enveloped in thin vapours, they had to descend, react quick as lightning to choking sulphurous gases. They flew delighted around the stamping gaping monster that sat there by the lake, churning up the land and making the whinnying snorting surface waters foam. In these chasms lay the immense heat they craved and would extract, to fling it onto Greenland, onto the white mountain-high carapace of ice that would start to mist steam break apart, glaciers from Cape Grival, Kangerdlussuak, Aggas Island. Iceland was burning. Must burn harder. A cloud-hurling thunder-blazing forge was being prepared.
When Kylin turned east in the gathering dusk to the area of the landing-place, little lights were flashing on and off along the coast like pitiful little warning signals. For two and a half hours Kylin and his companions – flying uneasily, landing on a patch of scree, darting aloft again – watched these tremulous signals out of the night. Until they stopped. In a long line, flying slowly and very high, the scouts noisily approached the soaring cliffs of the fjord, black in moonlight. Waves murmured. They set foot on a gently sloping meadow near the shimmering tent-houses of the landing place. They ran downhill in the moonlight. Tripped over soft bodies. When they bent down grabbed turned the bodies over, they saw round immobile alien faces. The teeth were exposed in a laugh, tip of the tongue poking out. Once let go the bodies dropped, rolled onto the back, the other shoulder. A figure emerged from one of the tents, hurried towards them, led them on down. The natives in the nearby village had become nosy, asked what the expedition was planning, had taken four expeditionaries hostage so that nothing would happen and the foreigners would leave quickly. So the newcomers had pretended to go back to the ships, had reclaimed the hostages, and when darkness fell trained their Balearic lights on the coast. These were lights that penetrated human skin, enveloped it and closed it off with a glaze like shellac. The blood was seized with a great hunger for oxygen. You start to tremble, the heart races, the breath can’t keep up. You devour yourself, blood leaks from its vessels bright red, pink around mouth and nose, you collapse into pools of blood that swirl on the ground and fizz without clotting.
Next morning they flung five hundred corpses along with cadavers of cattle and sheep into the sloshing fjord. Blond Kylin sat glumly outside his tent, eyes fixed on the purple ground, heard the endless tramping as people dragged yet more bodies past, these now of village children and infants that they threw from a bluff into the spraying water. When a gust of wind blew sand into his face and sent his cap askew, Kylin stood up, called for his escort and slouched seawards. More people came from the ships. Kylin felt anger and disgust. Burly Prouvas grabbed him by the shoulder.
“Kylin,” the merry fellow roared, “it’s another day. You lot are still alive. And we thought you would stumble first into the cauldron. Even before Greenland.”
“Prouvas, I am not in the mood.”
“So I see. You know, you almost flew into our lights.”
Another, even stockier, clad all in black leather, put an arm around Kylin: “Whoo. Iceland wind. The ground’s shaking horribly. It’s more fun on the ships. We’re glad you’re alive.”
Kylin, still looking at the ground: “How did it happen, Prouvas, with the lights? Who ordered the use of the lights?”
Prouvas stepped back astonished. “The lights? It worked, didn’t it? They’ve been dragging bodies all morning. Come over here.”
Black-leather man: “Not a mouse escaped. Kylin must have caught a little dose.”
“I didn’t go near the lights, Prouvas, Wollaston. So many bodies. The whole village.”
“The lot. Animals too. The light has no eyes, doesn’t choose its targets.”
Kylin straightened, placed both hands to his face, shook himself, spat. Quietly: “Phooey. It’s OK.”
The other two gave a honking laugh: “Well then, Kylin. It’s OK.”
“It was brutal.”
Prouvas put an arm around leather-man: “Hey, look at Marduk the Second. Go found a kingdom, my son, but stop hiding your face.”
He let his hands drop: “Come away from here. How many more bodies to be cleared.”
Prouvas: “You should have seen it. The light-beams were such a sight. One minute they’re running as if they’re about to sneeze, then they sit down really really slowly, all the same way. I think they were crying, water was pouring from their eyes. And then they were dead.”
Wollaston: “If it’s fifty gone so it’s fifty. If a hundred, a hundred. If they’re dead they’re dead. They couldn’t stay there.”
Kylin glared from his blue-green eyes: “I am the leader.”
“Glad to hear it.”
“I am the leader. I said nothing about exterminating people.”
Wollaston, roaring: “Did we plan it? I? Or Prouvas? Did we exterminate them? Those people had to go. They won’t be the last. If you’re weakening, you’d better hand over the leadership.”
Kylin, calmly: “What do you think, Prouvas?”
“Not exactly what Wollaston says. But I did use the light-beams.”
Kylin in his padded aviator jacket: “Half a day. Stand in for me.”
Towards evening Kylin flew out to the fleet offshore. His sister, who was with the expedition, comforted the furious man, who kept declaring his disgust with himself, he had fallen in with beasts; he’d join the English settlers, go to Zimbo. For hours the purpose of the expedition evaded Kylin. He howled: It was a lie what they were doing. That first step made everything clear. As he stood beside his plane he clapped a hand to his forehead with a quizzical smile: “They should have seen me in Brussels. Really. How it chills you to the bone, hearing what Marduk and the others say. Are we getting into mischief here?”
His sister hugged him, eyes sparkling: “Maybe it is mischief, little brother. But something more as well. You know it too, in your better moments. You’ll know it later. Can you hear the volcanoes? Look at them. We’ll grab hold of them. Think, brother, we’ll have them.” She shoved him off his seat, reached for the steering wheel, laughed: “Allow me the pleasure.”
The ships sailed a northwesterly course. They anchored far out to sea opposite Krafla and Leir-hnjúkur. The scene delighted the fleet. The aviators followed the coast from Ingolfs-Höfdi up to Glettinge-nes. Coast islands hinterland were devoid of humans, the lava desert to the south was shrouded in smoke. Pilots flew up from the carriers in protective masks, women by the dozen among them, always in danger of being engulfed or scorched by gouts of flame. They took photos of the fearsome landscape of swirling lakes, flew on their metal wings through the inferno, came down for a rest, sped back up. Further south in the interior more sulphur fumes, craters were forming. Geysers stopped erupting. Instead, gas trickled huffed from fissures chasms; with it a deep hollow rumble. Kylin’s expedition could set to work without fear of human opposition. It was certain, the volcano lay atop an enormous fiery magmatic hearth. No need to worry whether that hearth was encapsulated in the Earth’s solid crust, ensconced in a cavern as a blister of the great layer of molten magma, or whether it was Earth’s magma itself, the nickel-iron of Earth’s body that was breaking through the silicon-magnesium layer that encrusted it, floated on it. You just had to set to.
And Earth came to meet them; the boil was ready to burst. They made contact with the fleets coming behind. Amid the roar of yawning Krafla, hissing rain of ashes, a meeting of the leaders of the convoys took place in a bay. Kylin held back. De Barros from the second fleet pointed to Krafla:
“You hear that thing, and my voice. Can one drown out the other? No. Look at my head or my hand, and at Krafla. Oho, it’s big, is Krafla. Could swallow six thousand, six million people and not grow fatter. We shall converse with Goliath. He’ll bluster with his head, his belly, he’ll rage. Indian war-cries. One in the flank and he’s done for. Nothing left but a pile of rubble.”
Pliant Kylin, gangling elastic often moody commander-in-chief of the expedition, had found himself again. He was a proud clear creature. Squinting at the smoke he lifted his smooth short upper lip: “This is the beginning. It’s good, yes it’s good that we’ve all come together. A shame it’s so far from the continents, but never mind. Maybe we shall lay ourselves like volcanoes over the sleeping stupid continents, with all they contain, all that supports them.” He dreamed: conscious at last, on Iceland.
Along a front of forty miles the working ships took up position off the island’s north coast. An eastern group entered Thistil-fjördur. The ships with Kylin’s team anchored off the Rifstangi peninsula in sight of bald Mount Svalbard. The western group stretched as far as Eyja-fjord, under squalls of snow from Rimar. The sea was whipped by the unending storm. The ships were colossi. To the rear and some distance from them, lower rounder smaller vessels rocked at anchor: these stored the machines devices supplies ores explosives metals; they were the technical auxiliaries. The fleet obtained its motive power from massive cables laid by the working ships all the way from Scandinavia across the continental shelf, the deep sea abyss, the Arctic-Scotland Rise. The cable, encased in insulation, bulged at intervals with access points. Cables sent down to look for them in shallow water, guided from boats, felt along the main cable, hooked and gripped and buried themselves in a bulge. Trenchers and smoothers went ahead of the main cable, pushed masses of sand aside, trailed the cable behind them. Current from local sources activated the bulge. And already the energy of distant lands, the power of cataracts swelled into the quivering cable, hurled itself at machines roaring into life, surged through the ships.
To the north of black ash-strewn Mývatn, Lake of Midges, rose Krafla with its invisible raging hissing. Leir-hnjúkur beside it. Exultant Prouvas gazed from the heights of Svalbard across the rapids and whirlpools of the Jökulsa to the volcano. At the same time, ten miles away on Rimar, high on the silent dust-covered Myrkarr glacier, burly Wollaston was laughing. He scuffed the ground until snow showed white. Dug his pole into the rubble:
“Reveal yourself, glacier! Myrkarr, great Myrkarr! To think you see us here. There’ll be such a show. You’ve never seen the like since you’ve been astir. Krafla’s still spewing. Won’t spew for much longer. Its tongue will hang out. All gone.” He almost choked in the smoke: “Soon no one will know you were ever here, Krafla, Leir-hnjúkur.”
By the time the middle fleet started laying bridgeworks, the storm had died away. A calm came, with rain. The island undulated as usual. Smoke blew eastwards at altitude. Fiery pillars lit the night. They laid bridgeworks up from Öxar-fjord to the heights of Burfell, from the tip of Rimar peninsula across the hills to Rimar peak, from Rifstangi peninsula in Thistil-fjord up to Svalbard. The bridgeworks rose at a slant inland from the surf, then the wide light spans of viaducts swung into the country, over spates that foamed from the heights, across rubblefields moorland dead lava, through cool mist-wreathed rain-hung air to lofty Svalbard, the great Myrkarr glacier, Rimar’s jagged summit.
Piles and abutments were not rammed into the ground. Metal fliers took off, landed twenty or thirty strong along a cliff, down a slope. They cleared coarse rubble and stones, hacked with picks and hammers, burned flat-bottomed holes in the rock. Into these they laid thin plates, light nondescript blue-green wafers the size of a hand, square, like little shields hanging from their chest-straps. To charge them, they connected the plates to a branch of the electric cable they had hauled up with them. As soon as it cracked onto the plates they let go, dropped them into the shallow hole, whirled aloft. The plates, thin compressed leaves, smouldered. The charged upper plate glowed melted. Its melting into the second plate intensified the heat. The intimately blended burning first and second drew the rigid third into the blaze. This split with a crackle, sent splashes sideways and into the hole, then suddenly softened with a shriek and gave itself to the white fire that burned ever more transparently blue. And as the whistling wheezing rigid scorching slurping thing rolled itself up, the final plate bent stretched as if in cramp, beat about itself, pulled and stretched into hair-fine glass, a glimmering skin around the three fiery plates. The ball grew tall, white, blue-white, bright blue, spread out, spread. It liquefied, burst apart, and at once every colour was gone from the arm-high flame. Nothing left but a hard rigid despotic breath, a gasp. And already it had disappeared from the rock surface, plunged deep into the rock. Giving up its life to the fire it steamed groaned in the depths; above it, molten rock oozed out like gelatine.
Circling fliers descended on the melting already congealing cliffside. Pilesetters approached the hissing openings, planted tall piles into the stewing mass, held them steady until the air ceased quivering and the rocky gruel clamped like glass about the foot of the pile.
All across the land, pile after pile was embedded in rock. A line of piles from Kylin’s camp crossed the Jökulsa. A line climbed from Öxarfjord across Burfell. A line advanced mightily from Rimar, clambered over the Myrkarr glacier, reached the Skjalfanda river; came to a halt on the lava plain of Odaða-hraun. It was a broad stonestrewn being that grew here, boulder jostling boulder. Onto this foundation were set ring-shaped coil drums, borne on roller bearings. Section by section the mobile support framework covering a whole pile-group was swung in swivelled about on its turntable, railbed was won, and on to the next pile group. Soaring bridgeworks with their enormous spans covered the region from wild ocean to the black lake of Myvatn. Below them buried in palls of smoke lay fissured grey-blue glaciers, rubble plains, valleys with narrow floors and precipitous sides. Fearlessly the piles advanced towards the spewing volcanic plateau.
Barely a week later the first wagons were running on rails that they themselves laid on the smooth railbed. Over them rolled the train, beneath it the long bow of rails stretching into the distance before and behind, elongated ovals rounding off the line of wagons at head and tail. The train spun steel from two rings, sped over the new-laid rails, pulled more from overhead to its advancing feet. Thus did they thunder over bridges, cast dazzling headlight beams, all day and in the total dark of smoke and night, guided by magnetic strips laid in the railbed. Under rising squalls, from the bowels of the ships of all three fleets they lifted and secured on wagons the machines by means of which Krafla the gurgling volcano, and Leir-hnjúkur the steaming mountain-splitting monster would be destroyed.
Kylin had imbued the machines with novel powers. He was of Marduk’s school. Just as Marduk had forced trees, had in the most horrible ways stimulated the life in them to tumultuous growth and overgrowth, so his Swedish pupil had made himself master of rocks and crystals. He had discovered the food with which to nourish rocks. For hour after enraptured hour he had watched crystals flower and arrange themselves. The spread of needles and iceflowers on the windowpane when he breathed had been his first miracle. And when he saw great lanky Marduk the botanist working away with his dried seeds germlings long hairy roots grafting-slips snipped-off leaves – under the breath of nutritive gases and growth stimulants the stems sprouted webs, filters and vessels, the vegetative tip of a naked pine needle pushed out its swellings, cell membrane laid upon cell membrane – the desire came over Kylin to play like this with stone and crystal. There was something lascivious brazen unworthy in the desire, but it carried him away; a fervid sombre mood lay on him. As he watched the drenching-tanks and heating tubes in which he had set out his crystals, he felt – challenged; they refused to grow as he wanted; he must become master. Must be able to hunt them like animals: is a stone superior to a horse?
He subjected them to heat, new solution mixes, electromagnetic forces. Until here and there something in them became tractable. Then he felt them over with rays that bounced back, penetrated, left them cold, heated them up. He saw that these rocks were sensitive and allowed themselves to be selected by heat pressure radiation as an animal species is by blood serum. It wasn’t the chance shape of the crystal that counted, but the tiniest part, the primordial being imprisoned in the crystal, the way it had interlocked itself, become embedded, bound up. Now you could rouse it, map its transformations any way you wanted.
One misty morning, the sleek machines sped along the rounded humming rails that climbed ever higher over the soaring bridgeworks. Barely six feet high, the machines, low and long like the wagons on which they were mounted. At their head were holes, eye sockets that could turn with the head from side to side, up and down. Some fifty chosen men and women sat on each machine. The air was filled with whirring fliers, deterred neither by driving rain nor by fear of what was coming. The Jökulsa River with its rapids roared in its sandy bed. It came from a distant glacier, hurled dirty grey water past angry Krafla. When smoke lifted from Lake Myvatn the course of the dark Salmon River became visible, surging from the lake like a whipped screaming demon, heaping up, showered with lava bombs that the river overran, trampled, pushed aside. The throaty rattle of the jouncing waters could be heard on the heights, you could see foam spraying enraged over boulders. Black and silent beyond lay the peaks of the Fiski Plain.
The mountains around the volcano lay placid. But now a strange life came over them. As if they twitched an eyelash, the eyelid closed, twitched the lash again. Krafla started up. And soon Leir-hnjúkur started up. Her east flank north flank west flank moved, the load on her shifted, rose, rose higher as if something was tickling her. The stolid flanks facing the graceful bridgeworks were engulfed in an endless avalanche of stones that shrouded the flanks like a mist. The haze grew thicker. And as it spread out from the mountains the people on the bridges heard a crack! beyond all earthly measure. An unending scraping grumbling booming that grew steadily to drown out the cackling rattling of the volcano, overwhelm it so that none could tell how it was rising up to the heavens, what direction it was coming from. It boomed and roared from south west east north, yet the roar came only from the flanks of the volcano as they lifted slowly behind the avalanche of stones as if thrust by an earthquake up out of soft ground. The flanks rose like a slowly raised finger. Like a sleeper who stretches, back slowly straightening, arms spreading, eyes still half closed, dreaming; presses tongue to gums, smacks.
Under the gaze of Kylin’s machines they grew, were pushed up pumped up. Behind the surging ever-thickening veil of stones, boulders of dead lava tumbled from the quaking flanks too fast to see, crumpled crusty streams of lava squeezed out, shattered, jangled like slates, grinding scraping against each other. The flanks pulled themselves erect and swelled like blisters from an unseen core.
Krafla the sluggard grew legs. Its cloak of stone was already raining down on dirty Jökulsa, the river that melted from the Askja glacier to flow past here. Rocks and lava, black porous ejecta danced on the water, stirred up the spraying surface, and already they had overwhelmed the river, buried it miles wide, a mass of rocks swelled out of the forging current, the river was buried alive, barricaded, cut off from the sea. To north and west the rocky veil crept around the mountain walls. West of Krafla the flanks of Leir-hnjúkur were smoking. The rain of stones filled hollows in the ancient rubble field, crushed and shattered man-high caves of tuff.
Now the summit of Krafla creased, collapsed. Not a sound of it reached the ear amid the steady roar and rumble of the swelling mountain. And at once the steep shaft of fire over Krafla was extinguished. In its place a swirl of black smoke that clumped ever denser, shooting high in whooshing puffs, a mile-high pillar over strangled Krafla. And simultaneously the flanks of the volcano, growing heaving ever higher, ever tumbling, began to rock and sway as black as shadows behind the veil of stones, like a shroud caught in the wind. These motile mountains were mountains no longer. Grew into the air, fell back to the land, across the shattering lavafields, the shores of Myvatn. Steamed and flamed. Little flames appeared, bluish, green, flicking magically here and there. Flashes like miners’ lamps, off, another flash. Below them the heaving rolling volcano wall: cloud-high giant ship ploughing through black land. More frequent now the licking flames, they swarmed as the mountains spread; above them, ever more extruded towering masses of mountain tottered, crashed into the smoke-seething crater, soundlessly.
All of a sudden, into the enormous booming grumbling was mixed a snorting, huffing – deep primevally deep abysmally deep, emerging out of the ground. Puffing hissing as from a kettle. It subsided slowly, then haltingly swelled again. The green-blue lights meanwhile continued flickering on the advancing rockwalls. Yellow flames jabbed through the green, twitched stabbed straight up, twisted about themselves. Smoke swirled huge and black over the shattered volcano.
Now: rip whack crack bang.
Mountain-mass dissipated, Krafla and Leir-hnjúkur pulverised.
Glowing smouldering across all the land, fires snapping at the sky.
Flying boulders of basalt and granite, lava bombs shoot up, back down. While the mountain-mass sink away.
From the rift in the Earth gushed red-hot streams, molten rock from the Earth’s insides together with the burning corpses of the shattered volcanoes. The flaming streams made their way growling across the land. To the south the tottering glowing rims of the volcanoes still stood, fissured mutilated. They crumbled toppled, laid themselves over the hot sucking bed. The fiery stream overran the land to the south as far as the foot of mighty Blafjall. Into black Myvatn rolled the fiery stream, surged into the water down to the lakebed, crept along without being quenched. It sank its teeth in the water, swallowed it down. On its back water seethed and steamed. It lashed about on the lakebed. Flung aside unravelled turned to smoke scorched whatever it encountered. Blood-red its long serpent body. It surged across the whole width of the lake to the southern shore.
As the lurid glow spread across the darkened sky, became whiter and whiter, the leaders gathered on De Barros’ ship on the north shore of Öxar-fjord. De Barros grunted with pleasure, embraced taciturn blond Kylin:
“Kylin, you’ll be the talk of the world. The world is already talking about you: listen to it. Are you still sad about the little ladies and the kiddies?”
The Swede’s hard smooth face: “I am not sad, De Barros.”
De Barras danced with fat Prouvas: “Kylin, what’s bigger: a human or a mountain? A human or a volcano? Haha! Charged with the murder of two volcanoes. Of a pretty black lake too and, in addition, of a grown-up river.”
“Leave it, De Barros.”
“I’m all for order and justice. And how many animals have you roasted choked squashed mangled and left them unburied and failed to come to their aid. Take spiders, sitting in cracks in the mountain half a million at a time. Thirty-six thousand flies, young and old, together with their still living ancestors and descendants. Families, mothers. Foully murdered, done away with. How could you do it! Who could do it! And the salmon in the rivers, midges in the lake, and the ferns, mosses, grasses on the ground: all gone. Ruthless, ruthless. Haha! Kylin, you’ll be hauled before the Lord of the Flies, before the god of salmon flies spiders.”
“I am not in the least laughing, De Barros.”
Kylin’s sister gazed beatifically at the flaming sky, her head well back. She laughed without looking at Kylin, proudly: “Right, what’s bigger, a volcano or a human?”
For the whole day hot white masses oozed from the Earth’s body in rivulets and sloshing cataracts. In a furious clattering they blanketed the old frozen lava fields along the Skjalfanda River. The short hissing night passed. Feeble sunlight played again at the edges of black and brown-red clouds. Burning ash bored through the black-red murk of the island, rattled through hot air pregnant with sulphur and ammonia. The human assailants lay low in Eyja-fjord. Avalanches slid down the rocky slopes, whipped up the sea. Fliers rising masked into the air sent squalls ahead of them below them for protection against the mutilated howling Earth. The dismal palls of smoke were blown away; they could see and measure the extent of the naked fiery flume, the jagged gigantic chasm that led straight down into the depths of the ruptured ground.
The island trembled, shook itself in fear and torment. Between evaporated Myvatn and the headlong breathless Skjalfanda swollen with meltwater, as they flew there suddenly appeared a great fissure that cut across the lakebed; on each side a line of domes rose as if punched up through the ground. They wheezed brown mud and steam. The ground swayed and jolted. Creaks and crackles all along the edges of the fissure. They pouted like sulky lips. For minutes the domes emitted not a breath. And as the fissure wiggled like a worm, a dome grew from it soundlessly, wide, wider, its rising flanks engulfed the other domes, its foot traversed the infilled fissure. The relentless dome carried with it all the land on the right bank of the Salmon River. And rising a hundred metres, a thousand metres, swathed in sulphurous steam, the summit of the new volcano split like the barrel of a cannon. The sky howled yellow and black with a scream that lasted a quarter of an hour as vertical streams of ejecta peppered it with lava and fire. The Salmon River steamed in the lava flow, as did the Jökulsa east of Myvatn. The mighty Skjalfanda River, fed by the eternal ice of Trölla-dyngja, hurled its broad chill mass against the invading streams of fire: it turned to white steam. The fire ran along its bed, drew the mighty stream into its jaws and did away with it. Cut off from the sea it was not dammed up into a lake: the water sped aloft as vapour, driven miles high by unquenchable heat, let it fall back where it may. Icy winds carried it west across the vast ocean.
From the Jökulsa to the Skjalfanda, Iceland had disappeared. But Earth’s hot innards had risen up between the two furious fitful rivers. Like a giant placing first one foot on the steps, the groping hand is visible, about to climb higher, step through the gap, burst out on every side to gain space.
Not a day had passed since the tiny flesh-and-bone assailants demolished two mountains. Now Iceland smouldered many miles square from two huge basins, east and west of the Skjalfanda.
Odaða-hraun, the Lavafield of Iniquity, lay between the incandescent basins. It covered a hundred square miles, extending south from Myvatn between the Skjalfanda and the Jökulsa. Coal-black lava was its ground. Black volcanic sand flew over it. Slag heaped up on it like ice floes. To the south rose the crater of Dyngju-fjöll and the broad depression of Askja with its dark green lake, surrounded by mountains. The Dyngju-fjöll crater had already been grumbling for a while; Askja had swallowed its lake. Fire had crept from its floor, the glow sometimes faded, thin ashes hissed down onto the wastes of Odaða-hraun.
The fleets left the north coast to tackle from the east the volcanoes of the Odaða-hraun desert, onto which the fiery streams from ruined Krafla and Leir-hnjúkur were emptying. Vopna-fjord cut deep into the land; from Vopna-fjord the first lines of bridgework were thrown up. The bridgeworks had to cross huge distances. Others came up from the south, from Mjoi-fjord, Reyðar-fjord. As the island shook under blows from the volcanoes, people swarmed over the east coast icefields, their tops strewn with ashes. Volcano after volcano stretched away in a north to northeasterly line towards the living lava field of the iniquity. Great Dyngja Herðubreið Tögl had awoken. The crater of great Dyngja, six hundred yards across, was plugged by its own debris. It burned through a vent in the middle. Broad-shouldered Herðubreið, free-standing with its dark flanks: a giant, roofed with snow; rivers ran from it. Age-old Skjald-breiður: its crater box-shaped, two hundred feet across, inert for a whole geological era. Ice covered it, from which water flooded into the valley. The mountain snorted and gurgled: it had brought forth the lava that built black strange vast Odaða-hraun. It hissed; from vents in its eastern flank came long strings of smoke. It swayed and jolted.
The assault trains rolled across the icy ash-strewn eastern ranges. The bridgeworks were all interconnected; any train, if a bridge behind it was destroyed or damaged, could seek out a nearby track. The assailants had planned to defend the wagons and expensive machines against hot ejecta. But it was obvious that neither supports nor wagons could be protected from the heaving flaming ground. Abandoning the demolition-trains, the ships positioned themselves in the bay of Heraðs-floi, south of Vopna-fjord, behind a rampart of hills. Into this bay plunged the dirty grey Jökla River, leaping through clefts from its source in three glaciers; spates tumbled into it, sandbanks piled up; its banks were smooth sand where it emptied into the sea. Alongside it flowed the Lagar River, its milky-white waters welling from a glacier half a mile high. It seethed over cataracts, spread wide as a lake, shook itself free of glacial gravel and mud when it entered Heraðs-floi. The ships of the fleet lay between the two rivermouths, not dropping anchor, engines at full power. Wind blew sharp off the land. Fine ash-dust blew out across the sea.
Morning dawned far behind across the ocean. Jerking and jolting, wagons followed their designated paths over the bridgeworks. They approached with a crash, threw out supports as they came. The ships in dark Heraðs-floi steamed slowly east, out to sea.
THE ROCKS of the mountains on the other side of the coastal glaciers, south of black quivering Odaða-hraun, were still drinking greedily of the juices yielded by the snow that lay heavy on them. They let the sources of the rivers run over them; the energy coming from the Earth made them quake, they lay dead, weathered; had endless time; tenuous mists wreathed about their bodies. The stones felt someone calling each of them by name.
Basalt was the mighty blanket that had solidified on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean. It covered three hundred thousand square miles. Scotland Iceland Greenland were erected on this base; it was a thousand yards thick. It lay stacked in steps and banks, strewn with cemented fragmented tuff. Wind and water weathered its surface to a brown-yellow wacke. On Iceland, the island at sixty-five degrees north, it formed the domes and crests of mountains, created the fissures that extended from south to northeast, the steep-sided trench of Myrdals-jökull, the Laki fissure with its hundred craters. There stood the mountains, jumble interknit with jumble like a meadow where a sower has cast a hundred seeds of a hundred different species; they shoot up, become a matted web. Rocks grinding shuddering together once the fire has left them. Nothing grew in the desolate mix; they slumped too slowly for perception, water had its slowly dissolving way with them, heat and cold, pressure of the weight upon and around them. Chalcedon and zeolite lay in cavities in the basalt. Its dark mass, spheres plates fans many feet thick, imprisoned dense green-black olivine, titanium-iron ore, burrowing augite, plagioclase. Deep in the basalt dykes they meshed glassily into one another.
Now something came over this congealed being that had the inherent quality of fire. As when a human who has knocked about for decades in foreign parts, from bitter necessity has struggled day by day to live, and among the foreigners knows nothing but struggle flail hit out – one noontime he encounters a man he does not know. Who gives him a letter from home, talks to him in his own language, asks him what he’s been up to so long, why not come back.
Or like an unloved married woman who has lived a long time at the side of the odious rough husband, borne him one child after another, is already dull and spiteful, and suddenly, while lying sick, she calls to mind a childhood friend. And he comes – there’s someone here, oh miracle, to straighten the blankets for her, hold the spouted cup to her mouth while his hand supports her frail back. Her breath is stormy, and when she recovers there comes a moment when, among the little children in the parlour, she presses the strange uncle to her breast, kisses him, kisses him calmly, and he leads her with the children out of the door.
Like a people defeated and subjugated centuries before, its men and women scattered, their language banned, their tribe scorned, their customs held to ridicule; the men went as slaves into foreign service, let themselves be taken off to foreign wars. And some defected, shone among the foreigners who despised them. Like when young men and women, half-children, emerge covertly among such a people; angrily in private they confront the elders of their people and in secret rooms they say: we’ve had enough of cowardice, of the appeasement that’s fed to us, of being insulted and demeaned. They would give their lives to wipe away the shame. And they go about, distribute leaflets, hold furtive meetings. A stir goes through the people, through every little family, through the young girls who must clean house for foreigners and fall prey to foreign men. And one day it’s war. And one day the streets are empty. And one day a flag flies from the rooftops, a new flag. And processions fill the streets, rejoicing in a language – what language – the despised and now victorious language! Everyone weeps behind windows and in the streets. In this hour the dead of lost centuries stir in their graves, flutter in huge swarms to the living from their bare unmarked resting places, to join the jubilant procession. Thousands, thousands sing along, run ahead of the flags and hold the battle-streamers and kiss the muddy boots and caps of the young marchers.
Like these men and women and people, the rocks the mountain ranges the craters ridges the deathly silent ice-covered giant peaks were seized, gripped like a lock by the key, and had to yield. Followed thrumming, and around them everything exploded into light.
Loosened, great Dyngja Herðubreið Tögl Skjald-breiður.
And when with a moan the collapse of the mountains began, and the trains of the assailants sped from the mountains flying span after span over the bridgeworks, already it was too late. The air, still huffing a black and icy breath, splintered red. Heat, ejected boulders. Darkness of deepest black settled on the high plain. Earth shaking rumbling heaving. As they fled, the trains could see in the blackness down below how the brown bespattered snowfields by Snaefell rose and fell, water foaming like a muddy sea. Then the island split from the foot of Herðubreið eastward to the bay of Heraðs-floi. The sandy valley between the two rivers sank. Sea replaced the mile-wide flats of Heraðs-floi all the way to Kverk-fjöll on the edge of mighty Vatna glacier, buried them in a single surge. Swallowed up the trains that tried to reach Heraðs-floi from Kverk-fjöll and Askja. Carried them out to sea along with bridges piles coil-drums railbeds.
The quake continued on beyond Heraðs-floi. Piled up a wall-high miles-wide tidal wave, pushed a hurricane before it, across the leaping ice-grinding sea. It ran east twenty degrees of longitude, burst like thunder into Scandinavian fjords. Black banks of water swept on at enormous speed. Amid the foaming fury, parts of the Faroe Islands sank without a sound. The house-high tidal wave hit the Scottish and Irish coasts, roared into Denmark, backed up in the Elbe estuary spilling into the canal. It surged around Jutland into Kattegat. The shallow Baltic sloshed into the Gulf of Finland. The shrieking ash-spattering whirlwind smashed against Scandinavian mountainsides.
But darkness had departed Iceland. The fiery stream emerging from the hearts of Dyngja Herðubreið Askja was not content to consume the vast Odaða plain that stretched north to Skjalfandi Bay. It directed its breath at the icecaps to the west: Hofs-jökull and Lang-jökull. And as their ice dropped into the valleys, heavy basalt loosened by steam erupted over them. They smouldered like Krafla and Leir-hnjúkur. Their heavy tottering peaks collapsed into the chasm opened by the sea.
THE ISLAND SPLITS APART
AT THE MOMENT when the island split apart from Vatna-jökull to Heraðs-floi, men and women on the continent of Europe knew that something monstrous calamitous had happened. At that moment the machines that delivered power to the submarine cables spun free. The cables supplying the expedition had been severed by upthrust seafloor rock, shredded by submarine lava flows. As a bull with its throat slit lies there whipping its tail, still roaring horribly, power bled from the cables across jagged rocks and water. Water welled up milky from the seafloor. Plants medusas fishes were stunned by the current. The cable’s death rattle in the deep would not be stilled.
For a day there was deathly calm in the continental townzones. Then the first fliers were spotted on the latitude of Copenhagen. They came, black with the volcanic dust drifting at great height across Europe, to demand fresh ships planes people. Fear had seized the senates and zone-dwellers when the earthquake and tidal wave hit, when ominous dust sprinkled down incessantly from high above, and day would not break. The envoys knocked back the fear. They gave few details of what had happened. They spoke for Kylas De Barros Prouvas: all three were still alive. Senators were puzzled by the envoys’ stern tight-lipped manner. They themselves were ready for battle; the cold gravity of the envoys unsettled them somewhat.
A fresh flotilla left the Shetland Islands. Sailing over a slag-clotted sea, entering the sulphurous fog off the east coast of Iceland – misty green-yellow flickering mass lying on the ocean – they encountered strange new currents and whirlpools. Along the sixty-fifth parallel, near twelve degrees west, the water grew smooth, reefs and cliffs reared from its mirror. They turned east. Heated air currents attacked the sea’s uniform chill. They steered miles offshore, plunged north, ploughed cautiously west through constant gritty rain, diverted around an unknown wide upwelling of land that blocked their way like a sandbank. They felt their way warily to the northwest. The island’s base had risen irregularly, spread like dunes into the sea. They passed north of unlucky Heraðs-floi. They scanned in vain for remnants of the assault fleet. Crimson flames penetrated the heavy smoke, lit up nights that grew ever longer. Although the moon shone – the envoys travelling with them said it lit up Iceland almost as bright as the sun – darkness thick enough to cut would have lain on them but for the volcanic torchlight. Vapours from the island poured constantly out across the sea.
From the foothills of Langa-nes, the northeasternmost corner of the island, they planned to communicate by code-signals and voice to the mainland from a lightweight cable they had laid behind them. Then they discovered that voice signals could not pass through the altered air. Responding signals failed to reach them; even over a few miles, tests yielded noise and gibberish. This close to the hot ash-eruptions, gouts of volcanic flame, the air swirled with radiation. They had to despatch fliers over open sea, who flew many miles east before they broke through the zone of electrical potential flowing around the island, and identified locations for transmissions to the Continent. The ships cast about for the great severed power-cable, into which power was still being fed from across the ocean. Moving slowly from the south, the search ships groping for the cable located it farther north, followed it to the sandbank they had detoured around. Without warning the power fed into it streamed out over the ground. The great cable lay stuck fast throttled broken among abyssal rocks, glowed, guzzled sand. The search ships used their own power to burn it free from the rocks, waited for the rising tide to push them off. Then detoured wide around the island, paid out cable until they came to calm Thistil-fjördur, west of the Langa-nes promontory, where De Barros had gathered the remnants of the fleet.
The newcomers expected a welcome. But they found leaders and crew monosyllabic as they repaired ships and machines, tallied equipment; exchanges were limited to matters of fact. The faces of these Iceland expeditionaries were completely black, swollen. Minute powdery mineral pigments ejected by the volcanoes had penetrated the uncovered skin of arms hands faces like the Indian ink of a tattooist’s needle. Violent inflammations spread. Worst affected were those who in the first days of the assault had flown unprotected through the dust. They lay or stood in the bowels of the ships, groaned in the dark; cheeks foreheads lips swelling thick, eyelids swollen shut. And if any opened their eyes, the corneas were as black as the face, conjunctiva speckled with rock-dust. They dared not blink; every blink ripped the inside of the eyelid; drops of blood gathered at the corners of the eyes.
The new fleet found the island split in an east-west direction from Heraðs-floi to Kverk-fjöll, then on a southwesterly line from Vopna Bay to the Dyngya volcano field. The wedge-shaped fragment in between lay underwater. The volcanoes in the centre of the island all around Odaða-hraun had broken through the basal mountains, were extending their vents on a gigantic scale through rifts pipes explosive dikes. The old craters were levelled. New lava domes rose and sank ceaselessly. Scouts from the earlier fleet ascertained that thicker lava crusts were already spreading over the exposed fires. Fires ran like blood from spurting arteries. The depths of the island and the nearby seas continually flung out new burning masses of rock.
The fleets separated. Old and new expeditionaries were assigned to new mixed teams. A possible extension of the central island fires to the west was called off. The squadron left behind in Thistil-fjördur took on the task of preventing the extruded magma from forming a stronger crust, maintaining access to the fire-field with explosives, monitoring the burning land between Myvatn Odaða-hraun and the Vatna glacier.
At the beginning of June the southern fleet led by stern Kylin left the calm of Thistil-fjördur, headed east then turned south. Blond Kylin was hard and silent like the others. If anyone had asked him about his objections to the clearance of the natives, he wouldn’t have known what they were talking about. The flags and colourful clothes the newcomers had brought with them were stowed away. The transporters were silent. On the technical vessels machinery hissed. Masked grimy people went about on the vessels of both fleets. Water they tried to drink in open air turned to mud. Anyone trying to eat a hunk of bread in the open caught a mouthful of sharp volcanic needles. They spat as they ate. Whimpering came from the ships’ bowels: the blind with their flayed skins, then those made ill by the sulphurous vapours and dust they had inhaled, they thumped their chests painfully, cough cough, ejected blood with racking rasps. No one spoke of the Continent. They kept a conspiratorial silence.
The southern fleet steamed slowly past, on a level with Heraðs-floi but far beyond the smoke-line from the volcanoes. Taking off their masks they saw the sun rise bright on the horizon, surrounded by a halo. It rose a dazzling gold. Clouds smouldered under it in a riot of colour. They ploughed through the vast steel-grey sea. And did not recognise it. These were not the waters that had brought them here, that they had flung beneath the keels of their ships. They strained their eyes on the water, giant surging monstrosity, tried to penetrate its depths. And kept silent. When spray showered them there was no laughter. They wiped it off, withdrew. Inside the vessels they squatted, men and women who knew how to handle the terrible powers of the machines, dreamed played slept. A leaping fish startled them, made them pensive, short-tempered.
They rounded the island from the east. The fury abated, it was as if they had come behind a great protective wall. A white mass shimmered across from Iceland, ascending into clouds that rose vertically away, a great white mass supported on the sea. This was the ice-mountain Vatna: it held at bay all the blackness and noise of the volcanoes, no dust crossed its ridge. The vessels of the silent people, heading west, approached the coast through foaming water. The air began to vibrate again. From the bowels of the ships people emerged. Bit their lips as they listened to the distant grumble.
Low indented shore. Yellow sunlight surrounded by murk. A strange alien ruddiness that filled their hearts with wild defiance mingled unfading into the changing colours of the clouds to the northwest. And when darkness fell, only this ominous unsettling red remained in the sky, luring everyone out on deck, ever bigger wider brighter the farther west they came. They clenched their fists when they saw the ruddy glow. They observed the water with a sense of triumph; shivered, tensed up, showed their teeth. A swirling wind off the land drove clouds south, bringing smoke from the fiery hearths.
Night. Now the same deep growl and grumble reached their ears that they had last heard in Thistil-fjördur. Chests tightened; they stopped smiling, made themselves small, breathed slowly in and out, so affected were they by the growling. They had almost forgotten it. They were driven by the power of the screw-turning ships and their own will. And driven willingly. But it was no longer a grumbling. There was an explosive upward crack! followed by a downward clatter. A commotion from places unseen along the ruddy horizon. But from time to time this was drowned behind a choking blast that overshadowed everything, hurled ships sea fire-glow into nothingness behind a tumult welling through the ground forever, shaking sea and land for minutes at a time. And when it died away it left sea and land stunned. Crashing raging surf, grey twitching sky. Clinging to the deck among spars stays machine-cages they saw the coast close in on itself, saw land no longer land. The coast, long lines of hills, low beach tumbled into the onrushing sea that reared up tower-high, smashing in a taut black flood-line amid the howling of ripped air.
Then the black bare land was there again. Hills dropped down from its spine, the Earth shook, slid towards the water. The ships turned away seaward. When the night was over they were in the zone of Hekla and Katla, southeastern volcanoes, which came into view only when a sea breeze parted the black smoke. One of the fourteen Vestmann Islands was called Heima-ey; it lay off the Markar River’s lake-wide outflow into the sea. Heima-ey was the largest of the islands, covering half a mile square. Once it had been inhabited; shattered cottages lay under rubble, lava bombs; a church stood open to the sky, doors undamaged, roofbeam caved in, the interior a box filled with debris. To the bays of Heima-ey, a few miles off Iceland’s south coast, the tall heavy transporters came to seek shelter through the sticky air.
Then light assault craft approached close to the shore. Myrdals-jökull faced them, a swamp-valleyed range eighteen square miles in extent, once hidden beneath an ice-sheet. Myrdal stood there mighty, an awakened volcano. Its ribs gaped, rock torn open on all sides. Steam and pillars of ash spewed out, concealing it. Behind it Katla flamed ominously, often lost in its own thick smoke. There was no need for extensive bridgeworks. They swarmed along the coast, spread inland from the hot ashy smouldering shore. Their goal was the rutting line of volcanoes from the Skafta River at the edge of Vatna’s ice, to the Thjorsa River where eight-domed Hekla built its walls and terraces, its countless ravines. The approaching Hercules came not to kill a dragon, dance tirelessly around it lopping off head after head, place his foot on it, slash it to ribbons, fling its bloated entrails in the air. He would entice the monster, mouth after mouth would open wide, neck after neck would lift itself high. It must show him its fury, let him coax away its powers. He held it on a leash, pulled it along behind him. And one morning the transporters set off from tiny Heima-ey, headed out to sea. At the same time the silent eyes of Kylin’s apparatus turned towards the mountains.
Hekla, head in the clouds, made a leap as if to plunge into the sea. Its flanks had swelled from within, the flanks of Markhlið, lofty Hilfell Grafell Melfell all were shoved away, came sliding over the burning land. Lake Thoris disappeared. At the same time Katla was toppled. Tungnafell buried the Thjorsa River. When Öraefa-jökull on the edge of Vatna sank down into its own fires and melted, none of the people who had taken the fleet around the island were still on their feet, neither those fleeing out to sea beyond the Vestmann Islands, nor those making their way along the strand. Those on the fleeing ships were hurled against cable-stays, flew across the deck. They were tumbled about along with the spars lines railings to which they clung. The ships gave a sudden jerk forwards, and another, and to the side, like a dog snapping at a dangled treat. Their hindquarters lurched up out of smooth water, screws raced in empty air, bows buried their noses in the sea. Buried so deep the ships so close to shore that their bodies reared up askew almost vertical, tipped sideways and forwards, people barrels spars tumbling around them. Under pressure of the torn air the sea heaved more slowly, lapped broadly at the land, hung heavy heavy over the deep. Foaming whitecaps were swept away. Blown back from shore, the sea pulled itself together like a serpent, swelled giant-high; as darkness fell it swept to land, a shadow through the night, seethed against cliffs denuded beaches, wide crawling streams of lava, flooded over them, dispersed spent, let them be, gathered itself again, and embracing rubble boulders gravel ashes it rose up looming higher higher to break crashing in a boiling surge over the drooling land.
The people who had come here from the swarming towns of Europe to capture fire from volcanoes sailed along the coast with their magical apparatus, cunning machinery assembled in silence, turned eastward the moment pillars of fire ceased to rise from the volcanic rift. Now, as a primordial din resounded from the firmament, their fragile ships, shapes of steel and wood, were spun and spun about. The little tumbling human creatures flung themselves at the flight-ready aircraft despatched from the European continent. They flew seawards in the tiny toiling machines out over the ships’ sides, east towards the solid unmoved icecap of Vatna. As they swept over the water they felt something grab them by the neck, sideways backwards. In a flash they were crumpled, flung like balls in the air, spun high in a shimmer of hot rattling stones. Squashed by the red glowing cheeks of the bombs, nibbled and holed by sharp grit.
Many crashed onto Vatna-jökull, their desired goal, still fastened to their merrily whirring machines. The wrenched pummelled bodies were driven into the blue-white ice of the glacier, fur-gloved hands through which a tremor still ran, wide-open eyes, and ears that after that primordial din would hear nothing more. Ice rebounded under the shock of these human visitors slamming onto it like a storm of artillery fire. The visitors, squashed to a bloody ball, dug a deep groove, came to rest at its end. Stones ashes packed them in. From bridgeworks, five thousand human creatures brought forth by Europe had seen the volcano Laki, the mountains Katla, Hekla grow, surround themselves with stony rain, grow, spread, grow, heave up, burst: all were devoured by the fire. As the night around them was shredded by a reflected glow harsher than the light of a nearby sun, they lay for long seconds about their machines, clenched and crumpled, bent in on themselves. No longer needed their muscles. Swirled like pillars of steam along with piles bridge-sections coil-drums railbed railtracks. Snatched by the fire their thoughts, their human existence, their physicality stripped bare, three seconds later were no different from vaporising lava: steam carbon dioxide, burning calcium.
In that moment when the heavens bathed sea ships bridgeworks human creatures in its rage and furious transformations, the land, responding to the question posed by the vast glow, became a sea of fire. The sea flowed from the line of the Thjorsa River to the Laki fissures on the east, and north to flaming Trölla-dyngja. Engulfed in flames was Hekla, blanketing five hundred square miles with its eternal snows and areoles of black slag-walls, rising in five lines of hills, six terraces, cliff-walls along the Ytri-Ranga, Markhlið, behind it loftier Bjölfell Melfell Grafell the main ridge, brown eroded gorges. Rauðu-kambar on the Thjorsa’s right bank sunken away. The cap of Myrdals-jökull. Dreadful Eyafjalla-jökull.
Once a witch threw herself into Katla. Then the volcano erupted, melted all the glacier ice. The land below the Katla glacier was fertile, cattle grazed, little ponies stepped across fords, shook dry, rolled in sand. First the mountain had created its masses of sand and pumice and the black dead landscapes, Myrdal Sands, Kötli Sands. Then hot rivers of mud bubbled down, and finally the ice itself was loosened, scraped over the hills to the south and lurched into the sea. Katla engulfed in flames, fjords bays lakes steamed, filled with flooding ice-melt.
The fire covered two degrees of latitude, smoked from Skjalfandi Bay to the southern foothills by Myrdals-jökull. Fiery monsters licked at mighty Vatna in the east, their breath reached the east coast where the Jökla and Lagar rivers had been drowned by the sea.
AS THE BURSTS and squalls of the air died away, as waters gurgled and slopped in all directions, the command ships that had been driven south launched flares and colour signals across the sea. The signals glowed amid the hail of stones, the heavy shadows of ash clouds. In vain. Heading farther out to sea in search of the fleet, sending up more flares into the brightening air they saw a group of ships approaching from the south. They were informed by this flotilla that only a few vessels had been spotted to the west, badly damaged by boulders, and making heavy weather. The leaders ordered them to maintain contact, and sped on south, furious at the losses. Sent fliers on ahead. These reported after a short search: a whole flotilla was steaming in line ahead of them, was now changing course to the southwest.
A second report: these are undamaged ships from the fleet, transporters and technical vessels. The leaders and fliers tried to communicate to the fleeing ships with signal flares and sirens that they should heave to and establish contact with the leaders. They made no response, continued at full speed. The command ships sent up their most experienced fliers, who crossed the ships’ path a few minutes later and risked a landing on the moving vessels.
The pilots had instructions to find out what was happening, convey orders from the leaders, and report back. They never returned. The ships maintained course and speed. A solo pilot, ordered by the dismayed leaders to fire a signal rocket if anything appeared suspicious on the breakaway flotilla, gave no sign for a long hour after his arrival, then a signal flared. The vessels were indeed fleeing.
The leaders convened on De Barros’ ship. Stocky De Barros surveyed the condition of his own fleet. All, men and women alike, were stunned with horror. They stood about, wept, lay in apathy, crawled into their cabins, trembled with mouths agape. A small number were alert, whispered constantly together. When it was confirmed that the vessels were fleeing, they declared they would not escape; the fugitives must be brought back. Prouvas, as calm as the other leaders, applied arguments he had used during the disaster in Heraðs-floi, and then some: the task will be completed, they will not give up. He heard them out one after the other; he examined himself; their words seemed to him overdone and not quite right. He was not trembling, found himself determined not to yield, but something was left unspoken. Better was a word from one of the men: he wouldn’t flee the fires, would go back to them. That was something. De Barros gave angry orders: the southern flotilla must not escape to Europe. They were far out in the ocean, had left behind the zone of smoke and ash. It would be possible to use the communications vessels to the east – the base for reports back to the Continent – to contact the fleet in Thistil-fjördur, provide a soothing account, request their help in catching and quarantining the fugitive vessels. As they ploughed on, there before them lay one of the enormous transporter ships of the fugitives, leaking and about to sink. Its captain signalled: don’t follow us, the crew themselves scuttled it. De Barros crossed to the vessel. The demoralised had the upper hand. They behaved like drunks. No one here wept. They turned away from the newcomers or stared without expression. Some were minded to attack anyone who spoke to them, touched them. Many stood grinning, some gaped. Companionways and decks stank; heaps of fresh yellow-brown human ordure lay everywhere, the people stank of ordure. Some stood in pools of urine, squatted in it, urine ran from their trousers, over their shoes. De Barros asked who had holed the ship. The captain closed his eyes: “I did. And others.”
“No other way.”
De Barros stepped closer: “No other way? There is a way. Look at me.”
The young man would not open his eyes. “I don’t want to, don’t want to.”
De Barros was impelled to put his arms around him: “But you will.”
“No, I don’t want to, I can’t take it any more. Not again.”
“But we can all take it. Tell me you can.”
De Barros made no headway with the stupefied almost brutish man. He must be careful not to be felled, like his pilot earlier. He held the captain by the arm: “You’ve had a blow to the head. It’ll all be better. Don’t look down.” The terrified captain went with him.
Most of the fugitive vessels were now now far ahead, planning to make contact with the voice stations in Scandinavia and the Continent. De Barros sent assault ships in hot pursuit. They fired warnings: “Surrender!” Angrily De Barros urged the pursuers on. More warning signals. And now the deathly tired bewildered people on the fleeing ships saw the calm sea that was leading them to peace rise up against them. There was a pattering on the surface of the water; the grey sky behind them lit up. A blinding flash; horror of the volcanoes still in their blood, they saw a wide black mass of cloud cross the water, avid to enshroud them. The sea, just now their refuge, was being stirred noisily by De Barros; the clouds descending on the surface raced black, drove foam before them. The sea that buoyed them now tried to shake them off. The fugitive vessels sped into thick darkness. Endured vertical moaning waterspouts. De Barros’ scout ships slipped through the roaring darkness, cast light around them. Within an hour the flotilla was taken. Hundreds of their crew leaped headfirst into the sea. Several ships sank before they could be secured.
They turned back to the northwest. Whimpering from the captured ships. The noise from the recalcitrants fettered below decks led De Barros to heave to on the open sea and board the raving vessels with a handful of men and women. He had to throw a number of embittered people overboard. He instructed junior officers to restore order. The weeping fearful people were tied together in groups and taken off to two designated transporter ships. These sailed in the middle of the convoy, flying white flags.
They returned to the glowing angry zone. With growing excitement they sailed along the east coast of Iceland. They knew the price they had paid for the last assault; now they wanted to know the profit. In silence the main parts of both fleets gathered on the north coast. Those who had remained behind paid no attention to the two white-flagged ships that peeled away to shelter in a fjord. And as they exchanged information from ship to ship, a message reached them from the Norwegian coast that several hundred cargo planes were on their way with reinforcements. And more: another fleet was leaving port.
The continental townzones were dismayed and bewildered by the alarm calls they had picked up from the fugitives. Senates assumed that the leaders were all dead. Terse reports from the northern fleet under Kylin put them right; all they needed was more people and materiel. Relieved yet hesitant, they provided these. No one knew what was happening over there. Lurid half-invented rumours about the Iceland venture spread far and wide. More and more of those who had fled the towns gathered expectantly in the main centres. The senates themselves had a feeling that despite all the losses, the events in the north must surely surpass any rumour. But the tremulous cries of those fleeing the Icelandic fleets had paralysed them, and they were even more anxious to know how the leaders and foot soldiers of the expedition would behave. Secretly they hoped they too would be carried off, this dangerous silence would end with everything swept away. Then came the signals from the northern fleet, doggedly carrying on. The new fleet set out. Senates became taciturn.
At the news of the relief ships De Barros gave orders to hand the white-flagged vessels over to him, prevent any contact between them and the newcomers; and then: he had no interest in those two ships. The junior officers understood the danger posed by the demoralised lamenting mad jeers cries. They withdrew guards from the vessels. One night both ships were gone from Thistil-fjördur and never heard of again.
TOURMALINE was the name given to a family of mineral species contained in the cavities and veins of coarse-grained granite. Some took up magnesium and became brown Dravite; iron turned them to pitch black Schorl; Achroite varieties containing sodium were yellow pale green. They were lodged in the Albany granite, in New Hampshire, on top of Dartmoor in England. Boron Silicic acid had settled and spread in them. When water steam gases penetrated to these creatures they metamorphosed into bright mica, outgrew the sapphire. The long pillar-like striped members of these species could be recognised when they emerged from dikes in rock, bent dented brittle broken, a pyramid at each end of their body. They had gathered in the rock in the form of rays; often they sat together with the families Topaz and Quartz. They were peculiarly sensitive and excitable. Heat caused them to set up an electrical vibration, as people had long observed; current flowed from the ends of their bodies.
The idea arose of using Tourmaline to turn heat – loose dispersed transient energy – into the more stable energy of electricity. In Texas Brazil, in the British Isles, townzones had quarried rocks for the Greenland expedition, blown up dikes in granite, piled stocks of Tourmaline for processing at Mons in Belgium. The crushed stone was cleaned, the separated minerals smelted, crystallised. They were spun into weblike forms. Populations of Tourmaline hung creature by creature swinging elastically side by side in slender stacks; exotic minerals separated crystal from crystal. These were the creations that would suck in the radiant volcanic fires, transform their heat into electric current that would later be exhaled over Greenland as dispersed heat again. Web after web was extruded at Mons. Stocks of crushed rock from granite dikes were drawn down. The elastic dappled crystal webs were loaded into the holds of giant ships. Enough to contain all the fires of Earth’s surface.
In the freighters sailing for Iceland they hung free. A bifurcated rift cleaved the remnants of Iceland. They came up from the south to Trölla-dyngja, lay to along the Skjalfanda to the north, level with Kverk-fjöll in the east. Where Krafla and Leir-hnjúkur had stood, eight-domed Hekla in the south, terrible Katla, a sea of fire now raged. Gouts of flame shot at intervals from explosive vents along the rims. The exposed mass showed a regular rise and fall; it pulsed, rocked with groans, rent its new stone armour, sprayed lava, spattered back into the Earth laying open black chasms. On the surface white balls of steam jogged, seething ponderously yellow-red yellow-brown like molten metal. Along with the steam-balls, glowing lumps of lava danced on the fire-sea. They skidded a while across the occluded mirror, south and north. Then as they slid left and right they became jammed in place, became thicker higher, rose up like mountains; the whole fire-sea trembled, the island’s floor swayed. The sea rose like a blister under the white steam mountain. It grew tumultuous, flying stones whipped into one another. Their clear sounds became overlain by a rumbling, shaking, organ-deep grumbling. The steamy mass split with a thunderous roar, was flung across the fire-sea and the mountains of the island. Lava gushed from the trunk-like hole in the upthrust sea; it soared pillars and trees, spread out like a fan. Billowing flames played with little white clouds, sank back down.
The fleets at Thistil-fjördur in the north and Myrdals-jökull in the south, the freighters with the Tourmaline, were unable to approach the surface of the fiery sea because of the flying bombs, explosions of gas and lava. Squadrons of planes were sent across the fire-sea from all sides, at first carrying nothing, then criss-crossing with spread webs of Tourmaline. Squadrons set off from Rifstangi in the north, from Vopna Bay in the east, in the region of former Herðubreið, from which masses of rubble were sliding into the fire. The pilots suffered terrible losses, but no one saw a reason to give up. Men and women pushed themselves into action; the losses were painful but they acknowledged them almost greedily. Expeditionaries old and new were welded together in one sentiment. The webs could not be anchored to the heaving ground, the exploding cratering sea; they had to be towed as near the surface as possible. They tore, tumbled in and melted, plunged in along with the fliers.
Now parts of the fire-sea were changing their appearance in disconcerting ways. The volcanoes, previously a single brimming basin of fire, built walls of slag between them, piled up ramparts. It seemed that remnants of the old volcanoes were lurking in the depths and meant to rebuild their bodies. The incursion field around Myvatn was already a hazy outline. Incalculable streams of lava were pouring across the land. They welled black-blue in the murky daylight, lit the night with a white glow. They came to rest in stony sacks that they themselves cast about them. Units of the Thistil squadron blew the sacks apart, injected gases under the crust to release glowing lava. And as the streams welled in bands miles wide over which more streams piled several houses high, raising the ground level in the flow zone, the squadrons equipped themselves with squall-bombs to protect their backs from ashes and boulders, and with vaporising ice-masks.
They installed a grid of pylons along the Skjalfanda to the south, over Hofs-jökull, parallel to the Thjorsar River near ruined Hekla. A second line of pylons was installed on the western glacier slope of the Vatna massif, north across Kverk-fjöll down to where the sea had flooded the Lagar valley all the way to Heraðs-floi. A third line of pylons ran in an arc from Öxar-fjord in the north to the region of Myvatn, past Dyngja-fjöll, Herðubreið. Pylons ringed the fire-sea thickly on all sides. Now began the dreadful death-defying task: over the vaporous leaping mass, the boiling sea, squadrons had to trail webs and drape them on the pylons. It must be done in a flash, waiting in each place for just the right moment to dash from the west across to the pylons on Vatna and Kverk-fjöll. The draped twinkling webs of crystal hung house-high over the magma sea. Below them people from the old northern fleet, spraying squalls all about them, moved to protect the webs, blasting away and softening the grey creamy scale that the white and yellow streams of current brought to the surface. And already the webs with the Tourmaline beings were dipping from the pylons like seagulls aiming at fish in transparent surface waters, jerked stretched swelled high with a crackle, were lifted from the pylons and towed seawards, bounding over cold land and onto ships while new squadrons took off to repeat the operation. Ash and gases rose from the fiery abyss in rutting heat, white clouds pearled on it like drips of sweat, were shredded by the squalls.
Beyond the lines of pylons they had erected hangars to receive the charged Tourmaline. The voltage in the charged webs was so strong that the first planes to swoop down unearthed crashed with them crippled into the sea. The webs lost a fraction of their charge in those few minutes crossing cold ground. So heat was provided by networks of wires over which the webs were trailed as they flew; the network smoked on contact with the charged webs. The hangars had to be erected very close to the volcanoes. Here the webs crackled with the energy coursing through them, pinged and buzzed. In the hangars they were stacked in a sluggish lemon-yellow fluid in giant tubs. The stacks were transparent down to the floor of the tubs, opalescent; blisters big as apples rose slowly through them. Heavy billowing streaks laid themselves like knitting yarn around each suspended web. When it was lifted from the hot thick oily bath, all its mesh was encased in grey-yellow, vitrified. It no longer buzzed; you could touch it safely, stroke the sticky drape.
Freighters arrived regularly with new shipments of Tourmaline from the continent, across the vast Atlantic waters. They were encased in the wind’s singing, sounds of splashing, distant murmurs. Ploughed through cloud-fluttering air, stormy petrels herring gulls with serrated tails plunging alongside. The sea fell away two miles below. It was filled with fish algae medusas slimy creatures. Its tides ebbed and flowed. Ships rocked in its glittering flashing.
THE CONTINENT WANTED SOME
THE CONTINENT wanted some of the charged nets. Brussels and London hit on the same idea simultaneously. They were searching for new means of power, feared that the Iceland expeditionaries would appropriate these webs, which were unfamiliar to them but seemed dangerous. They despatched trusted people with every new ship to inventory the charged webs and report on their location. When the Continent demanded some of the webs, Kylin De Barros Wollaston refused point blank. The senates, more uneasy now, revealing nothing publicly, commissioned new leaders to obtain webs for them. A strongly equipped squadron appeared off Iceland. De Barros managed to lead it astray for a whole day. He threatened the new leaders. The Iceland fleet got wind of what was happening; they supported Kylin and De Barros. The naïve newcomers heard fierce insults directed at the senates; leaders and crew were uninhibited in their contempt, even for the townzones themselves. The envoys were bewildered, could not understand who they were dealing with. They reported back; the senates directed them to help load the webs and then quit Iceland, meanwhile gave Kylin and De Barros to understand that if they ignored decisions of the senates they would no longer be supplied. Kylin and De Barros gave way, embittered. Only later did it dawn on them that the townzones might be afraid of them. They were astonished, and it became clear to them how remarkable it was that they should be astonished. Maybe the senates had good reason to be afraid. Who were they, these alien senates and townzones that had sent them here.
When Kylin stood at the entrance to his tent-house and watched through the billowing smoke as the first new fliers from the zones set about the pylons with their webs and squalls, tears came to his eyes. The old squadrons felt besmirched. The tempo increased. The two fleets avoided contact with each other. Dangerous hostilities were visited on the urbanites. The old fleets had already loaded their vessels with the enormous quantities of Tourmaline they needed; lying idle off the roaring island they watched the newcomers, wrestled through to a decision. One day they destroyed all the pylons, destroyed the hangars with the insulation tubs, drove away the newcomers, chased them and their ships out to sea. There was no desire to fight back against the embittered expeditionaries. In Copenhagen Hamburg the senates welcomed the returning fleets with hypocritical equanimity. They thanked the leaders for their efforts, laughed at the complaints against de Barros, expressed extraordinary delight at the prepared webs they brought with them. They spread word that junior officers had mishandled relations with Kylin and de Barros, but no matter: the mysterious webs were in their hands. Now their powers could be studied. By indirect means word was allowed to reach the Iceland fleet that the senates had managed through their own processes to isolate a remarkable power in the Tourmaline they had acquired. In fact, the senates’ physicists and technologists had thrown themselves at the charged crystal webs, to see if anything dangerous lurked within them.
But the Iceland fleet paid little attention to rumours from the continent. Ships from all the fleets headed around the menacing cloud-shrouded island for the Rifstangi peninsula in the north. It was from Rifstangi across grimy Svalbard that the first assault on the island had advanced over bridgeworks. Each ship sent out small boats full of people around the cliffs. A memorial service for those sacrificed in the assault was held on a snowfield on ash-strewn Svalbard. After Kylin spoke, brown fur hat pressed to his face against swirling grit, two thousand people knelt in the snow. They clutched at the ashes under them, felt around in the snow. Many clenched their fists when they remembered the two sad cruel vessels that had flown white flags. They dreamed in silence. Heads down, hands linked, they trudged back to the boats. And slowly, with one accord, the ships sailed all around the island. Thistil-fjord came, where a fleet had long lain, the foothills of Langa-nes, Vopna-fjord, volcanoes shook the ground, black swirling giant whirlwinds, spirals flecked with red flung up from below. Here the sandbank stretching to the east; they had to detour around it; the disaster in Heraðs-floi had hurled them back. The island appeared again; bays and foothills, the ice-giant Vatna rising wide and radiant from the sea, the smouldering deserted south coast, little dead islands, the west coast, and again Rimar mountain, Myrkarr-jökull in the north, the bay of the Skjalfanda River hidden in steam, the Rifstangi peninsula, Thistil-fjord. They sailed past mountain passes, long ridges, the wind carried nothing across, the volcanic roar was muffled. Often they veered out to sea, the seafloor seemed to lift and steam. Lava streams kept them from the land. Ever and again they approached the island, eager excited enthralled.