03 June 2026
“Fuck my life,” Jonah wheezed, his voice drowned and forgotten in the subarctic gusts cascading over the tightrope-thin ridge that, according to locals, was the easiest path to the mountain’s summit. Looking down at the serrated, viciously eroded slope of the ravine they’d just scaled – still peppered with the dirty gray corpses of the last spring snows – he couldn’t imagine a more difficult route.
“Crazy ass Icelanders,” he said to himself, adjusting the hood of the too-thin parka he’d bought four days earlier in Reykjavík.
Ragnar trotted a couple dozen meters ahead. Every minute or so, as the trail had gotten steeper, he’d stopped to make sure his client was keeping pace, to flash that same stupid gap-toothed grin at Jonah, his white-blond ponytail flailing like the tail of an annoyingly eager puppy that’s worn out its welcome but still wants attention. How the seemingly late-middle-aged man wasn’t brutally hungover after the previous night’s idiocy was as much of a mystery to Jonah as the reason for their climb.
Now, as they approached what looked like the toughest incline they’d encountered so far, Ragnar swiveled, shouted something that sounded like summit (Jonah hoped), and scrambled spider-like the rest of the way up, quickly disappearing over the top of a massive, tabletop-shaped outcropping.
Ten minutes later, after a far less nimble ascent, choking on the fumes of Brennivín, synthetic bourbon, and god knew what else leaking from his pores, Jonah saw that they were, in fact, at the top of Spákonufell. A volcanically flattened, moss-covered plateau, where, a semi-lucid Ragnar had explained during their debauched marathon at the café, a sorceress called Þordis used to hike every day 1,000 years earlier. Apparently, she’d also buried a treasure somewhere on the mountain, one that could only be discovered by a non-baptized woman. The only thing Jonah could think about, as the burning sensation slowly dissipated from his legs, was how impressive Þordis’s calves must have been.
Ragnar was perched on a nearby boulder, typing something on his phone. He looked up, the perma-grin already stretched across his too-smooth cheeks.
“You look tired, Mr. Overhill,” he said, vaguely incredulous. “I hope this wasn’t too much for you to handle. Perhaps we should go through another round of diagnostics before Thursday?”
“It’s fine,” Jonah said, reaching into his backpack for a water bottle.
Ragnar motioned at the thick layer of pillowy vegetation suffocating most of the nearby rocks. “Normally we would tell people not to sit or lie down on the moss,” he said, “because once disturbed it won’t grow back for maybe 70 years. But if you need to take a, what is it, a breather, please be my guest. It’s really quite comfy. And by the time we plan on bringing you back, it’ll be –”
He was cut off by his own obnoxious ringtone – “Live Like You Were Dying” by Tim McGraw. Was that meant to be some kind of ironic joke between Ragnar and his coworkers at the lab? Did people in Iceland actually listen to Tim McGraw?
Ragnar looked at the screen, shook his head. “Sorry, I need to take this.”
Jonah grunted and shuffled past him, leaving a trail of semi-permanent footsteps in the moss. Looming toward the western edge of the tabletop was a large and clearly unnatural stone formation that had built to look like an altar, where a shoddily made treasure chest had been placed, clearly a nod to the sorceress whose odd influence was still so deeply felt in the town below. A sequence of images from the café suddenly flashed in Jonah’s mind: the woman who ran the prophetess museum, her unnerving, coal-black glare, the paper she’d slipped him. Taking a deep breath, he shook off the sudden chill that had begun to creep up his sweat-drenched spine.
The farther he walked, the more the view opened. He could see the upper slopes of the mountain and several neighboring peaks, the impenetrable basalt and rugged gravel cascading down to gentler hills rippling in the sunlight, bursting with purple lupine, alpine bistort, and reindeer lichen. And farther down, the hyper-green jigsaw of fields where horses grazed lazily and sheep with red and green markings on their backs nursed pairs of greedy newborns. Then the red and beige corrugated roofs of Skagaströnd’s tiny suburban sprawl, the smoky blue Arctic Ocean leading to nowhere.
Maybe that was why Ragnar had suggested they take the hike. To give Jonah one last glimpse at what he would be giving up. To feel the heat in his muscles, the wind against his flesh, the intoxicating briny aroma of the sea, while there was still time for him to change his mind.
He couldn’t deny that it was beautiful, outrageously so. But as he squinted for a more detailed assessment of the town – the ghostly harbor and shuttered fish processing plant, the community center that had been rebuilt as a refuge for those smart (or lucky) enough to get visas before the quarantines in Brooklyn and Miami, the upside-down American flag flying outside it – he had never been more certain of anything in his life.
In a little less than 24 hours, his body would die. His brain would be extracted and embalmed, kept in hyperbaric slumber in the sterile basement of the BioPol laboratory until… He didn’t really know. He hadn’t paid much attention to most of the emails Ragnar had been sending him for months, the dozens of forms he’d signed, the endless biometrics.
But whether he awoke from the cocoon into some wildly distant, unanticipated new reality or didn’t wake up at all, it didn’t matter. Anything – or nothing – would be an undeniable improvement over the last three years.
“Mr. Overhill,” Ragnar said, suddenly inches away.
Jonah flinched, tripped on something and fell forward, his head careening toward the altar. Ragnar grabbed his shoulders from behind at the last moment, held on tightly until Jonah was sturdy.
“Where the hell did you come from?” Jonah stammered. “How did I not hear –”
“Mr. Overhill,” Ragnar repeated, ignoring the question, “are you still sure you want to do this?”
Jonah took a breath, instinctively slipped his hand into his jacket pocket and lightly fingered his phone, tracing the outline of the two faces that always appeared on his home screen.
“OK,” he finally managed to get out, scarcely more than a whisper, but audible in the first windless silence since he’d come to Iceland.
He meant it.