“Gods Among Men” by Patrick Chiles



We have successfully made landfall in the northern latitudes of the system’s third planet to observe the native hominids. This marks the fifth distinct culture we have identified on this world. They are located in a coastal region surrounded by jagged cliffs and towering mountains. The natives demonstrate considerable skill in metalwork, woodwork, and agriculture, given their primitive technology.

The hominids of this region have made contact on numerous occasions with neighboring societies to the south and west, employing seagoing ships crafted from the local coniferous trees. While their shipbuilding skill and rudimentary grasp of celestial navigation has enabled the crossing of what are to them great distances, all evidence indicates this advancement has unfortunately been used for plunder. Ships have returned from abroad filled with finely crafted metalworks, livestock, and in some cases captured foreigners who have been pressed into servitude. From the snippets of conversations we have been able to translate, these prisoners refer to their captors as “Norsemen.” They have earned a fearsome reputation among the other hominids of the lower latitudes.

Deployment of observation and listening devices around the Norsemen’s village is complete, and we are continuously collecting data. Next transmission will include a full information packet.



“It’s actually quite beautiful, isn’t it?”

“Hmm?” My companion looked up from his work. “What do you mean?”

I pointed at the sky, where translucent curtains of brilliant green light danced high above our observation base. “The aurora in their magnetosphere,” I said. The glow of charged particles illuminated the snow-covered ground, making the long night almost as bright as if the local star was in view. The lights had been particularly energetic of late, corresponding to a recent coronal mass ejection from the local star.

“Treyvrell,” he tutted at me. “For being such a skilled anthropologist, you have the mind of a poet. How you keep the competing halves of your brain in balance eludes me.”

My companion, Ormbrell, was much more of a pragmatist than I. It made him the better choice for expedition leader. “Environment has indelible effects on a culture,” I noted, “particularly when the civilization is in its infancy.”

He frowned. “This one most certainly is. Every settlement we’ve observed has been quarrelsome, clannish . . .” he inclined his head toward the entry of our outpost, “this group especially so. What economic system they have seems largely based on the pillaging of other settlements, even of those within their own locale.”

“You hold out little hope for them, I take it?”

Ormbrell stretched, for the first time studying the sheaves of light swirling across the sky. “Not in the near term. Perhaps another millennia. Or two.” He softened, sensing my disappointment. “It is not that I think they are incapable. My hesitancy comes from understanding our own history. Eons ago, we were not so different. And I must admit the physical similarities are intriguing, but you tell me. Emergent cultures are your specialty, after all.”

“I do not disagree with you, they will require a great deal of time. I suppose my optimism stems from the fact you just mentioned: we have considerable similarities, both biologically and culturally. Early culture, at least.”

“I don’t have to remind you what we have learned from our own history, and from our exploration of the galaxy: every civilization must endure several filtering events as it advances. Most do not survive them. You have hope that this planet’s inhabitants will? Perhaps even be worthy of admission to the Union some day?”

“Some day,” I said.

Ormbrell squinted as he returned to his study of the day’s observations. “Your optimism is admirable. Perhaps misguided, but admirable.”

Our expedition scout, a young Reticulan named Varrex, was tending to the sensor suite outside of our shelter. Being of a telepathic race, he was of course aware of our conversation.

Time will tell. The various cultures of this world will be forced into some form of unification; that much is clear. Their civilization will become industrial at some point, and as we have seen that poses as much potential for great conflict as it does advancement. I suspect their more significant filtering events will be self-inflicted.

“As it was for our kind,” I sighed. As it was for many, in fact. Our race had endured its own internecine conflicts, until external events had forced the Great Diaspora on us. I decided to steer the conversation on to more practical matters. “Is your work out there almost complete?”

Almost. I have completed my inspection of the sensor picket, and am currently working on one of the reflective emitters. It appears to have a faulty image generator.

“Is that on the perimeter, or the shelter dome?”

The perimeter. The dome’s secondary emitters are functioning nominally.

“Then by all means, take your time,” Ormbrell interjected. “I don’t have to explain how undesirable it would be if our cloaking field were to fail.”



Varrex had spent most of the night working under the natural light of the planet’s aurora. Whereas our metabolism and sleep cycles were similar to the local hominids, Reticulans tend to be nocturnal, having evolved beneath the surface of their world. Thus it was in the early hours when we were awakened by his call for help.

I’m afraid there is a situation. Come quickly.

Reticulans are famously stoic, so it was all the more alarming that we could sense his distress. Without a word we rose and exited the dome, each taking a field kit on our way out. If we had thought to check the shield status first, we might have been more careful. We also might not have been so surprised by what we found.

We emerged to find Varrex crouched on the frozen ground, clutching his abdomen. Dark blood leaked out from between his long fingers. Above him stood a troop of hominids, clothed in animal furs and wielding a fearsome array of crude weapons forged from the native mineral stock. They were startled by our sudden appearance and stepped back before leveling their weapons at us. Their reaction was all we needed to know that we indeed had a “situation,” as Varrex had warned.

I turned to see our shelter dome was still safely cloaked; to the Norsemen it must have appeared as if we’d materialized out of the air. The perimeter of our camp, however, was in the open for all to see. Of the many protocols we follow on these survey expeditions, concealment from the local population is paramount.

Varrex had been seen, as had we. The problem with the field emitters had been more serious than we had realized, which in turn had created even greater problems. Our companion was injured, perhaps gravely so. We rushed to his side, only to be confronted by a particularly tall, rough-looking hominid wielding a long, crescent-shaped axe. The fresh bloodstains along its blade made it clear this was the one who had attacked our companion.

There was much shouting and cross-talk between him and his company, which our translation chips struggled to interpret. The native language models were incomplete, only recently having been exposed to these Norsemen. As partially-formed words began to resolve, it was clear from their reactions that our appearance had perhaps confounded them even more than Varrex’s. His gray skin, large black eyes, and small stature would have been alarming to a race which had never encountered Reticulans, whereas the sudden appearance of a pair of beings which more closely resembled their kind left them baffled.

“Gray elf,” one said, keeping a long-bladed weapon pointed at Varrex. “Or a forest gnome.”

I am not an “elf.” I am a Reticulan.

Another Norseman moved beside him, his face reddened. “A trickster!” he exclaimed, stabbing at his forehead with meaty fingers. “Can you hear? He speaks without words!”

“Magic,” the other agreed, tightening his grip on his weapon. His unease was palpable. “Dark magic, of a dark elf!”

“And what of these two? They are not elves,” another said, leveling his own blade at us.

As Ormbrell knelt to tend to Varrex’s wounds, I held up a hand in greeting and moved my other hand to engage the translation device on my belt. “We are not,” I said slowly, waiting for the translator to do its work. “We are Emissaries. Visitors. Envoys, from a land far away. We are here to learn.”

The translator did its job the best it could, considering its limited exposure to their language, but the interpretation led to much consternation among the Norsemen. “Spies!” one thundered, and lifted another of those long-handled axes above his head to strike.

To his credit, Ormbrell did not flinch. I, however, was compelled to take action. In all of my time with the Survey ministry, I had never needed to draw a weapon. I pulled a stun wand from my belt and pointed it at the charging Norseman; the air crackled as it shot a bolt of white light, leaving our attacker in an unconscious heap in the snow.

The group recoiled, wide-eyed and slack-jawed. There was much cross-talk; arguments mixed with alarm. Of course they had never seen an energy weapon, and even the low-power discharge of a stun bolt no doubt appeared miraculous to them. There would be no use trying to calm their fears, no explaining that it was as simple a tool to us as their blades.

“Magic!” one exclaimed. “What beings can wield such power?”

This question silenced the group. They turned to the largest hominid, apparently their tribe leader. “What say you, Agnar?”

Agnar. Now I knew his name. This would be useful to establish a dialogue.

His head was shaven, its bare skin marked with crudely tattooed images, and his braided red beard reached almost to his waist. He placed the haft of his axe on the ground and rested his hands atop its head. His eyes did not leave mine. “Where is your home, stranger?”

I looked to the sky, a few bright stars still visible in the morning twilight. “A world much like this, though quite far away.”

In retrospect, my answer was ill-considered. However, his question posed a distinct dilemma. If I led them to believe we were of another tribe of hominids from distant lands, there was every reason to believe they would respond aggressively, considering their behavior so far. Theirs was a warrior culture, and they had demonstrated that any from outside their clan was considered a threat. “Spies,” as one had already suggested.

I could see that Agnar held great authority over the group, but I could not ignore one hominid in particular: the one with the blood-stained axe. The one who had attacked Varrex. His heavy brow loomed over dark eyes, which darted nervously between me and my companions. He remained on edge, continually shifting his feet and rolling his shoulders, signaling that he was unmoved by Agnar’s call for calm.

“They come from the sky?” Our translators could not yet discern inflection, though his body language suggested deep skepticism. “They claim to be of the gods, then.” He turned to Agnar. “Enough of this! Let us test his claim!” With that, he raised his axe and charged.

With no alternative, I whipped the stun wand at him and discharged it once more. With another crackling flash of light, he collapsed to the ground. Two Norsemen now lay still before us.

The party froze. I could sense they were considering their next move, as was I. Our instructions explicitly forbade engaging with native populations; this was the entire purpose behind our cloaking fields. Active defense, a euphemism for combat, was to be avoided at all costs. Yet we were also expected to take any necessary steps to defend ourselves. Survey ministry protocols had come from hard-won experience, and the contradictions swirled through my mind as I tightened my grip on the stun wand, now slippery from my perspiration.

Several broke off from the group and raised their weapons to charge, until Agnar moved between us with his arms spread. “Stop!”

My hands trembled as I kept the wand leveled at the attackers. “We are not spies,” I said, as calmly as one could manage under the circumstances. “We mean you no harm.”

Ormbrell stood. “Our companion is hurt. He requires medicine. Aid.” He turned to me. “This cut is deep. I need to bring him inside, quickly.” Ignoring the looming threat, he lifted Varrex into his arms and made for our shelter, disappearing into its open portal. To the Norsemen, it would have looked as if they’d vanished into nothing. Just as we’d appeared, I realized.

They must have expected me to follow my companions inside, but I stood my ground. Disappearing into the shelter would have no doubt created even more of a commotion, and I imagined we would have soon found their entire settlement surrounding our encampment.

“Where did they go?” Agnar demanded.

I debated how to answer that. We certainly couldn’t have these Norsemen picking around our outpost unescorted. Whatever happened, we would have to leave this place soon. I tapped the communicator on my belt three times, sending an emergency extraction signal to our survey ship waiting near the planet’s lone moon.

“To our home,” I answered. Though inexact, it was the simplest explanation.

“Your home,” he repeated, giving me a suspicious look. “It is far away, no?”

How to answer that? “It is. We are here temporarily. To learn. We come as friends.”

“Friends,” he said gruffly. “And the dark elf? He is your ‘friend’ as well?”

If there was to be any good to come from this, it was that the translator became more adept at their language as we spoke. “He is our traveling companion. Our friend.”

“Then you travel with strange friends. Dark elves are not to be trusted.”

That was an odd remark, as ours was the first expedition to this region. “You have met others like him?”

“Their handiwork is everywhere. Thievery, mischief, sabotage . . . but yes, we have many tales of encounters.”

Agnar showed great confidence in his assertion, but it was of little relief to me. It was possible that an unsanctioned expedition could have encountered these northern tribes, but unlikely. It was more likely that Varrex had the misfortune of his appearance fitting neatly into their local myths. As Agnar studied me in silence, I wondered where we Emissaries might fit into their pantheon.

I soon had my answer. He had apparently reached a decision.

As the others stood wide-eyed, Agnar kneeled. “Our visitor speaks the truth. Only one can call on the power of lightning.” He pointed at my stun wand. “Only one can wield the hammer of the gods.” He bowed his head. “Thor.”

At this, the rest of his company dropped to their knees. We did not yet have a full understanding of this culture’s traditions and mythology, but we were to learn quickly.

The two men felled by my stun wand had begun to stir. Agnar rose. “We cannot know why the gods would deem to visit us, nor why they would truck with a dark elf.” He spat on the ground beside the first Norseman, the one who had injured Varrex. “Nor can we let this offense pass.” He pulled the hominid to his feet. “Einar, you have injured one who the gods protect. You understand what this means.”

The one called Einar began to tremble. “Agnar, I did not know—”

“It does not matter. You must pay the price for your insult, lest we all suffer for it.”

The others in the group traded grave looks with each other, and I sensed they had all come to the same realization. Two of them took Einar by the arms and led him back toward their settlement. For his part, Einar seemed resigned to whatever fate awaited him.


At Agnar’s insistence, I was compelled to follow. Two more of the Norsemen accompanied me, assuming the stance of my personal guards. Word must have spread to the rest of their company, as I was greeted by the entire tribe. The Norsemen, male and female, adults and children, had formed into lines on either side of the path leading into their village square. All kneeled as we passed.

At the center of the square was a stone pedestal, with heavy wood pillars on either side. Einar lay face-down on the stone, stripped to the waist with his arms lashed to its pillars.

My heart raced as I imagined what awaited him. We could not interfere, particularly now that we had been discovered. From what we knew of other hominid cultures, it appeared he was about to be publicly whipped for his crime against Varrex.

How wrong I was, and how I cursed myself for our mistake. Whatever had caused the outer cloaking field to fail, this unfortunate soul was going to pay a high price indeed. Two Norsemen approached from behind the condemned, each carrying an array of short-handled knives. As they lay their blades around the pedestal, I noticed the grooves cut into its surface. Buckets had been placed beside them.

I turned to Agnar in desperation. “This is not necessary. His offense was unintentional. You must reconsider.”

Agnar’s eyes met mine. “You ask mercy for such a grave offense? Once punishment has been decreed, we mortals do not have the authority to revoke it.”

I could sense the regret in his voice, his inner conflict. Perhaps he could be dissuaded. “You were the one who decreed it. Can you not reverse your own decision?”

“For an offense to man, yes. But for an offense against the gods? That is not in my authority, great one.”

Now it was I who faced inner conflict. We were forbidden from interacting with species under observation, and from using our defensive weaponry unless directly threatened. The first threshold had been irreversibly crossed, and I was averse to crossing the second despite this dire situation. Our inadvertent discovery by the Norsemen had led them to decide we were deities. Perhaps if I embraced this, the damage could be limited. I stiffened my spine, striving to present myself with godly authority. “In that case, I demand that you stay his punishment.”

Agnar leaned against his axe, working his jaw as he considered my demand. He finally answered with a solemn bow of his head. “Mighty Thor, your request for mercy is noted. You are both noble and kind. But only the Great Father, Odin, can stay this man’s fate.” He pointed to the ceremony about to unfold. “Einar accepts the punishment for his deeds. This is his only path to Valhalla.”

Whatever “Valhalla” was, I sensed it carried great weight with this culture. Agnar moved to stand before the accused and addressed the crowd.

“Einar, son of Haldor: For the crime of bringing injury to one who the gods themselves protect, you must pay with your life. By enduring the ritual of Blood Eagle, you will be redeemed. May we see you in Valhalla.”

For his part, Einar appeared as calm as one could. A single tear rolled down one cheek. “It is as you say, Agnar.” His voice choked. “May our forefathers accept me into their presence.”

Agnar accepted his confession with a nod, and turned to the Norsemen by the pedestal. “Begin.”

I watched in horror as the hideous ceremony commenced. To this day, I am reluctant to describe it in any but the most prosaic of details. Even that brings up memories which should forever remain buried.

They began by driving a knife between his shoulder blades, drawing it down the length of his back. Rivulets of blood poured from the wound, spilling down the grooved stone and into the waiting buckets. Through this, Einar uttered not a word. No cries of pain, no pleading for mercy. I could not have been so composed if faced with the same punishment.

I have witnessed many things from afar during our observations of this planet’s inhabitants. They are a species prone to exacting terrible punishments for the most mundane offenses. Sadly, this is a common feature of primitive civilizations. When the security of food and shelter cannot be assured from one day to the next, violence reigns. Brutality is not isolated to this world, but what transpired here ranks as perhaps the worst I have encountered.

There was a sickening crack as bones were split and ribs separated. Still, Einar remained silent. How he managed such a feat is beyond my reckoning, as I could sense his unbearable pain. When the first organ was removed by the blood-soaked hands of his torturers, I could bear no more.

“Enough!” I roared, with a fury I’d never felt nor thought possible.

It was a foolish thing to say, of course, as this Norseman was beyond help. I doubt even our advanced medicine could have saved him at this point. The crowd turned to me in shock. The executioners froze in place, looking to Agnar.

“It is too late, mighty Thor. Do you not wish for this man to join his ancestors in Valhalla? Do you not desire his redemption?”

“I do not desire for him to suffer in this manner!” Something inside of me snapped at that point. I did not yet know who this “Thor” character was in their mythology, but if that conveyed a measure of authority upon me in their eyes, then I was determined to leverage it.

The crowd drew back in alarm as I held the stun wand above my head, my thumb moving its selector to the widest dispersion possible. “I said, enough!” I snapped the wand down sharply, and the flash this time boomed like a thunderclap.

The entire crowd collapsed to the ground. I turned to Einar, now mercifully unconscious on the pedestal. I could not bear to look beyond his face.

Overcome with both rage and regret, I reached for the offensive weapon inside my field kit. They were to be used only in the most extreme circumstances; to my knowledge they had never been drawn against one under observation. I held the gun to Einar’s head and pressed its trigger, ending his life with bolt of charged particles.

It was an act of mercy, yet I have never forgiven myself. None of this should have happened. It was our fault for being here, for being too comfortable with our technology. We had become complacent, and complacency kills. I had just not expected it to happen to an innocent bystander.


Varrex recovered fully, once we were extracted and back aboard our ship. Our report caused considerable debate within the Survey Ministry, for which I am glad. All expeditions were recalled and halted until such time as we could ensure the safety of the local populations.

Disturbing as this event was, and as violent as these hominids are (we’ve since come to learn they call themselves “humans”), I believe they still have potential. They show impressive creativity and intellectual curiosity, though these traits are too often employed in brutal ways. If they can overcome their warlike tendencies, the Galactic Union could someday benefit from their inclusion. The time will come when we are allowed to return to this world, though I expect it to be many centuries. Perhaps I will be permitted to see it again for myself, if only to bring closure to the horror I observed.




788 A.D. Skiringssal, Norway. Technical malfunction aboard survey ship led to inadvertent contact with a large tribe of humans. Survey party was unable to maintain concealment due to failure of transparency field. Our sudden appearance led to great confusion and alarm among the humans.

The tribe our team encountered is one of a warrior class which dominates the region. Tribal traditions and societal structures are centered on agriculture, harvesting of local aquatic and land animals, and wanton aggression against neighboring regions. There is considerable warring between tribes as well.

It is a primitive, quarrelsome culture. One team member was gravely injured by a particularly agitated human male wielding a heavy melee weapon known as a “battle axe.” As punishment, this individual was then subjected to a gruesome ritual they call “blood eagle” which will not be described here.

We attempted to dissuade them to no avail. The tribal chieftain’s insistence on this dreadful punishment is symptomatic of a more unfortunate consequence of our appearance: they now worship us as deities. Further contact NOT RECOMMENDED.


Copyright © 2024 by Patrick Chiles

Patrick Chiles is a graduate of The Citadel, a Marine Corps veteran, and a private pilot. In addition to his novels, he has written for magazines including Smithsonian’s Air & Space Magazine.