Winter was drawing near and Jacob rushed out the door on his way to work, his breath drew wispy clouds as he turned the key in the door behind him.
Starting a jog he pushed his keys into his coat pocket. He turned the corner and moved on to the bus stop. He arrived there at the same time as his bus. Jacob let out a wispy sigh of relief and entered the bus.
After having scanned this bus card he found a free pair of seats near the center of the bus and sat down on the window seat. As he gazed out the window his reflection stared into the bus. The brown eyes seemingly fixed on the seats on the other side of the bus in front of him. The thick light brown hair of his reflection was unruly with bits of hair curling in every direction.
It was still dark outside as the bus was making its way through the city. Jacob got his mobile from his coat pocket and checked his emails. Seemingly nothing serious had happened while he had been away to visit his father. He maintained a strict policy of not checking any emails or responding to messages when he was on holiday. Normally nothing happened, but even if something happened, they would have to figure it out alone. He needed his time off so he wouldn’t go crazy with all the things running through his head demanding his attention.
It wasn’t as if his job was really important or essential. He was just the guy responsible for archiving and finding lecture for the university. The worst case scenario was that an essential old manuscript was lost or wrongly archived. No manuscripts were allowed to be checked out and copies had to be made or a digital high-resolution scan was handed out to the interested parties.
He had read many of the manuscripts because honestly most of the time he sat on his hands having nothing to do. With the digitizing project going on the job too easy really, where he only had to find the relevant manuscript in the digital archives and provide a secure USB stick with the relevant documents copied onto it. Very rarely did he have to go into the climate-controlled archives to find the actual manuscripts and bring them to the manuscript study rooms.
Most of the documents he had tried to read and decipher were old Gaelic manuscripts written in Ogham, a very old script that resembled more a 3-year-olds drawing of a tree than an actual alphabet. Reading those was slow because he had to turn the branches into Latin letters and then translate the old Gaelic words into something he could understand. Not always useful, not always rewarding, but it made the time pass by. He had learned a lot about the old Irish from the hides and stones in the archives, what they liked to eat, where their armies moved, who disputed what claim and what superstitions they held.
Before he had gone on his visit to his father he had found an interesting manuscript that detailed some ancient curse, but much more than the first outline he hadn’t deciphered yet.
As the bus passed a well-lit supermarket he snapped out of his thoughts and quickly pressed the button signaling he’d like to get out at the next stop. As he got out of the bus the cold hit him in the face and he pulled up the collar of his coat and quickly stepped towards the courtyard entrance of the university. As he rushed through the cold university courtyard a woman fell into step at his side. She wore a white wool hat with a furry edge and brown wavy hair peeked from below it. Her gray eyes were lined with long lashes and she had a confident aura over her. A red scarf was wrapped around the bottom half of her face hiding her mouth and she had put her hands deep in her coat pockets.
“It’s really cold right now isn’t it Jacob. Do you think we’ll have a white Christmas this year?”
She asked with a bright voice that was slightly muffled by the red scarf she had covering half her face.
Jacob slowed his pace a bit adjusting to the stride of the woman at his side.
“I don’t think so, the weather reports so far only say it’ll be cold and dry, not a mention of snow for the rest of the week yet. But who knows.”
The woman nodded and looked up at the star-filled sky.
“Yea, the weather is pretty unpredictable around here and can change at the drop of a hat, but looking at the stars above I doubt that in the next few days some snow will fall”
They had crossed the inner courtyard and entered through a pair of double doors into a large glass building. It consisted out of large rectangular square panes that were put together to form a big glass cube with no discernable joining parts. It had been the work of some architect that had wanted to make a statement about the light of knowledge reaching all corners or something. Jacob really hadn’t paid attention when a colleague from the archeological department had explained it. He had just nodded and enjoyed the sun and the coffee in his hand whilst his colleague had talked about the history of the building.
It had been built on a collection of old places of worship. There had been a monastery here, a druid holy forest before that and when the university was built archeologists had found traces of old pagan worship of nature spirits. It had seemed like an ideal spot for the university to gather all the knowledge arcane and mundane and to explore the mysteries of the world by the university founders, to keep the sites historical significance instead of having a shopping mall or something else built on it.
The university was a big circular building with an opening to the street, a massive courtyard in the center and the opposite of the street courtyard entrance a big glass cube cutting the halves of the circle in two. When the sun would rise on the morning after the winter solstice you could see it through the street side entrance. If that hadn’t been blocked by the big supermarket on the other side of the street. The sunlight would refract spectacularly in the glass cube giving it the impression as if it was a cube filled with raw primal fire. The supermarket was an addition that was built five years ago, the university had protested, but the city had ignored the protests stating that the supermarket would help more than a fancy light show once a year.
Right now the light of the stars was blended out by the harsh light from the led bulbs that were put in modern chandeliers. It wasn’t to his taste, but who was he, just a simple archive manager.
The woman closed the door behind them and turned to Jacob.
“So, will you come to the winter solstice celebration tonight in the woods? There will be a nice bonfire?”
“I don’t really know Briss, parties aren’t really my thing, but I guess I can show up,” Jacob replied to Briss with a noncommittal shrug.
The winter solstice celebration had been an idea from some students who really wanted an excuse to party and start a big bonfire whilst being dressed up. Jacob didn’t really care that much about going to that celebration. It would most likely be cold, loud and frantic, all things that he really could do without. But Briss looked at him expectantly and she was one of the few people that actually sought him out and talked with him. He didn’t really have that many other people he talked to at the university.
“But I won’t make it late though, I still have to work tomorrow.” He said hesitantly whilst opening his jacket.
“Nice, then I won’t be all alone at the party!” She answered with a wink.
She turned around and went towards the elevator. He looked at her as she moved away and had a little smile around his mouth. Then he rubbed his hands, blew in them and started moving to the stairs on the left. He could take the elevator too but he wanted to get in some exercise by taking the elevator. He hated going to a fitness studio when you could just as easily just walk and use stairs to stay moderately in shape and the archives were just two floors down. This had the added benefit that no well-meaning fitness trainers came over giving pointers about how you were using the devices wrong.
He opened the door to his workplace and stared into the large dark room. All that was visible was the lit shape of the door on the floor but the rest was so dark he felt he could cut it with a knife. Normally some computer would be running and illuminate other parts of the room, but he had turned everything off before he went on his visit. Save the planet and whatnot. He did his small part. He fumbled in the dark for the light switch and clicked it. With blazing fast speed, he saw how the soft led lights on the ceiling spring to life. If you’d pay attention you could see the speed of electricity as it found its way to the individual lights.
How good it was to live in the modern era with modern marvels with easy lighting and heating.
He didn’t have to turn on heating, the climate in this room was carefully controlled to make sure the hide, papyrus, wooden and all other kinds of materials manuscripts could be handled without large risks. Of course, some manuscripts needed special conditions for permanent storage, but the occasional retrieving of it, to study it or digitize it the temperatures and humidity here were sufficient. For really special manuscripts they had a special room that could be set to really specific conditions, and even a special container that could be flooded with water of a specific temperature and salt level to be able to study documents that had been submerged and would deteriorate fast if dried out without the proper procedures. But time limitations, expertise, and costs usually ended up them being stored submerged in specially balanced fluids to keep the manuscripts from deteriorating.
He hung his coat on the coat standard next to the door and went over to his work station. After nudging the power button to wake up his computer he went to the coffee machine in the hallway and tapped the screen on it to wake it up too. After waiting around for a minute the coffee machine had woken up, heated itself and he could get a black coffee from it.
With fresh coffee in hand and a nice coffee aroma filling the area around him he went back to his work station and got back to work.
He looked at his appointment schedule for today. No-one. Not that he expected anyone to be interested in visiting the archives so shortly before the Christmas holidays. People had better places to be. That suited him fine really, that way he had more time for his hobby, trying to interpret the old ogham manuscripts. He felt as if he was scratching at the history, learning old secrets, as if a window to the past opened and gave him a glimpse of how life was back then. It was a place where it seemed that trolls, goblins, dragons, elves and all kind of mysterious creatures still lived.
He knew that it was the way of the people then used to explain why structures suddenly failed, or entire villages were decimated when they couldn’t find another explanation. Who would think roving army band when a farm burned down to the ground and the inhabitants brutally were torn apart. You would, of course, think a dragon did that. Better to give the unknown an explanation than an uncomfortable truth that would force your hand in acting instead of ignoring it. He could understand that. It was a simpler life, and little fairytales would give a nice excuse to not having to act on a marching army band you knew full well that would bleed your resources when met in battle.
But it was nice to pretend dragons had existed. The writers of the manuscripts had believed in them at least and had written warnings of dens and routes where to watch the skies. It must have been a scary life back them, constantly being worried about elves trying to trick you, dragons swooping down to gobble you up and goblins trying to steal your shiny things and slit your throat.
Jacob leaned back in his chair and folded his hands behind his head. Compared to nowadays that life seemed so exciting. Having to share the world with other intelligent creatures, having to outwit them, trap them, conquer them. Nowadays the only battles that were waged were humans against humans and those were mostly far away and over things that didn’t influence him.
He sighed and bent over to his computer and called up his last work file. It was a picture of an old calcified tree trunk that was scratched with what seemed like a lot of random cuts from top to bottom, as if someone had been using the tree as a calendar to count the days, with each notch being a day. This was however far from the truth. It was an old Gaelic dialect called Ogham. Even though he had translated more than a hundred manuscripts in Ogham he still couldn’t read it from just seeing it. It was too different from what he was used to and to top it off you had to read it from bottom to top. Then if you could interpret it you still had an old Gaelic text that had to be translated in something he and others could understand.
Technically it wasn’t his job, all he really had to do is be here, take care of the room and provide help to those who wished to access the manuscripts stored here. He could play games on his phone all day if he wanted and nobody would bat an eye. His predecessor had even held dungeons and dragon sessions here for the students who had time off and spent most of his time making little builds to spruce up his game maps.
He, however, had taken this job because history fascinated him, but he could never bother himself to sit in the lecture halls to get a masters degree or PhD in some history related study. Too many people and too much fluff going on there that didn’t interest him like writing papers and such. He didn’t care about the prestige that went with academic publishing and really could do without the pressure of having to publish to build a name for himself. All he really wanted to do is study old texts and catch glimpses of the past. A really simple wish but hard to make a living of. He had spent time working at the frying station at McDonald's before he got this job, logging on to the university website to look at the catalog of texts they had published on their website, but they never published everything, just enough to get people interested and have them pay for access to the quite formidable collection of ancient texts.
That’s how he had gotten wind that this position had freed up when his predecessor had plans to leave this job. When he had first seen the job opening posted in the university newsletter he hadn’t believed his eyes. A job opening where he would have access to more ancient texts then he would ever be able to read, and he would get paid for it too. Granted the job didn’t pay much, but he could rent his small apartment, pay for essentials and his bus subscription, so all in all he had all his heart desired.
When he had applied he had been able to convince his interviewer that he was the man for the job and had in great length detailed his passion for old texts and how excited he was for this opportunity. He had even spent a little over a hundred euros of his small McDonald's wage to buy a cheap suit to look at his best for the interview. He had really wanted the job and done his best to prepare for the interview of a lifetime. He had read and tried to apply all the tips that he found online to be able to close the deal on the job interview.
He had been so nervous when he left the university after the interview and to his surprise, he received a call an hour later that he had gotten the job. He had felt so thankful for having prepared so thoroughly and impressed them so much that they made the decision so quickly.
It was only later that he had found out that he was the only applicant and that they were in a rush to find a replacement and that they would have hired a monkey if they had believed it could do the job. But that was later and he still remembered celebrating having gotten the job of his dreams.
But now he had this job and somehow word had spread about his enthusiasm for ancient manuscripts. Most people here just ignored him as if he was just a mindless fan of real studying people, who went around with big words and big talk to pretend he belonged with it but in essence was still a burger flipper who got lucky with an easy job that involved just sitting behind a pc all day. Now his predecessor that had been a guy. They still talked about the epic Dungeons and Dragons sessions he held in his cellar, the battles and wars waged. Compared to the old archive master the new guy was just boring.
But one professor had taken interest in him and asked him to help him with a tedious task of translating old Ogham texts into something more readable for a side project he was doing. Happy to be able to help Jacob had gladly accepted the guidance the man gave how to read it and what tools to use to translate the texts into something more readable by the masses.
Normal work had to come first of course, but usually, normal work just revolved around being there and available. It rarely happened that new manuscripts were checked into the archive for digitizing and storage, but when that happened it was exciting to be here. There would be Conservator-restorers, students and a whole lot of tech to help with preparing, preserving, scanning and digitizing the manuscripts. But after that was done and the students a bit of handling old manuscripts experience richer the quiet would return to the archives with the occasional student or professor dropping by to check on a document or getting a high-quality digital copy from the archives.
The university required all copies to be stored on a sturdy encrypted USB stick with protocols present about where and how the documents could be transported and published. The university spent a lot of money building up the digital database and was very cautious about protecting its hoard of digital scans. Some people who had been careless had been mercilessly dragged to court by the university for releasing its data into the world without consent by accidentally uploading it to the cloud on their PC's. There were strict rules that had to be followed to be able to look and manipulate the digital documents.
The first one that copies had to be fetched personally or by courier. They were not shared on the net but stored on an air-gapped file server where only Jacob and some important people in the university had access codes too. Any internet or network access on the file server would make it vulnerable to theft of the precious documents stored on it.
For manipulating the documents it had to be done on a special pc that had no network connectivity whatsoever. This was enforced by physical checks, spot checks and an ironclad contract outlining the consequences of the files ending up on the internet. Adding to that all images were protected with an invisible unremovable watermark that would allow the university to find out who had checked out the file that had ended up on the internet.
Most university professors and students reserved special notebooks with wifi cards and antenna removed and the ethernet slot soldered free from the motherboard to work with the images and had a different pc where they could make notes and work on their papers.
It had seemed like overkill at first to Jacob, but as he heard that each lost image would cost the university roughly twenty thousand euros in lost revenue per decade he agreed it was in the universities best interest to protect the images as best as they could.
These images paid in great part for the steep fees the journal publishers asked for access to their papers. The university would probably provide access to the manuscripts for cheaper or free even if those journal subscriptions weren’t so expensive.
Since he had started this job he had translated or at least did his best to translate the documents in Ogham. So far he had translated 142 manuscripts stored in the digital database. They went from the mundane from road signs or territory markers to warnings about dragons in the sky. The professor had been very grateful for his help, even if his quality wasn’t that of a student or a professor, but it saved the man a lot of time he said to know on which manuscripts to focus and which ones to leave there. He seemed to be looking for something specific, but he wouldn’t say what he was looking for as not to influence his most favorite Ogham translator. He needed objective translations. Jacob didn’t care much about the motivations of the professor. It was interesting to work and it showed a lot about how the world worked back them. That’s all he wanted really.
Jacob took a sip of his coffee, moved his neck, stretched his arms, and set to translating the mysterious warning about a curse text. He wondered who got his cabbages cursed this time.
Support "When hell freezes over"
I decided to try my hand at writing the story I had rolling around in my head for twenty years. English isn't my native language so some obvious errors might occur in my story but I hope that the readers will be forgiving.
If not, nobody forces you to read my mangled English. I recommend you read the wandering inn instead if my English bothers you. :-)
Attribution: The cave picture in the book cover is made by Stanislav Sedov and is licensed under CC-BY-SA-2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/ This picture was modified from the original with an overlaid moon and sea picture to be found at https://www.flickr.com/photos/ssedov/26342569905 The photographer has no affiliation to Tschallacka nor can be held accountable for the use of this picture the way as it is here.