“I tell you, the world is different. There was a major cosmic shift on or around September 29, 1959, as if the very atoms were scrambled. We are not in the same place as we were, and we’re not where we are supposed to be. It’s like we phased into a different Universe, one where we don’t belong.”
Our elite polar unit was taking a short break on our trek. I was with Stan Petrosky, as always, and he was spouting his oddball philosophy, as always.
Stan had started at some fancy university as a philosophy major, but his parents had died in an accident, so he joined the army to make ends meet and to take advantage of the GI Bill. I guess he never figured we’d be at war so soon. But nobody had.
“You say the world changed on September 29 last year?” I asked. “It doesn’t take a genius to know that, Stan. It was only the biggest day in history since the 28th of June in 1914. Hell, I’d say even bigger than December 7, 1941.”
“Yeah, what we did in September was like the killing of the Archduke, except that it was worse. But it is more than that, beyond politics and war, it’s the Universe itself that is messed up; we are off track; we’re…”
“Petrosky and Dobbs, quit your yapping and get ready to move out. The walls have ears. We’re at war, you know.” Sargent Smith was always all business, and was even worse on this mission.
“Give us a break, Sarge,” I said. “We’re surrounded by hundreds of miles of nothing but ice and rock. Hell, I bet there isn’t even a Finn within 50 miles, let alone any Ruskies. Well, if we’re still in Finland…”
By Sarge’s look I guessed we’d already crossed over into the Soviet Union. He was about to reply, but then stopped and looked up. I heard it, too, the distant whir of a large prop plane.
“It’s a Soviet recon plane,” Jones said. “I think. It’s still far away, so I can’t get a good profile.”
“Take cover,” the Sargent ordered. He eyed Stan and me as if saying, “See? I told you that your talking would get us into trouble.”
Jennings got a SAM ready, just in case. If the plane came too close, he’d knock it out of the sky, but it had to be quick and sure. If they reported that we were out on the ice, the game would be over.
The roar grew and then diminished, and then was gone.
“This don’t make no sense at all, Lieutenant,” Jones said. “It was a troop carrier, not a spy plane, and it landed just a few miles away. There ain’t no Soviet bases nor nothing around here, no airstrips big enough for that Bad Boy, at least.”
“We need to go investigate,” Lieutenant McDougal said. He was in charge of our little operation. It was obvious what he was thinking. There wasn’t supposed to be any bases around, but the Soviets were rapidly preparing for all-out war, perhaps guarding every entry point, no matter how improbable. We had to find out. It was possible we wouldn’t be able to complete our mission.
We moved out, single file and trying to stay hidden.
Last September, Khrushchev, the Premier of the Soviet Union, had taken Vice President Nixon’s offer and had visited the US. The CIA had recklessly decided to plant a bomb on his airplane, which exploded somewhere over the ocean on his way back to the USSR. There were no survivors.
How we avoided an immediate nuclear confrontation is beyond anybody’s imagination, but we found ourselves going from a Cold War to a very Hot War. The Soviets and their allies moved everything they had against the border with Western Europe, enough tanks to crush all in their way. Nuclear bombers were constantly in the sky, pushing at the edges of our airspace. Every one of our aircraft carriers were sunk an hour after Khrushchev’s plane went down. Most of our spies where killed within days.
But then there was a pause. There was no communication with the Soviet Union at all, radio silence. Nothing. Their troops were poised, ready to go at a drop of the hat, but didn’t move. The bombers flew patterns to stay deeper inside of Soviet airspace. But not a word from anyone. Our side continued to prepare, but we didn’t want to launch the first attack and be at blame for the global destruction that would ensue, so we waited. And waited. The Soviet silence continued on and on, for days, then weeks and now for months. Not a peep from them.
Most of the borders where sealed tight, the Iron Curtain being drawn in closer, being even more reinforced. That’s why we were deployed. If we could make our way past that defensive line up north and into Russia itself, perhaps we could find out more. Was there infighting over the top job? Was there a pro-West faction holding out? Could we exploit it and divert the expected nuclear war? We would find out.
We came to the top of a ridge and saw the base. It didn’t look like a military base. We couldn’t see any guards or weapons of any sort. From a cursory glance, it had all of the trappings of the main campsite of a normal Arctic exploration team. Was that all it was, Soviet scientist at work as if there were no war, or was it a cover for something sinister?
A small party was leaving the base just across from us. They did not look like soldiers and they were not trying to stay hidden at all. We would follow them and take them by surprise when they were well away from the others. They’d tell us why they were out there. We would make sure they told us every single thing they knew.
The little Soviet party was moving away from the coast and deeper into the mountains. We followed, staying out of their sight, but keeping them in ours. It wasn’t hard. We were camouflaged and experts at this type of thing. That’s why we were there.
“What is that?” Jennings said, pointing to a high ridge on the other side of the Soviet exploration party.
Only it wasn’t a ridge. It moved. A monstrous head lifted, being supported by a towering neck.
“Brontosaurus?” Jones asked. The immense beast rose higher.
“No, it’s much bigger,” Stan said. “Much, much bigger. It could eat a dinosaur in a single bite.”
“Dragons don’t exist,” Stan said. “No, it’s too big to be real and too life like to be an animatronic, even if the Soviets had spent every ounce of material they had on it since the war instead of on defense. It has to be in our minds. I have heard that the CIA has been experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs as a weapon. There is a psychoactive chemical, or psychedelic, called lysergic acid diethylamide that they use. It’s nasty, but not totally incapacitating. Perhaps the Soviets beat us to it. Notice the Soviet troops aren’t even looking at it?” He was right, the line of people where continuing on as if nothing out of the ordinary were occurring almost directly above their heads.
“We all see it, don’t we? How can all of us be having the same hallucination at the same time?” Lieutenant McDougal asked. “We must take this at face value and… Oh my sweet lord Jesus, would you look at that!”
A gargantuan man rose up. The monster struck at him, and we were aware that this was an ongoing battle that had been raging for hours, perhaps days. The colossal man had jumped back at the dragon’s strike, but strode forward and hit the beast over the head with something that look like a short-handled sledgehammer, knocking the dragon to the ground. The head came back up again, but the giant was ready and hit it one more time.
“Rough telemetry says he is about 4,000 feet tall,” Jones said.
“Impossible,” Stan said. “A man that size couldn’t support himself. His bones would crumble. His muscles wouldn’t be able to move. That thing, can’t be. Those creatures are too big to fight.”
“They ain’t dancing, Petrosky, that’s for sure. What in the Hell is going on, then?” Sargent Smith asked.
“Ragnarök.” It was a strange voice in an accent closer to Norwegian than Russian. We all turned to see the guy who we guessed was one of the members from what we had thought was a Soviet exploration team. The man appeared in some pain as he walked closer..
“Ragnarök? Really? That’s what you think?” Stan asked. “Fantasy, rather.”
“I don’t understand,” The Lieutenant said. “Do you speak English, sir?”
“Yes,” the man said, in his thick accent. “This is the start of Ragnarök, the end of the world. It is part of our myths, fantasy, yes, but it is real, as are the consequences. This is the final battle and it is going exactly as has been foretold. I have only just escaped my torment and luckily found you. Look up there: Thor just killed the serpent, but he himself, god though he may be, is mortally wounded. Soon the protection of the gods will be gone and the Soviet army released. The fighting will be brief, but it will be the ultimate battle. In the end, only two humans will be left alive to repopulate the world.”
“Don’t listen to him, Lieutenant. Ragnarök is myth and the old Norse gods don’t exist,” Stan said.
“Then what is that?” The man asked, pointing towards the dead dragon and the staggering, mortally wounded 4,000-foot-tall giant. Both serpent and god were turning blue and white, an icy sheen growing over their bodies.
As he was speaking, the contrails of ICBMs were visible crossing the sky, departing Russia going over the North Pole to the US. The armies had been released; Nuclear Armageddon had begun.
The men began to cower, knowing the significance of the rocket launches, knowing that our world was at an end, that within minutes every major city and base in the US, Europe and the Soviet Block would be vaporized.
The odd man cackled as he watched our soldiers break down. “Don’t worry,” he said. “In other parts of the world, other things are happening. The Christian Armageddon, as described in the Book of Revelations is also taking place, so if you don’t believe in my Norse gods, well…” He shrugged and then laughed again.
“This is all wrong,” Stan said. “This is not what was supposed to happen. The brief World War Three that decimates the Earth was never supposed to occur, Khrushchev was not supposed to be killed by the CIA, there was supposed to be no large scale direct war between the US and the USSR. In fact, the Cold War will eventually grind to an end and the Soviet Union will someday implode by trying to push its limits too far, trying to keep up with the US’s unlimited spending spree, it wasn’t going to explode the way it has. No mass missile launch. No doomsday strike. No premature end of the world. This wasn’t supposed to happen!”
“Not supposed to happen?” I asked. “What do you mean? That is even more nonsensical than 4,000-foot-tall Norse gods battling to the death in the Arctic here in 1960!” Since I had first heard of the H-Bomb, I knew that the end of the world was a matter of “when”, not “if”.
The little man smiled at me with an odd, crooked smile. “Your friend here is a Seer. He may not know it, but he is, he’s a close friend of the Norns. He has known for months that the world went off track, in a direction it wasn’t supposed to go. Haven’t you been listening? Oh well, too late now.” He laughed, a disquieting sound.
“To late?” I asked. “If we aren’t supposed to be here, isn’t there anything we can do? Can’t we return to how it was supposed to be?”
“Perhaps. Maybe your friend her can save Thor. If Thor doesn’t die, then it means it really isn’t Ragnarök. If it isn’t, then the Universe will discover that it was wrong, changes will be made, and you will be back on track. The end will just have to come on another day.”
Stan nodded, as if he knew what the strange man meant. He dropped his pack and left at a light jog, heading towards the giant, who was now on his knees over the slain dragon. Dragon and god were almost totally covered in ice. I knew that once they were, it was over.
“Ah, your friend knows. He will sacrifice himself to the gods and the world will be made whole.” The twisted man huffed. “Or perhaps not. It has been far too long since any of your kind has sacrificed to them, so perhaps it is too late after all. We’ll see.”
When Stan was out of sight, I sat down and waited. It was a long wait, and I soon fell asleep.
“Damn, I thought Khrushchev’s visit would help bring our sides together, you know, a bit of a thaw in our Cold War.”
I opened my eyes. It was Jones talking. He was holding a newspaper, pointing to an article.
“You can’t expect miracles, I guess,” Jennings said. “In my opinion we should have killed the bastard while he was visiting. Maybe put a bomb in his plane or something.”
I got out of my bunk and joined them.
“But that’s just what we did and it made matters worse. That’s why we’re at war,” I said. I remembered the contrails of departing missiles and shuddered.
Jones laughed. “Man, you-all have some wild imagination! You probably even think that that Kennedy guy will win the there Democrat thingy-job and maybe even become President, don’t you? Ain’t no way it’ll happen, but if’n he is elected, he’ll get us into double-u-double-u-three right away, mark my words. But now? No, Ike has kept the peace.”
Something felt wrong. The air tasted different. And we weren’t at war? In fact, I should have realized immediately that we were in camp, not on the ice and rock someplace between Finland and Russia. It was all wrong, and yet something told me that it was actually made right, we were where we were supposed to be.
But where was Stan? He’d be able to explain it for me.
Sargent Smith came into the bunkhouse. “I have bad news, soldiers. Private Petrosky didn’t feel well and went to the infirmary late last night. He had a heart attack and didn’t survive. I am sorry. I will give you five extra minutes to get ready this morning. After those five minutes, we’ll double down. We can grieve later, but for now we need to keep sharp or those Soviet Bears will eat us alive. Get to it!”
The Sargent spun on his heel and left.
A memory came back. Didn’t Stan go off to sacrifice himself to save the world?
I looked out of the window. A strange man was out there. He gave me a slight wave and a twisted smile. How had he gotten onto base? And yet, looking at the man I realized that I had seen him someplace before. He was surrounded by ice in my memory. The name “Loki” entered my mind. He winked at me and then was gone.
I laughed out loud. The others looked at me, knowing how close I was to Stan. They must have thought I had gone bonkers or something. But I was laughing because Stan had done it, he had saved the world. We weren’t going to die in a giant mushroom cloud or alone and frozen in an Arctic wasteland as our home country was turned to ash. In fact, if Stan were right, we could look forward to living to old age, perhaps even seeing the Soviet Union fall. That’s what he said, wasn’t it?
I looked back out of the window, just taking in the sunlight and the camp. I knew I’d never take another day for granted no matter how long I lived.
The photo is by Stefan Keller and was taken from Pixabay for this challenge.