Truce

(Written for NYC flash fiction challenge. 48 hours, 1000 words. Prompts-fantasy, a mountain stream, milk.)…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

Many years ago in the land of Ardanelle, Mikel and Melane, king and queen of the unicorns, set off to Silver Mountain, their horns encircled in vines of butter milk flowers…

“Unicorns!” laughed Jacob. “Hey, shouldn’t I be telling you a story?”

“Shush, father. You said you’d listen,” scolded Ceri.
The king nodded wistfully, stroking the raven waterfall of her hair. Outside her tower window, distant tallow smoke hung acrid on the night breeze. In the morning he would ride for the outlands. Amongst the burnt huts and bodies of subjects he could no longer protect, he must sue for peace with the mad prince at whatever the cost.
“Men never listen!”
The familiar tone jolted him back more than the poke in the stomach. So much like Kaetrina had been. As beautiful as the spring fields. Determined as the moon season rains. The dry crust of grief caught in his throat. Five bleak years had passed.
He kissed the top of Ceri’s head. Where a crown was predestined, but now never going to sit.
“I’m sorry sweet child. Please go on. Flowers? Why?”
“Butter milk flowers,” sighed Ceri. “As a sign of truce of course,” she added, dismayed that a king would not know this.

King Mikel and Queen Melane followed the narrow track ever upwards, between boulders growing ashen as they climbed. Every step sensing their enemies upon them.
Feeling their eyes and dreading their claws.
Trusting an ancient law and a circlet of pale blossoms to keep them safe.
At last they topped the plateau. Where the mountain stream began as a trickle from the snow capped boulders. Where their eternal enemies held court high above Ardanelle.
The eyrie of the griffin.

“Griffins!” remarked Jacob. “With the head of an eagle and the body of a lion?”
“Of course,” groaned Ceri, waiting for further interruption before continuing.

Lord Leonid and Lady Enora were paired for life, the only custom the unicorns agreed with.
Leonid’s honey flecked eyes met those of his counterpart. Mikel’s glared back, cold and blue as the stream beside him.
“This must end Leonid. Where is Mikaley? Where is our daughter?”
Enora hissed, ruffling her golden feathers angrily. “Mind your tongue horn horse!”
Melane stepped forward. “But for the snows we would have come earlier Enora.” Her sweet voice lowered. “We heard the beat of wings the night she was taken. Only a griffin…”
“Always the griffins,” snarled Leonid. “Why should we believe anything you say? Those who would trample the forests to starve of us prey? Drive the dograbbits and jackalope far from the flat lands? Use their cruel horns to gore our kin? Their hooves to crush our skulls?” He paused, the fire momentarily dulled. “What of our son. What of Levaris? “

“We know nothing of his fate,” snorted Mikel.
“Liar!” screeched Enora. “Trust nothing they say my husband.”
“And why should we trust those who would dam the river? Forcing us to drink at the valley pool, easy prey to vicious claws and razored talons? The corpses mount at the lake edge, bringing deathfly and disease.” Mikel raised his proud head. “The grasslands shrink without the river and creeks. By sun season’s end there will be no grazing lands left,” he added quietly.
“Then you too will know hunger,” growled Enora. She stepped forward, drawing close to the unicorn queen. Melane recoiled from the fetid stench of the carrion breath.
“Don’t worry,” sneered Enora, “That’s not her you can smell.”
Melane lowered her head, her horn at the throat of the Lady griffin.
“You would attack while wearing the garland of truce?”
“If you are to mock my grief for Mikaley,” growled the unicorn, “I will carry home your head.”
Enora’s fierce eyes narrowed. Her powerful hind tensed, prepared to strike.

They turned at the soft clop of hooves.
A unicorn stepped into the clearing, prodded forward by a male griffin.
The length of her body was almost hairless, a myriad of scars. Her abdomen was etched in dozens of thin stripes; fresh, cruel, weeping cuts. Her legs trembled to hold her thin body upright.
“Mikaley,” gasped her father
“You!” cried Melane, charging at the griffin. She drove her horn into his eye, puncturing through his brain and the top of his skull. With a violent twist of her neck she threw him to the water’s edge.
The garland of flowers slid from his eye socket and followed the reddening stream away on the current.
“Levaris!” howled Leonid in anguish.
Melane turned to her daughter, but Enora was already at her.
“No, wait” pleaded Mikaley as the talon opened her long throat. Enora’s screech of vengeance tore the clouds above them to shredded rags. Mikaley slumped to the ground, her face a visage of disbelief.

Jacob nodded, recognizing the madness of war in his daughter’s tale.

In the second of silence before the madness continued, came a rustling from beneath the great golden wings of Levaris.
Two small heads emerged. Eagle heads. Eyes closed, they sniffed the air excitedly. Dragging themselves from under their father’s wing they tottered towards the fallen unicorn. They pushed at her back leg with their beaks, seeking to feed at her soft underbelly.
Melane raised her hoof, blind with rage. Mikel stepped forward to halt her strike.
“Their legs my love. Their hind legs.”
Enora’s head fell in shame. Leonid wrapped her in his wings
The young ones had hooves.
The four of them watched as their grandchildren suckled.

Unicorn tears fell as diamonds. As only they do in times of peace.

Ceri gripped her father tight, her small fingers clutching the leather of his tunic. “Hippogriffs?” he whispered. She nodded, easing from the embrace.
“The union of Levaris and Mikaley gave both sides something in common. They ended the war with love.”
He bent down to kiss her cheek, but her head turned away, tucked behind her drawn up knees. She rocked gently upon them.

Jacob was nearly to the door.

“Did you really listen?”

“Ceri? Honey?””

Then he noticed.
And couldn’t help but hear.

The chair.
Her saddle on its high back. The neat pile upon it, wrapped in a pelt blanket. Beneath; her favorite boots, brightly polished.
His voice deserted him though his lips formed the words.
“Oh Ceri.”
On a wooden peg next to the chair hung her best white dress. Her long travel cloak.

And a circlet of buttermilk flowers.

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Bubblegum

The sparkling white Rolls Royce eased gently to a halt in the driveway of twenty five Brown Street, a non-descript two up-two down in suburban Whitfield. A chauffeur alighted, zipping efficiently to the back door. He opened it, bowing so low his breath cleared the dust from a small patch of concrete.
“Thank you Jenkins.”
The long and luscious legs of Consuela Quest, CEO of Raven Chemicals, emerged. She stood, shaking her luxurious dark hair and smoothing the front of her knitted Givenchy sheath dress.
“Hello Hades” she whispered, stepping gracefully over an upturned skateboard. She glided up two low steps onto the front porch of the house. A blank, fair haired woman held the front door open for her.
“It’s expecting you” announced the glassy eyed blonde.
“Thank you Mrs. Thorne” replied Consuela, drawing a long breath before tackling the sharp stairs to the upper floor.

Turning into the street trundled a small but powerful Chinese runner in purple, towing an elaborate black lacquered rickshaw embellished with gold detail. The puller eased the handles to a stop, positioning the rickshaw at the kerb near the lopsided mailbox. From its opulent padded seat, a rotund, bald Asian man stretched a satin slipper cautiously to the sidewalk. Gathering his vast black silk robes around his considerable girth, restaurateur Min Fa shuffled through the gateway and took the same path as Consuela.
He stopped at the overturned skateboard, shaking his head in disappointment. Bending more fluently than his body shape should allow, he flipped the skateboard back onto its wheels. Stroking the battered deck with his hand, Min sighed before proceeding to the house. Mrs. Thorne, holding a tray of razor blades and wearing a glassy smile, stepped back to allow him room to squeeze past.

Min Fa had just manoeuvred himself inside when a fire red Hummer roared up Brown Street, making no attempt to stop in time to avoid hitting the black rickshaw. It disintegrated into kindling, the Hummer coming to rest with one tyre pinning the crushed Asian man. With a piercing metal creak, the red door swung open. Colonel William Ares Richardson almost stepped over the fallen rickshaw puller, but managed to step on one of the man’s hands. The small fingers crunched like popcorn under Richardson’s heavy boot. He hitched his khaki service pants up under his outrageously hot pink t-shirt. Richardson briskly vaulted the low front fence, despite the open gate. Striding across the patchy front lawn, he ignored the blonde woman at the entrance and took the stairs two at a time.
Rapping sharply on the purple door with his clipboard, he barged past the posters of Sheldon Cooper and Benedict Cumberbatch without waiting for a reply.

In a hanging wicker chair suspended by macramé rope, perched their host. Dea sat cross-legged, sixteen year old sweet in Nirvana t-shirt and frayed jeans. Lightweight headphones crowned her straight blonde hair. She was blowing dry the fresh pink polish on her toenails and didn’t look up as Richardson entered the cramped bedroom.
The Colonel snapped his combat boots together loudly. Dea glanced at him briefly, then reached for a skull shaped bong and a dime bag of marijuana. Richardson, muscular and buzz cut, surveyed the remainder of the small room. He bowed his head politely at a sunflower coloured beanbag, ignoring the silk clad Min standing at the window. His gaze travelled past the screen and game console, Guide dog puppy calendar and Mickey Mouse alarm clock.
Consuela sat on the end of an unmade bed, one long leg over the other. Colonel Richardson smiled leeringly at them, his eyes not bothering to go as high as her face.
“You make my skin crawl.”
“Why don’t you admit you want me inside you Connie?”
“The only way you would get inside me is if I ate you, which I assure you I am more than capable of. However, since no doubt you would taste like you behave, you would be completely unpalatable.”
Richardson grunted, turning his attention to Min Fa.
“Not much you’d find unpalatable, you fat fuck.”
Min continued to look out of the narrow window. “Perhaps your parking skills William. Perhaps you could manoeuvre an automobile in a non-destructive, and perhaps, less lethal way.
“Perhaps you could take a shit in your best hat.”

Mrs. Thorne crept into the room, trembling and covered in a cold sweat. She offered a bowl of drawing pins around, her shaking hands causing a few to bounce out of the bowl. Once all four of them had ignored her, she withdrew silently, her pupils tiny spots in wide white eyes.

“It’s all right Fa Min, I’ll give you a lift home” said Consuela.
“Most gracious of you to offer Miss Quest” bowed Min.
“Moost gracious of you to offer” mimicked Richardson. “Fucking fat cocksucker” he added. “Maybe you’ll get a fat dose of pestilence riding in that mouldy Rolls.”
“Don’t you dare call me pestilence! It sounds like a bug spray” snapped Consuela, sitting forward suddenly.
“Well that’s what everyone knows you as. And if the stiletto fits…”
“By name but certainly not by nature” chipped in Min diplomatically.
A cloud of dope smoke unfurled from the wicker chair, crawling lazily across the room. Consuela’s burning umber eyes penetrated the haze, glaring with loathing at Richardson and Min.
“I am the Conqueror” she spat. “You, Mister Richardson are a mere imitation of me, and a poor one at that. What you struggle to achieve with individuals, I bring to nations and continents. On a grand scale.”
“Grand scale? What have you brought on a grand scale lately? Not much since the Great Plague.”
“What about two world wars in a century? Pol Pot? Idi Amin?”
“No way can you claim those two! They were both projects of mine!”
“Well what of Cancer? Ebola? AIDS?”
“See? Pestilence! You admit it yourself. And by the way princess, they’ve cured a kid from AIDS. Maybe it is time for another plague! Grand scale? The only thing happening on a grand scale around here is this sack of crap here.”
Min still looked down at the roadside, oblivious to the insult. “Hoi was such an accomplished puller” he sighed. “An area you no doubt excel in as well William.”
“Still no famine at your place Min Fat?” sneered Richardson.
“As always, the cultured debate; the stirring riposte, the sparkling repartee…”
“If I throw you food would you shut the fuck up?”
Min clapped his silky sleeves together, giggling. “Oh my. Shakespeare? Oscar Wilde? It’s hard to tell.” He faced Richardson for the first time. “All your type looks the same to me.”
“You forty acre smart ass” snapped Richardson. “Why don’t you report first Min Fat, since you’re so clever and ar-fucking-tic-u-fucking-late?”
Another waft of dope smoke breezed through from Dea’s wicker nest. She offered the bong to Consuela who politely declined.
“Very well” announced Min Fa. “Africa continues to be our shining light. Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya are performing well. North Korea is reporting cannibalism as a reaction to food shortages. I’m still hoping for a relapse in Russia and China, though it may be wishful unless we can find another Mao. On a brighter note, most east and central African countries have no hope of effective aid distribution with their current regimes.” Min smiled broadly, Africa having been the jewel in his crown for a century.
“What’s the mortality rate?” posed Consuela.
“It is difficult to attribute percentages specifically to death by hunger with other contributing causes” answered Min carefully. “Our preferred method is to use the child deaths by starvation per second scale. Currently it sits at one every three. Our aim is to reduce this to two every one.”
“One child death every two seconds?” asked Consuela, unimpressed.
“No no no. Two every one second. One every half-second.”
“Lovely” declared Consuela. “I look forward to the day. You can do it Min Fa, I know you can.” The pudgy Min blushed a little at the mini pep talk.
“We do have competition of course. As corrupt as most are, aid agencies are getting some supplies through. The use of growth hormones, drought resistant crops and genetically altered foods continue to threaten us. However, the areas of unsustainable land are widening. In short, as long as they keep copulating, the scales tip my way ever more.”
At the use of the word “copulating”, Richardson fixed hungry eyes on Consuela.
“Do endeavour to keep it in the khakis.”
“So your plan is same as last time Min? You eat. They don’t. Impressive strategy.”
“It’s so much more than that Will..”
“Gentlemen!” interrupted Consuela. “Well then Colonel Richardson. What of your efforts this year? You’re surely not trying to pass off those school shootings as acts of war I hope? They are little different to last year’s meeting when you had us on that paintball range. Small scale and messy.”
“Yeah well who wears white to paintball?”
Consuela shuddered at the thought of those colourful splotches on her Valentino suit.
“I did try to protect you Connie.”
“Protect me? You spent the whole time blasting Min Fa!”
“Well ya gotta admit there’s plenty to aim for. And, there’s no point trying to shoot something that can’t be hit.” He cocked his head towards Dea, who was innocently unwrapping a cube of bubblegum.
“Anyway, what about the meeting you hosted the year before that? On your yacht?”
“Yes, quite. My apologies again Colonel. I’d forgotten how severe your phobia of water is.”
“It’s not a phobia! I’m just not comfortable at sea, that’s all. You have known that since the beginning of time by the way!”
“Ah” stated Consuela, raising a finger as though just remembering. “I have, haven’t I.” Min Fa failed to suppress a giggle behind a voluminous black sleeve.
“Fuck you. Your hostings are nothing more than glorified pig outs. Except I can never get a steak unless it’s dripping with soy sauce or some shit.”
“I wonder Colonel, whether you could actually make your report. Or is this room the only place you’re capable of starting war?” Richardson offered a short arctic stare in reply, interrupted by the sound of Mrs. Thorne banging into the other side of the door. They heard her burst into tears and run back down the stairs. Dea blew a large pink bubble with her gum.
“Very well” began Richardson, “We continue to pursue our successful policies. Instigating civil war. Destabilising governments and economies. Spreading distrust and promoting anarchy.”
“Then of course the Americans show up” added Min.
“God bless us” agreed Richardson. “We hate them, they hate us. Doubles up on the paranoia, doubles up on the carnage. Then while we’re playing schoolyard bully, we effectively fan the flames of terrorism and…” He stopped as Consuela and Min both rolled their eyes. “What?”
“Terrorism? Seriously William. That’s just not producing the numbers.”
“Have you come up with anyone more imaginative than Bin Laden?”
Richardson paused, determining that they were both finished for the moment.
“You’re missing the point. It’s the environment created by it. People living on a knife edge. Making the world more trigger happy every minute.”
“Oh the clichés! You’ve been saying that for a long time now William” stated Min calmly.
“Neck a dick, dim sim.”
“Oh Mark Twain lives on. Do you really think your references to my origins and appearance upset me? Would it offend you if I called you hot dog?”
“Would it offend you if I got mine out?”
“It would offend me” admitted Consuela.
“Or astound you.”
“Are you referring to the amount of time it would take you to locate it?” she smirked.
Another bubble popped.

“I don’t know why we bother with these meetings anymore” added Consuela. “We have little respect for ourselves, let alone each other.”
“I too doubt the value of our gatherings” agreed Min.
“We’re bored” concluded Richardson. “It feels like we aren’t getting anywhere. The sum total of our efforts all end up on her scorecard anyhow.”
Dea smiled sweetly at the flustered Colonel. A pink bubble burst on her face and she retrieved the spattered gum with her lips and teeth.

“We’re never going to get them all. As Min said, they’re fucking machines. What’s that thing they say? Breed like rabbits? And even if we did wipe ‘em all out, then what? What do we do after that? Retirement home? Rocking chairs and comfy slippers? None of it makes sense. The whole deal is horse shit!”
“You forget our true purpose William.”
“Which is what exactly Lord Dumpling?”
“Do you really not know our purpose? The apocalypse? Remember, we were released from the seals to await the coming of the great dark? Conquest emerged first, with crown and sword etcetera etcetera.”
“Nope.” Richardson clunked his knuckles just above the temple. “Metal plate. Korea. Fifty four. Got too close to a grenade. Blanked out everything further back than Alexander.”
“Serious?”
“Sure am Connie. What do you know about this stuff?”
Consuela wriggled her shapely buttocks. “Um. Well. It has been a while.” Richardson enjoyed the rare discomfort. “I’m sure there’s a bit on it in the bible” she diverted.
“O.K. Let’s take a look. Who’s got a stinkin’ bible?” The three looked at each other, then all turned to the hanging wicker chair. A raised “As if!” eyebrow answered them.
“Right. No bible. Can you remember it, Jabba the Chong?”
Min, also embarrassed, realised he knew little more than the others. “I think we lead an army of the dead..”
“I honestly don’t remember that part.”
“How do we lead an army of dead bastards?”
“I think they rise up as we sweep past dramatically on our horses.”
“Really? Who the hell writes this stuff? Tarantino?”
“And I seem to recall something about warning signs. Plagues of locusts, that sort of thing.”
“Locusts? They have plagues of locusts all the time. There was one the other day somewhere. Morocco or some fucking place.”
“We should get a bible and check up on the reading” suggested Consuela.
“Why?”
“You know why William, to clarify…”
“Clarify bullshit. Are you telling me we use the bible as our playbook?”
“I merely thought..”
“Look at who we are Connie. Do we really have to wait for instructions from that damn book? Do we have to wait for any type of signal? There’s been locusts. Lots of locusts. Army rising from the dead? Sounds sweet to me. Surely this shindig starts as soon as we decide to mount up.”
“I guess it would” admitted Min.
“Are you suggesting…?” asked Consuela.
“I’m suggesting we get this party started.”
Min Fa considered this bold declaration. He also pondered an eternity of Fat jokes, racist jibes, bean bags and paintball.
“I have no argument with William’s suggestion” he concluded.
Consuela surveyed the two men, who seemed serious enough. It was not for her to decide. It was not for any of them to decide. Only one could call them to their steeds. Still. The thought of occupying Richardson’s mind with something besides her body was tempting. She could agree in principle, since there was no way it was going to happen anyway.
“Very well” she finally muttered.
With The Three in agreement, they turned to The One.
Dea lifted one earphone, irritated. “What?”
“We were wondering whether we might um.., well, instigate the apocalypse. You know, get the show on the road?”
Dea screwed her delicately freckled face in annoyance. “I’m listening to Lego House.” She dropped the headphones back in place. Using her foot, she spun the chair so her back was to them. The Three sat quietly, not having a clue what “Lego House” was, while Ed Sheran finished. A couple of minutes later the chair swung back to face them. Dea unclipped the headphones and tossed them on the floor. She stretched her legs, getting circulation back into her pink painted toes.
“Apocolypse? Yeah.” She arched, catlike while yawning.
“Whatever.”

Consuela’s mouth fell open like a dying fish.

Dea pushed herself up to her feet. Sliding open a narrow closet, she rummaged for a moment before pulling out a lacrosse stick.
“Nope.”
“Another rummage. An ice hockey stick.
“Damn. Third time lucky?” She withdrew a thin black scythe, its hellish blade rusted with ancient blood.
“Gotcha!”
She turned to them, smiling. Not the cute Dea smile.
The other one.
“Ready.”

Dea lead the way downstairs, where Mrs. Thorne was frantically tipping paper clips
into a fish bowl half full of vodka. She looked up at Dea, tongue out, hair stuck flat on her perspiring forehead.
“Are you going out somewhere?” She reached for a blister pack of tablets, popping out and swallowing four of them without liquid. She scuttled outside after them, carrying the fish bowl as the girl she’d known as her daughter quietly spoke the four hails.

The white Rolls Royce began imploding, grotesquely folding in on itself. Jenkins managed a short scream before he was assimilated into the swirling, bubbling mess. Within a few seconds the blob had reformed, reshaped as a startling marbled Arabian mare.
At the same time, the flattened rickshaw and its puller began to twist into a single merging of darkness, reassembling as a tall black stallion. It shrugged the Hummer off, itself transforming into a giant angry chestnut, snapping at the neck of the stallion as it was pushed aside.
Dea’s battered skateboard shimmered for a moment. Shuddered for another. Then grew, stretching and distorting into hideous shapes. Human faces, screaming silently, protruded from the mass. Agonised and molten, it steadily changed, forming the final steed. A flighty palomino. Its pelt the sickly sallow of decaying flesh. Dappled in patches of vomit green. The blackened gums were pulled back, exposing double rows of razor-like teeth. Hades, the only horse of the four to have a name.

“What time will you be back sweetie?” asked a trembling Mrs. Thorne.
The palomino sniffed excitedly at the air, its head turning quickly to her. An instant later the fishbowl and its contents disintegrated on the concrete path, the woman’s throat torn out. Hades continued to eat from her fallen body as Dea sprung effortlessly up on to its back. She blew another pink bubble.
The hell horse tore another strip of flesh from the dead woman as Dea turned its head towards the gate.

The bubblegum popped.

“Don’t wait up mom.”

(from the short story collection “nine”-available on Amazon)

Petrov

Serpukhav-15 Bunker, Russia September 26th 1983.

Shortly after midnight the unthinkable happened. The button that must never light up flashed red. The alarm that must never be heard cried out loud and shrill as a screaming child.
Lieutenant Colonel Stanislov Petrov stared non-believing at the blinking light. The room burst into a cacophony of voices.
“They’ve launched! The Americans have launched” “Call Moscow!” “ We must counter attack” “American pigs!”” My family!”” My wife! My children!”
Petrov tried to focus among the crescendo of panic and anger. Surely they would not release a single missile. It made no sense. Why would they risk a retaliatory strike? Perhaps there was a glitch in the system.
“Sir, our orders are clear!” A phone was thrust towards him
Trust your instincts.
Despite the pandemonium around him, Petrov heard the voice clearly. A woman’s voice, little more than a cool whisper.
Trust your instincts.
“We will wait” he announced calmly.
The soldier next to him lowered the offered phone in shock.
“But sir!”
“What does the computer analysis say?” asked Petrov.
The piercing alarm was silenced at last.
“Not static sir. The evaluation is…” The last of the panicked voices dwindled away to hear the answer.
“Well? The evaluation is what?”
“That it’s a real launch.”
Stay calm Stanislov, she cooed. He glanced around the busy room.
Was his conscience female?
Stay calm.
“Sir, we must report this!”
“For the moment we shall wait, is that understood?”
No one answered. Petrov scratched the scalp through his short hair. On a double shift he didn’t want, he felt twice his forty four years. As commander of the facility, it was his call as to what action to take, though the other men were adamant that there was only one course of response. Report immediately. Launch the counter attack.
But just one missile?
Petrov dropped into his chair. The red glow of the button taunting him from the display panel. But only one.
No.
Not only one.

A second satellite report triggered another button to flash red.
Then another.
And another.
And another.

Five.

“Sir. Computer analysis predicts the launch of five minute man missiles.”
Only five, said the woman.
True, thought Petrov. They would not send five when they could send a hundred and five. A thousand and five.
It is a mistake. There are no missiles.
“Sir, the phone.”
“I didn’t ask for the phone.”
“It’s Moscow sir. They have been automatically notified of a multiple launch. The phone was extended towards him until he reluctantly accepted it.
“Petrov. Are you there?” The voice sounded metallic and distant.
“This is Petrov.”
“Do we have inbound warheads Lieutenant Colonel? Are we being launched upon?”
Be brave. Tell him what you think, said the cool whisper.
“I doubt it sir” answered Petrov. “I believe the system is compromised. It is a mistake.”
“You believe? What does the equipment tell you?” rattled the distant voice.
“The equipment is indicating five incoming missiles.”
“But you don’t think so?”
“No sir, I doubt it very much.”
“Lieutenant Colonel, you realise that we have very little time to launch a counter strike. Your judgement as a soldier, and a scientist, must be correct.”
“Yes sir.”
“Then your recommendation is what exactly?”
Nothing.
“My recommendation is that we do nothing.”
Silence filled the phone line. Then Petrov heard muffled voices. His name mentioned. The murmur of discussion. The metallic voice returned.
“Nothing?”
Trust your instincts.
Only five missiles?
“Nothing” Petrov heard himself say.

At that point the world had less than two minutes to find out whether his instincts were right. If he was wrong, five cities would soon be reduced to ashes.
There was no greater agony than watching the seconds tick by. One man placed a hand on his shoulder. The only silent support he received. One slumped to the floor. One went to the lavatory to cry. One went to vomit. Others stared transfixed at the display screen forecasting their impending destruction or on phones talking to loved ones.
A minute passed.
Petrov gripped the arms of the chair, tapping a finger for each second. Prickling beads of sweat gathered on his high forehead.
Two minutes.
At three minutes he allowed his grip to relax. He wiped his brow.
Four minutes.
They were safe.
He was right.
Wherever she was, whoever she was, he silently thanked the calm voiced woman.
Further analysis showed the satellite had picked up a group of reflections on the cloud tops. Petrov never heard her voice again.
But they had averted nuclear war.

They were right.

(from the novel “Last Goddess”)

Valenki

My knife is dirty and dull as the grease paper sky. Dull from carving burrows, carving throats. Spilling raw wet gut on the always icing pepper earth. Like me, with me, as me; the knife struggles. Chilled to a ghost and thin as invisible.

A year ago, or maybe a thousand years ago, I’m not sure; I was a postman.

I wept when I found him. The tears froze instantly on my cheeks. No happiness is permitted here. It has been banished with hope and sanity. Together the three of them walked hand in hand into the black, blizzard night.
The big Russian lay on his back in the snow, frozen to indigo. A mortar had blown off half his head. The heat of the shell cauterized the wound into the stringy black satin of All Hallows Eve. Rats had chewed off his remaining ear and the soft flesh of his throat. Rats, or dogs.

Or a man.

“It’s only a matter of time” the others used to say.
They are dead now. And they are wrong.

I will never eat human flesh. It’s the only shred of humanity I have left to cling to. Few horrors I have not enjoyed. And few have I not enjoyed. I am doomed to this frozen hell, beyond redemption. Beyond imagining.

My soul is a bleak and broken harpsichord, strummed by mad musicians and monsters.

So long since any real food. Since I’ve eaten actual meat.

“You will” they whisper. “You will.”

Dead they are. And wrong.

The material of the Russian’s uniform yields as easily as honeycomb spider web. I tear the weary fabric up past his purple knees.

But his flesh shaves stubbornly, hard grey crayon beneath the warmth of my dead blade.

I think of the first time I used the knife. On a boy of just eleven. I know his age because his mother screamed it me over and over until I ended her as well. The others pulled me aside to have their way with her body before the warmth left it. While I vomited.

Then joined them.

I use rock to smash the Russian’s shins. I have no strength to saw bone.

Only the need to wear his valenki. His winter boots.
Only the crazy desperate need to get his dead feet out of them. And my dead feet into them.
I salivate at the thought, and that too freezes, on my wind cracked lips. Or am I drooling because the flesh softens under the friction of my final cuts? Because perhaps it could be mutton the former postman sees. Or venison.

Meat is meat is meat.

“You will.”

No! I yell it to the wind and the nothing at the end of the earth. I stagger back, nearly into the fire. And now I laugh. Laugh at the fire I can’t remember building and out of what I can’t recall. Laugh at my dizzy starving insanity and my dead Russian friend.

His dead fucking feet in his dead fucking boots.

I laugh at us. All of us. You included. The demented mosaic of mankind.

His reluctant skin finally gives way. The severed legs look wrong, like they don’t fit the body I’ve sawn them from. I press them up against the stumps to reassure myself. Of course they fit. I release the breath I’ve been holding just in case.
I place them near the fire, the beautiful valenki facing me. Soon his skin begins to bubble, the sharp smell biting through the grey night. I poke the severed legs with my knife as they soften. The skin curls and crackles.

My shrunken stomach violently uncurls in lust at the smell. It feels as though I’m being torn in half. A surge of adrenalin rushes through me, screaming at me to have my meal. It floods my withered muscles, sending me into convulsions. When they end I barely have the strength to move my head.

I roll to the side and see one of the boots has worked loose.
My threadbare fingers slowly scrabble their way to it. The Russian’s lower leg slides out with surprising ease. I push it into the fire, which flares as it swallows the limb. My gut cartwheels as the leg blackens. It begs me to reach into the flames. Insists that I do.

I’ve thrown away lobster and kept the shell.

“You will.”

It smells like roast pork.

I….don’t.

I focus on my prize. The precious boot is too close to the fire and I move it away so it warms but doesn’t burn. Then I move it again, and again. A matter of inches each time. Too close. Too far. The sinew in my forearm tightens with cramp, my dulled brain eventually signaling my body to save its fading energy for a more important task. The other boot.

But the Russian’s other foot likes its warm valenki boot. Loves it. I poke and pry at it with my tired knife, my tired arms. A quarter of a dead Russian is more than a match for an ex-postman; chilled to a ghost and thin as invisible. I can see the fire clearly through the transparent flesh of my withered arm.

Feebly, finally, I wrestle the shin bone free.

I drop it into the fire, almost stumbling in after it. I smile at my own slapstick. I must look hilarious dying.

But they are mine. I place the precious valenki lightly on the ground next to me. My sharp breath is scarce and sandpaper sour as I struggle to remove my old boots. They are cracked and parchment thin. Brittle. Another even contest. An eternity passes before I coax them both off.

Now.

I pull the valenki on over blackfrost feet. The stories were true. They are much warmer than ours. Heavenly.

But one of them bites. There is something sharp inside. I tip out a heart shaped pendant and slip the boot back on.

I unfold the small locket. The Russian’s wife and daughter look back at me.

His bride glares at me accusingly as her husband’s legs bubble like pork in the fire.

But his daughter smiles sadly, pitying me as I stand shakily in her father’s boots.

They stare at me and I stare back. In this place only God looks away.

My stomach roars and shrieks. It demands that I fill it. Begs me to.
You will, you will, you will. You will. You will. It is no use now. My triumph to take the Russian’s boots has taken all of me. Every last drop.

And they were wrong.

I can do nothing now but fall to the icing pepper earth. The permafrost rushes up to greet me, smashing my face to splinters. My gasps rattle out of a broken mouth, clearing a small spot on the ice of its miniature debris.

My life does not rush before my eyes. I’m much too tired for that. The shiny patch my breath creates on the ice is soothing somehow. A tiny perfect paradise in the middle of hell.

I tuck the locket into my boot and close my eyes, grateful for the young girl’s forgiveness.

At least my feet will be warm.