Monthly Archives: December 2010

A Few End-of-Year Thoughts

Wow, what a busy few months we’ve had here.  All the months of prep leading up to Naked Reader Press going live have paid off.  So I want to start by thanking everyone who has helped spread the word about NRP, who has bought one of our novels or short stories and, most especially, those authors and illustrators who have trusted us with their work.

As promised, responses to the first round of open submissions have been sent out.  We were impressed not only with the number of submissions we received but also with the quality.  So, here’s another thank you to all the authors who submitted to us.

2011 will see an expansion of NRP’s offerings.  While we will continue to offer a number of sf/f titles, you will soon see more “mainstream” — no choking, shouting or screaming, please.  I put it in quote ;-p — genres such as mystery/suspense and romance.  We will also continue putting out short story collections by authors such as Dave Freer, Sarah A. Hoyt and others.

I know there are some of you out there who want books from your favorite authors before they actually hit the shelves — or, in the case of e-books, before they hit the interwebs.  So we’ll be offering e-arcs for some of our titles.  These will, of course, be unproofed versions of the final product and will usually come out 6 – 8 weeks before the final version hits the electronic shelves.

The New Year will also bring contests and giveaways.  So keep an eye on this blog for further details.

Finally, everyone at NRP wishes you and yours and Happy and Safe New Years!

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Chapter 12 – A Cartridge in a Cocked Gun

A Cartridge in a Cocked Gun

 

I tried to contain myself. “What have you done with her?”

He smiled. It was nearly a polite smile, but there was something about his eyes that gave it away.

“Far more then you want to contemplate, Captain. Nordland deals harshly with traitors. We live in a harsh environment, and I need absolute discipline.”

I was speechless. I raised my gun, and aimed it squarely at his forehead. “Alright. You seem to have all the answers. So remind me what stops me from putting a bullet in your head.”

He smiled indifferently.  “Absolutely nothing, provided that you do not mind if Snow never lives again, or whether your children receive bombs down their chimney. Especially the latter, since it will happen quite automatically, I assure you. But if neither worries you, Captain, feel free to pull that trigger. Otherwise, you should stop pointing that thing at me.”

I had seen this play out before. I wasn’t about to lower my gun with a convenient look of shock. He had threatened my family, but I was pretty sure the fleets still wouldn’t be airborne for some hours. And considering Kristopher’s taste for having people set their own traps, I wasn’t going to let go just yet.

“You know something? I have a better idea. You see, I have eleven men here, all of whom have very sharp blades and a variety of other nasty instruments. And as you can see, I also have a perfectly functional weapon in my hands. Whereas you, so far, have words. So how about we see some proof, and then we’ll discuss the future.”

He nodded. “I could hardly expect less, given that you’ve gotten this far. But I assure you, Captain, that I always tell the truth.” He lifted a hand and snapped.

Half the wall suddenly seemed to melt away, revealing itself to be polarized glass with a wallpaper pattern when closed.

“I’m sure, Captain, that you recognize Snow. She’s the one sitting in front of that cannon, there. I rather like the “tin horn” motif on it, don’t you? I think it brings out the best side of the device.”

“And what does it do, besides raise the aesthetic value of your lair?”

He laughed. That damned “Ho, ho, ho” was even more disconcerting in person. “It’s hardly a lair. Merely an inaccessible vantage point for my operations. My… unique metabolic requirements are suited by extreme cold. As for the device, it’s technically referred to as a “matter excitation cannon.” I won’t worry you with the technical details, if only because only your expert here would understand them. All you need to know is that the volume and type of radiation it emits causes the kinetic energy in whatever material it’s aimed at to rise until it melts. Would you agree that it would be unfortunate to watch this occur with Snow, or do you need proof of that as well?” He raised his fingers as if to snap.

I lowered my gun, hastily, but didn’t call off my men. I couldn’t tell if he was bluffing.

He laughed again.

“A predictable decision. And now, Captain, we must talk business. In case it wasn’t immediately obvious, I’m not particularly happy with having you and these gentlemen show up on my front door. I’m not surprised, per se, but the United States has committed against Nordland what I would deem an act of war,” He turned, holding the sword cane, and began to walk down the length of the room. The wall smoked over again, and became a flattened map of the world. He turned his head to look at me, holding his arms out as far as they would go and leaning the base of the cane between his feet. “To be frank, I do not think that the US is prepared for my act of redress. I can get into any place on the planet, now, and they choose to trifle with me. Eminently capable as your men are, a dozen-man team is an insult to my power. And as the US has not been forthcoming with tribute in prior years, I am not predisposed to show a great deal of mercy. But you, Captain, can change that.”

I drew myself up to my full height.

“What is that supposed to mean, precisely?”

He fixed his laser glare on me. “That is supposed to mean that I want a full confession for your decidedly “naughty” activities. I have control over most of the world media, so trust me, getting the message out is not going to be a problem. I want you to be the one to tell the world: firstly that the US will not be repeating these activities again on pain of extermination; secondly, that Nordland will receive reparations; and thirdly, that all of the countries on the Earth can and will receive the same treatment if they try to repeat your failure. I am demanding global hegemony this winter, period. The method I take getting there is their choice.”

I stared at him for a moment. Then, one by one, my men and I broke out laughing. “Do you honestly think you’re going to manage to pull that old trick on us? Firstly, Frosty, in case you hadn’t noticed, we are enemy combatants, not diplomats. And better yet, you’re trying to get a confession out of us for what? Refusing to roll over and die? My deepest apologies. Are you so unused to enemies that you can’t intimidate immediately? Perhaps you should broaden the reach of your social interaction beyond beaurocrats, children, and your own biological creations.”

His face hardened, and the lines became etched and cold. When his voice returned, it was like a blade being dragged on a whetstone.

“You would do well not to mock me. I’ll gently remind you, Captain, that I directly control the safety of your country, which I had the funny idea you were sworn to protect. And as for your offenses…”

Kristopher snapped. And then the wall did something very interesting. It cleared, and started playing video. It was synchronized with what Kristopher was saying.

“Welcome to the Nordland television network, gentlemen. You asked what you had done wrong? Let’s tell the world, then, Captain. You began by attacking my land, slaughtering two military detachments, and blowing up my munitions storage. And then, when you were met by a greeting party, Captain Mesner, not only were you unspeakably rude to them, but you proceeded to make indecent advances on one of them.” It showed footage of me, through Snow’s eyes, as I closed the door and spoke with her. The footage was silent.

“How did you get that?” I asked, outraged.

He looked at me icily. “After we discovered her fingerprints on the screwdriver that was used to undo the ventilation cover—”

My eyes got very wide, and I swore under my breath. I had forgotten about that. She had already had it open when we got downstairs.

“—we had cause to run her visual memory back through her occipital lobe for processing to see if we could figure out why. And quite a story it was. But please, Captain, let’s try to limit talk of your activities with Snow. I think you and your wife can discuss it privately.” I felt the already cold room seem to get chillier.

“But nothing hap—”

He ignored me, and continued more loudly.

“You then proceeded to destroy my factory in the process of breaking into a facility containing ICBMs. Not only did you tamper with the controls of these ICBMs, but you actually sped up the countdown sequence, which is particularly shameful since one of those targets was Washington D.C. I wonder how the President and Congress feel about that choice?”

This time, the outcry was general. Kristopher was undeterred.

“And when your tampering resulted in the engines shutting off, you proceeded to abandon the facility completely, stealing military aircraft in order to attack me directly. The resulting explosion killed thousands of elves, many of whom were not engaged in combat roles. You then mounted an assault on my personal headquarters, which has so far involved smashing my lobby, blowing up my generator room, slaughtering a herd of my reindeer, killing the entire Winter Guard and my personal bodyguards, destroying four computers in my data processing and collection room, and an assault on my personal apartments, during which my wife died. What a proud accomplishment to discuss with your children, Captain.” He paused, and then nodded off to the side, “We’re off air again. I wonder if you could measure with a stopwatch how long it will take for that to be on YouTube once my editors get finished cutting it, preparing it, and broadcasting it. Take that as a warning, gentlemen, as to how I feel. And remember, from this moment, every second is more and more important. Ten minuites from now, every news network from California to Cambodia will have the story. At best, the fact that it’s nearing midnight on GMT will delay proliferation a few minuites, since there will be fewer people up on one of my most major networks. but I don’t think the effect will be appreciable, since Japan is in the middle of the day.” My men looked about ready to spit fire.

I barely managed to growl. “So, the way you see it, we can either confess to that garbage, or you can blow up our homes.”

“Call it what you like, Captain, but I said I never tell a lie, and I meant it. Every word of that is true, and I have film to prove it. If that is what you want to refer to this choice as, be my guest. But please, don’t play me for a fool. Your hands will stay well out the camera shot. No sign language. Any signs with them will invalidate their meaning, so act as your own keeper.”

I paused. This was a hell of a situation. We could choose between destroying our country, or effectively handing it over to Kristopher by becoming his pawn. We were the last thing standing between him and taking over most of the known world.

But Kristopher had accidentally let his hand slip early in this game. If I knew him, then I knew exactly what we had to do.

I held up a hand.

“I need to talk with my men.”

He nodded. “As you wish. But you will not be keeping any secrets, here. Simply be aware that the walls have ears.”

I retreated, and pulled my men into a ragged group.

“Alright, gentlemen, listen carefully. We need to talk about this. Some of you could get out of this like a flash. But the rest of us aren’t so lucky. I know how you feel. Trust me, if possible, I’d want to go out with a bang. But it clearly isn’t in the cards.” I held my best poker face, wondering where the spies were.

Thyger nodded solemnly. He didn’t give a thing away.

“I agree completely, sir. If nothing else, you need to save the girl, right?” That was well played. Kristopher would enjoy thinking that he had caused internal dissent. His spin doctoring had pretty well told the men what the truth was, though.

But I couldn’t save Snow, now. There were millions of people in America who did not have their brains on a file somewhere, and right now, they needed me more then Snow did.

“No, I’ll speak directly to Kristopher. I’m going to be working for my country.”

“Alright, sir. We trust you. I think you’d better signal our resignation, though.”

I nodded.

We broke, and I walked directly up to Kristopher.

“Okay, we’ll do what’s necessary to protect our country.”

“Excellent. I thought that you might make the smart choice. Maybe you’ll even win back the respect of your men.”

“Oh, yes,” I said, between gritted teeth. “I’ve certainly seen the light.”

I felt a one of my men press the hilt of a knife into my hand. And then Thyger threw his last flash-bang.

*          *          *

Common practice when a flash-bang is thrown is to close one’s eyes when it goes off, then go in shooting. This was not possible with one bullet left. So I used Thyger’s knife.

I leapt off my good ankle, and rolled.

It was a good thing I did, because Kristopher appeared out of the smoke where I had been standing, and, drawing a sword out of his cane, swung it through the air where I had been.

I  stood up unsteadily, and slashed at Kristopher with Thyger’s knife.

Kristopher met it with his sword, swung the blade around with one lithe movement, and forced me to protect my torso as he slid the blade past my defenses.

Behind us, the men hurled a piece of heavy furniture into the window and broke it. Kristopher took notice.

“Not a good choice, Captain. What stops me from snapping my fingers and cooking Snow?”

I put up a dogged attack, slashing at his hands and torso wherever he left an opening.

“You’re going to have trouble snapping without fingers, elf-boy. Maybe you should have trained your normal elves to think for themselves rather then blindly obey. Pity Snow isn’t up there, eh? She certainly thought for herself.”

I caught the sword with the knife as it whizzed towards my cheek, and spun on my good foot, so that the dagger was now pushing the blade downwards towards him. I landed on my bad foot hard in doing so, and he twisted his wrist so that the downwards momentum but me below the blade.

I let myself collapse, lashed out with my good foot, and caught the blade again as he tried to turn his dodge into an attack. I spun the blade backwards in a full circle to retaliate, ducking to avoid his inevitable overhead attack.

“You’re dooming your country, Captain,” he sneered, parrying gracefully, “There’s no way you’ll ever stop all those sleighs, and I promise you they’re on the way.”

“Oh, I figured as much,” I said, trying for a short upwards stomach thrust. “But you made one mistake. You need the power to threaten a country, and that means you need to have the option of detonating any of those bombs as an example. Of course, at the time, you didn’t think that anyone else would have the option to. But as it turns out, Graile is very good with computers, Mr. Kringle. So good, in fact, that those bombs may never arrive. ”

He turned pale, and nearly missed a sword stroke. Then he smiled strangely. In one movement, he swung at my head, continued to make a low slash, then flipped the sword and brought it backward in the middle.

The last I dodged purely by accident. My ankle simply gave our under me when I jumped over the low swing, and I fell below the center slash. I caught myself on my hand, used the dagger to parry, and rolled backwards. I heard Snow’s voice, and glimpsed my men getting her out of the machine. But Kristopher brought down a shattering blow on the dagger, and my ankle gave out completely. Worse, My heavy breathing was making my ribs hurt as badly as my ankle.

He raised his hand.

“You see, Captain. When you put your mind to it, solving your problems can be a snap.”

He snapped his fingers, I heard a Thrump, and a piercing scream split the room.

*          *          *

For one ghastly moment, I didn’t know what had happened. I saw my world turn red, and my thinking was suddenly a haze of rage.

I lashed out with more strength then I knew I had, and stood up. In a blaze of silver, I went berserk, slashing at every available part of Kristopher as quickly as they were presented.

I wanted to wipe that smug smile off his face. This man had come into our homes for as long as we could remember, threatened the families of my home country, and then presumed to lecture me on ethical values.

I snarled, gritted my teeth, and carried the onslaught even harder.

He stopped smiling. I clipped him, backwards, across his cheek, and drove him until his back was at the wall.

“You wanted a taste of diplomacy?” I screamed, spinning and thrusting at him as quickly as my arms would allow. My ribs and ankle burned, but I just channeled it, and carried the battle further.

Finally, with one triumphant side blow, I drove the blade directly into his hand.

The sword clattered to the floor. I lunged, and held the blade to his throat, pressing him up against the wall.

Then I leaned in close. “Have you ever heard that war is diplomacy conducted by other means?” I whispered hoarsely.

He smiled, holding his injured hand close to his chest.

“That was truly touching. I’m sure that show of passion has proven beyond dispute your faith to your wife.”

I narrowed my eyes, and shook my head. “You just don’t get it, do you? You think that morality is something you can make up, because it suits you. It’s not a game. Each of those people out there is human, albeit often screwed up, and usually deeply disturbed. Who died and said that you could make value judgments? Your job is to pass out toys, and leave people alone. That’s all.”

He laughed, and shook his head. “Oh, no. Oh, very certainly no, Captain. Passing out toys WAS a punishment, once upon a time.”

I turned my head to the side. “What are you talking about?”

“Captain, I am not an altruist. This tradition started for practical reasons. I am in possession of an herb which slows cellular metabolisis to a crawl, and lengthens the DNA chains that are copied. It forces me to stay in very cold conditions, but sadly falls short of making me immortal. My father was even less so, a small local warlord in an unsteady region of Germanic Europe. He started that little tradition, back when we controlled all the fuel. Those who were most aggressive and capable, and thus helpful, received fuel and were far more likely to survive the winter. Those who were below par received cheap trinkets signifying their worthlessness, and left to starve in the cold. My adjustment to the modern world was imperfect, perhaps, but what I tried to do was foster revolution.”

I was taken aback. He smiled, again.

“Why do you suppose my flag and suit are red, Captain? Don’t let that Coca-Cola story confuse you. The US just wasn’t keen on people knowing that Santa Clause was a communist, and the Nast cartoons were later retroactively added to the archives when people started digging some years later. Did you think the recent Russian expeditions to the North Pole were for their own health? The USSR practically gave me my start. They also gave me the biochemical assistance which allowed me to refine my herb so that I no longer became alarmingly obese using it – which was a side effect – and by proxy, the start of all my biochemical research. I owe them quite a lot.”

I found myself standing over him.

“Why are you bothering to tell me this?” I said, pressed the knife into his neck.

“Because everything has a price, Captain… and while you were listening to me talk, you weren’t watching me draw my pistol.”

I didn’t even have time to think. I just reacted.

His hand came up, and I swung my rifle around.

I leveled my rifle with his head, and something hit me as I squeezed the trigger. But by then, it was too late. I found myself on the ground. My round had struck Kristopher in the head, all right. But he had got off his shot, too, at the person who pushed me.

As the gunshot echoes died, I turned to see who it had been.

And nearly had a heart attack when I realized that it was none other than Snow.

*          *          *

My men ran over to where I was kneeling.

My military mind took over first.

“Graile? Get to that cutting room, ASAP. I think you’ve still got time to halt the broadcast. Then see about detonating the bombs in the sleighs. Take two men with you.”

Then I looked at the people still remaining. They hadn’t told me, of course, because I’d only started to win the instant that I’d thought Snow was dead.

But that meant we HAD lost someone. Dorhaise read my mind. “Buckley, sir. Melted right in front of us. Not enough duct tape in the world, sir. I’m sorry.”

I picked up Snow by her shoulders. She was still alive, but barely.

“Hiya, Sugarplum.” she said, weakly, her eyes half lidded, “I’m sorry that I… forgot to wipe off… the fingerprints.”

I shushed her.

“It doesn’t matter, Snow. You’re okay. You’re okay. We’ve saved Christmas, didn’t you hear? Kristopher is dead, and we’ll have a man up here to start the clean up and cover up in the morning. From now on, I guess parents will just have to pretend Santa exists, eh?”

She laughed nervously. “After what he did to me, Sugarplum, there’s no one on Earth… gladder then me. But, Sugarplum… I don’t have long. And the way he kept this place… I’m afraid I won’t be able to tell you… when I start to feel cold.”

“That’s OK, Snow. I’ll have someone check the archives. There’s got to be enough biochemical facilities up here to regrow you—”

She held up a hand, weakly.

“Don’t do that, Sugarplum… Please. Who wants to live forever? You start to become like him… thinking… you’re better because… you’ve lived longer… and seen more. You start playing with life… because it’s so easy for you. I don’t… want to go that way… Sugarplum. Just let me go… you’ve got a family to go home to… a country to explain what happened here to…Please, Sugarplum.”

Her voice had nearly disappeared. She seemed to be relaxing.

I knew, deep in my heart, that she loved me, whereas I was reminded of my daughter by her. But if she didn’t know already, she never needed to.

The midnight hour struck. Her last words escaped as a whisper.

“Merry Christmas… Sugarplum.”

*          *          *

EPILOGUE: ZERO HOLLYCAUSTS

I did, in fact, return home, eventually. It took a long time, because the archives that Kristopher had been keeping scared the Defense Department half to death. Not only had Kristopher been cooperating with communists around the world, but he knew a lot more then “who was naughty or nice.” He had a surveillance network which was without peer, and the very perturbed officials who came up to inspect had a variety of choice observations, often punctuated with swear words.

The bases weren’t difficult to find, however. If you can imagine the sheer volume of bombs that had been loaded on the migs, then you’ll have some idea of the ease with which we located those bases that hadn’t blown themselves right through the ice. You looked for the smoke plume and followed. Snow, who was probably the only decent person on that base, eventually received a proper cremation, and was sprinkled, appropriately, over the Arctic ice. It was a small, touching service. It’s hard to go to the funeral of a person who saved your life. You end up saying to yourself that you have to go on, that you owe it to that person to do so.

The truth is, I was so torn up, all I could think to say, in front of the small congregation, was, “Her first words to me were ‘Do you belong on the naughty list?’. I can’t answer her question. But I can say, without a doubt, that she belonged on the ‘nice’ list.”

In some ways, there wasn’t a lot more which I could say. I said all that had to be said. It turned out that I was right. when I joked that parents would have to start pretending that Santa existed. It’s funny, the ease with which the world recovers.

Of course, reams and reams of paper that had been laced with a potent compound for disrupting medium-term memory and causing mild hallucinations probably helped. It wasn’t a surprising discovery, since when you thought about it, most people would have been scared had they been lucid when they found unsolicited packages with their names on them in their living room.

I couldn’t say who took over the operation in the North Pole. Kristopher had a lot wrapped up in the stock markets of the world, and for obvious reasons did not have a will. The government undoubtedly had a lot of fun explaining to certain companies that a controlling share in their stock belonged to a person who officially did not exist, and I, for one, am glad not to have been in that group of people.

But someone once said that time heals all wounds.

One thing I did get to bring home with me, which very few people ever saw, was the mammoth bomber, which was found wandering some distance from the North Pole, looking for food. The Air Force boys were happy to get hold of it, of course, as they were with the Reindeer. But these days it lives in a base in Colorado. Every weekend, much to the chagrin of the State Department, I’ve been buying a big hay bale, and heading up to the base to pay it a visit. It’s doing a lot better, now that it isn’t stuck full of pins. But as you might imagine, it isn’t on public display.

My wife will hear about Snow, when the mission is declassified. I spend a lot of time hoping that I’ll still be alive, when that happens.

But to be perfectly honest, I’m far more worried about the arrival of Easter.

Because after this Christmas, I’m not sure I’m ready to run around on an island, being chased by missiles shaped like carrots, and dodging bombs shaped like eggs.

After all, harmless rabbits don’t give out free candy, do they?

A Cartridge in a Cocked Gun


 

I tried to contain myself. “What have you done with her?”

He smiled. It was nearly a polite smile, but there was something about his eyes that gave it away.

“Far more then you want to contemplate, Captain. Nordland deals harshly with traitors. We live in a harsh environment, and I need absolute discipline.”

I was speechless. I raised my gun, and aimed it squarely at his forehead. “Alright. You seem to have all the answers. So remind me what stops me from putting a bullet in your head.”

He smiled indifferently.  “Absolutely nothing, provided that you do not mind if Snow never lives again, or whether your children receive bombs down their chimney. Especially the latter, since it will happen quite automatically, I assure you. But if neither worries you, Captain, feel free to pull that trigger. Otherwise, you should stop pointing that thing at me.”

I had seen this play out before. I wasn’t about to lower my gun with a convenient look of shock. He had threatened my family, but I was pretty sure the fleets still wouldn’t be airborne for some hours. And considering Kristopher’s taste for having people set their own traps, I wasn’t going to let go just yet.

“You know something? I have a better idea. You see, I have eleven men here, all of whom have very sharp blades and a variety of other nasty instruments. And as you can see, I also have a perfectly functional weapon in my hands. Whereas you, so far, have words. So how about we see some proof, and then we’ll discuss the future.”

He nodded. “I could hardly expect less, given that you’ve gotten this far. But I assure you, Captain, that I always tell the truth.” He lifted a hand and snapped.

Half the wall suddenly seemed to melt away, revealing itself to be polarized glass with a wallpaper pattern when closed.

“I’m sure, Captain, that you recognize Snow. She’s the one sitting in front of that cannon, there. I rather like the “tin horn” motif on it, don’t you? I think it brings out the best side of the device.”

“And what does it do, besides raise the aesthetic value of your lair?”

He laughed. That damned “Ho, ho, ho” was even more disconcerting in person. “It’s hardly a lair. Merely an inaccessible vantage point for my operations. My… unique metabolic requirements are suited by extreme cold. As for the device, it’s technically referred to as a “matter excitation cannon.” I won’t worry you with the technical details, if only because only your expert here would understand them. All you need to know is that the volume and type of radiation it emits causes the kinetic energy in whatever material it’s aimed at to rise until it melts. Would you agree that it would be unfortunate to watch this occur with Snow, or do you need proof of that as well?” He raised his fingers as if to snap.

I lowered my gun, hastily, but didn’t call off my men. I couldn’t tell if he was bluffing.

He laughed again.

“A predictable decision. And now, Captain, we must talk business. In case it wasn’t immediately obvious, I’m not particularly happy with having you and these gentlemen show up on my front door. I’m not surprised, per se, but the United States has committed against Nordland what I would deem an act of war,” He turned, holding the sword cane, and began to walk down the length of the room. The wall smoked over again, and became a flattened map of the world. He turned his head to look at me, holding his arms out as far as they would go and leaning the base of the cane between his feet. “To be frank, I do not think that the US is prepared for my act of redress. I can get into any place on the planet, now, and they choose to trifle with me. Eminently capable as your men are, a dozen-man team is an insult to my power. And as the US has not been forthcoming with tribute in prior years, I am not predisposed to show a great deal of mercy. But you, Captain, can change that.”

I drew myself up to my full height.

“What is that supposed to mean, precisely?”

He fixed his laser glare on me. “That is supposed to mean that I want a full confession for your decidedly “naughty” activities. I have control over most of the world media, so trust me, getting the message out is not going to be a problem. I want you to be the one to tell the world: firstly that the US will not be repeating these activities again on pain of extermination; secondly, that Nordland will receive reparations; and thirdly, that all of the countries on the Earth can and will receive the same treatment if they try to repeat your failure. I am demanding global hegemony this winter, period. The method I take getting there is their choice.”

I stared at him for a moment. Then, one by one, my men and I broke out laughing. “Do you honestly think you’re going to manage to pull that old trick on us? Firstly, Frosty, in case you hadn’t noticed, we are enemy combatants, not diplomats. And better yet, you’re trying to get a confession out of us for what? Refusing to roll over and die? My deepest apologies. Are you so unused to enemies that you can’t intimidate immediately? Perhaps you should broaden the reach of your social interaction beyond beaurocrats, children, and your own biological creations.”

His face hardened, and the lines became etched and cold. When his voice returned, it was like a blade being dragged on a whetstone.

“You would do well not to mock me. I’ll gently remind you, Captain, that I directly control the safety of your country, which I had the funny idea you were sworn to protect. And as for your offenses…”

Kristopher snapped. And then the wall did something very interesting. It cleared, and started playing video. It was synchronized with what Kristopher was saying.

“Welcome to the Nordland television network, gentlemen. You asked what you had done wrong? Let’s tell the world, then, Captain. You began by attacking my land, slaughtering two military detachments, and blowing up my munitions storage. And then, when you were met by a greeting party, Captain Mesner, not only were you unspeakably rude to them, but you proceeded to make indecent advances on one of them.” It showed footage of me, through Snow’s eyes, as I closed the door and spoke with her. The footage was silent.

“How did you get that?” I asked, outraged.

He looked at me icily. “After we discovered her fingerprints on the screwdriver that was used to undo the ventilation cover—”

My eyes got very wide, and I swore under my breath. I had forgotten about that. She had already had it open when we got downstairs.

“—we had cause to run her visual memory back through her occipital lobe for processing to see if we could figure out why. And quite a story it was. But please, Captain, let’s try to limit talk of your activities with Snow. I think you and your wife can discuss it privately.” I felt the already cold room seem to get chillier.

“But nothing hap—”

He ignored me, and continued more loudly.

“You then proceeded to destroy my factory in the process of breaking into a facility containing ICBMs. Not only did you tamper with the controls of these ICBMs, but you actually sped up the countdown sequence, which is particularly shameful since one of those targets was Washington D.C. I wonder how the President and Congress feel about that choice?”

This time, the outcry was general. Kristopher was undeterred.

“And when your tampering resulted in the engines shutting off, you proceeded to abandon the facility completely, stealing military aircraft in order to attack me directly. The resulting explosion killed thousands of elves, many of whom were not engaged in combat roles. You then mounted an assault on my personal headquarters, which has so far involved smashing my lobby, blowing up my generator room, slaughtering a herd of my reindeer, killing the entire Winter Guard and my personal bodyguards, destroying four computers in my data processing and collection room, and an assault on my personal apartments, during which my wife died. What a proud accomplishment to discuss with your children, Captain.” He paused, and then nodded off to the side, “We’re off air again. I wonder if you could measure with a stopwatch how long it will take for that to be on YouTube once my editors get finished cutting it, preparing it, and broadcasting it. Take that as a warning, gentlemen, as to how I feel. And remember, from this moment, every second is more and more important. Ten minuites from now, every news network from California to Cambodia will have the story. At best, the fact that it’s nearing midnight on GMT will delay proliferation a few minuites, since there will be fewer people up on one of my most major networks. but I don’t think the effect will be appreciable, since Japan is in the middle of the day.” My men looked about ready to spit fire.

I barely managed to growl. “So, the way you see it, we can either confess to that garbage, or you can blow up our homes.”

“Call it what you like, Captain, but I said I never tell a lie, and I meant it. Every word of that is true, and I have film to prove it. If that is what you want to refer to this choice as, be my guest. But please, don’t play me for a fool. Your hands will stay well out the camera shot. No sign language. Any signs with them will invalidate their meaning, so act as your own keeper.”

I paused. This was a hell of a situation. We could choose between destroying our country, or effectively handing it over to Kristopher by becoming his pawn. We were the last thing standing between him and taking over most of the known world.

But Kristopher had accidentally let his hand slip early in this game. If I knew him, then I knew exactly what we had to do.

I held up a hand.

“I need to talk with my men.”

He nodded. “As you wish. But you will not be keeping any secrets, here. Simply be aware that the walls have ears.”

I retreated, and pulled my men into a ragged group.

“Alright, gentlemen, listen carefully. We need to talk about this. Some of you could get out of this like a flash. But the rest of us aren’t so lucky. I know how you feel. Trust me, if possible, I’d want to go out with a bang. But it clearly isn’t in the cards.” I held my best poker face, wondering where the spies were.

Thyger nodded solemnly. He didn’t give a thing away.

“I agree completely, sir. If nothing else, you need to save the girl, right?” That was well played. Kristopher would enjoy thinking that he had caused internal dissent. His spin doctoring had pretty well told the men what the truth was, though.

But I couldn’t save Snow, now. There were millions of people in America who did not have their brains on a file somewhere, and right now, they needed me more then Snow did.

“No, I’ll speak directly to Kristopher. I’m going to be working for my country.”

“Alright, sir. We trust you. I think you’d better signal our resignation, though.”

I nodded.

We broke, and I walked directly up to Kristopher.

“Okay, we’ll do what’s necessary to protect our country.”

“Excellent. I thought that you might make the smart choice. Maybe you’ll even win back the respect of your men.”

“Oh, yes,” I said, between gritted teeth. “I’ve certainly seen the light.”

I felt a one of my men press the hilt of a knife into my hand. And then Thyger threw his last flash-bang.

*          *          *

Common practice when a flash-bang is thrown is to close one’s eyes when it goes off, then go in shooting. This was not possible with one bullet left. So I used Thyger’s knife.

I leapt off my good ankle, and rolled.

It was a good thing I did, because Kristopher appeared out of the smoke where I had been standing, and, drawing a sword out of his cane, swung it through the air where I had been.

I  stood up unsteadily, and slashed at Kristopher with Thyger’s knife.

Kristopher met it with his sword, swung the blade around with one lithe movement, and forced me to protect my torso as he slid the blade past my defenses.

Behind us, the men hurled a piece of heavy furniture into the window and broke it. Kristopher took notice.

“Not a good choice, Captain. What stops me from snapping my fingers and cooking Snow?”

I put up a dogged attack, slashing at his hands and torso wherever he left an opening.

“You’re going to have trouble snapping without fingers, elf-boy. Maybe you should have trained your normal elves to think for themselves rather then blindly obey. Pity Snow isn’t up there, eh? She certainly thought for herself.”

I caught the sword with the knife as it whizzed towards my cheek, and spun on my good foot, so that the dagger was now pushing the blade downwards towards him. I landed on my bad foot hard in doing so, and he twisted his wrist so that the downwards momentum but me below the blade.

I let myself collapse, lashed out with my good foot, and caught the blade again as he tried to turn his dodge into an attack. I spun the blade backwards in a full circle to retaliate, ducking to avoid his inevitable overhead attack.

“You’re dooming your country, Captain,” he sneered, parrying gracefully, “There’s no way you’ll ever stop all those sleighs, and I promise you they’re on the way.”

“Oh, I figured as much,” I said, trying for a short upwards stomach thrust. “But you made one mistake. You need the power to threaten a country, and that means you need to have the option of detonating any of those bombs as an example. Of course, at the time, you didn’t think that anyone else would have the option to. But as it turns out, Graile is very good with computers, Mr. Kringle. So good, in fact, that those bombs may never arrive. ”

He turned pale, and nearly missed a sword stroke. Then he smiled strangely. In one movement, he swung at my head, continued to make a low slash, then flipped the sword and brought it backward in the middle.

The last I dodged purely by accident. My ankle simply gave our under me when I jumped over the low swing, and I fell below the center slash. I caught myself on my hand, used the dagger to parry, and rolled backwards. I heard Snow’s voice, and glimpsed my men getting her out of the machine. But Kristopher brought down a shattering blow on the dagger, and my ankle gave out completely. Worse, My heavy breathing was making my ribs hurt as badly as my ankle.

He raised his hand.

“You see, Captain. When you put your mind to it, solving your problems can be a snap.”

He snapped his fingers, I heard a Thrump, and a piercing scream split the room.

*          *          *

For one ghastly moment, I didn’t know what had happened. I saw my world turn red, and my thinking was suddenly a haze of rage.

I lashed out with more strength then I knew I had, and stood up. In a blaze of silver, I went berserk, slashing at every available part of Kristopher as quickly as they were presented.

I wanted to wipe that smug smile off his face. This man had come into our homes for as long as we could remember, threatened the families of my home country, and then presumed to lecture me on ethical values.

I snarled, gritted my teeth, and carried the onslaught even harder.

He stopped smiling. I clipped him, backwards, across his cheek, and drove him until his back was at the wall.

“You wanted a taste of diplomacy?” I screamed, spinning and thrusting at him as quickly as my arms would allow. My ribs and ankle burned, but I just channeled it, and carried the battle further.

Finally, with one triumphant side blow, I drove the blade directly into his hand.

The sword clattered to the floor. I lunged, and held the blade to his throat, pressing him up against the wall.

Then I leaned in close. “Have you ever heard that war is diplomacy conducted by other means?” I whispered hoarsely.

He smiled, holding his injured hand close to his chest.

“That was truly touching. I’m sure that show of passion has proven beyond dispute your faith to your wife.”

I narrowed my eyes, and shook my head. “You just don’t get it, do you? You think that morality is something you can make up, because it suits you. It’s not a game. Each of those people out there is human, albeit often screwed up, and usually deeply disturbed. Who died and said that you could make value judgments? Your job is to pass out toys, and leave people alone. That’s all.”

He laughed, and shook his head. “Oh, no. Oh, very certainly no, Captain. Passing out toys WAS a punishment, once upon a time.”

I turned my head to the side. “What are you talking about?”

“Captain, I am not an altruist. This tradition started for practical reasons. I am in possession of an herb which slows cellular metabolisis to a crawl, and lengthens the DNA chains that are copied. It forces me to stay in very cold conditions, but sadly falls short of making me immortal. My father was even less so, a small local warlord in an unsteady region of Germanic Europe. He started that little tradition, back when we controlled all the fuel. Those who were most aggressive and capable, and thus helpful, received fuel and were far more likely to survive the winter. Those who were below par received cheap trinkets signifying their worthlessness, and left to starve in the cold. My adjustment to the modern world was imperfect, perhaps, but what I tried to do was foster revolution.”

I was taken aback. He smiled, again.

“Why do you suppose my flag and suit are red, Captain? Don’t let that Coca-Cola story confuse you. The US just wasn’t keen on people knowing that Santa Clause was a communist, and the Nast cartoons were later retroactively added to the archives when people started digging some years later. Did you think the recent Russian expeditions to the North Pole were for their own health? The USSR practically gave me my start. They also gave me the biochemical assistance which allowed me to refine my herb so that I no longer became alarmingly obese using it – which was a side effect – and by proxy, the start of all my biochemical research. I owe them quite a lot.”

I found myself standing over him.

“Why are you bothering to tell me this?” I said, pressed the knife into his neck.

“Because everything has a price, Captain… and while you were listening to me talk, you weren’t watching me draw my pistol.”

I didn’t even have time to think. I just reacted.

His hand came up, and I swung my rifle around.

I leveled my rifle with his head, and something hit me as I squeezed the trigger. But by then, it was too late. I found myself on the ground. My round had struck Kristopher in the head, all right. But he had got off his shot, too, at the person who pushed me.

As the gunshot echoes died, I turned to see who it had been.

And nearly had a heart attack when I realized that it was none other than Snow.

*          *          *

My men ran over to where I was kneeling.

My military mind took over first.

“Graile? Get to that cutting room, ASAP. I think you’ve still got time to halt the broadcast. Then see about detonating the bombs in the sleighs. Take two men with you.”

Then I looked at the people still remaining. They hadn’t told me, of course, because I’d only started to win the instant that I’d thought Snow was dead.

But that meant we HAD lost someone. Dorhaise read my mind. “Buckley, sir. Melted right in front of us. Not enough duct tape in the world, sir. I’m sorry.”

I picked up Snow by her shoulders. She was still alive, but barely.

“Hiya, Sugarplum.” she said, weakly, her eyes half lidded, “I’m sorry that I… forgot to wipe off… the fingerprints.”

I shushed her.

“It doesn’t matter, Snow. You’re okay. You’re okay. We’ve saved Christmas, didn’t you hear? Kristopher is dead, and we’ll have a man up here to start the clean up and cover up in the morning. From now on, I guess parents will just have to pretend Santa exists, eh?”

She laughed nervously. “After what he did to me, Sugarplum, there’s no one on Earth… gladder then me. But, Sugarplum… I don’t have long. And the way he kept this place… I’m afraid I won’t be able to tell you… when I start to feel cold.”

“That’s OK, Snow. I’ll have someone check the archives. There’s got to be enough biochemical facilities up here to regrow you—”

She held up a hand, weakly.

“Don’t do that, Sugarplum… Please. Who wants to live forever? You start to become like him… thinking… you’re better because… you’ve lived longer… and seen more. You start playing with life… because it’s so easy for you. I don’t… want to go that way… Sugarplum. Just let me go… you’ve got a family to go home to… a country to explain what happened here to…Please, Sugarplum.”

Her voice had nearly disappeared. She seemed to be relaxing.

I knew, deep in my heart, that she loved me, whereas I was reminded of my daughter by her. But if she didn’t know already, she never needed to.

The midnight hour struck. Her last words escaped as a whisper.

“Merry Christmas… Sugarplum.”

*          *          *

EPILOGUE: ZERO HOLLYCAUSTS

I did, in fact, return home, eventually. It took a long time, because the archives that Kristopher had been keeping scared the Defense Department half to death. Not only had Kristopher been cooperating with communists around the world, but he knew a lot more then “who was naughty or nice.” He had a surveillance network which was without peer, and the very perturbed officials who came up to inspect had a variety of choice observations, often punctuated with swear words.

The bases weren’t difficult to find, however. If you can imagine the sheer volume of bombs that had been loaded on the migs, then you’ll have some idea of the ease with which we located those bases that hadn’t blown themselves right through the ice. You looked for the smoke plume and followed. Snow, who was probably the only decent person on that base, eventually received a proper cremation, and was sprinkled, appropriately, over the Arctic ice. It was a small, touching service. It’s hard to go to the funeral of a person who saved your life. You end up saying to yourself that you have to go on, that you owe it to that person to do so.

The truth is, I was so torn up, all I could think to say, in front of the small congregation, was, “Her first words to me were ‘Do you belong on the naughty list?’. I can’t answer her question. But I can say, without a doubt, that she belonged on the ‘nice’ list.”

In some ways, there wasn’t a lot more which I could say. I said all that had to be said. It turned out that I was right. when I joked that parents would have to start pretending that Santa existed. It’s funny, the ease with which the world recovers.

Of course, reams and reams of paper that had been laced with a potent compound for disrupting medium-term memory and causing mild hallucinations probably helped. It wasn’t a surprising discovery, since when you thought about it, most people would have been scared had they been lucid when they found unsolicited packages with their names on them in their living room.

I couldn’t say who took over the operation in the North Pole. Kristopher had a lot wrapped up in the stock markets of the world, and for obvious reasons did not have a will. The government undoubtedly had a lot of fun explaining to certain companies that a controlling share in their stock belonged to a person who officially did not exist, and I, for one, am glad not to have been in that group of people.

But someone once said that time heals all wounds.

One thing I did get to bring home with me, which very few people ever saw, was the mammoth bomber, which was found wandering some distance from the North Pole, looking for food. The Air Force boys were happy to get hold of it, of course, as they were with the Reindeer. But these days it lives in a base in Colorado. Every weekend, much to the chagrin of the State Department, I’ve been buying a big hay bale, and heading up to the base to pay it a visit. It’s doing a lot better, now that it isn’t stuck full of pins. But as you might imagine, it isn’t on public display.

My wife will hear about Snow, when the mission is declassified. I spend a lot of time hoping that I’ll still be alive, when that happens.

But to be perfectly honest, I’m far more worried about the arrival of Easter.

Because after this Christmas, I’m not sure I’m ready to run around on an island, being chased by missiles shaped like carrots, and dodging bombs shaped like eggs.

After all, harmless rabbits don’t give out free candy, do they?

A Cartridge in a Cocked Gun

I tried to contain myself. “What have you done with her?”

He smiled. It was nearly a polite smile, but there was something about his eyes that gave it away.

“Far more then you want to contemplate, Captain. Nordland deals harshly with traitors. We live in a harsh environment, and I need absolute discipline.”

I was speechless. I raised my gun, and aimed it squarely at his forehead. “Alright. You seem to have all the answers. So remind me what stops me from putting a bullet in your head.”

He smiled indifferently.  “Absolutely nothing, provided that you do not mind if Snow never lives again, or whether your children receive bombs down their chimney. Especially the latter, since it will happen quite automatically, I assure you. But if neither worries you, Captain, feel free to pull that trigger. Otherwise, you should stop pointing that thing at me.”

I had seen this play out before. I wasn’t about to lower my gun with a convenient look of shock. He had threatened my family, but I was pretty sure the fleets still wouldn’t be airborne for some hours. And considering Kristopher’s taste for having people set their own traps, I wasn’t going to let go just yet.

“You know something? I have a better idea. You see, I have eleven men here, all of whom have very sharp blades and a variety of other nasty instruments. And as you can see, I also have a perfectly functional weapon in my hands. Whereas you, so far, have words. So how about we see some proof, and then we’ll discuss the future.”

He nodded. “I could hardly expect less, given that you’ve gotten this far. But I assure you, Captain, that I always tell the truth.” He lifted a hand and snapped.

Half the wall suddenly seemed to melt away, revealing itself to be polarized glass with a wallpaper pattern when closed.

“I’m sure, Captain, that you recognize Snow. She’s the one sitting in front of that cannon, there. I rather like the “tin horn” motif on it, don’t you? I think it brings out the best side of the device.”

“And what does it do, besides raise the aesthetic value of your lair?”

He laughed. That damned “Ho, ho, ho” was even more disconcerting in person. “It’s hardly a lair. Merely an inaccessible vantage point for my operations. My… unique metabolic requirements are suited by extreme cold. As for the device, it’s technically referred to as a “matter excitation cannon.” I won’t worry you with the technical details, if only because only your expert here would understand them. All you need to know is that the volume and type of radiation it emits causes the kinetic energy in whatever material it’s aimed at to rise until it melts. Would you agree that it would be unfortunate to watch this occur with Snow, or do you need proof of that as well?” He raised his fingers as if to snap.

I lowered my gun, hastily, but didn’t call off my men. I couldn’t tell if he was bluffing.

He laughed again.

“A predictable decision. And now, Captain, we must talk business. In case it wasn’t immediately obvious, I’m not particularly happy with having you and these gentlemen show up on my front door. I’m not surprised, per se, but the United States has committed against Nordland what I would deem an act of war,” He turned, holding the sword cane, and began to walk down the length of the room. The wall smoked over again, and became a flattened map of the world. He turned his head to look at me, holding his arms out as far as they would go and leaning the base of the cane between his feet. “To be frank, I do not think that the US is prepared for my act of redress. I can get into any place on the planet, now, and they choose to trifle with me. Eminently capable as your men are, a dozen-man team is an insult to my power. And as the US has not been forthcoming with tribute in prior years, I am not predisposed to show a great deal of mercy. But you, Captain, can change that.”

I drew myself up to my full height.

“What is that supposed to mean, precisely?”

He fixed his laser glare on me. “That is supposed to mean that I want a full confession for your decidedly “naughty” activities. I have control over most of the world media, so trust me, getting the message out is not going to be a problem. I want you to be the one to tell the world: firstly that the US will not be repeating these activities again on pain of extermination; secondly, that Nordland will receive reparations; and thirdly, that all of the countries on the Earth can and will receive the same treatment if they try to repeat your failure. I am demanding global hegemony this winter, period. The method I take getting there is their choice.”

I stared at him for a moment. Then, one by one, my men and I broke out laughing. “Do you honestly think you’re going to manage to pull that old trick on us? Firstly, Frosty, in case you hadn’t noticed, we are enemy combatants, not diplomats. And better yet, you’re trying to get a confession out of us for what? Refusing to roll over and die? My deepest apologies. Are you so unused to enemies that you can’t intimidate immediately? Perhaps you should broaden the reach of your social interaction beyond beaurocrats, children, and your own biological creations.”

His face hardened, and the lines became etched and cold. When his voice returned, it was like a blade being dragged on a whetstone.

“You would do well not to mock me. I’ll gently remind you, Captain, that I directly control the safety of your country, which I had the funny idea you were sworn to protect. And as for your offenses…”

Kristopher snapped. And then the wall did something very interesting. It cleared, and started playing video. It was synchronized with what Kristopher was saying.

“Welcome to the Nordland television network, gentlemen. You asked what you had done wrong? Let’s tell the world, then, Captain. You began by attacking my land, slaughtering two military detachments, and blowing up my munitions storage. And then, when you were met by a greeting party, Captain Mesner, not only were you unspeakably rude to them, but you proceeded to make indecent advances on one of them.” It showed footage of me, through Snow’s eyes, as I closed the door and spoke with her. The footage was silent.

“How did you get that?” I asked, outraged.

He looked at me icily. “After we discovered her fingerprints on the screwdriver that was used to undo the ventilation cover—”

My eyes got very wide, and I swore under my breath. I had forgotten about that. She had already had it open when we got downstairs.

“—we had cause to run her visual memory back through her occipital lobe for processing to see if we could figure out why. And quite a story it was. But please, Captain, let’s try to limit talk of your activities with Snow. I think you and your wife can discuss it privately.” I felt the already cold room seem to get chillier.

“But nothing hap—”

He ignored me, and continued more loudly.

“You then proceeded to destroy my factory in the process of breaking into a facility containing ICBMs. Not only did you tamper with the controls of these ICBMs, but you actually sped up the countdown sequence, which is particularly shameful since one of those targets was Washington D.C. I wonder how the President and Congress feel about that choice?”

This time, the outcry was general. Kristopher was undeterred.

“And when your tampering resulted in the engines shutting off, you proceeded to abandon the facility completely, stealing military aircraft in order to attack me directly. The resulting explosion killed thousands of elves, many of whom were not engaged in combat roles. You then mounted an assault on my personal headquarters, which has so far involved smashing my lobby, blowing up my generator room, slaughtering a herd of my reindeer, killing the entire Winter Guard and my personal bodyguards, destroying four computers in my data processing and collection room, and an assault on my personal apartments, during which my wife died. What a proud accomplishment to discuss with your children, Captain.” He paused, and then nodded off to the side, “We’re off air again. I wonder if you could measure with a stopwatch how long it will take for that to be on YouTube once my editors get finished cutting it, preparing it, and broadcasting it. Take that as a warning, gentlemen, as to how I feel. And remember, from this moment, every second is more and more important. Ten minuites from now, every news network from California to Cambodia will have the story. At best, the fact that it’s nearing midnight on GMT will delay proliferation a few minuites, since there will be fewer people up on one of my most major networks. but I don’t think the effect will be appreciable, since Japan is in the middle of the day.” My men looked about ready to spit fire.

I barely managed to growl. “So, the way you see it, we can either confess to that garbage, or you can blow up our homes.”

“Call it what you like, Captain, but I said I never tell a lie, and I meant it. Every word of that is true, and I have film to prove it. If that is what you want to refer to this choice as, be my guest. But please, don’t play me for a fool. Your hands will stay well out the camera shot. No sign language. Any signs with them will invalidate their meaning, so act as your own keeper.”

I paused. This was a hell of a situation. We could choose between destroying our country, or effectively handing it over to Kristopher by becoming his pawn. We were the last thing standing between him and taking over most of the known world.

But Kristopher had accidentally let his hand slip early in this game. If I knew him, then I knew exactly what we had to do.

I held up a hand.

“I need to talk with my men.”

He nodded. “As you wish. But you will not be keeping any secrets, here. Simply be aware that the walls have ears.”

I retreated, and pulled my men into a ragged group.

“Alright, gentlemen, listen carefully. We need to talk about this. Some of you could get out of this like a flash. But the rest of us aren’t so lucky. I know how you feel. Trust me, if possible, I’d want to go out with a bang. But it clearly isn’t in the cards.” I held my best poker face, wondering where the spies were.

Thyger nodded solemnly. He didn’t give a thing away.

“I agree completely, sir. If nothing else, you need to save the girl, right?” That was well played. Kristopher would enjoy thinking that he had caused internal dissent. His spin doctoring had pretty well told the men what the truth was, though.

But I couldn’t save Snow, now. There were millions of people in America who did not have their brains on a file somewhere, and right now, they needed me more then Snow did.

“No, I’ll speak directly to Kristopher. I’m going to be working for my country.”

“Alright, sir. We trust you. I think you’d better signal our resignation, though.”

I nodded.

We broke, and I walked directly up to Kristopher.

“Okay, we’ll do what’s necessary to protect our country.”

“Excellent. I thought that you might make the smart choice. Maybe you’ll even win back the respect of your men.”

“Oh, yes,” I said, between gritted teeth. “I’ve certainly seen the light.”

I felt a one of my men press the hilt of a knife into my hand. And then Thyger threw his last flash-bang.

*          *          *

Common practice when a flash-bang is thrown is to close one’s eyes when it goes off, then go in shooting. This was not possible with one bullet left. So I used Thyger’s knife.

I leapt off my good ankle, and rolled.

It was a good thing I did, because Kristopher appeared out of the smoke where I had been standing, and, drawing a sword out of his cane, swung it through the air where I had been.

I  stood up unsteadily, and slashed at Kristopher with Thyger’s knife.

Kristopher met it with his sword, swung the blade around with one lithe movement, and forced me to protect my torso as he slid the blade past my defenses.

Behind us, the men hurled a piece of heavy furniture into the window and broke it. Kristopher took notice.

“Not a good choice, Captain. What stops me from snapping my fingers and cooking Snow?”

I put up a dogged attack, slashing at his hands and torso wherever he left an opening.

“You’re going to have trouble snapping without fingers, elf-boy. Maybe you should have trained your normal elves to think for themselves rather then blindly obey. Pity Snow isn’t up there, eh? She certainly thought for herself.”

I caught the sword with the knife as it whizzed towards my cheek, and spun on my good foot, so that the dagger was now pushing the blade downwards towards him. I landed on my bad foot hard in doing so, and he twisted his wrist so that the downwards momentum but me below the blade.

I let myself collapse, lashed out with my good foot, and caught the blade again as he tried to turn his dodge into an attack. I spun the blade backwards in a full circle to retaliate, ducking to avoid his inevitable overhead attack.

“You’re dooming your country, Captain,” he sneered, parrying gracefully, “There’s no way you’ll ever stop all those sleighs, and I promise you they’re on the way.”

“Oh, I figured as much,” I said, trying for a short upwards stomach thrust. “But you made one mistake. You need the power to threaten a country, and that means you need to have the option of detonating any of those bombs as an example. Of course, at the time, you didn’t think that anyone else would have the option to. But as it turns out, Graile is very good with computers, Mr. Kringle. So good, in fact, that those bombs may never arrive. ”

He turned pale, and nearly missed a sword stroke. Then he smiled strangely. In one movement, he swung at my head, continued to make a low slash, then flipped the sword and brought it backward in the middle.

The last I dodged purely by accident. My ankle simply gave our under me when I jumped over the low swing, and I fell below the center slash. I caught myself on my hand, used the dagger to parry, and rolled backwards. I heard Snow’s voice, and glimpsed my men getting her out of the machine. But Kristopher brought down a shattering blow on the dagger, and my ankle gave out completely. Worse, My heavy breathing was making my ribs hurt as badly as my ankle.

He raised his hand.

“You see, Captain. When you put your mind to it, solving your problems can be a snap.”

He snapped his fingers, I heard a Thrump, and a piercing scream split the room.

*          *          *

For one ghastly moment, I didn’t know what had happened. I saw my world turn red, and my thinking was suddenly a haze of rage.

I lashed out with more strength then I knew I had, and stood up. In a blaze of silver, I went berserk, slashing at every available part of Kristopher as quickly as they were presented.

I wanted to wipe that smug smile off his face. This man had come into our homes for as long as we could remember, threatened the families of my home country, and then presumed to lecture me on ethical values.

I snarled, gritted my teeth, and carried the onslaught even harder.

He stopped smiling. I clipped him, backwards, across his cheek, and drove him until his back was at the wall.

“You wanted a taste of diplomacy?” I screamed, spinning and thrusting at him as quickly as my arms would allow. My ribs and ankle burned, but I just channeled it, and carried the battle further.

Finally, with one triumphant side blow, I drove the blade directly into his hand.

The sword clattered to the floor. I lunged, and held the blade to his throat, pressing him up against the wall.

Then I leaned in close. “Have you ever heard that war is diplomacy conducted by other means?” I whispered hoarsely.

He smiled, holding his injured hand close to his chest.

“That was truly touching. I’m sure that show of passion has proven beyond dispute your faith to your wife.”

I narrowed my eyes, and shook my head. “You just don’t get it, do you? You think that morality is something you can make up, because it suits you. It’s not a game. Each of those people out there is human, albeit often screwed up, and usually deeply disturbed. Who died and said that you could make value judgments? Your job is to pass out toys, and leave people alone. That’s all.”

He laughed, and shook his head. “Oh, no. Oh, very certainly no, Captain. Passing out toys WAS a punishment, once upon a time.”

I turned my head to the side. “What are you talking about?”

“Captain, I am not an altruist. This tradition started for practical reasons. I am in possession of an herb which slows cellular metabolisis to a crawl, and lengthens the DNA chains that are copied. It forces me to stay in very cold conditions, but sadly falls short of making me immortal. My father was even less so, a small local warlord in an unsteady region of Germanic Europe. He started that little tradition, back when we controlled all the fuel. Those who were most aggressive and capable, and thus helpful, received fuel and were far more likely to survive the winter. Those who were below par received cheap trinkets signifying their worthlessness, and left to starve in the cold. My adjustment to the modern world was imperfect, perhaps, but what I tried to do was foster revolution.”

I was taken aback. He smiled, again.

“Why do you suppose my flag and suit are red, Captain? Don’t let that Coca-Cola story confuse you. The US just wasn’t keen on people knowing that Santa Clause was a communist, and the Nast cartoons were later retroactively added to the archives when people started digging some years later. Did you think the recent Russian expeditions to the North Pole were for their own health? The USSR practically gave me my start. They also gave me the biochemical assistance which allowed me to refine my herb so that I no longer became alarmingly obese using it – which was a side effect – and by proxy, the start of all my biochemical research. I owe them quite a lot.”

I found myself standing over him.

“Why are you bothering to tell me this?” I said, pressed the knife into his neck.

“Because everything has a price, Captain… and while you were listening to me talk, you weren’t watching me draw my pistol.”

I didn’t even have time to think. I just reacted.

His hand came up, and I swung my rifle around.

I leveled my rifle with his head, and something hit me as I squeezed the trigger. But by then, it was too late. I found myself on the ground. My round had struck Kristopher in the head, all right. But he had got off his shot, too, at the person who pushed me.

As the gunshot echoes died, I turned to see who it had been.

And nearly had a heart attack when I realized that it was none other than Snow.

*          *          *

My men ran over to where I was kneeling.

My military mind took over first.

“Graile? Get to that cutting room, ASAP. I think you’ve still got time to halt the broadcast. Then see about detonating the bombs in the sleighs. Take two men with you.”

Then I looked at the people still remaining. They hadn’t told me, of course, because I’d only started to win the instant that I’d thought Snow was dead.

But that meant we HAD lost someone. Dorhaise read my mind. “Buckley, sir. Melted right in front of us. Not enough duct tape in the world, sir. I’m sorry.”

I picked up Snow by her shoulders. She was still alive, but barely.

“Hiya, Sugarplum.” she said, weakly, her eyes half lidded, “I’m sorry that I… forgot to wipe off… the fingerprints.”

I shushed her.

“It doesn’t matter, Snow. You’re okay. You’re okay. We’ve saved Christmas, didn’t you hear? Kristopher is dead, and we’ll have a man up here to start the clean up and cover up in the morning. From now on, I guess parents will just have to pretend Santa exists, eh?”

She laughed nervously. “After what he did to me, Sugarplum, there’s no one on Earth… gladder then me. But, Sugarplum… I don’t have long. And the way he kept this place… I’m afraid I won’t be able to tell you… when I start to feel cold.”

“That’s OK, Snow. I’ll have someone check the archives. There’s got to be enough biochemical facilities up here to regrow you—”

She held up a hand, weakly.

“Don’t do that, Sugarplum… Please. Who wants to live forever? You start to become like him… thinking… you’re better because… you’ve lived longer… and seen more. You start playing with life… because it’s so easy for you. I don’t… want to go that way… Sugarplum. Just let me go… you’ve got a family to go home to… a country to explain what happened here to…Please, Sugarplum.”

Her voice had nearly disappeared. She seemed to be relaxing.

I knew, deep in my heart, that she loved me, whereas I was reminded of my daughter by her. But if she didn’t know already, she never needed to.

The midnight hour struck. Her last words escaped as a whisper.

“Merry Christmas… Sugarplum.”

*          *          *

EPILOGUE: ZERO HOLLYCAUSTS

I did, in fact, return home, eventually. It took a long time, because the archives that Kristopher had been keeping scared the Defense Department half to death. Not only had Kristopher been cooperating with communists around the world, but he knew a lot more then “who was naughty or nice.” He had a surveillance network which was without peer, and the very perturbed officials who came up to inspect had a variety of choice observations, often punctuated with swear words.

The bases weren’t difficult to find, however. If you can imagine the sheer volume of bombs that had been loaded on the migs, then you’ll have some idea of the ease with which we located those bases that hadn’t blown themselves right through the ice. You looked for the smoke plume and followed. Snow, who was probably the only decent person on that base, eventually received a proper cremation, and was sprinkled, appropriately, over the Arctic ice. It was a small, touching service. It’s hard to go to the funeral of a person who saved your life. You end up saying to yourself that you have to go on, that you owe it to that person to do so.

The truth is, I was so torn up, all I could think to say, in front of the small congregation, was, “Her first words to me were ‘Do you belong on the naughty list?’. I can’t answer her question. But I can say, without a doubt, that she belonged on the ‘nice’ list.”

In some ways, there wasn’t a lot more which I could say. I said all that had to be said. It turned out that I was right. when I joked that parents would have to start pretending that Santa existed. It’s funny, the ease with which the world recovers.

Of course, reams and reams of paper that had been laced with a potent compound for disrupting medium-term memory and causing mild hallucinations probably helped. It wasn’t a surprising discovery, since when you thought about it, most people would have been scared had they been lucid when they found unsolicited packages with their names on them in their living room.

I couldn’t say who took over the operation in the North Pole. Kristopher had a lot wrapped up in the stock markets of the world, and for obvious reasons did not have a will. The government undoubtedly had a lot of fun explaining to certain companies that a controlling share in their stock belonged to a person who officially did not exist, and I, for one, am glad not to have been in that group of people.

But someone once said that time heals all wounds.

One thing I did get to bring home with me, which very few people ever saw, was the mammoth bomber, which was found wandering some distance from the North Pole, looking for food. The Air Force boys were happy to get hold of it, of course, as they were with the Reindeer. But these days it lives in a base in Colorado. Every weekend, much to the chagrin of the State Department, I’ve been buying a big hay bale, and heading up to the base to pay it a visit. It’s doing a lot better, now that it isn’t stuck full of pins. But as you might imagine, it isn’t on public display.

My wife will hear about Snow, when the mission is declassified. I spend a lot of time hoping that I’ll still be alive, when that happens.

But to be perfectly honest, I’m far more worried about the arrival of Easter.

Because after this Christmas, I’m not sure I’m ready to run around on an island, being chased by missiles shaped like carrots, and dodging bombs shaped like eggs.

After all, harmless rabbits don’t give out free candy, do they?

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Chapter 11 – Two Deserted Loves

Two Deserted Loves

 

I limped over to the girls as fast as my legs would carry me. They were bound and gagged, sitting on some kind of pressure sensors, which had wires connected directly to the C-4.

The apartment had more of a modern flair to it then any that I had seen before. The carpeting gave way to polished granite and smooth, translucent aluminum.

I couldn’t help but notice, however, that the apartment was very cold. It struck me as very odd that these two were wearing bikinis in a place so frigid. I pulled the gag off the one on the left side of the tree.

“Mrs. Claus, I presume?”

“Whatever. All I know is that one minute, everything was mistletoe and holly. The next minute, I wake up tied to a tree, sitting on some kind of bomb, and Kris has left us here.”

“Is he still in the building?”

“Far as I know. Did you hear the part about me and my sister sitting on a bomb? I don’t really care where he is.”

I motioned Thyger over, and then, as an afterthought, Graile.

“What do you make of this, boys?”

Thyger whistled. “Nothing good, sir. That much plastic explosive could take out a city block, ordinarily. If Kristopher is still in this building, then this room must be really well reinforced.”

I nodded to Graile. “Think we can diffuse this thing?”

“Maybe, sir. Frankly, I don’t think it’s going to be a piece of cake, if that’s what you’re asking. It’s clear that the person who built this knew what they were doing.”

He looked at the circuit box, and called over Dorhaise, who was helping the others secure the area.

“Got a stethoscope handy?”

Dorhaise, who at this point was getting used to being used as a supply train, simply took out the stethoscope and handed it to Graile. Graile held it to the side of the box, and tapped on it a few times.

“Well, it seems to have something that’s transmitting the sound inside. There doesn’t seem to be a vacuum seal, which is what I was really afraid of.”

He pulled out a screwdriver. But as he was putting it to the screw, he paused, shook his head and then put it away.

“But the screws have almost certainly got a catch mechanism that sets this off if they’re used.” He reached into his pack, pulled out his combat knife, and selected the can opener.

It wasn’t Hattori steel, like Thyger’s knife probably was. But it was well-crafted, field qualified, and capable of piercing the relatively thin steel of the circuit box.

Carefully prying out the piece of metal, he looked at the internal mechanisms, and whistled.

“This is nice work,” he said simply. “Our friends downstairs probably helped design it. But—” he tapped the internals, carefully, “—there’s a tiny oversight here, which I think we can exploit. The pressure switch is connected to a weight sensor, and the device controlling those is on a very short timer. That was probably so they could regulate the transfer of electricity more exactly, sir, this being plastic explosive. I can, with relative safety, slow down the timing between counts in the internal clock.”

“Will that diffuse it?”

He blew out between his lips.

“Probably not. But it will buy you time. Ten seconds of it, probably. I wish I could get you more, and Thyger is welcome to look at it if he wants, but I don’t think your going to get much more out of this thing.”

“Um, I don’t mean to interrupt.” said the girl without a gag on her mouth, “But is it possible to tell me what’s going on?”

I looked up at her. “Frankly, no. Where did he pick you up? Florida? California?”

She looked hurt, “Hey, we’re married, not cheap floozies. Just because my sister and I happen to be married to one guy doesn’t mean we’re those sorts of girls. I don’t know. We met him back when he was still doing personal service to houses, rather then just teleporting things down. We were kids at the time. Who knows where?”

Lovely, I thought. I refuse to continue probing beneath the surface of how disturbed this is.

Thyger snapped his fingers.

“We could destroy them, sir.”

I tilted my head at him, “We’re not here to pass out sentence for polygamy, we’re here to diffuse a bomb.”

He shook his head, and stepped forward.

“Not them, sir. This is C-4, sir. Like we had in the munitions dump. Which means what was a liability for us then is to our advantage now. C-4 burns in fire, instead of exploding. We just need to find a way to burn it.”

An epiphany hit. “Didn’t the chief programmer mention that all of the air ventilation is run through this apartment?”

*          *          *

The filter was three rooms away. Getting there involved heavy hoisting, with a whining girl attached to the tree we were carrying, and me with a hurt ankle.

Our rate of travel was ridiculously slow, and there was a serious problem with the filter.

Kristopher used a gigantic, full sized filter, which was walk-in. It was gleaming white, and very modern. It was a full chemical filter. It reacted with oxygen and nitrogen, then reacted with the compound created afterwards, leaving only the pure elements. They were then recombined with each other later.

But the door was not nearly wide enough to accommodate the tree.

Thyger did not see this as a problem.

“Frankly, sir,” he said, “I’ve been dying to chop down a Christmas tree since we started our visit up here.”

Considerable trimming eventually left the tree just small enough to slip through the doorway.

“How long can you hold your breath?” I said, interrupting Mrs. Claus #1 as she was whining about being placed in the tank.

She stopped, and shrugged. “A minute, a minute and a half.”

I shook my head. “You’re going to have to hold it for two minutes. We’re going to change the mix in this room to almost a hundred percent oxygen. That should be enough to burn all of this C-4 before it can detonate. But if you breathe that continuously, you’re going to be in danger.” This was, in fact, a white lie. I was far more concerned with getting her to shut up then preventing the “danger” of nausea and a sore throat. My men didn’t need anyone else yelling things at them right now.

I turned to Graile. “Is the adjustment ready?”

He nodded. “Yes, sir.”

“Alright, then. Let’s light this Yule log.”

*          *          *

It went off like a dream. Two men stood by with the girls, and at the signal, yanked them out the door.

We shut the door, locked it, and then Thyger detonated the final charge, which was still sitting on the fuel line downstairs. This was connected, as I had suspected, directly to the oxygen feed on Kristopher’s filter.

The resulting flash of flame instantly incinerated the C-4, leaving nothing but a flyblown ashen structure to show what it had been.

Mrs. Claus was very surprised to find my machete at her neck before she could finish drawing a compact flechette gun from her bra. It had the characteristic long, thin design, although it was light-years more advanced then what we had at home.

“I’ll thank you to put that down, Mrs. Claus. Boys, grab the other one.”

She stomped her foot and shook her head from side to side.

“How did you guess?”

“It wasn’t easy,” I admitted, “but there were clues. Kristopher put an exaggerated amount of C-4 on you, for starters, but that was relatively innocuous, since “overkill” is his middle name. There was also the fact that you said you woke up tied to the tree with your sister, which is interesting since you’re both bound and gagged, and you couldn’t see past the pine tree behind you. But the really damning evidence is that you’re wearing bikinis, and this room is about 40 degrees. The fact that you weren’t yet showing signs of being very cold was the giveaway. You changed, what, five minutes before coming in here? Wouldn’t it just be perfect if we were distracted by the mostly naked women, or pride in diffusing the bomb, so much we doomed ourselves?”

She narrowed her eyes.

“You’ve got no idea who you’re dealing with. Yeah, okay, fine. It was a setup. At gunpoint, but a setup. He came in, dragging a stupid elf along with him, and told us he had a surprise down in the living room. He’s upstairs, right now, waiting to hear about your death.” She paused. When she started again, her tone was that of someone who’s had a revelation. “He knows everything, you know that? He sees everything that goes on around here. But Kristopher was really clear about what would happen to us if we failed. The bastard didn’t grow me, so he doesn’t have my brain on file, and I’m not going to let him bring me back just so he can have his kicks.” And before I could stop her, she shot herself with the flechette gun. Ordinarily, the damage caused by a flechette was low, but she shot directly into her head. The pin flew right into her chin, her eyes glassed over, and she fell down, dead.

I swore under my breath.

“Graile?” I said, turning to him, “if I gather correctly, he’s got Snow. Do you recall if there was something odd about the trace you ran?”

“You mean besides it being watched? Not really, I –” He stopped.

“You mean what he said about showing the world, don’t you? You think he’ll try to do that now?”

“Count on it,” I said, grimacing.

*          *          *

I climbed the stairs on my hurt ankle, and opened the door. The air was even more frigid then the rest of the apartment.

This room was not like the otherwise light and airy rooms the rest of the North Pole seemed to be made of. The walls were a somber, brooding crimson. Forest green marble veined with black made up the floor. The ceiling was high and forbidding, with atmospheric sconces on the walls shaped like Christmas trees.

I called into the darkness.

“Kristopher Kringle, we hereby order you to cease and desist. Failure to comply will result in violence.”

The shadows shifted at the far end of the room.

Out of the darkness, the sound of approaching footsteps rang, as a shadowed figure approached.

He was about seven feet tall, and surprisingly thin. He wore a red uniform, trimmed in neat white fur. It had epaulettes shaped like golden Christmas trees, a spattering of medals, and a lidded red hat with stars on it, which were placed on either side of the eye and cane symbol, also in gold.

His ringed hand held in its grip a jade cane with a Christmas tree for the top.

His face bore the lines of too much age and time, and a certain ironic twist of his mouth was framed perfectly in a neatly trimmed white goatee. He resembled a demonic colonel sanders far more then a child’s Christmastime fantasy.

“I am Kristopher Kringle.” The figure said, in a harsh metallic voice. He did not speak very loudly at all, but the sound was full of odd tones and susurrations which grabbed the ear. “And you, Captain Mesner, are just in time to watch Snow melt.”

Two Deserted Loves

I limped over to the girls as fast as my legs would carry me. They were bound and gagged, sitting on some kind of pressure sensors, which had wires connected directly to the C-4.

The apartment had more of a modern flair to it then any that I had seen before. The carpeting gave way to polished granite and smooth, translucent aluminum.

I couldn’t help but notice, however, that the apartment was very cold. It struck me as very odd that these two were wearing bikinis in a place so frigid. I pulled the gag off the one on the left side of the tree.

“Mrs. Claus, I presume?”

“Whatever. All I know is that one minute, everything was mistletoe and holly. The next minute, I wake up tied to a tree, sitting on some kind of bomb, and Kris has left us here.”

“Is he still in the building?”

“Far as I know. Did you hear the part about me and my sister sitting on a bomb? I don’t really care where he is.”

I motioned Thyger over, and then, as an afterthought, Graile.

“What do you make of this, boys?”

Thyger whistled. “Nothing good, sir. That much plastic explosive could take out a city block, ordinarily. If Kristopher is still in this building, then this room must be really well reinforced.”

I nodded to Graile. “Think we can diffuse this thing?”

Maybe, sir. Frankly, I don’t think it’s going to be a piece of cake, if that’s what you’re asking. It’s clear that the person who built this knew what they were doing.”

He looked at the circuit box, and called over Dorhaise, who was helping the others secure the area.

“Got a stethoscope handy?”

Dorhaise, who at this point was getting used to being used as a supply train, simply took out the stethoscope and handed it to Graile. Graile held it to the side of the box, and tapped on it a few times.

“Well, it seems to have something that’s transmitting the sound inside. There doesn’t seem to be a vacuum seal, which is what I was really afraid of.”

He pulled out a screwdriver. But as he was putting it to the screw, he paused, shook his head and then put it away.

“But the screws have almost certainly got a catch mechanism that sets this off if they’re used.” He reached into his pack, pulled out his combat knife, and selected the can opener.

It wasn’t Hattori steel, like Thyger’s knife probably was. But it was well-crafted, field qualified, and capable of piercing the relatively thin steel of the circuit box.

Carefully prying out the piece of metal, he looked at the internal mechanisms, and whistled.

“This is nice work,” he said simply. “Our friends downstairs probably helped design it. But—” he tapped the internals, carefully, “—there’s a tiny oversight here, which I think we can exploit. The pressure switch is connected to a weight sensor, and the device controlling those is on a very short timer. That was probably so they could regulate the transfer of electricity more exactly, sir, this being plastic explosive. I can, with relative safety, slow down the timing between counts in the internal clock.”

“Will that diffuse it?”

He blew out between his lips.

“Probably not. But it will buy you time. Ten seconds of it, probably. I wish I could get you more, and Thyger is welcome to look at it if he wants, but I don’t think your going to get much more out of this thing.”

“Um, I don’t mean to interrupt.” said the girl without a gag on her mouth, “But is it possible to tell me what’s going on?”

I looked up at her. “Frankly, no. Where did he pick you up? Florida? California?”

She looked hurt, “Hey, we’re married, not cheap floozies. Just because my sister and I happen to be married to one guy doesn’t mean we’re those sorts of girls. I don’t know. We met him back when he was still doing personal service to houses, rather then just teleporting things down. We were kids at the time. Who knows where?”

Lovely, I thought. I refuse to continue probing beneath the surface of how disturbed this is.

Thyger snapped his fingers.

“We could destroy them, sir.”

I tilted my head at him, “We’re not here to pass out sentence for polygamy, we’re here to diffuse a bomb.”

He shook his head, and stepped forward.

“Not them, sir. This is C-4, sir. Like we had in the munitions dump. Which means what was a liability for us then is to our advantage now. C-4 burns in fire, instead of exploding. We just need to find a way to burn it.”

An epiphany hit. “Didn’t the chief programmer mention that all of the air ventilation is run through this apartment?”

*          *          *

The filter was three rooms away. Getting there involved heavy hoisting, with a whining girl attached to the tree we were carrying, and me with a hurt ankle.

Our rate of travel was ridiculously slow, and there was a serious problem with the filter.

Kristopher used a gigantic, full sized filter, which was walk-in. It was gleaming white, and very modern. It was a full chemical filter. It reacted with oxygen and nitrogen, then reacted with the compound created afterwards, leaving only the pure elements. They were then recombined with each other later.

But the door was not nearly wide enough to accommodate the tree.

Thyger did not see this as a problem.

“Frankly, sir,” he said, “I’ve been dying to chop down a Christmas tree since we started our visit up here.”

Considerable trimming eventually left the tree just small enough to slip through the doorway.

“How long can you hold your breath?” I said, interrupting Mrs. Claus #1 as she was whining about being placed in the tank.

She stopped, and shrugged. “A minute, a minute and a half.”

I shook my head. “You’re going to have to hold it for two minutes. We’re going to change the mix in this room to almost a hundred percent oxygen. That should be enough to burn all of this C-4 before it can detonate. But if you breathe that continuously, you’re going to be in danger.” This was, in fact, a white lie. I was far more concerned with getting her to shut up then preventing the “danger” of nausea and a sore throat. My men didn’t need anyone else yelling things at them right now.

I turned to Graile. “Is the adjustment ready?”

He nodded. “Yes, sir.”

“Alright, then. Let’s light this Yule log.”

*          *          *

It went off like a dream. Two men stood by with the girls, and at the signal, yanked them out the door.

We shut the door, locked it, and then Thyger detonated the final charge, which was still sitting on the fuel line downstairs. This was connected, as I had suspected, directly to the oxygen feed on Kristopher’s filter.

The resulting flash of flame instantly incinerated the C-4, leaving nothing but a flyblown ashen structure to show what it had been.

Mrs. Claus was very surprised to find my machete at her neck before she could finish drawing a compact flechette gun from her bra. It had the characteristic long, thin design, although it was light-years more advanced then what we had at home.

“I’ll thank you to put that down, Mrs. Claus. Boys, grab the other one.”

She stomped her foot and shook her head from side to side.

“How did you guess?”

“It wasn’t easy,” I admitted, “but there were clues. Kristopher put an exaggerated amount of C-4 on you, for starters, but that was relatively innocuous, since “overkill” is his middle name. There was also the fact that you said you woke up tied to the tree with your sister, which is interesting since you’re both bound and gagged, and you couldn’t see past the pine tree behind you. But the really damning evidence is that you’re wearing bikinis, and this room is about 40 degrees. The fact that you weren’t yet showing signs of being very cold was the giveaway. You changed, what, five minutes before coming in here? Wouldn’t it just be perfect if we were distracted by the mostly naked women, or pride in diffusing the bomb, so much we doomed ourselves?”

She narrowed her eyes.

“You’ve got no idea who you’re dealing with. Yeah, okay, fine. It was a setup. At gunpoint, but a setup. He came in, dragging a stupid elf along with him, and told us he had a surprise down in the living room. He’s upstairs, right now, waiting to hear about your death.” She paused. When she started again, her tone was that of someone who’s had a revelation. “He knows everything, you know that? He sees everything that goes on around here. But Kristopher was really clear about what would happen to us if we failed. The bastard didn’t grow me, so he doesn’t have my brain on file, and I’m not going to let him bring me back just so he can have his kicks.” And before I could stop her, she shot herself with the flechette gun. Ordinarily, the damage caused by a flechette was low, but she shot directly into her head. The pin flew right into her chin, her eyes glassed over, and she fell down, dead.

I swore under my breath.

“Graile?” I said, turning to him, “if I gather correctly, he’s got Snow. Do you recall if there was something odd about the trace you ran?”

“You mean besides it being watched? Not really, I –” He stopped.

“You mean what he said about showing the world, don’t you? You think he’ll try to do that now?”

“Count on it,” I said, grimacing.

*          *          *

I climbed the stairs on my hurt ankle, and opened the door. The air was even more frigid then the rest of the apartment.

This room was not like the otherwise light and airy rooms the rest of the North Pole seemed to be made of. The walls were a somber, brooding crimson. Forest green marble veined with black made up the floor. The ceiling was high and forbidding, with atmospheric sconces on the walls shaped like Christmas trees.

I called into the darkness.

“Kristopher Kringle, we hereby order you to cease and desist. Failure to comply will result in violence.”

The shadows shifted at the far end of the room.

Out of the darkness, the sound of approaching footsteps rang, as a shadowed figure approached.

He was about seven feet tall, and surprisingly thin. He wore a red uniform, trimmed in neat white fur. It had epaulettes shaped like golden Christmas trees, a spattering of medals, and a lidded red hat with stars on it, which were placed on either side of the eye and cane symbol, also in gold.

His ringed hand held in its grip a jade cane with a Christmas tree for the top.

His face bore the lines of too much age and time, and a certain ironic twist of his mouth was framed perfectly in a neatly trimmed white goatee. He resembled a demonic colonel sanders far more then a child’s Christmastime fantasy.

“I am Kristopher Kringle.” The figure said, in a harsh metallic voice. He did not speak very loudly at all, but the sound was full of odd tones and susurrations which grabbed the ear. “And you, Captain Mesner, are just in time to watch Snow melt.”

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Chapter 10 – Three Henchmen

Three Henchmen

I instinctively raised my gun, only to realize that it would do absolutely no good, because I had one bullet left and far more than that number of foes. I pulled out the machete, and gave it a few practice swings.

“I take it that you’re Kristopher’s personal guard?”

The elf in green nodded.

“I wouldn’t bother putting up much of a fight,” he said, looming forward, “You’re going to die anyway. It isn’t really all that bad. But you’ll probably prefer it if I simply snap you neck.”

“Oh, really?” I stepped backwards, pivoted on my front foot to sweep the weapon at the elf, and darted back again. The elf slid backwards to parry my attack.

“And what leads you to that conclusion?” I said, signaling with my hand for my men to circle up.

The elf shrugged. “We’ve just been sealed in here. I can tell you that there aren’t many things less pleasant then oxygen deprivation.”

I jumped into the air, swept my machete past the elf’s cheek, and landed again, on the other side. Before he could turn around, I brought the blade around at a shallow angle behind my back to cleave at his calve, and finished with my arm at it’s full extent, behind his back.

He was bleeding, but that was about all you could say. Otherwise, he did not even seem to notice.

The other two elves lunged forwards at my men, and the green elf turned around.

But that meant that he left his back open to my men, who were already under attack, but not fully engaged.

“Trample him, boys!” I shouted, and some of them broke free and charged, pushing the humungous elf to the ground.

But he didn’t stay down long. With an exaggerated grunt, he flung my men off in all directions, pressed his huge knuckles to the ground, and hopped up on his back feet so that he was upright again.

The red elf grabbed my ankle, and lifted me into the air. I felt the bone pop under the strain. I pulled the machete around, and stuck it squarely in his eye, in hopes that I could escape in the following turmoil.

I yanked back the machete, and the pressure on my ankle released. I dropped, ready to capitalize on the elf’s anguish.

But something was wrong. As I looked up, I saw the elf put a hand to his ruined eye, pulled what remained out of the socket, toss it aside, and raise his fists.

What the hell? I dodging backwards as Red brought his humungous fists down and slammed the floor like a thunderbolt. A shower of sparks hit the floor as he jerked his head violently.

The white elf dived for me. I rolled backwards so that he planted his face directly in the floor .

The air was beginning to feel hot. I wondered how much air we had, exactly. Certainly not enough, in a room like this, to support eleven grown men for very long.

White picked himself up, and with the aid of Green, started picking men up, and throwing them at the wall as calmly as if they had been pitching ball. As Red raised his fists again, I dodged to the side, took a very ungentlemanly swing at his groin, and rolled to a stop between Green and White.

Red did not seem to be affected by this attack. But his counter-attack careened him directly into his two comrades. I leapt under him before they dropped into a pile.

So it HAD affected him. His depth perception was shot. He wasn’t invincible, he just didn’t show pain.

I took the opportunity to sprint to Thyger, who was picking himself up after being thrown against a wall.

“These things aren’t robots, but they also aren’t really elves. They seem to be androids of some kind… they’ve got robotic bits that depend on their biological portions functioning properly,” I said, quietly, watching the henchmen for the next attack.

He looked at White, who was tangled with Red and trying desperately to get up.

“Does that mean that they’ve got the same weaknesses, sir?”

I nodded. “But they don’t seem to need to breathe. That’s why they don’t bleed much; the blood isn’t that necessary to them.”

“So, we go for the base of the skull, sir, right at the back? Try to sever the spinal cord?”

“My thoughts exactly,” I said.

Red gave us an ample opportunity. In a gung ho charge, he leapt at me and Thyger. I tried to jump out of the way, but my ankle gave out under me, and a gigantic hand grabbed me around the midriff and squeezed my ribs until they almost broke.

But Red had made a fatal mistake. He had forgotten to account for Thyger. Pulling out his wicked field knife, Thyger drove deep into the base of the elf’s neck.

The elf’s eyes went very wide for a moment, then he toppled over, trapping me under him. Instantly, the wind was knocked out of me. The elf weighed a ton. It was literally like having a piano on my chest.

I managed to let out a strangled cry. The other men saw me from the place where they were fending off Green and White with far less impressive standard issue field knives.

In one wave, they ran into the side of the red elf, pushing with all their strength while I crawled out.

But the white elf was not finished. He sprang across the room like a jungle cat, swiping with his hand and tossing men like so much loose tinder.

My men dropped the red elf, and scattered. With the white elf distracted, I leapt onto his back. Pain ran down my body. I was certain I had broken something, but I didn’t care.

Using the machete to help make handholds as I ascended the treacherous face, I climbed the elf’s back. The huge hands groped for me.

But as the elf closed his fist on me, I severed his spinal cord with a sharp snap of my wrist. It was lower then I wanted, but it managed to kill him. Unfortunately, this did not stop his arm from throwing me headlong in its last convulsion. My face planted right in the rock-like chest of the green elf.

He lost no time. He caught me in one hand as I flew into him, plucked the machete from my hand, and folded it like a paperclip. As my men surged forward, he moved one tree-trunk arm across the floor and swept them off their feet.

“There,” he said, picking me up by the nape of my neck, “Now that I’ve taken away your weapon, what are you going to do?”

I coughed. It was getting harder to breathe, although my damaged ribs might have been the reason why. A tiny idea scratched at the back of my mind. This elf was not stupid. But that just might be to my advantage.

“Well…” I said, raising my head, “I’m not going to do anything. But my friend behind you will.”

The elf didn’t even bother to glance. Which was a shame for him, because if he had, he might have seen Thyger standing behind him, poised to jump.

The elf only got as far as, “I wasn’t grown yester—” before Thyger drove the knife in to the hilt.

*          *          *

It was definitely getting harder to breathe, and the room felt hot.

Graile looked at the seams on the doors.

“I can’t understand it,” he said, looking at the door, and his USB drive, “The programmer told us that this key could open            the door.”

I drew a breath with some difficulty. “I think, Graile, that we have to consider the possibility that Kristopher saw this coming.”

“But wouldn’t the programmer have known something, sir?” Graile said.

His expression changed. He grimaced, and pulled out his mini-computer.

“Isn’t that broken, Graile?” I asked, staring at him.

“Yes, and no, sir. The electronics still work fine. If my theory’s correct… well, give me a moment.”

He plugged in the USB drive. I was very surprised to see something appear on his screen.

“Hm,” he said,            “That’s odd.”

“What is?” I said, looking up. The air felt like steamed pudding, and my head was filling with cotton wool.

“As I suspected, this thing has it’s own, very small OS loaded on it. It adds to the security. If there are no references to the data that opens the door in the host machine, a hacker won’t be able to open the door without both the key, and it’s OS to read it’s instructions and execute them. But these aren’t programming instructions of any kind I’ve ever seen before,” he said, scrolling though them on his mini-computer, “The code more closely resembles an animation sequence for a three dimensional figure.”

I nodded. It took a while for the words to wade through the molasses of my head. But when they arrived, they made an impact.

“Hold on. Do you mean, like these elves?”

Graile looked at the corpses, and put his head in his hand. “Unfortunately, sir, yes. I think you’ve got it.”

I groaned. It all made sense, now. What better way to ensure that no one broke in, then to make it so the only person who could let you in was one of your personal body guards. And if you killed them, then you stayed outside forever.

Thyger stood up, brandishing his knife. “Well, if we’re going to die in here anyway, we might as well find out where the plug is, at least.” he said, swaggering over to the elf.

I held up a hand.

“Don’t bother,” I said. “Given Kristopher’s sense of humor, I think I can guess.”

And I walked over to Red’s body. I pulled down the shirt flap to show where Thyger had put a knife in him. Sure enough, I was right. We hadn’t noticed, in the heat of the moment, that there was a rectangular slab of flesh in that same place. The vulnerable spot on the elves was also the only interface point.

Graile looked thoughtful.

“Hold on a second, sir. Don’t despair just yet. If the USB plugs in there, then it’s trying to interface with the brain stem. There may be a system for causing direct motor control. In fact…” he snapped his fingers, “… in fact, I’d count on it. The elves didn’t feel things normally, right? They almost certainly had their brain stem screwed with.”

“We’re still going to need power to get through the door, and the USB port on all of the elves has been trashed,” I pointed out.

“We haven’t checked that second point, sir. And as for power…” He smiled thoughtfully, “I think we can get some from Kringle.”

*          *          *

As it turned out, there was one elf, the one dressed in white, which I hadn’t killed properly. He had been pulling me off his back at the time, and the knife had slipped down, and inch. It was still a fatal blow, because it severed the spinal connection, but if the elf hadn’t swung me like a lever, I would never have gotten that far into his neck.

Graile was overjoyed. With a tremendous effort, we propped him by the wall.

The air was now almost unbearable. My eyes were starting to blur. This had to work, or the next equipment I’d be carrying in the field would be one standard issue combat harp.

“What was the last thing he was doing?” Graile asked.

“Trying to pull me off his—” It suddenly became clear why we were propping him by the door.” Do you think that the action is still present in memory for the device? So that if we ran power through him, his other arm might flail out and puncture the wall?”

Graile nodded as he tweaked something in the elf’s neck with pliers. The low blow had severed the connection to the internal computer, as well as the spinal cord. But at least the prior was easy to fix. “Exactly, sir. The door would require a more sustained effort, but this wall is relatively thin. Our power source will be whatever was powering the welder.”

I narrowed my eyes. “I think I might just know where we can get the initial power.”

I motioned over to Dorhaise.

“Dorhaise? Do you still have a field defribulator handy?”

“Always, sir. Why?”

“Give it to me.”

He handed me the defribulator. I pulled up White’s shirt, lined up the pads on the spine, and Thyger put his hand over the shock button.

“Clear!” I said.

And White came back to life again, for a moment, ramming his hand right through the wall. Then he died, like a toy winding down.

And on the other side of the wall, there was the electrical wire we needed.

“Alright,” I said, as the smoke cleared. “Graile? Let’s hook up Franken-elf, here, and give Kristopher the shock of his life.”

*          *          *

Apparently, the protocol that the elf was supposed to take was to lift the door out of its track to allow Kristopher through. Because the door was welded shut, however, it simply ended up in the ceiling along with half the frame.

My men and I ran thankfully out into the relatively fresh air of Kristopher’s private penthouse as White exceeded his safety line on the wires and once more fell still.

Unfortunately, there was no time for celebration.

Two women, this time actual humans, albeit even more scantily clad than snow and her sisters, were strapped to a Christmas tree in the center of the lavish apartment.

And beneath it, with neat little bows, were a dozen and a half fully wired stacks of plastic explosive.

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A Rush of Wings

A Rush of Wings is our newest offering.  This collection of short stories includes such authors as Sarah A. Hoyt, Dave Freer and Chris McMahon.

Every society has its tales of angels and demons, those creatures whose purpose is to either save humanity or destroy it. Some times, it’s not always easy to tell which is which. Beauty can be used to deceive and ugliness can hide the true beauty. The stories in this anthology take a number of different approaches to the theme of angels and demons, predators and protectors.

In Daughter of Man, (Sarah A. Hoyt) a young man comes home from university to claim his lover only to find she’s run off with another. The only problem is no one in their village has seen this other man. The only clue is a note she’s left saying she’s found her true love, her angel. But is he really an angel?

In Agape, (Taylor M. Lunsford) a new angel and an equally new demon are teamed together to help maintain the “balance”. What they don’t know is that means going after two of their own. If that isn’t trouble enough, neither feel particularly well-suited for their new roles. In life, Esme did everything she could to be good. Kamin was the bad boy soccer player. Now they are demon and angel respectively. Talk about being thrown a curve ball.

His Father’s Son is the story of a son’s thirst for vengeance against his demon father for what he sees as the ultimate betrayal of his human mother. But vengeance is never quite as easy as it seems, nor does it always go as planned.

Murtagh’s Fury (Chris McMahon) brings Celtic mythology to life along the banks of the Brisbane River. Bound to the land, one of the last of the ancient Celtic protectors fights to stave off the destruction of the land and people under her care when attacked by the Fomori, an ancient enemy.

Predator: Prey: Protector (Robert Cruze, Jr.) takes on the very real danger of cyberstalking. Add in a young woman who once wanted to be a flapper, vampires and a thirteen year old who isn’t nearly as grown up as he thinks and the real evil in this story never has a chance in this tale where the hunter becomes the hunted and the meek aren’t necessarily what they seem.

In Angel and the Demon, (Chris Kelsey) the monsters of our childhood nightmares are real. Some of them, however, wear the white hats and come to the rescue when the government doesn’t know how to handle a problem. This time, however, the demon strikes just a bit too close to home for comfort.

Afterlife 2.0 (Robert A. Hoyt) answers the age old question of whether lawyers really are the agents of Hell as the Devil himself battles two former ghost hunters turned soul “capturers” and their rather angelic secretary.

My Grandmother’s Shame (Dave Freer) is a tale of love, abandonment and hope. For seventy years she’s waited. She’d borne his child and withstood the shame. Her strength had seen her through so much. But would that strength see her through to their reunion?

This anthology is available for purchase here for the discounted price of $1.99.  It will be available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other outlets within a few days.

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Chapter 9 – Four Brawling Nerds

Four Brawling Nerds

“Who are you?” I said, planting my feet apart and signaling my men to hold.

The figure in the center left, who seemed to be the leader, laughed. It wasn’t a particularly unpleasant laugh – like Kristopher’s – but it was the laugh of a person who had spent one too many hours trying to debug a segment of faulty code.

“Collectively? We’re some of the few humans in this place,” the figure said, bitterly. “The elves couldn’t write a line of code to save their lives. They aren’t designed to be particularly imaginative.”

Another figure, to the left, spoke up. His voice was huskier, and had traces of a Russian accent. “We are the most proficient science and technology experts on Earth,” he stated flatly. “Kristopher has a massive operation, but he still needs humans to do the thinking. The elves just do the legwork. Biochemical work, technological development and IT are all filtered through us.”

“So you’re the idea people,” I said, glancing at all of the figures. “Then you’re probably aware that we just mowed down Kristopher’s entire personal guard on the way here. What stops us from going past you, besides the force of your personality?”

The first figure held up a wireless keyboard.

“My enter key,” he said, hovering his finger over the center of the keyboard. “If I should feel compelled to push it, the next time the world will see your body will be in the bottom of a stocking for some little brat. If I really wanted to, I could dig through the archives and select the very worst person on Earth.”

I looked at his face. I couldn’t see it very well in the darkness, but I didn’t think he was kidding.

“Point taken. That puts us at a bit of an impasse. But I assume there’s a reason you haven’t pushed that key yet.” I said, narrowing my eyes.

“You’re quite right, Captain Mesner.”

“We’ve got a bit of dispute,” said the one on the far right, in a southern accent, “which involves your continued existence. My colleagues here appear convinced that you might actually take down Kristopher. As you pointed out, you went through his whole personal guard. Me and the lady on your far right prefer to reserve judgment.”

I nodded. “I take it you had something in mind that might convince you.”

The lady spoke up. She had a brassy alto voice, with a distinct Brazilian edge.

“Very astute. To be blunt, Captain, Kristopher is incredibly intelligent, and very capable. We’re only willing to give you our support once we know that you have at least one member of your team with the ability to defeat us in a duel of our own devising.” She said, crossing her arms.

“Because, if we refuse, you tap the button?”

The first speaker nodded.

“Trust me, it’s an act of mercy compared to what Kristopher would do. My colleagues here aren’t coldblooded, Captain, and neither am I. But suffice to say that we made the mistake of making a deal with Kringle. He has people we love in the palm of his hand. If we sent you on, and you failed, we would all pay irreparable prices. The only difference between my colleagues and I is that I believe you have already proven yourself, and they don’t. So we set up this contest to settle it. But Captain, remember that you’ve only got one chance. When the time comes, you won’t be able to dither.”

“What is the nature of the contest?”

“ It would be advisable, Captain, to send the person who you think is best equipped to handle computers. Since all of us have considerable experience in that area, we feel that that is the best plane upon which to match wits.”

“Fair enough.” I turned to Graile. “They’ve all but asked for you by name. Ready to shine, soldier?”

He ripped off the sort of smart salute that brings tears to the eyes of retired military men. “Yes, sir.”

*          *          *

The contest was simple. Graile would sit down at a computer console that had been set up and log in. His goal was then to disable the machines of all four of his opponents without having his own disabled.

The machine was blazing fast, even by modern standards. It had more cores then an apple orchard, enough memory for an elephant herd, and an ergonomic keyboard.

“The one complaint we don’t have,” the woman said, “is about impoverished material.”

Graile sat down in the chair, and placed his fingers over the keyboard. According to the rules of the contest, we had to stay back. Graile was going to have to do this one on his own. He hadn’t been happy about losing all of his programs with the mini-computer, but he didn’t have time to recreate them, nor could it be argued that he was the only one with the qualifications to meet this group on their own ground.

Unfortunately, the situation changed very quickly. As Graile logged in, a cage descended, trapping us in place.

The leader of the group of programmers looked up from his computer.

“There is one tiny catch,” he said, staring right at Graile. “These computers can affect this room, as you’ve just seen. And trust me, if you’re worried about your friends, you should be. Kristopher isn’t going to show mercy, and my colleagues wouldn’t be satisfied if we did. All that I’ll guarantee is that I will not actively try to kill them, and remember that I don’t speak for everyone here. Just know that this room is very well guarded, being Kristopher’s personal archive.”

Graile, to his credit, did not show any fright.
That’s it, Graile, I thought to myself, Never let them see you bleed.

And with that, the contest commenced.

*          *          *

It soon became clear that the head programmer’s warning had been far more important to how the contest played out then anything else. The contest commenced with a huge auto turret emerging from the floor directly in front of us, while Graile was doing something mysterious on his computer. In the knick of time, Graile deflected it’s arm upwards so that it sprayed the roof with bullets.

“That was poorly played. I’d concentrate on your friends, rather then what I’m typing,” said the head programmer, tapping buttons. Graile said nothing.

Which was good, because at the same time, someone tried a direct attack on his machine, while another person, who I identified as the woman, took the opportunity to attempt to shut the gates on us.

Even at speed, the gates didn’t get further then a couple of inches. Graile swatted the person who had attacked his computer by containing their program, adding a couple of nasty lines, and spiking it back to them.

But even as he did this, another person lifted the cage, which was revealed to have docked with a sister piece on the floor, and held it aloft to the ceiling, which was higher then the darkness had initially let on.

I couldn’t see Graile, but I was determined not to sit idle, merely because I was imprisoned. I looked around the cage. The only obvious way to escape would be to somehow undock the bottom, which would have been disastrous.

As that thought hit me, I shouted to the team. “Grab the bars of this cage, men!”

Sure enough, even as we grabbed the sides of the cage, the bottom detached, plummeting below to hit the ground near the Southern programmer. He was distracted for just a moment. I couldn’t see what Graile did, but he pushed the Enter key with exaggerated force, and as the Southerner turned back to his computer, his face crumpled in rage, and he slammed his fist on the keyboard.

One down, three to go, I thought.

Suddenly, the room sprouted a wide variety of auto turrets from every possible location. The lead programmer had mentioned that it was well defended, but I wondered that they even had room for data storage.

The turrets all focused directly on our cage. Apparently, one of the programmers was planning on going all in.

Fortunately, this also left them open to Graile’s attack. I saw him bring up a box, then glance quickly at the programmer across from him. His hand darted over the number pad, entering in three digits.

The turrets instantly swiveled to face the Russian programmer, just as they were ready to fire. But he used whatever protocol he had used to activate them all, and turned them all off.

Graile took this breather to fend off two more personal attacks on his computer. Then, unseen by the programmers but visible from the ceiling, he redirected the turret which had nearly killed us right at the beginning, and fired directly at the Russian’s console.

I watched it erupt in a wave of bullets. He did not throw a temper tantrum, but simply took his hands off the keyboard, placed them on his stomach, and sat back.

Two down, I thought. But my grip on the cage was starting to slip.

Then I noticed that the female programmer was doing something else. Suddenly, in a ring around the room including the floor directly below us, the arena was cris-crossed with the same shop lasers we had seen in the gallery. They certainly had a thing for those around this place. The fact that they were red and green did not, somehow, make me feel better about them.

The female programmer hit a button on the keyboard. I tightened my hands to keep a grip on the cage as we began to fall. At the last second, Graile redirected the cage, causing it to swing sideways.

We were thrown to the edge of the arena, but it was a close shave. One of the lasers on the other side of the room nearly scalped me in the process.

But we didn’t have a moment to rest. Graile had lost concentration saving us, and that had given the woman the opening to send him something nasty at the same moment as the lead programmer hit him.

Even though Graile was clearly fighting for control for a moment, the lead programmer seemed frustrated.

But the woman did not notice, or lose time. She picked up the turrets which the Russian had left behind, and aimed them at us again.

“Scatter!” I shouted.

The turrets couldn’t be aimed at each of us in turn. We needed to buy Graile some time.

But she had been expecting that. As men ran off in one direction, in the ring, she started spinning the cage in a circle like a mace, and running it around the ring after us. Thinking quickly, I realized that there was one place where it was easiest for Grail to save us, and ran directly behind her.

She took the bait. The swinging cage followed me. I saw a screen appear on the head programmer’s console as Graile deftly deflected the programs.

Then, in one perfectly executed swoop, he pulled the cage up, over her head, down again, and swatted her machine right off her desk.

She stood up, enraged, picked up her keyboard, and threw it across the room into the lasers, then sat down again heavily.

I was about to say “one to go,” when I noticed that the lead programmer was sweating and gritting his teeth.

He swore under his breath.

Suddenly, he looked as though he had had an idea, and started calling up files in a desperate search.

On his screen, a file appeared that changed its size even as he entered in keystrokes to check it. But an instant after he found it, the computer crashed. Graile had dealt with him stealthily from the beginning. He’d nearly gotten us killed by spending the time writing it first. The Trojan horse was a cross between a disk fragmenter and the world’s least efficient keystroke logger. Graile had put in a dummy portion which looked like it was sending back info about the programmer’s activities, which the programmer had detected. When the programmer tried to delete it, it merely changed the location of the important portion, and kept fragmenting the hard drive with every keystroke.

The result was that the hard drive was now an unusable mess.

The head programmer gritted his teeth for a moment, and then breathed out.

“I take back what I said earlier,” he said, standing up, and shaking Graile’s hand, “that was very well played.”

*          *          *

The lead programmer saw us to the door, and handed Graile a USB drive coded with the program that could open Kristopher’s door.

“Kristopher is on the top floor of this building, two floors up. But I warn you, he still has guards you haven’t met along the way, and you can’t bypass them. The ventilation in this building isn’t like other ventilation systems; all of it is connected to a sterilization chamber that is in Kristopher’s own quarters. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you much more. Hardly anyone has ever seen his personal quarters. But wherever you go, I can keep him from knowing that you’re coming.”

“That’s all we need.” I said.

He nodded, and pointed down the hallway.

“Deck him in the halls for me. I have a daughter back home, and… well, I’d really love her to spend a Christmas when she isn’t in danger.”

I put a hand on his shoulder.

“I know how you feel. We’ll do our best.”

And with that, I lead my men down the hall.

“Only one more floor to go, and then we personally knock down the door of Mr. Kringle,” I said.

But the next room we encountered looked disturbingly peaceful. It was an atrium of some kind, with a door to the stairway.

“Graile, have you got that key?” I asked.

He nodded, and walked to the door. Sliding aside the hidden catch for the USB drive, he put the drive into the socket.

But rather then the door sliding aside, every alarm in the building went off. Instantly, all the doors in the room locked, which I had expected. But the burning flame which traced down their seams and welded them shut was something new.

Suddenly, the atrium was a lot less friendly. Three gigantic elves, at least seven feet tall, melted out of the seemingly innocuous surroundings, in three points around the room.

They all had different colored military uniforms, in red, green, and white. Below their berets, they had expressions of grim brutality. They had arms the size of my torso, and torsos the size of busses.

“Hello.” grunted the one in green, raising a huge gorilla fist.

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Chapter 8 – Five Traps Waiting

Five Traps Waiting

As we pulled even with the North Pole, I went up to the cockpit in order to get a better look. The North Pole was, appropriately to Kristopher’s determination to adhere to and pervert all the myths about him, a literal pole. But the dimensions had been expanded considerably. It was about the size of an office building, and the stripes on it were not the cheerful colors portrayed in Christmas specials, but deep blood crimson and bone white. And the flag flying above the very tip was the eye and crossed canes, but the material on it was slightly reflective, which gave it a more menacing air.

We also had company. There were opposing reindeer migs pulling in from the distance.

“Graile, did you say that the electromagnetic field was dependent on the animal?”

He looked up from the electronic device he was inspecting.

“I did, sir. But it’s a guess.”

“It’s good enough for me.” I looked at the radio on the reindeer mig. It had an adjustment button, thankfully. I checked my own radio’s frequency, and slid the power dial all the way up. Hopefully, that would overpower the electromagnetic field of the reindeer enough to let them hear.

“Take ‘em low, guys. We’re heading upwards. This thing doesn’t move too fast, but I think it had better altitude then those migs. The resistance should be higher.”

And I yanked on the controls on my side. The wooly mammoth flew straight up for the clouds, while the rest of the team in the migs flew under us. The enemy Migs were suitably confused. I slid my hand over a touch screen display which was on the center console.

“Does this elephant have any bombs on board?” I asked Locht, maneuvering through menus.

“No idea, sir. We certainly didn’t have any time to load them, so if it does, then they were on board when we left.”

I accessed the weapons tab. The flashing screen made my heart sink. There were no bombs on board.

I grimaced. Our alternatives were fairly risky. The mammoth’s head thrashed from side to side as we hit our maximum electromagnetic altitude, and leveled out. The elves were going to be trained pilots. I couldn’t leave the team down there too long.

But, then again, just because we didn’t have any bombs didn’t mean that the enemy had to know that.

“Locht? Can you maneuver us around so that we can dive directly for the entrance of the North Pole?” I asked.

He frowned. “I think so, sir, but it’s going to be very risky… we’d probably crash.”

“Not necessarily. Magnetic resistance should get stronger the closer we get to the Earth. I think sheer magnetic force might save this elephant, but the pilots down there are experienced. If they see a diving bomber, they’re going to follow instinct and draw their fire towards us. If we’re moving fast enough, I think we can pull off a quick entrance into the Pole before the elves even know to strafe us. But just to make sure…” I clicked the radio transmitter back to the Frequency used by the elves, and pressed the button. “Pull up, gentlemen. We’re got something to drop down Kristopher’s chimney.”

I clicked it off. “That should protect the others. And now, Locht, if you please, let’s give those Migs a mammoth surprise.”

And, trumpeting excitedly, we dived.

*          *          *

The theory of magnetic repulsion worked perfectly. The other laws of physics did not cooperate.

Imagine, for a moment, that you had an elephant that had reached terminal velocity, and that all this force was suddenly incapable of making the elephant slow down. It has to go somewhere. If you’re currently desperately trying to pull up the trunk of that elephant, it goes foreword.

Which explains why we crashed into the main Lobby of the North Pole aboard a trumpeting menace that was going well in excess of two hundred miles per hour.

I want to stress to SPCA employees that the elephant had been bulletproofed, prior, and that it had more then enough protections against violent collisions. Thankfully, the interior was padded with the sort of high end crash gear that most plane companies would have wet themselves to get blueprints for. That, combined with the fact that my men had the good sense to jump out of the way when a wooly mammoth was flying right at them, meant that everyone walked away from the crash.

Or rather, ran, in our case, because the fighters may have missed the trick while it was happening, but they were quick studies in the aftermath.

There was a conveniently unlocked door immediately adjacent to the crash site, which was exactly where we all ran, the instant that the mammoth had stopped moving, without my even having to shout out an order.

It was not until the door locked behind us, that I realized there was something seriously wrong.

We were in what looked like a generator room. It smelled like oil and ozone. On either side, there were hulking turbines spinning away for all they were worth. It was dark, except for the occasional control panel, and distant florescent lights.

It made sense that the North Pole would have it’s own generator room. It was the metal floor ahead of us which was crackling with high voltage electricity that said to me that there had been a significant design flourish in this room.

But we didn’t have time to stop and contemplate our belly-buttons.

“All right, men, we’re dealing with Kristopher on his own turf. As you can see, he’s clearly expecting us. Just like with those planes, we’re going to have to do what he doesn’t expect if we plan to beat him. And right now, he expects that we’re going to be slowed down.” I glanced around the room.

Any place which needs to deal with high voltage has to have some form of insulation, somewhere. In this case, that place was on the generators themselves, where it would be problematic if discharge occurred.

I ordered my men, double-time, up onto the generators, and urged them down up the isles. Except for Thyger, who I had deposit remote charges on the generators. I had a feeling we might need the ability to cause a power crisis later.  Otherwise, we were slowed down only with the difficulty of jumping between the platforms, and whenever I wanted to scan the room for further traps.

But beyond a lethal floor, it didn’t appear that Kristopher had done anything more dangerous with this room.

The florescent lights at the end of the generator room were hanging from sturdy steel rods, that looked as though it could easily support our weights. A flying jump, catching the light fixture with our arms, and we could swing onto the control station on the other end of the generator room. From there, it was a relatively simple task to push the button, and jump out the door.

But as the last man flew across, the sturdy looking fixture gave away. I grabbed his hand as he fell short, and pulled him up. The light fixture hit the floor.

What was disturbing was not that the voltage was so high that it melted the light. What was disturbing was the vacuum which came down from the ceiling to collect the charred lumps that were left.

Vincent swallowed hard, and turned to me. “I think I just figured out where the coal that he gives to the naughty list comes from.” he said.

*          *          *

I was beginning to get a good picture on Kristopher already, but as we mounted the top of the stairs to the second floor, I started to wish that he hadn’t said that. The room that we walked into was far worse then the one that we had come from.

It was a huge circular stable, stuffed to the gills with reindeer, locked behind metal cages.

Ordinarily, this would not have been a bad thing. Reindeer were dangerous, but no more so then any wild animal was.

But there was a terrible stench. Both of manure, and of rotting meat. The feeding troughs for the reindeer were filled to the top with chunks of carrion and fresh ground steaks.

“I get the impression that those biological experiments they’ve been engaging in here are not friendly.” I said.

Graile looked around the room.

“Well, sir, I would imagine that the protein requirements for the reindeer are far higher when they have to be used as conduits for power.” he said, stepping foreword.

The floor gave slightly under his foot. All of the cage doors sprang open with a sharp click. The reindeer inside lunged outwards, showing off full sets of carefully filed sharp teeth under maddened eyes.

I pushed Graile foreword, and signaled the other men into a full sprint.

“Unless you want to find out about those protein requirements firsthand, I suggest you start running,” I yelled.

I checked my rifle. I was disastrously low on ammunition.

“How’s the ammo, gentlemen?”

I swung the butt of my rifle into a reindeer and chipped its tooth.

The chorus came back. Everyone was pretty much out. We were going to have to run this one on empty, if we could help it.

All except Thyger, who, despite being an explosives expert, had provided himself with a very large knife for the sole purpose of being there if he ever found that he was out of explosives. He laid about him on all sides with the blade, leaving bloody streaks in the hides of the reindeer and making any bull foolish enough to put his neck within striking range briefly but extremely sorry for it.

But anyone who had ever tried wrestling with a single full grown deer will understand why we were thankful that the elves had left the knives they used for carving up corpses to feed the reindeer.

We were close to the door when a reindeer attacked. He had not just a bright red nose, but a whole snout that glowed like Chernobyl. It made him look demonic. I brought the machete round in a tight arc, and the vicious creature lunged and grabbed it in his teeth.

Thyger came to my rescue while the deer was distracted, and plunged his knife into its neck.

“The song was right, sir. He just went down in history.” he panted.

There was no point laying any charges in here. We had turned most of the herd into venison by the time we reached the far door, but we had taken some pretty heavy damage. Locht had a serious bite on his arm which Dorhaise slapped over with gauze. The others threw away their cutting implements, but I kept the machete that I had picked up. I wasn’t sure I was done with it yet.

*          *          *

I wasn’t. The third story was biochemical laboratories the likes of which I didn’t have the clearance to see at home. State of the art didn’t enter into it. This was a whole continent of the art.

So, for that matter, were the locks.

Kristopher was getting serious. The room began to flood with light pink gas. The overwhelming stench of peppermint flooded my senses.

My throat was instantly sore.

“Graile!” I choked, “Is there any way that you can shut this off?”

“No can do, sir. My mini computer’s hard drive was wiped by the electromagnets. There’s nothing. I’m sorry.”

There was a control panel in front of us, but it had thousands of switches and hundreds of dials. It was a cinch that I couldn’t press them all.

My brain was starting to fog over. I took a breath, before the air became too thick to breathe.

There had to be something. There was no trap so good that it was completely impossible to escape from.

My first order of business was find something to breathe.

I ran over to a vat. It was filled with some disgusting experimental reindeer that was clearly in the middle of being experimented on. But the vat was not completely filled. Right up at the top, there was some sort of gas.

Which meant that these vats were not vacuum sealed. The deer had a hosepipe that was connected to its mouth, which was keeping it alive. Every so often, a bubble escaped and floated to the top.

I spotted the air tube, connecting into the vat, and jumped for the ceiling desperately, with the machete extended in an attempt to sever it.

I succeeded. The hosepipe flopped around like a fish, and I desperately shoved it to my face and took a deep breath. I tried to make it to the control panel, but it was too far away. I could only just read the dials on it.

The other men crowded around, while I looked for some way to stop the gas.

The gas had to be coming from somewhere. I needed something airtight to seal the ducts.

I slapped my forehead.

I ran to Dorhaise’s backpack, and grabbed the roll of duct tape. Swearing that I would buy a year’s supply the instant I touched down at home, I wrapped first one duct completely shut, and then another, until all four were closed.

Then, I settled down with the others by the hosepipe and waited.

It didn’t take long. The rate at which gas had been pouring out was immense. The duct tape held firm, long enough for me to notice that one of the pressure gauges was raising markedly on the control panel. I found the switch connected to it, and flipped it. To my sheer amazement, the pressure stopped raising. I didn’t dare press any other buttons. If I knew Kristopher, almost everything else would mean that we would cause our own demise. That was how he thought.

But we still had the door to worry about. Thyger placed a small charge he had been carrying on it, but all it did was blow a sort of vertical crater in it. The door itself was solid, but good.

There had to be another way out. Then it occurred to me that he had not had this entire system put it just waiting for us.. There had to be something else which the system did, which we could use.

The air vents. The air vents were in fact supposed to be connected not to poison gas, but to oxygen. This room could depressurize in order to be totally clean. And given the damage that might just be our ticket to killing two birds with one stone.

I urged the men into empty vats, quickly enough that they had relatively little gas with them.

I ran over, found the PSI for the room. Crossed my fingers, and twisted. Then I ran for the vat with the deer in it.

I dived and closed the lid as the ceiling panels moved aside.

The gas disappeared. But the door, which was now no longer thick enough to withstand the pressure, was ripped inwards, flooding the room with pure oxygen and giving us our escape to freedom.

I gratefully popped the lid on the vat, dived out, hit the switch, and led the men through. In all we were somewhat soggy, but intact.

But Kristopher was taking off the gloves.

So before we left, I decided it was time we did the same. I had Thyger leave a set of charges on the oxygen line. If the time came that we needed an ace in the hole, I wasn’t going to be afraid to use it.

*          *          *

The room above had a distinctly more genteel feel to it then the previous ones. Marble flooring, hardwood wall paneling, gilded picture frames. The room was several concentric circles, this time with the way up in the center.

The moment we stepped in, there was the usual routine with the door locking behind us.

Walls of shop lasers – that could easily by themselves have sliced a person in half – activated, between the walls. Then the room began to spin. At least the floor did.

It flung me off my feet and hurtled me towards the laser at quite a rapid pace.

I shouted desperately to Thyger.

“Hit the charges on the generators!”

He grabbed a remote from his belt, and pushed the button on it to activate the charges.

With my boots an inch away from the lasers, all the lights went off.

I leapt to my feet.

“Hurry it up, men! Make for the center double-time. It isn’t like Kristopher not  to have a redundant system. Thyger, I need some charges where they’ll be missed by the lasers.”

He didn’t even stop to answer. He pulled out three charges, set them to a receiving position, and positioned them on the ring. Then we ran for the center.

But we weren’t quite fast enough. Just as we approached the final doorway and the rest of the men, the power returned, and we were swept off our feet as the floor resumed spinning.

But the machete I had, like all of the stuff that the elves touched, had been mirror polished, so that the blood stuck. Better still, it was made of the same fine materials as everything else in this place. A lesser blade would almost certainly have disintegrated. But this was no ordinary machete, and a quick, precise twist of the wrist reflected the beams from the both the sides and the ceiling so that I took out the whole row of lasers.

Rolling to inside and grabbing Thyger, I plunged the machete into the wall, and pulled against the floor to prevent our flying into the next set of lasers. Thyger pulled out his own knife, and also hacked into the wall

Together, skidding and nearly falling, we managed to get through the door. Thyger stayed and panted for a moment, then jumped up. I looked around the room. The stairway leading up was forbidding.

I turned back to the men.

“Well,” I said, grinning and brandishing the machete, “how bad could it be?”

*          *          *

The answer to my question was “extremely.” The room that we walked into was clearly a barracks, with elves dressed in white, definitely the personal guard for Santa.

They had just been plunged into the dark for a moment, and now, judging by the way they were all completely armed, I got the impression they had been waiting for us.

Low ammo be damned. I pulled out my gun, and commenced firing at head height. The elves ducked, but this didn’t stop them from continuing foreword.

But they had not counted on Thyger planting bombs in the gallery downstairs.

When Thyger pushed the button for the bombs in the floor below to go off, it became clear that the floors in this place were not that thick, or at least not thick enough to stand in the way of C-4.

One of the explosions nearly bought me the farm. But all of them blew holes in the floor. In the spaces between them, we waged battles, sweeping the elves off onto the horrible spinning rings and shooting for all we were worth.

It was the worst of Kristopher’s traps, but he hadn’t counted on Thyger or his explosives. The elves had to fight in narrow quarters, and despite being small, were not actually much more flexible or acute at dodging.

It gave us the edge we needed. A couple of times during the battle, a section of floor, weakened by the bombs, would actually give way, and we would have to leap to the side in order to continue the battle, holding onto our position through the sheer desire not to fall down into the gallery again.

But when the bloody battle was over, I knew that we couldn’t last much longer. By the end of the battle, we all had wounds. I had been grazed on the shoulder and leg, and I was the only one with any ammunition left.

But how much ammunition, I thought to myself, sliding the clip out of the rifle.

I held it to eye level.

There was a single bullet. Who knew how long there was to go, and I had but one bullet left. I gritted my teeth, and slid the clip back into gun.

“Good news, men. I don’t think Kristopher was expecting us to get this far. If he sent his entire personal guard after us, then he certainly wasn’t expecting survival. From here on out, we’ll almost certainly encounter heavy resistance, but I don’t think we’ll see any more traps.”

With a hoarse cheer, we picked up our equipment, and headed for the upstairs floor.

*          *          *

What we encountered as we stepped through the door, however, was not a trap, as I had been expecting. Or if it was a trap, then something had gone very wrong in setting it up. The room was stuffed to the brim with electronics, including four humungous screens that would have served small movie theaters at home, all connected to computers.

Silhouetted in the light, four sinister figures in button-down shirts hunched forewords, facing us.

“I wouldn’t move any closer than that, if I were you,” one said, the light catching his thick glasses in a peculiar way.

“I’d hate to have drag you to the recycle bin.”

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And now we continue the adventure . . .

(Apologies for the silence the last few days.  The holidays, a minor technical glitch and a death in the family of one of our editors have thrown everything off schedule.  We’ll be getting caught up today — hopefully.  We left off Robert A. Hoyt’s Christmas Campaign at Seven Bombs A-Bursting.   Between now and the end of the day, we’ll put up the next three installments and finish the adventure out tomorrow.  Now, to the Christmas Campaign.)

Six Craft A-Sleighing

 

I knew that this should have been more frightening, but it wasn’t. I’d like say  in that it’s because of good training. In fact, it had far more to do with the fact that humans had not been designed for the fear of having themselves thoroughly expunged from the face of the earth in a multi-megaton explosion.

Retrieving Thyger and the others from the hole was relatively simple. They had rope, and though the walls were a stiff climb, it wasn’t much worse than what we did in training. But the room had only one legitimate exit, given that the two doors we had access to were both connected to the control room, and that exit faced onto empty air. The first order of business was to get Graile to close the floor. Which meant that, to save time, I left him upstairs with a couple of men, collected Thyger and the others personally, then radioed in the order to close up the hole.

All this took some time. Thyger said we had a little over fifteen minutes to be clear of the nuclear explosion. Just getting the other team took about four.

But in the meantime, Graile combed the system for information on the base, and a way to get us through the final door. The latter was perhaps more important, because the door was on a separate circuit, Thyger was out of bombs, and there were no more warheads left in the room.

But Graile finally found something that would do the trick.

“You’re not going to believe this, sir, but all the doors open to a single alarm code.”

I held the radio up to my mouth.

“Tell me what it is after you’ve entered it in.”

“Way ahead of you, sir. It’s called “official inspection”, code 72682”.

I winced, as the thought processed in my head. I had memorized the alphanumeric keypad as a soldier.

“I think it’s a demonstration of power. It shows that nothing can be hidden from Kristopher. And it should be taking effect… now,” he said.

But I couldn’t hear him. The base was suddenly ringing with the jangle of jingle bells. It was hard to argue that they were indeed alarming. But the door slipped aside.

“Open SANTA-me,” I said, and waved Graile down.

*          *          *

The hallways of the main base were not nearly as impressive as the silo. They were still sturdy and well-constructed, using a mixture of white stone, galvanized metal, and translucent lighting panels. But they were far more Spartan and functional.

I wondered if the average elf experienced much boredom. Their whole life appeared to be devoted to working, which was a fairly dangerous obsession given the presence of high explosives.

But Graile had found some very useful things. One of them was Kristopher’s current location, as per the trace. The other was a map of the base, in an electronic PDF that loaded directly into my handheld projector from his mini-computer. This was, unsurprisingly, an air-base. The water was too far away, and the land army was a relatively small one mostly used for defending the base. Besides, Kristopher depended on air superiority in order to give him that ability to make his rounds around the Earth without being shot down.

An aircraft was also the only way we would get out of this place with any decent speed. The hanger was where we had seen the open field earlier. It was fairly simple to find with a map.

The only oversight in our plan was the very thing which granted us access to the base. The inspection alarm had driven the elves insane. Since they were expecting their leader to arrive through the same hanger, we were not a very welcome sight.

We didn’t even get to look at the room before having to retreat, and left a string of bullets meant for us in the wall. I glanced at my watch. We were running out of time. We now had five minutes till the first bombs “hit”. We needed to get through those elves.

Thyger pulled out his second to last flash-bang, yanked the pin, and waited for a moment before throwing it into the room. It went off almost instantly.

We popped through the door and tried our usual tactic of mowing down the enemy. This did not work at all.

The elves we were facing were not the ones that the rest of the base had been filled with. These elves were wearing gold trimmed white uniforms, accented with a red bulletproof vest that absorbed our shots like nerf darts. While it was relatively simpler to shoot at the head height of an elf, their heads were also smaller.

But there were what looked like fuel containers at the other end of the hanger, and I started a leak in them as we advanced.

“Thyger, get out your lighter.” I shouted.

We weren’t killing them, but we were knocking them down, which meant that when we came under fire again, it was at the other end of the hanger. We ran over the line, and Thyger threw his lighter into the fuel. The pool ignited in a wave of flame, as we threw aside the doors to the hanger beyond and ran through.

I shut the doors hastily behind me. This hanger was clear.

I turned to the men.

“Alright, gentlemen, spread out. Look for an aircraft which will carry more then one person and report in if you find anything.”

I walked to the first door as the others spread out, and opened it.

It was then that I realized I would have to reevaluate my definition of “Aircraft”.

*          *          *

It was shaped like a sleigh would be, if it were designed by NASA. On either side, bucking and pawing, were two reindeer, mounted up and strapped into two stubby wings in the same position that a normal aircraft might have had engines. These were not merely harnessed, but were filled with wired needles and so covered in devices that they resembled some terrible scientific experiment. The cockpit was made of tinted glass. Naturally, the canes and eye symbol was printed on the side. But the whole thing was done up in black, with red and green for the highlights and wing lights.

It looked like it could really move, but there was one tiny hiccup. It was designed for an elf. The only humans capable of piloting it would be between the ages of ten and twelve, which no one in the team was.

The others checked back with similar responses. The fuel outside was almost certainly for the tanks and armored carriers, but those had all left looking for us hours ago, and were still on patrol. The aircraft were all solidly biological.

While the reindeer migs were technically two men craft, we could get one soldier in one with a crowbar, and the flight position was going to be anything by comfortable.

Worse, with only five migs, that still left six men unaccounted for, including myself. And time was running out.

One of the hanger bays, however, was still stuck shut. Caber, one of the relatively quieter men, was attempting to make it through the lock. He was the infiltration specialist for the trip, but was largely overshadowed by Graile and Thyger in most cases. But when it came to the sort of good old-fashioned sturdy metal lock that would probably survive the upcoming explosion without breaking, Caber was the man to have on your side.

Unfortunately, he was not having a great deal of success, either. The lock required that the person trying to break into it use the force of a jackhammer with the delicacy of a scalpel.

Thyger, who was getting rather impatient, finally grabbed one of the lock saws from Caber, and ran it against the lock. All he got in return was a piercing screech and a dulled mini-saw.

Followed by a resounding thud on the door, which shook the entire building.

We all stopped. I looked at the door in fascination. Then, I turned to Thyger.

“Give me that saw.” I said.

He handed it to me, limply, and backed away from the door.

I ran the saw against the lock again.

The door dented sharply outwards with another thud, followed by a desperate barrage as whatever was inside tried to push its way out. It subsided as I pulled the saw away.

“Anyone got some duct tape?”

Dorhaise swung his pack around, dug in it, and then tossed me a silvery roll.

Everyone looked at him oddly. He shrugged.

“You can use it to fix anything,” He said casually, “Including bullet wounds and broken arms, if you know what you’re doing.”

I pulled a length out, and duct taped the saw to the lock. Then I pulled a length tight over the micro-saw’s “On” button, and yelled to my men.

“Hit the bricks!”

The thing inside went wild. The door tore off like tissue paper, bursting right through its hinges and swinging on its lock. The thing that needed the lock was shaking rock and metal off itself. It certainly had room for six people. It would have fit all of us, if I hadn’t wanted a fighter escort.

Standing in the light, covered from head to toe in metal and hosepipes so that the aerodynamic gondola on top and delta wings strapped around its midriff gave it the appearance of being some terrible robot, was a very perturbed wooly mammoth bomber.

*          *          *

We barely made it out before the nuke went up. But when it did, there was no mistaking it. The sound was deafening.

I was more then a little shocked to find that I was actually on top of a flying elephant.

Graile was slapping his mini computer. It was refusing to turn on.

“Something wrong?” I asked, looking over his shoulder.

“No, sir. But I think I’ve figured out why they’re using these animals.” he said. I raised an eyebrow. He went on. “They turn their nervous systems into a carrier mechanism for an electromagnetic field of the same polarity as the Earth’s. This is incredibly efficient with an animal because the nervous system still has a conductivity that can rival high-end metal alloys, but is spread throughout the animal so finely that it provides lifting force in all portions of the body, in a way that conducting agents cannot. Unfortunately, our electronic devices are not shielded very heavily, which is what is causing the malfunction.”

I was somewhat concerned.

“Do you still have the location of Santa’s workshop?” I asked.

He glanced at the device, and put it away.

“No, sir, not precisely. But I do remember that they were nearly in the very center of the North Pole.”

I nodded, and turned to the pilot of this strange craft.

“Head straight for the center, Locht,” I shouted, “It’s time to regift Mr. Kringle.”

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Chapter 6 – Seven Bombs A-Bursting

Seven Bombs A-Bursting

My mind raced. Besides being yet another example of this lunatic’s terrible sense of humor, I had no idea what “Tannenbaum” was. But there were no prizes for a good guess. If he was opening silos, then he had missiles on base. And not the tiny peashooters we had just been wallowing in, but proper ICBMs.

Hafton turned to me. “You really think he can slur us, the way he said?”

I grimaced. “I don’t know. But it doesn’t matter. I don’t care where my name goes, but I do care what happens to the people that Tannenbaum is aimed at. Graile?”

“Yes, sir?”

“We need to get you up to that control room right away. Tannenbaum is almost certainly electronically controlled. That means that you should be able to shut it off, or at least realign it. The real question is, how do we get upstairs?”

I looked around the room. It had a high ceiling, three card-keyed doors, and what appeared to be mirrors near the ceiling, which were probably one-way glass . Those had to be looking out from the control room. But where on Earth was the silo?

It was ironically at that moment that I realized this room was vaguely cylindrical, and that the roof cap had a line down the center where I could just imagine it splitting. And at the very same instant, I felt the floor start to slide away beneath me.

I leapt away from the expanding gap. Half my team, including Graile, was pulled away as the floor ground out of position. The other half, including Thyger, was stranded on the other side.

Below, in the huge hole that was forming, I could just make out the rising shape of the world’s largest metal Christmas tree. Above, the cold sting of Arctic air reached down and choked the room in its grasp.
I thought fast. The missiles had never had warheads put in them in the production line. As quick as I could, I ran for the disappearing work-table, lunged for it, and grabbed one of the warheads.

I leapt backwards onto the platform just as the floor disappeared. We had a way up.

“Graile,” I said, handing him the small warhead, “Do you think you can open the door with this?”

He nodded, and pulled out a screwdriver.

“Yes, sir.”

Graile was not Thyger, but he was also not a bad man with explosives.

He turned it over and over in his hands, and then I saw him reach for his radio.

“I think I might be able to make this sucker work, Cap. But what are the other men going to do?” he asked, pulling out a screwdriver and applying it mysteriously to the tip of the warhead.

I thought about it as Graile opened the payload container. If I could have, I would have had whom provide support, but these doors precluded that. Tannenbaum was probably mostly electronic, but almost certainly not all. When the time came, it would pay to have eyes on the ground.

“Thyger, take your team down into the hole.” I said, holding the radio up to my mouth. After all, Thyger knew everything ever known about explosives. If there was any way to disarm those things personally, he’d find it.”

He nodded. “Roger that, sir.” He said, clicking shut the screwdriver, and hefting the warhead. “I think that I’ve got this thing adjusted. The original amount of explosive in this thing would have killed us, but those doors are also blast proof. Word of warning, sir, you may want to cover your ears.” He turned around, and walked to the door, propping the explosive on it, and then retreated to the ledge. I followed suit.

“Alright Captain. Heading up now. I’ll give you an update when we reach the control room.”

“Copy,” I said, and grabbed the radio to tell Thyger the plan.

They were on the catwalk below, when the door exploded.

* * *

The first thing we proved for certain was that there HAD been guards. Emphasis on the past tense. There are things that a three hundred pound door can do to the human body when blasted into it at force, and those things are even more explicit and horrible when they happen to an elf. The entire walkway was covered, all the way up to the control room, in pieces of elves.

But they were not expecting their door to disappear, which meant that we were unerringly effective when we used the relatively simple tactic of walking through the doors with rifles in automatic mode and spraying wherever there was green. We literally blazed the path to the control room through a wall of corpses. When we reached the control room, we found perhaps the biggest shock we had gotten yet.

It was completely empty. There was not a single soul in sight.

Graile looked concerned.

“What is it, Graile?”

He turned to me as the others shut and secured the doors.

“Two things, sir. One, it was too simple. At this stage in the game, he should be expecting that we are capable of dealing with these elves as fast as he cares to throw them at us. Two, we didn’t see any elves on the way here who looked anything but soldierly. Given the high level of organization here, technology specialists would have some sort of different outward marking to denote them.”

I shook my head. “I’m not quite following your point here, Graile.”

“Well, sir, the missiles had to be activated somehow, and I don’t think technologically gifted elves are responsible. They’d have to head for the other door, which leads nowhere, in order to avoid us. I won’t discount an additional passageway, but given the structure of this base from appearances, I don’t think it’s likely either.” He stepped up to the computer, slipped a device for password cracking into the USB slot, and then checked the console for an antenna, “Which means that our friend Kristopher is probably in a direct link with this base. And that makes him vulnerable to my finding out where he is.”

An LED light on the base of the password cracker turned green. The OS came up with a completely straight-faced, slightly intimidating boot screen proclaiming that the machine was running “LinXmas”, with the words arranged like a Christmas tree. Unsurprisingly, the account had the familiar eye and crossed candy canes emblem as the background. That, and an OLED keyboard which glowed green, until you pressed a key, whereupon the key turned red.

But what was shocking was the very small accompanying holographs on either side showing three dimensional cross sections of the missile.

Seven stages of branches in Tannenbaum. Seven major cities set to go up.

This didn’t suggest that Kristopher was a technophobe.

I grabbed Grail’s shoulder.

“Graile, I think he wants us to trace him. This guy knows what he’s doing with technology, and it isn’t being stacked in blocks. Bring up the missile systems first.”

Graile narrowed his eyes.

“Copy, sir,” he said, typing a few buttons. The OS had a three dimensional GUI, and from the back of a stack of files, the missile stats emerged, complete with convenient timer. In a way which no longer surprised me, the minuites, seconds, and milliseconds were highlighted in alternating red and green.

We had about twelve minutes.

“Alright, Graile, now, can you check what computers are connected to the network?”

“Roger,” he said, gazing over a few boxes of black windows with white text. He frowned.

“Hmm. That’s odd. There seems to be a connection being used currently to monitor the missile control files. I can’t tell where it’s coming from.” He tapped a few keys.

“But I can certainly find out.” he said. And before I could stop him, he pressed the enter key.

And the numbers started moving much faster. A voice recording came over all the speakers at once in the room. It was Kristopher again.

“You see, gentlemen? I told you that you were responsible!” he said. And then he laughed. It was funny, how it had always seemed so jolly when it was written in children’s books. And then when you heard it for real, it was strange how obviously it was a cruel sound uttered by any outsized playground bully as he ground someone’s face into the dirt.

“ Ho, Ho, Ho!”

* * *

The clock was moving about four times as fast. This was a horrible thing to watch, but it meant de facto that we had about three minuites.

“Don’t you dare stop that trace. Keep it running in the background if you have to,” I screamed.

A voice came crackling over the radio. “Captain Mesner, this is Thyger. No signs of anyone down here, but the landing arms just retracted and the reference screens in this pit are flashing like crazy. What are you doing up there, sir?”

“That seasonally obsessed SOB saw us coming a mile away, Thyger. Can you come up?”

The voice came back over the radio.

“Love to sir, but no dice. The blast shield is coming out over the top. Tell Graile to shut that thing off, pronto.”

I turned to Graile.

“How is it coming?” I said, looking over his shoulder. Windows appeared and disappeared at a desperate rate.

“Not well, sir.” He said, shaking his head slightly. He was sweating profusely.

“He’s tied network files up in this rocket three or four times over per. I’m trying to keep that trace going, but…”

The timer was moving down past what I calculated to be one and a half. I picked up the radio again.

“Thyger, you get the team as far away from the engines as possible, and try to get behind some form of blast proof shelter. I don’t know how this is going to go.”

“Yes, sir,” he said.

“Don’t talk. Run!” I said.

I turned back to Graile. His fingers were dancing in complex little arcs over the keyboard. Forty-five seconds.

“How’s it coming, Graile?” I said. And then he stopped dead.

“I think I’ve got an idea, sir,” he said. Thirty seconds.

He leaned over the keyboard, and then his hands really started to move. He typed away like a demon, bringing up the main engine programs.

As the clock raced towards zero, he raced through values, cutting them and replacing them with other values, changing and distributing.

I saw him hit the enter key at five seconds. I saw the “Compiling” task bar come up. And then, as the timer hit zero, nothing happened.

Nothing, that is, except for an additional timer coming up.

“Graile?” I asked the technology specialist as he slumped in the chair in a pool of perspiration, “What is that?”

He didn’t even look. “That, sir, is the ETA of the missile. It thinks it launched.” I stared at him, trying to work through this.

“I’m sorry?” I said, glaring at him.

He wiped his face, and looked up.

“Well, sir, it occurred to me that that even if the missile splits into segments as it appears to, the projectiles would still cause considerable damage when they landed. Not a mushroom cloud, but still. And then it occurred to me, why disable the bombs? You can’t, in any case, because they were all adjusted onboard, and hardwired. The guidance software is the only thing you can tap into by network, presumably so that they can alter flight paths. And I’m fairly sure I violated several international laws doing so, because Kristopher’s satellites were not forthcoming.”

“So, in essence, we are currently sitting right on top of the future ground zero for seven ICBMs, each capable of taking out a city by themselves?”

He stood up. “You sir. Exactly.”

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Chapter 5 – Eight Blades A-Slicing

Eight Blades A-Slicing

The blast of air pushed me out of the pipe like a cork, followed closely by my men. I saw a rush of a rust colored world, terminated abruptly with my face pressed against a projection of sizzling galvanized steel. A wave of heat hit me in the face with such force I swore that I was going to pass out. The fumes were unbearable.

But I didn’t have time to think, for almost immediately I felt my weight shifting forward, so that I got a really good look at what I was going to fall into.

Six feet down was a roiling, bubbling pool of liquid metal, spewing acrid smoke as the projections on the floor, which were in fact shallow buckets, submerged themselves and emerged full on the other side of the conveyer belt

My heart leapt into my throat, which was even worse because the position I was in meant that it was significantly closer to the metal.

With all my strength, I scrambled backwards desperately, pushing my men off my back. The floor was like touching a hot stove. I struggled to my feet as quickly as possible, blowing on my scalded hands. The floor was toiling forward relentlessly, trying to pull me back into the pool of metal.

When my brain started working again, I deduced through the haze of adrenaline that we had to be somewhere on an assembly line.

I choked on the noxious fumes, and called out hoarsely.

“Graile! Do you see any control boxes? We need to shut this thing off.”

Graile struggled to his feet, and started pacing the treadmill at a steady backwards jog.

“I’m sorry, sir, but no dice.”

I stumbled again, and tried to take stock of the men.

All my men had gotten into the treadmill pacing, thank heavens, but there was no doubt that the metal pool was the center of attention. Every fiber of my body wanted out. The choking air would have been difficult to breathe at normal temperatures. In the upper hundreds, it was impossible.

I tried to think. We certainly couldn’t keep pacing forever, or even for a short time, in this heat. We needed to get out, and we needed to get out now.

The most likely way that we had of getting out, barring explosives, was using a way that the elves used to get in. This equipment, like all equipment in the universe, probably needed regular care, and that meant someone had to come in and perform it.

So, in theory, somewhere around there should have been maintenance tunnels. But where on earth would they be?

I looked at the walls. In truth, I could have spent my entire life searching over the complex riveted entanglements covering them, and if they contained a hundred passageways I’d never find one.

…I stopped myself. I was thinking about it the wrong way. You could find a needle in a haystack in no time, if you could get the needle to come to you. If something broke here, then they’d come running, and in doing so show us that tunnel.

But the only weak spot was…

I winced, and steeled myself. Still jogging backwards, tripping over the rows of buckets as they advanced into the pit, I turned to my men.

“Hot enough for you, gentlemen? I think I’ve figured a way out of here, but I can’t guarantee we won’t get boiled, and I apologize in advance. Thyger?”

He turned to me, sweating hard in the heat. I wasn’t surprised. Given his usual stock of explosives, he was at great risk of spontaneous combustion.
“Can you throw a grenade into that ventilation shaft ?”

* * *

What followed the explosion was the longest ten minuites of my life. The shaft clearly caved in, because the room instantly got more hostile.

Unsurprisingly, the vent shaft had in fact been for noxious fumes. The fan was there to clear obstructions, like us, which would then be subsequently dropped into molten metal. The rest of the time, it filtered away poisonous gases, which incidentally was about all we had to breathe now. It also kept the machinery cool, which was also failing to happen with equal certainty, being as my boot soles were starting to melt.

This is in part the reason why, when an elf first stepped through the door, I want a medal merely for breaking his jaw rather then shooting him. Sit in a pressure cooker filled with ammonia for ten minuites, then go head to head with an enemy to whom death is mildly unpleasant but not permanent, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of why. But right at that moment, it mattered more to me that I get out of the room then exact petty revenge.

I’d have plenty of time for that later.

Of course, it soon became clear that you needed a given definition of “out”. It was another room bordered in the same oppressive rust colored walls. In fact, the elf had not emerged through a maintenance tunnel at all, but merely an adjacent room. I saw, coming down the assembly line at speed, large pieces of metal that had probably been molded from the molten metal we had nearly fallen into.

Suddenly, I understood the shape of the factory. It was a big coiled assembly line, allowing maximal efficiency in a limited space.

But anything was better then the last room. I lead the men in, trying to stay on the nearly non-existent margins. The floor was moving a great deal faster in here, but if we could just stay on these, we’d be OK.

So, naturally, I was not precisely pleased when we rounded the corner on both the end of the margin, and a huge stamping machine slamming down with grim regularity. It was warping the pieces of metal into a shape it looked willing to demonstrate to us firsthand if we weren’t careful.

I let out my breath very slowly, and then turned to face the men.

“Alright, gentlemen, listen up. We’re not going to get very far on these margins, and we’ll never find those doorways, so we need to go through the machinery.”

In unison, they leaned forward off the margin to get a look at the machine blocking the way. It wasn’t hard to tell what they were thinking. You could time it, but you wouldn’t want to if you could help it. Unfortunately, we couldn’t. I waved my hand out in order to get their attention, and they obediently if reluctantly focused on me. Their faces were stern, but certainly not happy. These men were well past having the gung-ho squeezed out of them some time ago.

“Look, I know you don’t like it. Trust me, I’m not wild about it either. But I needn’t remind you that there are millions of boys and girls on this planet who are going to wake up on Christmas morning to perfectly gift-wrapped bombs, unless we find a way to get through, and preferably to stop whatever this belt is running off.”

One of the men, Balkans, raised a hand.

“With all due respect, sir, why are we trying to stop a toy production line?”

“Because it isn’t one. Don’t you remember? Snow mentioned that they mostly manage production up here. All toys and candy are produced in their native factories. What they produce up here has spent most of it’s time engaged in attempting to kill us. I’d lay a lot of money that these things are bombs, and I’m not about to let one go to my family.” I breathed in, such that I could. This room was better then the forge, but not comfortable at any stretch.

“Look, our job is to do the dirty work. No one ever said we got a cushy life. But we do what has to be done. Right now, we have a duty to a lot of innocent people. That’s a duty we came up here to fulfill, and we can’t back down from it because things get tough. Believe the saying, gentlemen. It’s our job to get tougher. So…” The men tensed up in preparation.

I braced my foot over the conveyor belt.

“Gentleman, on the third pound,” I said, holding up fingers as a count, “Get ready to run like Hell”

* * *

I’ll never remember exactly what that gauntlet was like. It’s a blur of metal, movement, noise, adrenaline. That, of course, and enough aerated chemicals to make the fact that I have continued breathing a small miracle. There was a certain rhythm to the machinery. Even though the floor was moving a great deal faster then you, you could feel what the right movements were. If you paced it right, you positioned yourself here, you moved out of the way of this, you could almost do it with your eyes shut. The factory was humungous, and there was one point at which we had to crawl through a very small tube in sequence because the metal was getting jammed through ahead of us. It worked out like a kind of dance, albeit a very modern one. I had a couple of near misses, and nearly lost an arm when I mistimed a crosswise shaping stamper. But in retrospect, given what we ran through, “a few near misses”, rather then “a few casualties”, was on par with winning the lottery.

It soon became clear that we were on a line for making missiles. True to Kristopher’s usual sick turn of mind, they were shaped like Christmas trees. But the explosives weren’t being loaded here, at least, so it was “safe”.

Until we entered the last hallway. At that point, I would have gladly shared the room with a live missile.

We had just rolled off the assembly line on a pile of completed missiles shuffling through and being locked into place. They looked so completed, I had foolishly let myself get cocky, expecting the exit around the next corner. It was, too, complete with several elves, but what stood between us and it nearly got me killed. I count as one of my greatest blessings the fact that I had a sergeant who was very particular about how people rounded corners, because he saved my life. I didn’t see the blade in the wall until it popped out an inch from my nose and trimmed the top of the missile. And then, all within a second, it ducked back into the wall, and four more sets, this time long racks of angled circular saws particular to the “branches” of the missile, emerged to trim the sides. As those retreated, two more corkscrewed down around the missile to adjust the flight surface and to grind the top inwards slightly so it could receive a warhead. Another would then pop up, in one quick, spiraling movement the other direction, and cut all the access points and drilling the ports where necessary.

One thing that anyone could have determined immediately and definitively was that no one could dodge this. The entire process took not four seconds, then popped the missile out and began again. If we had attempted to run through, we would have become an example of how many cross sections can be made of a human. I ran backwards in place.

It was time for fast thinking. The blades were very sharp, and very finely tuned. But, I thought, narrowing my eyes, that might be their weakness.

As the saw retreated again, I had an idea.

“Balkans, Caber, help me lift out this missile and lay it down on the floor. Locht, Freals, Graile, run interference, and don’t let any more get past. Hurry!”

The missiles weighed surprisingly little, but given that they needed to move fast and accurately, it was at least understandable. We were able to manhandle it fairly easily.

The blade racks were the weak point. All four popped out of the floor at once, and each set of two spun opposite to the others. Since there was no blade at “trunk” level, if you could just brace those saws against each other.

“OK gentleman, when that sideways blade slips back into the wall, push as hard as you can, and slide that thing foreword into those saws.”

Clanks came from behind as the others shoved missiles aside.

Freals called out. “You’d better hurry, Captain. These missiles are turning out pretty quickly. We’re going to be pushed back into those blades if we keep blocking them.”

“Noted, Freals,” I called back, “But we also don’t want to rush this.” I used a sharp hand gesture to direct my team’s attention back to the blade.

I remember almost as if it were slow motion, how the blade popped out of the wall, and the way my arms tensed almost involuntarily. And when the blade slipped back in, like a dropping race flag, how we moved as one unit to shove it forward.

It caught in exactly the right place, as the blades came up, and the servos whined loudly as the wrestled one another.

The blades stopped dead. As it turned out, the system had been inter-related, which only made sense, since it limited defective missiles.

Unfortunately, it also made it pretty clear that we had just stopped the assembly line, and opened the door to a wave of elves who swept in, outsized pistols drawn, to investigate.

But the gauntlet had put us at our finest. The wave of missiles that had piled up behind us only served to let us ride out on a wave of metal, guns blazing and nerves steeled.

The room was a huge missile preparation plant that could have stocked my base’s entire arsenal. It was done in a shining, silver metal and white tiles, so that it looked like a fashionable clean room. High on the wall, the candy canes acted as vanguard to the all-seeing eye, terrifying on a sea of red cloth.

We spread absolute chaos through the room with a few choice gunshots. In the fine compendium of guerilla tactics, The page on direct, small group attacks on the enemy base could have shown a picture of us. We laid waste to every elf that came within bullet range.

The tactics were effective. The elves in here had not been expecting us, and half of them simply ran for the exits at the sound of gunfire.

But my jubilation was short lived. The elves were not the only people to hear those alarms, and as we finished dealing with the last of the elves on the main floor, a voice like thunder rang out through the hall, resonating with my skeleton and making the hairs on my neck stand up.

“Attention, elves.” The speaker said harshly into the microphone. The air was suddenly completely silent, except for that voice, “I have been informed that we have a persistent problem with a group of opposing agents in our base. That is a problem I plan to solve immediately.”

I knew that could only be one man. That was the voice of Kristopher Kringle, AKA, Santa Clause, directly ordering his minions. But where was he?

The voice continued again.

“We suspect they are American, but since they have not come forth the reveal themselves, we will have to assume that it could be any country. This leaves us with the unpleasant task of giving the benefit of the doubt. In the interest of justice, we must send a little reminder of our strength to all the countries of this globe.”

A resounding chorus rose up, high in the rafters. There had to be another group of elves up there. But how could we possibly reach them?

The voice then changed in tone.

“To the eleven saboteurs currently in our production room… I’d like you to know that you are personally responsible for what is about to happen. Whatever we leave of your body will be returned home and have to be buried in utmost secrecy, lest you be dug up and torn apart. Because we are going to make it very clear that you, and you alone, caused us to take this step.”

Then, I felt the horrible attention lift. Hearing the voice gave me a renewed respect for Snow. I could barely resist it, and I knew what the true Kristopher was like. The elves, who had been conditioned to hear it from whatever passed as their birth, would need a will of iron to disobey.

“Open the silos at once.” The voice growled, murderously, “We must make a delivery to the homes of the bad little boys. Initiate Project “Tannenbaum” immediately. Hail Nordland!”

And the speaker clicked off.

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