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.”
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?