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.