Daily Archives: December 25, 2010

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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