Tag Archives: Robert Hoyt

Chapter 9 – Four Brawling Nerds

Four Brawling Nerds

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

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

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

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

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

The first figure held up a wireless keyboard.

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

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

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

“You’re quite right, Captain Mesner.”

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

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

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

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

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

The first speaker nodded.

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

“What is the nature of the contest?”

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

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

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

*          *          *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And with that, the contest commenced.

*          *          *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One down, three to go, I thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Scatter!” I shouted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He swore under his breath.

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

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

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

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

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

*          *          *

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

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

“That’s all we need.” I said.

He nodded, and pointed down the hallway.

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

I put a hand on his shoulder.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chapter 8 – Five Traps Waiting

Five Traps Waiting

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

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

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

He looked up from the electronic device he was inspecting.

“I did, sir. But it’s a guess.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And, trumpeting excitedly, we dived.

*          *          *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*          *          *

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

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

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

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

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

Graile looked around the room.

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

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

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

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

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

“How’s the ammo, gentlemen?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*          *          *

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

So, for that matter, were the locks.

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

My throat was instantly sore.

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

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

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

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

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

My first order of business was find something to breathe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I slapped my forehead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Kristopher was taking off the gloves.

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

*          *          *

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

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

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

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

I shouted desperately to Thyger.

“Hit the charges on the generators!”

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

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

I leapt to my feet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I turned back to the men.

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

*          *          *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I held it to eye level.

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

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

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

*          *          *

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

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

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

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

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And now we continue the adventure . . .

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

Six Craft A-Sleighing

 

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

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

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

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

But Graile finally found something that would do the trick.

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

I held the radio up to my mouth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

*          *          *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I turned to the men.

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

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

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

*          *          *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Give me that saw.” I said.

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

I ran the saw against the lock again.

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

“Anyone got some duct tape?”

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

Everyone looked at him oddly. He shrugged.

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

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

“Hit the bricks!”

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

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

*          *          *

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

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

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

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

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

I was somewhat concerned.

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

He glanced at the device, and put it away.

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

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

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

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Chapter 6 – Seven Bombs A-Bursting

Seven Bombs A-Bursting

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

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

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

“Yes, sir?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He nodded, and pulled out a screwdriver.

“Yes, sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

Graile looked concerned.

“What is it, Graile?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This didn’t suggest that Kristopher was a technophobe.

I grabbed Grail’s shoulder.

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

Graile narrowed his eyes.

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

We had about twelve minutes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“ Ho, Ho, Ho!”

* * *

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

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

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

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

The voice came back over the radio.

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

I turned to Graile.

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, sir,” he said.

“Don’t talk. Run!” I said.

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

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

“I think I’ve got an idea, sir,” he said. Thirty seconds.

He leaned over the keyboard, and then his hands really started to move. He typed away like a demon, bringing up the main engine programs.

As the clock raced towards zero, he raced through values, cutting them and replacing them with other values, changing and distributing.

I saw him hit the enter key at five seconds. I saw the “Compiling” task bar come up. And then, as the timer hit zero, nothing happened.

Nothing, that is, except for an additional timer coming up.

“Graile?” I asked the technology specialist as he slumped in the chair in a pool of perspiration, “What is that?”

He didn’t even look. “That, sir, is the ETA of the missile. It thinks it launched.” I stared at him, trying to work through this.

“I’m sorry?” I said, glaring at him.

He wiped his face, and looked up.

“Well, sir, it occurred to me that that even if the missile splits into segments as it appears to, the projectiles would still cause considerable damage when they landed. Not a mushroom cloud, but still. And then it occurred to me, why disable the bombs? You can’t, in any case, because they were all adjusted onboard, and hardwired. The guidance software is the only thing you can tap into by network, presumably so that they can alter flight paths. And I’m fairly sure I violated several international laws doing so, because Kristopher’s satellites were not forthcoming.”

“So, in essence, we are currently sitting right on top of the future ground zero for seven ICBMs, each capable of taking out a city by themselves?”

He stood up. “You sir. Exactly.”

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Chapter 5 – Eight Blades A-Slicing

Eight Blades A-Slicing

The blast of air pushed me out of the pipe like a cork, followed closely by my men. I saw a rush of a rust colored world, terminated abruptly with my face pressed against a projection of sizzling galvanized steel. A wave of heat hit me in the face with such force I swore that I was going to pass out. The fumes were unbearable.

But I didn’t have time to think, for almost immediately I felt my weight shifting forward, so that I got a really good look at what I was going to fall into.

Six feet down was a roiling, bubbling pool of liquid metal, spewing acrid smoke as the projections on the floor, which were in fact shallow buckets, submerged themselves and emerged full on the other side of the conveyer belt

My heart leapt into my throat, which was even worse because the position I was in meant that it was significantly closer to the metal.

With all my strength, I scrambled backwards desperately, pushing my men off my back. The floor was like touching a hot stove. I struggled to my feet as quickly as possible, blowing on my scalded hands. The floor was toiling forward relentlessly, trying to pull me back into the pool of metal.

When my brain started working again, I deduced through the haze of adrenaline that we had to be somewhere on an assembly line.

I choked on the noxious fumes, and called out hoarsely.

“Graile! Do you see any control boxes? We need to shut this thing off.”

Graile struggled to his feet, and started pacing the treadmill at a steady backwards jog.

“I’m sorry, sir, but no dice.”

I stumbled again, and tried to take stock of the men.

All my men had gotten into the treadmill pacing, thank heavens, but there was no doubt that the metal pool was the center of attention. Every fiber of my body wanted out. The choking air would have been difficult to breathe at normal temperatures. In the upper hundreds, it was impossible.

I tried to think. We certainly couldn’t keep pacing forever, or even for a short time, in this heat. We needed to get out, and we needed to get out now.

The most likely way that we had of getting out, barring explosives, was using a way that the elves used to get in. This equipment, like all equipment in the universe, probably needed regular care, and that meant someone had to come in and perform it.

So, in theory, somewhere around there should have been maintenance tunnels. But where on earth would they be?

I looked at the walls. In truth, I could have spent my entire life searching over the complex riveted entanglements covering them, and if they contained a hundred passageways I’d never find one.

…I stopped myself. I was thinking about it the wrong way. You could find a needle in a haystack in no time, if you could get the needle to come to you. If something broke here, then they’d come running, and in doing so show us that tunnel.

But the only weak spot was…

I winced, and steeled myself. Still jogging backwards, tripping over the rows of buckets as they advanced into the pit, I turned to my men.

“Hot enough for you, gentlemen? I think I’ve figured a way out of here, but I can’t guarantee we won’t get boiled, and I apologize in advance. Thyger?”

He turned to me, sweating hard in the heat. I wasn’t surprised. Given his usual stock of explosives, he was at great risk of spontaneous combustion.
“Can you throw a grenade into that ventilation shaft ?”

* * *

What followed the explosion was the longest ten minuites of my life. The shaft clearly caved in, because the room instantly got more hostile.

Unsurprisingly, the vent shaft had in fact been for noxious fumes. The fan was there to clear obstructions, like us, which would then be subsequently dropped into molten metal. The rest of the time, it filtered away poisonous gases, which incidentally was about all we had to breathe now. It also kept the machinery cool, which was also failing to happen with equal certainty, being as my boot soles were starting to melt.

This is in part the reason why, when an elf first stepped through the door, I want a medal merely for breaking his jaw rather then shooting him. Sit in a pressure cooker filled with ammonia for ten minuites, then go head to head with an enemy to whom death is mildly unpleasant but not permanent, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of why. But right at that moment, it mattered more to me that I get out of the room then exact petty revenge.

I’d have plenty of time for that later.

Of course, it soon became clear that you needed a given definition of “out”. It was another room bordered in the same oppressive rust colored walls. In fact, the elf had not emerged through a maintenance tunnel at all, but merely an adjacent room. I saw, coming down the assembly line at speed, large pieces of metal that had probably been molded from the molten metal we had nearly fallen into.

Suddenly, I understood the shape of the factory. It was a big coiled assembly line, allowing maximal efficiency in a limited space.

But anything was better then the last room. I lead the men in, trying to stay on the nearly non-existent margins. The floor was moving a great deal faster in here, but if we could just stay on these, we’d be OK.

So, naturally, I was not precisely pleased when we rounded the corner on both the end of the margin, and a huge stamping machine slamming down with grim regularity. It was warping the pieces of metal into a shape it looked willing to demonstrate to us firsthand if we weren’t careful.

I let out my breath very slowly, and then turned to face the men.

“Alright, gentlemen, listen up. We’re not going to get very far on these margins, and we’ll never find those doorways, so we need to go through the machinery.”

In unison, they leaned forward off the margin to get a look at the machine blocking the way. It wasn’t hard to tell what they were thinking. You could time it, but you wouldn’t want to if you could help it. Unfortunately, we couldn’t. I waved my hand out in order to get their attention, and they obediently if reluctantly focused on me. Their faces were stern, but certainly not happy. These men were well past having the gung-ho squeezed out of them some time ago.

“Look, I know you don’t like it. Trust me, I’m not wild about it either. But I needn’t remind you that there are millions of boys and girls on this planet who are going to wake up on Christmas morning to perfectly gift-wrapped bombs, unless we find a way to get through, and preferably to stop whatever this belt is running off.”

One of the men, Balkans, raised a hand.

“With all due respect, sir, why are we trying to stop a toy production line?”

“Because it isn’t one. Don’t you remember? Snow mentioned that they mostly manage production up here. All toys and candy are produced in their native factories. What they produce up here has spent most of it’s time engaged in attempting to kill us. I’d lay a lot of money that these things are bombs, and I’m not about to let one go to my family.” I breathed in, such that I could. This room was better then the forge, but not comfortable at any stretch.

“Look, our job is to do the dirty work. No one ever said we got a cushy life. But we do what has to be done. Right now, we have a duty to a lot of innocent people. That’s a duty we came up here to fulfill, and we can’t back down from it because things get tough. Believe the saying, gentlemen. It’s our job to get tougher. So…” The men tensed up in preparation.

I braced my foot over the conveyor belt.

“Gentleman, on the third pound,” I said, holding up fingers as a count, “Get ready to run like Hell”

* * *

I’ll never remember exactly what that gauntlet was like. It’s a blur of metal, movement, noise, adrenaline. That, of course, and enough aerated chemicals to make the fact that I have continued breathing a small miracle. There was a certain rhythm to the machinery. Even though the floor was moving a great deal faster then you, you could feel what the right movements were. If you paced it right, you positioned yourself here, you moved out of the way of this, you could almost do it with your eyes shut. The factory was humungous, and there was one point at which we had to crawl through a very small tube in sequence because the metal was getting jammed through ahead of us. It worked out like a kind of dance, albeit a very modern one. I had a couple of near misses, and nearly lost an arm when I mistimed a crosswise shaping stamper. But in retrospect, given what we ran through, “a few near misses”, rather then “a few casualties”, was on par with winning the lottery.

It soon became clear that we were on a line for making missiles. True to Kristopher’s usual sick turn of mind, they were shaped like Christmas trees. But the explosives weren’t being loaded here, at least, so it was “safe”.

Until we entered the last hallway. At that point, I would have gladly shared the room with a live missile.

We had just rolled off the assembly line on a pile of completed missiles shuffling through and being locked into place. They looked so completed, I had foolishly let myself get cocky, expecting the exit around the next corner. It was, too, complete with several elves, but what stood between us and it nearly got me killed. I count as one of my greatest blessings the fact that I had a sergeant who was very particular about how people rounded corners, because he saved my life. I didn’t see the blade in the wall until it popped out an inch from my nose and trimmed the top of the missile. And then, all within a second, it ducked back into the wall, and four more sets, this time long racks of angled circular saws particular to the “branches” of the missile, emerged to trim the sides. As those retreated, two more corkscrewed down around the missile to adjust the flight surface and to grind the top inwards slightly so it could receive a warhead. Another would then pop up, in one quick, spiraling movement the other direction, and cut all the access points and drilling the ports where necessary.

One thing that anyone could have determined immediately and definitively was that no one could dodge this. The entire process took not four seconds, then popped the missile out and began again. If we had attempted to run through, we would have become an example of how many cross sections can be made of a human. I ran backwards in place.

It was time for fast thinking. The blades were very sharp, and very finely tuned. But, I thought, narrowing my eyes, that might be their weakness.

As the saw retreated again, I had an idea.

“Balkans, Caber, help me lift out this missile and lay it down on the floor. Locht, Freals, Graile, run interference, and don’t let any more get past. Hurry!”

The missiles weighed surprisingly little, but given that they needed to move fast and accurately, it was at least understandable. We were able to manhandle it fairly easily.

The blade racks were the weak point. All four popped out of the floor at once, and each set of two spun opposite to the others. Since there was no blade at “trunk” level, if you could just brace those saws against each other.

“OK gentleman, when that sideways blade slips back into the wall, push as hard as you can, and slide that thing foreword into those saws.”

Clanks came from behind as the others shoved missiles aside.

Freals called out. “You’d better hurry, Captain. These missiles are turning out pretty quickly. We’re going to be pushed back into those blades if we keep blocking them.”

“Noted, Freals,” I called back, “But we also don’t want to rush this.” I used a sharp hand gesture to direct my team’s attention back to the blade.

I remember almost as if it were slow motion, how the blade popped out of the wall, and the way my arms tensed almost involuntarily. And when the blade slipped back in, like a dropping race flag, how we moved as one unit to shove it forward.

It caught in exactly the right place, as the blades came up, and the servos whined loudly as the wrestled one another.

The blades stopped dead. As it turned out, the system had been inter-related, which only made sense, since it limited defective missiles.

Unfortunately, it also made it pretty clear that we had just stopped the assembly line, and opened the door to a wave of elves who swept in, outsized pistols drawn, to investigate.

But the gauntlet had put us at our finest. The wave of missiles that had piled up behind us only served to let us ride out on a wave of metal, guns blazing and nerves steeled.

The room was a huge missile preparation plant that could have stocked my base’s entire arsenal. It was done in a shining, silver metal and white tiles, so that it looked like a fashionable clean room. High on the wall, the candy canes acted as vanguard to the all-seeing eye, terrifying on a sea of red cloth.

We spread absolute chaos through the room with a few choice gunshots. In the fine compendium of guerilla tactics, The page on direct, small group attacks on the enemy base could have shown a picture of us. We laid waste to every elf that came within bullet range.

The tactics were effective. The elves in here had not been expecting us, and half of them simply ran for the exits at the sound of gunfire.

But my jubilation was short lived. The elves were not the only people to hear those alarms, and as we finished dealing with the last of the elves on the main floor, a voice like thunder rang out through the hall, resonating with my skeleton and making the hairs on my neck stand up.

“Attention, elves.” The speaker said harshly into the microphone. The air was suddenly completely silent, except for that voice, “I have been informed that we have a persistent problem with a group of opposing agents in our base. That is a problem I plan to solve immediately.”

I knew that could only be one man. That was the voice of Kristopher Kringle, AKA, Santa Clause, directly ordering his minions. But where was he?

The voice continued again.

“We suspect they are American, but since they have not come forth the reveal themselves, we will have to assume that it could be any country. This leaves us with the unpleasant task of giving the benefit of the doubt. In the interest of justice, we must send a little reminder of our strength to all the countries of this globe.”

A resounding chorus rose up, high in the rafters. There had to be another group of elves up there. But how could we possibly reach them?

The voice then changed in tone.

“To the eleven saboteurs currently in our production room… I’d like you to know that you are personally responsible for what is about to happen. Whatever we leave of your body will be returned home and have to be buried in utmost secrecy, lest you be dug up and torn apart. Because we are going to make it very clear that you, and you alone, caused us to take this step.”

Then, I felt the horrible attention lift. Hearing the voice gave me a renewed respect for Snow. I could barely resist it, and I knew what the true Kristopher was like. The elves, who had been conditioned to hear it from whatever passed as their birth, would need a will of iron to disobey.

“Open the silos at once.” The voice growled, murderously, “We must make a delivery to the homes of the bad little boys. Initiate Project “Tannenbaum” immediately. Hail Nordland!”

And the speaker clicked off.

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Nine Ladies Luring

Chapter 4: Nine Ladies Luring

I’ll admit, I was taken off guard. I know that at that moment, the last thing I planned to do was pull the trigger. The other men were somewhat bewildered as well, for understandable reasons.

My thoughts ran frantically through my head in search of a plausible explanation. So far, every elf that we’ve encountered has tried to kill us. I think it’s safe to operate under the assumption that this one is trying to do so as well. If this is the case, any second now she is going to pull out some very large, highly lethal weapon and kill me.

Inexplicably, this did not will me to pull the trigger. The elf, who did not look as though she had experienced a second of fear in her life, looked at my gun with an amused expression, and placed her index finger on the top of the barrel.

“Is the rifle absolutely necessary?” she purred. “You can see I’m not armed.”

Admittedly, the clothing she was wearing could not have concealed a paperclip, let alone a pistol. Of course, we had learned the hard way that this did not mean a great deal. Beyond which, even a totally unarmed person could be dangerous, with the right training.

With difficulty, my thoughts arranged themselves into a coherent order.

First and foremost, you are a soldier, I thought to myself, and that means being ready for anything, playing it cautious, and keeping to the mission. Your men are going to take their cues from you, so you’d better give them properly. I caught my mental balance, and found the questions for suspected enemy collaborators.

“What is your name, function, and why are you in this part of the compound?” I managed, in the sternest voice possible.

The elf batted her eyelids, trying to push the gun further downwards. I held firm. She continued, unperturbed.

“My name is Snow. I work in the confections department. Evidently, I’m here in case someone needs to greet over-excitable gentleman who happen by with semi-automatic weapons.”

I was very careful not to let my expression change. Let them talk, that was always the strategy. You could tell a lie the same way you could tell cancer… it kept growing unchecked.

But “Snow” didn’t seem too keen to volunteer further information. She merely tilted her head to one side, and drew the candy cane through her lips again in such a way that I could almost hear my men break into a sweat.

“Either sound takes some time to reach you, soldier boy, or you’re incredulous.” She smiled brightly, and then backed away from the door, beckoning, “Come in and see for yourself. I’ll call my sisters, in case you think I’m concealing them.”

Somewhat uncertain of myself, and watching for any sign of a trap being sprung, I stepped through the door. The room was well appointed, with a sweeping staircase, red plush carpeting with mahogany accents, and soft lighting. In the far back, I could see a metal, semi-triangular door shaped much like a Christmas tree, with the same candy cane and eye logo stamped on it as I had seen on the tanks. But it was clearly very tightly sealed, and Snow stepped in front of it before I could see any more.

“Girls!” She called up the stairs, “We have some guests in from the hall,”

From upstairs, there emerged a suspiciously cheerful round of chuckling, whereupon eight more, equally scantily clad elves paraded down the stairs, all of them walking in the sort of way that caused heat stroke to most men at distances up to twenty yards.

Snow turned around, and pointed to her sisters, in a row, as though they were door prizes.

“Meet Peppermint, Sugar, Cinnamon, Spice, Gingerbread, Juniper, Holly, and Cheer,” she said, as her supposed sisters curtseyed their barely existent skirts in a row. Then she turned to me, still smiling, and said, “And as you can see, none of us is pointing a gun at you. Will you please put that thing away?”

I still harbored my suspicions. That routine was too perfectly choreographed for it to be spontaneous, and I couldn’t imagine that they had regular visitors in. On the other hand, this much preparation, even if meant only to slow us down, meant that the next step would probably be infinitely less pleasant. What I needed to do was find out what Snow was hiding. That emblem on the door did not look friendly, and I knew perfectly well from the briefing what Mr. Kringle had actually been doing. But I’d need to dispel this Toyland fantasy at the right time.

I threw the rifle over my back, but rested my hand, seemingly accidentally, on the stock of my holstered pistol. Snow did not seem to notice. I kept my eyes focused on hers as my men slipped their rifles back. They didn’t waver for an instant.

She clapped her hands and grinned. “Lovely. Will you boys be staying for dinner, then?”

*          *          *

I could nearly have bought the eight sisters’ choreography, but a dinner table with eleven additional places open was pure fiction. Snow explained it by saying that elves often had very large families.

Dinner was something referred to as “Roast Beast.” Inquiries into the matter revealed that this was in fact an unhappy creature bioengineered specifically for meat production up at the pole. It had a body mostly composed of useless muscle tissue, and combined the best qualities of a duck, a cow, and a pig. At least supposedly.

I did not eat any, until Snow noticed, and gave me her odd little grin.

“If you’re worried about the meat, it’s harmless. But if you really think it’s poisoned, I’ll gladly try some, for you.”

I didn’t say anything. Instead, I cut a square from the roast personally, because I was no fool, and deposited it on a small plate. I then delicately handed it to her. Without any reservations whatsoever, she popped it in her mouth, chewed quickly, and swallowed it. Still not totally convinced, I finally asked Dorhaise for a general antidote pill to take. Snow took no offense, but I swore that I saw her expression flickered.

But I had not come to the North Pole to exhibit social niceties. I was here to get rid of Kristopher, and keep my men alive. And that was what I was doing.

Over dinner conversation, I found out a number of interesting things. One was that bioengineering and technology were large industries in the North Pole. I also learned that there was a combined population of elves well in excess of 3 million, according to Snow, and that confection and toy manufacturing was primarily managed in the North Pole, but that actual production occurred in any number of major companies for which Mr. Kringle had a voting majority via various outlets. As for his relationship with world governments, they were suddenly very unhelpful.

In fact, the most interesting things were what they didn’t say. They regarded Kristopher with a mixture of reverence and fear bordering on being a god. The slightest criticism of him was brushed away as lightly as possible, as though their lives depended on it. They would certainly not entertain the suggestion that he had used his dominant world position to extort governments, or that his annual run was a ritual reminder to the world, every year, that he could send whatever he wanted into the population’s homes, and that the governments could not do a thing about it.

“I’m interested to know why we were attacked so forcefully,” I said, holding a wine glass tactfully between my fingers as I put it down.

Snow looked up, and laughed a perfectly coordinated little giggle, covering her mouth as she swallowed. “Naturally, Sugarplum. If you’re here, you went through an armed compound. What would your reaction be if we blew a hole in the wall of one of your bases at home? I suppose you’d be perfectly serene about it?”

Her sisters laughed the same perfectly arranged laughs. I didn’t move my facial muscles.

“I lost one of my men in that battle.” I said, not moving my hand from the glass.

Snow did not seem concerned in the least.

“So? Grow him again when you get home,” she said, dismissively.

I narrowed my eyes slightly, trying to parse the sentence. She seemed to be surprised at my response, catch herself, and retreat.

“I’m sorry for your loss. But you clearly attacked our base.” She said, more soberly.

I nodded, and lifted the wine glass again. I considered my next sentence carefully.

“Well, after all,” I said, “we do what we are instructed to.”

I held her gaze. This time, I was certain I saw something flicker in her eyes. But she didn’t show it. There was barely a tremor in her voice when she replied quietly,

“Don’t we all, SugarPlum.”

*          *          *

Snow and company showed us to private quarters. Once more, a coincidental eleven prepared. I could see a twelfth room, clearly, but it had been blocked off. In the privacy of my mind, I referred to it as “Pearson’s Room”, because I was certain that was exactly who it had been meant for.

Snow showed me around the room while I worked through a new gambit in my head. I was a married man, although I didn’t wear a ring because it didn’t pay to advertise your family to enemies. It had been a while since I dated, and this tactic was going to need some planning. As Snow was pointing out the bed warmer, I judiciously closed the door, and cleared my throat.

Snow turned around, looked at me, and for the first time, did not instantly grin.

“Yes, Sugarplum?”

I closed my eyes, and then started in a quiet voice.

“Snow, I’m sorry if I’ve seemed brisk, or rude, with you. Believe me, in other circumstances, I would not have to be so cautious.”

She smiled.

“That’s alright, Sugarplum. But I’m here to show you that we aren’t doing anything nefarious up here. We’re just defending ourselves.”

I nodded, and then turned my back to the door. I paused for a second, and then cut in as she started to continue her tour.

“I believe that you aren’t doing anything nefarious up here, Snow,” And I turned to face her again, meeting her huge green eyes with my stare, “I don’t think, given a choice, you’d harm me any more than I’d shoot you. I know a femme fatale on sight, and your sisters might qualify, but you don’t.”

She seemed shocked. Her eyes were wide, and her mouth dropped open a little. But I had come too far to stop now. I advanced towards her, holding her gaze, and half- knelt in front of her, so that my head was almost even with hers.

“I believe that, if you were being forced to do something, or if you knew more about Kristopher then you’re letting on, or if you knew we were in danger, you’d tell me. Right now, in fact, while no one could hear you.”

The words hung in mid-air. I waited for the after-effect.

I got it. A tiny hand swung around in a short arc and backhanded me.

Snow bit her lip, and seemed to return from the verge of tears. She breathed out again, and seemed to control herself.

“Listen, Soldier boy. Your theories are up a pole, and you won’t win bonus points with me by insulting my sisters, or Santa. You spend a lot of time messing about with things you know nothing…I mean, for goodness…” then, grasping for words, she rose herself up to her full height, and took two steps towards me, sticking a finger under my nose, “Don’t mistake our hospitality, Soldier boy, for weakness. If you have any sense, you’ll go to sleep, stop making trouble, and go back home with your men tomorrow. Good Night!”

And with that, she stepped around me, opened the door, and slammed it behind her, leaving me to wonder if I had made a large mistake.

*          *          *

I didn’t sleep, however, because I was planning an escape. I got into bed, fully clothed in case I was being watched, and my weapons nearby. After lights went out, I counted off twenty minuites from the last noise I heard. Just as I was about to go collect the boys, a noise in the hallway startled me.

But it was a very soft noise, indeed, as though the girls’ bedroom door had been stealthily opened. I closed my eyes and pretended to sleep.  Soon enough, the door to my room opened, and two tiny feet padded across my carpet. Then, in front of me, I felt a small, warm shape move under the covers. A foot like an ice-cube brushed me on the leg, and then a hand touched my shoulder.

I swept a hand up, trying to protect my neck, and found myself holding Snow instead.

She was unarmed. I loosened my grip, and she adjusted herself in the bed.

After a while, she spoke. “I wish you hadn’t taken an antidote too, Soldier boy. You made it very complicated. He told us that you could just regenerate, like us. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. You’d die for real.”

I nodded, silently. So they HAD been trying to poison us.

“Believe me, I didn’t know. I was just doing what I was told to, and…”

I hushed her.

“Snow, you didn’t come down here just to confess. What are your sisters going to do?”

She looked at the door, then leaned close, and whispered in my ear.

“They plan to shoot you all while you’re sleeping, in ten minutes, give or take.”

I grimaced in the darkness.

“Then there isn’t a minute to lose. Snow, is there a way out of here?”

She shook her head. “I’m sorry, Sugar Plum, but no. The only door out is heavily guarded, and locked magnetically…” she paused, seemed to remember something.

“But there is a vent shaft that’s fairly accessible. I suspect that it goes somewhere nasty, though, or it would be better guarded.”

I swung my legs out of the bed.

“It’ll have to do, wherever it goes. Snow? Rally my men, and gather them downstairs. We need to check out.”

*          *          *

Snow proved herself to me, in those next minutes. With no more noise then a rambunctious nitrogen molecule, she roused and rallied my men into a fully armed cadre in the downstairs living room, and still found time to unscrew the wall panel.

It was just about large enough to squeeze through, but she was right, it was impossible to tell where it went. There was a six foot drop, followed by heaven knows what.

With the assistance of Snow, I helped to ease each of my men down into the chute. But as I was preparing to go down after them, Snow stopped me.

“Soldier boy? I hate to tell you this, but you’re going to have to shoot me.”

My heart stood still. I shook my head, and tried to adjust my ears.

“Snow? Did you just say that?”

She was holding back tears.

“I did, Sugarplum. Look, you’re dealing with the most advanced bio-chemical complex on earth. They’ll pop into my occipital nerve and check, and you have no idea what they do to traitors. Even if I committed suicide, they’d know, and they’d bring me back specifically to torture me. But if they see you with a pistol…” She paused, and then started again, more quietly “…No questions asked. They’ll bring me back to life, and I’ll have gained first hand experience with the enemy.. We both need an airtight story, Soldier boy. They’re going to know exactly what the last thing I saw was.”

And then she bit her lip. And this time, when she spoke it was very quiet indeed.

“But they won’t know the last thing I felt,” she said, “Your file says you’re married, so tell your wife to forgive me.”

And then she kissed me. I was completely lost, for a moment. Her lips tasted of peppermint and sugar, and it seemed to last for hours. At last, she let go, and stepped back, ten paces.

“Alright, Sugarplum… I’m ready.” She said, holding her hands at her sides.

*          *          *

I jumped down into the tunnel, after my men.

Hafton caught me and helped me up.

“About time, sir. What was that shot?”

I looked at him, tried to clear my mind, and made the answer sound light.

“Just finishing up the escape plan. Any idea where we are?”

“No, sir,” Hafton said, kneeling down and shining a light down the duct, “But there’s really only one way to go before that elf’s friends come after us.”

We took approximately ten steps, voluntarily.

After that, the air systems turned on, and swept us right into the mouth of Hell.

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Chapter 3: Ten Hordes Attacking

Chapter 1 – Twelve Gunners Gunning
Chapter 2 – Eleven Snipers Sniping

Chapter 3: Ten Hordes Attacking

The men were a credit to soldierly. They arrived right as the horde began hitting the compound. All of them, that is, except for the team from tower 2.

I turned to Hafton, who was one of the members of the tower 1 team.

“What did you see in Tower 2? We need Thyger, right now. And where’s Locht?”

“No sign of anyone, sir.”

Suddenly, the entire side of the tower shook. Elves, seemingly oblivious to the freezing winds, were dismounting from armored personnel carriers shaped like toy trains. Or rather, would have looked like toy trains, if not for the steel armor shaped like skulls wearing stocking caps, and the motif emblazoned on the fronts of two crossed candy canes over the sort of eye I had last seen floating above the pyramid on a one-dollar bill. The tower was dancing a jig under the barrage of an increasing number of nutcracker mortars. I saw an elf pull smartly down on the back handle, the figure’s teeth open, and a shell launch into the air.

The glass shattered with the impact, letting in the freezing wind and emphasizing the sounds of the mortars and tanks. Peeking above the ledge, I sighted the sniper rifle on an elf planting a nutcracker, and dispatched him with a shot to the forehead.

“Season’s greetings,” I growled under my breath. I ducked back, and switched on my radio.

“Thyger, respond. Fall back to tower 4, copy?”

Dead crackling came over the radio. I braced as the tower took another hit, and then tried again.

“Thgyer, this is Captain Mesner. Fall back to tower 4, do you copy?”

Still nothing. I stood up, quickly, and grasped the sniper rifle again. Most of the elves were wearing green suits, but one of them in a dark red uniform with gold epaulets just begged to be tagged. I lined up the shot with my breath pattern, and was about to squeeze, when an even larger force rocked the tower from below as a gumdrop tank fired its cannon. A shot buzzed past my ear as I fell backwards.

Someone was sniping me. They learned quickly. Mr. Kringle had been doing more up here then making toys and manipulating world finances.

I gripped my radio to try one final call to Thyger, when a weak voice came through.

“Captain? This is Thyger, reporting in, sir.”

I pulled the radio around to shield it from noise.

“Thyger, what’s your twenty? Can you make it to the tower?”

“Negative, sir. And I need Graile down here, fast. We’ve got an elevator, and it goes well below this tunnel, but it’s got some sort of internal auto-turrets guarding it. Small caliber, but it did a number on Dorhaise’s armor. This set seems to be motion-activated, so I can’t just flash-bang them. They need to be hacked.”

I unstrapped my pistol, stood up, sighted a target and squeezed off two shots. The wind was too strong for me to correct as accurately as I had with the sniper rifle, though, and I only managed to graze a private before I got back to the radio.

“Is Locht with you, Thyger?” I said, checking the clip.

“No sir, I’m sorry.”

I swore under my breath. Locht was still downstairs, then. Incidentally, with Pearson’s body, and unless we hurried, soon to be as dead. We didn’t know where to look, but we had to look fast.

What we needed, right now, was a way to get to that base, and someplace we could send Pearson’s body where it wouldn’t be found by those short little demons. It wasn’t pleasant, but there it was. No man left behind. Not even a dead one. What we had was a quickly disappearing vantage point, a well guarded elevator two wings away, and enough munitions to level New Hampshire immediately downstairs.

The last was Thyger’s department. But first, we’d need an escape plan, which meant we’d need the elevator anyway. But how to deal with Pearson?

And then, as the tower swayed dangerously under a cannon shot from below, I had a jolt of inspiration.

I waved my hand in the air.

“Attention!” I shouted above the noise. All the men pulled in their rifles, ducked below the ledge, and turned to face me while kneeling. “Teams 1 and 2, we’re going to retreat to tower 2, double time. Graile, prep your tool kit on the way. We’ll need every spare second. Teams 3 and 4, go downstairs for Locht and Pearson. And be prepared to meet us near the base of tower 2 in the munitions dump when I call.”

* * *

We burst into the antechamber of tower 4 to find Thyger crouching over the wounded medic and applying a field bandage. He ripped off a salute as I stepped in.

“The control box is here, sir,” he said, gesturing at a silver box on the wall.

Graile took out his handheld computer and plugged into the control box. I went to Thyger, and whispered to him.

“Thyger, this place is a munitions dump. We’re sitting right on top of a great number of explosives, and I heavily suspect that that’s why they’re restricting the shelling to the wings. Got any idea how we can use a nearly unlimited number of explosives?”

Thyger’s brow furrowed seriously. After a moment he said.

“That depends. Gunpowder, liquid, or plastique? And how much of it?”

“All three, plus a century of ammunition. All about equally proportioned.”

He thought again. Finally he decided. “I’ll rig the plastique, then. It needs electronic charges, otherwise it’ll just make a cheerful fire. The other two will go up like fury with a flame, though.”

There was a click, as Graile finished with the box. Two thumps emanated from the other room as the turrets dropped dead.

“Finished, sir. They did everything but remove the control box to guard those things, but with the speed they built this place, they probably needed it to manage all the electronics. This one seems to interface with a larger network, though, so it was tough.”

I turned to the others. “Alright, gentleman, into the elevator. Next floor, bombs, explosives, and munitions. Going down.”

* * *

The men I sent to the ammo dump were waiting by the elevator with Freals when we arrived, as I had expected. What I hadn’t expected was the huge pile of bombs waiting with them.

Freals’ radio had gone dead, but he had heard the sound of the shelling because it was impossible not to in this echo chamber. Rather then abandon his post, however, Freals had gone through the crates around him and grabbed extra insurance while waiting for backup, since he knew from our earlier trip what was in them. He had a beautiful pile of C-4 bombs one wire from completion.

It wouldn’t be enough to eliminate the entire army outside, or detonate the munitions dump. But given the hasty construction of the building annex, it was more then enough to get us a tank… if we played our cards right.

“Thyger, finish rigging this building. Four men, come with me, and get Pearson ready.” I grabbed an armful of C-4 and cautiously opened the door, “We’re going to fetch him a ride.”

I stepped out into the blinding snow, and ran towards the far wall, where the elves were still pounding on tower 4. I opened the door as silently as possible, and urged the others in. If this was going to go off right, we’d have to get to the far end of the tower. Two hallways connected towards the front. I turned the corner and opened the door.

And I hated what I saw. We had never looked at the compound from this angle, so we hadn’t seen the wall of ceiling to floor windows all along the base. But, the structural supports on this portion of the building were out in the open, just like I needed. If only…

“Right, here’s the plan. Plug the wires in and start the timers now. When they have twenty seconds left, we’re going to make a break for it, down the hallway. Leave the bombs by the columns, and run for the far door. They’re fixating on the top, so they won’t see us for a moment. But we can’t risk them breaking through and diffusing these. Everyone ready?”

They nodded.

“Alright then. Gentlemen, start your timers.”

* * *

The entire run seemed like it was in slow motion. The elves only caught sight of us as we were mere yards from the end, with one column and five seconds left. The hallway was riddled with holes behind us, but we were already diving through the door.

What happened next sounded like the end of the world. The whole row of support columns on this side of the building was blown away, and similar to a tree with a slanted cut, promptly fell on that portion of the elf army not fast enough to get out of the way.

“Run back, and tell Thyger to hurry up. They won’t be stunned forever. This is only the first wave.”

Then I ran back through the door. There were stone blocks everywhere, intermingled with elves and their equipment. But there, not fifteen yards out, was what I had really been looking for. A somewhat dented gumdrop tank, with the hatch thrown open and vacated by a driver apparently unhappy to see that our performance had brought down the house. I clambered in, hastily, and maneuvered it over the wreckage amidst the confusion.

“Attention. I’m driving a tank into the courtyard now. Bring out Pearson,” I said to my radio.

Locht’s voice returned, “Acknowledged, Captain.” So they had gotten back. Good.

Through the side machine gun flap, I saw them bring Pearson. I opened the hatch, and helped hoist him down. Then I turned the tank around to face the hole in the wall we’d come in through, and slumped him so that both levers were on. The tank began to move forward.

“So long, Pearson. We’ll send an air drop around to pick you up, and fly you back… while we make certain there won’t be any red-suited psychos climbing down the chimney of your crematorium.” And with that, I climbed out, and jumped down off the tank as it continued at a merry click off between the minefields and through the hole we had made coming in.

I pulled out the radio, called in Pearson’s trip and an approximate location for him, and ran back to the depot.

Thyger greeted me as I returned.

“Charges are ready, Captain.” He said. Then, glancing into the distance, he added hurriedly, “I think we better go.”

I looked back, to see nine distinct waves of red and green advancing hungrily on the compound at speed. Evidently, someone had gotten word of the building trick.

As fast as we could, we ran into the compound, into the elevator, and pressed the basement button. The elevator descended so quickly, it seemed as though our feet might leave the floor. After a suitable pause, Thyger pushed the jury-rigged detonator that he had made with Graile’s help.

There was a sound best described as “THWUM”, followed by a concussion which nearly shook the elevator off its cable, even at this depth.

Then, silence.

 

I was nervous about entering the compound, but if the elevator had been guarded that heavily, then they certainly didn’t expect us to come down it. We had the element of surprise, and even the optimistic possibility that they would think errant shelling had caused the explosion and that we were now dead.

It was nearly disappointing to have the door open on a grey cement hallway with the obligatory florescent lights and a metal door at the end. But the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. Something about this scene had “Ambush,” written all over it.

“Advance with caution”, I warned in a whisper.

I steeled myself, and approached the door. I grasped the brass handle with one hand, and signaled that I would count to three with the other. Then I prepped my rifle.

I was going to be ready for whatever was behind that door.

One. Two. Three.

I was not ready. There was no way on Earth I could have been. What was behind the door was, in fact, a graceful blonde elf in approximately a square foot of fur lined clothing.

“Well, Hello, big boy.” She said, pulling a candy cane from between her lips and winking one giant green eye, “Are you from the naughty list?”

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