Check out The Naked Truth HERE.  Thanks for following the link!

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For those of you who haven’t discovered Shelf Awareness yet, I highly recommend it.  Their daily e-mails offer a great look into the world of publishing on all levels, from the writer to the publisher to the bookseller.  In my mind, this is a resource everyone involved in, or interested in, the industry should follow.

Today’s issue is a case in point.  One of the articles concerns USA Today’s best sellers list. Specifically, in the list to be published Thursday, digital sales of six of the top ten titles were higher than hard copy sales.  Of the top 50 titles, 19 of them had higher digital than hard copy sales.  According to USA Today, “It’s the first time the top-50 list has had more than two titles in which the e-version outsold print.”

What can we infer from this?  Well, the first is that a lot of folks found e-readers of one flavor or another under their trees this Christmas.  New e-readers means increased digital sales.  Add to that the latest report showing that 40% of iPad owners also own a kindle and that more iPad owners plan to buy a kindle in the upcoming months and you can see there is still a market for dedicated e-book readers.

The second thing we can conclude is that no matter how hard major publishers try to deny it or postpone the inevitable, e-books are here to stay.  Whether it is the convenience of being able to carry around hundreds or even thousands of e-books on a single small device or the fact that so many people are like me and running out of room at home for physical books, more and more people are adapting to this new technology.

And that brings us to the next bit of news and all those who will shout from the rooftops that this situation has been brought on in large by the advent of e-books.  In the last few days, Borders has been purging its executive level.  It started with the firings of Thomas Carney, their legal counsel, and Scott Laverty, chief information officer.  Tony Grant and Larry Norton, the vice president of real estate and the senior vice president for business development and publisher relations respectively, have also been let go.

Add to that a report from the Wall Street Journal that Borders has “stopped writing checks to key suppliers” and will be asking suppliers to allow them to push back payment dates as they work out a refinancing plan and, well, you have a recipe for disaster.  Consider also that in this same article it is noted that Borders canceled payment on a check for books shipped to it by an unnamed publishing company in October.  Folks, this doesn’t look good for Borders and really makes laughable the word that came out a week or so ago that Borders might actually try to buy Barnes & Noble.

In this article from DealB%k, it is reported that Borders has begun discussions with publishers seeking to delay payments.  This is necessary if they want to be able to restructure their loans from various financial institutions.  Without enough publishers agreeing, it is most likely the banks won’t agree to restructure or refinance.

From the same article:  “Several publishers said Borders owed them millions of dollars in payments, up to tens of millions each for the larger publishers. Publishers said they had been told by Borders executives that more than two dozen vendors were owed money.”

Also in the same article, a spokesperson for Borders said they expected the publishers to offer the “same terms” to the other booksellers.  Now, maybe I’m wrong, but isn’t that basically telling the publishers to take another hit, one they can’t afford right now?  Sorry, but if a company is on shaky financial ground, it shouldn’t be the one to dictate terms to its lenders or suppliers.  Those lenders and suppliers should be able to reasonably protect their investments.

Now, is this a case of e-books bringing down a major bookseller?  No.  E-books are but one of the myriad of causes behind what looks to be the inevitable collapse of Borders as we know it now.  Mismanagement, over-expansion, and no longer demanding that their employees be customer oriented or knowledgeable about the product also had a hand in Borders’ decline.

I love going to bookstores and browsing.  When my son was in high school, there as a Borders directly across the street.  I’d go there and sit in the coffee shop and read or write.  I’d look through the stacks and buy books or magazines.  I did this even though I was already reading e-books.

But things changed at that store as things changed in the company.  The floor plan was changed, taking away not only a lot of the music they’d been selling but also — and more importantly — the books.  Unless a book was a “best seller”, it either never made it to the store or only remained on the shelf for a few days before being pulled for something.  The staff started having high turnover until it reached a point where I asked them to order a book for me and 1) they couldn’t find it in their computer, 2) they’d never heard of the publisher and it was a major publisher and 3) they’d never heard of the distributor.  So, no book ordered and, when this repeated several more times, a customer was lost.

Bookstores are necessary, in my opinion.  But I think we’re going to see a return to the specialty stores and smaller stores.  The big box stores just aren’t going to be the norm in the future.  I may be wrong, but I don’t think so.  Most of all, bookstores need to sell BOOKS and they need to be staffed by employees who read and can converse with their customers about a wide range of books.  They at least need to know their stock.

At least that’s my opinion.  Any thoughts?

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Let me start out by once again thanking everyone who submitted either short stories or novels to us in November.  We received quite a few submissions and it was difficult to choose exactly which ones to sign.  However, our editorial board was up to the task and contracts have been sent out and returned.  Now I have the pleasure of announcing the schedule for the first quarter of 2011 as well as some of the titles we will be publishing later this year.

January

The e-arc for Dave Freer’s YA novella, Without A Trace, is already available for purchase.

A Deeper Silence, a collection of short stories by Charles Edgar Quinn.

Legion, a short story by Dave Freer and Kate Paulk.

February

Lawyers of Mars by Pam Uphoff.

Short story collection by Dan Hoyt, title to be announced later.

Death of a Musketeer by Sarah D’Almeida.  This is the first of the Musketeer Mysteries and has never appeared in digital format.  We are very pleased to be able to add this title to our catalog and to announce that we will be offering later this year The Musketeer’s Confessor, a new book in the series.

We will also offer an as yet to be determined short story or two this month.

March

Impaler by Kate Paulk.  A mix of alternate history, historical mystery and a new take on the Dracula myth.  This is the follow-up novel to Kate’s novella, Born in Blood.

Hunter’s Moon by Ellie Ferguson is a mix of urban fantasy and romance.

Blood Ransom, a short story collection by Sarah A. Hoyt.

Last, but certainly not least, we will be offering our own irreverent take on St. Patrick’s Day, much in the vein of Robert Hoyt’s Christmas Campaign.

April

The Great Flying Saucer Conspiracy by Tom Easton.  Tom will be doing a guest blog for us later this month complete with information about the book and a giveaway.

An as yet to be titled short story collection by Dave Freer.

Want, a short story by Jay Caselberg that came to us during our November submission period.

Skipping Stones, a short story by Darwin Garrison that also came to us during the November submission period.

May

Revocare, a short story by Leslie Fish that was submitted to us during November.

Here There Be Faeries, a short story by Stephen Simmons that came to us also during the November submission period.

There will be at least one novel added to the lineup.  We’ll announce which title as soon as possible.

Summer/Fall/Winter

Among the titles we’ll be offering the second half of the year are the following:

The Musketeer’s Confessor by Sarah D’Almeida.  This is a new title in the Musketeers Mysteries and we are very excited to be able to offer it to you.

Firefight by Tom Easton will be published in August.

Tiltamouse is Hunger, a YA novella by Sarah A. Hoyt.

Vengeance Mine, a mystery by Jenny Schall that is also a product of the November submission period.

ConVent by Kate Paulk.

Robert A. Hoyt’s holiday collection which includes Christmas Campaign.

These are just a few of the titles we’ll be bringing you over the next year.  As new titles are added, we’ll let you know.

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The e-arc for Dave Freer’s new YA fantasy adventure, Without a Trace, is now available.  This is your chance to be the first on your block to have Dave’s newest work.

For those who aren’t familiar with what an e-arc is, it’s an advanced reader copy of the novella.  In other words, this is not the final product.  There may be spelling and punctuation errors present.  It’s possible there will be some text changes made as well before the final product is published Feb. 15th.  While you may find some errors in this product, those who purchase the e-arc will get to read it before anyone else.

In this YA offering, a boy’s search for his grandfather’s downed plane leads to a parallel South Africa with pirates and worse.  His quest to clear his grandfather’s name turns into a desperate race against time to return to his own reality before it’s too late.

CHAPTER 1

HISTORY
“Universes, endless parallel universes, may lie right next to next to ours. They are as unreachable as the stars. Or are they?”

You’ve heard of the Bermuda triangle? You know, where compasses suddenly start to spin wildly, with a sudden darkness at noon, where ships and planes sometimes just disappear. When they’re gone, they’re just… gone, and nothing ever comes back. There are other places where this is supposed to happen too. There’s a spot deep in the Gobi, and another above the Java Trench. And then… there’s the Wild Coast…. some very strange things have happened there. Over the years Portugese Carracks, British East Indiamen, and, in 1908, the Wahratah have disappeared off that coast.

On the 27th of July in 1981 my Grandad flew his Piper Cherokee out from the little bumpy airstrip on our farm, in the direction of Port St. Johns. He flew off to go and take a swarm of bees out of a friend’s holiday cottage. He flew out of our lives, and for all anyone knew out of this world. He, and his plane were “missing”. They’d just disappeared, disappeared without a trace. No wreckage was ever found. Then the problems started.

For starters he was in trouble with the security police. Politics, guns. They reckoned Grandad was a gun-runner. My Old Man says it was quite possible. He says his Dad was up to anything, provided it was totally lunatic. Everyone had thought he was a rich man, but it seemed he owed a lot of money. There was very little money in his bank account.

Then the story came out. He’d drawn out twenty thousand Rand the day before he flew, and bought Krugerrands with it. He’d been buying gold for years, it seemed. Suddenly, nobody believed he’d crashed anymore. Everyone said he’d cut and run. Everyone but my Dad.

“My father never ran away from anything in his life!” That’s what he said to the papers then. That’s what he said to me maybe a thousand times since. My Dad was twenty three then, not even married a year, and still having a grand old time at University. Me, I was three months old.

Suddenly he wasn’t a rich man’s son anymore. Suddenly he didn’t have any friends. Three days later he didn’t have a wife either. She left him with a baby boy, a stack of debts and no future.

He’d lost everything but the farm. Fortunately my grandmother had left that to Dad. Grandad couldn’t be proved to be dead, so my father never got to see Grandad’s will. Grandad was well insured, but Dad couldn’t claim anything because Grandad wasn’t legally dead. The plane was insured too, but it was just “missing”.

Dad had to sell what the creditors hadn’t taken. Most of the livestock, almost all of the farm implements, Grandad’s cars, radios, TV, and antique furniture went. Dad had no money to replace anything that broke down. While there was still money owing there was no chance of credit from anyone.

Grandad had built quite nice staff houses, with electricity and running water, and paid his employees far more than anyone else in the district. This had made all the local farmers mad with him. Apparently one of them had come around to the farm and had a shouting match with him, about how he was “spoiling the Kaffirs”. Grandad had picked him up, and tossed him into a rose bush.

The old man had also never been scared to speak his mind about anything, and it seemed he’d trod on a lot of toes talking about the way the farmers treated their labourers. The result was, now that Dad needed help, he found that even those people whom Grandad didn’t owe money to, treated him as if he was a scorpion on a picnic blanket.

Dad couldn’t possibly afford to pay the all the farm workers. Eventually only one family stayed, but some months Dad couldn’t find the money to pay them either. Still, because of the way Grandad had treated them, they stayed with us. They had a few cows and goats and patch of mielies, so nobody starved. They were more like friends than labourers though.

Often the only customers Dad could find for the farm produce were the local black people, because no one in town would buy from him at a fair price, and he had no transport to take our stuff to anywhere else. Fortunately, virtually everyone who had ever worked for Grandad came to the farm buy from Dad. Dad spoke Zulu and even Xhosa — because we were pretty near the borderland between the two languages — and people liked that. “Respect begets respect,” he always said. I was never too sure what ‘begets’ meant. I think it had something to do with the way people greeted him.

Dad just kept trying. Somehow he made enough money to pay cash for everything. Somehow we made it through the droughts. Nothing was going to stop my Dad from paying off the debts, proving he was an honest man, and making that farm rich again. He loved the place and he was going to keep it. If I’d known it was something special, I’d have been really proud of him. I suppose I didn’t. I just thought that was the way grown-ups (especially my Dad) behaved, when I was a little kid. I guess my Old Man was the centre of my universe. He told wonderful stories. About Granda’Al, about the San, about the Zulu wars. He was interested in that kind of thing.

So I grew up on the farm. We were dirt poor, but nobody told me about it, so I didn’t know. The farm was a bit wild, and run down, but we had electricity from the Pelton wheel, plenty of milk, fruit, mielie meal and eggs. Occasionally we’d eat a chicken. My milk brother, Amos, and I ran after the chickens, rode the pig and generally got chased out of every kind of trouble. He was the best friend you could ever have to grow up with.

Fat Mamma Lena, who’d raised us both, looked after us in a cheerful lazy fashion, usually just telling one of her older daughters to make sure we didn’t kill ourselves. The big old house was bare, as most of the furniture had been sold, but the kitchen with its smokey woodburning stove was always warm.

When I was six I started going across the river to Mevrou Cronje to learn my letters. She was a kind, gruff old lady, a widowed ex schoolmistress, who thought everyone ought to be able to read. On her stoep she taught me and a few of the other farm workers’ kids to read, write and count. She never said a word about me being the odd one out with straight black hair and a sunburned nose, when the other kids were lucky enough not to get sunburned. Dad said I look black Irish, but I wouldn’t have minded just being sunburn-proof dark brown back then.

Then I turned eight and I had to go to town to school. I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t just go to the local farm school with Amos, but that was the law back in 1988. One law whites and one for black people. Pretty dumb, but that was the way it was.

School was the worst thing that ever happened to me. All the other kids knew each other. Their clothes were new. All of them had shoes. I had horny bare feet, threadbare shorts and a kahki shirt one size too small. Even the teachers sort of steered away from me.

It must have been a week before any of the other kids even spoke to me. It was the class bully, a brute called Butch Visser. He was nearly a head taller than me, and maybe five kilos heavier. He said “Hey thief! Why aren’t you in jail?”

I didn’t answer straight away. I was still translating everything anyone said into Zulu, and I couldn’t believe what he was saying. He must have thought I was scared.

“Why do you stink, thief!” he closed in on me, standing too close.

“I’m not a thief!” I blurted, scared and hurt.

“Well your Grandad was, so you must be. He was a thief and he ran away! He owed my Dad money.” He leaned over me and I had to look up to see his face.

My best goodnight stories ever since I could remember had been about my crazy Granda Al. Stories about places with wonderful names like Casablanca and Tangiers. About small boats and misty nights. I could recite some of them, word for word. Dad always finished every story with these words “He was a real man, son. He never ran away from anything in his life!” I didn’t have to think about what to say. I just yelled “My Grandad never ran away from anything in his life!”

***

One final note, our home page will be undergoing some redesign tomorrow, so I’m not going to risk mucking it up and bringing down the wrath of our tech gurus by trying to add links and images myself.  So just follow this link or click on the “new novelettes” link on the right side of the homepage for Without a Trace.

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A Touch of Night, by Sarah A. Hoyt and Sofie Skapski is today’s free offering.  It will remain free until 9 am CST tomorrow.  (Note:  this offer is good only through our web store).
Sarah A. Hoyt and Sofie Skapski have taken Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and adapted it to give us a rip-roaring tale of were-dragons, English drawing rooms and so much more.  This is an England where magic reigns and being a shape-shifter is the only crime that warrants immediate execution.


Netherfield is let at last!

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man of clean lineage and respectable fortune must be in need of a wife.

Upon entering any country neighborhood, this man will be viewed as the rightful property of this or that daughter of the local families and each one will make haste to claim him by all means available within the bounds of propriety.

“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to this gentleman, over tea in the small blue parlor of the Longbourne house. “Have you heard that Netherfield is let at last?”

Ensconced in his comfortable chair by the fire, book grasped firmly in hands and gaze set on said book with equal firmness, the gentleman replied without looking up, “No, I have not.”

His second daughter, Elizabeth, recovering from a startled tremble thanked the heavens he’d missed her reaction. Doubtless his book was too engrossing to allow him to notice such insignificant creatures as people.

That her mother didn’t realize Elizabeth had shaken and spilled the best portion of her teacup all over her saucer did not surprise the girl. Dutiful daughter though she tried to be, she entertained no illusions about her mother, who was a woman of mean understanding and little education. Mrs. Bennet’s life work was the marriage of her five daughters, its solace visiting and gossip.

So, Lizzy set about cleaning her saucer, while listening to her mother.

“Do you not want to know who has taken it?” Mrs. Bennet asked her husband, impatiently.

“You wish to tell me and I have no objection to hearing it.”

This was invitation enough.

“Why, my dear. Mrs. Long says it has been taken by a young man of large fortune from the North of England; that he came down on Monday in a chaise and four and was so much delighted with the place that he settled on the price immediately. He’s taking possession immediately and his servants have been busy about the place for a week.”

“The North of England,” Mr. Bennet said, looking over his book with such a grave expression only the daughter who understood him best could discern the impish twinkling in his eyes. “A well known place for blood lines that throw out a were every other generation.”

“A were!” Mrs. Bennet said in startled alarm. “I hope not. Our neighborhood has never had any of the foul fiends, and I swear my nerves will carry me off if a were-beast were to settle within easy distance of us!”

“I daresay,” Mr. Bennet said, his expression graver and the twinkle in his eyes more pronounced. “That they have to live somewhere.”

“Oh, no, Mr. Bennet, they must not,” his wife said. “For you know the law says they are to be killed at once.”

“Only if caught, Mrs. Bennet, only if caught.” . . . .

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I wanted to pop in for a moment to wish everyone a Happy New Year.   To kick things off here at NRP, later today we’ll be offering the e-arc of Dave Freer’s novella Without a Trace.  In this YA offering, a boy’s search for his grandfather’s crashed plane leads to a parallel South Africa with pirates and worse.  His quest to clear his grandfather’s name turns into a desperate race against time to return to his own reality with his injured grandfather.

We’ll post here and on our homepage later this afternoon when the e-arc goes live.

Also, to help kick off the New Year, starting tomorrow, we’ll be offering some of our titles for free.  These free downloads will be announced the night before (CST time) and will be available for one day only.  Specific dates and times will be listed in each announcement.  You’ll have to follow the links in the blog for the freebies.

Don’t forget that our submission period is now open.  We’re accepting submissions for short and long fiction of all genres until 2359 EST January 31st.   If you have any questions, leave a comment or send us an email to submissions at nakedreader dot com (you know how to fix it to work.  Just trying, probably in vain, to beat the spambots)

Remember, check back this afternoon for the announcement that Dave’s e-arc has gone live and for an announcement about our first freebie offering of the month.

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(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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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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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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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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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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Chapter 2: Eleven Snipers Sniping

The whole world stood still, for a moment. I heard my own voice shout “Get to cover!”, and then the whole courtyard exploded in a sequence of shots. We ran for the far alcove, dragging Pearson, and huddled under it while the last echoes of the shots dies away in the wind.

Freals coughed, sat up, and looked at me. “By my count, sir, we’ve got two snipers… at least… in every one of those towers.”

I nodded. “I think that you’re correct, Mr. Freals,” I said, “If we’re going to move through this building, we’re going to need to flush them out. Likely as not, they’ll be waiting where we least expect to see them.”

I looked around. There was a metal door behind us with a heavy lock, and another set of doors on either wing of the building facing the courtyard.

“Thyger, we need that lock gone. Got a charge small enough?”

He smiled. “I do indeed, sir. One lockpick, coming up.”

I turned to face the other men. “Alright, gentlemen, here’s the plan. I’m going to toss out my flash-bang on a short fuse. They’ve probably seen one before, but the fact that they kept firing once we had already ducked out of the way tells me that they’re inexperienced as snipers. With any luck, they’ll look at that thing right through the sight and half-blind themselves. Four men each, scatter to those doors. Then, two apiece, take the towers. That silent alarm means that we need to finish this operation quickly, so you won’t have an advantage in numbers. Play it cautious instead, and throw a regular grenade in if you have to.” There was a soft thump behind me, and a creak. The door swung open, revealing a cavernous abyss of blackness beyond.

“Locht, Graile, you’re with me. We’re going to see if we can find an alternate route through the building. Call on the radio once you’ve got your tower cleared. The one on the left bottom side of the U shape is 1, the one on the right is 4. I’ll call back and tell you if we scout out a route. Everyone got it?”

They nodded.

“OK, gentlemen, then get ready.”

I reached behind me, undid the Velcro on the flash-bang holster, pulled the pin, and hefted it.

Thousand-one.

Thousand-two.

Thousand- THROW.

*          *          *

The whole area became awash in frantic shots the moment the flash-bang went

off, but none of them even came close. Everyone made it to the doors in time. I carefully propped up Pearson,  and signaled for the other two to follow me. As I stepped through the door, I turned the volume down on my radio. If there was anyone hiding out in here, the last thing I needed to do was an open broadcast of our position.

The room was dark, much larger then it originally seemed, and very drafty.

No use using night vision goggles in here. Not enough ambient light for that. The flashlights were a chance, but we didn’t have much choice.

The room smelled funny. One of the things that you learn early on, if you plan to continue surviving, is to learn how to follow your nose literally, which was currently telling me that something was wrong.

Graile noticed too.

“Frankly, sir, that smell is familiar.” He whispered, pointing the flashlight at one of the crates lining the path.

“Hold on a moment.” I walked over to a lone crate on the ground and brought my rifle stock against it, in order to dislodge the lid. It came off without too much trouble.

It was what was inside that caused me trouble.

The whole crate was filled with explosives. C4 blocks neatly attached to timers, binary liquid bombs, and all manner of bullets, eclectically but squarely compartmentalized. If the whole warehouse was holding this stuff, then it could have removed the entire pole when detonated.

“Well, one thing’s for certain, if things get rough down here, we won’t run out of ammo. Let’s keep moving. And be careful not to jostle these things, or they’ll find our remains in San Franc…” The radio cut me off.

“Captain Mesner, come in.”

I adjusted the microphone. “Read you loud and clear, over”.

“Captain, tower 3 secured. The snipers have been turned off.” The phrase caught me oddly. It didn’t sound quite right.

“What do you mean by “Turned off” precisely?”

“It’s seems to be an automated system, sir.” The radio buzzed, “I think you’d better see this yourself, sir. I think they expected us, and we’ve got some movement outside the compound. But, sir, I don’t recommend coming up via the courtyard. There’s one on each of the walls.”

“Acknowledged. We’ll try to get up another way.”

I switched out. This place looked like it was supplying the base, which meant that it was a reasonable guess that the ammo dump had quick access to the towers, somewhere. It was awfully strange for a place so dedicated to munitions storage to have observation towers and seemingly useless wings. It was almost as though the ammo dump had had everything else appended on around it, after it was constructed. I moved us down a left turn, towards tower through.

Sure enough, there in the flashlights, was a cargo elevator. I considered informing the other units that we had found a route, but since they hadn’t reported in yet, I didn’t want to interrupt them. Besides, it was never a good idea to say more on the radio then necessary, since you never knew who was listening in.

I turned to the other two. “Locht, stay here. If the situation changes, call me, otherwise, leave off the radio. Graile, come with me. That movement outside might be your silent alarm.”

And the two of us stepped into the waiting elevator.

*          *          *

By the time I got to the top, towers 1 and 4 had called in, and I had sent 1 to support 2, which wasn’t responding. When the doors opened, it became clear that we were seeing the fruits of the silent alarm.

Tower 3 was a wreck. There was a bunch of electronic equipment on every surface, and two auto turrets of some kind hastily installed in both windows.

They had definitely seen us coming. It made sense. This was the only place we could find with recon because it was the only place they’d let us see. They’d probably had a munitions dump here for some time, and with some basic security, it could pass for a real compound. Since they couldn’t be sure when they’d be attacked, they’d simply alarmed it, and waited to trap whoever got lured in.

We had walked right into it.

Advancing over the landscape in a wave was a set of green and red tanks, each with a cannon made to look like a candy cane stick through a gumdrop. I wasn’t sure whether to be sickened, or angry. I gauged their ETA as being maybe a minute.

On the other hand, that meant that a base WAS nearby, and that there was a high chance the munitions dump was also connected to it, albeit underground. Of course, it would be flooded with troops.

I pulled out my radio.

“Attention, all towers. Abort prior mission immediately, make your way to tower 4, double-time.” I turned the auto-gun turret, and ripped off the motor. It was a relatively weak motor, which explained why it had missed; of course, it only had to slow us down. But there was a fairly high quality sniper rifle beneath all the glittery green electronics. I sighted it out the window, and held up my radio to my mouth.

“ And keep cool, gentlemen, because it looks like it’s about to get very hot where we are.”

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This first appeared a couple of years ago on Robert’s Live Journal.  That’s when I knew he’d be a force to reckon with and that I wanted him on my side…or in front of me, but never, ever behind me as you’ll soon understand.  Here is the first chapter of his version of The Twelve Days of Christmas.  I’ll post another chapter later today and daily until Christmas.

 

***

Christmas has traditionally been a time of innocence and goodwill. The sort of time which makes cherished childhood memories. A time of family, friends, and fun.
… and, for the nations of the world, a time of abject terror.

The North Pole has a dark side that the tourists never see. Now it has burst into the open, and the jolly old elf himself is holding the world hostage. Join Captain Mesner and his crack team of soldiers as they journey to the most inhospitable place on the face of the planet to battle an enemy most people don’t even believe exists. You may never see the season the same way again.

‘Twas the night after Christmas
And all through the pole
Not a creature was living
Not one single soul…

Chapter 1: Twelve Gunners Gunning

I pulled my snow camo parka strings tight against the freezing wind, slapped the rifle butt with a smart click, and swung it around behind me. My team looked at me expectantly, as I pulled out a projection map and shone it on the snow.

I shook my head. I hoped that the bird that flew us in here at least made it to the staging ship off the coast, but with half the pole to fly over, I wasn’t optimistic. This was a hell of a place to get stuck.

That latently pedophilic SOB had spotted us. Intelligence about being able to “fly in under radar” had been tripe. I’d lost three out of fourteen men before we’d even hit the ground.

Red and green flak. He’d shot at us with red and green flak. My whole life, I’d let a demented international blackmailer with a sense of humor like THAT deliver unsolicited gifts to my me and my kids. Was I nuts?

No. Like the rest of America, I hadn’t had a clue, of course. Well, now I had a chance to deliver a little gift to him. I held the map steady and pointed with my other hand.

“All right, gentlemen, we’re here. The compound is surrounded by primary defenses in the form of a stone wall, alarms, barbed wire, electricity, and minefields. And of course, the weather up here.” I said, grimacing into the freezing snow. “There’s a weak point in the defenses, however, right here.” I pointed at an area with a straight shot between two minefields and a thinner portion of wall. “The bad news is, we can expect heavy opposition, and we have to assume they know that we’re here right now. Since we can’t count on the element of surprise, we’re going to have to be all the more exact in our maneuvers.”

One of the men, Hawkins, raised his hand.

“Captain Mesner, sir? Where do we find Mr. Kringle?”

I stood up, turned off the map, and tucked it into my belt.

“Unfortunately, we don’t know. This compound is the only location that could be identified by recon, and it’s anyone’s best guess where Kristopher is actually hiding. We suspect that his recent threat of delivering bombs directly into people’s houses has caused an understandable tightening of procedure. Part of our job is to determine where he is now.” He nodded, unsatisfied but prepared.

“Any further questions?” I asked. No one spoke.

“All right, then, form up. Remember, failure is not an option here. If we don’t swing this, then a lot of innocent people are going to die, and the world infrastructure is going to be at this guy’s feet. Mr. Thyger?”

“Yes, sir?”

“Let’s knock.”

* * *

It was a beautiful explosion. George Thyger was the best demolitions man in the United States. He didn’t just blow things up. He did pyrotechnically assisted matter relocation as elegant as “Moonlight Sonata” and twice as loud. The elves were dumbfounded, for a moment, to find that a portion of their defensive wall had gone missing.

Unfortunately, it was a very short moment. All of the men fired their rifles, just as sixteen small hands went to an equal number of disproportionately large guns and incendiary devices of various stripes. Elves did not look the way I had expected. Stocky, muscular, rather like short bodybuilders, but armed to the teeth. It was a wonder that our bullets didn’t hit grenades and make them blow up.

And when the shooting subsided, it became clear that we had set off every single alarm apparently ever produced. The freezing air rang with a din of clangs and claxons so tremendous that it was an effort not to cover your ears. It choked out even the snow swept wind, redubbing the whole world to its own tune. I gave up on trying to shout above it, and waved the men forward.

I could still only see the dim suggestion of a building, but it was enough to judge direction. Thyger had blown a hole right where we needed it, but an advancing column of elves, already with guns drawn, said that our way through was quickly getting blocked. Those alarms must have honeycombed the building, too.

No time to think. There were minefields on both sides, probably in conflicting patterns so they would be harder to guess. One side almost certainly spelled doom. I dove to the right and fired. I hit the ground, unsure as to whether I was alive. The elf that I shot was not so lucky. His body fell to the left, into the minefield. At that moment, something sprang out of the ground to about head height. Something cubical, with a diabolical head on a spring.

And then exploded, sending a deadly ring of shrapnel through the air.

Jack in the Boxes. Bouncing Betty Jack in the Boxes. This HAD to be some kind of illness. I rolled back onto the path, threw my rifle onto my back, and drew my pistol. In close quarters combat, there was no point using ammunition I might need for long range later. More or less entirely by hand signal, I directed my men foreword. You don’t get a team of the best soldiers without them being bright enough not to get themselves killed in a minefield firefight.

Leaving a swath of jolly green corpses in our wake, we advanced into the compound. The blinding snow was starting to clear as we got closer. The building was made of crimson stone, Cut into high walls on all sides, forming a “U” shape. Each corner had a tower on it. Graile, the tech expert, spotted a an interface box nearby. He shot off the lock, pulled out a handheld computer and plugged in.

The alarm died, leaving behind just the blowing wind and a somewhat spooky echo.

“Alarm systems disabled, sir.” Graile said, giving me a signal, “But a silent alarm of some kind also seems to have gone off, and I can’t get a fix on where it connects.”

I nodded. So we could expect company. Well, that didn’t surprise me all that much. What worried me was that it had been far too easy to get in here. Even with Thyger, we couldn’t have broken into our OWN base that easily. The iron grip this guy had on world stock markets meant that he was neither underfunded or foolish, and he’d need to be one or the other for it to be this easy. We were missing something.

And as the thought finished forming, I saw a flicker of movement in a tower.

I didn’t even have time to scream a warning before Pearson dropped dead.

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No, I’m not channeling Rocky Horror Picture Show…well, maybe I am a little.  But this actually goes back to a facebook post I made yesterday evening:   The Geminid meteor shower is tonight. Why do I keep flashing back to the old movie “Day of the Triffids”? I was a kid when I first saw it and it creeped me out then. Guess you could say it still does. After all, why else would I live in fear of walking Joshua trees coming to get me and no sea water in sight? Guess it could be a good blog…what movies still haunt you today? What do you think?

The thing is, I wasn’t kidding when I wrote that.  I still find myself thinking twice before watching a meteor shower because of that movie — and the book by John Wyndham.  Mind you, I was just a kid when I saw the movie, but it stuck with me.

Another scene that stuck with me comes from an old Alfred Hitchcock film.  I think it was from the Alfred Hitchcock Hour — again, a show from my childhood and something I wasn’t supposed to watch.  But, like so many kids, I snuck around the corner into the den and watched it without my parents or the neighbors realizing it.  All I remember is the wife had a lover and they killed her husband, cutting off his hands in the process.  They thought they were home free but the hands came back.  I remember them crawling up the bed to throttle one of them and then coming over the back of the driver seat to kill the other.  Talk about being creeped out.

So, are there movies or books that have impacted you like this?  Or am I alone in being scarred by bad B-movies?

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It is with a great deal of pleasure that I’m able to announce that Naked Reader Press has entered into an agreement with author Thomas A. Easton to bring out two of his books, The Great Flying Saucer Conspiracy and Firefight, in digital format.

Tom is an established author in the science fiction field.  He’s a member of SFWA and the author of a number of novels, including Sparrowhawk (Ace, 1990), Greenhouse (Ace, 1991), Woodsman (Ace, 1992), Tower of the Gods (Ace, 1993), and Seeds of Destiny (Ace, 1994).  He was a book columnist for Analog for 30 years.  For more information about Tom, check out his website.

The Great Flying Saucer Conspiracy will come out in April 2011.  Firefight will be published August 2011.

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I should be repairing the ceiling in the garage.  But, as you can see, I’m not.  Instead, I’ve been reviewing a couple of contracts — announcements soon — and reading slush — more announcements soon — and pondering the holiday season.

Like a lot of folks, I hate to shop.  It isn’t that I don’t like to give.  I do.  But I don’t like crowds.  So I do my best to avoid malls, especially this time of year.  This is when the internet can be my friend.  I say “can” because a lot of it depends on how reliable the product information and shipping times happen to be when you purchase online.   Then there’s the whole thing of making sure someone is home to accept the packages when they’re delivered, etc.  Now, if only I could find a way to have everything gift wrapped, without having to pay more for it….oh well, that, too, will happen one day.

Over at Mad Genius Club today, I posted links and cover images to some of the books and short story collections the other mad ones have for sale.   Three of them — Dave Freer, Sarah A. Hoyt and Kate Paulk — already have titles out with NRP.  A fourth, Chris McMahon — a wonderful Australian author — will have a short story in our upcoming Angels and Demons themed anthology, due out later this month.  Hopefully, in the not too distant future, we’ll have something to offer from Rowena Cory Daniells as well.

What I’d like you to consider, if you have books — or e-books — to purchase for friends or loved ones this holiday season, is buying something from one of these wonderful authors.  Dragon’s Ring by Dave Freer is probably the best fantasy I read this year, and that’s saying a lot.  Darkship Thieves is the best space opera I’ve read in a long time.  Both definitely make my top ten list in books I’ve read this year.  Rowena’s King Rolen’s Kin trilogy is in my tbr pile as are Chris’ books.  (See the MGC post for links to all their books I mentioned today.)

Give the gift of a book, or an e-book, to someone you care about.  Share an author you love.

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The AAP (Association of American Publishers) has released the sales figures for October.  I predict there are going to be some very unhappy bean counters sitting in their offices today trying to figure out what’s going on.  Or maybe not.  Maybe they will stick their heads in the sand, their fingers in their ears and do their best to ignore the trends, hoping the holiday season will save them.  The trouble with that is it might be a short term solution, but it won’t cure what ails the industry.  The only things that will are for the publishers to start accepting the fact that e-books are here to stay and their business models need to be adapted to reflect it AND they have to quit trying to drive the market with novels they think are socially relevant and give readers novels that entertain.

Don’t get me wrong.  There is a place for literature and “socially relevant” fiction.  But it hasn’t been and, I think, will never be the money-maker they want it to be.  There’s nothing wrong with fiction having a message, as long as you don’t hit the reader over the head with that message over and over again until they black out.  Most people read for entertainment — the same reason they watch movies or TV.  That is something we, as publishers, have to remember.

Any way, for the figures.  October wasn’t a good month for most segments of the publishing industry.  Only four areas showed an increase in sales over those reported a year ago.  Higher education books were up 12% over Oct. 2009.  Children’s and YA hardcover books were up 13.9%.  Downloaded audiobooks were up 20.7% and e-books were up a whopping 112.4% over October 2009.

For the year-to-date figures, things don’t look much better.  K-12 (kindergarten to high school) books are up 3.8% over the Jan – Oct figures for 2009.  Higher education is up 10.6%, professional books up 8.4%, university press paperbacks up 4.1%, university press hard covers up 1.9%, downloaded audiobooks up 38.6% and e-books up 171.3%.  Adult paperbacks were down for October but show no change for the month-to-date.  Every other category has fallen.

What is really interesting, at least to me, is to see the progression of e-book sales since 2002. You can find a graph showing this progression at the link above.  Basically, the figures from 2007 to present are what are the most telling.  In 2007, as e-book readers were beginning to hit the market, e-books represented 0.58% of the total sales figures for the year.  That increased in 2008 to 1.19%.  This corresponds to the release of the first generation of the Kindle in November 2007.  in 2009, e-books sales increased to 3.37% of total sales and, in the first 10 months of this year, e-book sales represent 8.7% of sales.

Digital downloads, whether of e-books or audiobooks, are here to stay.  What is up in the air is how the major publishers adapt.  If they continue forcing DRM onto their e-books and not listening to what readers want, it won’t stem the tide.  At least not for long.  What it will do is continue cutting into their profits and the livelihoods of their authors. Here’s hoping a happy medium is found soon, for everyone’s sake.

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Kate Paulk’s Knights in Tarnished Armor is now available through Barnes & Noble.  You can find it here.  Unfortunately, as of a couple of minutes ago, it hadn’t yet shown up in their search engine, but I assume that will be corrected in the next couple of hours.  As soon as it’s available through Amazon and other stores, I’ll let you know.

The Google e-book store opened yesterday.  We’ll be putting our titles up through there as well over the course of the next week or so.  I’ll keep you updated on this as well.

Now I’m off to work on the garage door that has decided it only wants to close half-way.  Such fun.  Of course it would choose the one morning this year so far where our temperature is 33 degrees.  Oh well, I guess it’s just another excuse for me to put on another pot of coffee

Until later!

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Well, try as we might — and we really did try — Kate Paulk’s Knights in Tarnished Armor did not go up on our site yesterday. Believe me, it wasn’t for lack of trying. It’s not even because we didn’t get it done. We did. The issue is, yet again, a problem between our web host and Virtuemart. In the meantime, KITA is in the process of going live on Amazon and B&N, as well as Smashwords. Hopefully, it will be available shortly. In the meantime, a trouble ticket has been sent to the web host.

So here’s the question.  Do any of you know of a good shopping cart program that will integrate with Joomla 1.5 or 1.6 AND allow for downloadable content?  If you do, leave a comment and we’ll check it out.  If we act on your comment, you will be rewarded with your choice of three of our titles for free.

In the ongoing struggle surrounding Barnes & Noble, it’s been reported that Bill Ackman, who owns something like 37% of Borders, has offered to finance a takeover of B&N by Borders.  Both companies have been struggling.  I’m not sure if I think either taking over the other is a good thing.  But I am all for doing whatever is necessary to keep more bookstores from closing.

I guess my biggest concern with a potential buyout by Borders is based on the customer service — or lack thereof — I’ve seen at too many Borders stores over the last few years.  Couple that with a decline in the amount of stock the local Borders stores seems to keep on hand and, well, I worry.  Our local B&N stores have been the polar opposites.  They’ve had great customer service and their stock has been much greater and with a wider variety than Borders.  Still, if a merger or take-over would keep the stores open, I’ll keep an open mind about it.

The latest to make the foray into social media, sort of, is Figment.com.  There’s a good article about it in the NY Times today where it is described as “a sort of literary Facebook for the teenage set” .  So, if you know a teen who is interested in writing, you might point them in Figment’s direction.  Of course, check it out yourself first and, remember, this is not an endorsement of Figment or any other site or program like it.  And, as with any online community, safeguards probably should be taken.

That’s it for now.  We’ll be back with updates on KITA as we get them.

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This will be the last snippet of KITA before it is published Sunday.  However, to tease, er entice, you a bit more, I’m including two letters instead of the usual one.  Enjoy!

3.   Letter from Sir Jeremy Truhart to Sir Roland Faythful

Roly,

Have you heard the news? That old stick Amesbury wants us to reform. I heard him telling the old man he thinks we younger knights are so busy poking the maidens our lances are wilting. As if!

We have to stop this, Roly. Just imagine being forced into chastity! A fellow needs to know what to do with his lance before he rescues the princess, if you ask me. I hear they much prefer a little experience, know what I mean?

Can you and the other fellows meet me at the usual tomorrow night, immediately after curfew? We simply must stop the olds from forcing us into celibacy. Every ex-maiden in the city would thank us, know what I mean?

Jimmy.

***

4.  Letter from Lady Alicia Whenchforth to Lady Margaret Basoomy.

Maggy!!!

Have you heard??? They want to stop our fun!!!

Dear Roly just told me Jimmy said old Sir Richard thinks we are too immoral and we should stay chaste until our Daddies find us a good husband!!! I’ve been chaste enough, if you ask me! Chaste five times, and caught three! (Roly is the best, though, don’t you think? But don’t tell Jimmy I said that).

It’s all some rot about the hero business dying. I mean, really! Who cares about some moldy old too-good-to-be-true hero? I want a real man, someone who can do more with his lance than just poke it at me!

Anyway, we have to stop it. Daddy would send me to a convent if he knew I was using Madame’s Babynot. I’d die!!!! As if it matters, whether we do “it” or not. We are still maidens anyway, right Maggy?

Lissie

Maidens After Besmirching

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