Merry Christmas to all who celebrate. Happy Holidays. Blessed (Late) Yule. Happy Chanukah. Joyous Kwanzaa. And have an awesome Saturday to all who don’t celebrate otherwise.
This story was originally published on the now-defunct Bent Masses site in 2011. Enjoy!
The crunch of boots on snow was loud in the stillness of the north. Wind whispered across the flat pack ice, blowing sparkles through the periphery of Cade McGovern’s vision. He paused and hitched his pack higher on his shoulders, then glanced behind, “We’re getting close now, people,” he said. “Tighten up.”
Houston and Cheri took a few quick steps to close the distance between Cade and themselves, but Lopez made no effort to speed up. His head was down, the furred brim of his hood hiding his face. Cade looked at him for a moment, then turned back to the expanse of ice before them.
The boat had dropped them several miles back. Even in summer the ice was thick up here, and the government-funded ice-breaker had been in dry dock for repairs since congress voted against military spending. The Blue Christmas operative was top secret and asking an environmental group for a loan was out of the question. They had hiked over the ice for hours, slow going in insulated suits with gear and weapons on their back. But they would get there. They would do their job. Of this, Cade had no doubt. Under all the polar gear and thermals, the corner of a worn snapshot poked at his chest. For him, it was personal.
A crackle of sound erupted from the satellite radio at his belt, and he fumbled it out with a gloved hand. “Repeat that. Over,” he barked into the set and waited, his feet still leading the group forward without pause. The radio crackled again, but there were no words. He scowled at it for a moment before clipping it back to his belt.
* * *
Back in Washington, General Hayes frowned at the console in front of him. “Something’s wrong with communications.” He glanced at the tech guy next to him, whose hands shot out to make several adjustments.
“The further north they go, sir, the harder it will be to maintain contact. We relay to the ship, which relays to the away team.” The techie shrugged. “We’ll get it, sir.”
General Hayes picked up the handset again. “Ralphie, this is Grinch,” he said. “Come in. Over.”
The words came through clearly this time, and Cade pulled the radio to his mouth again. “Copy that. What’s the word? Over.” He stopped walking and held the radio inside his hood against his ear. He heard the crunch of boots behind him stop as well.
“Operation Blue Christmas will proceed as planned. No change,” the General said. “Communication tests will continue as you advance. Over and out.”
* * *
Cade returned the radio to its case and started walking again. The sun skated the horizon in front of them, tingeing the tips of blue ice sheets silver. His gaze scanned the landscape, searching for any signs of habitation or life. All they had seen since landing was a few seals, a long line of polar bear tracks and a lonely tern wheeling above the ship. “Come on,” he muttered to himself. “Let’s get this started.”
An hour later, Cade finally saw the first sign of their quarry. A red stain and mangled flesh marred the ice, and he crouched over it. The others stopped next to him and looked.
“Polar bear?” Houston asked.
Cade shook his head. “Nah. Look.” He pointed at a pattern of scrapes on a bone. “Small teeth. A bear would just crush this.” He turned to look at his team. “Elves.”
Houston and Cheri broke out in predatory grins, but Lopez’s face remained impassive. McGovern peered at him for a long moment, eyes narrowed. Then he broke into his own grin and raised his M-16 in one fist. “Let’s go hunting.”
* * *
“Sir? Sir… the crowd is not dispersing.”
President Mitchell raised his head. “And they’re still peaceful? Anything we can arrest them for?”
The advisor shrugged. “They’re not doing anything but standing there, waving their signs and singing.”
“Singing?” The president frowned. He hadn’t heard about any singing.
“They started in on “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” and have moved on to “Blue Christmas. You know, from that old kid’s movie where um… Santa wanted to take a holiday.”
The president’s frown deepened and he fisted his hands beneath his chin. “Molly loves that one,” he murmured, then shook his head and looked up again. “Blue Christmas? You think this leak was bigger than we first thought?”
Another shrug. “Could be a coincidence, sir.”
“And we can’t do anything to disperse them.”
It wasn’t a question, but the advisor answered anyway. “Think how it will look to voters, sir. President Mitchell orders police to disperse mothers singing carols with their kids on the White House steps.” He shook his head. “I can’t see any way to make it look good.”
Heaving a sigh, the president rubbed his forehead before replying. “Don’t they understand it’s for their own good? Don’t they get that?”
* * *
The GPS compass on Cade’s wrist showed the trail of blood led them steadily northward. Two miles out from the pole, they came across another carcass. It was fresh. Liquid blood still pooled in the tattered scraps of skin.
“Weapons check,” Cade said, and slung his own rifle from his shoulder. “And keep ’em at the ready.” He looked back to see Houston and Cheri check their weapons with practiced hands. It took longer for Lopez to lower the shoulder-mount rocket launcher from his back and check it over. Cade’s eyes met his for a moment, but Lopez dropped his head again quickly. Cade didn’t like it. Still peering at Lopez with suspicion, Cade raised the radio to his mouth once more.
“This is Ralphie calling Grinch. Come in, over.” The connection took several seconds, but completed without trouble.
“Grinch here. What do you have? Over.”
“Signs of elf hunting about two miles out. Corpse still fresh. Permission to engage at will?” McGovern couldn’t help the smile that crept onto his face. His free hand crept up to rest over the hidden photograph. Soon, little buddy. Soon.
“Permission granted. Externals only. Recheck before going after the primary target. Over.”
“Copy that, sir. Over and out.” Grin spreading, Cade nodded to Houston and Cheri. “Let’s go get these elves.”
Their slow northward slog quickened after they had permission to engage the enemy. A newfound energy flowered through Cade, and he felt it reflected back to him from Houston and Cheri. They were excited about the imminent action, but he knew they couldn’t possibly feel the way he did. This was payback. Revenge. Screw Lopez, he thought, shooting another glance at the man who brought up the rear. He’ll do his job just like the rest of us.
A mile further north, the trail of blood from the massacred animal ended in a viscous pool and cast off bits of fur and gristle. Cade shot a glance over his shoulder to make sure the others had weapons ready, and then raised a hand to motion them forward. They knew the drill. It would be a silent approach from that point on.
The first building came into sight, long, low and crusted with blowing snow until it was hardly indistinguishable from the surrounding landscape. They moved toward it single-file, boots whispering over the hard snowpack, then flattened against the wall. Cade heard the other’s breathing rasp in and out in the sudden stillness of wind.
A door twenty feet away from them cracked open, spilling a golden sliver of light across the ice. A figure stepped out, barely waist high and wearing a deep green suit trimmed with polar bear fur. Blood marred the cuffs and coated its bare hands. It turned. Before the elf could open his mouth to yell, Cade pulled the trigger and dropped the creature to the snow. The gunshot shattered the stillness, and was answered by a cacophony of high-pitched voices from inside the building.
Elves poured out of the door – ten, twenty – and Cade stepped sideways out of the line of fire of Houston and Cheri. They arced the muzzles of their guns across the mob, firing low and fast until the elves lay piled up in a bloody mess of green and red. Mostly red.
Cade raised his hand to signal a stop and then stood listening and waiting to see if any other elves would emerge from the building. The only sound left was the team’s ragged breathing and the sound of ice crystals scraping by in the wind. Teeth clenched and lips spread in a vicious grin, Cade nodded at the others and they moved on. Closing the door as they passed, the four slipped down the side of the building. Cade peered around the corner. A long wooden stable lay slightly to the east, but their target was straight ahead.
Spires and turrets rose ice-blue from the white ground. Crystal and silver gleamed in the dull glow of the summer sun. Cade’s heart leaped in his chest, and he again placed his gloved hand against his chest where the photograph lay. Soon. I’ll get him for what he did to you. The memory of his son’s face flashed into his mind and his anger flared hotter.
* * *
“Mr. President, the contingent from the protest you agreed to see is just outside. A Mrs. Joan Carmichael seems to be the spokesperson.” The advisor frowned, his brows gathered together in obvious anxiety.
Taking a deep breath, President Mitchell stood up from behind his desk. “Show them in.” He planted a practiced smile on his face and folded his hands.
A middle-aged blonde in a fleece coat led the group of three into the office. Her eyes were hard and looked straight at the president, but the others allowed their gazes to wander about curiously. They stopped in front of the desk.
“Mrs. Carmichael, ladies, gentleman… please sit down and you can tell me what this is all about.” After they settled into chairs, unzipped coats and removed hats, President Mitchell continued. “I understand this protest has something to do with… um… Santa Claus?” He spoke lightly with a hint of humor in his voice.
The blonde woman leaned forward and jabbed a finger at his desk. “We have proof… unquestionable proof… of your project Blue Christmas. We know what you are planning to do to Santa Claus, and we won’t stand for it. Thousands of American voters, Mr. President, are outside telling you to call it off.” She hit the desk again with her finger to punctuate her statement.
The humor dropped from the president’s face. “Blue Christmas…” He sighed and glanced over at the advisor, who stood by the door, his head dropped onto his chest. President Mitchell leaned forward and lowered his voice. “You know what happens each Christmas, Mrs. Carmichael. What is that song… he knows if you’ve been bad or good, so you’d better be good for goodness sake? Do you know how many children are killed each year?”
She scowled. “The naughty children. The bad children.” She thumped her finger on the wood again. “Bad children make bad adults, Mr. President. Is that what you want for this country? The world?”
“But ma’am… We can’t let the wholesale murder of children contin-”
“What about all the good kids?” she snapped. Her hand shot out to grab the framed photo on President Mitchell’s desk. She stared at the picture of the first lady and their five-year-old daughter smiling together. “What about your Molly? Are you going to tell her she’s not getting any presents because her Daddy killed Santa?”
The president sat back and held his hands out, anxiety flashing across his face. “Now, Mrs. Carmichael. There are a lot of things to consider here, and we have had the best minds working on this…”
The woman stood up before the desk and the others did the same. She leaned over, scowling, and spoke in a low, angry tone. “We have close to nine thousand people standing outside telling you to stop this, and millions… millions more signing petitions and talking about it online. Millions of voting Americans who want you to stop this Blue Christmas business. Right now.” She gave the desk a final parting shot with her finger before whirling around and storming out.
The door thumped closed behind the group and the advisor finally lifted his head. “Mr. President… perhaps we were a bit too hasty in making this decision. Perhaps…” He shrugged, shook his head, and then strode out the door to leave President Mitchell staring at the photo of his daughter.
* * *
Lopez dropped the shoulder launcher and rocket case, both camouflaged white and gray, on the ice behind the stable. Everything was quiet inside, and no other elves had attacked since the initial kill at the bunker. Lopez nudged the weapon closer to the wall and knocked a thin drift of snow over it. He hefted his M-16 in his hands, his face impassive.
“It’ll be safe there until we get back for it,” Cade said, his gaze scanning the area for any sign of the enemy.
“Not like one of those elves could lift the damn thing anyway,” Cheri added, chuckling low in her throat.
Cade flashed a quick grin. “After the primary is destroyed, we come back here and take out the objectives two and three.” He pointed in turn at the factory and stables. “Leave no doubt.” He watched Lopez for a reaction, but got none.
The sun had lowered until it hugged the horizon once more, its light glowing thin and yellow. The buildings cast deep shadows against the ice. Cade moved his people out, hurrying from one patch of shadow to the next toward the towering front gate of the ice castle. They ran across the last open expanse to flatten themselves against the wall. Cade pulled the radio from his belt.
“Ralphie calling Grinch. Come in. Over.” The radio crackled and hummed for a few seconds and he looked down at it, frowning.
“Grinch here.” The General’s voice was thin and fuzzy, and Cade lifted the radio closer to his ear.
“Team at the door to the primary. Verifying permission to enter. Over.”
“Permission granted. Proceed as planned, Ralphie. Out.”
Cade looked at his team and nodded, lips pressed together. He leaned to grasp the handle of the door and pulled. What sounded like hundreds of bells pealed out into the silent landscape and he jerked back against the wall. “Damnit,” he muttered between clenched teeth. “Security.”
Raising his gun, he stepped forward to look across the expanse of snow between castle and factory. Nothing moved and he almost sank back against the wall in relief when he heard the shout. A high-pitched squeal of fury came from the bunker where they had gunned down the others. Another scream joined the first, then another, until the air was shredded with the shrill voices of the elves.
A rush of the small creatures came around the corner of the bunker, running straight toward Cade and his crew. In the shadows between buildings, the red and green of their suits looked black, their faces gray beneath fur-trimmed hats. They shrieked as they ran, snarling to reveal pointed white teeth. Claws were extended, and some clutched knives or whale-bone spears.
“Open fire.” Cade said it quietly, disgust tingeing his words. Sweet-faced elves on Christmas cards and in cartoon movies… it was all a lie. His son, his Jimmy had said, “It’s all make-believe, Daddy,” but Cade had tried to keep the magic alive for just one more year. Jimmy was only seven, too young to let go of the dream. But it was all a lie.
Houston and Cheri raised their M-16s and open fired. Lopez pulled a grenade from his belt and pulled the pin before tossing it into the midst of the approaching throng. Cade added his own gunfire to the explosion of sound. Small bodies flew backward in a mess of blood, but more kept coming, swarming over the bodies of the fallen, still shrieking like banshees.
“Get inside,” Cade called and pushed Houston toward the door to the castle. He slipped inside and Lopez and Cheri followed. Cade blasted another clip at the elves before closing the door behind them. The screeches got louder as small bodies pummeled the other side of the door, but Cade pushed the bar in place behind the door so they could not get in. “We’ll deal with them later. Come on.” He headed down the gleaming blue hallway, rifle at the ready.
They met no resistance as they crept through Santa Claus’s castle. Everything surrounding them was silent, ice-blue and cold. The sun did not penetrate far through the ice, and they switched on headlamps before they left the first level. The corridors wound down below the level of the ice outside, and the air grew colder as they descended. They moved silently over the smooth ice floors, placing their boots carefully to avoid slips. At last, the corridor ended in a broad wooden door, fitted with hinges in the ice and carved all over with holly sprigs, pine trees and candy cane shapes.
“This is it,” Cade said. “This is payback.” Houston and Cheri merely waited, but Lopez shot a sharp glance at their leader. Cade scowled at him and unzipped his coat. He thrust his hand inside and pulled out the photograph of his son. “This bastard killed my son,” he snapped, but Lopez just stared at him.
They went in. In the center of the circular room, a carved ice dais held a black coffin. A painted wreath of pine and holly decorated the center of its lid. Red and black candles sat cold and dark in silver holders around the room and red velvet bows held gold tinsel garlands on the walls. Cade stepped forward and grasped the edge of the coffin lid, his mouth set in a grim line.
It tilted up easily, revealing a white satin interior and, finally, their primary objective. Santa Claus lay robed in red velvet and white fur just as expected, but any resemblance between the creature before them and the jolly old elf on greeting cards stopped there. His skin was as pale as the fur which rimmed it. His eyes sunk into an almost skeletal face. Thin lips parted amidst the whiskers that covered lip and chin, revealing the glint of his needle-sharp fangs.
Cheri stepped up beside Cade and looked in. “Ha. His cheeks are like roses, his nose like a cherry,” she said humorlessly.
Houston shook his head. “Not until the sun sets in September and he can get up and feed again.”
“Yeah, well, he won’t have that chance this year, will he?” Cade’s voice shook with anger, his breath blowing loudly from between clenched teeth. He snatched the radio from his belt and thumbed it on.
“Grinch. Come in Grinch. This is Ralphie. Over.”
“We have him right here, sir,” Cade said. “Permission to continue as planned?”
“Set up for recording before final checks. Over and out.”
“All right,” Cade said, turning to the others. “Let’s get this recording crap set up so we can get on with it.” He kneeled next to his pack on the ground and unzipped it. The others did the same, pulling out the various pieces of audio and video equipment that would record the destruction of Santa Claus.
* * *
General Hayes stepped into the office, sending the president’s advisor scuttling away from the door. “Mr. President, sir,” he said, executing a snappy salute. “McGovern and his team are in position and setting up the recording equipment. All that is left is for you to give final authorization.”
President Mitchell raised his head, frowning slightly. “I don’t know…” he began and rubbed a hand over his chin.
Hayes frowned, his eyes growing stern. “Sir, the decision has been made. I will relay the orders to McGovern and we can get this thing done. Now.”
Leaning back in his chair, the president peered at the general. “Even a tough military man like you can remember being a child, can’t you Hayes? Do you remember Christmas mornings? Milk and cookies? Stockings full to bursting with little toys… candy canes?” He shook his head and leaned forward again.
“I have thousands of people outside who know about operation Blue Christmas and want it stopped. There are millions more online. American voters, Hayes, who want to take that risk so their kids can have a merry Christmas.” His eyes strayed back to the picture of his wife and daughter. “You should have seen Molly’s face last year when she saw her gifts and stocking. Her eyes got so big.”
“Sir, with all due respect, this is-”
“Call it off, General.”
“Mr. President. My team has made it all the way to-”
President Mitchell shot to his feet, his hands slamming onto the desk loud enough to make General Hayes jump. “Am I not your commander in chief? I said call it off.”
Slowly, lips mashed together, Hayes brought his hand up in a rigid salute. “Yes, sir.” He grabbed the satellite radio from the console near the wall. “Ralphie? This is Grinch. Over.”
* * *
The sound of the General’s voice echoed in the ice chamber. Cade’s breath shook and his eyes were wild. The picture of his son nearly crushed between his fingers. Houston and Cheri shook their heads, hardly believing that, after the distance they had come, the operation had been stopped right before completion. Lopez stepped closer to Cade, watching him warily.
“Damn,” Houston said. “Talk about changing their minds at the last minute. Totally FUBAR, man.” He shook his head.
But McGovern wasn’t listening. He shot a glance down at the creased photo of his son and then stepped closer to the coffin in which Santa Claus lay. “He was a good boy,” he said, his voice barely loud enough to hear in the still room. “He wasn’t perfect… what kid is? But he was good enough.”
He lunged toward the coffin, his hand shooting under his coat to the specially-designed holster than held a pair of ash wood stakes. With one clutched tight in his fist, he swung his arm down toward the red-robed chest. Lopez leaped forward and grabbed his arm before he could strike.
“Let go of me,” Cade growled. “Get off.”
“No. You got an order to stand down. An order.” Lopez’s tugged on Cade’s arm, trying to pull him away from the coffin.
“He killed my son! Christmas morning… Becky found him lying in his bed. White. Cold. Dead!” He struggled harder and pushed at Lopez with all his strength.
The smaller man stumbled backward against the icy wall and Cade stepped toward the coffin again. A loud click reverberated against the walls and high ceiling, audible over the harsh breathing. Lopez stepped forward, his sidearm held straight out in one hand.
“You got an order, Lieutenant.” The muzzle of his gun bumped into Cade’s temple. “The General said for you to stand down. Drop that stake.”
Cade stopped and lifted his hands up, letting the stake fall from his fingers. He shook his head. “I knew there was something about you I didn’t like. You’re a plant, aren’t you?”
Lopez nodded. “Captain Manuel Lopez.” He paused and watched Cade’s lips tighten. “The General knew you could lead this op, but he also knew about your son. He thought you might get out of hand. I was sent to make sure you didn’t.”
A long breath rushed over Cade’s lips. He looked down at the crumpled photo he still held in his hand and shook his head. “You’d better watch out… you’d better not cry…” He barked out a sharp laugh and dropped his head to his chest. “You win, Captain.”
With the gun trained on the middle of his back, Cade marched through the frozen corridors back to the castle door. Houston eased the door open a crack to reveal a gory mass of dead elves, but no threat left. They moved out into the pale sunlight, hurrying between the bunker and toy factory and back out into the open ice fields, pausing only to retrieve the rocket launcher from behind the silent stable. None spoke during the trek back to the waiting ship. On board, men secured Cade below decks and brought the ship under way.
Houston, Cheri and Lopez sat down in the mess for a cup of coffee and a meal. Feet propped up on a chair, Houston leaned back and stretched. “You know, I’m not sure if that was a success or a failure.”
Lopez looked at him sharply. “Following orders is always a success.”
“Yeah,” Cheri added. “And we saved Christmas.”
“For most kids at least,” Houston said. “For most of them.”