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Old Guy

Finding Christmas

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Finding Christmas

A Plague of Woe

The man on the ledge jerked and shuffled away from the window. "Don't touch me!"

Officer Ramirez eased into a seated position on the window sill. "I'm just here to talk, man. Nobody's gonna try to haul you in. What's your name?"

"Name? I don't have to tell you anything."

"Sure. No problem. It's just that it helps the coroner. Otherwise they have to paw through your remains to find some ID."

"Uh -- ." Thoughts of falling four stories and smashing into the pavement flashed in the jumper's mind. "John -- John Kellerman." He clutched at his jacket and shivered.

"Okay, John. Cold out there?"

"Cold. Yeah. Wind's picking up."

Ramirez looked up at the sky. "Might snow in a little while."

Kellerman glanced upward, then shrank back against the brick wall. "Snow won't matter to me -- in a minute. Or two."

"No rush. You got any next of kin, John? Got a message for them?"

"I -- ah -- no. I mean, there's my brother in Wichita. But we don't talk much."

"Well, it's almost Christmas. Surely you send him a card or call."

"Not this year. It just don't seem right. I can't -- I've -- I've lost my Christmas spirit."

Ramirez nodded slowly. He stared down at the milling crowd. Fireman were working to position a large air mattress below Kellerman. The people watching were quiet. Some wandered away, shoulders hunched against the chill wind. "You know," he said, after a long moment. "I think mine's gone too. When did you lose yours?"

Kellerman stared at the cop. "This morning. I woke up with this hollow feeling in my chest. Like something had been scooped out."

"Jeez, me too. I figured it was a reaction to that traffic accident I worked on yesterday. I been feeling low all day -- like you said -- as if something was missing."

Neither man spoke for several minutes. The firemen finished positioning the cushion. They and some cops began herding people back. Many of the spectators turned and walked away.

Kellerman pointed down at the thinning crowd. "I'm not much of a draw, am I?"

"This ain't right," replied Ramirez. "A jumper usually brings a big crowd and a bunch of TV cameras. I don't even see anyone taking pictures with a cell phone."

"You don't suppose -- . You don't think -- everyone has lost their Christmas spirit? It's not just me -- and you?"

"I hope not." Ramirez extended a hand. "But if that's what it is -- you ain't alone."

Kellerman began sidling toward the window. "Man, that's a relief. I think."

Ramirez helped him through the window. "At least you don't have to feel like the Lone Ranger." He sighed. "We're all in this together -- whatever it is."

"I don't feel any better. What are we gonna do?"

"Paste a smile on your face. Act natural. I'll do the same. When the reporters ask why you were on that ledge, lie. Tell 'em you just felt low. Didn't take your meds."

"I don't take any medications."

"Like I said. Lie. We don't want masses of people jumping off buildings. If folks get the idea this is an epidemic or something, they'll panic. Like lemmings."

"Okay. You think that will do any good?"

Ramirez shrugged. "God knows. All we can do is try."

Thus it was that a suicidal man and a local police officer were the first to identify the most unusual plague ever to hit the Earth. Unfortunately, the facts were there for anyone to see -- and feel. A steady stream of people began leaving their jobs, turning away from Christmas sales, and collecting on bridges and high places. News of the impending disaster reached the White House by way of the National Security Adviser.

He found the President on the enclosed smoking veranda. He was huddled in a chair, staring at the floor. "Sir, we have disturbing news. It may be some kind of attack on the country." The Adviser sagged into a chair. "Humanity itself might be in danger."

The President slowly sat erect. He rubbed his temples and sighed. "I feel like hell. You look as if your favorite dog just died."

"It's not just us, sir. Everyone has the blues."

"Wow. That's bad. I think. It's hard to care about -- about -- well, about anything."

"Yes, sir. But it's Christmas. Most people should be in good spirits -- save for the odd malcontents."

"Well, Republicans can't help being that way. But, you're right, it is Christmas. Why do I feel this emptiness when we mention that holiday?"

"I don't know, sir. But I think we ought to find out."

"You think so? It feels useless to me. Like we're all doomed."

"I'll check with the Joint Chiefs, sir. Maybe have a word with the Surgeon General."

"Yeah." There was a long silence. "How high is this balcony?"

The Adviser shrugged and wandered away.

The Surgeon General could not be found. He was, in fact, trudging up the stairs in the Washington Monument. He had no goal in mind. It just seemed like a good idea.

Not much assistance was forthcoming at the Pentagon. The Joint Chiefs were all at home for the holidays. The few staff personnel were of little help. Eventually, the problem, as was the case with many such puzzles, found its way to the office of General Mudmover at his secret base in the New Mexico desert.

Major Spazz handed the White House message to Mudmover. "Something about a crisis of civilian morale, sir. The Christmas spirit seems to have vanished or been stolen." He frowned. "I feel a bit out of sorts, but this message speaks of the possibility of mass suicides. Everyone I see seems a little glum. Nothing serious."

"No one climbing the water towers yet, eh, Major?"

"No, sir. Nothing like that. I wonder why?"

"Practice, Major. We in the military are used to disappointments. Being deployed during the holidays, having our latest wonder weapon system canceled by Congress. Not to mention that our purpose in life is to blow things up, sometimes with people attached. Our Christmas spirit is armor plated." The General frowned. "Still, things aren't right."

"No, sir. It's as if our morale is under some kind of attack. Like the last time we had to endure a pay cut. I feel a dull sense of ennui -- as if nothing can be done."

"En-what?"

"Um, ennui, sir. It's like boredom, only worse."

"Well, why didn't you say so?" snorted Mudmover. "What is it, in particular, that you feel nothing can be done about?"

"Um -- I'm not sure, sir. Maybe it's about this enn -- er -- boredom. I keep thinking, 'what's the point? We can't do anything about it anyway'."

"I know what you mean. I keep thinking that further pursuit of that buxom blonde bomber pilot is fruitless. She'll never let me in her pants." Mudmover sighed. "The fact that it's probably true only makes things worse."

"What are we going to do, sir? About the morale problem -- not the blonde."

"MY morale is suffering, Major. But your point is well taken. The Air Force isn't equipped to handle a situation like this. We're helpless -- until we can find something to blow up." Mudmover rubbed his hands together. "Find me a target, Major. Preferably one we can use a bunker buster on. Eliminating the threat with a nice big explosion would be perfect. Our appropriations would be safe for several years."

"But who can help us find the -- uh -- target, sir?"

"The Simians. Give Old Guy a call. Tell him he's got an unlimited budget. No nukes, though. Make sure you tell him that. No nukes."

"I hate calling those guys in General. Every time Old Guy gets close to our warehouses we end up losing a lot of stuff. Also, the Simians drink a lot -- more than the average pilot. More than most field grade officers."

"That much? Well, it's only for one mission. What kind of stuff do we lose to Old Guy?"

Weapons, ammunition, vehicles, female staff, fuel, aircraft."

"Well, the aircraft are usually obsolete and the Simians do tend to burn up a lot of ammo and expend a good many vehicles on missions. Prepare a written statement of the issues and let him know I'd like him to economize a bit." The General thumped the desk. "You also tell that old bastard to keep his hands off my blonde."

"Right, sir. I'll draw up a message and contact the Simians directly."

"Have a stiff drink first, Major. You'll need all the courage you can get."

A Gathering of Simians

Old Guy and Gunny were at the bar in the Symbiotic Saloon. The former Marine finished reading Major Spazz's description of the Christmas Spirit Plague and handed the message flimsy back to Old Guy. "Is this for real? I have experienced a little mild indigestion lately, but nothing like what he describes. It seemed like bad okra."

"Okra? That stuff tastes like swamp scum to me." Old Guy shook his head. "You're a former Marine. After all those years of being characterized by the media as a hired killer and heartless thug you've developed a shell over your feelings. As Spazz pointed out, any military type seems less susceptible to the -- ah -- the plague."

"Makes sense. Have y'all contacted anyone else? Some Simians have military service in their background. What about the ones who don't?"

"I've gotten a few responses. Some are apparently traveling. So far none of our lads are showing the symptoms Spazz described." Old Guy made a wry face. "At this time of year a few of them will be sleeping off Christmas cheer. Hopefully they aren't lying in a ditch somewhere. That's a warm weather activity."

"Simians aren't overly sensitive louts," said Gunny. "That's for sure. Speaking of the plague itself, I did notice a lot of folks clustered on bridges. I figgered there was a fishing tournament going on."

"Bridges. Yeah, in Florida it would be difficult to find a cliff, wouldn't it?" Old Guy opened two fresh beers and slid one across the bar to Gunny. "I saw lots of sad looking people wandering the streets of Fort Collins, but I thought maybe the Broncos had lost a game or something." He shrugged. "Neither of us are very perceptive."

"Per - sep - tive? You sure y'all don't mean perspective?"

"Um -- no. I'm pretty sure the word is -- well, never mind that. Observant. We ain't very observant."

"Right. Observant. So what do we do about this plague?"

"First, we tour Mudmover's storage warehouses and see what we can steal -- er -- see what we must requisition for the mission."

"Sounds good. They got lots of cool stuff."

Old Guy smiled his master sergeant smile. "I hear Mudmover's striking out with a hot blonde bomber pilot." He assumed a thoughtful pose. Gunny moved back. To his surprise the old bartender didn't break wind. "I'll bet this mission will require a bomber or two, don't you?"

"Forget hot blondes, ya old lecher. Think about weapons and hot vehicles." Gunny sipped his beer and made a wry face. "MGD. Y'all trying to kill me?"

"It's good for you. Full of vitamins and stuff."

"Yeah. It's the 'stuff' I'm worried about."

"For all you know it's the MGD I've been serving you guys all these years that protects you from the Christmas Spirit Plague."

"Right. As if."

Joker strolled in then, followed shortly by Donnie, Stans, and Archie. Beer was served, complained about, and drank. Gunny presented a briefing redolent with y'alls, molasses, and live oaks. Everyone present was able to absorb the important points. They were used to Gunny's forceful method of delivery and had a lot of experience daydreaming about high-tech weapons, fast cars and faster women. Practical experience was, alas, in short supply, but for Simians a truculent attitude and beer was expected to suffice.

"Hold on," called Old Guy from his position behind the bar. "We're getting a message." The Enigma machine rattled into action. "It's an obsolete code."

"Ob - sew - leet?" muttered Donnie. "What's one of those?"

"He means the message is formatted in a code we no longer use," growled Gunny.

"Who would be using an old code?" asked Stans.

"Exactly." Old Guy pulled a sheet of paper from the machine. "Is it a desperate person with no current SOI? Or someone trying to spoof us into thinking they're a desperate person with no current SOI?"

"Is he speaking English?" asked Donnie.

A Pack of Nasties

The Emperor stalked into the rubbish littered room. "Is it working?"

Herr Fick glanced and Hein Kill. The former Luftwaffe target tug pilot shrugged. "Ja, it ist vorking."

"Stop that damn Germlish!" shouted the Emperor. He cuffed Fick a good one, knocking the one-time Kiel waterfront pimp and Gestapo informer into a trash-filled corner. "It's bad enough that we have to huddle in this appalling monstrosity without having to listen to your kack-brained nattering. You sound like jackbooted ninnies."

"But -- ." Hein Kill groped for ordinary speech. "Ve -- ah -- WE are thugz mit ein -- um -- thugs with jackboots. It vas -- WAS -- our schtick in ein -- in THE Reich."

"Forget your precious Reich," snarled the Emperor. "It was a flop, a box-office failure. You are now members of MY Solar Domination Unit. Each of you will be a suave, well-spoken representative of total domination." He sprayed spittle and stabbed Hein Kill in the chest with an extended forefinger with each word. "We shall annihilate our enemies while speaking soft words -- CORRECTLY enunciated words! Do you get my drift?"

Hein Kill's back was to a window and a thirty foot drop. Outside the walls of Cancun North lay a wind swept snowscape and the Beaufort Sea, solidly iced over. "Jawohl -- er -- da -- I mean, yes, sir."

"You will address me as Your Majesty or Most High or, in private, as Sire." The Emperor drew himself up and glared at his two henchmen. "I go to practice my speech."

Fick scrambled out of the corner and limped back to the idle Enigma machine. "Vot -- er -- WHAT speech does he practice?"

"His acceptance tirade," replied Hein Kill. Seeing his comrade's blank look, he explained further. "For ven -- WHEN he accepts absolute rule of North America. He has ozzers -- I mean OTHERS written up for later conquests."

"Isn't zat -- um -- THAT getting a little ahead of things? Cart before ein -- THE -- mule?"

"Mules I don't know about. It is a little early in the game. Ja." He glanced over his shoulder. "That is, YES, the ass is in front of the cart."

Fick studied the Enigma machine. "No reply yet." He paced the floor, kicking bits of trash out of his path. "What is this Solar Domination Unit? I have not heard that one before. Is it a new plan?"

"Nein -- NO. He has renamed the organization. To confuse our enemies, he says." Hein Kill displayed a t-shirt. The words "Obfuscate, Confuse, Dominate" were printed below the image of a face, a grinning red-eyed rat face. On the back was printed a larger image of white rat wearing an armband emblazoned with the letters SoD-U.

"Sod-U," mused Fick. "We are hardly a unit, being just the four of us. Yet, when we triumph over the capitalist pigs the movement will be much larger." He strained to think of a proper description for the triumphant Sod-U. "A company, perhaps. A brigade?" Numbers beyond ten had always been a trial for Fick. He'd have been able to handle sequences up to twenty if it wasn't for those jackboots.

"Where is Dork Helmet?" asked Hein Kill. "He ought to be here, sharing the burdens of world -- um -- solar system conquest. Our goals have changed."

"A good line," said Fick. "'The burdens of solar system conquest.' Can I use it the next time I whine to the Emperor about our workload?"

"Be my guest. I have ozzers -- OTHERS." Hein Kill slumped into a chair. "This plain English is giving me a sick headache."

Fick nodded in agreement. "If ve -- WE plan to keep our heads, we better do what the boss says."

"Right. It's hard to have a headache without a head."

"Brains aren't required though," said Fick, with a malicious chuckle. "Dark Helmet is living proof of that."

"Hmm. Yes. But where is he?"

"Down south. Recruiting special forces for the conquest."

"Hah! Special forces? He's probably in Las Vegas spending organization money on cheap wine and expensive bimbos."

"No. He wouldn't be that dumb. Would he?"

****

In Las Vegas, in the back room of a run-down casino somewhat off the beaten path, a short man wearing a giant Darth Vader helmet sits in a chair. He is sweating. A pair of large men in suits stand nearby.

"So, Mr. Dork Helmet, the cashier tells me you've run out of money."

"Um -- that can't be," squeaked DH. "My funds are as huge as my -- ." A beefy fist in the chest stopped his lying.

"Wanna try that again, Mr. Dork Helmet?"

"Honest," gasped DH. "Check with the bank. I'm the treasurer of World Domination, Inc. Our funds are -- well, not unlimited -- but ample -- though not as big as my -- um -- but big -- big money."

"The Word Domination, Inc. accounts have all been closed." The thug who spoke held up a printed invoice. "Who will pay for three girls, all on overtime? And what about the ten bottles of Thunder Lizard wine?" He paused. "Oh, my mistake. It was fifteen bottles of Thunder Lizard Prime -- the stuff aged for at least a week before bottling. Then there's the hotel room, six days, and a rather large sum lost at the tables."

"No money?" DH barely managed a whisper. "No money?"

The thug patted the helmet. "The girls say they'll settle for an hour each, since you weren't actually able to do -- ah -- anything other than brag and drink."

"Lies!" cried DH. "They all screamed when I showed them my enormous, gigantic, world shaking, fantastic -- um -- what was the question?"

"Payment, Mr. Dork Helmet. Who's gonna pay?"

"The Emperor will pay! He must pay. I'm his chief henchman. Fick and Hein Kill, they're just cannon fodder. Goose stepping morons. Ha-ha! The Emperor will pay!" DH began foaming at the mouth.

"It's no good," sighed the thug. "Take him out back. Run him through the compactor, then hang him up in the alley. He'll serve as a warning to other deadbeats."

"Pour encourager les autres," said the other thug.

"Pour what?"

"Pour encourager les autres. To encourage the others. It's French."

"Where the hell do you come up with this stuff?"

"It's just stuff I picked up. You'd know stuff too, if you read anything but invoices."

"I don't read 'em," bragged the first thug. "The cashier reads 'em and I memorize the important parts."

"Right." His partner hauled a sniveling DH to his feet. "Come on. I promise you won't feel anything after the first few minutes of excruciating pain. Try not to piss yourself. Oh, hell. Too late."

"I'll call housekeeping," said thug number one. "What's this excruciating stuff?"

"Ask the cashier."

The Spectre Gambit

"What does the message say?" asked Donnie.

Old Guy glanced up from the papers littering the bar. "I'm working on it, okay? The code is an old one. I told you that."

"Big whoop," muttered Donnie. "Can I have more beer? And some pickled eggs?"

"No eggs," said Gunny. "One more beer then y'all go on plain water."

"That won't do any good," warned Joker. "I'm not sure what might prevent him from generating enough gas to warm a small city."

"I think I got it," said Old Guy. "Archie sent it. Says Spectre is holding him captive in Cancun North." He looked up. "That's the resort hotel the greenies built on the shores of the Beaufort Sea. They believed the Northwest Passage was going to be not only ice free but warm enough for beach bunnies."

Stans laughed. "Politically correct, stick thin beach bunnies with no boobs, to be exact."

"That goes without saying," said Old Guy. He tapped the message. "I'm not sure what to make of this. Spectre held Archie captive up there when he was trying to bring off another Evil Overlord plot. Called himself the Ice Lord. The ice monster he awoke took over his operation and scrambled Spectre's brains, such as they are. We had a hell of a time with a horde of ice and steel machines before Archie did away with the monster."

"Yeah," said Joker. "I remember. I think. Real and imaginary activities get confused whenever I'm in the Symbiotic Saloon." He gazed around with sad eyes. "Has anyone seen that blonde? Rita?"

"Easy," said Gunny. "That one was fiction."

"Never mind that," grumped Old Guy. "What do we do about this message?"

"Rescue Archie," chorused the lads. Having swilled a few beers and retold a few lies, the Simians were primed to hie themselves off to the frozen wastes, armed with suitable exotic weapons, to rescue their comrade.

"Hold on. Hold on." Old Guy managed to quell the rush towards the door. "While it's easy enough to believe Spectre is up to his old tricks, I'm suspicious of an exact re-run of events. It sounds trite, to say the least."

"Come on," said Stans. "You write trite stuff all the time. Trite is your middle name."

"Be that as it may," sniffed Old Guy, "this looks suspicious."

"I saw Spectre at a sim convention last week," said Joker. "He's still wearing his Ming the Merciless getup. He said it was only to attract babes at the convention, but can we trust him to tell the truth?"

"Not when it comes to babes," said Gunny. "But that describes all of us. He's been happy playing a detective inspector in Victorian England."

"That's right," said Old Guy. "He and Archie have settled in to those roles."

Silence, broken only by the glug of beer, persisted for several minutes. Finally, Old Guy sighed and picked up the mauve phone. (He knew it was mauve because the woman installer had told him that's what color 'sort of purplish' was) "It's ringing."

Someone came on the line. Old Guy spoke in hushed gutturals, listened for a moment, then hung up. Before anyone could say a word, Anubis strode in from the back.

"What's up, Simians?" hissed the god. His words were remarkably clear considering that his head was that of a jackal, complete with fanged jaws.

"Our hearts are light as feathers," replied Old Guy, completing the ritual. He handed Anubis a beer. "But we have a problem. Someone with your abilities might be able to help us."

"Of course. I'm a god, aren't I?" The jackal face managed to look pensive. "Little good that does me in these benighted days. What's the problem?"

Gunny and Old Guy explained. The others drank coffee and began rounding up combat harness and cold weather gear. It looked like a trip to the Great White North might be in store.

Anubis examined the Enigma message. "This encoding was done on an earlier machine, wasn't it?"

"It was. A four-rotor model. And the one-time cipher comes from an SOI ten years out of date."

The god quoted from the hard copy. "Being held prisoner by Spectre. Cancun North. Archie." He looked up. "Seems clear enough."

"Wait." Old Guy picked up his hand-written version. "That's not exactly right. The raw code groups actually read somewhat different. He displayed the printed code blocks: "BEIN KHELT PRIS ONER BYSP ECTR EXXX CANC UNNO RDAR CHIE."

"Beink helt prisoner by Spectre," said Gunny. "The X's are place holders. Then it reads, Cancun Nord. Archie."

"Yeah," said Old Guy. "I thought the cipher might not have had a letter for 'G' and I figured the 'D' in 'north' was put in to keep the number of code blocks to a minimum. But when I heard Anubis read the code blocks, I checked the cipher. Is does have an entry for 'G'. I missed the 'T' in 'held' completely."

"Some code breaker you are," smirked Donnie. He'd had two beers and was feeling like a guy forty pounds lighter and thirty years younger. The others ignored him.

"This is partly in Germlish," said Anubis. "You have some associates who customarily speak that mishmash, don't you?"

"Not associates," said Gunny. "Enemies. Bastards. Well, except Rommel. He ain't bad for a Kraut."

Anubis shrugged. "A man -- or a god -- is better defined by his enemies than by those he calls friends." His barking laughter filled the saloon. "An enemy of mine tried to convince me of that many eons ago. He still wanders the forgotten caverns of the Underworld, looking for his heart."

"Remind me not to antagonize old dog-head," muttered Joker. Stans nodded agreement.

"Germlish means Fick and Hein Kill," said Old Guy. "Possibly Rommel. That means the Emperor is involved. Anyone disagree?"

"I can find them," said Anubis. "Provided you can supply me with something of theirs. An item of apparel, a weapon, anything they handled."

"Hein Kill handled a couple babes I know," said Donnie. "But they showered for, like, hours afterward."

"We have some junk in the back," said Old Guy. "I'll go look."

He returned a few minutes later and deposited several items on the bar. "One of Fick's jackboots. A leather jacket with one sleeve torn off. I think that was Fick's as well. And a pile of handbills Hein Kill was handing out in a bar in Nova Scotia. They're the usual World Domination tripe."

"These will do," said Anubis. He collected the items and went out the back way. Within five minutes he was back.

"They are together," he said, laying a map on the bar. Starting at the Beaufort Sea he traced a route southward. "They are flying along this route in some kind of machine. The individual known as the Emperor is with them. They are carrying something of immense power."

"So," said Joker. "The message was intended to draw us way up north while they carried out whatever plan they have down here."

"Looks that way," agreed Gunny. "What now?"

"Now we go see a General about some weapons and transportation," said Old Guy.

Gunny stood up. "Mudmover will want to hog the glory."

"You have to intercept the Emperor as soon as possible," warned Anubis. "The device he's carrying grows in power as he moves south."

"Right," said Joker. "Let's not dither around. And Mudmover can't legally intercept a bogie in Canadian airspace. We can."

"Not legally," objected Stans.

Old Guy waved away the objection. "Legal, schmegal. At the juxtaposition of fiction and reality, only the rules of necessity apply."

"What does that mean?" asked Donnie.

"It means we gotta get a move on," snarled Gunny. "We got a nefarious villain to blast outta the sky."

"Did he really say nefarious?" wondered Joker. He grabbed an equipment bag and rushed to follow the others. "I think he really said nefarious."

Sod-U Moves Out

"There has been no reply," said Fick.

The Emperor eyed the Enigma with obvious mistrust. "No reply. Well, that can only mean they have taken the bait and are heading this way as we speak. It's time for us to go south. Domination awaits!"

"Maybe they didn't receive the message," suggested Hein Kill. "Or it might be a trap. The Simians have friends in the military. We might find the whole US arsenal waiting for us at the border."

"They wouldn't dare!" cried the Emperor. "Mere mortals shall not obfuscate my destiny! Crank up the Caddy! We go south." He pointed at the Enigma. "Smash that piece of junk. Leave no evidence of our presence."

"Yes, sire," chorused the two henchmen. Fick tossed the Enigma into a corner. He scuffed a few candy wrappers in the same direction, then followed Hein Kill out of the room. The Sod-U Caddy was parked in a makeshift hangar on the top floor. In order to make room for the vehicle's folding wings, Hein Kill had knocked out forty feet of wall and demolished enough interior structure to make room for the hybrid flying machine, part red 1958 Cadillac convertible, part winged monstrosity. Though plastic sheeting covered the wall opening, the room was frigid, the machine covered in frost.

"What does ob-fus-kate mean?" asked Fick as they entered the hangar.

"Search me. Look it up." Hein Kill began to brush frost off the windshield. "Start clearing the wing mechanisms. If they don't unfold properly this will be a short trip."

He started the automobile engine. They would need it for the initial acceleration out of the hangar. Two turbojets were mounted on the upper surfaces of the inner wing panels a few feet outboard of the car body. He fired those up, ran them for a minute, then shut them down. Fick fired up a portable heater and began thawing the wings. Hein Kill went into the hallway and dragged a bulky object into the hangar. With Fick's help he managed to lift it into the back seat and strap it in place.

"We can't put the top up with that thing inside," whined Fick. The Caddy trunk was taken up with wing mechanisms and flight controls.

"Dress warm," suggested Hein Kill. "Or complain to the boss."

"I think I have an electric suit in my bag."

An hour later, Fick cut the plastic away and the Sod-U trio roared into the Arctic sky. For one heart-stopping moment, the Caddy plunged toward the frozen landscape. Groaning with stress, the wings slid forward and the outer sections rotated into place. Skimming over the snow, jets screaming, the machine stabilized and began a slow climb. A solitary Polar bear and a few foxes watched as the stubby red thing with hawk-like wings roared overhead. The noise faded little by little as the strange animal flew slowly south.

Hein Kill drove. The Emperor sat beside him, staring majestically forward. Fick hunched low in the back seat, trying to stay out of the frigid blast of wind. He found, to his surprise, that the strange box radiated warmth. Huddling close to it was disquieting though, as faint mournful wailing could be heard from within. He clung to the thing and tried to ignore the sounds.

The Emperor began fiddling with the radio. He managed to find a few country stations and one that played some sort of wailing music. Finally, he shut the radio off. "Not one single blues station! When I take over we must make some changes. The scum living around here have no art in their souls."

"Not many people live this far north, sire," said Hein Kill. He had to shout over the wind blast. Even with the jets throttled back to cruise power, the noise was terrific. "We'll find more suitable music as we go south."

"South!" cried the Emperor happily. "South we go! Our little package of Christmas Spirit was collected in the south. It grows in power as we approach its home!"

"Right, sire." Hein Kill was uncertain of exactly what the package of spirit was supposed to do. The Emperor had never explained its purpose. Nor had he told his henchmen exactly how he'd collected it. "Your Majesty, could you explain about the Christmas Spirit and what you intend with it? We can't help much if we don't know what's going on."

"True, true," agreed the Emperor. "But -- ." He wagged a finger in Hein Kill's face. "It is also true that you cannot meddle with my plans if you don't know them." He crossed his arms and sat back, humming to himself.

Hein Kill concentrated on his driving. He had a bad feeling about -- about everything.

(TBC)

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Mudmover's Hideout

Old Guy ticked off an item on his clipboard and signaled for the semi-truck driver to move out. The loaded vehicle joined three others rolling toward the main gate.

General Mudmover and Major Spazz watched from the control tower. "What kind of gear is he steal -- er -- requisitioning?" asked the General.

"God knows. I don't. All the loads are covered. Whatever it is, we'll soon have the proper forms, perfectly filled out and approved."

"Who approves 'em?"

"They're already signed by someone at the Pentagon. A Lieutenant General, UR Stuck. I checked on that name. It's legitimate." Spazz hesitated. "Or at least, it seems to be a real name for a real general. He commands one of those black ops organizations. Hard to be sure who is who."

"You mean a black ops setup like ours?" Mudmover chuckled. "Some Congressional oversight committees are convinced we conduct illegal activities out here. One or two even suspect we are in contact with creatures from outer space."

Major Spazz focused his field glasses on the stubby shape of an ARF-3 Despoiler being readied for a trip to the interceptor patrol base on the far side of the moon. "Well, we are, sir. If you define contact as slaughtering them before they get close enough to cause mischief."

"Mischief. I like your choice of words, Major. Some fools believe aliens cannot be anything other than perfectly peaceful beings. The fact that those we've run into are equipped with ships armed to the teeth doesn't make sense to the true believers."

"Right, sir. Not to mention that a few also come equipped with facilities for processing vast amounts of flesh into deep fried nuggets for consumption by the peaceful folks back home." Spazz watched a crewman working on the Despoiler. "That's Captain Ngumo's ship, sir. They're painting more kill marks on it."

"Good. Ah. It looks like the Simians are about to depart."

"About time, sir. Old Guy has nearly stripped our warehouses."

The men watched as a matte black B-52 rolled toward the runway. A similarly painted C-130 followed.

"Who's driving the planes?" asked Mudmover.

"Major Kelly has the B-52, sir. Captain Bascomb is her co-pilot. Lieutenant Colonel Dolbright and Captain Field are flying the C-130."

"I thought I told you to keep Old Guy away from Major Kelly."

"I didn't get a chance, sir. They apparently knew each other already. She was in Ops when the Simians arrived."

"Coincidence?" The General stared at the departing planes. "No. I don't believe in it. You're right, Major. He must have called her ahead of time."

"Sorry, sir. But for what it's worth, Old Guy didn't seem too interested in Major Kelly. She greeted him more like an old friend than a -- ." Spazz coughed. "Anyway, he and Colonel Dolbright spent a lot of time -- um -- planning the flight."

"Dolbright? She's just back from Afghanistan." Mudmover smiled. "Maybe my blonde is safe after all. Do you suppose he likes brunettes?"

"I think it's likely, sir. Colonel Dolbright is a looker. Not voluptuous, if you follow me, but nice. Old Guy's old flame is supposed to have been a brunette."

"Okay. Let's go down to Ops and see how badly that old bastard has gouged us."

"One other thing, sir." Spazz glanced around. None of the tower personnel were close enough to hear. "One of the Simians was a creature with a dog's head."

"A dog's head? Have you been drinking, Major?"

"Only a couple, sir. I kid you not. A dog's head."

Mudmover laughed. "Get your eyes tested, Major. That wasn't a dog head. It was a jackal head. Anubis, chief embalmer, goes about with the head of a jackal."

Spazz followed Mudmover to the stairway. "A jackal? Right, sir. That explains the fangs and the sort of smiling expression."

"A smile? Yes, I suppose he might smile. If you meet him again make sure you claim your heart is light as a feather."

"As a feather, sir?"

"Light as a feather, Major. I can't answer for the consequences if you don't do that."

"Light as a feather it is, sir."

O Canada!

"Where are they now?" asked Old Guy.

Anubis spent a moment staring at his map. "Here. Just south of the Great Slave Lake."

"They're not moving very fast. That's good. Angel One ought to be able to track them using passive sensors soon." Angel One was Major Kelly's B-52. The matte black plane was packed with radar spoofing equipment and powered by four high-bypass turbofans with special exhaust shielding. With everything operating properly, the big bomber was essentially a hole in the sky. But in daylight she would be visible to the Mark One eyeball. They had to finish with Evil Spirit before dawn.

"Evil Spirit," mused Anubis. "The Emperor isn't really evil, you know. Just mislead by his own ego. Still -- he could cause a great deal of trouble." He gazed at the interior of the C-130, code named Angel Six. In the forward section technicians manned consoles. Aft, two pallets of gear stood ready to be parachuted out. Simians sat or lay in the middle area, mostly snoring.

"This plane is much slower than the other. How soon can we reach Evil Spirit?"

"In about two hours. The bomber can cruise quite a bit faster than a C-130, but they've been running at reduced speed to minimize their exhaust heat signature. We're not that far behind."

"What do we do when we get there? Is this plane armed?"

"It is. Heat seeking missiles. Radar missiles. The bomber has the same armament. We hope to employ heat seekers with a dummy warhead to bring Evil Spirit down. From there we'll have to play it by ear. I don't know exactly what the Emperor intends. Have you found anything out?"

"Only hints. I suspect the Priests of Set are involved. Again. I'm sure that doesn't surprise you."

"Not much. I thought Cobra was taking over that bunch."

"He will. Probably sooner than planned. This little coup was intended as a way to set themselves up with some sort of future in the Upper World. I think the Emperor conned them into believing he'd make them into department heads or middle managers within his new empire. All a ruse, of course. They can't survive anywhere except in the Underworld and in Hell."

"But what have they done?"

"Cobra is working on that as we speak. He believes they supplied the Emperor with demons, simple-minded hellspawn charged with collecting Christmas Spirit from all the Earth. That was done earlier this year, when few people were thinking about the holiday. The loss is felt most strongly as the day approaches. Many people will be unable to cope with the slightest stress during that time without their Christmas Spirit. The death rate will be astonishing." Anubis thought for a moment. "As the Spirit moves south it tugs on the mental stability of the people it was taken from. The space within them is like a tiny black hole, sucking at the essence of the Spirit. Some will commit suicide, others will go mad. I shudder to think of the consequences."

Old Guy nodded. His face was pale. "So the Emperor is going to blackmail his way into power? Hold the Spirit hostage until he is given what he wants?"

"That is his plan, I believe. Some details may become clearer given time, but we don't have much of that." Anubis leaned back. "For what it's worth, the Emperor is not likely to succeed. At some point he'll lose control and the Spirit will spread back over the Earth. Unfortunately, I have no idea how many might die or go irrevocably insane before that happens."

"He doesn't really have the kind of power needed to make his plan work?"

"No. The Emperor is a creature of ego. Even the wizards of old would have difficulty pulling off this kind of grab for power. I'm not sure I could do it. But, he believes he can, and that's why he's dangerous."

Old Guy stood up and started forward. "I'll pass the happy news along to the pilots."

****

Hein Kill shuddered as a wave of nausea ripped his body. Fick lay in the back seat, whimpering. The Emperor maintained his rigid smile, but his face was pale and sweat beaded on his brow.

"Vot ist happenik?" cried Hein Kill, forgetting the Emperor's admonition not to speak Germlish. "Zumzink ist wrong!"

"Fly straight, damn you!" The Emperor spoke through clenched teeth. "South! We must go south to the point of maximum pain!"

"Pain? Zis ist madness!"

"Speak English!" The Emperor placed the muzzle of a heavy pistol against Hein Kill's knee. "Fly straight or I'll remove your knee!"

Forcing himself to concentrate on flying and speaking clearly, Hein Kill replied: "Do you want to crash? Shoot me and we will crash. Sire."

Regaining control of himself, the Emperor tucked the pistol away. "Pay no attention to the Spirit effects." He glanced at a map in his lap. "Two hours more. In two hours we can land at our command base."

"Command base? Where?"

"Fly the course I gave you, fool! You will see soon enough." Jerking, as if struck, the Emperor raised his clenched fists. He seemed to be struggling with something Hein Kill could not see. After a few seconds, he relaxed, gasping. "The Spirit is stronger than I imagined. If something happens to me -- . No! I am too powerful!" He gripped Hein Kill's arm. "The coordinates are on the map. It is an old radar station. There I have installed the radio equipment we will need to communicate our demands to the vermin currently in power."

Fick wailed, "My head. My head ist comink apart!"

The Emperor reached back and pummeled the ex-pimp. "Quiet fool! Find your courage! Be a man!"

"Nein. Nein," moaned Fick. "Make it schtop. Ze pain. Ze pain."

"Idiot!" snarled the Emperor. "I employ idiots." He sagged in his seat, twitching now and then in his struggle against the Spirit.

A particularly strong wave of agony lanced Hein Kill. The Emperor groaned aloud. Fick shrieked once and went silent.

Clang! Hein Kill clawed his way back to sanity. The Caddy lurched to the right. Blinking back tears of pain he craned to see what had happened. At first the right wing looked normal. Then he realized he could see more of it than he should. The right engine was gone! Fear smashed his senses clear. He pulled the power back on both engines and pushed the nose down. The Caddy stabilized in a glide.

"Ve haf lost ein engine!"

Slowly, the Emperor surfaced from his struggle with the Spirit. He opened his mouth to curse his pilot, but words failed him. A ragged tear in the upper surface of the right wing was all that remained of the jet engine. "What -- ?" Anger flared and died. Fear blazed in his heart. "What happened?"

I don't -- ." Clang! The Caddy lurched. Hein Kill wrestled with the controls. After a few dramatic lurches, he managed to bring the plane under control. "Ve are beink attacked!"

"Attacked?" The Emperor looked around wildly. "Who? What? Who would dare!"

"Zimians!" screamed Hein Kill. Forcing himself to attain a semblance of calm, he tried to remember emergency procedures the Caddy company pilot had mentioned in passing. After all, neither he nor Hein Kill anticipated a double engine failure, much less a double engine removal.

"Schtart ein auto engine," he murmured. "Zen ve vill haf power to rezet ein vings to ze glide pozition." Suiting action to words, he managed to adjust the wings to a power-off, gliding configuration. Their descent slowed. He began looking for a place to land. The land below was mostly flat. A single road arrowed south under the bright moon. He sighed with relief and angled toward the road.

"Ve haf a place to land." He pointed. "Vith luck, ve vill not be killed. Yet."

The Emperor lost it. "Land? We cannot land yet! The command base is miles to the south!" He pummeled Hein Kill's arm. "Fly south!" Veins throbbed in his neck. The pistol appeared in his shaking hand. "South!"

Hein Kill gritted his teeth and rolled the Caddy. Screeching, the Emperor grabbed for handholds, forgetting that he was strapped in. The pistol vanished into the empty sky. Fick moaned piteously and lost his breakfast.

A renewed wave of nausea washed over them, driving all three to the brink of sanity. The Emperor lolled in his seat, mumbling nonsense. Fick peered into a bottomless pit. Eyes glared up at him, accompanied by a wave of hatred. He clawed his way back. The vomit-stained seat of the Caddy was preferable to whatever awaited him in that place.

Hein Kill nearly lost control as a large aircraft roared overhead, barely visible against the starry sky. "Mein Gott," he murmured. As the Caddy touched down on a narrow strip of gravel he saw parachutes bloom overhead. "Mein Gott." A horrible feeling enveloped him. "Ve are trapped, like ratz."

One thought oozed out of the morass he called a brain. He must get away! The Caddy was still rolling as he climbed out of his seat, stepped on to the wing and leaped off the trailing edge and into the night. Fick saw him go and tried to follow. He missed the wing and fell face-first, smashing into a frozen gravel surface.

One wing touched the ground, dragging the Caddy into a slow ground loop. It halted in a cloud of snow and dust. For a long moment nothing moved. Then the Emperor stood up and stepped down to the wing and then to the ground. Staggering slightly, he moved a few feet away and began mumbling an incantation.

****

Gunny had one of the ATVs off its pallet and ready to go before the last Simian slammed into the ground. "Move it, people! Move it!"

Partly stunned Simians shrugged out of their harness and prepared for battle. The second ATV was soon going. Joker slipped into the driver's seat; Stans clambered into the gunner's position. "Where's Donnie?"

A pitiful moan was their answer. "I'm killed. Broke legs, broke back. I think my arm fell off. Help me."

Joker put the ATV in gear and headed for the stalled Caddy. "We'll come back and get him later."

"What if he's really hurt?" asked Stans.

"Donnie? Hurt? Maybe a broken fingernail."

"Yeah. That would be him." Laughing, the two Simians drove toward Hell. Gunny and Old Guy were already moving. Anubis rode with them.

"Watch it," yelled Old Guy. He was seated in the gunner position. He didn't have to amplify his warning. All the Simians saw the flaming red demons leap from the earth.

Unfortunately, the Emperor's summoning spell caught the demons flatfooted. Hellspawn, of course, have flat, splayed feet tipped with claws, but these creatures of the pit were not just standing on unshod feet, they were armed with nothing more than blunt spears used to herd the Damned into manageable lines and queues.

Worse, the abruptness of the call brought them to the surface in a shower of sparks and with eyes blind in the dim moonlight. Unable to see, cursing their lack of weapons, and outlined in flame, the demons lasted but a few seconds.

Stans and Old Guy opened fire at the same moment, when the first demon stood erect. A short burst put each one back into Hell, dribbling purple demon blood. It was a long time before the Emperor regained the trust of the demon guild.

Screaming out his frustration, the Emperor shrank from the charging Simians. Ever the one to provide a last ditch strategy, he uttered a final spell. A dull thud signaled his departure from the scene.

"Where did he go?" asked Stans. He and Joker dismounted and approached the Caddy from the rear. Gunny and Old Guy closed in from the front.

Joker glanced at the bubbling grease spot that marked the Emperor's point of departure. "Who knows? Who cares? He's gone."

"Get the container out of the car," directed Gunny. "Lay it on the road."

The Simians did as ordered. Gunny placed a small device on the box. "Let's pick up our gear. Old Guy, check with Angel Six. Let 'em know we marked the box as planned."

Anubis laughed and climbed into the Caddy. "I like this car. Don't have one in my collection. Anyone mind if I take it?"

"What about the wings?" asked Gunny. "Be a little tough to drive very far with those attached."

"I'm familiar with the company that built this rig," said Anubis. "I'll bet there's a lever somewhere -- ." He fumbled under the dash for a moment. "Ah -- there it is." With a screech of tortured metal and two cartoonish spring noises, the wings popped loose from the car and slammed to the ground.

Anubis started the engine. "So long, Simians." He put the car in gear and drove away amid the pleasing rumble of glasspacks.

"Let's find Donnie," said Joker.

The character himself stumbled out of the night, holding up one hand and whimpering. "I busted a nail. Oh, it hurts, it hurts."

Gunny just sighed. "Let's police up our drop gear. Angel Six says there's an old airstrip a few miles south. They can pick us up there."

Fifteen minutes later the box of Christmas Spirit lay alone in the gravel road. Far above, Angel One finished a careful bomb run and dropped a small piece of ordinance. It fell, tumbling at first, then stabilizing as its computer brain found the transmitter Gunny had placed on the box. A minute later, the bomb exploded precisely three feet above the box. Twenty-five pounds of high explosive shredded it. Bright light bloomed over the Canadian tundra.

Several miles south Gunny grinned and produced a vile black cigar. He lit up. "All of a sudden I feel like singing. How about Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer?"

"For god sakes, Gunny. Have pity," pleaded Stans. "None of us can sing."

"True." The former Marine considered for a moment. "How about a marching song? I know a couple good ones. I'll bet Old Guy can add a couple verses to the Girl in the Red Dress. Y'all just need to holler. Singing skill don't matter."

The ensuing song fest was continued until the gaggle approached the black C-130, Angel Six, sitting on the old airstrip. Lieutenant Colonel Dolbright watched as they drove toward the lowered ramp. A Girl in the Red Dress verse died part way through.

The Colonel met Old Guy as he stepped from his ATV. "What was that you were singing?"

"Um -- ." The old bastard was at a loss for words. Simians watched in awe. They'd seldom seen him speechless.

"I've got a red dress," said the Colonel with a wink. "Maybe we can invent a new verse to that old saw."

"Come on," growled Gunny. "Let's get this stuff loaded."

A few miles away Hein Kill huddled beside a massive boulder and waited for Fick to quit sobbing. "Ve haf to move," whispered Hein Kill. "I can do nozzink for your face until ve reach ze old radar station."

"My node," burbled Fick. "I'm bleedink like schtuck pig."

"It vill schtop. Come. Ve muzt go."

A low howl echoed across the tundra. Fear grew in Fick's heart. "Vot vas zat?"

"Volf." Hein Kill peered back toward the crash site. Everything was gone, except for the remains of the Caddy's wings. Even the Spirit box had vanished in a bright flash. He saw large shapes nosing around the wreckage. Wolves.

"Move it, mein herr." He dragged Fick erect. "Volves are on our trail."

Staggering, the two henchmen started south. A mile to their rear a large male wolf detected the scent of fresh blood. The pack moved off in pursuit, silent as death.

Meanwhile . . .

The Surgeon General stood in the upper gallery of the Washington Monument and saluted the morning sunrise with a raised flask. He knocked back a couple shots and put the flask away. Humming a reggae version of White Christmas, he descended the stairs slowly, savoring the feeling of Christmas.

The National Security Adviser found the President still slumped in a chair on the smoking balcony. "Sir! General Mudmover's people stopped the plague! Everything's cool!"

"Good for him," muttered the President.

"I'm going home, sir. Anything I can do before I leave?"

"Nothing. Just leave me be."

"Grouch," murmured the Adviser as he left the room. "Some people just don't have any Christmas spirit."

"How high is this balcony?" asked the President. No one replied.

Officer Ramirez and Kellerman sat in a coffee shop across the street from the site of Kellerman's near suicide. The night had been a complete waste of time. Only one reporter bothered to ask questions about the suicide attempt and that one didn't even make notes. He wandered away in mid-reply.

Ramirez glanced at his watch. "It's almost the end of my shift." Sunlight flooded the street outside even as he spoke. A wave of good feeling sloshed through the room.

"Hey!" cried Kellerman. "I feel -- it's like -- my Christmas spirit is back!"

The officer laughed. "Damn! So is mine."

The two men sat smiling for several minutes, neither saying a word. Finally, Ramirez beckoned to the waitress, "Fresh coffee, please. And a couple donuts. I'll have a raised glazed. How about you, John? My treat."

"Chocolate covered cake, please. With Christmas sprinkles."

End

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Another great story, OG, and again, I did not die! I guess that truck load of MGD I sent to you did the trick. :D

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Yep, another great story Jim. I'm going to the ER to have that busted nail looked at. Turn it into Workers Comp Insurance. I need a few months off with some actual pay. Not that Canadian toilet paper The Dude sends me.

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At least that toilet paper can be used for something, he pays me with gravel and not enough of it to even pave a walkway.

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At least that toilet paper can be used for something, he pays me with gravel and not enough of it to even pave a walkway.

Isn't there a black market for Canadian gravel in the USA?

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Another good one . merry Xmas to all and to all a good night !

Thanks OG :)

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