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Santa comes down the chimney of rotorwash on a static line and hits the ground hard. When he gets up, he's already firing. He's got that glint in his eye. You know the one; you've seen it in his press photos, and on TV. It's like he knows exactly who the good guys and the bad guys are. He knows who's been naughty and who's been nice. No one even questions him. Right about now, I'm sure glad I haven't been naughty.

He goes storming off toward the remains of the outer wall of the terrorist compound and I duck and run behind him. Sand fills the air as the Huey pilot dusts off and leaves us; he'll go hide at our rendezvous point. Santa sits, back to the wall, and pops a new magazine into his Thompson submachine gun. It's just one of the many little toys that he took from surplus; of the millions of weapons Santa's Workshop has manufactured this year, this one is his personal favorite.

Bullets hit the wall behind us as he pulls out a map and jabs it with his finger to show me the place. I shine a red light on the map, just enough to see that he's put a big X across a room in the middle of the compound.

"Sir," I say, "don't you think we should wait for the rest of the team?" But he's already on his feet. "Hell no," he says. "I'm ready. I know where they are and I have presents to deliver to them all. No time to waste tonight."

Then he's over the wall and yelling and charging straight at the machine guns and somehow the bullets aren't hitting him. Gone is the Santa of old: fat, jovial, and bearded. Now he's clean-shaven, square-jawed, buff and barrel-chested in his signature red and white uniform, and the colors blaze amongst the desert browns and greys. And his bag, painted bright blue with little white stars to show his national pride, is slung over his shoulder. He's like a beacon, a big banner that says shoot me, I'm American.

Used to be he'd wait for me, let me guide him. I mean, it is my job to take point, and maybe it was also that he used to have fear, had at least a little bit of understanding of mortality. But then the Defense Department went and hired him and he realized he was immortal. Emergency Claus. That's him. Now he's so gung-ho-ho-ho I'm afraid for us all. Bullets don't only hit the immortals. What about the rest of us? We're not immortal, even when we're told we are.

But I go over the wall anyway because he's my commanding officer. I hear the other eight members of my team struggling along behind me. Short bursts of gunfire mark their positions.

Santa takes out a machine-gun encampment and then he's at the door that leads into the compound. I'm right behind him. We pause while my team catches up. They're all young, scared.

"I'm going to blow it," Santa says, and rigs the charge. We all grab cover and he detonates it; the explosion rips the door from its hinges.

"Hold the door," Santa says. "Don't let anyone through." Then he's in, firing and yelling like a madman.

"Stay put," I say to my team, and they tense for battle. I go through after Santa, following the string of bodies like a trail to that center chamber. And there's Santa at the door, Thompson leveled at several dozen people inside.

"Sir?" I say.

"Cover me," he says, and I bring my own weapon to bear on the people. Santa digs into his bag and brings out three boxes, switches them on. C-4 and electronic detonators.

"Lock it up," he says.

I look from face to face. Civilians, some of them children. These are terrorists? Santa evidently thinks so.

"Why, sir?" I ask.

"Just lock the door, soldier," he says, and for a moment he turns that glint of his on me. That glint that says you're awfully close to being on the naughty list. I close the door and jam a piece of rebar across its latch. Then I step back.

"What are you doing, sir?" I ask. He finishes setting the charges and pulls a detonator remote from his bag.

"My job," he says. He jogs back through the corridors and out the door. I follow.

"There are civilians in there," I say. "Children."

"There are no good children here," Santa says. He hits the ground, then presses the detonator button. Everything shakes and smoke slowly billows its way from the building. Santa drops the remote and stands.

The first thing I notice is quiet. In the aftermath, nothing moves. I realize there's no machine-gun fire either, and look around to see the bodies of the dead, our soldiers and theirs. We missed the fight out here.

"I don't know what you think you're doing," I say to Santa, "but--"

"Watch yourself," he warns. Then he stares again. I look away.

"Sir?" a faint voice says from the ground nearby.

"One of ours," Santa says. He leans down and turns the wounded soldier's body over.

"What's your name, soldier?" he says.

"Corporal Vixen, sir," she says, eyes wide.

"Damn," Santa says. "Females in combat. Don't know what I think of that. You're new."

"Yes, sir."

"Knew a Vixen once. Damn fine soldier. Whatever happened to him?" he asks me.

"Dead, sir," I say. "Lost him over Cleveland in '89. Collided with a weather balloon, remember?" Sometimes I think his memory is going, but no; he can remember every kid, every grid coordinate, every crime against his nation.

"Yeah, that's right," he says. For a moment his eyes glaze, and I think maybe he's remembering the fun times they had together, late-night hot buttered rum, topless dancers. Then he says, "I take it back. Vixen was a fuck-up."

"Sir?" Vixen asks.

"Didn't follow my orders to the letter. Questioned my authority, and look where it got him. Dead." He looks at me. A threat.

"Am I dying?" she asks.

Santa says nothing.

"Yes," I say. "Is there anything I can do for you?"

"No," she says. "But maybe Santa can."

"What can I do?" he asks.

"When I was a little girl," she says, "I sent you a letter and asked for world peace."

"I used to get a lot of those," he says. "Not so much anymore. Most kids want Playstations."

"I don't," she says. "I want world peace."

"Sometimes you've got to go along with what everyone else wants," Santa says. "That's the price of freedom. You kids don't get it, but maybe this war will change that. Had everything handed to you. You've got to fight or you get soft."

"What's wrong with being soft?" she says. But she doesn't hear Santa's disgusted grunt because she's dead.

We walk quickly out of the camp and around the rock outcropping to where our Huey waits. The pilot is dead, too, another casualty of war.

I fire up the chopper and we lift off, pushing up through the thick, choking smoke of the burning compound. Everything fades as the thwacking of the rotors pounds all my senses flat.

Santa hangs his head out the open gunner's door and yells into the night. His face is red and charged with enthusiasm. He looks like a big, demented kid.

"Just like old times, ain't it, Rudolph?" Santa says. He takes the seat next to me and carves little H and O figures into the stock of his Thompson, one for each confirmed kill. The wood of the rifle is so crisscrossed with marks it looks like a chainsaw-hacked stump sculpture, all rough and torn, in pain. Sometimes you let these ideas of good and bad and right and wrong go to your head and your head gets carved up in little H and O patterns.

It's nothing like old times. But I don't say that.

"Whatever you say, sir," I say. I kick on the bright red nose light and thunder the Huey north, toward home.

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Ken Brady

Kenneth Brady's short stories have appeared in magazines and anthologies around the world. He also writes for stage and screen, and has produced an independent feature film that has received several awards. He lives in Eugene, Oregon, and has an almost unnatural fascination with rubber chickens. For more about him, see his Web site. His previous story in Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive.

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