A big cloud of fog billowed out of SEAL team leader Thomas Hancock's mouth. He stood and stretched, coming out of his tent. He was wearing his arctic camouflage parka, white with black and light blue slashes. Indeed, he hadn't even taken it off when he slept. Way too cold for that. When he went to sleep it was near minus thirty degrees. He estimated it to be about the same now. The drawstring on the parka's hood was pulled tight around his face. Only his pug nose and striking blue eyes were visible.
In his gloved hand was the metal mug from his mess kit. In the mug was the instant cocoa from the MRE (Meals Ready to Eat). He usually drank coffee, but didn't today. Coffee sometimes made him jittery, and his hands would shake. And today, of all the days of this mission, he would need steady hands.
The satellite uplink marked his team as being only five klicks from their target. They should be able to make it to their destination by noon. If there was such a thing as noon north of the Arctic Circle. This far north, in early February, the sun still didn't rise above the horizon. When they first disembarked, the southern sky turned a twilight grey for about a half hour at noon. As they'd traveled further north, though, even that had stopped. For the whole day, the sky was sunless. But the moon, which had risen above the horizon two days ago, reflected off the ice and snow made it almost as light as day. Even before the moon had risen, the stars and the aurora borealis had helped them see fairly well. When the sky got overcast, blocking out the natural light sources, they could still see using their night-vision goggles.
His team, this time designated Team Bravo, were specialized in underwater construction and demolition under frigid conditions, not arctic assaults. Certainly, they were trained for this, and had participated in training exercises of this nature numerous times before, but this was only the second time they had participated in this type of operation for real. This didn't worry any of the team members, though. Teams Alpha and Charlie, whom they would be rendezvousing with at the objective, were specialists in this type of operation. Bravo was the support team to the other two.
Bravo had been dropped off onto the arctic icecap by the USS Salt Lake City, a nuclear submarine, north of Norway. Hancock had been told that the other teams would be dropped off north of Canada and north of Russia. They would attack from three directions, improving the odds of at least part of the assault arriving undetected.
Hancock stared down at his cup of cocoa, with its island of chocolate powder floating in the middle (for some reason the cocoa mix from MRE's never mixed well), and tossed it out in disgust. He got out his pack and stowed away his mug with the rest of his mess gear. He looked up when he was finished, and watched his SEAL subordinates readying themselves for their assault. Most of them were finishing up their MRE breakfast, like he was, but a few had already finished and were now cleaning weapons. Good idea, thought Hancock. He walked over and stuffed the trash from his meal into the white trashbag that sat in the middle of his men's tents. They would bury the refuse in the snow before they left.
"All right Bravo, ' shouted Hancock, above the shrill arctic wind that competed with his voice. "We move out in half an hour. We should be at the target within five hours."
His men cheered. Their week out on the polar icecap had been seven days too long. A couple made baying sounds like a basset hound. Hancock shook his head. They had acquired that bizarre practice from the damn Marines they worked out with back at Adak. Now, he didn't have anything personal against jarheads. He had worked with them on numerous occasions in his fifteen years in the military. They were excellent fighters on mission, when you needed cannon fodder. But if you need something done with stealth, style, and efficiency you didn't call in the Marines, you called the SEALs.
Hancock removed his cleaning kit, sat down on his pack, and with deft, practiced movements proceeded to field strip his weapon onto the weatherproofed mat, in which the kit had been wrapped. In ultracold climates, you had to clean your weapon at least twice a day, whether you had used it or not. If you didn't, the oil on the parts would coagulate, becoming a jelly-like substance, of no help at all to the gun's inner workings.
The lieutenant commander completed the cleaning and oiling procedure in less than ten minutes, then ambled over to Chief Bates. RMC Edward "Norman" Bates was the teams radioman. He and Petty Officer Graff, the corpsman, were "honorary SEALs." They had gone through arctic survival training, and were both excellent shots with a number of weapons, but they weren't SEALs. Although they got teased a lot about being regular Navy, they both had been with the team for three years, and had the whole team's respect. They knew that their specialties were vital for the team's survival, especially the radioman.
Near the poles it was easy to get lost. Magnetic north was off to the southeast, and the north star was overhead. All stars circled the horizon. If you followed one of those stars for orientation, you would travel in circles. You could find a landmark to the north and aim for that, but such landmarks were few on the barren plains of snow and ice. It fell on the radioman to make sure the team didn't get lost. He used the signals from two navigational satellites that orbited the equator, to triangulate their position. As long as the satellites didn't stray from their geo-synchronous orbit, Bates could make sure they were on course.
"Hey Norm," said Hancock as he approached the navigator, who was squatted by his radio.
"Good morning, skipper," said Bates, pulling one earphone away from his ear, but keeping one on.
"If you call this a morning," quipped Hancock looking up at the still-dark sky.
Ed chuckled softly.
Ed Bates had been in the Navy longer than his commander, eighteen years, had never married, and loved his work. He worked with equipment that won't be available to the public for a decade, if then. He planned to stay in for twelve more years at least, and then retire only when forced to, kicking and screaming all the way. He was a short man, five foot five, with brown hair, brown eyes, a receded hairline, and a slim, fit body that came from physical activity, not just pumping iron in a gym. He loved all kinds of outdoor activity: hiking, hang gliding, and mountain climbing, just to name a few. That was the main reason he requested to work with the SEALs. He wanted to be where the action was.
"What do the weather guys have to say?" asked Hancock.
"Clear all day today, with the five day outlook being the same. You know, we have been damn lucky..."
"I know," affirmed the officer.
Bates ignored him, not missing a beat. "... February is often the worst month for blizzards up here in the Great White North. And so far we haven't been hit by any of it.
"I know," repeated Hancock, glancing down at his watch. "You know we leave in fifteen minutes."
"Yes sir. I was just making sure of direction before I put my gear away."
"And what direction is north today?"
"That-a-way, sir," said Bates, pointing away from camp, in a direction that looked like all the others, on the dead white plain.
"That's what I thought," said the lieutenant commander, as he walked off toward the rest of his men.
Bates proceeded to disassemble the satellite dish, and stow it away.
Hancock talked to all twelve of his men, checking on morale and any kind of equipment problems. Senior Chief John Hendricks was the next person he talked to. He was the senior enlisted SEAL. The chief told him that everyone was in good spirits, but Hancock wanted to see for himself. Besides, it was good for the troops' morale to know that their CO know each of them by name.
True to the senior chief's word, all his charges seemed to be in good spirits, but were anxious to get home.
Petty Officer Graff, the medic, with his portable heater, was making his rounds too, making everyone take off their gloves and boots, checking for frostbite. Graff and Hancock reached each other last. The officer complied, grudgingly, keeping each exposed extremity as close to the heater as possible. Graff said that he was clean, and there had been no problems yet on any of the men. More good news.
Everyone was ready to go, with two minutes to spare. All the leftover MRE's, excess gear, and communication equipment were put onto the sledges pulled by two of the twelve snowmobiles, the ones driven by Graff and Bates, the two least likely to see combat.
Hancock gave the men brief instructions, none of which was new to them. He reminded "Skeeter" Goodman and Warren Provoskiya, their two scouts on the light and fast snowmobiles, to always stay within view of each other, and to radio in at once if they spotted anyone or anything. He reminded all the others to take it slow. He didn't want to lose anyone to crevasses. The SEAL team nodded their heads. They had heard it all before several dozen times, but knew that their officer was obligated to do it one last time. If something went wrong, it was his hide.
The SEAL team started forward on their snowmobiles, single file, with Iceman far in the front, followed by Hancock, Hendricks in the rear, and Bates and Graff in the middle. The two scouts leaped ahead, while the rest of the team crept along slowly, with the Iceman checking the ground with a two meter collapsible pole, every ten meters or so.
Sometimes, snow would partially thaw, then freeze, and form a dome over ice crevasses. Further snowfall would cover the dome shape, thus camouflaging it. Some crevasses were a hundred meters deep. The weight of the snow eventually causes the dome collapse. A new dome would form on the ruins of the old, and the cycle repeats itself. If they rode over one of those, the dome would probably collapse, and kill the whole team. Iceman had discovered two of these traps so far, during this mission.
Stan "Iceman" Eichmann was the newest member of team, having joined them just a year ago. But when it came to snow and ice, either above of under the water, no one had better instincts than Stan. His father was retired Army, and his mother was Inuit, as his dark hair and yellowish complexion would attest. He grew up in a small town near what is now Gates of the Arctic National Park, climbing glaciers with his parents. He seemed to have a natural instinct for analyzing arctic terrain. He walked in snowshoes with a grace that even the most experienced of the other SEAL's could not match.
As they moved forward, under a rainbow curtain of northern lights, Hancock reviewed everything he knew about the mission, and shook his head. So much of it didn't add up. What would Neo-Bolshevik Russians be doing with a fortress up here at the top of the world? It had little strategic value, and resupplying the installation would be a nightmare. He had in his knapsack a sealed envelope containing full information about the mission. He wasn't to open it until ordered to do so by headquarters.
The next four hours passed without incident, except for a short detour to avoid a small snowfield. Snowfields were old crevasses that had filled with snow, but hadn't yet gotten packed down into ice. They had the consistency of quicksand, and could kill a man. The snowmobile's tread would spin futilely getting bogged ever deeper in the snow. They weren't as dangerous as crevasses, since all the snowmobiles had winches attached, to tow out any floundering vehicle, but they could be treacherous. Sometimes there was a thin layer of ice over a snow field that would suddenly collapse when enough pressure was put on it. That could stall a whole team, without much hope of escape. But with the Iceman's superb instincts, the only time they had to use the winches was when they had to rescue one of the scout's. The scouts' snowmobiles were supposed to be light enough to travel over most snowfields without problem, but Skeeter's had gotten stuck none the less in an especially soft one.
Near the end of the fourth hour of travel, the Iceman radioed back to Hancock, and told him that the team was now traveling uphill. Hancock checked the gyroscope on his snowmobile, and sure enough, they were going up a gentle two degree grade. This confirmed their location. They would go uphill for another klick, then the ice would fall away into a valley. This had been formed by the ocean pressures underneath. The valley was almost a kilometer across. In the center of the valley was the stronghold. Hancock didn't think much of the location. If he were to build a defensive structure, he would have taken the high ground, and camouflaged it with ice. Better view of the area, harder access for the enemy.
Hancock passed the word back to his men, then flipped a switch on his radio and called his scouts. "This is Larry, to Moe and Curly. Come in, over." In the team, the SEALs could use whatever codenames they wanted. Warren Provoskiya was a second generation American and a big Stooges fan. He had wanted those specific codenames when he joined the team two years ago. No one had objected. They've been using them ever since. Provoskiya was "Curly," and Skeeter was "Moe." When they broke up into two smaller teams, the team lead by Senior Chief Hendricks became "Shemp."
After a second of static there came an answer. "Moe here, over;" followed by "Curly here, over."
"What's your position, over."
"This is Moe. I am half a klick west of your present route, and about a hundred meters from the Kasbah. Curly is half a klick east of your route, at about the same distance. Over." "The Kasbah," was their codename for the valley. "Pleasure Dome," was the name for the stronghold. These codenames were picked by Skeeter, who was the team's poetry buff.
Hancock replied, "any sign of wiseguys, over."
"Negative," said "Curly." "I would have expected some by now. Either the wiseguys are real good, or the Kasbah has lousy security. Over."
"Understood, Curly. Call again when you've reached the target. Larry out."
Hancock didn't have long to wait. Within five minutes, Skeeter had called back. "Moe to Larry, over."
"Larry here. Over."
"I have arrived at the Kasbah, over."
"Any sign of wiseguys. Over."
"Uh, negative. No sign of fellow knuckleheads, either, over."
Warren's voice broke in. "This is Curly. I've just arrived at the Kasbah. No wiseguys or knuckleheads in sight."
Hancock paused to consider. It looked like they were the first team there, which was odd. Last check this morning, headquarters had said that Team Charlie was only a klick away from the valley. Team Alpha was about the same distance out as they were; five klicks. Perhaps Charlie already had its camo screens up, and Warren and Skeeter couldn't see them from this distance. "Can either of you see the Pleasure Dome, over."
"Coitainly," said Warren, once again getting too much into his stooge persona.
"And quite a sight it is, Larry, over," added Skeeter.
"We should be there within four and a half hours," which really meant forty-five minutes. "In the meantime why don't you tour the Kasbah. Be on the lookout for any wiseguys and knuckleheads. Over."
"We'll see you in four and a half hours. Moe out."
The team commander hung up the headset, and nodded his head. So far there had been no untoward surprises. His two scouts would circle the valley, staying just below the rim. They should run into Team Charlie, and maybe Team Alpha. Then, they could coordinate their assault.
True to his word, Team Bravo arrived at the rim forty-five minutes after they broke contact with the scouts. They stopped their snowmobiles five meters from the edge, and crawled forward, so as not to be visible to the inhabitants below. Iceman was the first one to the edge. He looked over the edge, then urgently beckoned the rest to come. Hancock was the next one to arrive at the rim. He peered over. What he saw took his breath away.
The valley sides were gently sloped. The drop-off, though abrupt, was not severe. There would be no trouble getting the snowmobiles down.
In the center of the valley was a sprawling building made from some kind of hard wood. It took up half the valley. The building was a rambling affair, with wings that had been added after the center section was built. How did they get all this wood up here? thought Hancock. The closest source of wood was Norway, at least a thousand klicks away. The effort and cost to build with wood was considerable, and unnecessary, when ice makes for dandy building material. The roof of the building was steep and covered with snow, except near the twenty-odd chimneys that stuck out of nearly every roof. There you could see the semicircular gingerbread style shingles that presumably covered all the roofs. On the side of the building there were lots of windows. Each one was divided into eight separate panes by wooden support struts. All the windows were covered with frost, making it impossible to see in; but from each of them was a warm golden glow that was very inviting to the chilled SEAL team, even beckoning. Hanging from the eaves was a picket fence of icicles. Many were two meters long, and some of them even touched the ground, forming pillars of ice. There were no walls, no towers, that could hold gunners, and no evidence of machine gun nests around the perimeter. No sign of any kind of threat. It had a warmth and ambiance about it that said "welcome home," to all who saw it.
"Doesn't look much like a Russian fortress," Hancock heard muttered from one of his men, who were now lying beside him.
"Ah, it's just a screen," said Bates. "I bet that inside of those wooden walls is an inch thick layer of vanadium steel. Ain't that right, skipper."
"It wouldn't surprise me a bit," said Hancock.
As he was saying this, from the left, the quiet purr of a muffled scout snowmobile came into hearing range over the shrieking arctic wind. Hancock crawled away from the rim and stood up. He could now hear the other scout vehicle arriving from the right. Both pulled up in front of him, the drivers jumped off their snowmobiles, and ran up to their commanding officer. They both came to attention and saluted in unison. The other nine members of the team made a rough circle around the three, eaves-dropping on the proceedings.
Warren, the senior of the two, said "Petty Officers Provoskiya and Goodman, reporting as ordered, sir."
Lieutenant Commander Hancock returned their salute. "At ease, gentlemen. Report."
The senior man once again took the initiative. "No sign of Alpha or Charlie Teams. No sign of any sentries or enemy scouts either, sir."
"Hmm... That's unusual. I'll need to call in to HQ about this. Did you see anything new about the building?"
Skeeter, who was a good head shorter than Warren, piped up this time. "No defenses of any kind. There are no signs of movement inside or out. What kind of fortress is this anyway, Sir?"
"That's what I hope to find out from HQ. What about doors? I don't see any from this angle."
"The main entrance is about ninety degrees to the left around the valley," piped up Skeeter again. "Big double doors."
"Yeah, looks like the kind of doorway Hansel and Gretel would have on their home, if they had been millionaires.
"The only other entrance we found was in the rear, about ninety degrees to the right from here. It looked like a giant garage, probably holding snowcats, snowmobiles, and maybe a chopper."
"That big, huh?" asked Hancock.
"Thank you, gentlemen. Dismissed.
"Bates! Get over here."
Bates trotted over. "Yeah, Skipper?"
"Get you dish out and set up your equipment. I need to talk to HQ."
"Aye aye sir!" Bates headed off to his sled.
"Oh, and Chief?"
"Get someone to set up my tent. I'm going to need some privacy on this call."
"No sweat, sir."
Within ten minutes, Hancock was sitting on the weatherproofed floor of his tent, cross-legged talking to Headquarters on a scrambled channel."
"This is Benjamin calling Henry. Come in Henry, over."
Two seconds later the reply came back, clear as a cross-town phone call. This is Henry, Ben. How's it going? Over."
"We've arrived at Central Park, but haven't seen Alphonse or Carlos yet. Over."
"Carl has gone to the Statue of Liberty, and Al has decided to ride the subways. Over."
Hancock had memorized the codebook for this mission before he left. There was no need to refer to it now. Shortening the team's name meant that they were both okay. No life threatening situations. Which was good. But all of Charlie Team was severely bogged down in a snow field, and Alpha Team's communications were out, and the team was driving in circles. That was bad news.
"So, it looks like we are on our own. Over."
"That's right," said HQ, a.k.a. "Henry". "Have you seen the Empire State Building? Over."
"Yes. Impressive, over."
"You might want to visit there. Read your tourbook, it will help you from getting lost. Over."
"Thanks Henry. I'll do that. It's a shame about Al and Carl. We'll try to muddle through the best we can. Over."
"Good luck, Ben. Be careful. Henry out."
Hancock sighed, put up the headsets, reached in his coat, and pulled out the sealed envelope of instructions, his "tourbook." It had the words "TOP SECRET" stamped on the outside in bold red letters. He had suspected that he would need to read it soon, so he had removed it from his snowmobile when he had last dismounted.
He opened the envelope, and heard a little sigh as he broke open the seal. It had been vacuum sealed. That meant the instructions were on paper that fell apart when exposed to air. He had a half hour to memorize his instructions, before the paper grayed and crumbled into ash-like bits.
Hancock pulled out the five sheets. Three were stamped with the same TOP SECRET stamp as the envelope. The heading at the top of the first page said "Operation Fatman." The other two pages were official documents; one signed by the President, the other, signed by the Secretary General of the UN and the Prime Minister of Norway. Those two were not made of time-decay paper.
The officer read the first three lines of the classified documents, then dropped the papers in his lap. "They have got to be kidding!" he exclaimed to himself. Hancock sat, stunned for a second, and then remembering his time limit, picked up the papers, and started reading again. The first two pages were his instructions; the third was a personal note to him from his friend Capt. Dave Bradley, in Military Intelligence. What he wrote in that page helped make sense of the other two.
Twenty-five minutes after he opened the envelope, just as the pages were starting to turn gray, Thomas Hancock finished his fifth reading, and set the documents aside. He put his elbows on his knees and his head in his palms, and began to think.
He did not know if he could do what his superiors were telling him to do. He thought of his wife, Linda, and their beautiful three-year old daughter, Cindy, and didn't see how he could look either one of them in the face, if he did what these orders said. He understood the reasoning behind the order, thanks to Dave's note, but he didn't agree with it. There had to be a way to accomplish this mission without bloodshed.
A while later, there was a voice outside his tent. It was Bates. "Umm... Skipper. Are you all right?"
"Sure Norman. Why do you ask?"
"Well, you've been in there for over an hour and a half, and some of the guys were starting to worry."
Hancock pulled back his coat sleeve and glanced at his watch. "Has it been that long? Tell the men to gather around the snowmobiles. I'll be briefing them in two minutes."
Hancock uncrossed his legs and crawled out of the tent, still not sure what to do.
His men were all gathered round the snowmobiles when he egressed his tent. Half of them were standing, the other half were leaning on their respective snowmobiles. All eyes were on him as he strode into the center of the group.
Hancock cleared his throat. "Men, Alpha and Charlie are not here yet..."
A cheer rose up from the dozen men. Hancock shot an inquiring glance at Hendricks, the senior SEAL.
"Uhh... Sir," began the senior chief, "it seems that there was a small wager going on between the three teams."
"I see. And what kind of wager?"
"Well, umm, the first team to reach the valley would have all its drinks paid for by the other two teams, when we all got back to Adak."
"Someone should have told me. I would have taken steps to make sure the officers are in on the bet, too."
Laughter went up.
Skeeter piped up, "shoot, sir! Just come with us to the petty officers club. We'll see you get your share of reward."
After the laughter had died, Hancock brought the discussion back on track. "As I was saying, Alpha and Charlie are not here. Charlie won't be here for at least a day, and Alpha is lost, with their comm system on the fritz. It will be at least two days before they parachute them a new one. That just leaves us.
"Now, we could just sit on our butts for the next two days, but HQ doesn't want that. They want us to storm the place ourselves."
A groan rose from the group.
"I know, I know. I don't like it either. But HQ believes that the element of surprise is crucial.
"Provoskiya, I want you and Iceman to do a reconnoiter of the building. See if you can find any more doors. I want you back in an hour.
"The rest of you, get some food, check your equipment, and get painted up. Be ready to move out in ninety minutes. I'll give you more details then. Dismissed."
Most of the men had already eaten, while Hancock had been in his tent, so they had plenty of time to prepare for the assault. They helped each other use grease sticks to put on their white with black camouflage paint. Some had patterns they considered lucky, and took a half hour to get right. The others just slapped it on, and got done in just a few minutes. All that was left to do was field stripping their weapons, which only took ten minutes, and then wait.
During this time, Hancock went back to his tent. He tore open a MRE and methodically ate. The MRE was chicken ala king; one of the better ones. It looked like cat food, but actually tasted pretty good. After he had finished eating, he cleaned and oiled his M-16, and chewed the chiclets-style gum that was included in every MRE.
All of this was done automatically, with only minimal conscious effort. Hancock's mind was racing a million miles a minute, trying to figure out how to untie the Gordian knot he had been given.
He glanced at his watch. His scouts should be back in fifteen minutes. He got out his grease sticks, covered his face in white, and then added a few black stripes at random. He then crawled out of his tent.
The lieutenant commander disassembled his tent. He could have gotten one of the enlisted to do it for him, but he liked to keep his hands busy while he thought.
Chief Bates came over to stow away the radio. He looked at his leader. "Let me guess. You put the camo on by yourself."
Hancock grinned sheepishly. "Missed a few spots, huh?"
"More than a few, sir. Do you mind if I give it a touch up?"
"I'd appreciate it. Chief."
The radioman squatted and went to work on the leader's face. Hancock sat still on his rolled up tent, and let the CPO go to work.
"Pardon me for saying so, Skipper," said Bates, "but you've been looking preoccupied ever since you opened the orders. Anything I can do?"
"I didn't realize it was so obvious."
"Well, I've seen you put on camo by yourself before. You usually do a better job than this. If there's anything..."
"Thanks, Chief, but this is something I have to work out on my own."
"Sure, I understand. The burden of command, need-to-know, and all that jazz."
A small grin crept onto Hancock's face. "That's right."
"Just remember, sir, the men and I think the world of you. You haven't steered us wrong in the five years you've lead us. Most of the men would follow you into Hell wearing only gasoline soaked skivvies, if you told us to. Just do what you think is right. We trust your judgment."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence, Chief. I hope I never betray your trust. Oh, and thanks for the touch up."
"My pleasure, sir."
LTCDR Hancock watched his radioman walk back to his snowmobile, toting the cumbersome radio. He knew what he had to do. It didn't exactly follow orders, but it was the best he could do, and still be able to look himself in the mirror the next day. He stood up and walked back to his men, who were just being joined by Iceman and Provoskiya.
The two scouts snapped to attention when they saw Hancock approaching. "Sir! Petty Officers..."
"Forget the formalities Iceman. What did you see?"
"Well, Sir, we only covered this side of the structure. We didn't find any other doors, except for the two we saw the first time. There may be some hidden doors, but we didn't have time to do a real thorough search. That place is huge!"
"Any guards or sentries?"
"Still none," said Iceman. "They must have some terrific internal defenses if they can leave the outside so exposed."
"Understood. Anything else?"
This time Warren Provoskiya spoke. "Well, you might find this hard to believe, sir, but we heard music coming from inside. It was distorted, coming through the walls, but it sure didn't sound Russian."
"What did it sound like?"
"I don't know. Happy music. Music you might hear at a party."
Music, that figures, thought Hancock. "All right men, here are your orders: I am supposed to go in and negotiate with the people inside. You men are to stand by outside and wait for my orders. If you don't hear from me in five minutes, or you hear the sound of gunshots, you are to storm the building.
"If you do storm the building, remember, we are here to subdue, not kill. Don't shoot unless your life is in danger. Round up prisoners, and bring them to a central point that will be designated later, after we know more about the layout. Any questions?"
There were none.
"Hendricks' team will be by the supposed garage, and my team will be at the main entrance. Bates will be with my team to relay info. Graff, you will be with Hendricks' team, but will stay behind in case of an assault. We may need you to treat the wounded."
Graff nodded glumly. Same old story. The corpsman stays behind, while the SEALs get the glory.
"I hope there won't be an assault. I hope we can settle this peacefully. My life depends on that hope. But if we do have to capture this place, I can't imagine a group of men I would rather back me up than you guys.
"Now, gear up! We move out in five minutes!"
A loud cheer went up. Then the men scattered to get their gear.
Five minutes later, the two teams were mounted on their snowmobiles, and ready to move out. Twelve snowmobiles, painted in arctic camo, took off down the valley. Six veered to the front of the building, and six to the back.
All the snowmobiles were muffled to make them silent from a distance of thirty meters, and with the howling wind, they were probably silent from ten meters. But to play it safe, the two teams stayed fifty meters away from the huge wooden building.
The building wasn't very tall. Only one story tall, in most places, with a possible cramped second story inside the slanted roof. The wing with the main entrance, though, was at least two, maybe three, stories tall.
Hancock rounded the corner of the main wing and saw the main entrance for the first time. The scouts had been correct, it was huge. The double doors were about five meters tall and three meters wide. There were no windows in the doors, but were abutted by them on both sides. That same inviting light pored through the frost covered windows, and seemed to neutralize any intimidation one might feel from such massive doors.
Hancock and his men rode until they were directly in front of the doors, fifty meters away. They all dismounted, and headed for the doors. Iceman helped Bates carry his radio and antenna.
Ten meters from the entrance, Hancock motioned for them to stop. "I go alone from here."
"Are you sure you want to do this, Sir?" asked Iceman. "I would be happy to go with you."
"I know you would, and I appreciate the offer. But I have my orders, and you have yours. We both must follow them.
"After I enter the building, Iceman, I want you and Jackson to station yourselves right next to the entrance. If you hear any signs of trouble, you rush in. You will be the ones who save my bacon, if something goes awry."
"Yes sir," said Alaskan petty officer. "Thank you. And good luck."
Hancock turned and walked the ten meters to the main entrance. The sound of Bates on his radio, and the rest of his men fell away behind him quickly, smothered by the howling wind. He looked at the door and the light surrounding it, and picked up his pace. The light seemed to lessen the icy bite of the wind, and lighten his step. If he didn't have to be so cautious, he probably would have run to the door.
When he arrived at the door, he looked back. He saw Jackson and the Iceman following him, five meters behind. The door itself seemed to be made of oak, with a pattern of snowflakes, snowmen, and candy canes etched into it. The doorknob seemed to be brass, but not oversized like the rest of the door, and was strangely warm to the touch. There didn't seem to be a lock on it.
Hancock turned, gave his men a thumbs up, and tested the right-hand door. He was prepared to shove the massive door with his full weight, but it silently swung open, with a gentle push.
He opened the door a crack, squatted, and rolled through the doorway. He rolled to a crouch, M-16 at the ready, but there was no need. The room was empty. Hancock stood up and closed the door.
The room was a foyer, and reminded him of a huge hunting lodge, only without the stuffed animal heads. To his left and right were wooden stairs that lead up to a balcony that circled the room. At the end of the room was the largest fireplace he had ever seen. A fire the size of a pep rally bonfire blazed. It was the only source of light in the room, but its golden glow was ample. On both sides of the fireplace were two more stairs leading up to the balcony. Then balcony had a simple wood railing, and a number of doors, leading deeper into the structure. Overhead, the ceiling was crisscrossed by several stout beams. There was also a simple unlit chandelier hanging down. There were two other sets of double doors on the ground floor. One set each on the right and left side of the room. The doors to the left was closed, but the ones on the right were open. More firelight was pouring into the foyer from there.
Hancock, with his gun ready, followed the left wall toward the open door. When he could see inside the adjoining room, Thomas let out a startled gasp and dropped his weapon.
There he was. Santa Claus.
It wasn't an actor either. This was the real thing. No actor, even the one in the original "Miracle on 34th Street" could possibly be mistaken for this jolly old elf. He looked just like Thomas had always pictured him. He was old, the wavy white hair and long flowing white beard could attest to that. But his lively blue eyes that twinkled in the firelight had no wrinkles around them, and his plump red dimpled cheeks showed no sign of age either. He was a big man, weighing at least three hundred pounds. But he wore it well. Like Jackie Gleason, he was light on his feet, despite the weight.
Santa was seated in a chair, that must have been specially designed for his own unique dimensions. The chair had arm rests on it, giving the impression of an impromptu throne.
He was wearing primary red pants and a pair of shiny black boots, that were lined at the top with some kind of white fur, and a white shirt. The pants were held up by a pair of pine green suspenders with large silver clasps. The only thing missing from Santa's ensemble was his white gloves and red coat and hat. They, of course, would be uncomfortable in such a warm building.
Thomas, himself, was starting to feel uncomfortably hot inside his insulated parka.
"Hello there, Tommy. Come in," boomed the man, with a smile.
Tommy? No one had called him Tommy since he was nine years old, when his grandmother had died. And how did he know his name, anyhow? His dogtags were nestled next to his skin, under several layers of clothing. All that was printed on the outside of his parka was "Hancock."
Trembling, he started toward the mythic figure, remembering at the last minute to pick up his rifle and take it with him.
As he got closer to Santa, Hancock discovered that there was something wrong with either his height or Santa's. From the foyer, Mr. Claus looked about his height, six foot. But as he got closer, either Santa got larger or Thomas got smaller. By the time he got up to him, Thomas felt that he could easily climb onto Santa's lap and whisper in his ear what he wanted for Christmas. He resisted the impulse. Instead he stood nervously before the man, shifting his weight from one foot to the other.
Behind him the double doors soundlessly closed.
"Are you real?" whispered Thomas.
Santa roared with laughter. The closest description to its sound would be "Ho Ho Ho!", but it was more expansive than that. It was as if all the laughter in the world was bound up in one person, and unleashed in a booming bass voice. Thomas could not help but break into a grin, and finally laugh himself. "Of course I'm real, Tommy. Haven't you read the papers?"
"Certainly. But all the major papers poopooed the Santa sightings as a case of people having too much Christmas cheer. Only the supermarket tabloids and a few of the cheesier news shows latched onto the story. I thought..."
"Umm, Tommy, shouldn't you be calling your men about now?"
"What? Oh yeah, my men." Thomas fumbled for the headset that hung around his neck, and put it over his head. "This is Tom... I mean Han... I mean Larry calling Shemp. Over."
"This is Shemp," said Hendricks. "Are you okay Larry? Over."
"I'm fine. This may take a while. If there are any problems Iceman will tell you. Larry out."
"Larry, this is Iceman," interrupted a new voice. "J and I heard some noise coming from inside. Are you sure everything's okay?"
"I'm fine. Only come in if there is gunfire. Larry out."