Source: J.R. Dunn

Rick took another sip of his beer. It was a Corona, a favorite of his, and much better than he’d been drinking the past few months. Melissa had bought him a six and put it in the fridge as a surprise for him.

In the other room, he could hear the kids playing with their presents. He smiled at the sound of the game box, the shouts, the laughter. He’d had to sell his grandad’s pocket watch on Etsy to pay for it all, but it was worth it.

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Mona was speaking to the little ones, her voice a bit stern, playing at being Mom. He’d gone out of his way to be kind to Mona the past few weeks. She was sensitive, that girl. Early in the month after dinner, she’d gone into what sounded like a canned speech about “climate change,” what they were calling global warming these days. Coral going extinct, islands disappearing, the whole song and dance, all of it in a hectoring voice that didn’t sound like her at all. Melissa thought she’d been imitating that Swede girl, the one at the UN. At last, Mike had been unable to listen to any more of it and burst out, more harshly than he’d intended, “That’s the bullshit that cost me my job on the pipeline – don’t you understand that…?”

Mona had burst into tears and fled the room, Melissa close behind. He felt a flush of shame as he recalled it.

At least she hadn’t announced that she was actually a boy. They’d been spared that, anyway.

It would be a year next month that he had been out of work. The pipeline shut down without warning, and the COVID thing on top of it… He hoped they’d be able to keep the house. They had enough left in the bank for three more payments but after that… He’d have to hit the bricks after the new year, get out and pick up anything at all just to keep them going. God, flipping burgers at his age…

The old bitterness arose within him, the same feeling he’d been fighting all the past year. Things had been going great. The country roaring right along, everybody doing well – and that meant everybody: the blacks, the Spanish, all of them, and what do they do? Cheat their way in and then just shut things down. COVID, the lockdowns, the pipeline… It was as if it was being done deliberately, out of sheer damned spite. As if they wanted to cause as much pain and misery as they could…

He heard footsteps and looked up to see Melissa coming into the room. “Sitting here with lights off?”

“Too lazy to get up.”

She smiled down at him. Her hand was at her throat, fingering the necklace that he’d bought her. Way too expensive, but only the best for his wife.

She sat down on the chair arm. “Santa was good to us this year.”

“Santa needs his head examined.”

She let out a little laugh and bent down to kiss him on the forehead. He put an arm around her. They would be all right. One way or another, they would be all right.

“Merry Christmas, sweetheart.”

#     #     #

A nurse caught up with him just as he was about to leave. A little breathless, she handed him a sheet of paper. “Dr. Fetter… we just got this from legal.”

He glanced at the sheet. The time stamp said six-thirty. It was nearly midnight now. “You just got this?”

She looked flustered. “Well… you know… with the staff shortages and all…”

“I know.” He returned his gaze to the sheet. A court order stating that patient Eric Hamlin must be administered a course of Ivermectin as requested by himself and his family.

He gritted his teeth. God, how he hated that. Everybody in the whole godforsaken world knew better than trained medical personnel. The nerve… You’d never catch him prancing into court to explain law to a judge.

He thought to himself. Hamlin… right down the corridor here. COVID patient, seriously impacted but lungs not yet compromised. He himself had prescribed Remdesivir, in accordance with hospital policy, but the patient had refused treatment. And…

And Hamlin was unvaxxed.

That made the decision for him. If Hamlin and his family wanted to play at being doctors, then he could play along. It wouldn’t hurt Hamlin to wait a few hours.  

He handed the sheet back to the nurse. “Okay, nurse… that was you talking about the unvaxxed the other day, wasn’t it?”

She nodded.

“As I recall, you didn’t approve. Well – neither do I. You’re on shift over the weekend? Fine. Call that to my attention on Sunday. And if the patient feels any respiratory distress… put him on a respirator.”

She eyed him a moment but at last nodded. He smiled back at her. What was her name again? Ah, yes… “And Sophie?”

“Doctor?”

“Merry Christmas.”

#     #     #

Romero ducked as he reached the crest of the hill. In the fading light he couldn’t be sure exactly what he’d seen, but he’d seen something in the arroyo below him.

He raised himself slightly to peer through the brush. Yep… there they were. Fifty or more illegals, slumped to the ground while beside them stood two coyotes, one of them with an AR slung over his shoulder. Romero watched as the other man gestured to the crowd, noting that many of them were wearing overstuffed backpacks. A mule run for sure.

His phone rattled in his pocket as he crouched back down. That would be LuAnne. He patted his pocket. You’ll just have wait, honey. The phone stopped rattling.

He raised his radio and spoke tersely into it. Sitrep: location, numbers. They told him to sit tight and let them know if anything changed.

He relaxed as much as possible under the circumstances.  For the first time, he was pleased that they’d taken away the horses following that “whip” ruckus last summer. He’d have made a nice target for that AR coming over the hilltop on horseback. Not that there was much else good about it. His legs ached with the ground he’d had to cover so far today. At least with the cold there weren’t any rattlers slithering around in the brush. He wasn’t looking forward to warmer weather.

There was a whirring sound on the very edge of hearing. He glanced in that direction and thought he caught a glimpse of the drone passing close to the ground, but maybe not.

There was supposed to be two of them on patrol, but not today. Cross the holiday with the fact that they were undermanned due to the vaccination BS and they were lucky to have anybody out here at all.

He raised himself an inch or two. The one who had been speaking had finished. The crowd was beginning to shift, and a couple of them had gotten to their feet. Ready to move? Romero reached for his radio.

He ducked involuntarily at the roar of the chopper cresting the hill to his left. In the corner of his eye, he saw it swing over the arroyo. He squinted as the spotlight flared to life.

“Drop your weapons…” the chopper’s loudspeaker roared. “Get on the ground… Suelta de armas… Ahora!”

The crowd below him broke apart in panic. At the head of the arroyo, two white Border Patrol trucks roared into view. Ordinarily, there would be twice that many. The doors swung open and armed agents leapt out. The illegals running in that direction scattered, some shedding the backpacks as they did. A few dropped to their knees, hands high in the air, but not many. The bulk of them were running for the brush.

Romero was watching the coyote with the rifle. He had slung it off his shoulder as soon as the chopper had appeared. Now he was pushing his way through the crowd, running toward Romero’s side of the arroyo.

Romero pulled his S&W from the holster. The coyote had reached the brush and had started to climb toward him. Romero rose to a half crouch. “Halt…”

The coyote opened fire. He was shooting wildly, but Romero hit the dirt anyway – better be safe than sorry. He didn’t want to ruin Lu’s Christmas.

He rose once more, pistol at ready. But the coyote was stumbling downhill away from him. As he reached level ground, he started running for the far end of the arroyo, about a half mile to the south. As Romero watched, he vanished into the dusk.

Romero got to his feet. The Border Patrol agents below were gathered around the handful of captured illegals. A half-dozen, no more than that. A half-dozen out of fifty.  

As he started down the hill, his phone rattled once more. He slipped it out of his pocket. “Hey, doll. Merry Christmas…”

#     #     #

Rask grunted an acknowledgement into his phone and clicked it shut. “Okay. We’re all in place. Just waiting for the go.”

Morgan nodded to himself. He eyed the house across the street through the van’s side window. The lights, the decorations. He frowned at the cars parked in the driveway. “Who are those other people that went in, I wonder?”

“I dunno. Relatives, I guess.”

“Relatives…” Morgan bit his lip. “Why now?”

Rask let out an exasperated blast of breath. “’Cause it’s Christmas, for criyiyi.”

“Christmas…” Morgan nodded. He’d completely forgotten about that. He always got that way during an operation. Total focus, tunnel vision, ignoring anything that wasn’t directly connected. “Got it.”

Standing beside Rask, Corelli let out a sigh. “The relatives… What do we do with them?”

“Well…” Rask began.

“We bust ‘em.” Behind Morgan, one of the breaching team let out a snicker. “That’s right. They sit down with insurrectionists, they gotta take their chances.”

Corelli made an unhappy sound. Morgan turned back to the window. These suspects, the Eberles, had been driving near D.C. on January 5th when their phone stopped pinging and they went under radar. Drone footage the next day showed a couple of people who resembled the parents to eight points only a thousand yards from the Capitol. That was enough. If they could explain that, fine. If they couldn’t, tough.

Rask snatched his phone and listened for a moment. “Okay, let’s go.”

They opened the rear doors and jumped out of the van, Rask leading the way as they crossed the street. Headlights shone on them as a Cougar MRAP swung around the corner. Rask spotted one of the two snipers crouching behind a bush. There were five other HomeDef personnel waiting behind the house.

He leapt up the stairs behind Rusk and got into place next to the mailbox. He heard conversation and laughter from inside.

Rask pounded on the door. “Homeland Defense! Open up!”

There was dead silence from within, followed by sounds of incredulity. Morgan smiled to himself.

Rask stepped to one side and gestured to the breaching team. Hoisting the ram, they slammed into the door. It burst open with the sound of breaking glass.

Morgan ran inside. Living room to his left, dining room to his right, as they’d been briefed. He halted at the near edge of the entryway and shoved the gun barrel around the corner. “Getdowngetdowngetdown…

A woman with gray hair shrieked and clutched her chest. A younger woman dropped a wine glass. A young man – a teenager, at second glance – shot to his feet.

“I said, get down!” Morgan stepped into full view. The younger woman grabbed the boy’s arm and pulled him from the table. A small child began wailing.  The others started to fall back – all except the man bent over the turkey at the far side, holding a nice sharp carving knife.

Morgan put the laser square on his chest. The man’s eyes widened. His hand opened and the knife clattered to the tablecloth.

Morgan didn’t even notice Rask stepping past him. “Everyone stay calm,” he said in a voice pitched to be heard above the child’s wails. “You’re all gonna be fine…”

Morgan stepped into the room. This, to him, was the best part of an op. Everything going smoothly, no complications, suspects subdued and waiting to be processed.

He reached back and pulled the zip-tie cuffs from his belt. He smiled despite himself as he took in all the wide eyes regarding him from the floor. “Merry Christmas, folks…”

#     #     #

Merry Christmas.”

Mark simply stared, looking to one side and not directly at her. He knew that bothered people.

“Happy… holidays?” She eyed him uncertainly.

“That’ll be all.”

Flustered, she turned and left the room, the door sliding shut behind her.

“That was Sandra…”

“Sandra Cummings,” the office system responded.

“I think Sandra Cummings requires a transfer to a more suitable setting.”

“Duly noted. Processing.”

Mark got up from his chair. There was always somebody who didn’t get the message. He’d thought he’d made it clear. He didn’t want to be reminded of the holidays; he didn’t want to hear about them, he didn’t want to think about them. When he was younger, back in school, he’d had to endure it every year. Week after week of it: the songs, the crowds, the stupid sentimental lights and pictures everywhere you looked. Now that he could afford it, now that he’d created his own world…

That was one of the things he would truly like to get rid of in the world to come, the world he could see outlined in his mind.

Mark had ordered large-scale research on how to shift public attitudes without being detected. Some of it had been tested on the social media site, but with ambiguous results. Obviously, more work would be required.

But he strongly suspected that the effects would be magnified on the Mesh, the virtual world that he had designed and that was now being introduced. A world that would expand into the real world, that would supplement it and even eventually supersede it.

He nodded to himself. There would be no holidays on the Mesh. No remnants of a worldview that was now irrelevant, that had no place in this millennium.

“You have a phone call. State Senator Hartwig. He wishes to discuss arrangements for the upcoming midterms.”

Mark nodded silently. A voice boomed over the speakers. “Hey, Mark – Merry Christmas to you…”

“Hang up,” Mark said through gritted teeth.

He sat there, feeling nothing but white-hot rage for a minute or more. At last, he managed to tamp it down.  All the same, he knew one politician who would get no funding this cycle. There was no room for Hartwig in the new world either.

“No more calls.”

“Yes, sir.”

#    #    #

Hadi hesitated as he reached the shop’s front door. For a moment he lost his certainty that they had in fact crossed the border. He glanced back at Dama and the child. But no… they had walked long enough and Dama was clearly exhausted.

He nodded at the shopkeeper as he stepped inside. “Salaam.” The man eyed him a long moment before replying.

Dama sat in a chair beside the store’s stove as Hadi selected a few items. He reached into his tunbaan for his wallet. At least he had money.

He asked the shopkeeper if he could charge his phone. The man nodded. Hadi returned to Dama and crouched beside her as he played with the child. A few locals came in, casting curious glances at them. His heart went cold at the sight of one man, in a filthy tunbaan and turban, a Kalashnikov hanging from his shoulder. Only yesterday they had spent hours hiding from such men, crouched in a ravine desperately afraid the child would cry out. The man left without a word.

Asma giggled as she gripped his finger. But you did not, did you, sharina?

The phone beeped and he went to the counter.

“There is a truck going south, to the capital,” the shopkeeper told him in a low voice. “It should leave within the hour. They will want money for petrol.”

Hadi nodded. “Ahh… manana, agha.”

He stepped to one side as he tapped out the number. As he held the phone to his ear, he thought back on Kabul. He closed his eyes, once again experiencing the terror of those last days. He could almost feel the Taliban closing in. All the Afghans who had worked with the Americans were vanishing, one after the other. Whether they were escaping or being picked up, no one knew.  Then he learned that Alim Sayyid had been gunned down in the street in front of his home, and he knew it was time to go.

That had been a week ago. A week spent on the road, dodging the men with AKs, depending on the kindness of the strangers they encountered.

He suppressed an urge to shake the phone. Suppose it had broken, or the captain could not be reached, or…

He let out a breath at a blast of noise from the speaker. For a moment he could scarcely hear the captain’s voice. “Captain Holt…”

“Hadi… is that you?” The noise lessened but failed to vanish entirely. “Where are you?”

“I’m in Pakistan.”

“Thank God… and the family?”

“They’re with me.” He felt better just hearing the captain’s voice. He recalled the last time they had spoken, when Captain Holt had told him to stay away from the airport, that it was too dangerous, that he would have to find another way.

“Outstanding… can you get to Karachi?”

“Yes. A day or two, no more.”

“Good. Don’t go to the embassy. They’re all Brandon’s crowd now. They’ll just throw you out. Go to this address…” Hadi listened carefully as Holt gave him the instructions. “…they’ll take it from there.” The captain puased. “It’s good to hear from you, kiddo.”

“And you too, Captain.” That background noise grew louder before fading again. “What is that noise?”

“Ahh… I’m home. The house is full of relatives. It’s Christmas.”

“Christmas…” Hadi’s thoughts went back to previous years, the feasts that were held by the American troops – his troops – to celebrate the birth of the holy Issa. Feasts to which he, a man of another religion, had been welcome. He thought of the decorations, the gifts for Dama and the child. His eyes filled and for a moment he could not trust his voice. “Merry Christmas, Captain.”

“And Merry Christmas to you, kiddo.”

Hadi snapped the phone shut. When he turned to his family, he was smiling.

#     #     #

He’d forgotten what he was waiting for. He frowned as he tried to remember. He could hear people talking in the other room. He tried to recall if he’d eaten breakfast, but that wouldn’t come either. He wanted to get up and ask somebody what he was waiting there for, but people got mad when he did that.

He heard footsteps. Jill was coming toward him. He got up. “It’s time,” she said.

“Time? Time for what…”

“Never mind, Joe…” She took his arm and led him to a nearby door. He stopped as they drew near to it. “Are there people out there?”

“No, no… everything’s fine…”

He forced a smile. Things always went better when you smiled.

It was the other office, the one with the pictures instead of real windows. Someone was waiting, a woman, one of the mean ones. He couldn’t remember her name but he knew he didn’t like her. She looked him over, sighed, and turned her head to someone behind her. “Think he can handle it?”

“Of course he can handle it,” Jill’s voice was sharp. He didn’t care for that. Taking a step toward the mean woman, he said: “Wait a minute here, what… what are you…”

Jill took his arm once more. “It’s all right, dear. Come this way, now…”

She led him to the podium. He noticed the cameras. Ahh… he knew what it was all about now. It was for television. They wanted him to speak to the cameras. He could do that just fine.

Jill pointed to the screen. “Just read what’s on there… Just like last time.”

He frowned at her. “I know that. I’ve done that… lots of times.”

She smiled and touched his cheek. “I know you do, dear…”

Then he was alone, under the bright lights. For a moment he felt a touch of that old fear. What if something happened? What if somebody asked a question he didn’t know? What if he said something he wasn’t supposed to?

The prompter lit up. Someone said, “We’re rolling.”

He licked his lips. For a moment the words on the screen made no sense at all. A wave of relief flooded him as they suddenly sprang into clarity. “To all my fellow… murkies… uhh… Americans…. Ma…ma…ma… Merry… uhh, Christmas…”