Viper

Some tango with clacking treads
Others waltz through vicious waves
I come to show my dance of death
In the devil’s azure skies

I am the knife that aims for the heart
Simple as the scalpel’s perfect cut
Throw your stones into my clouds
And my venom will find your eyes

Some bring hammers to pistol duels
Others choose fire to wash over their foe
For you, I can do so much more
Dodging the fist to cut loose the arm.

Summon me when hellfire shakes your bones
And I will cleave the sky to reach you
Cry out against shadows that stalk the night
Mine are the fangs they will dread in the dark

I am Viper
The snake balanced on insanity’s edge
Swift is my strike, lethal is my bite
And I promise, I never fight alone.

*****

It’s been a spell since I’ve been able to craft words into how I see such beauty like this. There’s just something about those dagger-sharp wings and its shrill afterburner that so very unique. It really speaks to me.

I hope you all enjoy.

Wildlife Security Solutions, LLC – Part 0: Lament of the Bear

He’d known something was going on for a week before everything went to hell. Reports from the main office had slowed down, approved missions had been canceled or deferred to Tsezar’s eyes only, and even his dear Pasha had been impossible to get ahold of. The supply flights into Haven had suddenly stopped, only to resume three days later thanks to Rashadi’s generosity. Which meant they were now reduced to dealing with salvaged, refurbished, and otherwise third-rate equipment. He’d not appreciated how spoiled their posting had been until he’d been forced to inspect a cache of rifles not used since the days of the last Tzar.

But when word finally got to Akula, thanks to a summons by Tsezar, his pulse froze in shock. “Blyad…they can’t be serious!” was the first sentence to erupt from his mouth.

“Completely serious.” Tsezar had replied, turning the map he’d been looking at toward Akula. “The initial barrages and airborne assaults are underway now. Lisus and the board expect that Kyiv and much of northeastern Ukraine will fall in two weeks or less.”

Akula stared down at the map for a long moment, drinking in the madness and the ambitions of all those who’d drawn it. There was almost a German elegance to it, fashioned after the blitzkriegs of old, while again using the Spetsnaz and paratroopers that had secured the Crimean peninsula almost a decade prior. If this had been done during the 2014 uprisings, Akula had little doubt that such boldness would succeed. But that was then, before Shark had become a soldier of blood and money. The kind of men tossed into a meat grinder such as these operations and expected to achieve victory or death.

“How many Ukrainians are in the company?” Akula wondered aloud. “There’s no way they’d stand for this!”

“Agreed. Wildlife officially claims twenty-nine in the payroll. Most of them are here with us,” Tsezar began, before taking the service pistol from his hip and presenting it grip-first to the sailor. “If they resist, then they are simply casualties of the operation.”

“Have the other team leads been informed?” Akula asked, taking the gun and letting the weight of his unspoken task sink into his thoughts.

“Da, Pauk assisted in collecting initial reports on who would be unsupportive. Those expected to be threats have been taken to Solomon.” A response that made Akula shudder internally, knowing only parts of what the master interrogator would do to them.

Tsezar hesitated for a moment, before continuing his order. “Leonid is a good fighter. He could even lead his own men again, if he wished. But the company will continue beyond his removal, if need be.”

Akula nodded, holstering the weapon to his thigh. “I will report back when I know for sure.”

The moment he left the command office, Akula heard someone scream “Slava Azovsʹkomu batalʹyonu!” before the ‘clack-clack-clack’ of a rifle ended such defiance. He then heard Spider shout for someone to collect any illicit or dissident materials. Whatever dread Akula was feeling immediately doubled in weight, and his hand drifted idly to the weapon at his side. 

His first instinct to find Grizli was torn between his teammate’s bungalow, or the quiet corners of Haven where Grizli would take his Oksana for much needed release. Akula decided first to check Grizli’s docile, and was rewarded by the sounds of news broadcasts playing in the dark.

So he likely knows as well…Akula nodded. Clenching his fist to try and steady his nerves, Akula knocked on the door, and let it swing open slowly with just that push alone. Sure enough, sitting in a spartan chair and holding a loaded rifle at a guard, was a very somber Bear.

“I’m glad it’s you who came for me.” Grizli stated, eyes focused on Akula’s like emotionless knives.

“As am I. Pauk wouldn’t have knocked.” Shark replied, keeping his arms neutral at his sides.

“He’d wouldn’t get the chance.” Bear retorted, pointing at the floor by the doorway. Akula’s eyes widened slightly at the sight of an anti-tank landmine wired to Bear’s chair, wrapping around the Ukranian’s leg. “Thank Rhino, he is excellent teacher for martyrdom.”

“I’ll be sure to commend his ingenuity.” Shark replied curtly, frustrated with himself for underestimating the growing bond between the non-Russian members of his team. “Do you intend to kill me?”

For a moment, Grizli said nothing. Akula saw the man’s trigger finger twitch at the safe position, but it didn’t wrap around the rifle’s trigger. Only after a beat of harrowing internal reflection did Grizli ask, “Did you know?”

“Nyet, at least I didn’t know this was coming. I only had suspicions something big was coming based on how things were going.” Akula admitted freely. “Blyad, I didn’t expect any of this.”

To his surprise, Grizli chucked at that. “You weren’t there during the initial breakaways, were you?”

Akula shook his head. “Nyet, I’d just joined the company then, after my last tour on Admiral Levchenko. Assholes sent me to Abkhazia first, it’s where I first met Liliya.”

Grizli nodded, and seemed to relax his posture slightly. “I was. 17th Tank Brigade, just a dumbass grunt who turned wrenches on T-72s, though I took the special ops trials when I could. When things started breaking down, Kyiv put us on alert to deal with the separatists. We deployed east to Luhans’k and tried to keep order, first by intimidation, then by force.”

That took Shark back. “I’d known your unit from your file, but Wildlife didn’t include that detail.”

Bear snorted a mirthless laugh. “Of course not, I only maintained the machines that were killing civilians. I didn’t kill any personally.”

“Your file also mentions the 17th was decommissioned in 2015.” Akula recalled, connecting more of the dots behind Bear’s eyes.

Grizli shook his head, “No, they were absorbed into the Azov Battalion. Fucking skinheads that wove their way into the new government after those fucking Americans and the West had their way!” Bear screamed the last part of that description, tearing the wooden arm off his chair without so much as a grunt of exertion.

Shark said nothing, only nodding his understanding for a moment. “This isn’t the first time you’ve seen your nation torn apart.”

At that, Grizli rose sharply, his finger dropping into the trigger-guard of his rifle. “My nation?” He repeated with a low bellow. “My nation?!” Bear repeated again with an anguished roar. “My nation died when it sold itself to NATO and whored itself to the States!” Pointing a stern finger right into Akula’s sternum, Grizli continued to scream.  “I haven’t had a nation or home since I watched my Commander shoot his junior officers for demanding we join the fucking Nazi brigade! I haven’t had Ukraine since I beat my brothers to death with a hammer for trying to kill me when I refused to become an Azov! Tell me, Mikhail; WHO GAVE A SHIT ABOUT UKRAINE BEFORE 2014?”

“You did, and you still do, Leonid!” Akula shot back, pointing his own finger at the Bear’s heart. “If you didn’t, you’d have killed me already and been shot yourself! Would it change your mind if Fyodor came for you? What about Timur? Do you think he’d understand, or even care?”

Grizli’s finger dropped slightly at that, and he shook his head. “I wouldn’t blame Volk if he shot first. Little schenok is instinctual, and has seen deep shit. Nosorog…fuck, I think he’d help me kill Pauk and as many as we could, if I asked him.”

“I know he would. Why he hasn’t shot me in the back yet is frankly a miracle sometimes.” Akula admitted, going so far as to chuckle at such absurdity.

“Because he’d then get killed himself, either by Volk or by me.” Grizli acknowledged. “He’s a vengeful genius, but he wants to take a Russian head home to Chechnya.”

“And what do you want, Leonid?” Akula pressed, during to take a step forward. In so doing, Akula knew he’d erased any warning he’d get if Grizli decided to gun him down.

At first, Grizli said nothing. But after some thought, the Ukrainian chuckled. “I want…what I wanted when I joined this outfit. Pay me to fight and fuck around the world, and do not try to command me like some fucking conscript or fuckboy.” 

Bear then put his empty hand on Shark’s shoulder. “This is why I’d expected you to find me. You actually give a shit about us, and didn’t leave us to rot in Sirte or at the airbase.”

“Of course I give a shit! You three, as fucking stubborn as you all are, are my brothers! They don’t teach anything like this in academies or meetings, you only understand it at sea or in the blood and shit like we are now.” Akula was surprised to hear himself holler in response. “Der’mo, even Pasha likes you, for some reason!”

Bear laughed out loud at that, and the rifle clattered to the floor. “She has excellent taste, even in her seafood!” With both hands free, the hulking Ukrainian pulled Akula into a back-slapping hug, which lifted the smaller man off the ground. But before he released Akula, Bear made sure to state “If Tsezar tries this shit again, I break his skull with a prybar.”

Shark nodded, “And I’d let you have that swing after I’m done. The company doesn’t know how lucky it is that it has you employed with us..” 

“Make sure they don’t forget, fish-fucker.” Leonid snorted before dropping Akula back onto his boots. 

Nodding his understanding, Shark turned to leave. But before he did, he asked Bear, ” Do you ever miss…your homeland?”

Grizli’s smile dropped measurably, but the sincerity in his voice didn’t. “Of course! But the land will still be there, no matter what flag sits on it. The mountains will last beyond all of us, and the Black Sea will ebb and flow well after you’re belly-up.”

“No family? What about your brother?” Akula probed, knowing at least part of the answer to that from memory of recruitment files.

The larger man scoffed at that. “Nyet, he’s being passed around by rich German pikhvy like a good little fuckboy. Andriy can’t even lift a gun.” Another joyless snort, and the Bear shook his head. “Then again, he’ll outlive us all that way, so maybe he was right.”

Shark shrugged slightly at the suggestion. “Better he knows his place, I suppose. You’d never survive that life anyway.”

Barking a quick chuckle, Leonid ran weathered fingertips along the scars that now pockmarked his cheek and ear. “If not for you, these would’ve killed me.”

“And if not for you, we’d all have died in Sirte.” Akula countered. “Tossing backing grenades was nothing short of insane.”

“Just the way life always is!” retorted the Ukrainian, who only now bent down to untie the tripwire from his ankle and secure the mine. “Do you think we’ll go?”

It was a question Mikhail had been tossing around the moment he’d heard about the invasion. Even if Tsezar, the company, and all those State-sucking strategists were right, it would only be a matter of time before Wildlife Security Solutions got stuck with some low-pay, high-risk contracts like insurgency operations or convoy escort somewhere inside Ukraine. But with known Ukrainians on the payroll, would they risk it? “Hard to say, there are plenty of other ratholes and wastelands that could use us as well. Besides, if they use Vagnar, I doubt Moscow would hire us, too. Can’t steal glory from the Motherland’s finest mercenaries.”

Grizli nodded at that, “Good, let the skinheads and fascists fight each other, we’ll do the real work.”

“Soglasovano, which means I’ll let Tsezar know we’re ready for duty once Volk is cleared.” Akula stated, before stepping into the doorframe. Much to his dismay, Akula found himself standing in the way of a very livid Pauk, accompanied by several other troops.

“Do we have a problem here, Akula?” Asked Spider with a venomous edge in his tone betraying that the former intelligence agent didn’t care what Shark said next.

So Akula didn’t use words. His hand swept the pistol from its holster and spun the sidearm so the butt of the magazine ‘crack’ed against Pauk’s chin, staggering him back in shock.

Continuing the motion, Akula swept the weapon right back into its holster. “Only if you make one, mudak. I vouch for Grizli, and he’s part of my team. Fuck with him, and not even Lisus will save you.”

Clutching his bloodied jawline, Spider spoke with a poisonous rage, “That suka will shoot you in the back, Akula. You know this.And I’ll piss on your grave when he does.”

Shark simply shook his head, and turned his back on Pauk. “Even after all this, you fail to understand trust, spook. That’s why those kuski der’ma stand behind you, not beside you as my team does. That’s why Tsezar will give me the benefit of being wrong, if it comes to that.”

As Akula walked away to report his meeting, he shot Pauk one last barb. “If I’m wrong, I welcome you to dance on my bones. But know I will be with all those men you failed to watch over. All those we failed to save at Al Jufra. And I will be at peace.”

**************

The 2nd of small vignettes to help me mold and figure out my Wildlife team, and possibly the hardest one I’ll end up writing. I’d originally intended not to write about real-world events at all, or at least as little as possible. But, I think that barrier also set a vicious case of writer’s block into me that I was never going to overcome. So, as many a wise soul have said: caution to the wind. Let’s just hope that steers me in a new direction beyond here.

I hope you all enjoy.

Volk’s side-story

The Last Words

Will you forgive me? 

Will you tell me everything is all right when I don’t come home? 

When they hand you our flag and thank you for your courage, will your tears be cold with sadness or stinging with pain? Because you don’t deserve either. 

Do you believe me when I give you my last promise, that this wasn’t how it was supposed to end. 

Would it help you grieve to know that I never felt the pain? Or would you find jealousy in the ease of my heart being torn from its cage a mile above our home?

Can you stand strong for me when your mother breaks down? Can your shoulders hold her up when mine are gone?

Would it make you happy to know the last thing I ever heard, real or not, was your voice? The indomitable cheer in your voice woven with the soft piano of your ballet recital echoed in the smoke. It carried me beyond the blood and bone of men’s cruelty toward men and to my eternal flight. 

Can you find peace in that?

Do you know you’ll never be without me? Because every time those notes dance through the air, they carry my love for you in them.

Do you know how proud I am of you? That you’re already so strong, so smart, and so passionate about life itself. 

Did I tell you that I loved you enough times? Or will the piano keys be my herald forevermore?

Will you look up at the sky and search for me one day? Because a fate worse than death would be to know that I burdened you with such sorrow that you could never smile in the sunlight again

Will you forgive me when I don’t come home?

********

Thanks to my daughter’s very active life as a dancer-in-training, I was exposed to a simple piano piece that did more to rip the calloused shell off my soul than many other things in life. I’m not sure I can give it a just description in words alone (and thanks to WordPress’ profile system, I can’t just post the piece here for you), but it’s a simple piano piece as if recorded through the old analog sound of the Great War or War to End All Wars. Were I to give it a name, it would be “A Smile Beyond Tears” or something like that, because there is a happiness or a passion in there. Yet the overall key of the piece, its slow temp with the carrier beat, and how I pray our little dancer will flourish when it plays for her and her alone….I feel it even writing about it now.

Maybe there’s more to it than just a simple 2min piano piece. Maybe its everything in the world today trying to tell me something. Maybe I’m trying to tell myself something, but didn’t have the melody to listen to myself until this. Or maybe it’s just the omnipresent knowledge that every day is the last day our childern will be that young. May they one day be better, stronger, happier, and more at peace with themselves than I could ever be.

I hope you all enjoy.

Wildlife Security Solutions, LLC – Downtime (part 19)

Despite the blazing sun in his exhausted body and the bustle of activity on the growing flightline, Akula kept walking out of the building and didn’t think about where his feet were taking him. He could hear someone shouting for him, but the sailor didn’t stop. Right now, since the sea was so far out of reach, Akula craved the silence of his room above all. 

The sounds of clenched fists crashing against a weighted bag momentarily pulled Shark to look at an open exercise yard. Despite the searing sun above, several men were excising the day’s frustrations into kettle bells and plated racks. Rhino was among them, smashing fists and elbows against his target. Despite the fury of blows, the Chechen’s eyes betrayed his exhaustion. Were they at their peak, Akula would deride Nosorog for being slow and sloppy in his strikes, but this was not the time for critical feedback. Akula certainly understood the need to hit something right now.

From there, Akula continued his undeterrable march forward in thought, hoping the searing heat would burn even a tiny measure of his frustration away before he returned to his bunk. A moment later, another sound echoed into range. He could hear the delicate gasps of pleasure, but they didn’t affect his stride. From a moment’s look into the sole window built into an unused bungalow, Grizli had his delicate nurse wrapped around his midsection and was aggressively thrusting her upward in a lust the delicate, ballet-built body may not have been prepared for.

Akula’s glance lingered only a moment as he walked, but he didn’t intrude for longer than that, despite the young woman’s exposed beauty. He knew full well that such lewdness was simply Grizli’s preferred method to release stress, or celebrate success. Or simply pass the time, the lucky svoloch.

Then the ‘pang’ hit him, the first time it had in the months since Aklua had been deployed to Libya. He was jealous. He remembered holding Pasha in much the same way one dark January night, before this contract had been drafted. Suddenly, in his mind, the oppressive heat was gone, and he was half the world away. Mikhail saw only the star-lit ice of the river Vyg from the window of the small getaway cabin he’d rented for them just outside Kochkoma. The embers from the fireplace were deep red, popping off the wood he’d personally chopped while his love relaxed in a hot bath. It had been the first time Pasha had ventured so far north from the city comforts of Moscow, and he’d wanted to show her the pleasures of his life, simple as they were. And the moment he saw the warmth of her smile when she stepped out of her luxurious soak, clad in only a towel, the Shark had attacked her in a passionate frenzy.

Lost in the memory, Akula barely registered where he’d navigated himself until the third time the guard outside the comms truck asked him if he was all right. The sailor didn’t recognize the new man, but it was at least a comfort that the fresh blood was alert and responsive. “Enjoying your time in the sands?”

The guard shrugged. “I just go where work is. And guarding this truck is much better than swinging a pickaxe in the dark.”

That surprised Akula a little, as the sentry had the build of a runner, not a laborer. But something in the accent was off, which made Shark pause. “Kazak?”

“Nyet, Uzbek.” answered the sentry, clearly irritated by the mistaken identity.

Aklua simply shook his head and stepped up into the artificial cold of the truck. Finally, Shark let out the venomous breath that had caught him when he’d heard about Drakon. The sound that emerged was something between a guttural roar and a pained scream. It echoed off the cabin’s frame enough that the sentry sprinted in to see what was wrong before walking back out with a puzzled look and locking the truck closed. 

Once his roar was exhausted, Akula slumped down at one of the computer terminals and retrieved his security card. Seeing the ‘online’ indicator for Pasha sent a tide of relief over him, as did her near-immediate message. “O Bozhe! Are you all right?”

He had to smile at that. Even the distant, digital concern wrapped him in a blanket of relief. “I am. I was lucky, if you can call it that.”

“I do! Blyad, they wouldn’t tell me anything! I had to keep a separate window up to track the destruction down there” his babochka hurriedly typed out. “How did things go so wrong?”

“Because I was wrong.” Shark admitted again, just as Lisus pointed out. “Silverback didn’t tell us that he had planned something else. Even when I asked before I took over the operation. Bastard let me lead twenty good men right into death.”

Pasha’s next response took a moment, and Shark could only imagine the various faces of rage and disgust she was making. “That vile shit…did he really think he’d get away with holding you back?”

“It doesn’t matter, really.” Mikhail admitted. “In my haste to get the mission done, I didn’t think about what Wildlife as a company would prepare…I just saw my next mission, and what needed done.”

“I’m so sorry.” Pasha replied with, adding in a question they both knew the answer to.”is there anything I can do?”

“How is Andre? Is he well?” Shark asked, needing to hear something close to normalcy right now.

Her response came quickly. Instead of a message, Pasha sent him another picture. This time, their little lapachka was dressed in a brown-furred onesie, eyes wide with light and energy and mouth open in a mighty grunt. Andre’s massive head was lifted from his mother’s bosom and the little man tried to pull his elbows and knees under him.

“Such strength!” Mikhail laughed, as much to himself as through his typed words.

“Such teeth!” Pasha countered. “Much like his father.”

“You usually enjoy that, babchoka.” He smirked, wishing above all to be doing just that right now.

He could imagine the rueful glare through her response, “Next time, YOU carry our little angel to term and tell me how much you like being bitten.”

“If it’s you, I welcome each time.” Mikhail quickly responded.

It took only one thought to suddenly drain all cheer from his shoulders. A realization he’d been trying to avoid thinking upon, but one that now stabbed through his very brain. “Liliyia never got to see out little lapachka…”

Pasha’s response was a long wait, even if Akula knew that time was standing still inside his comms room. “That’s not your fault, Mikhail. You can’t blame yourself for that! You know she’d never let you.”

At that, the sailor snorted. “No, no she wouldn’t. She’d kick me in the ass for being chum not even worth her fist…fuck, I can’t believe she’s gone.”

“I know, Mikhail. I can’t tell you how many nights I’ve dreaded reading your name on the Red List. And when it was so long this time, I…”

“I know, babchoka.” He wanted to soothe her, to sweep her away from her desk for a moment’s reprieve. But that was not the contract. This was the time he’d sold to Wildlife so his Pasha had a roof over her auburn locks, so Andre would not worry about his next meal.

Which means he had to ask, “Have you heard how long Lisus will be down here?”

After a moment, she replied. “Not long. He’s due back here for high-level meetings in less than two days. He’s assigned Tsezar to take command of the mission there, and he should be there tonight with more equipment.”

Akula nodded at that, for he knew that name well. Tsezar was an experienced infantryman and known for leading from the frontline. Not to mention being one of Wildlife’s premier hand-to-hand trainers in both sambo and krav maga. He will earn respect quickly, and I don’t doubt he’ll sweep up any last holdouts before moving west in force. “What else are we getting?”

“Mostly more replacements, but also the crew needed to help the LUA maintain captured vehicles again.” Pasha noted, but paused a while before adding “I think someone else from the board may be coming too, but not sure who.”

Instinctually, Akula knew he should be suspicious of rumor or half-bits of information. But Lisus’ words still rang around in his mind, so he set that concern aside for a more pressing issue. “Let’s hope they bring those horse-pill aspirin, my ears still ring!”

“You need to see the medics!” Pasha quickly scolded. “And probably eat something not made of electrolytes.”

Even thousands of kilometers away, Shark held up his hands in resignation. “As always, you’re right. I’m sure Leonid is done with his dancer by now, even he must breathe at some point.”

Pasha sent back a disgusted face, but then added. “When you come home, you’ll have the same. Now go un-fuck yourself. For Liliya.”

“I will. Ya tebya lyublyu. Give Andre an extra kiss for me.”

“Always, moya lubov. Come home to me.”

An odd sense of numbness came over Akula as he closed the messenger, as if bliss and guilt smashed together in opposing tides. He knew Pasha was right, Liliya knew his beloved was right. Der’mo, even Andre knows his mother is right… he thought to himself as he sat in the silent cabin. Still, for a spell, Shark simply sat in the frigid compartment, remembering what life was supposed to feel like. 

With that in mind, he dared to open an unnamed, hidden folder attached in his personal profile. Hidden under layers of empty subfolders and password-protected for his eyes alone, it was his small slice of home among the sand. It was where his saved picture of Andre ended up, joining several others of its kind, such as the little guppy’s content eyes holding a spoon for the first time. Next to that, a picture of his Pasha standing in the Palace Square of St Petersburg, before they knew she carried Andre within her. Her smile was carefree and bright, even if she had teased Mikhail into taking the photo as a souvenir of their unplanned holiday. Following that was a dimly-let picture from Pasha on her cellphone, giving her Shark a wonderful glimpse down her tightly-pulled top to unrestrained cleavage. 

Each one, an image that teased Akula with a thousand promises of things to come when this campaign was done, which made Mikhail lick his lips unconsciously. It also brought to his mind a spark of an idea she’d planted before he’d left for the sandy hellhole that was Libya. Maybe you’re right, Pasha…perhaps a desk and an office would make Andre happy, as it does you…

He snorted at the inclination, as it was an idea that had turned his stomach in disgust a decade ago. Back when he was a junior NCO on the Admiral Levchenko and the world began and ended with each shift. Back when the ship and the crew were all that I needed. But that’s not what matters anymore… they are. The ship sails on without me…“Perhaps Wildlife could use a new Navy liaison officer.”

The idea drifted in an unsettled tide in his mind, and Akula could feel those last pulses of energy start to fade. Again, Pasha’s gentle prodding came back to him, and he let himself smile as he stood up to return to his cot and let himself pass out. “See you soon, babchoka.”

***********************

Akula let his normal discipline slip a little as he slept well through the night and into the next morning. Unlike Pauk or the rest of his own team, he’d come away with the fewest bruises and cuts, so he’d let them find their own healing first.  He also knew he had something far more important to do than tend to minor wounds. His soul was far more wounded, and Akula felt the weight of a different duty press upon him now.

Rising and stretching from his bunk, Akula went to a small shelf next to the single window of his bungalow. From that, he took down one of three physical books he took on every deployment, a biography of Yevdokiya Bershanskaya. The ace pilot and leader of the  ‘Night Witches’ of World War II, had been Liliya’s hero as long as Akula knew her. In fact, the Soviet flier was perhaps the only person Liliya had ever spoken of in true admiration.

Akula felt his hand shake as he opened the book, which he’d done scarcely on those quiet nights in between missions. It was a book in frail condition, due in no small part to how many times Liliya had read it and added her own footnotes about the Witches and Bershanskaya herself. Each time he’d read the footnotes and additions, Akula had been impressed with just how in-depth his friend had been. “Liliya…you should’ve been a writer or historian…”

He snorted a laugh at that, remembering the only time he’d told her that out loud. It was a sentiment that made Drakon’s eyes glow red in a passionate anger. “Find me ONE kiska who can out-fly me, and I’ll let him fuck me here and now.” she’d retorted, stabbing a finger at Akula from across the table. 

Next to him, Grizli’s eyes went as wide as his smile. “Then I enlist in pilot training tomorrow!” A threat the Ukrainian had never followed up on, as he barely failed the colorvision test. 

After tossing part of her lunch at him, Liliya had declared to Akula in a direct glare.”The skies are mine until death, like they were hers!” A decree she reinforced by pointing at the weathered sigil of the Night Witches on the book’s cover. A cover Mikhail now gently placed his hand on as he examined the book.

“The sky is always yours, Liliya Maksimovna Kharlamov.” Shark declared to the memory, now several years past. He then turned to the middle of the book, where a five-thousand ruble bill was folded neatly. It had once been hers, just as she’d held a similar banknote of his in her domicile nearest to the helicopter apron. It had been their wager. Her gale-force confidence nothing would take her down against his bloodthirsty determination to make it through the world’s worst riptides.

It was strange for Akula to think on, looking down at the currency. All the times he’d been pinned down, screaming for Drakon’s fire to rain down from above. He’d never thought about all the times he’d raced in teeth-first to find her a place to land and operate. It had all come down to such a pitiful thing as the money in his hand. Now, it was more than a piece of paper, it was a promise. And it’s time to return this to its owner…

The desert sun was close to its zenith by the time Akula stepped under it, a testament to just how long he’d been lost in thought. Though his stomach snarled at him, Akula ignored it for the moment, and headed for the alert quarters where Liliya had lived. Silverback had tried to arrange for her to set up nearby his own bungalow, but Drakon was quick to retort how stupid that was.

As promised, the crimson-on-gray An-26 was gone, taking Lisus with it back home. Akula caught himself how many layers of chains and locks Silverback was confined in at that moment. Just open the rear hatch and drop that fuck into the sea…

Snarling, he shook himself back into focus. That wasn’t what he should be focused on right now, her memory didn’t deserve to be tainted by his own frustration and anger at their former boss. 

Akula had never been inside Drakon’s quarters since they’d been deployed to Haven, and its spartan nature didn’t surprise him. Much like his domicile, it was little more than a bed, a bathroom, and a place to hang her flightsuit. But unlike Akula’s small reading nook where his tablet charged each day, she had an array of pictures from around the world. Some of them were taken in the midst of the shit, her face drenched in sweat and the engine of the helicopter behind her still smoking. To his chagrin and joy, one of those pictures was of him, splayed on his back after falling off a horse during a training mission deep in Mongolia. “Of course, you’d keep this one…”

Next to that, perhaps the only picture of Liliya out of uniform, featured her and Pasha at a concert. Akula had rarely seen his beloved smile through her fear so well, but Liliya’s joy was boundless. Both may have been aided by the glowing cup of some fine cocktail, which made Akula wonder how much his Pasha missed her rowdy days. To be young and careless once again…

He could’ve spent the rest of the day analyzing each photograph, letting Liliya’s voice play in his mind with each one. Part of Akula wanted to dream, to wish for the power to force Liliya back into existence from the memories. But that’s the end they all gambled to face, signing such contracts and becoming a borderless legion. And he knew, if anyone were going to do what had to be done now, it must be Akula. Anyone else would be haunted by the ghost of a vengeful Drakon, whose fire would scorch souls far worse than the sun ever could.

Reaching under her bunk, the sailor withdrew a worn metallic foot locker, which was thankfully unlocked. Drawing a deep breath to force himself not to hesitate, he began to take each picture down, packing it neatly among her few spare clothes. It didn’t take long until the room was as empty as the wasteland they’d spent the past months fighting over. In the picture of himself, Akula slipped the banknote into its frame and wrapped it carefully with a pair of workout shorts.

The creaking of the opening door spun Shark around in surprise, only to look up at a surprisingly somber Chechen.

 “What is it?” queried Akula. “Orders?”

Nosorog shook his head and took a small box from a utility pocket on his hip. He examined it for a moment, like the larger man had forgotten what he put in it, before handing it to his team lead. “Nyet, just finishing a job.”

Carefully, Akula opened the small container, and a flicker of gold reflected out of it. Laid carefully in a bed of black cloth was an antiquely simple watch with several dials and tiny hands. Holding it up to his ear, Akula was greeted by the rhythmic ‘tic-tic-tic’ of the timepiece. “I didn’t know she had something so fancy.”

“Belonged to her grandmother, she said. But Soviet watches don’t like sand.” Nosorog replied, watching the watch more than the man holding it. “I haven’t seen a piece like it since…my grandfather’s shop in Grozny.”

Gently, Akula set the timepiece back into its coffin and sealed it again. “This is what you did before the war?”

Rhino nodded. “Simple pieces were good for timed roadside bombs. This…this is a work of history. And she asked nicely.”

Akula snorted a little at that. “I can’t picture that, especially to someone not born Russian.”

“Drakon knew talent when she saw it.” The Chechen shrugged. Gently, he set the box on top of a folded tank-top. “You knew her well?”

“Da. She’d been in the company just as long as me. Always the hot-shit, always the hero…always our savior.” Akula replied, his fist unconsciously balling at his side. “You did her justice by sending that Osa to hell.”

“I actually was hoping we’d bring it back.” Nosorog admitted. “I’ve never been able to work on something so advanced.”

Akula wanted to retort, but stopped himself when he thought about Rhino and how something made in the 1970s would’ve been more advanced than anything the Chechen had access to before. “You know, Grizli was a tank doctor before joining the company. Ask him to break down one of the vehicles we’re not using.”

“I’m not letting those slabs of meat near my wrenches until he steadies them with a good fuck!” Grizli announced. How such a behemoth had snuck up on both of them, Akula didn’t know, but he chided himself on not paying more attention.

“There’s more in the world than just pleasures of the flesh, asshole.” Nosorog quipped back.

To which Grizli laughed out loud. “Spoken like a man whose only known his own hand, or perhaps his sister’s.”

The Chechen went red with anger, but didn’t retort the jab. Akula quickly changed the subject. “Volk?”

“Still out of it, but my Oksana assures me that he’s fine. Our pup took quite a shock, falling off a building.” The Ukrainian acknowledged.

“Wow, you’ve actually learned her name, I’m impressed.” Akula chuckled. “I don’t think you’ve managed that since I’ve known you.”

Grizli smiled wide at that, clearly proud of his conquest. “She is a work of fine porcelain. But Drakon…she was a raging firestorm. How did she light your nights, Akula?”

The sailor shook his head at that. Perhaps Liliya was too determined, too driven to attract his eye like that. Or maybe was her crass professionalism that separated lust from logic. “It was never like that. Never even considered it.”

Bear raised an eyebrow at that confession, then nodded. “I forget, our Shark likes his women soft and gentle, like a fine breeze over the spring river.”

“You should’ve been a poet, cossak.” Rhino snorted.

The Ukrainian snorted at the idea. “And miss the simple pleasures of breaking noses with a fine 60mm wrench? How else would we live life?”

“Speaking of…how many of Sova’s team did they find alive?” Shark asked, knowing he wasn’t going to like the answer.

“Just that idiot.” Grizli snarled. “Doctor says he’ll never walk again, bastards drove rusty nails in-between his vertebrae, one at a time. How he survived that…”

“Spetsnaz doesn’t train kiska, they train soldiers.” The sailor reminded them all, including himself. Still…they did far worse than kill him… “Drakon would’ve fit right in.”

“A fine warrior woman!” Grizli seconded, taking from his pocket a velcro patch. It was one Akula had seen before, though the Ukrainian never wore it into combat. On it, of all things, was an American Apache helicopter with arrows pointing in every direction. Inscribed on its border, the simple declaration of ‘Any Time, Any Where, Any Weather’. “Got this from some prick in a barfight in Warsaw. Never had the chance to have her talk proper shit about it.”

A moment of silence filled the bunk as Grizli placed the patch into the locker. Akula scanned the room, then found what he was looking for. He’d neatly snuggled Liliya’s bottle of Mother Russia’s finest grain vodka into her clothing, intending to open it with Pasha at her funeral. But these men earned the drink, he was well aware.

The ‘pop!’ of the top echoed around then like a last salute to the fallen. Despite being the one to find the bottle, Akula handed it to Grizli first. “She’ll still give you shit when you flinch.”

Grizli scowled at the drink, before taking the bottle and downing a short draw. He quickly passed the vodka to Nosorog, stifling a cough. “Fuck me! How does anyone drink this when even the Japanese figured out whiskey exists?”

“We have good taste, something you’d never understand.” The Chechen countered, drinking twice over what Grizli had, and handing the bottle back to Akula.”For Drakon.”

“Yasnoye nebo i poputnyy veter,” Akula declared, taking a drink, then tossing the bottle out the door to smash against the neighboring bungalow. I’ll see you again, Liliya. One way or another.

The foot locker was sealed in respectful silence. Once locked, the three men lifted it as they would a casket, Akula taking the steering position. Skillfully, the trio began their march to the cargo area for the next airlift home, so it could join its owner. Halfway there, a fourth set of boots ran up to take position next to Grizli in support. To Akula’s surprise, it was Vorobey, who looked like he hadn’t slept since landing back at Haven. “This is my fault…we should’ve ignored orders…”

The guilt from the flier’s voice was dripping with equal parts feeling and cheap liquor, which Akula knew was a dangerous mix when combined with the heat. “Not true, Sparrow. Lisus would’ve had you both shot down if you’d disobeyed orders.”

“I should’ve just planned for rockets, not just old bombs. Should’ve seen the Osa before it fired…” the pilot continued, staring through Akula and into the sand, which meant he wasn’t steering.

Frustrated, Shark stopped and nodded for the casket to be put down. Once it was stationary, he strode over and grabbed Vorobey by the collar and lifted the lankier, taller man off the ground. “You want to wallow in your fucking pity? Go back to Moscow and crawl under your bed! You WILL NOT lay your failures on her casket!”

The pilot trembled in Shark’s grasp, but only drooped his head in response. This angered Shark further, and he tossed Vorobey back, out of their way. “You want to honor her memory? Then take your head out of your ass, check your aircraft, and fly like you were born to! Bomb these fuckers back to their non-existant God for her!”

Vorobey opened his mouth to protest, but when he saw Grizli shaking his head, the pilot second-guessed his argument. Satisfied with the silence, Akula returned to his posting and the three men lifted the foot locker once again to carry it the last hundred meters, Vorobey not bothering to try to assist them again. No one said a word during their final paces, as their collective anger had been poured out onto a poor pilot’s willpower.

The cargo terminal itself was typically a busy place. Most of the fresh meat Wildlife sent into the theater started their lives here, sorting weapons and managing manifests. No soldier working in this part of the terminal had earned their name yet. Or worse yet, the few old faces that had lost their callsign to poor judgment or failure.

One of the latter approached Akula and the foot locker parade when it entered the building. A leather-skinned old man who looked like he’d lived through the Bolshevik revolution halted their entry. “Transport’s full, this will have to wait for the next one, day after tomorrow.”

“Nyet, this goes today. Needs to be with its owner on her flight home.” Akula countered, feeling a growl emerge from his throat. Between Sparrow’s self-loathing and omnipresent bureaucracy now in his way, Akula still wanted to hit something. Now more than ever, he wanted to channel that raw energy into something productive that also promised to bruise his body so that it equaled his spirit

The freight-loader thankfully recognized the incoming blow, and took to his manifest tablet. Three button taps later, he whistled for two baby-faced soldiers to assist him in loading the foot locker onto a wheeled cart. Together, the three men wheeled away the last mortal reminders Drakon left behind to an open Il-76 that would be Mozdok-bound within the hour. So very badly, Akula wanted to join that locker, to bring it home personally. It was a pulse of vulnerability that he bit back down and buried under the weight of his responsibility. Such distractions would take Akula home in a similar box, and he wouldn’t put Pasha or Andre through that.

“Fuck…” Grizli finally vented, letting his shoulders sag as the locker disappeared into the unmarked boxes of stuff in the back of the transport.

“At least she got that much. A lot of others get nothing at all.” Rhino countered, turning to head for the armory and training range. 

Akula was tempted to follow the Chechen and grab a weapon, to blast some distant target into oblivion and pretend it was any number of NLD extremists that had cost Wildlife blood and bullets. But no…not today. Today, I need to feel the hit…

Silently, Akula turned to head for the sparring gym, which had once been a small hanger. To his surprise, the Ukrainian moved in step with him. “Not Oksana? You surprise me, Bear.”

Grizli laughed at that. “She must work, and sleep, sometime! Right now, beating up on the raw meat will be a good distraction.”

Akula had to laugh at that as much as Grizli did, the Ukrainian’s smugness rooted in the simple pleasures instead of a deep ego that befell many in their line of work. “Will you take her home when we leave here? Present her to your family?”

Bear laughed at that again, though it was tinged with a note of sadness, or perhaps understanding. “I doubt her husband would approve of such…still, to show her Hoverla and walk through Odessa…tell me Pskov could ever match that!”

“Never, and I’ve been there many times!” Shark admitted. “Perhaps, one day, I will bring Pasha to see the south.”

Grizli slapped Akula on the back. “You will be my guest! But I warn you, the Black Sea is warm and beautiful! You may not find the ice you need to bathe in.”

The sailor rubbed a hand along his forehead to cast off a palm-load of sweat. “Somehow, I doubt it will compare to this coarse hell we find ourselves in.”

The sounds of primal fury and struggle began to wash over them as the two men entered the sparring pit. Several gatherings of soldiers were already assembled, with paired matches already in progress on the satellite mats surrounding the main court. In that main ring, standing his ground as three others rushed at him with mock knives and a bayonet fixed to a rifle, was Tsezar, who used the impulsive charge of one young welp to scatter the other two.

Akula nodded at the expert display. “Speaking of hell, let’s teach these children how to not fuck themselves or each other.”

*********************************************************

Part 19 of the ongoing Wildlife adventure, but one that’s very different from its kin. Among all the fighting, the killing, and the ugliness that such business can bring, such battles are still fought by people. Friends, siblings, even family. And loss hits everyone eventually.

I originally split this into two parts, but looking at it this morning, I just *felt* better to combine both sides into one large memorial and duty. Drakon deserves it, I think.

As for they story overall, and give the world as of today, I will be stepping away from it for at least a couple days to think. Full disclosure: what’s going on with Russia/Ukraine is sadly similar what I’d planned for a follow-up story to this one. Even Grizli’s own side-story was diving into this very situation, which may need to shift a whole lot now. Something else to think on.

Either way, I owe you all many thanks for staying with Akula and company on their wild ride so far, especially my dear friend Mayumi (aka BonusParts), who has been invaluable with her feedback and love of the characters.

I hope you all enjoy

Pryvyd Kyyeva

When you bartered my ancestors’ lands for gold and iron, my body stirred

When my brothers and sisters rose in revolt and smashed down your wall, I cheered for liberty.

When you choked my brethren for daring to defy you, I sewed on wings to defend them.

And when you burned my home and heart from afar, painting your hands in my blood, I ascended beyond mortal name or form.

Now I live in the skies, above your reach and between your breaths.

Your heart will chill when you hear my name, though I will never speak it again.

Your hands will quake at the sight of me, the last movements they will ever make.

And when I rip your wings from your unworthy husk, know that I await you again at the gateway of Hell.

I am Pryvyd Kyyeva.
The Ghost of Kyiv.
The one who burns the Red Star in the flames of vengance.

In blue skies choked by wicked smoke, I will hunt you down.

********

So, this has been one hell of a week on the international stage. Which is unfortunate (in a very privileged way) for me, since my main story had been all about two Russians, a Ukrainian, and a Chechen. It was a group that wasn’t supposed to work any other way except for the way it had come together.

Now…I’m conflicted. I want to continue, as I’ve put so much of me into each one of them. But with the world the way it is now, is it ready for more of them?

Either way, I hope you all enjoy this piece at least. Whether or not this pilot exists or not (I honestly doubt he does, but the story also hits hard at many of my passions in life), sometimes a symbol is enough to rally the hearts and bring doubt to the enemy. Maybe that will be enough, in the end.

Wildlife Security Solutions, LLC – End of Contract #1. (pt 18)

Akula had almost lost his cool the last time he’d stood in what was passing for Haven’s central office of leadership. So badly, he’d wanted to plant Silverback’s head into the desk when he’d seen the man passed out at his desk. Shark, Pauk and others had spent hours re-inventing the Al Jufra operation, and their company-appointed leader had been nothing but an obese, petulant roadbock. It had taken all the sailor’s years of discipline not to drive his boot into the neck of their former chief and make the obsolete political snake relinquish his grip on operational control over everyone deployed into the rat’s nest that was the Libyan operation. 

Now, Shark felt the size of an enraged minnow when he walked into the room again. Overnight, the ramshackle office had been transformed and modernized with modernized computers, new phones, and a large map wall for only the operations chief to use. Instead of a hole for one man to hide in and drink himself into seniority, now a small team of analysts and coordinators were pouring over live data feeds the likes of which Akula hadn’t seen since leaving Moscow.

Deep in conversation at that map wall were two men, one of them the sailor recognized as Rashadi. Unlike the last time he’d seen the businessman, the Arabian was now quite pleased. Pointing at an area far to the west of Haven, the second man nodded and answered in a schooled language of calculated confidence. “Once we secure Al Jufra and the heartland of Libya, I’ll arrange the operation personally. No need to worry, my friend.”

Akula didn’t recognize the reassurance, as Lisus spoke it in Persian. Ali al-Mohannadi Rashadi was clearly delighted with that answer, so Akula knew it must have been correct, or a sales pitch. Bowing in respect, Rashadi responded amicably and turned to leave. The jovial smile on the businessmen’s face twisted itself from genuine pleasantness into forced politeness as Rashadi nodded to the sailor when he walked past. Akula only nodded in response, having little doubt that he would have words later with their Libyan Unity Army liaison.

Once alone, Akula snapped himself to proper attention. “Mikhail Aslanov Rybakovl, call-sign ‘Akula’, reporting as ordered!” Shark announced in his booming seaman’s voice, chest out, fists clamped to his thighs, and heels together.

Lisus folded his hands behind his back, and finally turned to look at Akula. Wildlife’s COO looked the sailor up and down, never breaking his impassive visage until a small smile crept over his lips. “You look like Baba Yaga chewed you up and spat you out. How do you feel?”

Not willing to relax, Akula replied. “Honestly, there was so much in the operation that went wrong, I count myself fortunate to have brought home as many as we did.”

Now, Lisus turned and walked to Akula, and patted the taller man on the shoulder. “As do I, sailor. I knew when Silverback sent me the operational protest, that he was underestimating your talent for improvisation and adapting. Lesser men would have lost their entire team.”

For a split-second, Akula let his gaze drift down to Lisus and how the older man’s words were surprisingly reassuring. Even looking at the man, he didn’t see Lisus’ arm cock back before he buried his fist in Shark’s stomach. All breath escaped the sailor’s lungs and the taller man dropped to a knee in shock. 

Lisus waited a moment so Mikhail could stop wheezing before berating him. “And a smarter man would NEVER have engaged the mission without confirming the enemy strengths and positions!” Lisus scolded without screaming. Akula felt more than just his strength leave him, the full weight of almost two-dozen dead men piling onto his back. 

“I…we had intel, about a transport! We had to move.” Akula countered, even if he knew that none of this was new information to Wildlife’s commander.

Lisus shook his head, long gray hair passing from shoulder to shoulder. “And we had half a squadron of fighters in Syria ready to force it down into Khmeimim, or blast it from the sky! You think the company would let the NLD receive more cash for jihadists and killers?”

“I…we didn’t know.” Akula protested, standing back up to his full stature.

His initial anger satisfied, Lisus eased back into his professional demeanor. “I know you didn’t, because you weren’t provided the information. Silverback held his daily briefing too close to his chest, and let you, Spider and other appointed leads figure things out on your own.”

“We were doing well enough, I think. We apprehended or eliminated several key NLD members.” Shark addressed. “Bin Jawad, for example. My team found the initial export shipment of uranium that started this whole chain.”

“And in so doing, you managed to uncover a rat’s nest of subterfuge even we hadn’t expected.” Lisus admitted, his brow furrowing. “A few outside state-sponsored salesmen, we knew of. Ri Il-Sung being one of them, that old shit has had a taste for younger women for decades. That makes him easy to track.”

Wildlife’s COO turned his back on Mikhail, looking through the far wall and into the Libyan sands. “But your team faced an entire detachment of their Special Security Forces and shot most all of them.” A fact that he laughed at, to Shark’s surprise. “So much for the finest soldiers of our Communist step-brothers, you fucked them harder than the South Koreans could!”

“Then why are they out here? Who managed to bribe the most closed-off nation with decrepit bombers and un-processed nuclear materials?” Akula finally asked, acknowledging the question that had been on his back burner since Bin Jawad.

Lisus nodded, walking past the map wall to a large TV monitor used for conference calls. He clicked it on and entered his password, showing Akula the full operational overview of what the Al Jufra mission had turned into. Included in the display were pulsing red circles where the cruise missiles had hit, and acquired data from the American RQ-4 reconnaissance drone that had been active the entire time. Everything was outlined over a satellite image of the airbase itself, also stolen from Western data sources. Akula could see how fresh the data was, as the satellite image had the burning skeletons of the T-55s visible and still burning.

On the right side of the data conglomeration were pictures of people, mostly men with Arabic names that Akula had never heard of before. Most all of them were marked with red ‘X’s over them. Lisus’s gaze lingered there for a moment, before he nodded to himself. “I honestly don’t know if can credit you with exceptional planning in solving that mystery, or sheer dumb luck. But the fact of the matter is, Akula, that you’ve succeeded in far greater measure than you know. You may have broken the back of a major Korean operation on top of smashing the NLD’s chain of command.”

With a flick of his wrist on the touch screen, Wildlife’s COO expanded three of the profile images so they occupied the entire screen. “This is who we know to be the commanding soldier, main imam, and financial organizer of the New Libya Dawn. Two of them were already at Al Jufra when you arrived, which you wiped out with the Moskva‘s assistance. The last man, thinking himself a capable soldier for the cause, was in one of the troop carriers that reinforced the airbase from nearby Hun. By coincidence alone, Wildlife has completely reversed the on-going Libyan War. With much of that through your actions.”

The sailor rocked back on his heels, before stepping forward to look into the eyes of the men who’d opposed them. The eyes of men now dead. Names and faces of men that Silverback had kept from them all. “Why would this be kept from us? If I’d known!”

“You would’ve planned a much different mission, and at least one of these three would’ve likely escaped.” Lisus countered. “Silverback intended to play the longer, political game. Extend the operation for more money and influence in the company. He had the ear of some on the board thanks to his Afghanistan service, and his silver tongue was dipped in vodka. But eventually, I knew his pride would lead to something like this.”

The tense of his boss’ sentence caught Akula’s attention. “Where is Silverback? Dead?”

“Arrested for his incompetence and neglect of duties. Though I’d imagine he’ll prefer death to the Siberian gulag. He always fancied himself a Politburo man, now he’ll get to experience their ending.” Lisus acknowledged. “Not that I’d ever let him serve on the board, his drinking would’ve killed him first.”

“And Drakon?” Shark asked without even thinking about it. It was a question that simply erupted from his gut.

Lisus shook his head. “She almost made it back, but the engine damage was too severe. Spun in nose-first ten kicks out.”

The sailor almost fell back to his knees at the news. Clashing tides of sorrow and rage filled his soul, and his fists unconsciously clenched hard enough to dig into his palms. She was close…so fucking close!

The gentle hand of Lisus patted Shark on the shoulder. “I’m sorry, Akula. I know you two have been in this company a long time. But you didn’t kill her. Her helicopter didn’t kill her. Some sandrats blew her out of the sky with a lucky shot, and she fought hard to deny them that kill.”

After a moment to let the silence sink into the Shark’s skin, Lisus squeezed his shoulder. “I’ve arranged for her to be buried in Sochi with every decoration and medal her wings will carry. You and Pasha will attend.”

Akula nodded, but didn’t feel himself move. He wanted to scream. To punch the wall in front of him. To drop into Pasha’s arms and weep for Liliya. To do anything but stand there and be dressed down for what had been done.

Wildlife’s COO understood that, both from his own experience in war and by reading Shark’s flickering eyes. Stepping back, Lisus pulled a clipboard from its hanging spot next to the map. “You’re on medical restriction for the next ninety-six hours, as is anyone on your team still walking. Eat, sleep, fuck, and clear your mind.”

Wordlessly, the sailor snapped a sharp salute, turned on his heel and started to the room. But before he did, Lisus addressed him again. “Mikhail.”

Smartly, Shark stopped and turned on his heel. He’d never been addressed by any of Wildlife’s board members by his own name. He wasn’t even sure the board members even knew each other’s names in the first place.

“You’re a good sailor, and a fine squad leader.” Wildlife’s COO began, which filled Akula’s chest with a bit of hollow warmth. Which Lisus quickly stole back by adding, “But you are not a leader at this level of war. Twenty good soldiers followed you because you rallied them, that is a rare gift. But your own arrogance led those men to a futile death. Remember that the next time you decide improvisation alone can replace strategy and tactics.”

Akula’s head, feeling suddenly heavier than before, simply nodded. “Understood.”

“Dismissed, Chief Sergeant Major.”

*****

Part 18 of our ongoing adventure deep in the sands of Hell, but more importantly, the end of the first arc of a much larger story! When I started writing this, I honestly never thought it would take off the way it has, but these four predators refused to let my interests go. I have to wonder if they’d understand what they got themselves into by doing that.

One note I must make: killing Drakon was a tough choice. I have a separate draft of this chapter and beyond where she does survive, and I may run with that later on when it comes times for a real, no-joke, edit. (And seeing as how I’ve already changed how I spell Mikhail’s name mid-story, it’s gonna be a brutal edit). But I also like the ideas and feelings her death has generated in the upcoming chapters. So what do you think?

I hope you all enjoy.

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17

Wildlife Security Solutions, LLC – Contract #1, pt 17

The beat of thudding rotor blades in his chest was Akula’s first indication that he was still alive. He hadn’t been knocked out, but the concussive thunder alone had almost brought the entire structure down on their heads. Only self-preservation stymied Akula’s curiosity at the destruction all around them, and that hesitation may well have saved Shark’s life. “Der’mo…” was the only thing he could utter as he rose to a knee, which alerted those around him to rise as well. Each man rose slowly, wounded predators making sure they weren’t suddenly impaled or flash-fried by the on-surrounding carnage.

“Okay, I take back all the fish fucking jokes, what the hell were those?!” Grizli demanded with a groan. To which Shark could only shrug. A question I’ll ask myself later, a few more of those would’ve ended this whole operation with no need for us!

Pauk hissed as he stood, a large gash running along the small of his back where his armored vest stopped. Then the thundering rotors drew Spider’s rifle into his hands. 

Nosorog practically leapt over all of them to exit the severely damaged building, Sarancha right behind him, despite a left arm clearly separated from its shoulder. To Akula’s surprise, Rhino didn’t immediately open fire. Instead, the Chechen waved to Shark and Spider. “Friendlies!”

Confused, the team leader tapped Pauk forward, then pointed Grizli back into the mess of wrecked rafters and cement chunks to where Gnoo and the Korean survivors were supposed to be. The curses and slanders in Ukrainian trailed off the deeper Bear trekked into the wreckage, reminding Akula to look briefly for the sole access hatch to the underfloors.

He found it quickly. In its place stood a smoking pillar of jagged metal that had punched through into the earth below. Barely visible through the destruction were the orange flicker of flames from below, painting shadows of wrecked centrifuges and spilled containers. “Fuck this place…” He growled through his teeth.Without thinking, or perhaps thinking only of his own rage, the mission lead took a grenade from his belt and fingered the pin. Akula’s hand tensed, begging him to throw it, but the incoming helicopter stayed his hand. Last thing I need is to drop the floor from under us and kill us all in front of our rescue…

Turning from their now-achieved objective, Akula was relieved to see the familiar shape of an old Mi-8 transport helicopter. Instead of wearing the crimson bear of Wildlife Security, this one bore the tattered sigil of Libya’s former Air Force on its side. On its bulbous nose, a high-powered spotlight flicked across Akula, then over his compatriots and back towards the still-burning T-55 as it gently lowered its belly to the sands. Even before the airlift’s wheels touched down, three men leapt to the ground and pulled out a framework stretcher. That caused Shark to scan the area behind him for Grizli’s angered form, but instead was startled to find the much-shorter Volk shambling toward him. Akula’s legs carried him in a sprint towards the pup on instinct alone, as the team lead could tell Wolf’s legs weren’t quite bending properly.

“How the hell did you survive getting shot at by a tank?” Akula queried with personal amazement.

Volk shook his head. “Didn’t, slid down side of building when I saw tank lining up its shot, landed on back…can’t feel much.”

The stretcher arrived soon after, the three men shouting at each other in Arabic as they lowered the injured Wolf to laying back. That confirmed the Shark’s suspicions on who sent their support. Did Rashadi lose faith in just Silverback, or the entire operation…

A burst of heavy machine gun fire from above snatched the team lead’s gaze to the second helicopter, hovering near the burning crater where the Strela and armored troop carriers used to be. Surprising to Akula, instead of another salvaged Libyan machine, he was looking up at a black-tinted, American-made Black Hawk. Barely visible, except for the deathly glow of the flames, was the white stripe of the United Arab Emirates’ flag on the tail-fin. 

Akula snorted a laugh at the absurdity of it all, wondering how much Ali or Silverback would earn in his personal contract from all this. “And how much of that goes to everyone we lost…that I lost.” 

He was only made aware that one of the medics was shaking him when he almost fell over. Shaking his focus back to the task of the moment, Akula turned to the medic. Broken, accented Russian answered him. “Survivors where?”

Akula pointed into the hanger, where Grizli had not yet emerged from, and the medic yelled into a radio headset over the rotorwash. Another set of men sprinted out of the Mi-8 and into the wreck. The sailor then went for the map case on his thigh, only to feel a pouch shredded by a near-miss. On intuition alone, Aklua pointed the medic’s attention south-southeast. “Prisoners, two kicks. Look for a gated pit!”

The Arabian troop looked at him, clearly confused. Frustrated, Shark dug into the basic Arabic he’d been taught before leaving Sofrino. “Pit, …wounded, south!”

Thankfully, the medic understood that gibberish and repeated it into his radio. He then gestured for Akula to enter the Mi-8, where Nosorog and Pauk were already being tended to by other soldiers tried in simple first-aid. Shouldering his rifle, the Shark sat on the lip of the helicopter’s open side door with an exhausted groan. A moment later, the Black Hawk swiveled around so it’s door gunner could track an emerging cluster of scared, dirty Korean survivors led by Grizli and trailed by Gnoo.

“Didn’t Silverback yell at you for bringing back one hostage?” Spider yelled to Shark.

Akula nodded, “Imagine how pissed he’ll be when I bring Grizli back alive again!”

Spider laughed at that, before ‘hiss’ing at some internal pain. “If I never see sand again, I’ll die happy.”

Akula returned the chortle, feeling a calming tide wash over long-exhausted muscles. “Der’mo, I miss the ice!”

“So where the fuck was our air cover?” Nosorog injected, fury only tempered by the mission’s end. One look in the Chechen’s eyes told Akula that he hadn’t forgotten being embarrassed by the team lead.

“Not sure, but Vorobey and I will discuss that in detail.” Shark nodded in assurance. It was a question that was on his mind as well, since the two ground-attack fighters were long past due. And Haven knew how bad we needed them…

Once all the survivors and Wildlife members were aboard the Black Hawk, both helicopters lifted back off and drove northeast as fast as the older Soviet machine could push. The sailor was surprised to see a second Mi-8 racing low over Al Jufra’s runway, heading in the direction of the shattered landing beacon and uncovered prison pit. Aklua nodded in curt appreciation that the medic understood his gibberish, trying to nurture his own wounded pride that it wasn’t his team pulling Sova out of that hellhole. Shark sank back in his seat and exhaled a long drag or exhaustion from his very soul.  Maybe it’s enough to be beaten, but alive…

By the time Haven was breaking over the horizon, so was the morning sun. It’s refreshing gleam snapped Akula awake, and the team lead couldn’t recall even closing his eyes. That fact annoyed him, but he also knew it was inevitable. Looking across the cramped belly of the transport, Nosorog was snoring aloud, head back and mouth open. Pauk was looking up through the rotorblades into the morning sky, as if scolding whatever almighty was out there. Volk was also asleep, aided by an IV drip feeding into his arm. 

Instantly visible on Haven’s main runway was a massive An-124 heavy transport on the runway. A feat Akula didn’t even think was possible. Next to it, a much smaller and more modern An-26 splashed in Wildlife’s colors, which made Shark’s eyes widen. He’d seen one of those before, at a company-owned portion of Sheremetyevo International Airport. “Blyad! Is that Lisus?!” 

Anyone who spoke Russian instantly went rigid in their seats, save for Wolf’s merciful slumber. All eyes turned forward to see the crimson-gray airliner. There was only one reason Akula knew of that the COO of Wildlife Security Solutions would fly into a sandy shithole like Libya. I don’t care if you leave my guts to rot in the sands, but leave Pasha alone!

“Der’mo…haven’t we been beaten enough today?” Pauk muttered quietly. Shark also caught Nosorog clutching the grip of his rifle even tighter. The descent and landing into Haven was almost totally silent after that point. Even the ‘groan’ of ill-maintained hydraulics from the transport’s rear hatch were muted in some frightened sign of respect to the on-site boss of bosses.

The medical crew were first out of the Mi-8, running straight for the medical bungalow with Volk in tow. The Black Hawk followed in short order, landing on a second helipad that had been recently cleared sometime after Akula’s operation had left. Akula waited for Grizli and Gnoo to direct their retrieved Koreans to their respective guards, who to Shark’s surprise, shouted orders in Korean at the hostages.

The sailor could see the same concern etched on the Ukrainian behemoth’s face. Bear’s eyes didn’t break from the An-26 as he approached Akula. “Why the fuck is he here?”

“Not sure, but I bet he has something to do with that.” Rhino scowled, pointing at the two Su-25s a short distance away. Both fighters, far from being armed for their mission, were tied down and covered. No weapons were mounted to their pylons and no ground-crew idled around them to prep the aircraft for any new orders. One of the two attack fighters was parked on the apron where a familiar Mi-28 once stood, sending a cold stone deep into Akula’s belly. Liliya…I’m sorry…I should’ve seen the Osa sooner, should’ve planned better…you deserved better than this…

“Or those!” Pauk gestured in the opposite direction. What once was an empty part of the taxiway for large sight-seeing helicopters to wait in cue was now an alert apron. Standing ready, armed, and able to launch within two minutes, was a newly-arrived MiG-29 multi-role fighter. Its proud Red Star on the vertical stabilizer had been hastily covered by a deep gray, but Akula doubted anyone would be fooled if they saw it through binoculars. Or an American satellite. All this really means so much to Ali, or to us?

The sight of a young errand boy running in Akula’s direction got the team lead’s attention, and he stepped forward to meet the messenger. Either in exhaustion or in curiosity, the rest of the survivors followed.

“Dobro pozhalovat’, Akula! Lisus is waiting for you in the command office. Please follow me for a security check and debrief.”

Shark nodded, looking up only briefly as the second Mi-8’s rotor echo came into range. He had to wonder just how many living people were plucked from that pit. 

Grizli echoed Akula’s thoughts. “Think they found anything beyond shredded meat?”

“Whatever’s left, just shoot them now. End their misery.” Nosorog growled, eyes unfocused though his head was down. It was a feeling Akula could sympathize with, so he bore Rhino a little more understanding now.

As before, a security detail was waiting for the returning troops. This time, all weapons were surrendered without fuss or argument. Once freed of their combat weight, the aide gestured only to Akula. “This way, sir. Only you.”

Shark nodded, shoring up his chest for the berating he was no doubt due for. Over his shoulder, he ticked his head toward the checkpoint’s exit. Unknowingly, the confidence of survivorship spilled into his final order, as the Al Jufra mission was now complete. Whether Shark had earned the right to display such assuredness, or if it was the final façade in a night of death, he was about to find out. “Get medicine, food and rest, hit the comms truck if need be. Well done, my comrades…no, my brothers.”

*****

Part 17 in the continuing desert bloodbath of Akula and company, and the end of another operation. The saying goes “Any landing you can walk away from is a good one”, but I can’t imagine Akula is feeling all too good right now. So what about the company that signs his paycheck? We shall soon see.

I hope you all enjoy.

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16

Wildlife Security Solutions LLC – Contract #1, pt 16

 “Akula, this is Morskaya Zmeya. Relay coordinates.” A second voice came over his radio, momentarily confusing the team lead as adrenaline had to pause for a moment. In all the chaos and abject failure this mission had brought so far, Akula had let himself forget a valuable fact: the Moskva hadn’t sailed from the Black Sea all alone. Along on the deployment was the submarine Severodvinsk, a name he’d never heard. Initially, Akula had figured it was an attack submarine, sent to harass and discourage Western shadows from following the destroyer. 

Yet if that were the case, they wouldn’t be on the radio now. I bet you carry missiles! “Standby, Zmeya. What can you provide?”

The answer was given with a cool sense of urgency, giving Shark only a small bite of insight. “Kontrol has authorized two ’14s be released for your deployment.”

Looking down at his map, and considering what Volk had seen storming their way, the team lead took a small pencil from a hip pocket and drew rough lines around their hanger. Logically speaking, he knew the broken door was the best way in for the incoming NLD insurgents so they could re-secure their cash crop. Just as it was likely their only way out. They have to know by now we have no way out…

He then thought back to what little he knew of the 3M14 ‘Biryuza’ land-attack missile. Admiral Levchenko, his final posting in uniform, had never carried such weapons. And the Moskva carried the Bazalt missile, which was older and easier to trick or blast out of the sky, but it was fast. These Biryuzas must have been valuable to hold them in reserve, Akula reasoned to himself. With only two missiles, we have to guess exactly right… 

Shark acknowledged that deduction when he circled two sets of map coordinates. One where the enemy armor would be if it kept driving blindly straight, and one where it should be in five minutes, when it was beating their open doors apart.

The submarine’s coordinator replied without excitement or rush. “Understood, impact in eight minutes. Defend well.”

It wasn’t the encouragement Akula would’ve received from Drakon if she were on the air, but it was at least something to build from. The team lead called down the Chechen explosives savant, gesturing to a crate of rocket rounds visible in the back of a half-assembled truck. “Anything useable?”

Nosorog ran a hand over one of the projectiles, then nodded. “Malyutkas, old but usually durable. I saw launch boxes upstairs, but only a few batteries. Four shots, maybe less.”

“Make it work.” Akula directed, folding up the map for its pouch. Rhino grunted at the approaching Bear, and pointed at their task. Nodding sternly, the Ukrainian joined the Chechen, carefully observing the explosives expert’s motions without sarcasm. Akula watched as the Ukrainian helped Chechen, following the latter’s instructions on battery installation and fuze checks.

Together, the pair set up one of the antique anti-tank missile boxes at one of the open corners of the hanger, giving it the widest firing angle possible for the smallest exposure. The team lead looked back to the map, walking the pencil from Volk’s reported position and their own. He noted that, while the enemy armor could’ve just blasted the side of the hanger wall already, they hadn’t done it yet. Even the old T-55’s couldn’t miss a building of this size…

No sooner had Shark picked up his rifle than he heard the sounds of large caliber rounds digging into the reinforced outside southern wall. The impacts were around a third of the way between ground and sky, about the level he expected coming from a turret mounted on a personnel carrier. Still, the massive cannons on the tanks were silent, for which Akula was thankful.

The alarm on his watch rang out, which Shark quickly silenced. God-willing, Vorobey is airborne again… I wish you were with them, Liliya. He wanted to radio her, to ensure she’d at least landed safely, but put aside the personal fear for the professional ambiguity. A damaged helicopter was an unbridled beast, even to a master pilot like Liliya. She would have radioed if she were going down….the Moskva or Haven would’ve detected her SOS and sent rescue. We trained for that!

Akula had to remind himself that most of the seasoned men in Wildlife’s original deployment were now burning in the wreckage of their transport. “Can these new kiskas find their asses from holes in the sand?” He let himself whisper in his frustration. 

Pauk let out a mirthless snort, reminding the team lead he wasn’t alone. “Not the ones Sova had! Otherwise they’d still be alive and we’d be done here by now. You give your fish-munchers something to hit?”

“Da, already on route.” Shark acknowledged, before his radio chimed in. Akula noted that Spider had his rifle at his feet, opting to take the first shot with one of the last Vampir rockets in the vicinity.

“Enemy armor is splitting up, moving to surround hanger. Troops are dismounting under cover fire.” Volk announced.

Akula picked up on the subtle frustration in the pup’s voice, and decided they’d been silent long enough. “Pick your shots well! Aim for gunners and anyone leading.”

A moment later, at least one of the machine gunners digging into the hanger’s side went silent, and Shark heard renewed yells in foreign tongues. With that confusion, he tapped Spider to move forward, who took Sarancha with him. 

The two men rushed to the closest dirt embankment, which also served as a vehicle barrier. Minimal return fire responded to their rush, allowing the pair to line up their rocket shot on one of the two T-55s rapidly approaching. With the first slivers of sunlight at their backs, Pauk stood and fired the Vampir into the darkness. Akula watched, first in exhilaration, then in horror, as the rocket spun high into the air and off to the south. Harmlessly, the shot ‘thud’ed into the sand.

The Soviet-era armored beast responded in kind, its 100mm main gun belching fire. Immediately, Pauk and Sarancha dropped to their bellies. The return shot passed over their heads by only a few meters, hitting a building behind the hanger they were in. Stored chemicals and weapons turned the desert wastes into the surface of the sun, plumes of fire reaching hundreds of meters into the sky. The concrete under his boots rang out on protest, and the metal framework above them creaked and tore in several places. It took the mere shockwave of the massive shell tipping past them to knock both Spider and Locust off their feet and scrambled their balance. Both men fell into the sand and writhed, but did not stand.

From behind him, Grizli, Nosorog emerged from their task of mating the last batteries to rocket launchers. 

“Ready with the other three, that’s all we’ve got.” Rhino observed, placing the first weapons’ case down by the team lead so it was centered within the hanger’s exposed entrance. Not waiting for orders to do so, Bear sprinted forward to recover the disoriented pair. The leading edge of jihadists were close enough to be seen now, but they were also aware of Volk above them. Every few seconds, one of them collapsed into their own torso or had a large joint evaporate in a crimson sludge. Wild return fire forced the Ukrainian to crouch, but he kept his pace frantic.

Unfortunately for Akula’s team, the failed rocket shot also alerted the tank crew to what it faced, so the T-55 didn’t slow its advance to aim again. Skillfully weaving through wreckage new and old, the behemoth kept its turret aimed at Shark’s glare. The sailor could practically taste the lust for blood from the machine’s crew as it bore down on them. Refusing to be consumed by the backdraft of a high-explosive shell, Akula darted forward and knelt for cover at the collapsed door, firing controlled bursts to keep the tank focused on him.

Aiming the antique anti-tank rocket was stubbornly sensitive, even for Nosorog. Every minor twitch of the joystick built into the control case sent the rocket’s launch rail twitching wildly. Rhino swore to whatever god watched over this hellscape and pressed the trigger as the rocket jiggled into a good boresight. The high-pitched screech resonated off the walls of the hanger as it fired. The noise gave Akula only a second’s gap to duck, the team lead cast an angry gaze toward the Chechen.

Watching the control wires of the Malyutka as they lanced out, Nosorog only gave Akula a knowing nod. The close-call was thankfully rewarded when the Chechen pitched the rocket down at just the right moment to enable its warhead to tear at the seam between turret and chassis. Emerald fire erupted as the T-55’s upper hatch popped into the sky like a pressurized volcano. Even in death, the mechanical titan continued to amble forward until it beached itself on a small sand mound.

Akula echoed Nosorog’s triumphant roar, stepping forward to cover Grizli’s return run. The Ukrainian betrayed no struggle carrying a man under each arm, though he was quick to drop them on the hanger’s floor behind a row of crates. “Fuck, haven’t had this much fun since Robotye!”

Nodding, Shark pointed to Rhino. “You owe him a drink when we get back to Haven.”

“Drink? Hell with that, bastard’s getting laid when we get back!” Grizli laughed.

Pauk snarled, shaking his head. “If we get back…where’s that second tank?”

To announce its presence into their concern, fire suddenly belched through the upper vents and the second floor platforming gave way. Chunks of cement followed the jagged metal and razor glass down, crushing part of the hanger’s central apron. 

On instinct, every member of the team leapt away from the hanger’s center, toward the stronger corners of the fortification. The impact announced to Akula what he’d feared. The NLD got tired of Volk killing their grunts, so they took the risk! Shark pulled the radio from his belt and hailed the endangered pup, but received no answer. 

The act didn’t go unnoticed by the others, inciting an enraged roar from Grizli. Nosorog was much more exasperated, gesturing to the wreckage. “Der’mo, that smashed up the rocket cases! We don’t have any more!”

Akula swore to himself and dropped the magazine out of his rifle for a new one. Running away from the wreckage now put them both in the maw of the second T-55, but also under threat of sea-launched missiles, and whatever was flying their way from the northeast. Re-loading his weapon gave the team lead a look at his watch. He then immediately motioned for the team to remain in cover, as eight minutes had passed amidst all the chaos. “Impact!”

What Akula didn’t know was that the Severodvinsk, a modern addition to the submarine fleet, carried the latest 3M14 ‘Biryuza’ missiles. A leap into the 21st century, these weapons incorporated a target-identification computer with AI assistance. Under most conditions, advanced missiles like the Biryuza would never have been released for such insignificant targets. But the pockets that signed Wildlife’s contract were deep with oil and currency, and the Severodvinsk’s crew needed to drill with a live-weapon for future engagements. That made the risk of Western eyes peeking critical intelligence into the use of the 3M14 worth the use of such weaponry.

Several kilometers out, the sensors of the incoming warheads had identified the movement against the still sands that was the enemy force. Picoseconds later, the centers of enemy formations were calculated and targets of interest were confirmed without need for the submarine’s weapons officers to interfere. Differentiating between moving metal reflections and the smaller human-sized specks, the Biryuzas chose their targets: one drifted slightly to hit the Strela and the other stayed on course, seeking the more-mobile T-55. When that tank suddenly exploded, the AI re-scanned the area and pitched to engage the second tank in less than a second.

Two five-hundred kilogram warheads smashed into their targets almost simultaneously, liquefying the metal and flesh of anything within half a kilometer. The hanger’s multi-meter thick, metal reinforced cement shook apart around them as if clutched by an angry child. It was all Akula and the others could do to just cover their heads and ears, and pray.

********

Part 16 of the Libya campaign, a mission soaked in fire and blood, and the improvisational skills of one Akula, who’s going to be finding sand in his boots the rest of his life. But even if he doesn’t know it, he’s taught me a little something along the way when it comes to taking the punches as they come.

I hope you all enjoy.

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15

Wildlife Security Solutions LLC – Contract #1, pt 15

“Eyes up! Flare!” Grizli announced, pointing the pack’s gaze due north, where the primary target bunker was now besieged by defending jihadists. The smoke rising from a neighboring fortification was splashed infernal orange, adding another layer of hellish hue to the mission gone so wrong.

Yet for a brief moment, there was a dulling of the chaos. Gunfire seemed to die down for a breath. Even a kilometer away, alarmed Arabic filled the sky as separated groups of fighters tried to locate the incoming airstrike that wasn’t coming.

Pauk, you clever shit… Akula let himself muse as he directed his predators toward the descending beacon. Towards the momentarily confused jaws of death. 

From their position at the newly-discovered prisoner pit, Akula could see the muzzle flashes of sporadic rifle fire cackling against plumes of smoke like lightning. The wails of pain and anguish as jihadists tried to push into the uranium bunker again echoed all the way to the Shark’s team. However Pauk’s team was still holding them at bay, the sailor didn’t know, but he was impressed with their resilience.

Before them, only an empty stretch of desert broken by occasional pavement stood between the predators and their teammates. Even at a mad sprint, Akula’s team risked being mauled by any extremist sharpshooter or anyone smart enough to turn around. This meant a detour, which also meant time. Seconds paid for with Skorpion’s blood, and who knows how many other Wildlife members that made it to the ground.

For Shark, it was a foul-tasting compromise, but it was also unavoidable. With a forward gesture, Akula sent his team northwest, to the next closest section of cover and security. The slower path, but also the safer one.  Each break between buildings or wrecks was met with a full sprint, the quartet cycling positions so they covered each compass direction at any time. What could have been a five minute dash was now stretched to triple that time. The thundering gunfire grew angrier and more furious as they approached. 

Akula knew they would be spotted eventually, even dressed in desert-patterned camo. But some small dose of luck graced them as they hit the final open sprint from a crew bus shelter to the two hardened bunkers near the heart of the airbase, the hiding place of the uranium. The Shark could see several NLD fighters trying to push forward at that moment, only to be cut down or scattered by carefully-measured, controlled defensive fire. Wild yells in Arabic clashed together as several small pockets of jihadists tried to coordinate among themselves, to include over radio. 

That gave Akula a moment’s opening, which he vectored his pack to take. In that moment’s distraction, Grizli and Volk ran ahead another dozen meters to skirt around a broken fuel bowser. Shark and Rhino aimed not to cover them, but at another flank of frustrated fighters who were preparing a mortar launcher they’d pulled from dead comrades.

He’d given his comrades no cue to act, for the team lead trusted their instincts as two distinct pairs. First came the distinct ‘klack’ of Volk’s SR-1 pistol, quickly followed by surprised screams. Then erupted Grizli’s Pechang heavy gun, and those wails were quickly silenced. The mortar team found itself torn between loading their launcher and defending their position of attack. Akula and Nosorog gave them neither option. The Chechen was as indiscriminate as he was enraged, emptying his rifle’s magazine into the four-man enemy team.

Unlike the previous Vampyr launcher they’d acquired, Akula knew none of his team were especially qualified in using the now-abandoned mortar tube. Instead, he pushed ahead, Nosorog at his side. Bear and Wolf matched their movement a dozen meters to the left, before the four reached the outer fence line of the bunker.

They were close enough now that Akula could make out the rapid movement of Pauk between abandoned forklifts and large towers of crates. Spider kept his position mobile, at the detriment of taking precise shots at the NLD defenders. On a second level, crouched on what looked like a crane assembly, another of the Wildlife team was taking careful shots at whatever peered above cover. Akula couldn’t see the darkness of early morning through the bunker, which worked in their favor. Looks like no one’s tried to breach the other door…maybe they don’t have any heavy guns left!

“Vpered!” Shark ordered again, and the four men swept forward once more, saving their current magazines and clips for only precise shots. A sudden roar of shock dropped the team lead and the Chechen to their knees. Across the chaos, a hidden quintet of enthusiastic, or perhaps desperate, NLD fighters sprang from their cover to try taking Volk and Grizli in bloody hand-to-hand knife-fight. One man had driven a long blade into the Wolf’s armored shoulder, which had earned him a return stab through the chin and lower jaw. Volk’s fang was still sticking out of the dead man’s face as he dropped.

Two other men were backing Grlizi away from his teammate with systemic kicks and mid-section punches. Nosorog dropped one of them with a short rifle burst. This let Bear catch the second man’s leg and bring his mighty elbow down on the vulnerable knee. The sharp wail of pain failed to cover the clean ‘crack’ of breaking bone. As a gesture of merciful rage, the Ukrainian hulk grabbed his downed foe by the neck and drove him face-first into the sands, where he did not stir again.

The final two extremists chose to run, revealing their undisciplined instincts. Whether they ran for help, for heavy arms, or home, Akula didn’t know. Nor did Shark care, as he dropped both enemies mercifully with shots center-mass.

Another bust of defensive fire from Pauk’s position gave the sailor time to move to his other squadmates. Grizli was quick to set Volk down against the Bear’s tree-trunk of a leg and examine the wound. 

“Got through the shoulder strap, not too deep.”Bear informed the Shark, who already had liquid bandage in hand.

Akula could see the knife bob and move with every breath Volk took as he began to seal the wound. Ripping off a chunk of gauze and balling it, he gave it to Volk. “Bite down, this will hurt.”

To his amazement, Volk gave Aklua a quick, galvanized glare, before swiftly reaching back and pulling the blade from his own flesh. Neither a whimper or a wail escaped Wolf’s throat as Akula patched up what he could. Instead, the criminal kept his eyes hard and focused forward. It was a phenomenon Akula had seen before, ‘combat high’ being its most applicable name. He’ll sleep for a day when the adrenaline wears off. Maybe Grizli’s nurse can rub his belly later…

“Slushat! Silence!” Nosorog announced, which took Akula off-guard. But then he cocked his head aside for the moment and heard…nothing. No more gunfire cracking into the sky.

With a nod, Akula has the Chechen peer over their location. The team lead pushed in the last bit of liquid bandage with a patch under the damaged vest strap. Volk only grunted under the strain, making the sailor wonder just what the hell the youngest of their troop had endured.

“No movement. Looks like Pauk held the line.” Rhino reported.

Nodding, Akula pulled Volk to his feet and patted him on the non-wounded shoulder. He then nodded to Grizli, who moved forward slowly. The last two hundred meters to the main target was trekked slowly, each man covering the others.”

“Took you fucks long enough!” Spider yelled as Akula’s team came within a few meters. 

“Stopped for borscht on the way.” Akula replied, waving to Sarancha on the second level. Dragonfly waved back before slinging his AK-12 to his back.

“Skorpion?” Akula asked.

Pauk pointed grimly to a body leaned against a large metal container near the sealed northwest-facing door. “Two to the upper leg, two more in the stomach. He died moaning for his Svetlana.”

“Then let’s make sure she gets something back.” Shark nodded bluntly, before something ‘bang’ed on a braced door across the hanger.  The door allowed entry into what looked like a painting room. The windows had been braced with metal grating and tainted with tike, but Akula could make out several silhouettes moving behind it. At the door itself was the fourth man of Pauk’s team, who Akula didn’t recognize. “New blood?”

“Yeah, Kontrol gave me some motor-rifleman from fucking Siberia! Doesn’t talk much, so that’s good. Gnoo!”

Wordlessly, the sentry ran over to his team lead and saluted Akula. “Reporting.” Gnoo announced in a baritone that could rattle glass.

Despite Grizli’s snicker at the assigned name, Akula saluted back. “How many do you have in there?”

“Six Koreans, sir. Unarmed. They were sent in here by their assigned guards when we hit the hanger.” Mosquito announced professionally, making the Bear chuckle again.

Akula looked to Pauk, who gestured outside the hanger, towards two stacks of cement blocks. “We caught them there. Pinned them down and neutralized them. Skorpion moved too far out of cover, … dumbass.”

Akula nodded silently, then noticed a digital chirp perk up from under a workbench. Both Pauk and Nosorog were quick to train their weapons on it, the Spider moving in slowly. The odd tones chattered rhythmically, and repeated themselves once over before going silent.

Looking under the bench, Pauk waved Rhino off. “Clear! Hand-held sat-phone. No wires or distortions. Might have been dropped.” 

Carefully, the former intelligence soldier picked up the communications device, showing it to Akula. “Cheap Czech trash, I’ll break the encryption on it when we get back.”

“How exactly are we doing that?” Volk spoke in a level tone, despite the drained look in the pup’s eyes. 

Shark checked his watch and frowned. Twenty-nine minutes remained until their fighter cover was back in the air, and that assumed everything went completely smooth. Did you make it back, Liliya?

The team lead then looked over the remaining members of his operation. He knew from background that none of the original crew were qualified to fly anything, and the missile strike hadn’t left anything flyable on Al Jufra anyway. Akula cast a quick glance at Gnoo, who was heading back to the secured door. Even if Mosquito had wings, he’d never carry us all…

An unfortunate thought then struck him. Rashadi insisted that the attack jets be spared…does he have pilots? Or were we just your errand boys led to slaughter?

Akula then recalled the escaping personnel carrier they’d seen race off into the night, and checked his watch again. He then looked to Nosorog and Grizli. “Are those hanger doors sealable?”

Both larger men looked at each other, then hurried off to their assigned tasks. The Ukrainian engineer went forward to inspect the mechanisms holding the large metal barrier open while the Chechen electrician went upstairs and past Sarancha into a small control booth.

When Pauk gave Akula a confused look, the sailor filled him in on the fleeing jihadists. The Spider nodded grimly. “Even if they just bring men and light arms, they’d overwhelm us.”

“Precisely. Take Sarancha and recon the perimeter. 500 meters at most, and get every working rifle or rocket you can carry.”

“They won’t just call in more airpower and bury us?” Spider rightly asked the sailor.

To which Akula shook his head, even if he wasn’t sure of his own response. “Not if they want even a little bit of Korean cash for this war. They admit to bombing their allies, and the NLD loses its outside backers.”

That answer seemed to satisfy the Spider enough, and he waved down his companion for their new task. Once they were outside, Akula took out his radio again to hail the operation’s naval support in the Mediterranean. “Shutnik, Akula. Relay to Haven that if the sponsor wants his gear, he best come and get it now.”

He could hear the puzzlement on the brow of Moskva‘s combat coordinator across the digitized airwaves. “Understood, relaying now. Be advised, we’re tracking unidentified air assets heading due south-southeast from Marsa Brega, traffic pattern suggests they’re inbound to you. We count four, maybe five.”

Akula had heard that name somewhere, but it took laying out his map on top of a crate to pinpoint where. It was an international airport well northeast of Al Jufra. In fact, it was only a hundred kilometers east of Haven, which gave Shark pause. If the LUA has some kind of airpower, they may not know we’re here…and where the hell were they for any of this? “Any clarification on type or time of arrival?”

“Unknown, returns are out of range now. Based on last reported speed and course, expect helicopters.” Moskva reported, seemingly annoyed that the ground team hadn’t put that together on their own. Once again, Akula wished Pasha was on the other end of his radio, and not just for her soothing voice.

Akula summoned Volk over as his other two men were still occupied with inspecting the hangar’s fortifications. The sailor handed the pup the flare gun and low-light goggles from his shoulder and helmet. “You’ve got the keenest eyes and ears. Anything comes flying in, we must identify. Stay in cover unless cleared.”

Silently, the Wolf nodded his understanding. First, Volk grabbed a SV-98 scoped rifle from the body of one of the Korean defenders that had been pulled inside. Once he’d checked his new weapon’s sighting and ammunition, Volk headed up to the second level and to the hangar’s roof through an access ladder over the painting room.

For just a moment, Akula let himself breathe, not thinking about how even the best decision in a bad scenario still wasn’t a good decision overall. Looking back over his shoulder, he scowled at the large metal hatch and stairwell leading down beneath the sands. Metal barrels stacked three-high were waiting in the dark for a team of men or small crane to put them on trucks. Looking down beyond the stacks, the low ‘hum’ of electronic gear greeted him, making the team lead wonder just how long this uranium operation had been in business. How many billions of rubles do we bury? Would all those men now burning in the sands even care?

Akula shook that thought as metal shrieked against metal, signaling the movement of the large hanger’s main door. Grizli came running out of a corner where he’d been inspecting one of the barriers motors, and the Ukrainian shouted up at the Chechen a level above them. “Stop! The door chain is…!”

With a violent ‘snap’, the main chain pulling the entrance closed split, sending two spiked metallic whips across the span of the hanger and sparking off the wall. Both sections of the door fell first to the floor, then forward and out into the open desert. Pauk and Sarancha scrambled away to avoid being crushed by the broken barrier.

Spider screamed a brief string of expletives into the hanger before catching his tongue in his throat. Akula heard it after a moment as well, the distant rumble of mechanized thunder. In the open desert, it seemed to radiate from every direction. 

“Here they come, Shark. Looks like that troop carrier is coming back with friends. Two tanks and a fuckton of technicals from southwest. Call it…two-one-six off north, at six kilometers. Armor looks like old T-55s” Volk reported in.

“Any anti-air guns?” The team lead asked, checking his watch again. Eight minutes until Vorobey is back in the air…

“Da, and a mobile Strela with the armor.” Reported the Wolf.

Akula snarled, checking over the map. Of course they would bring another SAM launcher, didn’t the Osa cost us enough tonight?! “Stay concealed! Maybe this will get us more naval support!”

The Shark switched his radio over to the Moskva‘s controller. “Shutnik, we have reinforcements closing on our position! Do you have anything left?”

“Negative, Shark…wait, standby.” the cruiser’s coordinator replied, then the channel shifted to encrypted static for a moment.

************

Part 15 in my story of blood, bullets, and bad timing. It’s been a spell since I had dedicated time to work on what I actually WANT to write, versus finishing a Bachelor’s and trying to psych myself up to go for a Master’s. Maybe some of Akula’s grit and stubborn determination will rub off on me…

Many special thanks to my dear friend Mayumi, aka BonusParts, who continues to help me make my writing better!

I hope you all enjoy.

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14

Wildlife Security Solutions, LLC – Part 0: The Desperate Cub

He ran his hand along the decrepit railing of the old dining car again, trying to keep his hands from shaking. Igor is late…Galina said he’s never late…

In the isolation, with only the creaking of old metal under his boots, he was tempted to sit in one of the old booths. To let his mind wander back to the times his grandfather praised. Back in the “glory” days of Stalin or Khrushchev, when a man’s duty was to the State first. ‘It’s not your parents, or your siblings that will feed you. Make you strong. The Union takes care of us, defends us, makes our Bolshevik forefathers proud!’ The old bastard told him over and over, usually punctuated by a fist to the ribs or the jaw. 

Maybe if I lived through the Krauts, I’d be able to live on hate alone… Fyodor scowled, shoving his hand back into his ragged coat. His right hand briefly touched the forbidden satchel in his custody. The gift from Galina to Igor that was worth more than he’d ever be. Galina had told him so when she took it out of the gold-trimmed humidor on her desk and gave it to him, before kissing his crown and sending him off. Fyodor didn’t understand what was so special about the bag of white powder in his grasp, but he’d seen it in use enough times to know that it was best kept sealed.

For a moment, however, the teenage courier was tempted to take a small sample, and let his mind drift back in history. Maybe that would settle the gnawing of hunger in his belly, or the ache in his teeth from his grandfather’s parting gift.

Three loud bangs snapped Fyodor from his thoughts and yanked the young man to his feet. Quickly, he ran to the side door of the rail car and pulled it open with all his strength, allowing the entry of Igor. The buyer was much taller than the delivery boy, wearing a fine vest and trousers in defiance of the chill outside the train car. Such attire also revealed the many pock-marks along the man’s veins and muscles, which told Fyodor as much as Igor’s bloodshot eyes did.

What Galina hadn’t told Fyodor to expect was the second person to enter the car. In knee-length heels, something that could barely call itself a skirt, and a top too small to cover any sort of flesh, an auburn-haired woman stepped into the car obediently behind Igor. Even inside the dining car, which blocked the breeze of the cold Lidoga morning, she shivered in place. Fyodor’s eyes instantly went to her, though Igor did not make space for her to sit next to him in one of the booths.

“You have something for me, little der’mo?” Igor demanded, glaring at every move Fyodor made as the boy sat across from the buyer.

Nodding, Fyodor pulled out the bag and set it in front of Igor. Almost immediately, the woman reached out a hand for it, only to have it smacked away by her master. Igor looked only at the bag, lifting it up to weigh it and shake it to see the tiny grains shimmer in the cloud-dimmed sun.

“It’s…it’s just as promised.” Fyodor nodded, clenching his fists so they didn’t move.

Igor snorted at that, before letting the bag fall to the table. “And that whore Galina really expects to buy my market with this? Stupid suka!”

With that, Igor swept the bag off the table, causing it to open and spray the precious cargo all over the rusted floor. Shrieking, the silent woman dove after it as if it were gold. Trembling, the broken companion picked up small mounds of the powder to sniff, gasping for more with each hit.

Fyodor suddenly felt two strong hands grab his coat and pull him out of the booth. Igor gave only a small grunt as he slammed the teenager spine-first onto the table, knocking the wind from Fyodor’s lungs. Keeping the young man pinned with a forearm to the neck, Igor reached under his vest and pulled a knife. It was a blade Fyodor recognized, as his grandfather owned its predecessor. Many times, the old bastard had waved the blade at Fyodor in a drunken rage, bragging about how the Spetsnaz DV-2 knife was effective at draining the blood of those not loyal to the State. How Fyodor needed to work even harder and longer to keep the blade from finding him.

“Here’s what you’re going to do, little der’mo. You run back and tell that bitch that I, very kindly, reject her meager offer.” Igor bellowed, watching Fyodor’s eyes track the blade.

That made the buyer smile wickedly. “No, no, you’re right, kiska. Say nothing, your face will explain everything.”

Out of stark panic, Fyodor kneed upward as hard as he could. Thanks to the height difference and Igor’s reach, the strike caught the larger man right into the groin and forced Igor to stumble back briefly. Now free, Fyodor focused only on the blade as he scrambled to his hands and knees. Without thinking, the teenager twisted his body and spun his legs around, kicking Igor’s arm backwards and away.

The shocked ‘hurck!’ of pain wasn’t something Fyodor expected, nor the blood-curdling scream of fear from the girl now dripping white powder. Bubbling crimson pooled around Igor’s blade hand, which was stuck to the buyer’s breast. Igor’s face paled as the larger man reached out to try and grab Fyodor one last time, before he collapsed on the train car floor and was stilled. 

Again and again, the woman screamed, but didn’t move from her precious pile. This drew the attention of the unnamed man who’d driven Fyodor out to this drop-off point outside of the poor settlement of Lidoga. Fyodor had known better than to try and talk to the driver before this, as the silent chauffeur kept his AKS-74 short rifle visible at all times.

Now, the trembling courier stammered, “I…I didn’t mean! He, he was going to…”

The driver responded without words. Instead, he put the barrel of his rifle to the wailing woman’s  temple and fired three times. Deathly silence filled the air, mixing with gunsmoke in an aura that froze Fyodor in place. Only once the nameless driver confirmed both adults were dead did he pull out a small radio. “This is Zukhov. Tell Obishchiy she was right about Igor.”

Two quick chirps responded to him, and the driver returned the device to his pocket. Turning to look at Fyodor, the man known now as Zukhov nodded approvingly. “Good instincts, shchenok.”

Flipping Igor onto his back, Zuhkov pulled the blood-drenched blade free with surprising ease. Casually, the driver wiped it clean on the dead buyer’s trousers, before handing it handle-first to Fyodor. “Galina will want to see you, if you take this. Stay, and only jail awaits.”

Fyodor looked at the blade, then to Zukhov, then back at the knife. There was a serenity to the emptiness inside the teenager right now, knowing that nothing good waited for him outside the walls of the dining car. Stealing food and sleeping in the street was little better than incarceration. What was extended to him now was something much better than either of those choices. At least Galina kissed me once, maybe she will again before she kills me…

Fyodor took the blade, then took Zukhov’s outstretched hand to stand up. “What happens now?”

Zukhov gestured for Fyodor to exit the train car. “If Galina says so, you have a home and a meal. Otherwise, you join that svoloch and no one will care.”

“And what will you say?” Fyodor said, looking at the blade while he walked out of the car.

At that, Zhukov actually smiled a little.” I say, welcome to our Brotherhood. Maybe one day, you’ll grow up into a Wolf, so long as you remember this day.”

***

A little side-project rooted in the larger WSS story, but born from the weekly Team Writer Image Challenge (with many thanks to Kate Johnston for finding the picture!) Something I have some notes on, but not so much full backstories for, are the main 4 of Akula and company. And that worked well enough until I saw this picture. Then, with some inspiration from my dear friend Mayumi, this piece came flooding out.

I hope you all enjoy.