He was almost all the way down the runway and to the concealed communications van when the screams of swearing became understandable. The source of which didn’t surprise Akula in the least, but the ferocity was quite impressive. Standing next to the HAVOC, Drakon had removed her helmet and was berating her co-pilot for whatever it was he’d done that didn’t match exactly with her direction. As with the last several crewmen paired with her, the co-pilot and gunner for the attack helicopter yelled back, which normally would have just continued the tirade. But this time was different, and the subordinate had yelled back in his native Georgian. Any nearby chatter or commotion immediately stopped as anyone who heard it turned to gaze at the man, who looked most unnerved by the attention.
Which meant he didn’t see Drakon’s fist catch him in the nose, knocking his head back into the side of the Mi-28 and laying the man out cold on the landing pad. A move that the pilot followed with a kick to the side and to spit on her co-pilot. “Insolent trash!” she yelled at him, before noticing Akula watching the scene. The crimson quickly faded from her cheeks as she ran a hand through her bobbed black hair. “Why can’t we get proper manning for these jobs?” she asked with a sigh.
Akula just shook his head. “Because Silverback likes watching you beat people, it’s how he gets off, the fat fuck.”
Drakon laughed at that and jogged across the runway to where Akula stood, helmet tucked under her arm. “I’m glad you called in an assist, it’s dull as fuck flying circles up there waiting for someone to screw up.”
Akula let himself grin a little, to offset the unease still bouncing around in his mind, “You’re welcome, though you missed a spot giving us the buzz treatment on the way back!” A point he punctuated by running one hand through the personally buzzed mop of brown hair on his head.
Standing on her tiptoes, Drakon mussed Akula’s dew with her free hand, “Nah, looks like I did you a favor. Now your Bear can flirt with you and not me!”
He had to laugh at that, “I think you’re the only woman who’s ever frightened that cossack!”
“Good!” Drakon smirked, before nonchalantly pointing her thumb at the van. “Gonna tell Kontrol about your surprise guest, or will Silverback eat that one?”
Akula grimaced at that, hiding his astonishment that she’d actually seen the Korean in her flyby. “My mission, my report…should’ve been my team’s interrogation. Did you hear they brought Solomon down?”
The pilot nodded grimly. “It’s not just him, they brought Navuk too. Heard them working a few nights back on someone Pauk’s team brought in…”
Clenching his fist to repress the shudder, Akula looked back to the small square block of stone where the Korean had been taken. Below the shifting sands, Solomon would break the man’s will to live, while Navuk would learn all the poor bastard’s secrets. Unlike the simple direct methods of violence Akula’s team was crafted for, those two were savants in torture and suffering not seen since Stalin’s reign.
Desperate to change the subject, the soldier looked back over Drakon’s head to her HAVOC. “Glad to see they finally got you something that didn’t see action in the Afghan War.”
Thankful for the snap back to happier things, she smiled over-exuberantly, “Da, it’s good to not worry about putting my boot through the floor. Still, that old ‘8 could dance when she had to. May she rust well.”
Akula chuckled, thinking back to being tossed out of the rear hatch during a windy drop in the rocky wastelands known as Mongolia. A memory that made his ribs ache, but his chest feel light.
A moment that wasn’t lost on Drakon, “Pasha’s probably on shift now. Go file your report, let her see you. Poor little milyy must be lonely.”
“We do have much to discuss,” he thought aloud, looking up into the clear blue sky, “Nosorog may become a problem.”
“Another case of shit hiring,” the pilot scowled. “Would be a shame if a Vikhr wound up in his ass.”
Even if it was mostly a joke, Akula let his imagination wander with that thought, about the few remaining fibers of the Chechen would remain when the anti-tank rocket hit him center-of-mass. How easy it would be to just call it a training accident… “You think in wicked ways, Liliya.”
“And you watch your back Maykl, before that filthy rhino gores you.”
Before Akula could reply, the echo of thundering boorishness resonated up the runway as Silverback approached with a howl. Seeing their frontline manager so red with anger, the soldier just shook his head. “He’s going to fire you this time, you know.”
Drakon gave a scathing ‘hiss’ to that. “Let him try, I’ll kick his ass back to Kabul.” With a shake of her head and one last nod to Akula, the pilot answered the summon of their overlord. A showdown that he very much wished he could watch, but she was right. There was a report to file, a smile to soothe him, and the melodic voice of his beloved to pull him out of the crush and back to the shore.
Offset from the end of the runway strip, under a blanket of camouflage netting and generator noise, the three-axle SATCOM truck waited, looking favorably empty at the moment. Only one fellow soldier leaned against the front tire, lost in his assigned detail of counting every grain of Saharan sand through closed eyes. Not even meaning to, Akula simply walked up to the door of the truck without so much as an acknowledgement. Already full of anger and disgust, the Shark carefully placed one hand on the vehicle door while raising the other forearm.
I’m doing you a favor, before Silverback catches you sleeping… In one fluid second, Akula cranked the truck’s side door open as loudly as he could, jolting the sleeping sentry out of his stupor. Easily, Akula pinned the man to the side of the truck with his forearm and pressed, letting the shock of the attack drive the sleeping soldier’s eyes wide as Akula held him there for a moment. “Nice job, Trup. Now you sleep forever, and I’m stealing every secret this van has.”
The choking comrade tried to retort something, but Akula freed his other hand from the truck and tossed Trup spine-first into the sand. The smaller defender gasped for the breath stolen by the impact, and Akula let the daze clear away before leaning down to growl in Trup’s face. “Start running.”
A face of agonized disappointment washed over the grounded soldier as he nodded his understanding. True to Akula’s order, the beaten man simply started running back down the runway. If he’s still going when I’m done, I’ll give him to Volk. He’d enjoy someone to stalk for training…
Now angered by both insolence and incompetence, Aklua stepped up into the comms cabin and paused, letting the cold air conditioning wash over him. The shock tensed his muscles and made him grimace, but he welcomed the sensation of sweat freezing to his brow.
Once the Shark was properly chilled, he made his way down the narrow aisle of chairs and headphones to the front end of the cabin. Below the row of equipment and snugly tucked behind cabling, a small drawer was mounted and locked. Akula pressed his thumb to a small panel on the front, holding it the required three seconds until the internal lock to ‘click’ open and the drawer to pop open. From its contents, the team leader pulled a white smart card and slipped it into the reader to activate the secured computer. The “samyy sekretnyy” banner flashed before him as he logged in to begin the monotony of typing up the mission summary. “At least the Navy prepared me for paperwork…” he muttered.
Most of the documentation was simple enough; team cohesion, ammo expenditure, any interaction with outside forces beyond the target.
That last section gave him pause, and he leaned back in his seat. Now he could breathe, and really think about what it was his team had found. A true North Korean contact here in Libya, speaking with the same sand-rat we’d been sent after. They didn’t turn him away, so money’s probably changed hands already. And they had the uranium already consolidated and packed up for delivery. So how was he getting all that out of here?
Suspecting the captured laptop wouldn’t tell him much, but having more questions than answers, Akula pulled the device out and powered it on. And as he expected, the password screen stared back at him in Hangul. So only he could log in, probably didn’t trust the seller with open access to whatever’s in here. Still, as a precaution, he set the captured device on the other side of the trailer and plugged it into a stand-alone tower that would probe it for hidden transmitters or other malicious bits of betrayal.
Just as he’d done with Silverback, Akula left the laptop out of the official report before saving the document into his personal folder and then password-locking it. He knew full well the bellowing and barking their operations commander would hit him with once Silverback found out about the computer, but the team leader had complied the exact wording of the mission as the contract allowed. Let Kontrol sort this out, once they figure out what’s in this thing…
With that done, Akula opened the Messenger function of his account, one of only four functions afforded to him. And when he saw who was online, back home in the cooler Moscow morning, he let himself truly smile for the first time today. “Good morning, babochka, sleep well?”
“Not really, was up most of the night, though I’m guessing it was less work than yours.” Pasha wrote back, which Akula read back to himself in that wonderfully delicate voice of hers.
He wanted to dive in, to ask all the questions close to his heart about her day. To see her face, even over the digital line. Or even better, to wrap her back up in his coat as they walked by Lake Syamozero. But now is not the time for dreams.
Akula knew all too well that even this enciphered chat would not remain secure. Somewhere, thousands of miles from his seat, some bored Brit, Scandinavian, or Yankee, was sitting at their own computer and watching the bits flow to and from. Wildfire made sure to brief its teams before every mission on how many outsiders they expected to be watching them.
“Just wait until you read the report. It’s got Silverback red in the face.” The team lead responded vaguely, sending his finished report to Pasha, and then waiting.
“Blyad, you’re joking!” She soon responded, being a much faster reader than he was an author.
“I wish, life would be simpler if I were.” Akula scowled at the screen. “Is anyone else in your spaces today?”
“Not at the moment, morning coffee just started,” she responded back equally cryptically, though he understood perfectly. “Why?”
“I have a gift for you.” A point that was punctuated by the sanitizer behind him ‘ping’ing to alert Akula it had finished. With that done, he plugged in a new cable and began the intensive process of device-mirroring, to copy all that the laptop was over to Kontrol.
“Is it your return flight?” She asked, jamming a sorrowful screw between his ribs. Akula growled to himself. You have to know she’d ask, idiot…
“I wish so, instead I gift you a complication.”
“Der’mo, don’t say such things!” Pasha scolded, which Akula couldn’t tell if she were snide or serious. But given what he was about to send her, he could feel just how deep her frown would be across her lips, how far her shoulders would drop away from the messy russet curls Akula loved to swim in.
“It’s not something I wanted to bring you, babochka. Had half a mind to ignore it.” he confessed, now wishing he and Pauk had switched assignments a few days ago. That Spider would love having this golden nugget in his web…
Finally, the Korean’s device had finished, and the virtual copy hovered before him, a treasure trove of trouble and possible intelligence. “Still, you’ll understand when you see it.”
Five clicks later, and the upload began. Billions of bytes raced half the world away, and given how long it took Pasha to type her response, Akula wondered how far her jaw had dropped.
“You just found this?” She asked, the plain question failing to mask her stunned expression in his mind.
“Da, and you’ve got the only copy. Not even that worthless mudak Silverback knows about it.”
“Why? He’s going to have you arrested when he finds out!” Pasha responded in alarm.
“Because that dinosaur would use it as a boot-rest before he did anything useful with it!” Akula retorted, still feeling the embers of fire from his return conversation with the boorish boss. “Can you do anything with it?”
“Not me, but I know who can. I’m sure the basement-dwellers would love to slap their label on this find when the final report comes out.” Pasha chided, which made Akula crack a small grin. “Of course they will, FSB glory-hogs…”
“It will take some time to get through this mess, especially if I have to bring Petro or Vylnia in to translate. You should get rest, get some blood in your stomach.” Pasha advised, which made the Shark’s belly rumble. “It hears you, dorogaya. I promise, I won’t let this bounty keep me from being safe.”
“You better not, asshole. I’ll get you the full rundown of what we get.” she replied with, though the notification of continued typing didn’t fade away. “He misses you, you know. I see it in his eyes.”
The smile wrapped Akula up in warmth before he even realized it, and his hand twitched to cradle the most delicate cargo he’d ever been blessed enough to hold. “And I him, more than he’ll ever know. Give our little lapachka my love.”
“Always…” Pasha’s final message read before the chat window closed. Now lost in thoughts over two-thousand miles away, he dove deeper into his personal file, opening a poorly-labeled ‘New Folder’. Inside was but one item; a badly-lit, most candid picture of his babochka. Her midnight hair had been hastily rolled in a bun to keep tiny hands from pulling it, and her glasses were more smudges and dust than visual aids. She wore an oversized hoodie and thick sweats, as she never seemed to generate her own body heat, but that never bothered the ice-water Shark. Even in this moment, her beauty would shame Catherine herself.
The only competition to such radiance sat balanced against her hip, equal parts amazed and stupefied at the world around him. Newborn blue eyes looked up at her, the only open spot on the little one’s face Akula could clearly see. No matter how many times Pasha had described him, the Shark had only his imagination to paint the picture her words relayed. Still, it was a framed moment in time he could spend all night watching, though it would never move. Sleep well, little Andre. The world will be just a little safer when you wake again.
Part three of the Wildfire group, and the mess they’ve stumbled into. It’s been a long time since I kept focus with a full-on story prospect for this long. But it’s been a joy to complicate their lives to date, and its a long way left to go.
I hope you all enjoy.