TW Prompt Challenge – Curse of the Living

It had become the nightly ritual to read the Verlustliste each night before trying to shut his eyes for a scant few hours sleep. To glimpse the latest list of all those who had fallen in the name of His Divinity and the Unendliche Grenze that allowed them to fight. It had started as that last connection Verwüsten had to his squadron mates of old, long after they’d separated across the many units of the Imperial Kriegsflügel and the thousands of worlds now under their dominion. When the war began, the ace pilots had kept in correspondence as much as possible, passing between the feats of heroism or anecdotes of conquest or even love. But those times, those faces, had died away slowly as the years crept on and the engine of war perpetually turned.

Rasierer had been the first to fall, leading his new squadron in glorious battle. All the royalty came out to decorate his coffin with medals and sashes of valor, which made Verwüsten laugh at the time. “The only thing with a higher kill count than Rasierer’s flying is his lust!” he’d toasted to uproarious laughter at the fallen ace’s funeral.

Wild was next to fall, much to his surprise. For the indomitable ace fell not to an enemy, but to poor maintenance that sent his starfighter blazing into an asteroid. On his own order, Verwüsten had personally headed to his old comrade’s unit to lay down the Order of Execution against the ground crew that had failed Wild. 

Hyäne and Schakal died together, as everyone knew they would. The Revolt of the Horsehead Nebula took three years to quell, but his comrades never tired of the battle. Thanks to their efforts, the final rebel line was broken and a million wayward citizens were brought back into the hands of His Divinity. 

No one had expected Hera to die how she did. Someone who’s blood ran so cold, but falling to a heart attack one night in the arms of her wife while on shore leave?

For this, Verwüsten felt the years finally collapse on him, driving him down deep into the darkness of the bottle and the void of anger. There were no more letters now, no more stories to tell among pilots and warriors. Against such emptiness and isolation, the last standing ace dared to blaspheme in a night of drunken rage. In so doing, he cursed the Almighty to rain down mercy in the form of death so he could fly the infinite night with all those fallen. When nothing happened, Verwüsten drove his fists though the viasge of His Divinity, a crime often punished quickly by death for the lesser plebs and common worker. Only his rank and his service had commuted the scythe for now, so graciously leaving him to wither and rot in a furnished prison cell.

“Pardon me, Herr General, the Holy Order have arrived for your nightly confessions.” the sentry to his cellblock informed him, to which the elder man only nodded. Looking down at the list one last time for the night, Verwüsten felt the break in his soul as the tears began to trail down his cheeks like they never had before.

“A prayer for the dead to be forgiven?” the guard asked him while securing the officer’s leg chains.

“Nein, Gunter. A plea for them to forgive me. All the good ones die young, leaving only the wicked and the vile to shamble on in this mortal realm, bartering entry into Heaven, Hell, or nothing at all.”

*****

Another week, another great prompt challenge from the Team Writer FB page! So far,, I’m noticing with these that, while I can crank out starkly different characters or moments in time, I’m not sure yet if any of them are destined for greater things yet. Perhaps one day, once Akula and Draco finish up their stories, one of these will be what I revisit.

I hope you all enjoy.

Wildlife Security Solutions, LLC – Contract #1, pt. 7

The ringing in his ears was the first indication that he was still alive, no matter how much Akula wished he weren’t in that moment. Then came the feeling of bass-powered screams that hit his chest, which also made his brain realize there was a source of searing pain coming from his shoulder and calf. On instinct, the Shark rolled himself back up onto a knee, weapon drawn, though the rifle wobbled and wavered in his hands. 

Being the closest to the explosion, Akula could see Grizli crumpled on the floor by the doorway. The Bear had been blown back spine-first. Pools of blood dripped down from his face, chest and forearms, though Grizli worked feverishly to block them with large bandages packed in his leg pockets. Fortunately for the Ukrainian, his legs still moved, even if they shook in the thralls of shock.

Volk had wisely dove through the doorway and down the stairs to shield himself with the barricade. Though Akula could see the trail of crimson coming from the Wolf’s ear, the smallest team-member still stalked up the half-pulverized ladder to the attic, fang and pistol drawn.

Where Volk had succeeded in finding cover, the Rhino had failed. Now, a dozen craters of streaming blood littered Nosorog’s backside, and the Chechen’s weapon and backpack were completely shredded. Still, the pain drove a look of unbridled rage into those eyes that told Akula they only had a limited time to escape before the team’s adrenaline rush wore off and their bodies gave out. Being closer to Nosorog, Akula went to him first. Taking out his own bandages and patching gauze, the Shark guided the Rhino’s clenched fist towards the larger wounds and had Nosorog apply whatever pressure he could to stop the larger ruby rivers from draining.

With the shock to his nerves starting to wane, Grizli now rose up to a kneel, though this only brought down a torrent of crimson from under the hand covering his face. Akula moved swiftly to the Ukrainian, who growled in agony as he pulled away a soaked piece of torn shirt. Even through the torrent of blood dripping from the pock-marks, the Bear’s eyes were thankfully intact, though his outer ear and cheek were not. With the last large patch of gauze he had, the team lead pushed down on Grizli’s face, making the larger man roar in pain.

“Clear!” came the announcement from the now- smoldering fourth-floor entryway, with the Wolf’s tone dipped in resignation at whatever he’d found.

Akula swore to whatever deity was listening as he spun away from his teammate and ran up the ladder, half clear-minded, half enraged at the carnage. Upstairs, he found Volk keeping his rifle trained on a form behind a thick metal desk that had been tipped over into a makeshift barricade. At the Wolf’s feet was the barrel and sling of an American-made M60 Mk. 43 box-fed machine gun, the same as al-Nujood had been photographed with in their dossier.

Coming around the corner, Akula was greeted by the savaged remains of a man that was more butchered meat than body anymore. The team lead wondered, just for a moment, if Abdullah Saleh al-Nujood, had prayed to his God when the grenades had flown back up in his face. Or did you cower behind your table and weep for mercy…

Nodding to the Wolf, Akula let Volk search the remaining pockets of their target while he inspected the rest of the room. This time, the grenades had done most of the cover-up work instead of Saleh himself, making the Shark’s gut sink even lower than it had before. Carefully, though fruitlessly, Akula swept the barrel of his AK through tattered and torn remains of important papers and the mangled wrecks of a few electronic devices. Only one tablet on a high shelf had survived unscathed, its cover marred with burn marks but its battery charged.

“Yest’ chto-to!” Volk announced, producing a small USB drive, another small bag of methamphetamine crystal pills and a roll of combined Libyan dinar and US $100 bills. 

“At least he paid for his own funeral, ublyudok.” Akula retorted, stopping himself from grinding his heel into al-Nujood’s remains to serve sheer disrespect. Instead, he motioned for the Wolf to follow back down to their teammates. Both of which were standing now, but neither of the larger men looked in fighting shape. “Target terminated, with credit to Bear on his throwing arms.”

Grizli hissed out something resembling a laugh, before having to steady himself against a wall. Directing Volk to steady Nosorog for the descent to the street, Akula took the Ukrainian beast’s arm and helped shepherd him down. It was a slow, arduous trip, one step at a time so no one slipped on pooling blood or their own bootlaces. 

Once at the bottom, Volk and Akula set their wounded passengers down and scanned the street. Fierce fighting could be heard echoing from west to east as the two sides clashed mere blocks away, the corner of another nearby building suddenly being ripped down by a ground-launched rocket. Both the Wolf and Shark agreed without words that simply dragging their larger pair back to the confiscated truck was a no-go. So something else needed to be done and quickly. 

Thankfully, Volk’s eyes remained sharp, and he drew Akula’s attention to a locked bay door across the street. Too small to be a poorly-placed storefront, the Shark took the gamble and sprinted across the road. Once braced against the wall, he shot the two padlocks off their mounts and pulled down two large arresting bars with only raw adrenaline. Once gone, he threw up the unlocked door to find a damaged, but intact, 4-door sedan. 

“Any experience with stealing cars?” Akula inquired, expecting Volk to shake his head and forcing them to keep looking. Instead, the Wolf opened the unlocked passenger door and immediately set to work. The Shark could feel the rush of energy from the night’s chaos starting to fade himself, so he took the emergency caffeine bar from a vest pocket and tore a chunk out with his teeth. The jolt of alertness hit him at the same time the car ticked to life, Volk opening the passenger door from the inside to admit his team-lead in. 

“Do I even want to know?” Akula prompted, though his answer didn’t come from Volk’s words. Instead, the driver pulled his vest and shirt aside just enough so that Akula could make out a tattoo of the Orthodox cross on his chest. Within it was written a simple word: ‘Bratstvo’.

“Tambov?” the Shark asked as Volk inched the car out of the garage, passing the name of the only organized crime group he’d ever heard of.

“Solntsevskaya.” the Wolf answered, setting the car to park close enough to Grizli and Nosorog that the pair could stumble into the vehicle. Exiting the vehicle to cover his team, Akula felt his mind race in many uncomfortable directions. Why the fuck would Kontrol hire a mafia assassin for this?!

That frenzied tide of questions ground to an immediate halt when, over the cacophony of gunfire and foreign shouting, the ‘clack-clack’clack’ of heavy tracks on pavement echoed up to their ears.

“Move, NOW!” Akula yelled, making Volk stomp down on the accelerator and peel away from the now-ravaged house. In the rear-view, the Shark’s dread personified itself into the worn body of a salvaged Soviet-made T-62 main battle tank roaring into view. Immediately stopping in the open part of the intersection, the massive 115mm turreted cannon raised as it turned in their direction. But before it could fire at whatever it had located, the entire tank seemed to jump up in the air, propelled by fire that blossomed from the now-ravaged top hatch all the way down to the street. Choking black smoke bellowed out from the fresh hole that had gutted the armored beast, and Akula suddenly recalled that the Spook Schedule spoke of a Reaper drone in their area. “Apparently even the Americans want us to live today!”

Nosorog offerned a snort of mirth, though this was followed by an anguished ‘hiss!’ as he pulled a long string of metal shrapnel from his tricep.
Grizli looked back at the destroyed war machine and sighed. “Such a waste! My father drove one of those back in the glory days of the Red Army.”
Volk said nothing, keeping his eyes darting between the forward and rear views. To their chagrin, the team passed the remains of their more comfortable ride in, the truck having taken about a hundred rounds through each window, the hood, and the wheels.

The commandeered jalopy kept a dizzying pace until they’d reached the main coastal highway. Once a decent distance from the ongoing destruction, Akula moved to face into the backseat to help triage his team as best his first-aid knowledge could manage. Additionally, every half-hour, he would rotate with Volk to the driver’s seat to ensure neither of them would pass out behind the wheel as their pulses slowed down and muscles de-clenched from the insanity of battle. Though this stretched the return trip to over triple its length in time, the Shark refused to let this contract claim his team on a wasted mission.

“Well, that was a fucking mess…” Grizli summed up after a solid hour of drive time. The Ukrainian only spoke through one side of his mouth as the other one was immobilized under his massive hand. “Did you get anything at all?”

“Barely.” Volk replied, pulling the flash drive from his vest pocket. “Let’s hope this isn’t just Saleh’s porn stash.”

The minced Bear laughed at that, before wincing in agony. “Blyad, there’s easier ways to kill me, pup!”

“Cowardly little rat,” Nosorog ground out through his grimace. “There’s no way we’re getting paid full for this. Not even the drugs will net much.”

“They might, since it’s possible our last pickup brought them in as payment.” Akula corrected. “The baggies were delivered with Korean writing.”

The Rhino snorted at that. “Why pay for uranium with a narcotic? How does that work?”

Akula shrugged. “I don’t pretend to know how the illicit markets work, only that they do. Otherwise, we’d have no work left to us.” 

“Korean product is easy for them to make, even if it’s sometimes real shit quality.” Volk added, before looking surprised, as if he hadn’t meant to let it slip out. Both giants in the backseat noticed this, to which Nosorog spoke first, “And how the fuck do you know that?”

Grizli quickly stepped in before Volk could respond. “You didn’t think he was hired because of his shiny fur coat, did you? Our little shchenok probably worked Far East.”

The Wolf nodded, which Akula wondered if this was something to cover his slip, or if Volk had been conscripted at one point. “23rd Air Defense out of Primorskiy Kray, before spending a year at the Border Guard in Khasan…and I hated every day of it all.”

“Ha! I knew it heard that Primo slur in your tongue, pup!” Grizli chuckled, an underlying hiss of pain very much audible in his mirth, which concerned Akula. 

“Are you sure you didn’t take any metal to the brain, Bear?” Nosorog questioned, pulling another filament chunk from his own shoulder meat. 

A point the Ukrainian brute shrugged away. “Not the first time someone tried to blow me up. Last time, it was those Luhans’k pig-fuckers.Took down most of my team with landmines before we brought their shit-hut down on their heads.”
This time, it was Nosorog that looked surprised. And as the car rolled to a stop for the mandated driver swap, the Rhino asked his neighbor. “So you understand?”

“Da, completely.” Grizli answered. An agreement that Akula filed away in his memory for later, should it ever arise to try and kill him.

*****

Part 7 of the ongoing tales of trying to survive the horrors’ of war. I was very torn on this one, if I wanted to kill one of the squad or not. then, I did something I normally don’t do for these stories and thought ahead, creating something too good to pass up for these four later on. So they all live to fight another day…for now

I hope you all enjoy.

New Horizons Air Service: Mission #3 – The Inside Man Looks Out

10 April 1970

Sword

The benefit of this ragtag crew of mercenaries was that they had built themselves an operational pattern. A routine that was track-able, measurable and that revealed the needs of the independent government. And breaks in that routine would be of interest, even if it was a day of complete doldrums. A mercenary idle is a sinkhole, a mercenary dead is a tax write-off.

And such predictably was a banquet of intelligence for him to collect.

Yousef’s morning had begun like it always had; before anyone else’s. The dim hours before the sun were a good time for his Krav Maga sparring practice with his crew-chief, a fellow Israeli named Lior. Unlike Yousef, the shorter man had come to Rhodesia back when it was still the British Southern Rhodesia, and had been useful to his homeland in monitoring the goings-on of the civil unrest and whispers of rebellion. But when Yousef was deployed, that had changed overnight, and now Lior was a mechanic. Daily, the demoted Lior protested this in some form, but he’d taken to the work decently enough not to kill Yousef. 

Still, the time prior had been well spent, and Lior had established several pipelines and secured information connections back to the homeland and Mossad, Israel’s main foreign intelligence organization. Their home organization was very interested in how and why both Eastern and Western pilots were now flying in defense of an illegitimate national government. This also meant Lior was Yousef’s main connection back home, so the pilot was often relegated to inspecting his own J-21 Jastreb and reading the few Hebrew books he could get his hands on. 

Yousef paid little mind to Aadi’s takeoff. That was as routine as the sunrise by now, and watching Draco head out for the day’s first combat mission was also of no surprise. Besides the American, Yousef had the best aircraft to pound anti-government rebels back into the savanna. Shu and her CF-5 could do a mission adequately, but the Chinese pilot’s aircraft would take at least the day to put back together. Aadi carried only a couple small bombs on his Skymaster, so that left Pavel and himself.

Another constant of any given day was that the Russian would run his laps. Yet the MiG-21 was the next to emerge from its hanger, and loaded with its finest air-air missiles, a move which gave Yousef pause. Sitting up from his hammock, the Israeli snapped his fingers, signaling his crew-chief to come running. “What do you make of that?”

Lior scowled his normal grimace, “Not sure, we haven’t been called yet.”

Yousef nodded, setting his book down to watch Pavel’s takeoff. In a display of the interceptor’s sheer power, the FISHBED stood on its tail and raced almost straight up into the sky. Someone’s either nervous or anxious…a dangerous mix when you tow air-air missiles around. He watched Pavel for as long as he could make out the sleek lines of the Russian, before losing it to distance, its path starting to turn southeast.

“What do you think?” Lior asked as the echoing thunder of Pavel’s thunderous liftoff died away.

“I think a nice sabich is in order. Go to the deli and see if they have anything, I’m going to pay Chetting a visit.” Yousef replied, nodding toward the airstrip’s control tower. 

Lior nodded his understanding of Yousef’s masked instructions to get in touch with their home office in Tel Aviv and find out what their employer had told the Russian. A request that would take the crew-chief a good portion of the day, leaving Yousef time to check on their air controller and see where both of his comrades had been sent off to today. Pavel’s rare flights took him beyond the reach of the local airspace, but Yousef made note to at least see where the Russian flyer was heading.

The air traffic control tower was much like the rest of the buildings on Station Diana, made of scraps and whatever rubbish Rhodesia’s Special Air Service had been willing to spare. How the bulbous observation and radar control deck didn’t collapse on the myriad of shipping containers serving as its support legs, Yousef had no idea. But the structure had stood tall and weathered storms, occasional gunfire and the very rare bush elephant charge.

Shelving his pilot training for the moment to prepare his primary role, Yousef simply waited in his hammock to let both his fellow pilots get closer to their day’s quarries. Only when he found a good stopping point in his current book did the Israeli head towards the control tower. Ascending the stairs, Yousef let each steady breath coach him back into his role. You are Da’veed Alon, veteran of the Six-Day War and one who flies for money… he let the voice of his case officer repeat in his mind on a loop until Da’veed opened the door.

The smell of cheap cigarettes and gin assaulted his nose as the Israeli entered, followed quickly by the pompous sounds of London as the main airspace controller raised a glass to him. “Well look who decided to pop ‘round! Care of a taste of Her Majesty’s lifeblood?” Pembroke Chetting asked, not waiting for an answer to pour the second glass.

Da’veed took the drink with a smirk, “Starting early, aren’t we? It’s not even noon yet.” 

A remark the Englishman chuffed at and brushed aside, “What, are you my mum now? Come to make me eat my veg and all that?”

“No, I just finished giving her a proper fuck, maybe make you a sibling,” the Israeli chided, causing more than a few of the air controllers and radio operators to burst out laughing while Chetting just flipped him off, “Such a fucking twat, you are.”

It only took a moment, but a moment was all Yousef needed. When Pembroke leaned down to tap the dead ash off his smoke, the Mossad agent was given a clear view at the main radar scope. Aadi was slowly making his slow trail up to the city of Lusulu.The American was coming around in a right turn over some point deep in the Sikumbi Forest. I knew these anti-colonial fighters weren’t done yet…

And then there was the Russian, making a bee-line due southwest and out of the country. It wouldn’t have surprised Yousef in the slightest if the red bastard were doing the same thing he did to get here; running away from the fight. But the lack of panic and chaos in the tower told him that this was different. “Where is dear comrade going?” Da’veed asked.

The Englishman shrugged, which was partly expected. To maintain security, the air controllers only get a two line fax from Salisbury on a specially-maintained machine on the far side of the room. Normally, just thanks to the speed of bureaucracy, the pilots were firing up their engines before the tower received the notice that a mission was underway, which didn’t help the case of absolute professionalism that was Pembroke Chetting. It hadn’t taken Yousef long to figure out their British overseer, but it was an avenue left unexploited for now. A fly in my web best saved for later.

At the moment, Da’veed took a sip of the acrid liquor before helping himself to an open pack of unguarded cigarettes as his target took a long drag, a sign Chetting was getting ready to rant. “Like those crown-licking twats in the capital tell us anything. Oh sure, ‘defend the land and secure prosperity’ and all that trite, but fuck all what that actually means!…”

Da’veed sat back to let the Englishman vent, which was thankfully cut short when a black phone rang by one of the forward radio operators calling in a launch from New Saram Air Base. This time, Da’veed was free to ask. “Another round of bush-wacking from the locals today?”

Chetting nodded, flicking his lighter open and closed, as he did when he couldn’t meddle in things. “Probably off to find whatever it was that came across our scope last night, half-past midnight. Something slow and low, maybe another caravan of Santa’s goods.”

More like another gift from the Soviets to these ‘poor, oppressed revolutionaries’, Yousef concluded himself, thinking back to the message stuffed inside the falafel Lior brought back last night from Redcliff. Whether it was advisors or hardware, he didn’t know, but both were dangerous in their own rights.

“Why not look for it last night?” Da’veed asked. A simple question keeping in cover, since Yousef already knew the answer.

Chetting waved with his smoking hand over at the surrounding windows, “Some of these twats can barely fly in good weather! And you expect ‘em to fly and night and NOT hit a zebra or some other rubbish?” The airboss polished off his glass in one seamless swish. “You should be worried about gettin’ some flight time yourself today, or else the Yank’s gonna have your number!”

This time, Da’veed waved nonchalantly. “They’ll call if he needs backup, he’s run dry on the big payloads anyway.” 

“You always countin’ other people’s bombs, Alon? Or just his?” Chetting barbed. To which the Israeli chuckled, “Know your competition, and you’ll know when to expect work. Not that anyone else wants your job, Pembroke.”

Suddenly, one of the junior air controllers shot up from his seat like it had bitten him. The poor young man went pale and sprinted across the room to the jabbering mess that was the data line tied into the main Rhodesian Air Force monitoring system.. “Begging your pardon, sir! But the Air Force is calling SOS and scrambling! Sounds like a Dakota went down!”

Slightly more sober than he was a moment before, Chetting scrambled over an obstructing coffee table to take the call, snapping at the radio controller next to him to take action. That was Da’veed’s cue to leave, but not before noting the four new blips coming out of nearby Thornhill Air Base, fast and angry. You don’t send fighters on search and rescue unless you have no choice…or unless someone’s looking to finish their kill.

Leaving the commotion of the tower behind, Yousef checked his watch and smiled. Only a few more minutes until Santa arrives, if Lior read right.   

A few minutes later, waiting for his counterpart to return, Yousef heard the faint echo of constant thunder rumbling over him. But we’re not on the civil air traffic path… he looked up with caution. Almost imperceptible, two metallic stars raced across the sky from the southwest, and the Israeli’s jaw locked. 

Even back at his parking spot, he could hear people yelling inside the tower, which was magnified when the door opened to let Chetting and others outside to see what had so easily invaded their territory. Yousef watched in horrified awe as the two blurs simply continued on their way. He didn’t doubt the Rhodesians were screaming up at them, but the pair simply kept flying unperturbed. 

“Looks like I’m getting a sabich later tonight as well…”

******

Part 3 of a somewhatstalled NaNo project, but one I definitely had fun writing. Historical fiction is hard, especially trying to avoid the anachronisms of technology levels in a short-lived post-colonial power WHILE trying to accurately depict the cultural norms of the time. Should I be more liberal with the setting for the sake of writing the story? Or stick more with the historical accuracy if possible and likely alienate some readers….hoo boy

I hope you all enjoy.

TW Prompt Challenge – Overplanned Thievery

When planning the perfect heist, he’d considered every possibility and trap in the old apothecary. How to counter the hidden traps laid carefully in the creaky old shelves that cradled the many portions and brews. Cheating the cloaked spells that safeguarded the secrets of all the concoctions that could snatch his prize from his waiting hands. He’d even considered the old shopkeeper and brewmaster Altrunix, and had prepared a dagger for the old coin-pincher.

So when Pullonius entered the shop on the day he’d planned for the heist, the repetition and the planning helped keep his pulse down to a steady roar. While ransaking the store for all its gold and rare creations could have yielded him a fine bounty, he was only concerned with one prize. An old mixture, hidden in the back of a high shelf, and rarely glimpsed by living eyes.

“Ah, welcome welcome, young master! What fine creations can I interest you in today?” the hunched-over meister asked as he hobbled over to the store’s main countertop.

“I’m…well, I’m looking for something to improve my fate.” Pullonius responded, trying not to fixate on his target, which was now behind the old man.

Altrunix hummed sagely in his understanding. “Well now, that is no small request, my lad. How do you seek to make it better? Gulford’s Blend of a Thousand Warriors? Or, perhaps, Susanna’s Tears of the Longing Heart?”

“What about Zolfred’s Bile for Indomitable Will?” the young thief blurted out, naming the first exotic blend he could think of.

A request that Altrunix nodded at, only somewhat masking the surprise crinkling his wrinkles. “A very rare creation, young man. And an intense one to tame. Are you certain you seek something so potent?”

No, but you’d never sell what I want! Pullonius’ thoughts howled in response, though the customer thought better and controlled his tongue. “It’s for when I enlist in the Queen’s Knights. Can’t let their training regiment get the better of me, right?”

Thankfully, the potions-master accepted this answer with a knowing nod and started his slow lurch back up to the upper story. “Perhaps, but it’s not a vial that will last forever! So I suggest you find your courage before it wears thin…”

Pullonius waited until the old hermit was all the way up the stairs before pulling a small dropper from his belt and dripping a silvery liquid all along the lip of the store-master’s countertop. As he’d expected, the anti-spell gel he’d created sizzled and steamed against the incantations long since scrawled into the curving wooden planks of the counter, muting them for a scant few moments.

Only now did he risk a gaze at his ultimate prize, a dulled cerulean ichor continued in a spiderweb-cloaked beaker hidden on the highest shelf and out of casual glances. A potion spoken of only in whispers of fear or hesitation. A prize worth the gamble if even one of the rumors about it were true. It was for this task that Pullonius had crafted the Fanged Liberator, a small spring-loaded arrow hidden under his right wrist.

With a twitch of his hand, the dart shot forward, straight and true. As he’d heard from the whispers told only in taverns, the moment the arrow crossed the shelf’s threshold, ghastly claws sprang out to try and rend flesh from the bones of whatever poor shoplifter dared try pilfer the potent potion.

He only had the one dart, and when it started to veer too far ceiling-ward, Pullonius hissed in hushed frustration. But the angle worked in his favor when the projectile ‘tink’ed off the lip of the shelf and clicked around the neck of its target flawlessly. His heart shot up into his throat as he yanked the teather and pulled the potion into his palm. Once secured at his belt, the thief bolted for the door, which was shutting itself in his face. But the spell could only be as strong as the aged wood it had been cast on, so Pullonius lowered his shoulder and busted through the barrier in a mad charge.

His padded sprint-steps resonated off the alleyway stones like the moonlight above him. Only the cutting bellow of the enraged shopkeeper broke his stride toward freedom, “You’re dammed, fool! No one steals Deus Ex Machina and lives to tell the story!”

******

Another week, another great prompt from the Team Writer FB page to stir up some creative juices! And a chance to reference something I wrote ages ago. Because what is ‘Deus Ex Machina’ and how does it change from mind to mind?

I hope you all enjoy.

Mid-Week Challenge: Beyond the Ice

Even on the warmest days of the year, the glacial shore never unfroze. Thousands of years of the purest water was held in unbreakable stasis, disturbed only by the traversing wildlife and the cycle of tides brought down from the heavens.

Such frigid, unreachable isolation was just what he wanted right now, and it had taken almost two nights to trot across the Icelandic wastelands to reach it. Now, on the edge of the world, T’kul sat so his front paws were kissed by the lapping waves, but his tail was free to twitch. The ivory wolf still wasn’t sure why he’d been called away from the pack and pulled here, but whatever had summoned him had been quite convincing in its insistence.

A slow breeze made his ears twitch, yet it spoke nothing. T’kul cocked his head into the sensation, looking or sniffing for anything and feeling a sense of relief upon finding nothing. In that moment, the canine wondered what would happen if he took off on top of the water and ran into the setting sun. Would he find the end of all things? Would he leave this landscape behind and set foot on the light that encircles the world?

“You know, if you keep looking at it, it’ll come around behind you.” A visiting voice chittered at him, forcing T’kul’s ears down. “And you followed me, why?”

Setting down on a jagged ice block,  the white-tailed eagle gave the quadraped a smirk. “Wanted to know what you were looking for, pup.”

T’kul shook his head in resignation that his alone moment was gone. “Ever wonder what’s beyond here, Ikari?”

“I know what’s out there, pup. A whole lot of water and plenty of fish!” the eagle said, extending his wings to demonstrate the scale of it all.

Such an answer didn’t sit right with T’kul, and the wolf couldn’t figure out why. Standing with a snort, he backed up back onto the rocky shore, then took to as fast a sprint as he could, leaping only at the last second. And the wolf came down on the surface of the icy clear water, but didn’t bust through it.

Standing on the surface that shouldn’t be there, T’kul’s eyes lit up and his tail stood straight up. “Then explain this!”

Ikari twisted his avain eyes towards the wolf, then the water, then back to the wolf. “Wait…how is…?” In a flash of curiosity, the eagle drove his beak into the waves, and the freezing cold water splashed up his face and across his feathered chest. With a surprised squawk, the eagle hopped back. 

Satisfied, T’kul turned away from the shore and towards the setting sun. “You’re wrong, flyer! You’re not looking for what’s beyond!” And with an excited yowl, the wolf took off in his sprint once again towards the infinite oranges and crimson’s beyond the shore.

*****

Another entry in the Mid-Week Flash Challenge from Finding Clarity. These image prompts have been nothing short of amazing, and I look forward to doing more of them in 2021.

I hope you all enjoy.

TW Prompt Challenge – Bad Date

A morose cocktail of peer pressure and loneliness had built his profile and pointed him to Julia. That sweet smile framed by chocolate locks, framed by the infinte blue sky behind her somewhere out in the wild, at least provoked his curiousity. In their initial conversations, her melodic voice stirred warmth in his chest, but also betrayed her flightiness. 

So the first time this happened, he’d been frustrated, but accepting. Online dating was a crapshoot, and he’d never done it before. So getting stood up by a random stranger due to a ‘sudden migraine’ didn’t completely surprise him.

The second time it happened had given him even less resolution. His carefully planned date around her schedule was met with only one text an hour past their agreed upon rendezvous, “Sorry, raincheck?”

So now, on the third attempt at the first encounter, Charlie found himself once again staring at his phone for a reply that wasn’t going to come. Absently, he drained the final half of his Merlot glass in one gulp, coming to the conclusion that he still didn’t like red wine at all. But the rush of increased inebriation finally gave him the push to delete the dating app from his phone entirely. “Screw this…I coulda bought that new briefcase I needed instead of this waste.” he muttered to himself as he tossed down several bills to cover yet another wasted evening.

Charlie was still grumbling over the avoidance as he picked up his coat from the coat-check booth. The checker had wished him a pleasant evening, but the sting of the frigid November night served to wash away such nicities. Almost growling, Charlie threw on his coat, and began his fast paced walk back home, six blocks away.

At first, he hadn’t noticed the extra weight in the breast pocket of the coat, but after the third ‘thump’ of a bulge against his chest, Charlie dove his hand into the inner pocket, not slowing his gait.

The cold stickiness that greated him made him scowl at first, but that quickly morphed into ice cold fear when his hand came out coated in blood. Stopping mid-stride, he reached down deeper to where his fingers encountered cloth and out emerged a fine silken handkerchief wrapped to a 9mm handgun. Stuck to the side of the firearm was a badly wrinkled photo of Julia, the same one on her dating profile. Now darwn pale by the terrified confusion, he turned the picture around to find a single word scawled in hastily-written letters.

“Run”

*****

A new series of writing challenges from the amazing Team Writer FB page has arisen! And the simple prompt of “hidden inside the jacket pocket” spawned all this so very quickly.

I hope you all enjoy.

The PsyGear – Part 2

It had some more distinguished, medical-sounding name, once upon a time. But no one uses it anymore, not even the surgeons who install them at birth. Now, everyone just calls them PsyGears.
Back in 2018, when they were first invented, no one thought they would catch on. One device that would end fossil fuel dependence, leapfrog wireless technology AND bring humanity together? It was a downright insane notion, and was laughed out of many lecture halls and technology fairs.

It’s also just as ludicrous just how many awards one person could win in one lifetime. Yet Doctor Emily Callen, “Savior of all Humanity”,  did more than just that. There’s not a person alive today that doesn’t know her name or her story. All her dedication and tireless research to save the human race. The glass ceilings she shattered to bring such revolutionary technology to everyone. All the lobbying she won to not only make PsyGears mandatory, but as crucial to life as a person’s heart or lungs. You can imagine how moronic all those bio-tech and cybernetic giants that didn’t support the patent felt once the PsyGears started taking off.

The first generation of implants were under-powered, overweight and finicky. Granted, you’d never hear that in any biography or medical journal, as besmirching the device was the same as insulting Dr. Callen, and that just wasn’t done in polite conversation. Thankfully, the insightful genius worked tirelessly to not only improve her design, but to secure investors and industry leaders. Those key figures enjoyed their PsyGears so much that they started to become mandatory employee gear. It was here that the first adapters were designed, so one could plug their PsyGear right into their car or a computer, using the endless power of the human brain to run their lives.

But not satisfied with just changing the way clean technology saved the human race, Dr. Callen then made her greatest breakthrough, and the whole world shook. With one small anchor filament right into the brain’s limbic system, she found the way to punch up the PsyGear’s theta wave conversation tenfold. Suddenly, a person could not only be their own permanent battery for any use, but they actually made more energy the happier they were. And if someone needed help on a sad or depressing day, then the PsyGear, 7th-Generation had an anchor that tapped right through the brain’s emotional core. With the power already generated by its user, it made that person happy. And since they were happy, the PsyGear generated more power. It was a true perpetual machine, so long as the host lived.

Now, do you know what happens when someone is constantly happy? They listen to most everything you tell them, as long as it keeps them happy. “Bad” things like crime, war and maltreatment of one’s fellow man were leeched out of the human psyche. But other ‘bad’ things like hallucinogenic drugs and rampant sex both public and private became global industries all their own. Ever wanted to take a drug-filled sex cruise on an aircraft carrier? Well, now you can! Need a spike of ‘inspiration’? Just overclock the PsyGear for a few seconds and let your gray matter spark with all new kinds of life! Hell, New Year’s Eve of 2081 set a record for the largest public paint-and-fuckfest in the world! Like the old Burning Man parties you’d read about now, just cranked up to eleven, twice.

Now, there is one slight by-product with all this cerebral tampering and bliss-inducing economy: it’s not exactly stable. If you see your dear old grandma suffer a heart attack after two centuries of long life, that’s not gonna make you happy, so your PsyGear slows down. Suddenly, you’re depressed and in the dark, which makes you even more sad, and it’s all downhill from there. It only takes one bad second to black out an apartment, or for a suddenly-dead private lift pack to drop their pilot into a building. A car accident on the middle of I-495, witnessed by a few hundred people? That can take weeks to clean-up and suppress in even the local public’s memory. 

The worst disaster since the Indo-Pacific War of 2022 came about a decade later, when some anti-implant Luddites managed to broadcast a compilation of sad and depressing imagery and sounds across the now-free internet. It was a smart hack, hiding the malicious data in the PsyGear’s automatic status report signal. Suddenly, everyone in the world got hit with a case of the blues, most of which had never even theorized of before. All and all, maybe two billion people died thanks to crashes, accidents, or trying to severely overclock their implants to force happiness back into their brain. 

Naturally, this presented a problem: arrests, trials, and prisons weren’t things that inspired happiness, so no one with a PsyGear was going to voluntarily hunt these cavemen down and bring them to justice. Hell, even thinking about it was enough to drive some close to limbic impulse deprivation, and getting LIDed was not a pleasant way to die. And having a PsyGear removed? Forget about it…

So in 2034, on the 1st of April, the International Cooperation of Humane Protection stood up, which wasn’t exactly a popular move. Even back then, telling a birth-implanter to NOT install a new PsyGear would often confuse them, and that was the best case. So randomly selecting a thousand new births worldwide to not receive the implants was viewed akin to starving the little babies of milk. It took a lot of over-charged PsyGears to guide criticisms away from the program and back towards happy, productive, and energy-providing machinations that year. Those thousand un-tampered, naturally-developing kids quickly became objects of fascination and study, like the world had forgotten what the terrible twos were, or the mood swings of puberty. Granted, that wasn’t why the ICHP had been created, but the attention did generate a big funding boost.

No, the safe and protective arms of that global juggernaut trained these first thousand into that was needed: hunters. For the good of humanity, and to avoid another Sorrowful Saturday, these humans hunted down and crushed any anti-implant groups left worldwide. All peacefully and without bloodshed, of course, otherwise history files and documentaries may have mildly uncomfortable content. 

And like all globe-spanning conglomerates, the ICHP didn’t just stop existing when its work was done. No, it rebranded into the People’s Eden Protection Agency, which continues now as the sole entity of bringing joy and happiness to those who don’t know what they’re missing. PEPA even managed to design an interim PsyGear implant for on-the-move operatives, so they didn’t have to lug around an uncooperative and ignorant rebel. Now, we just slap the Porta-Psys on their temples and the little wonder does the rest, digging right on into the brain and starting the limbic overhaul. Plus, it makes the eventual full PsyGear install even easier once the cargo is brought back to a real implanter. Sure, it’s gross and there’s usually screaming, but those neanderthals just don’t understand how badly they need PsyGears until they experience them.

Plus, it’s fun to keep track of all those we bring back to civilization. Hell, I’ve got over a hundred myself, thanks to an anti-tech boogaloo trying to hide themselves off in the Marshall Islands. But no one’s ever gonna touch the record of “Henderson the Happiness-Bringer”. Over seven thousand people recovered and enlightened! Course, that’s what happens when you find those last few tribes of primitives down in the Amazon.  

Now they too can experience the gifts Dr. Callen blessed the world with! And just like everyone else, we’re all better for it.

  • SIGNED  

Verick Weathers
PEPA Operations, Retrieval Division
Hunter #2127

This op-ed, as published in the Worldwide News Stream, is endorsed by the People’s Eden Protection Agency for distribution and use as reference material in primary and secondary education.

*****

Part 2 of a little thing I started way back in 2018, although this was technically what I started writing first. And with so much pandemic downtime, sometimes those dormant ideas get just enough of a kick in the ass to come back swinging!

I hope you all enjoy.

Tactical Meditation

For most of his species, off-duty time was spent in deep meditation, reinforcing the mental barriers that repressed emotions and reflecting on the nature of logic in the greater universe. Such was not the case for 1Lt S’tal as he found clarity in the calculated movements of his hands and feet through quick strikes, fortified blocks and unpredictable movement. For these were the exercises that ensured his survival when the time came to fight, not a greater understanding of universal logic in a universe that spat in the face of such a concept. 

In front of him, his Andorian Staff Sergeant stepped forward to attack with a 1-2-3 jab-jab-cross attempt at the Vulcan´s face, which S’tal blocked with his forearms before sweeping his leg forward to catch his opponent and trip him. As S’tal expected, instead of moving back to a safer distance, Sergeant Kalwari firmed his stance and absorbed the blow for the chance to attempt another flurry of punches into S’tal’s midsection. Bringing his guard lower, the Vulcan officer quickly brought his sweeping leg up higher to catch the Andorian´s knee instead of the calf, connecting with enough force that Kalwari rocked backwards. This caused the Andorian to reflexively open his arms to maintain his balance, and S’tal took the open window with a solid jap into his Sergeant ́s nose, knocking the blue-toned opponent down with many swears in his native tongue.

In a real grapple, S’tal would have pressed the ground fight, raining down Vulcan hammer fists or drawing the small knife he carried on every mission at his hip. In the case of this workout, the Vulcan simply offered up his hand to Kalwari “Impressive, Sergeant. You are adapting well to Suus Mahna’s forms and strikes  Next time, I would suggest countering the leg sweep with a retreat, forcing me to come to you and leaving my own lower extremities open.”

Kalwari brushed sweat clear of his antenna, which were now raised to their fullest from the rush of the fight, “Aye, Lieutenant. Or maybe next time I´ll get one of my Privates to just rush your backside like the Cardies did. It would be a great note on their next promotion reviews.”

S’tal shook his head “A desperate move from untrained soldiers. Besides, I could simply turn and use their own momentum to send them directly into you for, what I believe the term is ´a skull-fucking´.”

Hearing that made Kalwari bark out a laugh. “Speaking of, how’s the business on the Zendaya? Are we storming it or what?”

The Vulcan shook his head, “That order has not been given yet, but we will be ready for the eventuality. As I understand, our Intelligence division is currently working the situation.”

The Staff Sergeant nodded, taking a long drink from his performance water, “Copy that, sir. We’ll be ready for when it’s time to get serious. You gonna check on our new Bajorian Corporal?”

S’tal nodded. “He´s currently doing his EV workups with the TR-140 outside Shuttlebay One. From the Astraea’s current position, he has a clear view to the Zendaya’s warp nacelles. We cannot risk the Separatists trying to escape or engage us with a stolen Starfleet vessel.”

The Andorian frowned, “You really think a grunt with a rifle will do anything to an Ambassador-class heavy cruiser?”

A point the Vulcan had at first dismissed himself, before he had studied the situation. “Should the Zendaya re-initialize its primary systems, it will take, at minimum, ten seconds before the starship can safely initiate a warp jump. In that time, given our range and his rifle, Corporal Pel will have two opportunities to engage and puncture the Zendaya’s bussard collectors.”

Sergeant Kalwari drained the rest of his electrolyte drink, “Chances he sets off a plasma fire and blows out the whole nacelle?”

“Possible,” was the best answer S’tal had. “However, one disabled starship, even catastrophically so, is a more acceptable outcome than allowing a tyrant and a fanatic to continue his tirade against the Federation.”

Kalwari laughed at that. “That’s not exactly ‘logical’, Lt.”

To which the Marine Officer nodded. “Indeed, but an unorthodox problem requires an equally unorthodox solution.”

*****

Another sampling of an old RP I was a part of for a spell, of which S’tal was the most enjoyable part of. Sadly, even in a group of like-minded nerds, there can be some cripplingly sour apples that run the whole of an experience.

I hope you all enjoy.

Wildlife Security Solutions, LLC – Contract #1, pt. 6

How exactly Yenot had uncovered and delivered unto his team such a pristine Western-made pickup truck, Akula had no idea. Nor did he care to find out. The moment he stepped behind the wheel, the level of comfort of the cooled leather seat surprised him. Even laden in concealed gear once again, there was little distraction or discomfort as he ran his hands along actual wood inlays and modernized electronics. Makes driving 200km almost a pleasurable thing!

By the time his team arrived on the outskirts of Sirte, midnight was giving way to the first hour of the day. But unlike their previous excursion, the streets of the city were still alive with fire and violence. Even from the highway, they could see glowing crimson fire clawing its way into the blackened sky, with glowing tracer rounds leaping up from the western-most streets trying to tear down whatever was hiding in the skies.

This also led to a very concerning symptom of the larger war. The once-clear streets heading toward their target were now choked with wreckage, bodies, or guerrillas running toward death and the glory of Allah. For the moment, the frantic extremist fighters paid them little mind, since they were driving toward the battle themselves, but Akula knew that ignorance wouldn’t last the moment one of them took a good look at the four pale-skinned infidels in their midst. 

“Yebah’eto! Why the fuck is this happening now?!” Grizli rumbled, annoyed at the several new layers of complications to their mission. 

“Doesn’t matter. Stick to the hit! If the target isn’t there, we take his computers.” Akula amended their original plan, parking the truck a dozen blocks shy of their intended destination. Scanning their surroundings to make sure no one was obviously watching them, he signaled to his men to take a defensive position behind the vehicle, and for Nosorog to prepare the explosive drone for launch. The original Phoenix-2 micro-UAV easily fit in the giant Chechen’s palm. Adding the small quantity of high-temperature FOX-9 to melt through the metal casing and wiring of the target building’s circuit box was a feat of engineering mastery only the Rhino could design to make his little pet Pop-Feniks. 

But adding even a few ounces of explosives, along with the needed impact detonator, cut the small drone’s range in half, so now there was little margin to miss. And if Akula were on the opposite side, he’d have invested in a small UAV counter-jammer. Something as small as an old CB radio could be enough to scramble the control link and send their Pop-Feniks down into the wrong building.

Signaling for Volk to cover the exposed side of their team, Akula gave Nosorog the go-ahead. Swiftly, the Chechen stepped back a dozen feet, clicked the small propeller of the drone until it engaged, then came sprinting forward and launched the package into the air like a suicidal paper airplane. Its high-pitched ‘buzz’ from the tiny motor sang out like an annoying bird from every wall and made the team lead swear under his breath. Even in the dark of night, it would only take one suspicious soldier to score a lucky hit and royally fuck their plans over.

Grizli flipped up the small video screen attached to the Feniks’ handset controller to watch through the UAV’s tiny forward-mounted electro-optical eye while the Wolf brought his ShAK-12 rifle’s scope up to scan the upper stories of the nearby buildings, of which he saw only darkness and flames. To cover, the Rhino leveled his RPK-16 where Volk had been looking, which impressed Akula. Seemingly gone were the threats of the morning, or the near-treasonous in-fighting that had boiled over. How much was that fee increase? the team lead pondered for a second before compartmentalizing that away for later.

“Fuck, fuck, come on, look away!” the Bear whispered in anger, and the echo of a three-round burst up the street confirmed Akula’s worst fears. With a tap to the shoulder, the team lead sent Volk sprinting to the cover of the corner of the intersection they were parked in. Sure enough, the Wolf’s eyes found a trio of fighters pointing to the sky and trying to steady their aims to shoot the Feniks down. Taking a knee for stability, Volk emptied his chest of breath and fired. The first man went down never seeing his death, and the second had only registered the sound of the shot before the round blew out most of his heart. The third, on panicked instinct, began to sprint across the road towards the neighboring building, but the Wolf’s aim was precise. One round to the hip sent the man shrieking towards the ground and the next silenced him for good.

Unconsciously, Akula let out a breath of relief as the drone continued on its way, now better camouflaged by the noise of street warfare. In the brief seconds before the Feniks was to reach the target’s rooftop, the team lead made note to press Silverback on why he didn’t know their supposed contracted allies in the LUA were pressing a westerly offensive into Sirte without telling them. There’s easier ways to try and kill us, you fucking ape…

“Visual on strike zone, marking descent.” Grizli whispered, though none of the team spared the second to look at the display. If they had, they would have seen the two men on the rooftop, one of which was aiming an old Soviet-made Dragunov sniper rifle to pick off unfortunate targets. The partner spotter, carrying exceptionally expensive night-vision goggles, turned up to look at the Feniks the moment before it impacted. As far away as the team was, the detonation was little more than a ‘pop’ among the rest of the chaos. 

With the remote control handset now useless, the Ukrainian ripped the hardware in half and tossed part of it away in the street, with the other half staying in the back of the truck. Akula signaled his team to move forward to the next street-corner, and then to the next, which they did as one fluid motion. With each stop, they would ensure the path was clear, and tap the man in front of them in the affirmative to move.

Halfway to where they were supposed to be, Akula ordered the team to freeze and cover. For at the next intersection south of them, a cobbled-together jalopy of a flatbed truck came screaming up the road, packed full of eager young jihadists. The vehicle only slowed long enough to disgorge its complement of berserkers before peeling into reverse to fetch more. Thankfully, the newly-arrived fighters immediately found themselves under fire from the west and dove for cover, paying no attention to the Wildlife team’s position for the moment.

Volk led the sprint to the next street up, with Akula running backwards to keep their rear clear of any pursuit. Only when the team was at the final street-corner before their target’s safe-house did they stop again. Thanks to the Feniks, one of the two-man rooftop team had been mostly blown down into the street, which had attracted the attention of several of the building’s population. 

What this had also done was draw out the ZPU-2 armed truck right up to the intersection ahead of them, and its gunner was scanning the area right in their path. Swiftly, Akula stepped back from the corner and tapped Volk forward, as their overall most accurate shooter. The Wolf snuck only a moment’s glance around the building, but that was all the anti-air gunner needed to fire. With a shout of alarm, 14mm shells began tearing man-sized holes into their cover and the building behind it, blasting the team with shattered stone and torn metal.

“Pull back!” Akula shouted, and the team started their backwards gaunt away from the devastation to the previous traffic junction so they could sweep around the opposite side. Their careful pace also meant that the already-alerted guerrillas came running their way once the anti-air turret ceased firing, with the first NLD soldier firing at them before they could find immediate cover.  Five rounds cut into the street at their feet, with one passing through Akula’s concealing outer shirt before the Wolf dropped him with a round in the eye.

The quartet rounded the first corner available to them, placing the fire team squarely in a private garage. Akula signaled for them to cut through the residence, and Grizli took the lead with his shotgun for the clearing path. They split the entryway door, two men on either side, before the Rhino opened the door for the Bear. Immediately, the Ukrainian filled the entryway and connecting hallway with 12-gauge shells, the roar broken only by the agonized wails of the surprised NLD fighters who had been hunkered down in the house. To ensure they wouldn’t pursue or suffer, Akula shot each body one final time with his SR-1 pistol. Let Allah pull the lead from your hearts and laugh at your misguided waste of a life…

While the building provided cover from the technical’s gunner seeing them, the Saiga’s shredding shots did echo through the hovel, and from his position still in the garage, Akula could hear the truck-mounted gunner shouting something in his native tongue. The Shark followed his gut and wagered that reinforcements were going to flank the building and cut them down. The team lead popped one of his three 40mm grenades into the AK-74’s under-barrel launcher and moved back to the street opening. Sure enough, he could hear the cranking of the ZPU-2 rotation collar as it scanned the streets ahead of it.

With a nod and a hand signal, Akula ordered Grizli and Nosorog through the building’s interior, which they swiftly swept into, the Rhino naturally at the front of the charge. Volk ran to the opposite end of the bay opening to cover the crossfire, holding up three fingers, then three again. Too many to deal with using just the grenade, we’ll have to keep their attention!

To respond to the Wolf, Akula gave his own three-count. Using that last second of peace to calm his nerves and steady his breath, the Shark peeked back around the corner, rifle raised to about the right angle he estimated it would take to arc the grenade into the truck. At that same moment, the Wolf also emerged far enough from cover to fire into the truck’s back windscreen and cabin. Instinctual fear and alertness made their pursuers jolt their attention in their direction, but not with enough focus or discipline to fire back.

In a blink, Akula fired. The ‘thoonk’ of the 40mm explosive leaving its chamber alerting the cannon’s gunner to what was coming and shout for his fellow fighters. Now divided between being shouted at and the renewed sounds of shotgun blasts across the block, there was a split-second of hesitation. 

The VOG-PM explosive landed just under the exposed bed of the gun-equipped truck. Shards of steel and high explosive ripped into the vehicle’s frame and wheels, as well as the flesh of the gunner and driver. Such force also tore into the remaining ammo stores in the ZPU-2. Unspent gunpowder easily fed the growing detonation, tearing the remains of the cannon from its housing and sending bits of barrel and bone dozens of feet in the air.

Not to be spared, the two closest fighters to the truck also vanished in the plume of all consuming fire, with another being impaled by a large section of truck frame and sent backwards several yards. Two soldiers closest to Akula’s covered position were blown forward by the sheer shockwave, only to be dropped in the street by precise rounds courtesy of the Wolf.

The final man, now very conscious of his own isolation, succeeded in diving into the cover of a street-corner shop’s wreckage Taking the chance, and needing to press the initiative, Akula ordered Volk forward. Expertly, the Wolf sprinted to the other side of the street, before moving forward towards the burning wreck of the truck. 


Also expertly, the last remaining guerrilla had waited until the pair were separated before coming back around the corner, his RPG-7 anti-tank rocket launcher loaded and armed. While he hadn’t counted on the weapon choice, Akula had kept his eyes on where Volk was going, not where his teammate was now, so the sudden appearance of the human obstruction triggered a three-round burst from his AK-74. 

At least one of the rounds caught the fighter in the side, spinning them around towards Akula at the same instant he pulled the trigger. In a wild spin, the rocket-powered projectile popped out of its tube and kicked on its motor for only a moment before smashing into the house above the Shark’s head. Hundreds of pounds of stony debris tore free of the upper-level wall and showered the street in small meteorites. On instinct, Akula sprinted inside, nearly tripping over the bodies already splayed out across the floor. Hastily, he followed the carnage to a street-facing door that had been blasted open, where he slowed long enough to shout “Derzhat!”

Now slowly stepping through the exit, Akula was half-pleased to see Grizli’s shotgun leveled at him. The Ukrainian hulk nodded before sweeping back around to press forward towards their target. Once again, Akula and Nosorog stood side by side.

“Nice shot, was hoping to do that myself.” the Chechen begrudgingly praised. 

“I’ll leave you the next one, if it will help you sleep.” Akula chuckled before gesturing for the Rhino to move up to the target domicile. 

From the pre-mission intel they’d been provided, Akula had expected the target’s location to have fortified doors, and this assessment had been correct. He could feel the cold steel under layers of carefully applied paint to better conceal the entrance from a passing view. Like in Bin Jawad, the Rhino took from his backpack a patch of high-explosive reaching from street-level to ceiling and attached it to the door’s pivot area. 

Having already been ahead of them, Grizli came circling back around with a newly retrieved Volk. The smaller man now sported fresh gashes on his arm and cheek, and the knife on his hip was coated in thick crimson.

“Clear?” Akula asked the smallest team-member. The Wolf gave a curt nod and moved aside.

Once Nosorog had the charges in place, the team moved around the eastern corner of the building in the scant few seconds the Rhino had set the timer for. The sound of a six-inch thick door ripping itself from weakened hinges and crashing to the ground was much louder than the blast used to pry it open. But among the rest of the night’s battle symphony, it drew little attention at the moment. The now-smoking doorway revealed an immediate narrow stairway leading up, begging them to tempt fate so they would get stuck and mowed down in a hail of bullets.

This time, Akula gave no warning, loading and firing another 40mm grenade up to the next level. The shriek of Arabic surprise, followed quickly by the deafening blast of the contained explosion didn’t surprise the team, nor did the tumbling body of a young woman still clutching an automatic rifle when it hit the street. Swiftly, Grizli and Akula entered first, followed by Nosorog and Volk at the rear. When the stairway split to open up to the second floor, the rear pair paused to canvas the level, while the forward two continued upstairs.

Though the battle raged outside, the interior of the building was now uncomfortably quiet. Grizli had also taken notice of the lack of resistance, slowing his stalking pace to a careful creep. The ascent leading up the third floor had been sealed by another, smaller door, though this one was made of more common sheet metal. Carefully, the Bear studied the barrier, before gesturing with the barrel of his weapon at the handle. There, Akula could make out the worn-groove of a wire wrapping around the doorframe and to the other side. “Tripwire.”

“Means he’s not expecting to come down this way. Could be another way out.” Akula confirmed. With a pat on the Bear’s shoulder, the two men descended back to their comrades on the second floor, who had posted on either side of a blown-out window. Around them, the burnt and torn remains of papers, padded the floor of what may have been a family room once upon a time. 

“IED on the next level, target could have escaped outside.” Akula passed on, signaling to Nosorog to check out the trapped door and for Volk to peek around the wall. “North face looks clear, no exit.”

Without a way to check the opposite face for an escape route from there, Akula simply stood by for the moment. It only took the Rhino that long to peer under the doorway with a collapsible mirror he kept on hand and carefully cut the tripwire free. Now disarmed, the Chechen called Grizli back to the front, stepping as far to the side as the hulking explosives savant could to allow the Bear to ascend higher. 

“Sukin syn!” Grizli suddenly called out, causing the other three men to race upstairs. Inside, they found absolute carnage, but not of blood and bodies. Mostly-burned maps and shredded documents had been tossed everywhere, likely by the last remaining sentry before she’d been forced to defend the entryway.  A computer tower and several radios were also laid in waste on a side table, all shot. Even the cheap television on the far wall had been subjected to multiple rounds.

I’m sorry, Pasha…all that work, all for nothing… Akula let himself sigh. Nosorog let out an angry growl and slammed his fist through the table, broken electronics clattering to the floor. “I don’t understand! Why defend this room now?! There’s nothing here!”

“Doubt she knew that.” Grizli responded with a snarl. “Wonder if she was a wife or just a slave…”

“Or just a junkie.This looks high-quality, not street-made.” Volk added, pulling a small block of ice-blue capsules from under a mound of tattered map remains. The bag itself was neatly, but subtly, marked in Hangul along the seal. It was a find that made the Shark’s shoulders sink in realization. That’s one way to fund and maintain control over an army of faith-driven pigs…and an easier source of payment than traceable cash transfers.

It was then that Akula realized that, for all the firepower al-Nujood had been documented with, none of it was here. Nor had they seen a way to access the top floor. Snapping a fist up to silence his team, the Shark gestured to the ceiling, which all four men now scanned for any difference or alteration. 

The sound of wood metal scraping against wood surprised the team, with each man glancing over to see Volk pulling a chair with him towards the corner frame of the stairwell door. Perplexed, Akula watched the Wolf run his hand along the edge of the cut-out before pushing on a small indent that no one else had seen. With a ‘click’, a well-painted handle dropped from the ceiling in front of him, which Volk then pulled on. In turn, this dropped a false tile of scrap-wood colored like the rest of the ceiling stone, followed by a cheaply-made ladder.

“How did you know about that?” Nosorog inquired sternly, to which the Wolf pointed at the barely discernible rise of the button’s inset in the wall. It was intuition that genuinely surprised Akula, but also called into question how little he knew about the Wolf in his midst.

“Good eyes, shchenok.” the Bear whispered, before taking position at the bottom of the ascent. The Ukrainian had barely the time to raise his Saiga before the familiar ‘click!’ of a pin popping from a spring-triggered handle. Followed by the sound of metal bouncing along stone. “Grenade!”

Even diving away from the opened attic, Akula’s mind raced with certainty that he would not be standing again. He was too close to Grizli, too close to the end. Forgive me, babochka…Andre deserved better than this.

Yet the Bear didn’t run, nor did he flinch. Instead, Grizli jumped into the air as high as his behemoth frame could go, which gave him the reach to catch the incoming explosives in his hands. And with a desperate flail, the two American-made M67 grenades went flying back the way they came before supersonic shards of hot metal and the concussive blast filled the room.

*****

Part 6 in what may be the story I’ve loved writing the most since I started writing ever. There’s a lot of fun to be had with the 4-person power team, especially when they can conflict so drastically. Plus, writing a dynamically dark and merciless street-fight like this was also a great exercise in trying to wrap my mind around something NOT starfighter/pilot-related.

I hope you all enjoy.