Wildlife Security Solutions, LLC – Contract #1, pt. 10

By the seventh day of being restricted to recovery exercises without so much as acknowledgement, the Shark began to feel a different kind of ice in his chest. One of self-anger and deep frustration. For the truly unbearable part of the deadtime was the lack of Pasha. Multiple times, the Shark had sat in the comms truck for hours, hoping to see her chat icon switch from grey to green. Or for a simple, one-line email response she’d snuck out during her shift just to lighten his heart. As soon as he’d been able to, Akula had sent her a simple message to reassure her that he was alive and well, no matter what the overall mission wrap-up would say. But seven days of torrurous rehabilitation and reflection had begun to plant the worst seed in his water. A flicker of doubt. Six months of ‘light escort and defense patrols’, the contract said. Six months, I promised her. Six months, I’ve lied to her? 

Akula growled that guilt back down into whatever darkness it had crept from, Nyet, I have not! “You were Akula before you were a husband.” Mikhail scolded the doubt. “She knew this, accepted this. Don’t doubt she’s forgotten that meaning now.”

“No, she wouldn’t, she’s just pissed at you for getting blown up.” Drakon’s voice barged in on Akula’s turmoil, which made him smile to cover the startle. 

“I imagine you’re none too thrilled either, Liliya. Can’t collect your rubles from my body if you can’t find it.” Akula smirked.

The pilot punched him in the shoulder, which hurt more than he cared to admit, before she handed him the flask often carried in the calf pocket of her flightsuit. “Wouldn’t live long enough to spend them anyway, your babochka would feed me to a woodchipper or a bukavac!” 

Akula gratefully accepted the drink, which set fire to his insides more than the peroxide that the medics had used to treat his leg. “Have you heard from her?”

Drakon shook her head, spinning a nearby chair around to throw her leg over it and sit with a ‘sigh’. “Haven’t had much downtime to file reports, and that’s with all our new meat-slabs running around. Can you believe all the shit they brought in? I think all the company’s here now.”

He nodded, echoing the flyer’s sentiment. “Looks like it. Our patriarch is very generous with other people’s money.”

“Ah, so you met our golden camel-fucker too. Swear that repressed little shit stares at my ass more than Silverback!” Drakon growled, taking another long drain from her comforting beverage.

“And yet they both pale in comparison to Grizli,” Akula chuckled, before the reality of their personal devastation smacked him with remembrance. “Though you may not want him now, after that last mission. His most handsome part may be below the belt, even if he says different.”

Drakon snorted a mirthless laugh, before offering the last shot of Motherland’s fire to the Shark. “I’m glad you all made it back. That was a bad night for the whole company.”

Akula’s brow furrowed, as he forced himself to think beyond his own focus on Pasha. He’d only seen a passing glance at Pauk in the past week after their short game, and the Spider had looked more venomous than usual. Of Sova and his third-rate band of knuckle-draggers, the Shark had seen nothing at all. But he’d been more professionally concerned with keeping his own squad in light training and extra off-hours, which had isolated them all in their shanty housing blocks more than usual. “How bad?”

“Bad…Sova’s team got taken. Alive, at least from what I’ve heard. Somewhere way south of here, down near Maradah. They sent Pauk out to retrieve them, and I had to pull his ass out of an ambush.”

“That was last night, wasn’t it?” Akula asked grimly, now accounting for the increase in frantic energy he’d seen among all the fresh manning that kept him from either resting or recovering with an intense workout. Bet they were promised an easy payout and light duty under the sun, too…

She nodded.  “Zhuk got shot up pretty bad, but he’s hanging on. And with you guys out of commission, that takes all the original teams out of play. The moment that ape sends these baby-faced bitches out, they’re gonna get slaughtered. Even with the extra morons in my sky!”

Akula mulled that admission in his brain, adding bits and pieces of their previous work and what he’d remembered from Pasha’s messages. The culmination of which snuffed out any remaining burn of the alcohol from his blood. “This isn’t an isolated thing. The NLD is striking out, and they’re gaining ground. Suddenly, our contract gets a fuckton more equipment and people?”

“And our doting overlord appears personally to watch us win their war.” Drakon added with a grim nod, before grimly amending “,or die in the attempt so the larger homeland gets involved like we have in Syria.”

“Blyad…” the Shark muttered, his fist clenching on his leg. The thought of dying and being buried in the searing sandy dunes, a world away from his frigid paradise and Pasha’s ever-warm arms made his anger rise. “Nosorog was right, we should’ve taken the merciless route and just cut the head off this movement before it organized like this.”

“Never tell him that, or he may just gore you out of spite.” the pilot warned him. To which Akula nodded that she was, of course, correct.

A knock on the comms compartment door derailed Akula’s next thought, as an adolescent-looking crew hand pointed to Drakon. “Checkout complete, mem. Silverback ordered me to find you for preflight.”

“O moy grebanyy bog!” Drakon swore, readying her arm to toss her flask at the young man’s head. “Where’s Pelikan?! That Kazak pondok was supposed to be on rotation today!”

The raw rage Drakon had set down upon the boy frightened him into silence, which only drove her ire even hotter. Sitting up, she gave Akula one last look, a smile of slight happiness sitting on a mountain of anger. “Keep faith, Shark. This place won’t kill us!” She then gracefully sormed toward the door and kicked it open all the way. Not expecting such power, the new arrival wailed in pain as the door tore free from his grasp and caught his forearm, knocking it painfully out of her way. Equally surprised was the outside sentry, who yelled after Drakon and received only the rudest of hand gestures in response.

It was a display that made Akula smile himself, even if it was fleeting. But it also came at the best of times, for Pasha’s online indicator was now green. The sailor’s heart jumped up his ribs in anticipation, which was quickly rewarded. “Are you all right?! God, please tell me you’re okay!”

“I’m all right, babchoka. Just a new scar to tell Andre about one day.” Akula sighed, feeling a week of grinding weight lift itself from his spine and disappear. “I’m sorry you had to wait so long.”

“Not your fault. I’m sorry I took so long, too” she began, though the next message took her a curiously long time to compose. “Had to spend a lot of time in Ryzan, talking to Sevastopol.”

His joy suddenly left his body en masse at the mention of the Black Sea Fleet’s main base. Until that sentence, it was understood that Wildlife Security was its own entity, independent and free to fight and die for whoever held the contract. However large a lie that was, it separated Akula from his sea-faring kin and progeny in the actual Russian Navy. That way, no matter what they did in the moment, no one could blame Russia as a nation or power. Only a few poorly-trained animals pruchased and used by the globally wealthy. For Kontrol to be talking to them directly, when everyone knows we’re being spied on? “And?”

Another long pause, followed by a forwarded email chain. On top of the contact chain was Kontrol’s Board of Directors as well as their sponsoring oligarch, receiving a message from the central staff of Vice Admiral Sergetov, commander of the Black Sea Fleet. It’s subject line simply read ‘Deployment Order: 526/121-44279’. 

“Based on your last outings, enough people are worried about the Dawn having even the rudemantry parts of nuclear materials that higher powers are stepping in.” Pasha added on. “It’s still listed as a Wildlife contact, but no one’s going to be fooled.”

With only a look at the email’s attachment, the Shark’s heart stopped altogether. Even if there was no name given as to who was ordered to deploy, he remembered how to read the naval pennant numbers on the order. The first number didn’t bring any one vessel or crew to his mind, telling the team lad that this was likely something new coming to show off its teeth and rattle Putin’s saber in NATO’s face. 

For the second, Akula hadn’t seen the name Moskva since leaving his uniformed days behind him. Before the Slava-class missile cruiser oradined ‘121’ took up its new home in the warmer waters of the Black Sea. Wonder if Grizli will know of the ship that strangled the entire Ukraininan Navy in the Crimean Annexation back in 2014…

Opening the order provided more than Akula knew he was supposed to see. Pennant number 526 was tied to the Severodvinsk, a submarine he’d never heard of before, but one that was strutting its might through the Atlantic to port call in Sevastopol. However, it was doing so with its full loadout of land-attack cruise missiles, which the Shark knew would draw fevarant Western attention even if it never surfaced between Murmans’k and Crimea. 

Before that warm water stop in the Black Sea, however, the submarine would unload its teeth against targets in both Syria and Libya. Forty missiles, launched from the serene cover of the inviting sea waters, would rain down on the NLD as a show of Russian naval might. So many of my brothers come to cut their teeth in fire…over this?! “They’re really willing to risk NATO escalation over this pile of worthless sand? I don’t even think the Libyans want it, on either side! Pasha, they MUST know the Amerikanets, the English, or even the pig-headed Italians, are going to be up their ass all the way down here and back!”  

“Thank your unexpected guest for that. Finding him pissed off a lot of people.” Pasha responded, careful to dance around the issue so Akula could fill in the blanks. Which the Shark did, at least in part, though too many were the gaps left unanswered. “Do we know who he is?”

“Da, Solomon has been very effective.” was all the reply she gave him for that, before she hastily added. “Have to go, they’ll be sending you out again soon. Ya tebya lyublyu!” 

Her indicator dimmed back to that lonely gray and the Shark slunk back into the chair. Though his mind raced at all the new information, the first words from his lips were, “I love you too, babchoka.” After that, he simply sat in the artificially-Artic air of the cabin for a moment. His fists clenched and released without command as he thought, the individual pieces of the larger picture become more and more unpleasant with each addition. 

One point stood about above all the rest; the mission that had so complicated his life and tour. And whatever was left of that package still sat below the sands, enjoying the company of Solomon and Navuk. “Just who the hell are you?” Akula whispered to himself as he looked through the metal walls of the truck and towards the interrogator’s pit. 

Without realizing it initially, Akula stood from his chair and logged out, setting off straight for Solomon’s lair. Logically, he knew full well the master inquisitor wouldn’t just reveal what they’d learned about the Korean, but the Shark wondered if their prisoner was now so broken that he would say anything to anyone. Halfway to the nondescript hole in the sand, Akula’s ear caught the familiar sound of metal crashing down on bone, and a bellowing scream in a Ukrainian slant. “Blyad, you’d better thank Volk for skull-fucking you now so you can get sent home is disgrace! These heathens will be far less kind!”

Stopping to look, Akula saw the rest of his team gathered around a newly-arrived four-man team, circling the fresh blood like true apex predators. One man, presumably the fresh squad’s leader was now face-down in the sand, with Volk wiping the pommel of his fang clean. The standing trio of students looked equal parts horrified and focused as Grizli continued to berate them. Nosorog spoke with his actions, yanking the readied rifle out of a pupil’s hands and tossing it a dozen feet away. With only a glare to serve as warning, the Rhino sent his victim silently into the sand, face-first, with a brickhouse knee to the stomach. 

“And now your pointman is dead! So what do you do, little suka?!” the Bear demanded of the tallest remaining soldier, who stammered out. “We…we fall back and radio for Drakon or Vorobey for air support!”

“Too late!” Grizli countered, pointing at the unconscious member of the group. “He had your only radio! And you!” the irate Ukrainian jabbed a finger into the sternum of the fourth soldier, who glowered in silence. “You didn’t think to look UP when clearing your path. You think snipers come up and shoot you in the dick from below?!”

“If they did, they’d be doing us a favor!” Akula shouted, catching a nod and smirk from Grizli. Running over to the impromptu beat-down, the Shark picked up the now-stirring squad lead by the scruff of the collar and made sure the recovering man could meet him eye-to-eye. “Know this: your work is only profitable if you make it back alive. And if you fail as a unit, Wildlife won’t be paying your widows.”

None too softly, Akula tossed the man into the arms of his comrades before putting a knife-hand in each of their faces. “You suki are too green to be anything but vulture meat, so get your asses into that training space and fight like you want to live!” With a snap of his fingers, Akula pointed to the sparring pit and sent the rattled quartet running, dragging their still-downed fourth member. Once they were out of earshot, Grizli was first to break their intimidation circle. “Der’mo, this is what the company bought? May as well send us the Komsomol, at least Stalin’s kids were trained to fight.”

Akula hesitated for a moment, stewing on the thought of whether he should tell his team now what Pasha had shared, or wait for Silverback to confirm things were actually in motion. But the moment passed quickly as the still-healing stitches along his thigh seemed to twitch as a reminder. Nyet, I won’t jeopardize this team any more with unknowns… “It may be the best the company could scrape up so quickly. We’ve got a big one coming. Possibly the one that breaks the Dawn’s push east.”

The collective ears of his team perked up at the news, the Bear’s hand going instinctively to his newly-cratered face before he squeezed it into a massive fist. “How big are we talking? We’ve got more than enough here to go bundle up what’s left of Sova…if there is anything left to find.”

Akula shook his head. “Nyet, bigger. The Navy is sending down missile boats, which are coming now, though Silverback won’t tell us that yet. Thank Pasha for this advance warning.”

There was a moment of pause as each man processed that information. What had started off as a private little war was getting hot real quick, there was no hiding it now. As it stood now, the best Wildlife could do was break the NLD’s initative and pray their allied LUA could do something, anything, with the momentrum reverse.

“So what do we blow up first?” Nosorog asked bluntly.

“Not sure yet, but double-check all appropriated gear.” Akula ordered. “My hunch says we’ll find out soon.”

*****

Part 10 of the ongoing campagin for Akula and company. An operation that isn’t so simple anymore, as nothing in the world ever is. I’m honestly beyond thrilled I’ve been able to weave you such a long story so far (20k + words and going!)

I hope you all enjoy.

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

Mid-Week Challenge: Chair of Love

When they’d first been given the chair, he thought it was …plain. Simply a cushion carefully molded into a fine old wood and an oval backrest. By all accounts, unassuming and nondescript from the other, more lavish furnishings available to them. It reminded him much of himself when they’d first met. A notion he kept to himself as she welcomed it into their home.

Such an ordinary piece of antiquated furniture was on the chopping block when they finally moved onto their forever home. How exactly it had run the gauntlet of being packed, crushed by the hanako table, and then unpacked again, was most impressive to him. 

But only now, as she sat in the commonplace chair and comfortably cradled her glowing belly, did Souji think back to wise words uttered a lifetime ago. “Empty, yet holding infinite potential.”

Yukiko looked up at him, half-asleep, but still with a soft smile he could sink into forever. “What did you say?”

He sat down beside her, laying his hand on her stomach, where she quickly placed her fingers between his. “Oh, something I heard once. I just had to see it to appreciate it first.” A point he punctuated by running his palm across the smooth, rounded back of the chair until it reached her delicate ivory skin. “I honestly didn’t think this shape would be comfortable for you.”

She leaned back, letting long locks of ebony hair fall over the chair’s back and dance across his forearm. “I know what you mean, and it shouldn’t be if you think about it. But I don’t know….it just feels right.”

Souji smiled and rose slightly to take her sweet lips to his. It was all he needed to say.

*****

My entry for this week’s Mid-Week Image Challenge, which just has that soft and warm feeling of love to it to me. And when I get that feeling, these two are always the ones I think of first.

I hope you all enjoy.

Mid-Week Challenge – Eden Interrupted

For just a moment, he forgot he couldn’t fly. The push of the rudder pedals against his boots vanished and the constant ‘hum’ of the engines at his back faded into his own heartbeat. Before him, the infinite horizon of the universe that dared him to pierce it. Below, the pure white snow was as serene as it was deadly in its frigidness. Few were the creatures that dared wander such idyllic woods in such cold. Even fewer were the humans that settled such a remote paradise of ice.

Canting to his left, he started a slow turn around a particularly wondrous cluster of trees that was trying so very hard to reach out and touch him. “How long have you been looking up at the sky? Do you ever wonder if its a wasted effort, to grasp for something you can never have?”

“Didn’t copy, Galm One. Please repeat.” A voice intruded from his radio, shattering the distant euphoria of the moment and snapping him back into his helmet. 

Taking a slow breath, Cipher gave both his hand a flex on the control stick and throttle of the F-15C that now skated through the wintry night like the roaring apex predator they were together. “Just looking for moose, AWACS. Standing by for threat vector.”

“Copy that. Bogeys bearing zero-niner-six at five-thousand. Cleared to engage, Demon Lord!”

He snapped the Eagle into a tight roll, pointing his nose toward a starless patch of sky. Even if he couldn’t see them, her radar chirped immediately with four blips, far away and moving fast toward him. Towards their own deaths.

“Locked on. Galm One; Fox Three, Fox Three!” She shook around him as the long-range missiles on the F-15’s belly detached and fired. Four embers of death screamed into the darkness, vanishing for only a moment until the night sky was broken by four new stars. Each fueled by a doomed man, a broken fighter, and the cursed ignorance of never knowing who burned then out of the sky.

*****

My (slightly delayed) submission for last week’s Mid-Week Image Challenge. Honestly, the picture was so gorgeous, I keep wishing I were standing there right now, in the dead silence and the biting cold. Where I could look up into the beyond and wonder if anyone or anything is looking back at us.

I hope you all enjoy.

Wildlife Security Solutions, LLC – Contract #1, pt. 9

He’d never liked the category of ‘standby reserve’, as it was a lie. Wildlife should call the the ‘too fucking broken’ category and be done with it! he’d thought as the battlefield medic sewed the gash closed. And with enough gauze around his now stitched-shut thigh to lasso a wandering camel, Akula was feeling frustratingly caged the moment the senior medic pulled him from mainline duty. Granted, he’d unfortunately understood the call, and he made sure the team did as well. It would take at least a few days for the Rhino’s shoulder to be fully usable again, or to make sure none of his pack had collapsed lungs after so close a blast. Grizli’s face was of less concern, no matter how much the Ukrainian would silently gripe about it through their recovery period. Nor did his little dancer seem to care, anyway!

Like with the surge in firepower, Rashadi’s pocketbook had also paid for a handful of new battlefield nurses and medics, even one actual general-practice doctor. Against Wildlife’s unwritten rule to only hire female support staff and healers, most of the new arrivals had been men. Apparently Silverback grew tired of hearing what he wasn’t getting any of…

The newly arrived healers also came with their own supply of international medicines, pharmaceutical and herbal. The former of which helped wash away the pain in his leg to such a degree that Akula didn’t even remember making it to his cot after the stitches were fastened and tied off. When he woke up almost a full day later, the bloodstained fog in his mind ran through the chaos of the previous mission from start to finish yet again. All the moments his team danced along the reaper’s edge, he made note of not as failures, but as moments to teach and drill over and over again. 

Perhaps most critical of all was the sudden and unexpected arrival of mechanized armor right in downtown Sirte. Something that wasn’t covered in the pre-mission brief, nor did Pasha warn them about even off-hand. Yet as Akula dove into his down-time reading, even he was able to find several mentions or pictures of LND jihadists and over-exicted mongrels shouting in triumph on the bow of a resurrected T-62 tank as they rode into battle somewhere. He even found a UN- disseminated video of LND commanders training their gurellias on the intricacies of a Soviet-era BTR-50 armored personnel carrier, which was very much intact.

His immediate instinct was to blame Kontrol for the bad intelligence, but that would mean blaming Pasha, and that was something the Shark couldn’t do. My babchoka is as thorough as she is beautiful…she’d have told us if we were expecting a heavier fight. 

Akula sighed in frustration, tossing down his e-reader and stretching as long as he could make himself. The Shark hissed in pain as the fresh flesh along his suture strained to hold, and the resistance of the thread holding the wound closed beneath the gauze cleared his mind of all but the sensation of the moment. But when that searing anguish subsided into a full, constant burn, Akula quickly grew weary of the walls around him and decided to head to the recreation bunker. At least something as simple as checkers will be something else to focus on…

Despite the welcoming name and function, the recreation bunker was nothing more than a large maintenance shed that was once gutted by fire thanks to Western cruise missiles ripping down the accompanying hanger. It was one of the dozen buildings the original three teams had rebuilt originally when they’d arrived in Libya. As such, the Shark could trace the seams in the cement walls by memory, right down to where Grizli penned an incredibly detailed phallus in the still-wet support.

Also, despite its name promising relaxation and fun, the original bunker contained little more than a small box full of card decks and a checkerboard with no pieces. It had been up to Akula, Pauk, and Sova to pool their influence and bring in far more vital resources. Now, there were many different games to challenge each other with, electronic and not. Thanks to Nosorog, there was even an arm-wrestling platform to settle ‘friendly’ wagers.

Taking out a fresh deck of cards, the Shark took a corner bench and sat along, already feeling the muscle under the sutures sting with raw exposure. This way, he could watch the fresh fish in his sea swim around in front of him, still green in the gills when it came to this brutal variant of warfare. A few of the new faces looked to him, almost working up the courage to ask him a question, but Akula’s steeled glare kept them at bay. He didn’t desire company right now, this was a time for decompression, and outside nuisances wouldn’t help with that.

His first game of solitaire ended in utter failure, which Akula took with an exasperated grunt before re-dealing. He was halfway through the second round when a familiar arachnid sat across from him.”Two more hands to test your fortune, Shark?”

Akula couldn’t help but smirk at Pauk’s challenge, scooping up this unfinished runs to shuffle and deal out the opening salvo for a game of durak. “At least the cards won’t explode in my face…unless you brought them.”

The Spider laughed jovially at that, “Nyet, Strekoza got most of these in his own dime. It’s nice having the son of a Minister on your team, you should try it.”

Akula snorted sarcastically, “Instead, I get the Checehn who’s unnervingly skilled at explosives…is there no justice?”

“Heard about that little scuffle,” Pauk probed, playing his opening move. “Glad we didn’t have to waste that Rhino yet. Even if he does hate you just as much as that fat ape running this show.”

Of course you’d know about that…FSB ublyudok… the Shark retorted mentally. He’d learned quickly that Pauk’s methods and skills were honed in the dark days of the new post-Soviet Russia, where the intelligence community had few rules and even fewer morales. The number of people that the Spider had killed with a garoutte was sickeningly impressive, though Pauk insisted he didn’t choose his codename.

“He had his chance to kill us all on this last mission, believe me….not that he needed any help.” Akula lamented, unconsciously rubbing the stitches to quell the itching.

“Heard about that, too. You got real fucked out there.” Pauk agreed. “Think your men will recover?”

“Da, the promise of money and kiska has kept them satisfied for now.” Akula started, before digging back into questions temporarily buried until they were properly fermented. “Did Kontrol give you someone from a Brotherhood, too?”

Pauk shot the Shark a stern look, but nodded slightly. “Sarancha, he’s from the Odessan sect, even did time in the U.S. before he got called for this.”

Akula nodded, appreciating how the fees of the contract were overriding loyalty to the home crime front. At least for now…will need to ask the Wolf what his cost truly is. “Did you find any trouble out east?”

Pauk gave a grim nod. “Found a stockpile of old Strelas and Stingers, complete with launcher batteries. Gave the smuggler who was holding them to Solomon so that cossak can have his fun. Another Korean, believe it or not.”

That revelation stayed the Shark’s hand over the draw pile. “Blyad, another one? How many of those are out here?”

“One less, I can tell you that!” interrupted Sova, pulling up a chair from another table and sitting so close to Pauk that they bumped elbows. Without acknowledgement or prompting, the Owl continued with a self-satisfied smile, “We blasted the podok advisers we found right back to their Dear Leader! Saved us a lot of effort dragging back yet another jackass for that pit-snake Solomon.”

“And, in so doing, you cost us I don’t even know how much information to better plan our work! Blyad, you really are a zasranets!” Pauk shot back, not so gently shoving Sova off his arm.

The Owl gave the Spider a mocking glare, deflecting how irritated he knew Pauk was with him. Then the third intruder gave Akula a nod, drawing himself a hand into the game he was not asked to join. “How’s the leg, fishbait?”

Glaring first at the deck, then at the fowl, Akula set his hand down. “Well enough to bury my boot in your ass. Shouldn’t you be training with your team? Or do I need to drop Trup on his head again to get the point across?”

Sova waved his hand dismissively at the cautionary question, “Nyet, they train best on their own. If they don’t like it, I’ll have them crawling through blood under barbed wire again, like I did in Spetznaz.”

And then you got tossed out of the special forces for failing to report to duty, lying shithead. Akula’s mind flashed. 

Pauk was less tactful in his reply, barking out a laugh, “Please! I know you cried like little bitch in training. I’ve read the report!”

This time, Sova gave the irritated gare, “If you were as skilled with your rifle as you were at reading, our fish-sucker here wouldn’t be nursing a shot-up leg!”

Akula brow creased in confusion. “That was supposed to be your mission?”

Pauk gave a reluctant nod, “Da, we were working the writeup with Kontrol when you brought the first Korean in. Mixed up a lot of priorities. Sorry, moy drug…those shots were ours to take.”

Akula gave the Spider an assuring squeeze of the upper arm, “Then you’d be all shredded and our best recon team would be down. We made it out alive, unlike the target.”

“Lisus Khristos, just kiss him already!” Sova butted in again, back to his self-absorbed smile. “Besides, my team would’ve taken that sandrat down much easier!”

“Typical Belarussian, second rate in everything but arrogance.” Pauk jabbed at Sova, tossing his cards down on the table. “I’ve got reports to read. Another time, Akula. Without annoyance.” With that, the Spider left the table, smacking the Owl on the back of the head as he left.

“Der’mo…” Sova growled, before looking back at Akula, only to see the Shark had stood up as well. “Training to do, need to get my ‘fish-bait’ leg ready to carry your ass out of whatever comes next.”
Akula was sure Sova shot back some kind of snide remark in his wake, but the door to the recreation bunker slammed behind him as the sailor made a direct line for the open-air gym. As much as it had been an insult, he was well aware the time could come that he’d be called on to pull his team or his contracted coworkers out of the fire. And no one will die because I was too weak…

******

Part 9(!) of the ongoing Libyan campaign, and a moment of pure reprieve for the tenderized Shark and company. Even the apex of apex predators can’t shrug off some wounds, especially when things could get a lot hotter real soon.

I hope you all enjoy.

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8

Mid-Week Challenge: Eternal Pegasus

Bertrun hissed as the weathered skin of his hand slid across the razor-sharp edge of the open cavity and dug in, causing him to drop his spanner to the dirt floor of his workshop. He knew he was tired, as the dying lamplight continued to broadcast to him. His hand shook from the night’s chill as he reached down to grab the exotic ebony tool, which made him growl. Clenching his fist to steady it, Bertrun returned to the task at hand within the chest cavity of his creation. “So close now…so very close!”

Before him was an amalgamation of unearthly metals, wicked science, and desperate craftsmanship unlike the world had ever seen. And it had all begun with a question; “Do you want her to live? Free of pain and anguish?”

The question had jolted him awake one still summer’s night, and Bertrun was utterly convinced it had been a dream. At least, until the inquisitor leapt up onto his bed and looked into his eyes with unblinking orbs of curiosity. “I can help you with that, if you desire. The knowledge you seek, I possess.”

The grizzled old farmer wondered silently if he’d been screaming in his sleep again, and was about to protest, but then he’d heard the weeping from the next room. A pitiful, broken cry of his baby nightingale. The only thing left in the world that mattered. 

“What must I do?” he’d asked, finally feeling the weight of his own exhaustion collapsing inward onto his heart.

“Simple!” the otherworldly creature perked up, and laid out the terms of the contract. Berturn tried to listen in earnest, but his mind had been made up the moment this…this thing, came bearing the gift of knowledge. “Tell me…please, help me save her.”

And so the work had begun. The growing season gave way to the harvest, then the cold bite of winter, but he’d worked through each night and day on only one thing. For the golden skin, he’d traded his oxen that had plowed the land. For the tools of which he’d never seen before, he’d given away all but the bare minimum of his crop so they could survive. For the most critical component, a finely-crafted reliquary, he’d signed away all that remained of his farm and homestead to be delivered and divided upon the coming New Year. 

Now there was nothing left but the work. Nothing left but this. And it was almost complete. 

The sun was rising on the new day before he’d realized it, but Bertrum paid it no mind, as he finally closed the spinal panel on his creation, clicking its internal mechanisms into motion. “It’s…it’s done…at last!”

Standing before him, seemingly carved out of solid gold and fine gems, was a creature of fantasy never before made manifest. Its cranial horn came up to his breast, while its wings stretched out across the entire open bay of his workshop. Its eyes, once lifeless orbs of ethereal glass surrounded by springs and small panels, now focused up at him. It cocked its head, like an animal first seeing its parent, then looked down at its own galvanized hoofs.

“Do…do you know what you are?” Bertrun asked, amazed and aghast at his own creation now complete.

It looked up at its creator, blinked, and nodded. The metallic quills that made up its mane rattled with its movements and it tucked its wings into a resting posture. 

Cautiously, he stretched out his hand and caressed the cheek of his creation, which nuzzled into his scarred palm tenderly. “Then, you know what you are made for?”

It nodded again, more excitedly now, even stomping its front hoofs down in anticipation. 

Betrun stood, and immediately wobbled. The lack of food and sleep had finally caught up to him and dared to sweep his feet out from under him. But the machination was quick to act, using its finely-shined side as a support for its master. 

“No… not much time. Need to…hurry.” Bertrun sputed out, pushing off his creation and into a lurching walk back into his house. 

Together, the pair walked slowly into the small hovel that was Bertrun’s home, through the almost-barren kitchen and family room long bereft of purpose, to the door of the nightingale’s room. He put his ear to the door to make sure she was awake, ad the sound of her strained wheezing greeted him, ripping out his soul as it did every day.

Gathering what was left of his strength, Bertrun opened the door. “Good morning, my little warrior. How are you feeling?”

Looking up at her father with hollowed cheeks and dulled blue eyes, Lorelai tried and failed to lift her head, “Oh, I’m okay…a little hungry,”

Feeling his throat clench to restrain the choking sob, Bertrun leaned in to kiss his daughter’s cold forehead. For that, she smiled up at him for a brief moment, which was all the sunshine he needed in his day. “I’ll see what we have for that. But first, do you know what I’ve found for you?”

“A new pillow?” she asked sweetly, before a coughing fit racked her chest.

“Better, my love. Something you’ve always wanted.” Bertrun asked, and stepped aside before she could respond. Whatever she was was thinking was drowned out by the weight of her astonishment and joy. “You did it! You found a pegasus! I can’t believe it!”

The sheer adulation pulled Lorelai up from her bed, revealing where the bedsores had become even worse than he’d ever seen. Starving fingers reached out to touch the equestrian’s face, which it happily rubbed against. “It’s beautiful, daddy!”

“Only the best for my nightingale.” Bertrun replied, no longer able to hold back his tears. “And it has a gift for you. A cure! You won’t be sick anymore!”

Her eyes doubled in size and her smile threatened to tear at her cracked lips with its raw power. “She does? She can do that?”

“Of course she can. A pegasus like this can grant any wish.” Bertrun nodded, placing his hand on the back of the contraption. “It may hurt a little through, so she won’t do anything unless you’re ready.”

Loreali looked up at her father, then to the mechanzied mare, then back to Bertrun. “I’m ready.”

“That’s my brave little warrior. You’re mother would be so proud of you.” Bertrun pushed the small ruby button between the pegasus’ shoulders, making the automaton’s eyes glow blazing green.  Rearing back, its spine telescoped out and up and its chest split open at the crafted seam. Its forward legs also slid open along delicate shutters build in from shoulder to hoof and the creation was opened like a dissected kill. 

Carefully, and moving to avoid any sores or delicate bones, Bertrun picked Lorelai up in a strong hug. The last he would ever give her like this. 

Slipping atrophied limbs into their awaiting sockets was slow, cautious work, but his nightingale gave no signs of fatigue or pain. Bertrun fastened the exotic feathered straps around her waist and biceps to hold her up before giving her a kiss one last time. “Are you ready?”

If she was nervous, Lorelai’s eyes wouldn’t betray it. Instead, she gave her father the strongest nod she’d managed in a year. “I’m ready.”

Burton didn’t let himself think, for he would not risk hesitation. For her, for the life his last love deserved, he pressed the small switch within the skull of the pegasus to activate it. Inside its sternum and legs, hair-thin needles jutted out to pierce her tender skin and two large braces unfolded from the ribcage to lovingly cradle her withered body. Lorelai only gave small grunts of discomfort as the machine worked, keeping her eyes focused on him. 

“I love you, daddy! And thank you!” were the last words to escape her lips as the pegasus closed itself again and began to retract back into its original size. He’d expected any number of horrific sounds to escape the process, but she gave no signs of pain. Just as it had been designed, the pegasus compressed and shrank down to its original size.

For a moment, nothing happened, driving an icy spike into his gut. “Did it work? Oh gods, please show me something! Don’t let this all be for nothing!”

Its shimmering emerald eyes flickered, before cooling into a deep shade of blue. Only then did the contraption stir, looking around the room as if seeing it for the first time. 

“Daddy?” she finally spoke. Her voice forever changed, resonating with an artificially lyrical tone only finely crafted songstone would make. To Bertrun, it was the most wonderful sound in the world, and he threw his arms around her. His legs finally gave out and he crumpled to the floor, openly crying against golden steel. 

“Did it work? How do you feel, nightingale?” he managed to piece together between joyful sobs.

“I feel…I feel wonderful! Like I’ve never felt before!” A point Loreali punctuated by prancing around in her living vessel. She even spread out her wings for the first time, toppling over a chair burdened with spare blankets. “Oops! I’m sorry!”

“Don’t be, my dear. It worked! It…finally worked…” Bertrun gleefully replied, feeling years of sorrow and anguish evaporate from his body and revealing just how tired he was.

Only now, by the terms of the contract, did the marvelous benefactor re-appear. Its bargain had been met, as was agreed to that fateful night. “Well done, Bertrun! It’s beautiful.”

He nodded, dazed and drained from so many trials and the lack of sustenance. Loreali was too busy trying out all her new joints and movements to notice in such a moment of barter.

“Out contract is complete.” the creature nodded, leaping down from the now-vacant bed to stand weightlessly on his chest. “It’s time to leave.”

And when the spectral curiosity departed, so to did the last shred of life Bertrun had held onto beyond reason or hope. Only when her father’s chest gave its last peaceful sigh of release did Loreali realize what had happened. 

The pegasus collapsed onto the chest of her creator and wept aloud. A child, now immortal, but forever bereft of family.

*****

My entry for this week’s Mid-Week Prompt Challenge, which far exceeds the word count limit. But I don’t care, as this piece joust wouldn’t stop itself. Was this a bargain, or a deal with a devil? That I leave to you.

I hope you all enjoy.

Wildlife Security Solutions, LLC – Contract #1, pt. 8

By the time they made it within the 1km kill-zone of Haven’s defended perimeter, the backseat of the Mazda was much more crimson than gray. Grizli had succeeded in at least abating the flow of blood from the trenches blown into his face. Nosorog had borrowed Volk’s small emergency blade to pull a few other small shards of metal from his shoulder meat. Akula hadn’t even realized he’d been bleeding again until the drive was mostly complete. Only when his pant leg stuck uncomfortably to the cloth of the seat from the open flesh at his thigh did the Shark tend to his own wounds. The rage induced by the wound only fueled his already deep-burning anger at the ridiculous failure that was the whole night, and his mind raced with the many facts to put into the mission report.

Per procedure, coming so close to their forward ops base in a vehicle meant that Akula had to hold his colored identification tag to the windshield the whole time Volk kept the sedan at a pathetic crawling speed. Any faster, and the defending team would have killed them already. Any slower, and even Silverback would outrun us… the team lead groused.

A deep rumbling that rattled his bones stifled that complaint, as the sudden emergence of a rising ivory mass surprised Akula. Unmarked and otherwise conspicuously nondescript, the Ilyushian IL-76 transport jet pulled into the air as hard as it could, shaking the small car almost to pieces as it roared over them and into the morning sky.

“Zdorovo! Supplies!” Grizli half-cheered, too drained and broken to offer more. Part of Akula wondered if the Ukrainian would even be up for his standard post-operation fuck in his current shape. But the larger question dropped on the Shark’s mind by the ascending transport was the very unusual nature of such a delivery. The Il-76 was a massive target, even in peacetime, as any non-combatant would be. To risk a drop-off in broad daylight and so close to an active warfront? I didn’t think we were desperate.

The next surprise came roaring out of Haven’s main entrance, barreling straight at them before veering away and towards a freshly dug entrenchment. Akula typically welcomed the sight of the T-80UM main battle tank adorned in the sigil of the Motherland, but seeing it here and so aggressively prepared for area defense didn’t sit well with him. 

“So much for a short-term contract…” Nosorog grumbled with resentment, eyes hardened and jaw clenched as he stared at the mechanized beast while they crept past it. It was a vocal confirmation of Akula’s thoughts, for now the Wildlife population had exploded far beyond their short-term agreement to just collect intelligence and dispose of influential NLD members. Such disdain also spoke to how deep such a war machine was ingrained in the Rhino’s hate of the Red Star still faintly visible in the war machine’s repainted camouflage pattern. 

A few moments later, the team was signaled to halt by Haven’s security checkpoint crew, none of which Akula’s team recognized. Gone was the comradery ribbing from Pauk or the professional disdain for Sova’s men. Now a newly-arrived flock of lambs came to inspect and recover the predatory team. Each man shared looks of professional concern with each other, the Bear looking the most irritated at having no one to tease. Once the Shark’s shiver had surrendered their weapons once more, they were helped beyond the threshold of the compound. All the while, part of the checkpoint team broke away to deal with the commandeered car. Only when the team was well inside the gated entryway and seated in a processing bungalow did the shocked wail of a lithe ballerina-turned-nurse come running up to meet them, slender arms shaking as they fell upon the Bear’s ragged cheeks. “Fret not, my little liliya, now my face matches the rest!” the Ukrainian jested in a groan, earning him a tearful embrace.

“Suppose this means I’ll tend to my own stitches…again.” Nosorog bellowed, though the Bear and the flower paid no attention. Much to the Rhino’s surprise, he was quickly set upon by another field medic. Unlike Grizli, the Chechen was attended by an amazonian titan of piercing green eyes which promptly silenced any of his further protests with her iron-forged glare. The Rhino offered not even a flash of pain as the nurse-giant wrapped her arm around his upper back for support and guided the wounded soldier to care.

Once the two larger teammates were inside the medical shelter, Akula let himself sink into his seat. A rush of pain and exhaustion flooded over him like the blood threatening to pour from his leg once more. Volk did the same, setting his favorite fang on his lap and running his hands across his bald cranium. Is this the first time you’ve de-clenched in front of people, pup? the team lead let himself wonder.

 “At least we made it back alive.” the Wolf remarked, staring through his boots to the center of the earth.

“Not for lack of trying otherwise.” Akula smirked briefly. With the moment to pause, his brain had remembered that Pasha would be reading all this after-the-fact. Which meant the comms truck would have to be his next stop once his gash was properly patched.

Nyet, my first stop is Silverback’s office to plant that mass of odorous fat into the ground! Akula howled internally. An instinct which gained several decibels of volume when he heard the older man’s voice approaching over the roar of heavy turbine engines outside. When the overseer saw the Shark rise in rage, he put his hands up in defense. “They didn’t tell me anything about the offensive! I only found out about the hell you were walking into thanks to Kontrol, and that was after you left!”

“And yet your men still performed magnificently! This team alone is worth the service fee.” Another voice announced as it entered the room, one that spoke the carefully schooled and neutered Russian offered by Western universities. Its owner was a diminutive man of sun-blasted skin and dark eyes in a fine suit that likely cost more than Akula’s entire team was getting paid this year. “You should spend our money more wisely, Alek.”

Silverback’s cheeks drew a deep red at the use of his true name, but the old soldier said nothing. Nor did Akula, when the man reached out his hand to greet the Shark. “Ali al-Mohannadi Rashadi.”

“I take it yours is the hand that grants us our work?” Akula asked plainly, giving their patriarch the rehearsed company handshake. To which Ali nodded. “I merely represent the interests of those concerned with the peace and stability of their homeland, which the New Libya Dawn does not codify in any way.”

“You should go tell them that directly, I bet they’d welcome the audience.” Volk sneered, which caused Silverback to turn from ruby to ghastly white. Rashadi showed no outward signs of insult or injury, simply ignoring the Wolf. 

“So why visit us?” Akula asked directly, biting through his reserve stamina to not focus on the searing pain in his leg. “Are you not safer far away in some office or hotel?”

Ali waved a hand to passively dismiss the team lead’s concerns. “Were I worried in any way, this contract would be terminated already. Instead, we’ve been impressed by the effectiveness of the current contract, so it’s been extensively modified.”

“And better to bring us that news in person, so there are fewer prying eyes!” Silverback interjected, which Ali also ignored. “It was decided that I accompany our latest investment to ensure it’s proper use and security.” he responded directly to Akula.

Only now did the Russian take a good look outside of the bungalow, only to be immediately greeted by the matted red bear-and-rifle outline of Wildlife’s emblem splashed along the side of a 2K22 Tunguska short-range surface-to-air missile battery rumbling along the sands towards its prime parking position to defend their end of the runway.

 Whose operation is this, now? Akula found himself wondering with growing concern before his last bit of resilience began to fail him. “Then I hope you enjoy the shit-storm you’re helping maintain.”

That finally seemed to get under Rashadi’s skin, as the benefactor muttered something venomous under his breath in his native Persian. Silverback quickly injected his impressive mass between Akula and Ali, sputtering on about other highlights of the contract thus far as the old overseer steered Rashadi’s attention to something outside.

Now left in peace, Akula motioned for Volk to follow to the medical building. Obediently, the Wolf followed without speaking, keeping his gaze on the conversation until the last moment possible, and not taking his hand off his knife.

Walking back outside into the blazing sun also blasted his nose with the smell of her exhaust, as on the far side of the runway, one of two Su-25 ground-attack aircraft were being reassembled for use. Even at a distance, Akula could see Drakon glowering at the intruders in her sky, and he could almost hear the litany of profanity streaming from her throat. Another 2K22 sat nearby, already scanning the skies for anything that dared intrude. Beyond that, another dozen new faces busied themselves unloading weaponry and parts from pallets.

“This isn’t a contract, it’s an occupation.” Volk observed.

“Da, or at least the start of one.” the Shark replied with his own grimace, repressing the rising tide of sickness in his gut at the thought of his frozen homestead growing farther and farther away. And with that ever-distant horizon, his Pasha had never felt farther away.

*****

Part 8 of the on-going Wildlife contract to secure and defend whatever it is their contract demands. Which, as it turns out, may be a whole lot more than they ever planned on. Will the pay be good enough? Or is the end of the continuing struggle anywhere in sight?

I hope you all enjoy.

Part(s) 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7