Wildlife Security Solutions, LLC – Contract #1, pt. 13

Few were the things in life Akula truly despised. He’d never understood or cared for the corrupting indulgence of social media, and the sailor detested the taste of wasabi, as there were much better ways to prepare a fresh fish. The Russian team lead didn’t even loathe the Chechen on his team, as Akula could understand a small part of the greater history Nosorog had lived. Would I be so amicable if I followed a German or a Frenchman? Or even worse, some arrogant prick from Washington or Ottawa?

Among all such things he found irritating, stressful, and otherwise vomit-inducing, jumping out of an aircraft was one of them. No matter how many times he’d done it in exercises or previous missions, no matter the fact that he’d only suffered one poor landing with minor injuries, Akula still gripped his seat hard enough to turn his knuckles ghastly white. 

Next to him sat one of Pauk’s men, whom he’d met earlier on guard duty. The taller paratrooper wore a wide grin and was serenely reclined in the uncomfortably small webbed seat. Of course, one doesn’t earn the call sign Pelican without a lot of airdrops…

On the Shark’s other shoulder and closest to the An-74’s rear hatch, was Grizli. The Ukrainian’s eyes were laser-focused on the muzzle of his new box-fed PKP Pecheneg machine gun, though the hulk of a man still wore a grimacing smile. Gone was the jovial, almost poetically charismatic Bear. The man next to the Shark meant to exact revenge for his face on whatever came in front of him.

Across from them, Nosorog watched the rear door with furious anticipation, equally ready to destroy man or machine. Despite the extremely cramped troop compartment, the Rhino refused to surrender any of his explosives, which Akula didn’t argue with. If all else fails, we’ll blow than dammed uranium vault closed ourselves and fuck the consequences…

While the Chechen kept any sort of nausea from his face through clenched rage, Volk had already puked when the transport pushed into its rapid ascent to paradrop altitude of six thousand meters. Pauk and most of the other troops on board gave the Wolf a thorough teasing, despite however much the pup glared at them. 

Departing Haven had so far gone flawlessly beyond that, with Drakon and the Su-25s launching first, right on the second they’d determined for mission start. Like many of their missions before, they’d waited until late into the night to begin, gambling that many of the NLD jihadists would be heading to their bunks for the night, including the pilots of the attack jets ahead of them.

Everything had to be calculated down to the ‘tick’ of their wristwatches, from the moment the missiles flew from the sea to the moment that hatch would open and Akula would fling himself into the infinite sky. There was no communication now, no chatter between the naval forces and the following airstrike, as an orbiting American RQ-4 drone was already sucking in every stray bit of intelligence it could in the Mediterranean. Akula and Pauk had made sure at least one of their team carried an encrypted radio for the ground mission, but these were to remain offline until their boots hit the sand. If even one missile came in late or fell a few meters off its target, it could easily incinerate them all.

Part of the Shark was thankful there was no window so far back on his flying container, so he couldn’t stare out into the blackness like a child waiting for St Nicholas. But if Al Jufra isn’t on fire by the time we reach it, all this was for nothing… 

The timer on his watch hit zero and rang out, the mark of time that meant the first cruise missiles should be raining down on the airfield now. In response, the An-74 lurched as its nose pointed downward, sending his stomach right up into his mouth. Inside the compartment, a siren blared to life, and alert lights changed from red to yellow. Simultaneously, everyone stood and latched their parachutes to the rail above them. 

“Approaching drop point one now! Kill one for us!” the transport’s pilot announced over the intercom before the rear catch cranked open in the darkness. Even with his back to the flames below, Akula could see the ravaging orange glow bleeding into the night sky. Above them, banking around to fire their own wing-mounted rockets, the Su-25s tore into whatever defenses weren’t already ablaze.

The interior light flicked over to green, beckoning Grizli and Nosorog to step forward in a two-step sprint out of the aircraft. As soon as they cleared the ramp, the pull-strings on their parachutes went taut and opened their chutes a mere one-thousand feet above the burning sands. Without hesitation, Akula and Volk followed, keeping their rifles scanning the ground below them as much as possible in the gentle night winds. The Shark could hear the ‘clack-clack-clack’ing of rifle fire in all directions, and the ravenous rumble of Drakon’s rotorblades as the Mi-28 ripped into a scattering line of startled jihadists. Then came the howl of the Su-25s ascending from their initial attack run to line up the next.

The An-74 kept its wings level as it raced across the airfield to deliver Pauk and his team to their drop point across the airfield, almost vanishing in the pitch-black smoke clawing into the sky. As he’d been trained on in his younger days, Akula hit the sand as softly as his boots could manage and unsnapped the chest latch to drop his parachute away. Dropping into an open patch of earth between the main runway and a parking apron was a huge gamble on his part, but the Shark had reasoned that no one would be patrolling an empty strip of asphalt in the middle of the night. Pair that when the sudden, murderous chaos of sea-launched missiles, Akula had played the safe, but correct call, and had put his team only a hundred meters from the idle Tu-22 bombers.

Once the four predators were all parachute-free, they began their rapid sprint to cover. Quickly, they were greeted by shouting in Korean and Arabic, as well as rifle rounds whizzing past them. Peeking out from around the corner of a bomber’s parking embankment, Akula confirmed that both sides had taken up weapons and were shooting at them. It was all the justification he needed, tapping Volk on the shoulder and pointing the Bear and Rhino to swoop around to the other side. No sooner did the two larger men begin their flanking run did the Wolf claim his first kill of the night.

Stepping out to take his own shots, the team lead caught a flash of motion only for a split-second as another sae-launched missile came screaming in, ripping into a fortified building half a kilometer away, catching their opponents in a moment of shock. The Shark took the initiative and dropped one of the Koreans with three rounds to the side, Volk claiming two more NLD fighters that tried to run into cover under a dilapidated airframe. That difference in reaction and more controlled reaction of the Korean forces spoke volumes on their military training and devotion to their mission. Better to die here than disappoint the Dear Leader…Stalin would’ve approved, too.

The sudden ‘thoonk’ of a handheld grenade launcher firing at them made Akula react on instinct, pulling himself and Volk out of the line of fire and behind solid cement. The explosive round slammed into the wall on the other side, and he could feel the detonation rattle the massive barrier. Then came part of a surprised shout and the roar of Grizli’s drum-fed machine gun, which cared not whether it tore into flesh or metal. Torn between being fired at from both sides, those who could still run raced under the still aircraft and out the rear of the opposing parking embankment.

With both sides now secure behind cover, it should have been a stalemate until someone pushed forward to get slaughtered. For this reason, Akula ensured every team lead carried a flare gun on their shoulder, which the Shark now took out and fired into the air. Not a second later, Drakon spun her fangs around and blasted the parking row with dozens of anti-armor cannon rounds. Akula could practically see the crimson mist of what was left spraying into the air against the flames across the airfield. The Bear snarled out a laugh as he ran from his position to cover the next parking apron, savaging a half-concealed Korean who was trying to hide behind the nose gear of a Tu-22. 

Nosorog followed quickly behind, as the bomber Grizli took cover behind was one of the ones being restored. Quickly, the Chechen took a roll of FOX-9 explosive and ran to the rear landing gear. Climbing up the support legs, he smashed the sticky side of the patch to the belly of the bomber and clicked on its timer. Now the Rhino led the sprint away as both larger men ran back to Akula. A mere few seconds later, the legacy aircraft detonated in a massive fireball, sending its tailfin a hundred meters into the air and cracking the concrete walls surrounding it. Any nearby defender that had been running their way was washed over in flames or now writhing on the ground in pain from the searing flash or burst eardrums.

For a brief moment, Akula let their initial successes sink in as he motioned for his men to continue down the parking strip in staggered formation. As a fluid unit of action, they never moved more than ten steps before the rear guard cleared their flanks, making sure none would ambush them. The element of surprise had been with them, as well as satisfactory targeting from his Navy brethren. Drakon had been as savage as she was accurate in her close air-support, and the new Su-25s were creating all kinds of welcome havoc as they made another swooping pass on the far side of Al Jufra. Thanks to all the flames and occasional spats of tracer fire still reaching up into the night sky, the mission lead could even see the An-74 beginning its second pass to drop off the Spider and his newly-crafted team. Now all we need is Pauk to secure the…

The thunderous ‘thoom’ of a nearby missile firing jolted them in shock. Their momentary hesitation was greeted by the sheet white trail of rocket exhaust screaming up into the sky. Within the same second of sheer terror, Akula watched the ground launched missile slam into the An-74 in the center of its nose. Most of the transport’s frame collapsed into itself, equal parts fireball and ripping metal. The wings of the An-74 pushed inward on themselves without the support of the fuselage and sent the entire burning hulk screeching down into the sand. 

“OSA!” Akula shouted, and directed his men toward the source of the shot. Above them, the two Su-25s lit the sky with their countermeasure flares in the confusion and banked hard away to get out of range. The Shark could hear Drakon’s engine go to full power as well, but her Mi-28 was much closer and lower to the fight. 

“Get out of there! Get out!” Akula yelled as they ran forward in a dead sprint. The source of the launch came from a previously-abandoned pilot outstation, where the Osa had been waiting in secret, covered on all sides by a flimsy metal shack until it had been time to fire. Now exposed, the six-wheeled launcher rocked forward to reposition itself. Several jihadists moved with the vehicle like a shield of human ferocity, expertly keeping their eyes out in all directions. In their haste, Akula had run his team out into the open for a few brief seconds, giving the rear two NLD fighters ample time to shoot. Throwing himself to the cement taxiway, the Shark sprayed return fire, forcing both defenders to move back. It was all the time Volk needed to drop one of them and send the second running backward.

It was also all the time the mobile missile launcher needed to acquire Drakon in its sights and fire again.

*****

Part 13 of the very messy, highly dangerous, and overall super fun time that is the Libyan contact. We’re nearing the planned end of this section of the story, but the mess that Akula and company are in is only knee-deep for now. How will they fare when it’s up to their necks? We shall soon see, as what I had planned and what my pen is telling me now are far different things.

I hope you all enjoy.

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

The Defection of 43 Red

Coming around the long stretch of exercise track in a full sprint, Senior Ltd. Pavel Yostovich Dobrow let the clean view of the rising sun clear his mind and steady his breath at the end of his indoor ten kilometre run. The ivory sheen made the air glow with deadly invitation and his breath collected in mist at his lips. January in Severomorsk was a harsh mistress so close to the Arctic Circle, but she was never one to forget her beauty. The blinding purity of the sunlight shimmered off the hardened layer of snow covering many of the buildings and unfortunately immobilized vehicles.

He then heard the thunderous roar before he saw the silver lightning race down the runway behind him. A bullet of fire and Russian pride was lifting off for its morning stretch and patrol over the Barents Sea, eager to defend the Motherland. That mission alone made the Lieutenant’s chest warm with pride, but the machine himself made Pavel smile externally. Unlike the narrow tube with stumpy wings and twitchy controls that was the MiG-21 that Pavel had been subjected to in his last assignment, the base of Severomorsk-3 had been gifted with the double-engined rocket-ship that was the Su-15TM. A machine built like the Lt was; to run hard and fast. 

Learning how to tame the beast, especially in the severe polar winds, had been the most pleasing challenge of his life, and it had consumed the last six months of it almost entirely. Every chance he had to take the alert rotation,  Pavel took it, even if it meant spending 12-hrs shivering in the poorly-built pilot alert-quarters. This was his duty to his homeland, a nation still trying to recover from German betrayal and Western debauchery even three decades later. 

“Still daydreaming, Comrade Lieutenant?” A voice interrupted his thought train, and Pavel almost walked face first into Lieutenant Sergi Popov. 

The professionally-groomed arrogance that typically dripped from Sergi’s words was a grind on Pavel’s patience, especially when we sit alert and all he does is boast…

“Mission-planning, Comrade. We have the rotation tonight.” Pavel scoffed in response.

Sergi waved a dismissive hand. “It will be as still as death again, you and I both know. Come to the village with us! Enjoy a drink and a warm touch for a change!”

And let you pin false charges against me, you KGB rat? Pavel sneered internally. This wasn’t Sergi’s first attempt to bait the trap of pleasure for him. And judging by the rotation of new pilots coming next week, Sergi was obviously somewhat skilled at trapping flies in honey. 

“I doubt my wife would approve either, Lieutenant. Nor would the Colonel.” Pavel responded with a nod over Sergi’s shoulder. 

Staring through Sergi and into Pavel’s soul was the recently returned Senior Colonel Andrev Volkov. It was a look of hate Pavel had grown tolerant of since the transfer to Severomorsk-3, as it reminded him of a glorious training mission last year where, in a stolen Western fighter, the Lieutenant had completely embarrassed Andrev and another Colonel through skill and unquestionable tactical genius.

Sergi shook his head, feigning some sort of sadness for Pavel’s rejection. “Yours is a cold, lonely life Dobrow. No wonder you belong here among the seal shit.”

Pavel ignored him, watching Andrev turn and leave instead. The Lieutenant noted that the Colonel’s arm was unusually full of papers, one of the documents even bore his name, which should have been hard to make out from the meters away the two men were. Yet Pavel could read it as clear as day, which he knew he’d have to deal with later.

*****

Sergi had been right earlier that morning: the harsh winter’s night was as still as death. Not even the flags marking wind direction and speed would dare flutter in the darkness. Pavel didn’t mind the doldrums much, as there was a small crate of books to indulge in. Reading also enabled Pavel to ignore any of his wingman’s whining, private cursing, or self-satisfied smirk when Sergi returned from a round of self-pleasure.

It wasn’t unusual for the pilot phone mounted on the far wall, as there was little else to do in the middle of the night. It was the curt and hushed nature of the caller’s request that peaked Pavel’s interest at first. “Comrade Dobrow?” 

The voice on the other end was quiet, but also shaken as if it had seen something horrible. It took a moment for Pavel to recognize the voice of Senior Major Yeven Illych, the 91st’s Executive Officer under Colonel Volkov. To Pavel, Yeven should have been leading the 91st, given the Major’s combat record against the Americans in the jungle skies of Vietnam. But Yeven also bit the hand of the Party, so he was ensured to never promote again.

The informality of the senior man addressing the Lieutenant was very unusual, and Pavel had to concentrate on maintaining his level voice. “Standing by, Ground Control.” Pavel disguised the call as simply another status update to give to the base’s control tower.

“I know you didn’t do what the Article 53 accuses you of, but know that you will be arrested before the night ends, Andrev has ordered it.” Yeven relayed, sending Pavel’s stomach into his boots and turning him ghastly white.

For a moment, Pavel couldn’t believe his friend and squadmate had alerted alerted to this. It doesn’t make sense, nothing in my record would even HINT at betraying the Party? Why?

Turning away from Sergi to more easily whisper into the phone, Pavel quietly screamed. “Impossible! I’ve done nothing to…”

Yeven cut off Pavel’s retort “The Colonel still remembers how you disobeyed his orders and made a fool of him. How do you think he earned command? Through his own skills?”

A beat passed as dread unlike anything he’d ever felt crystallized in Pavel’s stomach. “Liliya?” He asked Yeven, passing only the pet name Pavel doted upon his wife, herself a thousand kilometres away in Moscow proper.

“Has already been arrested and confessed, Comrade. Her word will be the nail Andrev uses to crucify you.” Yeven responded, the Major’s voice shaking with quiet rage even across the phone line.

“Rec….recommendations?” Pavel  asked, knowing he was failing to maintain his composure. Trying not to turn his head, he saw that Sergi had risen from his seat, one hand at his belt as if to draw a weapon.

“Your choice, Comrade. Do-svidaniya.” Was all that Yeven responded with before the phone went dead. Too many thoughts raced through Pavel’s mind as he stood frozen with the receiver. How can they accuse me of crimes against the State?! I’ve given my life to it! To my homeland! WHY?!

Sergi’s outstretched hand reached his shoulder, which was all the time the KGB agent needed to dig his fingers into Pavel’s shoulder muscle to try and force him to his knees. Instinctively, Pavel yanked his arm back, pulling his attacker into an ill-advised headbutt. Both men stumbled backwards, but Pavel had the wall to steady himself where Sergi tripped over a chair and tried to kick it at him. Pavel’s return kick sent the chair away before he picked up Sergi’s helmet and swung it as hard as he could at its owner. Sergi hadn’t had enough time to stand upright before the helmet clocked him in the temple and eye socket. With a resounding crash of bloodied face and metal furnishings, Sergi went down and did not stir.

Pavel’s panic doubled, for now proof of the Yeven’s warning was at his feet. A moment to breathe turned that fear to rage, as Pavel sounded out his hypothesis in a growling, feral deduction. “This is what you do because I humiliated you, Colonel? You have me sent to the gulag?! My wife beaten into a false confession?!” Angrily, Pavel kicked the downed wingman, before a new thought dawned on him. I won’t even make it off the base before they arrest me, or shoot me…Der’mo, must I do this?

A quick check of Sergis pulse confirmed that Pavel’s strike had been fatal. Now, with his wingman dead, Pavel’s execution was guaranteed. There was only one even remote chance to live now, and it challenged everything he’d thought certain up to this point. How welcoming is the West when I bring them such a trophy as my fighter? How does your corruption compare to execution? An idea that made him partly sick, but also stood alone in his mind.

Pulling Sergi’s body around a corner to be out of immediate sight, Pavel took the folded map and flight planning tools from the dead man’s pockets. Donning his own helmet and flight gear, the pilot took in one last deep breath and headed outside into the biting cold of the night.

The alert apron where his escape was sitting was less than ten meters away, but it was the longest walk he’d ever taken. Pavel locked his eyes on the closest Su-15, 43 Red, mentally trying to pull himself faster towards it. Unlike most of the regiment’s other fighters, the four closest to Pavel were kept on alert, fueled and armed at all times in case of Western intruders. Still, launching a modern interceptor was not a one man job, yet Pavel was now about to attempt so.

As he reached the fighter, the pilot paused for a moment, almost turning to call on the ground crew in the neighboring shelter to assist him. Instead, he saw the four maintainers pants-less and circled around two young ladies they’d smuggled onto the installation. Were this any other day the Lieutenant would be required to have such adultery arrested and jailed, but Pavel let the men have their distraction. Every second they give me, I’ll take!

As quietly and quickly as possible, he prepared 43 Red to depart, dropping the access ladder away from the cockpit as he hopped in when he was ready. The ‘CLANG’ of metal against concrete was bone-rattling, but the maintainers kept their joyous circle intact, letting Pavel breathe a sigh of relief.

The Su-15’s twin engines screeched to life and the world around Pavel stopped for a moment. He looked over his shoulder and saw the once-engaged maintainers looking back at him in stark terror. The interceptor lurched forward with a twitch of the throttle and the ground crew scrambled to re-clothe and pull whatever alarm was closest. 

There was no stopping now, Lt Pavel Dobrow was now a traitor and an enemy of the State, so he pushed more power forward to move the fighter on the taxiway, then the runway facing directly north. When he pointed the aircraft down its takeoff path, a blinding spotlight lit up the canopy, followed by the wail of sirens all around. Without looking, Pavel pushed the throttle to full power, keeping his feet firm on the rudders. He had no doubt the Su-15 was screaming towards the airbase guards, which would be coming from most every direction. They would shoot to kill him, but save as much of the interceptor as possible. 

He could almost hear shouting over the roar of the Su-15’s afterburner kicking on, but Pavel shut them out. The moment he felt the tell-tale give of the control stick when the nose wheel left the earth, he pulled the controls into his lap as hard as he could. He could hear bullets tearing small holes in his wings and fuselage as the interceptor pulled itself into the low cloud cover of the icy night.

The spotlights from the airbase lost track of him after a few seconds, though the radio channel from the tower was howling at him to return or surrender. Pavel kept the Su-15 pointed straight north, punching past the speed of sound to stay ahead of any other ground-based guns. The infinite wastes of ice and dirt below him was broken only by faint streetlights until he raced past the small settlement of Granitnyy. Then there was only ice. Dobrow slowed the interceptor to below the speed of sound to save as much fuel as he could for the next part of his gauntlet.

With his last known landmark now behind him, Pavel pulled the Su-15 into a westerly turn. Only the internal compass told the pilot when to level his nose and finally breathe again. Only now did it dawn on him that he had little to no idea how to approach Western skies without immediately being shot down.

That concern was quickly shelved as a small star ignited in the night’s endless darkness. Pavel knew exactly what it was, and paused the interceptor’s nose almost straight down. He’d seen the S-200 missiles when they were being installed to the northwest of Severomorsk-3. Being a rocket engine filled with shrapnel designed to utterly shred whatever it hit, the missiles were very obvious to the eye, even from the sky. And being a ‘friendly’ system built to defend the Soviet skies, the Su-15 couldn’t tell from which direction the missile would come at it. His only escape now was down, hoping the horizon and the surf would mask enough of the large fighter.

Even racing away from his pursuit, Pavel could still see the shining plume of exhaust growing as the missile raced toward him. For a moment, the pilot ran his hand along the interceptor’s ejection handle, knowing full well he wouldn’t survive the crushing G-forces and drop into the freezing ocean. Or if I’m lucky, the missile kills us both…

And it was that thought that pulled his hands back to the control stick to steady the Su-15 into level flight, less than five meters off the icy waters of the North Sea. The aircraft fought him with every gust and twitch of the breeze, the waves below leaping up to try and snatch him down into the abyss. 

“No, I won’t be taken down! Not by them, not by you!” He screamed into his oxygen mask, expecting it to be the last words he’d ever hear. Instead, the thunderous roar of the S-200 soared over him, followed by a second missile a second later. Ten massive booster engines flamed out well past Pavel’s wings and continued on into the darkness before slamming into surf some distance away.

Pavel let his breath out through clenched teeth over a minute later, to make sure he hadn’t just hallucinated his own escape. He looked over both shoulders lingering over the last flickers of fire on the distant horizon. Then he looked up into the oppressive black of the cloudy night, wondering how many of his former comrades were now running to their planes to try and find him. Or will they just let me go? Blacklist my name and imprison anyone I’ve ever known…

A pang of sympathy turned his eyes to his hands, still gripping the control stick with white knuckles. But when he looked back up to the interceptor’s nose, that pain turned to anger. “No…the Party and the lies put me here. If they fear the West so much, how much of that is also a lie?”

Again he checked his compass, the map on his knee, and his fuel dial. Pavel clicked the stopwatch on his wrist to begin a timer, then pulled the Su-15 up to a hundred meters aloft. Now the crushing waves could not touch him, and the interceptor settled down its own tantrum.

 An hour later, Pavel engaged the only options he’d been able to conjure for when he was out of Soviet skies. Gently, he pulled the Su-15 up to seven thousand meters altitude and set his transponder to the International Distress Code he’d been taught ages ago. Then, biting his lip and waiting for something else to tear him from the night sky, Pavel turned south towards Norway. 

Quickly, his radio came alive with chatter of someone yelling at him in foreign-taught Russian that didn’t immediately make sense. The Su-15’s radar receiver also growled at him, telling Pavel the Norwegians were ready to blow his wings right off. He’d expected this much, and part of his soul even wished for it, just to end the infinite blackness behind him. 

Yet nothing reached out from below to rip him down. Instead, a coherent voice finally put together “Soviet aircraft, this is Royal Norwegian Air Force: maintain course and lower landing gear.”

Looking down towards the distant twinkling of settlement lights, the knife-edge wings of a F-104 came up next to Pavel, with another one creeping up on the other side of the Su-15, boxing it in.

“Understood, pilot. Complying with order.” Pavel responded, almost smiling as the interceptor’s landing gear cranked down into place. The Su-15 rocked and shook as it slowed, not wanting to be so restrained. But Pavel kept his gaze on his nose, only looking to his new escorts whenever they tipped their wings to turn or descend. He had no idea where they were leading him, and right now, he didn’t care.

Almost on cue, the first inklings of sunlight began to break over the horizon as Pavel’s nose lined up with a long strip of runway in the distance. He could see the many flashing lights and guards waiting on either side of the runway, waiting for him. Pavel’s heart was racing now, but his mind was calm as he guided 43 Red towards foreign soil.

“Welcome to Kirkenes, Comrade Soviet.” One of his escorts announced as the F-104s pulled away in tight loops to give Pavel room to land. 

“Nyet, not Soviet. Not anymore. Just Russian.” Pavel responded as the Su-15’s wheels touched pavement. Popping the drag chute to slow down, several trucks raced forward to meet him, making Pavel actually laugh at the fact he was still breathing. As the Su-15 finally slowed to a stop and the plane was surrounded, Pavel popped open the canopy to breathe the first taste of Western air.

****

My entry for the 2021 #shortstorychallenge, as hosted by Kate Johnson and Team Writer. We may have had the month to crank out 3K words, but for me it turned into: 5 days research, 20 days procrastination/panic, and 3 days of mad writing sprints whenever free time was available. Still, it was a blast to do, and I hope do to another one someday.

I hope you all enjoy.

Wildlife Security Solutions, LLC – Contract #1, pt. 12

It took almost twelve hours to re-plan, re-target, and otherwise un-fuck the coming mission among the newly formed cabal of soldiers and pilots. Akula had made sure Silverback was drug out of the room and sent to a recovery bed, which took both Grizli and Nosorog to accomplish. Once the blubberous ape had reimagined consciousness, he’d stormed over the meeting room in a rage. It took only a unified glare from the Shark, the Spider, and the Dragon to send Silverback to his office to scream at Kontrol, which Akula assumed was still going on even now. 

In a positive vein, the mission coordinator and targeting team on the Moskva had been amicable to the change. In fact, they’d been expecting it. The senior targeting officer had pointed out to them over radio that, “Blowing up empty buildings doesn’t work for NATO, so get us a bearing on the real problem!”, which told the sailor all he needed on what the warship had been passed by its own command. 

The packets of printouts provided promptly by Silverback’s aide on Akula’s demand had laid out much of their problems very clearly. First and foremost was the reasoning for the mission deadline, as Silverback had been resolute in why the strike had to take place so soon. Solomon provided that key piece of intelligence with a transcript of one of many ‘sessions’ Ri had endured deep in the interrogator’s pit. The Korean was precise in pointing out that a private cargo transport, flagged in the neutral colors of Ethiopia would arrive to acquire the secured nuclear materials. From there, it would fly through Syria, Afghanistan, and China before the Kim regime got their hands on millions of dollars worth of raw materials so graciously given by the NLD. Knowing that, they all agreed that letting the cargo airliner arrive would constitute a failure of their mission. That information would be passed along to the main Russian garrison stationed in Syria, with their recommendation to force it to land and arrest the crew.

Though stacks of pictures taken both from satellites, bribed human sources, and stolen social media, they’d figured out that the L-39 and G-2 just that had come forward to Al Jufra were indeed armed and had even flown since their arrival. This was in part thanks to the North Korean team Ri and Kim had brought along, who did more than just work to refurbish the larger Tu-22s. How long would it be until they dared to come further east and find Haven? Unlike the tank-mauling Su-25s Kontrol had allocated them, even the basic training jets could pose an issue through panicked tastics and a lucky shot. Despite Rasahdi’s continued protests this his proxy forces in the LUA could use the resources, the military minds agreed that none of those jets would fly again.

And then they found an Osa, which sent Drakon on a tirade of swears worthy of Tolstoy. Even in the corner of one satellite image, the outline of the mobile surface-to-air missile system was unmistakable. But it wasn’t its existence or capability that gave Akula the same icy concern as his flying partner, it was that the Osa then vanished in all other images. Other, more primitive anti-air weapons such as other ZPU-2 trucks had taken planned, defendable positions around key areas, which told them there was at least one smart person on that airbase. Yet the Osa seemingly vanished into the sands and shadows, leaving no tracks or radar emissions. Through almost five years of imagery and signal collection, it had only been seen the one time. Through all their intelligence and reporting, credible or not, Libya had not seen an active Osa unit since NATO destroyed the national government. Was it destroyed somewhere? Does it even function? Or does it wait in one of these many buildings like the viper? 

The Spook Schedule gave them no comfort either. It contained not only the expected increase in American and NATO activity that would watch them work, but a second page of complications. As Akula had feared, the approaching Moskva and its partner submarine was attracting increased attention from the US Navy, the Hellenic Navy patrols Greece kept around Crete, and even the Israelis. All of which would be watching the Motherland’s finest, and by extension, Wildlife’s newfound surge in activity. Even if it was understood among all those in this planning gaggle to keep as much of this to themselves as possible, none of them were so diluted to think that theirs was a secret mission anymore.

Looking at all the facts, the timelines, and the resistance they knew about, it was decided that Wildlife’s assault required surgical precision and flawless timing. When it was finished, and everyone who would take part agreed on it, Akula nodded his own satisfaction in their overhaul. So meticulous was their timing that the missiles would herald their arrival immediately into Al Jufra. Confusion and chaos would be their armor, and no warning would be given to anything that raised a weapon at them. With such rapid response required, the gathering had agreed that Drakon and the other pilots were to be airborne already, ready to finish off whatever the Navy left weakened, with special focus given to the still-unlocated Osa. In those same moments, Akula’s team, Pauk, and whoever else they could fit into the newly-arrived An-74 would parachute in in separate clusters to secure key parts of the airbase. 

Hammering out those details took another six hours, whatever food could be whipped up quickie, and a lot of shouting. After much drawing, erasing, and vulgarly vibrant venom, the fighter pilots and Drakon agreed on their air corridors so they didn’t interfere with the air drop or get shot down by cruise missiles. After which, most everyone in the planning huddle was drained or frayed. But without Silverback’s commanding beltline, there had not been an agreement as to whose shoulders this entire burden would fall on. Perhaps he’d reached beyond exhaustion when he said it, or the rest of his peers were also too tired to argue, but when Akula ordered them to break for rest and smaller team briefs, it became clear to the Shark who was calling the shots on this operation. On my head will rest their caskets, in my hands I cradle their blood…blyad, Pasha’s never going to believe this…

Akula was the last to depart the meeting room in the bungalow. A caved in hallway that had been partly-cleared gave him a visual to Silverback’s personal teleconference center on the destroyed terminal where he could see the outline of the gargantuan overseer hunched over his desk. An empty bottle of smuggled-in swill stood next to him, a mostly-empty bottle next to that. For a second, the Shark almost praised the ape’s ability to acquire and hide so much alcohol, as well as ration himself. But that respect was broken by the soreness he still felt in his knuckles and the disgust of almost being fed to disaster a second time. 

“You can’t repeat the mistakes of Afghanistan and expect to survive, Silverback…how much samogan will it take to get that through to you?” Akula muttered to no one before heading outside. Though the oppressively hot sun had risen to beat down on the icy-acclimated sailor, the sounds around him kept his temperature cooled. The sizzle of soldering and wiring as Nosorog prepared a new rig of breaching charges. The paced, precise, and patient shots Volk took on the pistol range to better his aim. The sounds of a petite flower writhing in pleasure as Grizli thanked her for helping his recovery along. For just a moment, the Shark let his mind settle on the normalcy around him, how these were the sounds that coccouned him now.  

But that blanket contained no water. Gone was the soft rush of water lapping against stone on the moonlight night. The stream of the calming Pechora River could not reach him here, not could the tempered roar of Barents Sea. He could not take up his father’s axe and bring down a mighty snow pine to heat his home, now emptied, for Pasha’s work all but demanded a small apartment rental in Moscow. It was as if the sands he stood on reached up to slap him, reminding him that he didn’t belong, that there was too much to do now. 

With the gains in the hourglass draining back into the Libyan wastes around them, Akula headed back for the comms truck. Glancing at his watch, and converting the time zones in his mind, the Shark swore to himself She’s off-shift by now…one hour, that’s all it took. May Andre let you sleep well, babchoka.

Still, he penned and sent a short email to her, for when next she was at work. By the time she read jt, the predators would be preparing to draw blood like they never had before in this contract. 

He hadn’t fully appreciated just how long he’d been awake until he rose from the computer terminal again, and the rush of exhaustion washed over him like a brutal wave. Grimacing, Akula shook the feeling from his eyes. A shark that stops swimming, even for a moment, will drown. There was still a lot left to do, such as walking his team through weeks of mission prep and questions in a few short hours.

*****

Part 12 of the Libya contract, and the building blocks for the big operation align. So many variables, but too many risks not to move forward. And when a predator is forced to hunt in a very dangerous and unpredictable situation, rarely do things go smoothly…

I hope you all enjoy.

Parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11

Bolo Squadron – To the Skies and Beyond

If there was one problem with the BTL A-4/Y-Wing, it was age. In the early days of the Rebellion, back when aces like Jon Vander, Horatio Salm, and Kyr Birnakari flew them into battle, the old bomber could stand toe-to-toe with the might of the Imperial fleet and come out without a scratch. Even when their previous Commander was cutting his teeth at the Battle of Endor, the wishbone-shaped starfighter could still hold its own, though the sleek and dagger-tipped TIE Interceptor would rip it apart nine times out of ten in a straight up fight.

Now, in Brinn Yelah’s age of Bolo Squadron, the Y-Wing was the starfighter you called when the B-Wing or X-Wing wasn’t available. And its pilots knew it. Most of the New Republic used the old slug as a training fighter anymore, if they used it at all. The few frontline squadrons that still used it took either a level of insanity, or sub-par discipline. Both of which General Tovolo Pellius worked to mitigate under strict training and an open-door policy of leadership. It was an approach Brinn had come to admire in her time as his wingman.

When he’d been killed in action, Bolo Squadron became hers. To include its legacy, its quirks, and all of its burdens. She wasn’t Pellius, she never would be. It took the majority of her mental prowess outside of flying and tactics just to remember Krull’s Life Day, let alone all ten of his clutch!

So when the entirety of Bolo Squadron got their tails, asses, and other various posterior joints handed to them in a training exercise barely an hour ago, she could read the self-doubt and self-anger among her pilots as they trickled into the cargo bay-turned speak-easy one and two at a time. 

“They look like all their childhood pets were just beaten…” Krull murmured quietly, scaly lips hovering over his frothy tankard. 

Brinn’s frown deepened at the observation, because she knew he was right. In this last simulated run, they’d been ambushed by an enemy squadron of TIE Interceptors in a maelstrom of high winds and no visibility. By all accounts, the Y-Wing’s shields and sensors should have won them the day with the right tactics. Instead, they’d been massacred.

A fact that sat in Brinn’s stomach like a spiky stone as she downed a long pour of maintainer-brewed spiced rum. “Do we even know who flew against us in that sim?”

Krull shook his head, “Best I could find is that is was a group of transiting pilots on their way to another assignment. Just stopped over here on Taibius to refuel and chow down.”

That didn’t do Bolo Lead any favors to help her feel better. She stifled a groan of anguish and rested a hand on the R2 unit next to her. In turn, Rattler gave a sad hoot at seeing her so defeated. 

“No, it’s not your fault. You did right by me. We just got outflown, outgunned, and utterly stomped. And by a bunch of tourists, no less…” Brinn reassured the droid, as much as she was trying to talk herself up.

“At least Rowan got one…” Krull added, pointing a talon at the quartet of flyers at a nearby table. Among them, the youngest Bolo sat back with his arms crossed, staring into his glass like it should levitate to his lips. 

One for twelve isn’t a good record, even for a bomber squadron…she thought. Which she knew was the wrong answer. “It was a great shot, even if it was blind. Certainly made the TIEs think twice anyway.”

“We’ll have to re-run that mission again, you know.” Krull pointed out, draining his mug in one long gulp. “Once all the pride heals.”

Bolo Lead nodded, taking another tumbler of rum off a passing server droid and draining its top third. “Agreed. I just wish there was a way to help them think of how hard they fought, instead of how hard they died.”

“Well, what would Pellius do right now?” Her lover asked half-rhetorically. They both knew what he’d do. It was just a matter of getting her to think of it, and say the words. 

“He always had a chant or a song to pull us up by the ass. That man should’ve been an artist.” Brinn admitted, draining the rest of the glass without a second thought. “We haven’t done one since we lost him.”

“Which means all the young-bloods don’t know a key part of Bolo tradition and need to be educated.” Krull nodded safely, tapping his own R5 astromech, which in turn popped open a top panel to reveal a speaker.

Brinn shot him an incredulous look, before looking over the room and all the down-turned looks at filled tankards and snifters. “You think it’ll work? I’ve..hells, pre-mission briefs are stressful enough. I’m not him…”

“I know, I’ve heard you sing in the shower,” Krull countered with an almost human slyness to his serpentine smile. “But I’ve got your back, ky’lianna. Every time.”

The squadron leader felt her cheeks light up slight at that. A feeling that was amplified a moment later with the end of her tumbler. “Rattler, give me a countdown.”

Shooting it’s understanding, the astromech began a rhythmic, bass-powered countdown beat, which the other R2s and R5 droids picked up on and mimicked. This garnered some confused looks from the younger Bolos, but the veterans of the unit went still in curiosity. 

Not a second later, the ringing ‘clang’ of metal on metal joined in as Krull banged the bottom of his mug on the table. An excited murmur built among the seasoned pilots as they filled in their juniors what was about to happen. 

She could feel that same energy, inspiring and frightening all at once, building in her sternum. This one’s for you, Tovolo… we’ll do you proud!

Not allowing herself to think anymore about things like hesitation or restraint, Brinn stood suddenly from her seat and vaulted herself onto the bar’s countertop, much to the shock of the server droid. Now committed, her voice began to carry the words of one of Bolo Squadron’s oldest decrees.

Stronger than the mountains and as sharp as steel

Limitless, out on a quest for the glory of the heroes

It took only the first measure for the senior flyers to recognize it and stand, singing along with her in various successes of pitch and tune. Chief among them was Krull, who’s deep, savage register added that primal edge to the warrior’s ode.

Greater than the tales of the greatest gods of all

We will take our rightful place in Odin’s hall

Brinn had forgotten about the dropout before the chorus’ build-up, so hearing her own voice singing out alone startled her for a brief moment. But that uncertainty was washed away by sheer exhilaration. This wasn’t just something she didn’t know she needed. They needed this, and it was her role now to support her wingmen.

How far does the sky reach?

We will strive to be greater than man

Grow, We’ll become the warrior

Rising above, sword in our hands

Unconsciously, her fist raised to the sky to challenge any who flew their stars. Empathetically, it was joined by her pilots, now smiling and howling along with her. Even the junior flyers who had never heard the words understood the sentiment and the feeling of focus.

Reaching for our destiny

Glory be to the chosen ones

Warrior

Let your hammer rise to the sky and beyond

We have just begun

To cap off the first verse of Bolo Squadron’s anthem, she took up a small glass and downed its contents in one gulp. To her relief, it was simply filtered water, but the action was mirrored by her squadmates enthusiastically. 

Reach for the horizon, aim your gaze to the unknown

Tread into the fiery storm and watch their minds get blown

Braver than the bravest warrior of all

A strength so fierce and powerful as from the god of war

The energy surging through the squadron was infectious now, bringing Brinn to crush her fist to her chest in dominance of their destiny. The other Y-Wing pilots eagerly joined her, slamming fists into tabletops and their own breasts, or stomping their flight boots on the deckplates. When the background dropped away again to let her voice ring out clear and true, it was joined in echo by a unit now unifying in self-confidence once again.

How far does the sky reach?

We will strive to be greater than man

Grow, We’ll become the warrior

Rising above, sword in our hands

The chorus washed over them all this time, a measure of renewed determination and aggressive pride. Wingmen clapped their drinks together, astormechs pipped and hooted their excitement, even the typically-dull server droid was bouncing along with her words now. 

Reaching for my destiny

Glory be to the chosen ones

Warrior

Let our hammers rise to the sky and beyond

We have just begun

For a strong beat, only the ravenous roar of their combined energies filled the room. On a whim, Bolo LEad held up her hands to quiet them, drawing their attention to her with eager anticipation. Above all things Brinn had built up within her chest and her words in this moment, now was the time to drive home her pride in them. She would elevate them as Pellius and Krull did for her, she would make them feel like they could fly right now to glory and victory.

There is a legend that’s yet to unfold

The story untold

We will be greater than all

Fierce as a fireball

Whatever hesitation or reserve Brinn had left was now melted away, thanks to equal parts adrenaline and intoxicated rush. All of that energy, all that pride in her pilots and how they sang with her now, belted forward in a raw power that she’d never harmonized before. The understanding was dawning on her now, just how powerful a moment like this was. Not just for them, but for her own release. Did you sing like this when no one was listening, Tolovo?

Burning free

Our destiny

We will be fearless and strong

Into the sky and beyond

A tidal wave of howling, cheering, and confidant roars filled the room and the surrounding corridors with the harmonies of proud pilots once again. Brinn couldn’t keep the smile from her own lips, even if she felt as red as her home sun. Watching her pilots, her friends and family, remember what it was like to be themselves again, filled her with a pride she’d not known before. Looking up through the ceiling to the infinite galaxy, she nodded to Pellius and raised her glass one last time to him.

*

Unbeknownst to Brinn and the rapturous Bolos, they were no longer alone in the drinking establishment. Somewhere after the second chorus, a quartet of different pilots had picked up on the rambunctiousness and hunted down its source. Much to their surprise, the four aces found the very squadron they had just eviscerated in a simulated mission earlier in the day. Granted, the lead ace at the head of the quartet had planned to meet with Bolo Squadron tomorrow to go over the mission before they left.

“Wow, talk about a set of pipes!” the fourth pilot admired, nodding his head. The raucous level of warrior’s cheer was enough that his compliment could only be heard among the smaller group, but it was all he needed.

“Seriously! Must be nice to fly for a boss that can carry both a squadron and a tune.” jeered the third ace, smiling broadly in his assertion.

“It’s good to see them in high spirits. I was worried we went too hard on them in the sims.” Added the second man, tallest of the bunch. “You were ruthless in taking her down, Wedge.”

Nodding his understanding, General Antilles looked back to Tycho. “Had to be done. Now they know a bit more of what they’re gonna face when they ship out with us.”

Colonel Celchu returned the nod, “Agreed. They’re rough, but they’ve got the intrinsic talent the campaign needs.”

Leaning into the conversation, Major Wes Janson couldn’t help himself. “Don’t you worry, boss. I’ll get them flying with proper insanity. Maybe they can trade us some of those wicked songs!”

“Last time I heard you try to carry a tune, you had half a bar try to jump you!” Major Hobbie Kilvian jabbed.

“And the other half wanted an encore!” Wes countered, giving Wedge a gentle elbow tap. “Besides, no way Wedge would allow us to be second at anything! I bet the boss has a great soprano!”

“Wes, I will not be pitting the reputation of Rogue Squadron or any of its members on a karaoke battle.”

*****

It’s been a long time since a song has hit me like this one does. It’s got a power to it, a drive I can thrive on, and it just fit in my mind with the tales of Bolo Squadron, even if they haven’t had many of those exploits written down yet. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea in music, but it makes me feel like I could fly without wings.

I hope you all enjoy.

Wildlife Security Solutions, LLC – Contract #1, pt. 11

Just as Pasha had promised, the announcement dropped that evening, yet it didn’t arrive through coded email and a mountain of paper. Instead, in the middle of dinner, Silverback’s scrawny welp of an aide had sprinted into the mess tent and summoned Akula. “Pardon, sir. But you’re required in Silverback’s conference room at once per his order.”

At first, the Shark glared up from his finely-prepared slop and pryaniki, making the messenger recoil from Akula’s ice-blue eyes. The palpable fear made Grizli bark out a laugh next to Akula “I think the little pudel just shit himself!”

It was when Pauk let out a barbaric howl of excitement that the Shark sat back in his seat. This was the first time one team lead had been summoned in such a way, and now the two most experienced soldiers had been called in unison.  And then a third man had stood, one of squad leads Akula had yet to meet, followed by one of the Su-25 pilots they’d been eating with.

“This is it, brat’ya! This is where we smash the Dawn back to Allah!” Pauk cheered as he left the tent, with others yelling and applauding in return as the majority quickly picked up their eating pace.

Akula’s team was less enthusiastic, turning inward to query the Shark. Nosorog was first to ask “They don’t know, do they?”

“Nyet, or at least I doubt it.” the team lead replied. “I imagine this is where Silverback fills us in on the master plan that Kontrol has crafted for us back in their cubicles.”

“Blyad, I can’t wait to hear the rest of this…” Grizli grumbled, finished off the last bit of pastry on his tray. 

The Shark nodded at that, as he wasn’t too keen on whatever bloodbath was about to drop on their laps. “Gear up and…”

The rest of his order was drowned out by the streaming howl of four massive turbofan engines blasting forward to slow a landing Il-76 transport that had just touched down outside. Most everyone left in the mess tent stood to look at the ungainly albatross coming to a rolling stop outside while a throng of ground-crew ran out to meet it with directions to a parking spot.

The fact that they’d now seen another large arrival in only a week’s timeframe was strange enough, but another shrill whine drove the excited murmur up several octaves as a second, smaller transport aircraft drifted down gracefully behind its larger cousin. Akula recognized the trailing An-74 light transport and commando airlift from the many combat exercises he’d played in among the ice and snow. Its arrival filled in a key prediction in the team lead’s mind. Wherever we’re going, we’re being air-dropped in…der’mo… 

“And?” Volk prodded, making the Shark pick up his dropped thought.

Akula scanned the room, watching the other teams start to vacate mostly-eaten meals and run out to the runway. Those who had been in Libya as part of the original contact, he could read the anger in their faces. The release of now having even a hint of a plan of what they were going to do. The new faces, unaware of what they’d signed onto with this contract, were excited for far different reasons. Part arrogance, part lies, neither of which breed survival.

“…and standby for now.” Akula amended, weighing the options. “Head to the terminal and start checking parachutes, as many as you can.” 

Thankfully, the rest of the team nodded in understanding and rose to depart, leaving Akula to follow the squad leads to Silverback’s bungalow, which had once been a luxury quarters for some uber-rich sheik near the airfield’s former main control tower. He was the last to arrive at the briefing, taking an open seat next to Drakon. Across from him, the Spider nodded his greeting, and the Shark returned the gesture, only now noticing that Pauk now sported a gash from cheekbone to neck and around to his back. 

In another vein of disturbing, Solomon was also present in the gathering. The through interrogator gave Akula a cool nod upon seeing him, though all the Shark could see was the faint stain of blood soaked into the monster’s shirt. How did they bribe you out of your pit, vampyr?

Also present at the meeting was Rashadi, who kept his face professionally impassive, simply scanning the room and everyone in it. Silverback, knowing he was in charge of the meeting, looked to be puffing his chest up just that much more in some laughable attempt to show his dominance. “Comrades, this is it! Thanks to the intelligence gathered by Kontrol and by our teams here, we’ve located where these mongrels got their hands on the makings of a nuclear weapon.”

An excited hush overtook the room as a projector flickered to life on the edge of the hastily-assembled metal table they sat around. With it, the ape’s little helper monkey pulled up a PowerPoint file which began with the satellite image of a large airbase to the southwest of Haven. Like much of the former Libyan military, it had been utterly ravaged a decade ago by Western cruise missiles in key areas. Now, in this most recent image, most of the damage had been repaired or mitigated, and Akula could make out several groups of people milling about, working on various tasks. Many of the concrete aircraft hangers had remained unscathed, even if they were now nothing more than junk pits. Several broken down combat aircraft and helicopters also sat in the open, rotting under the unforgiving sun and sand.

Immediately catching the Shark’s eye, however, was the small row of short-range, cheaply imported L-39 and G-2 training jets that looked to be not only armed, but also in flyable condition. And I thought only our ‘allies’ in the LUA had sovereign reign over the airspace…

Drakon also was quick to notice this, as he heard her swear several times over. It wasn’t often she flew with air-to-air missiles, as she hadn’t been contracted for that mission. Do you still remember how to hit a bullet with a bullet, Liliya?

But much to Akula’s surprise, the largest trophies still stood intact, even if decrepit. Sitting comfortably on their aprons, in varying conditions of repair and refurbishment, were a dozen Soviet-era Tu-22/’Shilo’ supersonic long-range bombers. The initial brief Pasha had given him only mentioned them in passing, as they hadn’t flown in decades. Yet in the presentation before them, at least two of the old war machines appeared to be in much better condition.

“This is Al Jufra Airbase, formerly the center-point of Ghadaffi’s long range aviation and firepower.” Silverback began, trying to push his voice out with his chest to help project command in his presentation. “Despite the multiple strikes it has suffered by NATO, there is more than enough clear runway, equipment, and hardened shelters for anyone to use. As such, Kontrol assesses that this is the NLD’s eastern-most base of operations.” 

This immediately struck a sour note in Akula’s ear, as it was an admission of a suspicion he’d seen in his off-duty reading. The Libya Unity Army was losing and losing fast. Even on their last mission a week ago, the NLD wasn’t supposed to be beyond Bin Jawad in force, let alone so far south as Al Jufra. By next week, we’d be on the defensive or overrun…no wonder Kontrol sent us tanks!

Taking a laser pointer from his breast pocket, the gregarious gorilla circled one of the larger concrete bunkers in the northern corner of the airbase. “And here, in this munitions storage bunker, is the source of all our headaches.”

Silverback gestured to Solomon who rose from his chair like the undead walker his pale skin and sunken face made people think he was. “Over the past week, with your assistance,” he nodded towards Akula and Pauk. The former gave only a small nod, while the Spider wished to hurry the brief along. 

With a taxed grin, the interrogator continued, “we’ve gathered invaluable human intelligence on the extent of international involvement with the New Libya Dawn’s takeover of the nation.”

The torturer paused for Silverback to nod, before continuing his delivery, “The man brought in by Akula’s team is Ri Il-Sung, who I suspect is a serving member of one of the regime’s illicit acquisitions program. Navuk has extracted that he holds a Doctorate in nuclear energy from the Université de Lorraine in Stuttgart, Germany. As well as the honorary rank of Lieutenant General in their mainstay Army.”

The room was silent as the gathered minds wove the information together into a dark tapestry of unwanted conclusions. Aklua let out a small ‘huff’ under his breath as he recalled Nosorog’s words. Perhaps you were right, Rhino. Things would be much simpler if we’d just killed that old pervert.

“The target brought in by Pauk is Kim Chang-ja, major general of the Korean People’s Army Air Force, who holds many hours in the Iluyshian IL-28. For this reason, he was sent to inspect the NLD’s latest holding of Libya’s Tu-22 base. He was expressly told that he would bring one of these back to Kim Jong-Un personally as a Hero of the Democratic People’s Republic.”

The elder overseer looked to them, wearing a smile that made him look imposing even to the Shark. “And in thirty-six hours, we’ll finish the job those fucking Yanks left behind and leave the whole base burning!”

A few excited murmurs picked up, especially from Pauk. But Akula kept his tone unwavering when he spoke up, “And how do we propose to seize a base triple the size of our own? With the handful of armor that was bought for us and a few kind words?” It was half-sarcasm, and half a test to see if Silverback would enlighten them with what the Shark already knew. 

The egotistical ape happily bit down on the bait, “Nyet, Shark, We rain down enough missiles from your sea-faring brothers to make them beg for Allah’s mercy!” The slide changed again to reveal the sailing timeline and courses of the inbound naval flotilla of two warships, raising the excited murmur to a cascading roar. Yet despite the Spider’s energized eagerness for bloodshed, the Shark remained unconvinced. You just couldn’t resist showing off your ‘strategic brilliance’, could you, Silverback? 

Yet beneath the tide, Akula could pick up on notes of concern from the masses. On the surface, the plan itself was brilliant in its simplicity. Or at least it should have been, in his eyes. As harended as Al Jufra was, would it stand up to a focused, concentrated pounding by two of the Motherland’s finest warships? Just bury all that nuclear material under a thousand tonnes of fire and sand and let time digest it. 

“And then what?” asked the Spider, arms folded across his chest. “So we blow up anything these sandrats have and storm the base, what then?”

“After the initial engagement, our contract is to occupy Al Jufra and ensure all nuclear materials, components, and technology are removed from the base.” Silverback began.

Rashadi was quick to inject, “Without destroying the useable combat equipment that remains. The Unity Army will make use of it in the continued struggle to restore the national government.” This caveat earned their benefactor a subtle, but angered glare from Silverback, which Akula picked up on.

“Except for the larger bombers, those will be targeted and destroyed. We will not allow either an extremist movement, or the North Korean government, to take possession of such vehicles. International treaty stipulates this clearly.” the bulbous overseer shot back, trying to assert his order over the Qatari that right now paid their bill.

“AFTER, and only after, all non-indigenous troops and personnel have been cleared from the area.” Rashadi shot back with equal abrasiveness. “We’ll not have another party or government bringing unnecessary pressure into Libya. The national power struggle is fractured enough as is.”

An unnerving beat of silence filled the room, as the disparity in leadership and direction usually kept to Silverback’s office and teleconferences now laid bare. Akula could see the many sides of absorbing such a fracturing, from Pauk’s unchanged anger to Drakon’s cringe of uncertainty. Even he felt the confidence level seeping out of the room like a hemorrhaging wound, and shit leadership has already gotten us mauled…

“So which comes first, the missiles or the cattle-rounding?” Drakon asked to break the quiet. Akula had his suspicions, and he didn’t like them. No way you got the actual Navy involved if there was a chance of bombing North Koreans…means Kontrol told Sevastopol we’d clear them out first.

Silverback glared at the pilot’s brazenness, as if she were questioning the masterfully crafted battle plan. Looking over at the Qatari briefly, a small grumble escaped sunken lips as the overseer replied, “In order to ensure accurate targeting and minimized non-extremist casualties, we will be moving on Al Jufra with our own capabilities first.”

The previous tide of excitement turned to anxiety and apprehension as Silverback laid out the coming night’s operation. As Akula had predicted, his team and Pauk’s would be airdropped in close to the base’s perimeter after Drakon and the Su-25s made their initial bombing runs on the active combat jets and any sort of anti-aircraft measures the satellite image had captured. Fortunately, the images showed little in terms of heavier firepower, but both Shark and Dragon shared a knowing nod that there would be something the planning phase missed.

From there, Akula’s team would round up the Koreans working on the flightline and the bombers and move them to an open patch of the airbase where they would be free of any blast shockwaves. Because Al Jufra supported larger aircraft, it had plenty of open room next to its long runway to make that easy. Meanwhile, the Spider and his remaining men would be sent to secure the nuclear materials building, flush out any Koreans from there, and get them away from the incoming strikes. Other, newer teams were assigned as fire support and building cleaners, charged with searching each and every hanger, equipment shed, and half-destroyed rubble pile on the base to ensure only native Libyans and other NLD jihadists would die in the second phase of the mission. 

Once the missiles had fallen and the airbase secured, the Unity Army would move in with a full force from the east and take possession of the base the following day. And all of this was to be done with the least amount of equipment damage possible, lest any of the teams risk a contract fee reduction or another blacklisting. 

The Shark hated the plan, both its unnecessary complexity as well as its politically-coddling construction. The first wave of airstrikes risked their element of surprise as well as being shot down by something they’d not seen this far. Even as capable as they were, two ground-attack jets would run out of munitions long before they wrought the needed damage to truly shut down the airbase. 

Then came the international issue, as trying to pull a bunch of non-cooperative North Koreans out of their defendable positions and herd them like uncooperative cattle would be stupid at best. Kontrol didn’t provide them an accurate head-count, so Akula and Pauk could easily miss someone, and it only took one desperate Korean to shoot them all in the back. 

Then there was the delayed naval missile strike, which would allow plenty of time for the NLD forces to fight back or run back west to Sirte, dragging the war on even longer when a substantial blow could be dealt right then and there.

So the Shark was thankful when the Spider slammed his fist into the table first, as it ensured there was common thinking among the pawns who would be carrying out this insanity. “This is a bullshit plan!” The newly-scarred soldier aimed an enraged finger at the Qatari funds master. “If they’re paying for cruise missiles, then we use them! I’m not taking my team into a death trap to get shot up by these mongrels trying to save a bunch of juche-fuckers who’ll be shooting at us, too!”

It was then that Akula stood up from his seat, moved the projector aside gently, and unplugged it. Keeping his calm by clenching his fist hard enough to force it into a paler white, he glared at Silverback. “If there are Korean soldiers, uniformed or not, working with these insurgents, then they are enemy combatants and will be treated as such. We both know there’s no way those hermits will admit they had troops here publicly.”

Silverback stood as tall as he was able, which pushed Akula back thanks to the sudden intrusion of blubber. “Political matters aren’t your concern. Your contract is to follow MY orders, and I have advised Kontrol that we won’t be inflaming tensions without express permission.”

“So we’re gonna shield these fucks from our own contract? We take away what their Dear Leader sent them here for, they’re going to attack us!” Drakon exploded from her chair. “Why not just ask me to suck all their dicks at once?! It’s insulting and ridiculous that you think this is the best option!”

“Der’mo, she’s right, Silverback. I may be new blood here, but I know a shit plan when I see it. This is the same kind of trap we flew over in Chechnya, and I’ll not lose any more wingman to this kind of filth.” the Su-25 pilot concurred, sitting upright in his seat. Akula was sure to file away part of the declaration for later, So that you never meet our Rhino, else he demands revenge on you, too. 

“Shut up, all of you!” Silverback exploded, shoving the Shark back and gesturing with jiggling fervor at the dissidence before him.  “None of you have the a…” the gargantuan gorilla began, before the calming fist the Shark had been arming finally flew, connecting with Silverback right in the temple and laying the larger man out. 

“You’ve had that a long time coming, cossak…” Akula growled as he stepped over the fallen overseer to confer his aide. “Advise the Moskva and the Severodvinsk that we’ll be sending them an updated mission profile and launch window.”

Before the frightened assistant could eek out a complaint nod, the Shark turned to the rest of the assembled table. “New plan; we let the Navy take out the heavy guns, the fighters, and anything else they can from afar.  Then we roll in and secure both the bunker and anything not on fire. Understood?”

Pauk’s wrathful grimace turned to a nod full of conviction. Drakon also gave her approval, as Akula knew she would. The Su-25 pilot at the table also gave an approving nod after mulling it over for a moment. 

Only Rashadi, looking aghast at the scene that had just played out in front of him, threw up his hands in disapproval. “No! Unacceptable! The clients have specifically directed that…”

“Call it an unavoidable loss in battle. Fuck, blame the Dawn or the Koreans if you like, say they sabotaged anything they couldn’t escape with. But if it fights us, it doesn’t get a warning.” Akula snapped. “Your people made this contract to help you win this war and save whatever it is you think is important in this shithole sandbox. Now let us do that as your blood money intended.”

The Qatari worked his jaw several times, and the sailor waited to see what venom came spring out. With an exasperated breath, Rashadi turned and stormed out of the room, phone already in hand to call his masters. With that oversight departed, Akula turned to the rest of his leads. “We need every image and piece of intelligence we have on Al Jufra since the NATO campaign, and an updated Spook Schedule. If we do this, we do it right. And if we can find Sova or any of his team…we bring them home.”

****

Part 11(!) in the on-going Libya operational mess. International warfare, lethal and not, is a very tricky thing to manage. Originally, I couldn’t decide between breaking up all this planning and arguing into smaller parts, or putting if forward as one massive chunk. Much feedback would be appreciated on how much is too much, or how tight a scene feels is too tight when the rest of the world is still out there.

I hope you all enjoy.

Parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10

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.