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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

I hope you all enjoy.

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

Mid-Week Challenge: Eternal Pegasus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

I hope you all enjoy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

I hope you all enjoy.

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

TW Prompt Challenge – Curse of the Living

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

I hope you all enjoy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

I hope you all enjoy.

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

10 April 1970

Sword

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

I hope you all enjoy.

TW Prompt Challenge – Overplanned Thievery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

I hope you all enjoy.

Mid-Week Challenge: Beyond the Ice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

I hope you all enjoy.

TW Prompt Challenge – Bad Date

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Run”

*****

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

I hope you all enjoy.

The PsyGear – Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • SIGNED  

Verick Weathers
PEPA Operations, Retrieval Division
Hunter #2127

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

*****

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

I hope you all enjoy.