Week 37

Murder Cat woke to the sensation of C-4’s postage-stamp-sized tongue lapping at his nose. He opened one eye as big as the little dog’s head.

The big cat snorted, sending C-4 tumbling, but the little dog only yapped gaily and hopped over to wake Black Ops. They were on the coast.

The Lada overlooked the lip of a sea cliff hundreds of feet high. A steak of white snow traced the edge of the prominence like a chalk line.

In the frigid distance lay islands of rocky, jagged peaks separated by miles of iceberg-dotted, steel-colored water. Putin drank it in.

Welcome home,” he said, without turning to look at his companions. They all were quiet before the magnificent vista.

“I’ve arranged for Gazprom to acquire drilling rights here. Our base will hide below the rigs like a dragonfly naiad hunting in the weeds.

“Of course, during the Cold War we dropped quite a bit of nuclear waste in the Kara, but I’m sure it’s fine now. It’s a strong Russian Sea.”

In the weeks that followed, supplies began arriving on Gazprom trucks. The drivers saw a small barracks, but never met any of the workers.

The animals began each day with a logger’s breakfast, Putin flipping flapjacks and serving up his famous fresh-clubbed baby seal sausages.

After the meal, they headed down to the dock where their construction mechs were arranged like action figure accessories on a store shelf.

All day, Black Ops and Murder Cat shuttled materials down to the seafloor, while Putin and Snowy welded their fortress’s hull.

On shore, C-4 chased barnacle geese; sometimes Putin would put the little pup in his diving suit and let him crawl around while he worked.

Slowly, the base began to take shape: a brutalist version of Tatlin’s Tower with only its tip protruding above the seafloor.

Though Putin soon went back to Moscow to assume his new FSB responsibilities, he returned frequently for impromptu black site inspections.

The team labored tirelessly, making the interior as luxurious as the exterior was spartan. Snowy spent weeks just on the bathroom frescoes.

One day, months into the construction, the steady routine was interrupted by the blare of the base’s perimeter alarm.

Black Ops was first to the sonar room, and shouted over the intercom, “Two bogies coming in hot! Six meters in length. Could be torpedoes!”

Snowy charged in and slapped the button to deploy countermeasures. No use! The incoming masses dodged them, and kept coming.

Murder Cat raced to the valve room, prepared to close parts of the base if the hull breached. “Brace for impact!” cried Black Ops.

But there was no collision. The intruders stopped suddenly, floating and bobbing just outside the base. Then came a gentle tapping.

Week 38

The animals looked at each other. The tapping came again. “Could it be they’re attaching an explosive to the hull?” Snowy asked.

Black Ops frowned and blinked his weird eyes. He was the team’s explosives expert. “I don’t think so,” he finally replied.

Again there was tapping, gentle and rhythmic. “I think they want to come in,” Murder Cat said. “But who are they?”

They decided that Murder Cat would go outside to investigate. He suited up and prepared to step into the airlock.

“Be careful!” Snowy warned. Murder Cat just grinned his toothy tiger smile and closed the airlock door.

Soon he was outside the headquarters, moving gracefully through the water toward the two bobbing forms. What strange creatures they were!

Murder Cat thought they resembled dolphins, except … they had long, twisted horns protruding from their heads! “Unicorns?” he wondered.

But weren’t unicorns more like horses? On the other hand, Snowy had once mentioned “sea horses,” so who knew?

In any event, those spikes looked as if they could do some damage, and certainly the creatures would swim better than he.

The two strangers remained floating quietly near the hull, looking placidly at the enormous Siberian tiger in his diving suit.

Murder Cat decided they did not have aggressive intentions, so he turned and swam back to the airlock door.

“So, MC!” Putin smiled, “What do you make of our visitors? What are they?” “Sir!” Murder Cat replied, “They are noncombatants, Sir!”

Putin laughed. “Quite right. And they are also narwhals. Luckily, I speak fluent Seamammal. Let’s test the microphone.”

Putin flipped a switch and began to speak: “Bleeeeep! Eh-eh- eh-eh-eh! Wheeeeee-ooop!” The twin narwhals thrashed excitedly at his words.

“Bleeee-eeep!” they replied. “Whoo-oop! Whoo-oop! Eh-eh-eh- eh!” Putin turned from the screen with a satisfied smile.

“They have watched us building our fortress, and they wish to assist us. They are twins, and their names are Peaches and Herb.”

Snowy and Murder Cat exchanged a disappointed look. “What?” Putin asked, frowning.

Murder Cat looked sadly at the bobbing forms on the screen. “Well,” Snowy said reluctantly, “if they have names, then we can’t eat them.”

“Of course not!” Putin exclaimed. “They are not food! They are volunteers who have come to join us.

“The twin narwhals, Peaches and Herb, are our friends. They are our newest recruits. And I am going to name our group … the Putin Pals!”

Week 39

The animals were thrilled with their new team name, and returned to work with even more enthusiasm than before.

With the help of Peaches and Herb, construction progressed faster than ever and the Putin Pals began to cohere as a synchronized unit.

All of this should have pleased Putin considerably, but each time he visited his mood was a bit darker, his praise a bit more sparing.

One day while Murder Cat was tiling the bathhouse, Putin found a hair in the grout and demanded that the whole room be redone.

Snowy took the worst abuse. Putin criticized everything, harping on trivial flaws in her work. She bore it all with longsuffering silence.

This treatment went on for weeks, and the Pals began to despair: Was their leader becoming a despot? They came to dread his visits.

Seated on the bridge, Black Ops watched a sonar screen. “The Commander’s ship approaches,” he said. “Prepare for arrival,” responded Snowy.

“Aye aye, Captain,” replied Black Ops, reaching under his desk to retrieve a pair of earplugs he theatrically placed in his ears.

Murder Cat scooped up an empty cardboard box and put it over his head, pretending to hide. Snowy smiled at their jokes and shook her head.

“Careful there, comrades. The boss isn’t into comedy.” She sighed, remembering the practical jokes Putin used to play during her training.

“You two straighten up. I’ll go see what we’ve done wrong now.” Snowy rose from her chair and left the bridge to meet Putin at the airlock.

She padded down the hall to the base’s dock. There she saw a shocking sight: Putin holding C-4 by the scruff of the neck and shouting.

Snowy was appalled! Never had Putin raised his voice to the gentle little pup. It was too much: Outrage overwhelmed obedience.

“Stop it!” roared Snowy. Putin froze at the deafening cry and turned. The war bear’s eyes blazed with fury. “Put. Her. Down.”

“You are my Master, but to the others you are a Commander. Behave as an officer, or relieve yourself of duty. We’ve work to do here.”

There was silence, and for a moment Snowy wondered if she was about to die. She knew Putin could crush the whole fortress like a tuna can.

Without a word, Putin lowered the little dog. The tiny apricot puff stood trembling for a second, then yapped happily and sprang away.

Putin watched C-4 scamper off and then looked up toward Snowy, his face unreadable. Snowy braced herself.

Instead of shouting, he walked toward her, then reached out to grasp the thick white fur on her shoulder. The great war bear flinched.

Putin froze at her reaction. At last he spoke. “You are very brave, Bear, and you are right: I’ve been much too harsh with you all.

I owe you an explanation. Come.” But as they turned to walk from the dock, Putin wondered how much he would be able to tell her.

Week 40

Putin and Snowy left the dock and headed for the fortress’s main dining hall—a one-hundred-foot–tall, torpedo-proof–glass geodesic dome.

“I am happy to have Peaches and Herb’s assistance,” Putin began, “but their arrival disturbed me. We were caught off guard. Shamefully so.”

“Had they been enemies … ” He looked off into the distance, a storm raging behind his eyes, his skin glowing slightly green.

He made an effort to calm himself before continuing. “Our work is too important; we can’t afford such mistakes.”

Snowy nodded. “It won’t happen again. I take full respon-” Putin raised his hand to quiet her, and cocked his head.

Snowy, you’re more Vyacheslav Vasilevsky than Aleksandr Vasilevsky. Enjoy that fact, little cub.” Putin chuckled at his own joke.

But the references were lost on Snowy, and she merely blinked in confusion. “Come, I’ll explain it to you over lunch,” Putin smiled.

In the dining hall, C-4, Murder Cat, and Black Ops were eating from their bowls; Peaches and Herb floated outside, snacking on cuttlefish.

The Pals all looked up when Putin and Snowy entered; no one stopped eating, but they all began chewing much more quietly.

Murder Cat had just bitten into a hunk of fresh elephant seal blubber when Putin caught his eye.

Nodding at the hunk of flesh, Putin flashed a mischievous smile and said, “Fight you for it, MC.” At once, the big cat grinned.

Come and take it,” replied the striped menace, spitting out a hunk of seal bone and licking one massive, bloody paw.

The Pals burst out laughing, and Putin joined in. Their leader was back! Finally, Putin signaled for quiet. “Enough joking, loyal friends.

“The ease with which Peaches and Herb sneaked up on us has been disturbing me. With all of us working, someone has to be on watch.”

I volunteer, Sir!” roared Murder Cat. “No, MC, you’re too strong,” Putin said, shaking his head. “We need you to keep building.”

“I volunteer, Sir!” bleated Black Ops. Putin looked at the eager young goat. “No, Black Ops—you have weird eyes.”

“Yap! Yap! Yap!” yapped C-4, peeing a little with excitement. “Not you either, little potato,” smiled Putin, patting the tiny poodle’s butt.

“No, we need a new team member for this job—one with special skills, one who can tell us what our enemies are doing, what they’re thinking.”

Putin tossed the Pravda sports section onto the table. Its cover showed an octopus with one tentacle wrapped around a little plastic cube.

“Paul is a telepath who can see the future. Currently, his talents are used only to predict the outcome of international football matches.

“He’s made enemies among Oberhausen’s bookies. We’re going to help him, and give him a chance to help us. Pals, we’re going to Germany!”