Flying the Storm(2)
Author:C. S. Arnot


    Let them win, you idiot.

    Aiden was grasping the railing at the bar with white knuckles. He didn’t want to imagine the outcome if the marines lost. But Fredrick looked determined.

    There was nothing Aiden could do.



    2.





    Altercations

    Mohawk’s fingers dug into Fredrick’s throat and the meaty arm lifted him off the ground. His legs dangled pitifully now, twisting and kicking in vain as he was slammed bodily against the wall. His head slapped on the rough brickwork.

    Help me, he mouthed.

    But Aiden couldn’t get to him.

    The other marine had seen to that: Aiden’s arms were pinned behind his back in a painful iron grip. He was frantic, on the edge of panic, looking on helplessly as his best friend’s life was crushed from him in ragged, gurgled breaths. He had to do something.

    He wrenched forward desperately, ignoring the pain in his shoulders. With a shout of defiance, he kicked out like a mule, catching his captor in the groin. The marine grunted and eased his grip only a fraction, but it was all Aiden needed to get a hand free. He spun to face the doubled-over man, and deftly stole his knife.

    The knife plunged deep into the marine’s unarmoured thigh, pulling out with a spurt of bright blood. The man grunted again, falling to his knees, hands clutching desperately at the pulsing wound. Aiden kicked him hard in the tattooed head, sprawling him on the pavement, unconscious.

    It had happened so quickly that Mohawk hadn’t even let go of Fredrick. His eyes bulged with disbelief as he saw what had happened to his comrade.

    Aiden tackled him. All three men tumbled together: the murderous grip on Fredrick had been released and he slumped at the foot of the wall as Aiden and Mohawk crashed onto the slabs of the alley floor by his feet. Aiden’s wrist was caught by the hand that had only a moment ago been strangling his friend: the bloody knife quivered barely an inch from the marine’s throat.

    The marine’s strength was enormous. Even from below he was managing to turn the knife back on Aiden. The muscles that had so easily lifted Fredrick now slowly twisted the blade; edging it away from the throat that Aiden desperately wanted it to slash. Realising his dominance, the brute’s spittle-flecked face creased with a predatory smile.

    Once more, panic. There was no help for Aiden now: Fredrick was still barely conscious, and the alley was otherwise deserted. He had to change his approach, and change it quickly, because this one was certainly going to get him killed. He shifted his weight slightly, lifting his centre of gravity.

    Then he head-butted the marine, putting all the force he could muster squarely into the man’s face. He felt the crunch of bone.

    Mohawk went limp, his face sagged and his mouth hung open senselessly. Aiden sprang to his feet, knife at the ready. Neither marine moved. Their bulky bodies were slumped as Aiden had left them. A pool of bright blood was forming around the legs of the one Aiden had stabbed, turning to a brown paste where it mixed into the limestone dust.

    He turned to Fredrick, whose eyes had opened. “You all right?” he asked.

    “Praise the Wings,” wheezed Fredrick, rubbing his throat and getting unsteadily to his feet.

    Aiden laughed a short, shocked laugh. “It wasn’t the bloody Wings that saved you!” His hands were shaking. He threw the knife away.

    “Let’s go,” he said, wiping a smudge of blood from his forehead with his sleeve. They ran, a little uncertainly, to the end of the alley and out onto the street leading to the harbour.

    It had occurred to Aiden that they couldn’t stay in Sevastopol any longer. Slowed to a fast walk by the milling crowds on the main street, they cut as straight a path as they could towards the docks. There they could board the Iolaire, and make good their escape.

    “Did you really cheat them?” asked Aiden. It was an odd question, given that neither of the marines had actually bet any of their own money.

    “No. I beat them fair and square,” Fredrick protested, still rubbing his bruised throat as he edged past a heavily laden street-merchant’s cart.

    The street ended suddenly as they crossed into the wide open of the landing plaza at the Pivdenna docks. The hot, slow breeze carried the rank odour of stale sweat and the alcoholic tang of aircraft fuel. Even though it was dusk, the heat hadn’t let up.

    They stopped for breath, and Aiden took in the view.

    Before him, aircraft of all shapes and sizes sat in two rows along a peninsula, which itself stuck out like a tooth in the mouth of the bay. A heavy transport was lifting off at the far end, its engines droning loudly with the strain of a full cargo hold. Fans swivelled and twitched as the pilot made adjustments to its ascent. Aiden watched as it slowly gathered momentum, folded out its wings and thundered off to the west, high above Sevastopol bay.

    He itched to get airborne.

    “There she is,” he said, spotting the Iolaire amongst the other craft. They moved off again, restraining themselves from running to avoid suspicion. “How long do we have, you reckon?”

    “Until they find those two?” replied Fredrick. “Who knows? Not very long.”

    “We’d better get into the air sharpish then.”

    They moved along the rows of aircraft and the forklifts loading them, past fuel trucks and engineering crews, until the sound of running feet brought them up short. They stopped by a stack of food crates, and pretended to be inspecting a nearby clipboard as a squad of marines jogged past. The marines ran along the rows, heading for the street that Aiden and Fredrick had just left, their sergeant barking orders at them.

    “It looks like they’ve noticed,” murmured Aiden, as a thrill of fear set his pulse racing.

    They reached the Iolaire. It was a light transport, ex-military, salvaged from the North Atlantic union   after the Armistice. It had somehow worked its way to a scrap merchant in Denmark a couple of years back, which is where they’d found it. Square-jawed and streamlined: Aiden had always liked that.

    Fredrick flipped open a panel by the cargo ramp and punched in the code to lower it. They hurried aboard, quickly checking the straps holding their cargo of cigarettes and alcohol by thrumming them as they passed. Fredrick closed the cargo ramp, and Aiden rushed up the steps to the cockpit.

    “I hope you don’t mind if I fly this time, Fred,” he called over his shoulder. “No matter how much you pray to those Wings of yours, it won’t cure a concussion.”

    “Hold kæft, Skotske pik,” was the reply from the hold.

    “If you’re going to swear at me, do it in English.”

    “Shut up, you Scottish prick.”

    “Better.”

    He must have agreed on some level, though. “I’ll go to your turret,” he said. “We might need the tail gun today.”

    “All right then,” Aiden mumbled as he strapped himself into the pilot’s seat. He pulled on the comms headset and began the start-up procedure. No time for air control clearances tonight, just up and out. Digital gauges sprang to life on the console, engine temperatures and fan rpm climbing. Quick visual check out either side of the cockpit: all good. Fans were spinning; wave-rotors were reaching power cycle. Perfect.

    “Fred, you strapped in yet?” he asked.

    “Tight. Are we ready?” was Fredrick’s reply, his voice as loud through the headset as if he’d spoken in his ear.

    “Indeed we are. Lifting off.”

    Aiden eased the throttles open a fraction and the Iolaire gently rose until it hovered twenty metres above the concrete plaza. Dust and debris were blasted in swirling vortices around the neighbouring aircraft, and people nearby ran for shelter from the unexpected take-off.

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