Flying the Storm(8)
Author:C. S. Arnot


    It was all comfortingly routine. He was meticulous about his turret. Everything had to be working perfectly. On more than one occasion, his and Fredrick’s lives had depended on that. In his own quiet way, he was fiercely proud of his job.

    The Iolaire’s engines started with a whine, rising to a low roar as the wave rotors reached operating speed. Dust and grass flew from the landing pad, even with the engines idling.

    “Aiden, we have an esteemed guest flying with us today,” came Fredrick’s voice over the intercom.

    “Welcome, esteemed guest,” said Aiden, unable to help a smile.

    “Thank you,” said Tovmas then on the second cockpit headset.

    “Please note,” continued Fredrick, in an overly official tone, “the locations of the exits, in case of an emergency. Beneath your seat you’ll find no lifejacket or parachute, but you might get lucky and find a bottle of spirits, which is just as good, really. In the case of a cabin depressurisation, which is likely since the cabin is not pressurised, the oxygen mask which is not fitted above your seat will not drop down. In-flight entertainment will be provided by any pirates who may wish to take a shot at us, in which case a delightful pyrotechnic display will commence at the tail of the aircraft. Vomiting aboard the Iolaire is strictly forbidden. You can smoke if you like, though.”

    Aiden laughed and shook his head. He was glad the poor souls in the cargo hold couldn’t hear their pilot.

    “I will try to keep that in mind,” said Tovmas. Aiden could tell by the sound of his voice that he was smiling, too. “Now, shall we go and find my daughter?”

    “I think that would be prudent,” said Fredrick. “Here we go.” Aiden felt the Iolaire lift him into the air as Fredrick opened the throttle. The engines roared gloriously, drinking Azarian’s ‘nol as easily as any other kind. The landing pad and the brown fields fell away beneath him, and as Fredrick turned the Iolaire round to face the east, Aiden saw below a pair of open topped four-by-fours hurtling up the road from the town. Even from his altitude, he could see that the man in the front passenger seat was staring up at them. His clothes were dark, and the grey of a fur pelt was draped over his shoulders.

    Azarian.

    Then the man and his two cars of militiamen shrunk to tiny specks as the Iolaire sped away from the town.





    > Starboard batteries charged and loaded, sir.

    - Observation to assign targets.

    > Targets assigned, sir.

    - Fire when ready, commander.

    > Starboard rail batteries, designated targets, fire at will.

    > Starboard batteries firing, sir.

    - I can feel it.

    > My god, sir, look at that.

    - My god.



    5.





    Zovashen

    “That’s Yerevan,” said Fredrick, nodding ahead.

    Aiden immediately saw why Fredrick had called him away from his turret. Yerevan, the capital city of the Armenian Republic, was in ruin.

    The Iolaire was crossing the black and flattened northern suburbs: the city sprawled almost to the southern horizon. It was a bleak wasteland, strewn with rubble and thousands of craters. To their right, remnants of skyscrapers and apartment blocks jutted like ragged teeth from the landscape. In the distant south stood Mount Ararat, like some vast and silent watchman. Below the Iolaire, nothing moved.

    Aiden was silent. The engines droned and the intercom hissed.

    “It was the union  ,” said Tovmas, “a year before the war ended. The Concord held the city and the mountains, but the West would not be drawn into battle on the ground. They destroyed the city from the air.”

    “It looks nuclear,” said Aiden.

    “Some of it probably was, yes. Low-yield shells. The union   was eager to try out its new toy, the Gilgamesh. This was the first operational demonstration of its firepower,” said Tovmas, bitterly.

    Fredrick glanced sideways at Aiden. Aiden’s stomach churned. “Did you see it? When it happened, I mean,” he asked. He couldn’t help himself.

    “I was with the union   infantry when this happened, but they didn’t post Armenians in Armenia. I fought with the Four-Eighty-Seventh, in Africa and Indochina. I am glad I did not see this.” Tovmas stared hard out of the window. “I was born in Yerevan,” he said quietly.

    Aiden didn’t know what to say, so he kept quiet. Fredrick was the same. Looking out across the city, he could see no signs of rebuilding. No signs of life.

    “It was abandoned after that,” said Tovmas, as if reading Aiden’s thoughts. “Gangs moved in, fighting over the ruins, so the remaining people simply left. There was nothing here for them, except poisoned earth and rubble.” He paused, gazing straight ahead once more. “Armenia has no capital now. There is nothing to unify us.”

    The ground beneath the aircraft was steepening as the Ararat plain swept up to the Geghama ridge, thirty or so kilometres ahead of the Iolaire. The Yerevan gorge suddenly opened up beneath the aircraft, a great gouge three hundred metres deep. It had disappeared behind them in seconds.

    Before long, the Hatis Mountain loomed ahead to their left: a great green mound of a hill that marked their destination. Tovmas was navigating. He was guiding them to the small town of Zovashen, where his informant on the raiders had pointed him. Supposedly someone in the town knew where the raiders were based.

    “Zovashen is not far,” said Tovmas, pointing at the mountain.

    “Alright,” said Aiden, “Your men know the drill?”

    “Yes,” Tovmas replied, “You land us in the town; we go and get the informant.”

    “We’ll put down south of the town and wait for you to come to us. Any trouble, we’ll cover you,” said Aiden. “Any shots we have to fire you will pay for, as agreed.”

    Tovmas nodded.

    “Easy-peasy,” muttered Fredrick.

    Fredrick brought the Iolaire in a wide sweep around the base of the mountain, before flaring to slow to a hover, just short of the small village. Herds of sheep scattered from below them. Aiden had returned to his tail gun and was dutifully sweeping the sky behind the Iolaire. The eastern face of the Hatis Mountain loomed steeply to his right and the grassy slopes at its base shimmered in the rotor-wash. Fredrick let the aircraft down, sinking gently until its landing gear thumped into the field. The cargo ramp fell, and the twenty armed men ran out.

    After a few seconds, Fredrick closed the cargo ramp and brought the Iolaire to a hover a couple of metres from the ground. He yawed the aircraft around and set it down on the field again. Aiden and his gun faced the village now, watching from his armoured glass bubble as Tovmas and his men jogged into the ramshackle little farming town.

    Tovmas stopped at one of the shacks on the eastern edge of the settlement. His militiamen spread out around him, and one went ahead into the shack when he kicked open the door.

    For a moment, nothing happened.

    Through the thick glass, Aiden heard the three gunshots as blunt thumps. He jumped upright in his seat, and saw the guarding militia spin to face the shack with their weapons raised.

    “Aiden, what was that?” Fredrick asked over the intercom.

    Aiden didn’t reply.

    Tovmas appeared at the shack door, casting a skinny man out before him. The man clutched at his ribs, and even from the Iolaire Aiden could see his greasy white vest blotted with red. The skinny figure knelt on the ground, shaking and spitting blood. Tovmas kicked the man hard, knocking him flat in the dust. Two militiamen ran into the shack.

    The man’s hand was raised, pleading. Tovmas advanced on him, his weapon shouldered. He was shouting at the man, who cowered painfully on the ground. The two militiamen appeared again, carrying the limp form of the one who had gone in ahead of Tovmas.

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