Flying the Storm(7)
Author:C. S. Arnot

    Knowing their luck, though, they’d be standing with their mouths open when the shit hit the prop.

    “You have a plan, I assume, for after we’ve refuelled?” Aiden asked.

    Tovmas nodded. “I have good information that the slavers are based in the Geghama,” he said, pointing at the distant line of mountains to the south east. “It is maybe, fifty kilometres.”

    “How come you need an aircraft then? Would a truck not manage that?”

    “Yes, but it would be slower. The roads here are not good, and the slavers might not be reachable by road anyway. I mean to catch these men before my daughter and the others disappear into the east for good. They have a head start, but I think with your aircraft we could catch up with them.”

    Fredrick took Aiden aside then. “You realise what we’re getting into?” he muttered. Aiden looked at him. He knew. At least, he thought he did.

    “We’ll be at this for days, at least,” Fredrick continued. “It’s not going to be a simple out-and-back. This could take a long time.”

    Aiden nodded. “I know. It doesn’t look like we have much of a choice though, eh? I don’t much fancy the trip to Georgia.”

    “We are going on his word, Aiden. Only his word. If there’s a simpler way to get ‘nol, I don’t think he’d tell us, do you?”

    There was truth in that. Still, he couldn’t face chasing the locals for ‘nol again. They’d made it fairly clear that the fuel was not for them, yesterday.

    “Fred, it’s all we have. We’re in a new country; we don’t know its ways. This might very well be the only way we can move on.”

    Fredrick ground his teeth. “Fine,” he said, finally. “If it turns out there was a better way, I’ll shove him out the hold myself, once we’re nice and high.” He said the last bit loud enough for Tovmas to hear.

    “I have some gold, too,” said Tovmas. “I can pay you for your help.”

    They turned back to the Armenian then. Gold was good. “All right,” said Aiden. “How much?”

    The man shifted. “With help from the others, I could offer maybe a hundred grams. On the safe return to Ashtarak, of course.”

    A hundred grams wasn’t much for hiring an aircraft like the Iolaire. They’d scraped together just under a kilogram combined of gold, silver and copper yesterday, selling their cargo. They hadn’t quite made a loss, but it was still chicken-feed. If Tovmas was telling the truth, though, and he could really get them free fuel, then they might actually turn a small profit on this trip to Ashtarak. Aiden could see Fredrick drawing the same conclusions. His manner changed slightly.

    “Lead on, then,” said Aiden.

    He walked with Tovmas back down into Ashtarak. The man went round several ramshackle doors, slowly gathering his retinue. Most of them he sent to gather supplies to take to the landing pad. One man, a gruff-looking type of an age with Tovmas, came with them to the northern outskirts.

    Just beyond the last of the houses stood a small fenced compound. Inside were a stumpy tanker truck and a big bowser on stilts.

    A tubby man in a stained vest came out of the shack by the gate. He nodded to Tovmas, and then walked off towards town without a word.

    Aiden watched him go. “Your brother?” he said.

    “Bedros, yes.”

    First Tovmas went into the shack, and came out wielding a set of bolt cutters. He went to the gate and cut the padlocked chain. It fell away and the gate swung inwards. Tovmas went in; Aiden and the third man followed quickly.

    Tovmas bent to check the gauge on the tanker. He cursed.

    “He could have at least filled it for us,” he growled.

    It took several minutes to fill the tanker from the bowser. Tovmas stood on top of the truck, holding the fat hose in the hatch, while the other man lingered by the gate to watch the road. Aiden stood nervously, hopping from foot to foot. Why did he come with them, again?

    The heat was building. The breeze had almost stopped entirely, so the sound of the fuel splashing into the hollow tanker seemed inordinately loud. Ashtarak to the south seemed very quiet, even though it was approaching midday. It was only a matter of minutes, Aiden knew, before somebody found them. Even just the smell of the ‘nol was strong enough to carry across the town, surely.

    Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, Tovmas closed the hose valve.

    The engine started with a cough. The three of them were packed like sardines in the cab, all awkward elbows and knees. It was the other man, not Tovmas, at the wheel. Slowly, because the tanker didn’t seem capable of speed, they took the road to the north: heading further out to skirt around the town to avoid the council’s militiamen.

    Aiden was as uneasy as he thought it possible to be, but the other two seemed perfectly cool. Not a bead of sweat between them, he noted.

    After yet another eternity, they reached the landing pad. The Iolaire was milling with people now. He reckoned as many as twenty. From the looks of it, Fredrick had had some of them scraping the Crimean ID from the side of the fuselage. Clever thinking. The licence had been expensive, but they couldn’t afford to wear it now. The rest were loading packs and a few boxes into the hold.

    Aiden’s gaze fell to the big stack of weapons by the foot of the ramp. Assault rifles, carbines, shotguns, boxes of ammunition. A stack of thick tubes that he was uncomfortably sure concealed rockets. He climbed down from the cab, still looking at it.

    Fredrick came over to the tanker then. “Success?” he asked.

    “So far,” replied Tovmas, handing Fredrick the tanker’s hose. “Please tell me this will fit the filling port.”

    Fredrick frowned at the nozzle. “This is a bit narrow, so we’re all good.” He unreeled the hose and clambered with some difficulty on to the Iolaire’s back, where he flipped open the port and shouted to Tovmas to turn on the pump. This involved starting the truck’s engine again, which worryingly took a few tries.

    Opening the valve only a crack, Aiden watched Fredrick soak a finger and lick it. He gave Aiden the thumbs-up. It was definitely ‘nol.

    Nine tonnes of fuel was pumped into the Iolaire’s tanks then, and Aiden did not relax for the entire twenty minutes. He paced the landing pad, watching the town more than he should have, waiting for the militia to come storming up the road with the councillor Azarian at their head.

    But it didn’t happen. The Iolaire was filled, and the tanker was moved off the landing pad. Tovmas’ band of followers packed the last of their gear into the hold and settled down for flight. When Fredrick told Aiden it was time to take his seat, he couldn’t have been happier.

    He strapped himself in to the bulbous gun turret in the tail, above the raising cargo ramp. He felt the ramp lock into place beneath him, and he switched on the turret’s actuators, giving them a wiggle with the control sticks. The feel of his chair rotating with the gun and the armoured glass made him feel much more secure. This was his home, his element. No prying Armenian councillors or their guards could touch him here.

    He set the HUD to its brightest setting, and turned the acquirement knob to reflex. A simple green cross with a dotted circle appeared on the glass in front of him, made to appear distant by the collimating lens on the console. A tap of a button tested the ranging laser. The ruined house in the distance was two point three kilometres away, apparently. A faint ghost sight appeared below the primary reticule, showing that he’d have to raise the gun to hit it. He cranked the cocking handle twice, priming the weapon and chambering a twelve-point-seven millimetre round, though he left the safety on. He prodded the bag that caught the empty brass and links. It was mostly empty, which was good.

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