Thanks for the comments - we do read them!
And still searching for someone interested in illustrating - again, no pay, but international exposure. =)
Stasia climbed into the Hind first, then Katrina, and finally Mike. As Stasia showed Katrina how to fasten the restraints - something Katrina caught onto suspiciously quickly, he noticed - Mike slipped on the headset and Naida shut the door. “Ready when you are, Valkyrie.”
“Roger, Kildar,” came Tammy’s voice in his headset. “Any requests for the ride? I know we have a virgin back there.” He could hear the smile in her voice.
“Nice and gentle, Valkyrie. Show her the sights. Out.” He removed his headset and sat next to Katrina, who Stasia had seated by the window, facing forward. Stasia sat facing aft, opposite them. Katrina took his hand as soon as he was buckled in.
“In just a moment, Captain Wilson will start the engines. You’ll need to have a headset on so we can talk, like Stasia has. See?” Stasia pointed to her own head, already fitted with her mike and phones. Shortly, the twin turbines started with a whine, and the massive rotor started to turn. In moments, they were at full power. Katrina squeaked when the ground suddenly dropped away. “Mike!”
“This is normal,” said Stasia before Mike could react. “Don’t be afraid; you’ll enjoy it!”
True to her word, the flight to Tbilisi was an air tourist’s dream. Tammy kept up a running commentary, soon interrupted by Katrina’s eager, “What is that?” and “What is this?” as soon as she figured out the intercom. Mike just sat back and enjoyed watching her.
Far too soon, the grey outskirts of the city replaced the forest and rivers. “Is that Tbilisi?” she asked. “It’s so big!”
“Almost a million and a half people live here,” answered Mike.
“So many!” He had to admit it was a sizable city, even by American standards. The architectural variety amazed him, as usual. An ancient city, oft-conquered, Tbilisi was an eclectic mix of styles, from old Georgian, to neo-classical European, Russian, Soviet, and Middle Eastern, with no clear defining lines between them.
The city had reined in the unchecked growth of the post-Soviet era, and, from the air, Mike could sense, more than really see, a plan beginning to emerge. He pointed out the oddly-shaped Roads Department Building, a Soviet holdover, which looked like nothing so much as a set of blocks stacked at right angles, jutting out of a cliffside. Tammy, with her better view in the cockpit, told them when they were passing Sameba cathedral, the main Georgian Orthodox church. After a few minutes, the chopper started to descend toward the airport.
“Already?” Katrina pouted.
“Fraid so. See?” Mike pointed. “I think that’s our plane.” The twin-engined G550 was parked at the private terminal Chatham Aviation commonly used. As the Hind flared into its landing, the pilot of the Gulfstream was seen stepping down the boarding stairs. The turbines gradually cycled down, and the rotors slowed, slowed, and finally stopped.
“Everyone out!” said Mike, unlatching the crew door before Naida could reach it.
“Mr. Jenkins, a pleasure, as always.”
“Captain Hardesty. Anything exciting going on?”
“Not unless you’re not telling me something,” the pilot said with a small smile.
“Not this time.”
“Miss Rakovich. As lovely as ever.” Stasia managed a blush. “I don’t believe I know the other young lady?”
“Ah, yes. Captain Hardesty, Miss Katrina Devlich. Katrina, Captain John Hardesty.”
“A pleasure, Miss Devlich.” Captain Hardesty took her hand and gave a brief bow over it.
“The pleasure is mine, Captain,” returned Katrina, after a quick glance at Stasia. She’d obviously been given some etiquette lessons.
“Miss Devlich is the Kildar’s fiancée,” added Stasia.
“My congratulations, Mr. Jenkins!” said Hardesty. “And my sympathy, Miss Devlich,” he added, with a broad wink.
This threw Katrina for a loop until Mike clarified. “I’ve had some interesting flights with Captain Hardesty. I promise, nothing like that this time! Why won’t anyone believe me?”
“Just my bags, for now,” Mike said, ominously. “Stasia is going to take Katrina shopping.”
“Oh. Glad I’ve cleared out plenty of room in the boot.”
“Very funny, Captain,” replied Stasia. Katrina still looked confused, so she elaborated, “I have flown with Captain Hardesty before, and one trip -”
“Which was for a single day, I might add!” interjected the captain.
“For a single day, yes, I purchased quite a selection for the Kildar. So he feels that he can tease me a bit.”
“In any case,” said Mike, attempting to steer the conversation back, “It’s time to board the plane. Captain, Miss Rakovich has agreed to permit you one of your more typical takeoffs, just once, so Miss Devlich can get the full experience. This will be her first flight.”
“Are you sure, Mr. Jenkins? This plane has an even better performance than others -”
“Positive.” Mike smiled. John Hardesty had been a fighter pilot in the RAF before retiring, and still preferred to squeeze every drop of adrenaline out of his takeoffs. The G550, with a maximum speed over five hundred miles per hour, and engines generating more than 15000 pounds of thrust, came closer than most to matching what Hardesty used to fly. And given the, ah, ‘aggressive’ nature of his usual takeoffs…!
Mike was eagerly anticipating what Hardesty could do with the plane, while Stasia was at least willing to play along, once. “Do your best.”
That got a wide grin from Hardesty. “Yes, sir!”
A few minutes later, the three were settled into a couch in the cabin. Mike would have preferred individual seats, of which there were plenty, but he didn’t want to leave Katrina on her own, and Stasia, a nervous flyer at best, insisted on holding his hand.
“Everyone secure?” he asked, checking their belts.
“Yes, Mike,” answered Katrina. Stasia just gripped harder. “You might like this more, Stasia,” he said. “We’ll be up and cruising even faster than usual.”
“I hope so,” she replied.
“Rolling to taxi,” came Captain Hardesty over the intercom. The jet gently began to move away from the terminal. In just a couple moments, they were at the end of their runway, waiting for clearance.
Katrina quickly grew impatient.
“Mike, I thought you said this would be exciting?” she demanded. Just then, the engines rose in pitch and volume and the aircraft fairly leapt forward. In seconds, they were hurtling down the runway, then they were airborne and climbing at what felt to the ladies a nearly vertical angle.
“John’s really letting it all out!” called Mike over the roar of the engines as the ground dropped away. Katrina, forward on the couch, was pressed hard against his side, while Stasia was leaning against the bulkhead to the aft. Mike turned to Stasia; she was wide-eyed, obviously frightened, but he could see her pleasure under her fear. He looked back to Katrina; she was simply ecstatic, as wide a smile as he could ever remember etched on her face, enjoying every second of the climb.
“See?” he said, “I told you, you just had to experience it!”
All too soon, the engines’ scream died away as they began to level out. Brilliant sunlight shone in the large, oval windows, and the clouds were left far below.
“We’ll be leveling off at forty-five thousand feet,” Captain Hardesty announced. “Should be a nice smooth flight all the way to DC. Estimated flight time is twelve hours. Feel free to move about.”
“Forty-five…thousand?” gasped Katrina. “That’s over eight miles!”
“Yep,” agreed Mike. “Smoother up here, fewer planes, less turbulence. Take a look out the window.” He pointed forward to a window. “See that screen? The map on it is generated by a GPS unit, so you can tell where we are, what we’re passing over. Right now,” he looked, “We’re still over Georgia, heading to the Black Sea. We’ll be near Sochi, actually - maybe we should spend time on the ‘Sudden Stop‘?” he added wickedly. His yacht was moored in Sochi, the closest, or at least most convenient, major port to the valley. “I don’t know if we’ll actually overfly the Sea - I can ask Captain Hardesty?”
“This is wonderful!” said Katrina, simply. She was enraptured, looking from the map, to the window, and back, over and over. He moved over to Stasia.
Her skin was flushed, her breath shallow and rapid. “How are you doing?” he asked, gently.
“That was wonderful!” she breathed. “Oh, Mike, why didn’t you tell me it could be like that?”
He looked at her, stunned. “You enjoyed that?” he asked.
“Enjoyed?” she replied, taking his hand and guiding him between her legs. She was sopping wet. “That was almost as good as you!” She reached an arm around his neck and pulled him close for a kiss. “How long do you think Katrina will be distracted?”