This is Issue #20 of DeathWatch, an ongoing Serial. Click that link to go find ‘A Beginning’ and read from there, if you need to catch up.
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Kieron sat on his footlocker after stowing his things. He held the parcel he’d been given, and began to open it. While he did so, he looked around, watching the recruits talk and get to know one another. Most everyone was milling about, talking to one another and taking in their surroundings. The conversations were a mess of introductions in various dialects and accents, and the people themselves were from all over the Allied Territories, dressed differently, acting differently, from the pale-skinned, fork-bearded Kriegsmen to the dark-skinned, split-skirted men of the sands. All of them were young, like him. All of them were from the Allied territories, no matter how far-flung.
It was easy not to stare, for most of it; Kieron had already met so many different kinds of people because of his family business — and because once he’d stowed his things and sat down on the trunk, he focused on the knot holding the parcel shut. He frowned at it, fingers working the string until he’d gotten it loose enough to pull off the papered stuff, but he didn’t undo the knot. He wanted more time to study it; with his father designing airships, Kieron had known ropework since he was barely able to walk, and this knot had been tied with care — even though it was a simple parcel, and most of the recruits had pulled it too tight, distorting the lines, and then cut it off and dropped the string on the floor. He looped his about his wrist, and began examining the contents of the package.
There were small vials labeled for airsickness, a quantity of dried strawberries, a brass ring with a number of stamped leather chits on it. He carefully rewrapped the strawberries and all but one of the vials. He’d heard of airsickness and had no desire to deal with any more vomiting than he already did; if the medicine would help, perhaps it would stop him from experiencing the vertigo and nausea when he slipped. He had seen some of the other soldiers onboard with the ring affixed to their belts, so he did that, leaving the chits hanging. He went back to examining the knot at his wrist, picking at it carefully with his fingers, never quite unraveling it, but trying to understand how it worked.
While working with his hands, the rest of the world slipped away. Alone with his thoughts, Kieron’s mind immediately went to Jet. As soon as he pictured the young man’s face, his heart seized painfully in his chest. It’s for the best, he thought. I had to. This was the only way it would work. And finally, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. It grew too painful to breathe, for a moment, and Kieron shuddered, closing his eyes. After a deep breath, he looped the knot back around his wrist, and opened his eyes, clearing his throat and wiping his face, not wanting to be labeled a cry baby before they’d even left port.
He needn’t have worried; the bunk room was empty. All of the rest of the recruits had gone back topside. Kieron wondered how long ago, but then simply hurried up and ran for the ladder to get topside, hoping he wasn’t so late he’d catch hell for it.
Once he reached the main deck, he saw some of the crew and all the recruits gathered in a circle. A man standing up on a crate on one side was addressing them; Kieron guessed him to be an officer of some kind, based on his uniform decoration, and hurried to join the group. He slipped into the group, jostling someone else, and apologized without looking back, intent on listening, but it wasn’t to be. Across the way, he saw a familiar face — the woman from the dock who had been holding the basket of fruit.
Here, she was looking at the man on the crate, and everywhere else, something like studious boredom on her features. She glanced toward Kieron, and her eyes lit up. “Brody!” she crowed, interrupting the speech. “You decided to join us! Don’t worry, you only missed the first five minutes. Introductions, and how not to piss off the officers — here’s the sum up: Don’t be fucking late!” she said, crossing the circle to pull him into the middle, clapping him on the back.
Startled, Kieron let her take him, and he stared up at the man on the crate who looked equal parts irritated at being interrupted, and desperately amused. Kieron saw the decorations on his jacket and hurriedly offered, “Terribly sorry — Captain — please accept my profuse apologies–” The rolling of the man’s eyes and the outburst of laughter of the rest of the gathered people made Kieron blush to the roots of his hair. He glared at the woman and hissed, “What are you doing? Why’d you call me out?”
She laughed again, that same full-throated belly-laugh that showed honest amusement, and slung an arm around his shoulder, saying, “I always call ’em as I see ’em.” She turned and looked up at the man on the crate, and said “Don’t I, Quartermaster?”
“That you do!” the man said, and the smirk on his face, plus the continued laughter made Kieron’s face all the redder.
Excellent, he thought. I join the aeronauts and find out of all the ships I could head to scout basic training on, I get the one that’s keeping a roundheel, and she’s got it out for me. He turned to her and angrily retorted, “I don’t appreciate being played the fool by a ship’s whore.”
At that, the laughter of the recruits died, and the woman’s brows shot up. She laughed, shaking her head, and shouted, “Quartermaster — you’re in charge of the crew’s needs while we’re not directly in a battle, aye?”
“Aye.” The answer was easy enough, and the man watched between the woman and Kieron, still standing up on his crate.
“Have you been holding out on me? Are you keeping a whore somewhere?” She walked away from Kieron, over to the crate, and offered a hand up.
“No, Captain.” The Quartermaster grabbed it, and she pulled herself up as he moved to step down.
Kieron stared at her, gawp-mouthed.
The woman smirked, her eyes full of challenge as she said to him, “That clear it up for you? Aboard the TS Jacob, named after my brother, rest-his-soul, we don’t have any whores.” She continued, turning her gaze on the rest of the group. “What we do have is a fine crew of hard-working soldiers ready to turn you from soft-handed little boys and girls to seasoned veterans in one fell-fucking-swoop. Recruits — get your partner, and get fucking moving! Brody, you’re with me,” she said. With a nod to the Quartermaster, she seized Kieron’s arm and hauled him aft, still laughing.
Behind him, Kieron could hear the boatswain shouting to the crew, “Pull in the plank and purge the ballonets! Cast off the lines!”
Kieron walked with the woman until they ended up in her quarters, where he finally sputtered, “Why didn’t you tell me you were the captain!?”
At that, she shrugged and asked him, “Why didn’t you tell me who you were, Brody-with-a-Y-of-the-Esmuth-Brodys?”
Kieron paled out.
The captain slapped him on the arm, laughing. “Relax, kid, I don’t give a shit who you are. Running from your dad? Spitting in his face? Carrying on a fine family tradition of saying ‘Screw you, I’m making my own way!’ that’s fine by me. So long as you do your job.”
“I don’t even know what you mean,” Kieron said. “This ship, this… we’re supposed to be headed to a training camp,” he said. “You have a full crew, what… what job am I doing here?”
“Poor new recruit,” she said, sighing. “Signing papers you never read. What’s the point of all that education if you don’t read the words in front of you? You were sold a bill of goods, Brody. You’re not headed to a troop camp where you learn to march in line and stand up straight. You’re headed to the front lines, and beyond. The only training that’s worth anything is first-hand.” Her eyes were bright as she said, as an aside, “Hold on to something,” and grabbed his hand, pulling it up to put it through one of the numerous leather and brass loops hanging from the heavy posts in her quarters.
Kieron felt his stomach lurch as the massive ship lifted free of the dock, and began to rise, the deck swaying.
The Captain stood firm, swaying with the room, a part of the ship, dark eyes dancing. “You’re not traveling to the scouts, you’re already in the scouts.”
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