This is Issue #21 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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The look on the Captain’s face was one of such profound amusement, Kieron wondered if it was a joke — how could the military be taking the newest recruits and dragging them off into enemy territory? And what had he been thinking? To leave the Academy and try to get as far from Jet as possible, so his best friend wouldn’t die for him? Now, more than ever, more than anything, he wanted Jet beside him. He was, without a doubt, miserable and frightened, and they’d only just begun lift-off.
The roil of his stomach made him grit his teeth and close his eyes; he felt the world spin. “Not here, not now, not here, not now, not here, not now–” he hissed under his breath. The whole idea of being able to run away from everything that was wrong suddenly revealed itself to be what Kieron had insisted it couldn’t: childish and selfish. He was going to slip soon, and there would be nothing to do for it — he’d embarrass himself, and likely get someone hurt when he couldn’t be reliable. This truly had been a remarkably stupid decision.
“Damnit, kid, don’t you sick up in my office,” the Captain snapped, wearing a warning expression. “The aether engines haven’t even finished spinning up yet.” Just then, a low whine kicked up in the air; everything from the floorboards to the dust in the air gave a shimmering ring — and the ship moved forward. The Captain, standing close, swayed forward against Kieron, chuckling. “That’d be them,” she said easily enough.
He felt her sway against him, and he held firm, rocking backward for only a moment. The smell of her was sudden, sweet, hot — like candies and cannons. He opened his eyes, reaching to stead himself by planting a hand on her hip. She was solid and warm, steady, but he could already feel the world slipping away, fading out. “Fuck,” he breathed, feeling his eyes nearly roll back into his head.
One eyebrow shot up, and the Captain cleared her throat.
“Fuck,” Kieron squeaked, jolted back to the here and now, and pulled his hand away as though she were a branding iron. “I’m so sorry, Captain,” he said, opening his eyes and looking pained.
Rolling her eyes, the woman said, “God, you greensticks are adorable. You gonna be all right? I don’t want my first casualty this tour to be from airsickness.”
Kieron opened his mouth to speak, but the ringing that he’d felt earlier seemed to build, to wash over him. “Capt–” He tightened his hold on the loop that felt like his only connection to reality. He felt his knees weaken, and the bottom drop out of the world.
* * *
The sky was so immense — but the earth, more so. Kieron listened to the thundering whistle of the wind in his ears. He looked down, and watched the world rise up to greet him, faster and faster. He couldn’t scream, couldn’t quite catch his breath, couldn’t anything, but it didn’t feel like panic. He felt something almost like serenity, and simply let everything keep rushing by. Not even the gaping bullet wounds in his chest seemed to bring on fear. He noticed those with a fleeting sort of curiosity — the blood ran over his bared skin, his torn clothes, while his heart struggled to keep pumping it.
Dizziness washed over him, and idly wondered if he would die before hitting the ground. How much blood had he lost already? A great deal, if the darkened stain across his front was to be trusted. Did he lose any while he’d been up in the air? He was wearing a scout uniform — could be someone on his ship. They were somewhere around ten thousand feet, sailing along. The fall would likely last about a minute, from the initial spill until he hit the ground, presumably striking nothing but the earth at the very last instant. He stretched out his arms and legs as though he could slow himself from an all-out dive to a lazy floating fall, like a leaf freshly dropped from an oak.
Kieron wondered what the soldier had done — was he on the right side? Or the wrong side? Didn’t matter too much; he was on the losing side; that was true. He imagined by the time he slipped into the body, he was over half done, and the edges of everything seemed gray already. He felt like he couldn’t breathe, and everything was so damned cold. He fell into the shadows of the mountains he was falling past, and closed his eyes.
Wouldn’t be long, now.
* * *
“–ain, m’feelin’ dizzy,” he slurred, staggering, and found that he was still upright. He gripped the strap his hand had been caught through, blinked his eyes, and found himself in the Captain’s arms. He laughed nervously, and stared at her, his heart pounding. “I’m not dizzy anymore,” he whispered, swallowing roughly, and in truth, he wasn’t. Something had changed.
Some manner of low hum suffused him, his bones rang, and he found himself lulled into calmness, even as he worried he would vomit. All dizziness had left him. The gut twisting agony that gripped him every time he returned from slipping into another body simply… didn’t show up. He reveled in the low throb of the aether engines, their sweet song somehow keeping him from horrors that had always followed his trips.
“I’m not dizzy,” he said again, marveling, swaying as the Captain did, while the airship moved through the atmosphere, navigating the sea of the skies. His eyes were alight with astonishment. Was it the flying? The aether engines? He didn’t know — but he didn’t care, either. Nothing could ruin this discovery.
But then the Captain came into full focus, her expression awe and wonder, curiosity and terror all at once. She had held him up and kept him steady, and stayed close, smelling of cinnamon and gunpowder — candies and cannons. She pulled back, but not entirely, one calloused hand on his face.
He smiled at her, dazed, but not at all in pain. Until she spoke.
“Brody,” she said, and her voice was low, and urgent. “What did you see? Who died?”
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