This is Issue #23 of DeathWatch, the ongoing serial.
Go to the Serials page if you need to start at the beginning, or to find the rest.
* * *
“You’re still going through with this?” Garrett’s words were less inquisitive and more resigned — a formality, rather than a real inquiry. He had bypassed the depot entirely and gone to the market road that led to the docks, where he watched Jet get out of the carriage and pick up his backpack.
“I have to,” Jet said, his expression resigned. He could almost be excited over something like this, an adventure, if he weren’t doing it alone. With Kieron would’ve been better — on his way to Kieron would have to do. “You do see that, right? He ran away because of me.”
“Because he thinks you’ll die because of him,” Garrett said, getting out of the vehicle to come around and stand near Jet. “Yes, I know.” Garrett sighed, running his hands through his hair. He’d never felt quite so rumpled; the trip had been hasty, ill-thought-out. Now he was several hours away from the academy, and it was nearly dawn. Missing morning meditation wouldn’t cause too much of a stir, but if he wasn’t in time for his classes, he could face another meeting with the Headmaster.
“You should get back to the Academy. Olivier will be furious if he knows what you’ve done.” Jet offered out his hand, half-smiling to the older man.
Garrett rolled his eyes and stepped forward, pulling Jet into a fond embrace. He clapped the younger man on the back, and then released him, sighing. “Right now, what you’re doing seems clear,” he said. “At some point in the future, your path and your reasoning might get clouded. Know when to change course, and when to hold firm, all right?”
Jet kept his smile, though pained, and nodded. “I hear you, Professor.”
Garrett turned to go, but only walked as far as the edge of his motorcarriage, leaning against the hood to watch Jet make his way through the market toward the docks of the airfield. He could see how the boy’s head was tipped back to stare in awe at the giant hulking aircraft huddled close together. Eventually, even wishful thinking couldn’t help him see Jet in the crowd. He got back in his vehicle, and turned to head back toward the Academy.
* * *
“Papers?” The man with the clipboard looked bored or perhaps half asleep.
“Lost ’em,” Jet said, shrugging, looking unapologetic. “I’m looking for someone.”
“This ain’t a meet’n’greet, kid,” the man said, dusting off the front of his faintly rumpled uniform, looking irritable. “You got papers, I send you to the ship you need.”
“That’s just it. I need to get on the same ship as the guy I’m looking for. I’ll pay you.” Jet was already holding out a small stack of coins, as though he anticipated the insult. “It’s worth a fair deal to me.”
The money was snatched from his hand immediately; the clipboard was set down, and the soldier leaned in and said, “I’m all ears.”
“My height or so,” Jet murmured. “Thinner. Paler skin. Dark hair, probably would’ve been wearing a cadet’s uniform from the Academy, like this one. Would’ve been going to the ship that takes recruits to scout training camp.”
Though he listened to the description, it didn’t seem to ring a bell. Until the mention of scout camp. At that statement, the guy looked uncomfortable. “That ship left.”
“That’s fine. Just tell me what other ship is going to that camp,” Jet said easily. “I’ve got the coin. I need to get to there.”
“Ain’t another ship goin that way,” the man said, eyeing Jet, fingering the coins in his pocket. “Just that one.”
“What, only one ship of recruits will ever go to the training camp? I can wait until tomorrow if I have to.” Jet tried not to look or sound impatient, or desperate — he had more money, but he had no desire to part with it if he didn’t have to.
“No, I mean… You can get on another scout ship, but it’s not headed where that one’s headed,” the man said.
Jet rolled his eyes, sighing, and said, “Then tell me where it’s headed, and I’ll make my way there.”
The man laughed and said, “I can’t, kid. Ships headed across enemy lines don’t broadcast their location. Whoever you’re lookin for… ain’t comin back for two years, if he’s comin back at all.” He shrugged then, and decided Jet wasn’t worth any more of his time, and he turned to try to talk to the others who were coming up with their papers, to figure out where they were headed.
Jet felt his body tighten, the taste of metal on the back of his tongue. “There must be some mistake,” he began, leaning in, trying to regain the soldier’s attention. “He wouldn’t–“
“Listen,” the man interrupted, growling. “The only scout ship that’s been in today has already gone. The TS Jacob. It’s heading to the front, and then if it doesn’t get blown outta the sky? Right on through. Your friend’s either stupid, or runnin from somethin’.” He put two stubby fingers together and jabbed Jet right in the chest. “Now get. I got shit to do.”
* * *
“Now that’s a long fuckin face. Shove over.” A lean, rangy man got atop the stool next to Jet, looked at the empty glass in front of him, and gestured to the bartender, calling him over to have him deliver another two.
When the glasses ended up in front of Jet and his new compatriot, Jet picked his up and drank half, then set it aside, still looking morose.
The man who’d ordered the drinks swallowed half of his, then coughed, looking at the glass, and looking at Jet. “Water?” he said, his eyes shining in disbelief.
“What of it?” Jet said, turning away, leaving the man to sputter.
On the other side of him, now, leaned a woman who smirked at him as she ordered two glasses of something. When they arrived, they were the color of her hair, like honey. She slid one in front of Jet, and her eyes were bright and mischievous. “Join me,” she said. “Nobody should be drinking alone, and the only time you oughta drown in water is when you fall asleep in the tub.”
Jet smiled politely, but gently slid it back, looking tired. “You’re beautiful, and I’ll bet any other man in this place would kick me for refusing, but no, thank you.” She was beautiful — that much was the truth. From her honey colored hair to her daring smile — muscled and graceful, she certainly wore her flightsuit well. Why she was talking to him? He had no idea. He shrugged apologetically when she didn’t take the drink back.
The woman sighed, and said, warningly “Suit yourself, but whatever’s got you making that face? This’ll help you deal with it.”
“Yeah?” Jet said, looking sullen. “My best friend left for scout training to get away from me. We were supposed to join the Corps together, but I got left here. Now my best friend’s onboard a ship that won’t come back for two years, and no one will tell me where it’s going. What’s in that glass that’ll help?”
The woman knocked hers back, and slid his back in front of him. “Honey whisky. Besides, couldn’t have been much of a friend to leave such a pretty boy here to fend for himself, hmm?” She reached over and cupped his cheek, rings on her fingers cool against his face.
He grew still, watching her, brows lifted, uncertain of the new development.
“Such pretty eyes,” she said, looking amused.
“Like my mother’s,” he said weakly. Jet stared the glass down for a long while, looking in the sun-colored liquid for some kind of answer. Eventually, he sighed, picking it up. If only to make her go away, he told himself. He raised it to the woman and said, “To dealing with it.” and knocked it back.
The liquid heat didn’t make him cough like other sips of whisky had; it warmed his belly and was sweet on his tongue. Within moments, a pleasant haziness settled into his chest, suffusing him with warmth. He looked at the glass, surprised, and set it down, then looked over at her. She winked, waved to the bartender, and had the man bring over another.
* * *
The world spun; the floor was treacherous.
* * *
All sounds were the thunder and klaxon of a busy city at street level, even moreso.
* * *
All lights were slashes of sharp hatred, meant for his eyes.
* * *
All scents were gun oil mixed with rancid lampfat and dead roses.
* * *
Jet threw up. It wasn’t the first time. It wasn’t the last.
For awhile, it was bliss.
* * *
Somehow, morning found him.
Everything was agony. Jet thought he might weep, if it wouldn’t simply add to the pain. He reached to hold his own head, but his arms were impossibly heavy, and something made a rattling noise that made him shudder and wince.
He could hear people talking, smell food that turned his stomach.
His throat burned as he twisted to the side and vomited weakly, shuddering.
He groaned in misery and tried to curl away from his own sick, but couldn’t manage anything other than closing his eyes.
* * *
“How many are left?”
“Half a dozen. Including your favorite.”
“He’s not my favorite. He’s just the prettiest.”
Jet recognized the two voices — both from the bar. The man who’d mistakenly ordered them both the water. The woman who’d ordered him the whisky.
He groaned, struggling to sit up, and the rattle and clank of chain made him wince. It drew attention. He heard booted footsteps draw closer.
“And awake, too! Hello, sunshine!” The woman’s voice was loud and sudden. He flinched back, but she was crouching in front of him, with her fingers on his chin, turning his face to hers. “Oh, aren’t you a pretty thing,” she purred. “You’re exactly what I was looking for,” she said, “but god you reek. Go back to sleep, sunshine. We got a long ways to go.” She slapped him, almost fondly, on the cheek and walked away.
Blackness came back, yet again.
* * *
In dreams, Kieron had returned.
They laid in his bed, hands twined, looking up at the ceiling while snow fell outside. “…and after one tour, we’ll come home,” Kieron had said. “We can return to the Academy. Professor Garrett can help us get teaching positions.”
“Both of us?” Jet had asked.
“Of course both of us,” Kieron laughed. “Where would I go that I wouldn’t want my best friend with me?”
The echo of that laughter rattled the remains of Jet’s shattered heart.
The sound was hollow, and followed him back down into the dark.
* * *