This is Issue #24 of DeathWatch, the ongoing serial.
Go to the Serials page if you need to start at the beginning, or to find the rest.
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In the weeks-long voyage it took to approach the warfront, the men and women who’d joined the scout ship crew fell into regular routines. They were rotated through various duties, learning everything from rope-splicing to navigation, from patching tarpaulin so the steering fins and sails worked seamlessly to servicing aether engines. There was an easy equality to the crew; no job was unimportant, though some were far from enjoyable, and some were used as punishment.
The recruits quickly learned how to be fast, and how to be safe — when it was a good idea to run up the rigging to tighten a loose piece of canvas, and when it wasn’t — and if it wasn’t whether one should do it anyway, and wear a harness in case he or she was tossed overboard.
Kieron stayed with the Captain, or the Quartermaster, for the most part, learning the ins and outs of planning, handling a crew, and just what would happen when they managed to get into enemy lands.
They passed through the mountains, and the weather changed for the worse, bringing about a damp chill that caught in the bones of some of the crew. More than a few of the new recruits caught a fever, and though it nearly claimed three lives, the only casualty during that time was an aeronaut who’d been aboard the TS Jacob since the Captain had taken her place. He’d never been an officer, never been given a job more useful than powdermonkey, and he never asked for one. According to the established crew, he had never quite fit, had never wanted to fully submit to the orders of the Captain or the Quartermaster, and when he was caught rifling through the goods of those who were too sick to defend themselves, he was summarily hauled to the rail.
“Listen up!” the Captain cried, standing before the man. He struggled in the arms of his captor, the Quartermaster, looking unafraid, but angry, spiteful. The new recruits came in close, while the others went on with their duties — they knew this talk. “This man was caught in the act, stealing from us. He has eaten with us, slept with us, been trusted to guard us in the night. We’ve given him shelter and food and pay, and in return, he has been a thief.”
“Mercy?” one of the Kriegsmen offered. “Mistakes are made.” A few of the other recruits nodded, men and women who had worked beside the thief, and perhaps even considered him a friend.
“And if I were to tell you this was the third time in as many days he has been taking things that were not his? Things of yours?” the Captain said, looking at those who’d offered mercy. “If I were to tell you I have already given mercy, and my generosity was repaid in this fashion?”
The recruits immediately became angry, shouting for punishment, lashings, half rations, docking pay, a court martial as soon as possible. The Quartermaster called for silence, and they quieted, turning an angry gaze on the crewmember who’d been caught.
The man hawked and spat at the Captain’s feet, saying, “Mercy? You’d have thrown me overboard the first night if it weren’t for that one.” He gestured rudely to Kieron. “He your new cabin boy?”
The intimations in his tone were clear; the Captain raised her brows, and said very clearly, “Careful now. He’s the one that said I ought to spare you. I wouldn’t go assaulting his character. You’re treading where you oughtn’t.”
Kieron stood near, with a leaden feeling in his gut. He wasn’t watching the man at all, but instead, he was watching how the ship sailed through the mountains, drifting through wisps of clouds, the world around him cool, but not cold.
“Oh?” the man snarled. “I was an airman long before you were spreading it to get yourself a Captain’s, and let me tell you something — I ain’t ever tread where I oughtn’t. Just where people din’t want ’cause they keep secrets.”
“I don’t keep secrets from my crew,” the Captain said darkly, white teeth bared, challenging. One hand pulled her tallcoat aside, revealing one of the pistols at her hip.
“Sha–” Kieron began, looking pained.
It was the Quartermaster who heard him say her name; one brow lifted. He looked at the Captain, who was still staring down the man held to the rail.
The thief laughed, and said, “No secrets, eh? So they all know about your brother?”
“Ain’t a damn thing to say about my brother,” the Captain growled.
“I know a few things about him. How he died, for inst–“
The gun was out, and the trigger pulled twice, before anyone noticed. Two redblack holes opened in the thief’s chest. He stared down at them with wide eyes, sagging against the rail, mouth working to speak. The Captain turned to look at Kieron, and her voice was hard as she asked, “Was it two? Or three?”
All eyes were on Kieron. “Three,” he said, still looking out at the mountains.
The Captain nodded, and pulled the trigger a third time. “Toss him for the vultures. Keep his blood off my deck.”
The Quartermaster nodded, and singlehandedly hauled the thief up and over the railing, to let him fall from the heavens. No one, not even Kieron, bothered to watch him go down.
She got up atop one of the barrels and looked around at the recruits, dark eyes angry. “Before any of you start bellyaching about murder, let’s get one thing straight. You’re my crew. You’re my responsibility. You keep this ship running, and I keep you safe. You do what you’re told, and it makes my job easier. You try to hurt one another, steal from one another, or make it so we can’t trust each other? I can’t have that. You’re done. You follow that airman all the way down.”
She looked out, around at all of them, chin lifted. “Now I don’t have any secrets from you. My brother’s dead. He’s the one who had secrets –” Her eyes fell on Kieron, and she kept right on talking, “– and they killed him. He was the finest Captain, finest man I knew. But he’s dead and gone now, and if you want to have a conversation about him, it’ll be short, and pretty one-sided, because the truth is, I had to shoot him, and other than that, I’ve got nothing left to say.” She paused, then, and re-holstered her pistol, sighing. “Now we’ve only got two days until we’re within spitting distance of the Blacklands. This tour is about getting as far in as possible, completing maps, getting intel on where the enemy is located, sending that information back to the generals, and eventually getting the fuck back out, without getting dead. We rely on one another. We have to. It’s the only way to survive. I need to know that you’re all with me, not wasting a single second twittering about the fact that I threw a known criminal overboard without aiming to let him land in the scales of Justice.”
“We’re with you,” Kieron said aloud, immediately. He had turned back toward her, as she spoke, watched her face as she talked of her brother. When given the chance, he wasn’t the only one who spoke, but he was the loudest, and it caused a smirk to twist the Captain’s lips. The crew raised their hands in salute for her — hell, they cheered for her, and they cheered for themselves, a singular crew with singular purpose: Get in. Get out. Survive.
“All right, crew! Let’s keep moving — you’ve all got shit to do,” the boatswain called out, allowing the Captain and the Quartermaster to head back to the stern, toward the Captain’s quarters.
Kieron lingered at the rail, and finally turned toward it, leaning over and turning his face toward the earth, far below.
He closed his eyes as they passed over the shadow of the mountains.
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