This is Issue #29 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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“Listen up crew–” Sha’s voice was sharp; it cut through the morning’s silver light and caught the attention of everyone on deck. “The drills you’ve practiced for when you need to use your oxygen tanks? Well this isn’t a drill. We’re about to cross the the Ridge of Damnation itself, which means we need altitude, which means we’re going to lose the very air we breathe, all right? Get your tanks, get your masks, get your asses moving. Once we get the ship on course, we get it going as fast as possible, and we hold the course steady until we’re over the ridge, and then we descend until it’s safe. Got it? Good!” The Captain was in a chipper mood — whatever argument she’d been having with the Quartermaster seemed to have eased up over the last week.
Kieron kept mostly to himself, learning from them, doing as they ordered, and staying out of the way — it went a long way toward smoothing things over for him with the Quartermaster, who had spent two or three days glaring at him balefully.
The established crew took on the harder tasks, while the recruits took on others, or shadowed. Tanks and harnesses were deployed, and warmer gear was brought out. The rigging was tightened, and every bit of the massive envelope holding them fully aloft was inspected. Fins and wings were carefully checked, flaps and gears oiled and flexed. Staying out of the way of the Captain occasionally meant getting his hands dirty, and because Kieron knew the theoretical ins and outs of the ships his father designed, he often found himself in precarious positions, rearranging something that needed to be fiddled with. The technics loved and hated him for it; he was a daily source of inspiration and confounding curiosity.
Once everything had been readied, and everyone had their oxygen tanks doublechecked, technics gave the signal to the Captain that the ship was ready to go half-again as high into the heavens as it had already been. The ascent was dizzying; the ship climbed through the clouds, washing the ropes and canvasses and wood and metal in cool droplets. Kieron stood with the Captain at the helm, while the boatswain shouted orders between draws on his oxygen tank.
They cruised up to fifteen-thousand feet, where a lack of oxygen would claim any one of them in minutes, if they didn’t have their tanks. They floated up into a bank of clouds that obscured much of the mountains, but previous observations and the navigator’s ability to read his instruments would keep them safe, for the short time the clouds were in the way.
The navigator shouted down commands from where he was up in the rigging, just below the main envelope, and all was going well.
Until it wasn’t.
“Captain!” shouted the navigator through his radio. It was hard to keep the sound of panic from his voice.
“‘Gator!” Sha called back, looking up to him.
“We’re pulling to port!” The radio crackled; the navigator sounded frantic.
“No sir, panels indicate even-stevens; did you fail to account for the wind?” she asked, smiling as she shouted back up to him.
It was cold on deck, the wind was blowing; everyone was wearing their O2 masks and tanks, and they were sailing along through the clouds faster than Kieron had ever moved before. He watched the Captain confer with the navigator and began to do his own check, to see if he could figure out what had happened.
“It’s not the wind! Go starboard!”
“The course was laid to take us straight through The Notch!” Sha said. “We’ve done this a hundred times!”
“Not blind, you daft cow! We’re too close to the mountain, going too fucking fast. PULL. STARBOARD!”
Sha rolled her eyes — Navigators were always so damned dramatic — and began to flip switches and twist dials at the helm, reaching to turn the wheel — but she could feel the resistance in the ship. The whole thing gave a great shuddering groan.
“Captain!” Kieron shouted from the port rail.
“Not now, Brody!”
“The upper port fin is binding!”
“No it fucking isn’t!”
The Captain looked like she might tie Brody to the mast, but instead, she handed the helm off to another able pilot, shouting “Listen to the navigator, no matter what, got it?” She made her way over to the rail, where Kieron was hastily tying on gear to go over the edge.
“Check my harness!” he shouted.
“What the fuck are you doing?”
“I told you, the–
“We have technics for this!”
“They’re busy with the aether engines and the ballonets, keeping them tuned so you can keep your speed up and then come back down as quickly as possible!” Kieron shouted, his mask dangling from its strap. “I know the rigging! Check. My. Harness!”
“Stubborn fucking prig–” She ran her hands over the lines, picked at the buckles, tugged at the straps, and turned the pulleys, then said. “Hurry up and get back over here so I can keel haul you for being an asshole.”
Kieron rolled his eyes at her and pulled on his goggles, then resecured his mask, moving to crawl over the rail, and lower himself down. Carefully, he scaled along the side of the ship as it cut through the sky, making his way to where the fin was attached to the gondola itself. Thick sheets of ice had formed over the gears and bars; cutting through the cloud so high while going so fast had its disadvantages. It couldn’t pull in unless the ice were dislodged.
“Simple enough,” he said to himself, and pulled out a hammer and an awl, and began to chip away at the frozen mechanics. The only trouble was, once he’d gotten a piece free, the pressure that was still on the fin made it begin to pull tighter against the ship — but there was still ice left, and he was still on it. “Cut the hydraulics!” he shouted, as the jerking motion of the fin threw Kieron from where he’d settled himself, and he rolled across the canvas and bars. Before he was thrown off the fin entirely, he splayed out his arms and legs to stop rolling, gritting his teeth as he clutched at the canvas. The awl rolled away from him and then dropped into the nothing, far below. He craned his neck to watch it fall, and then laid his cheek to the canvas, panting.
“Brody?” Sha sounded panicked over the personal radio.
“I’m alive, Captain.”
“Thank fuck. I don’t want to send anyone valuable to get you.”
“You almost done?”
“Hurry up. Gator says we’re all gonna die on the rocks if you don’t haul ass in three minutes. Yell for the Quartermaster to pull you up when you’re done.”
Hauling himself back up to the top of the fin took all his strength; Kieron leaned against the metal struts, panting in his O2 mask. When he’d caught his breath, he rolled over and began to work at the ice again. He was hurrying as fast as he could, considering the way the fins vibrated in the keening wind, but all the same, he could hear the echoes of urgency in the captain’s voice. He was nearly finished, and was in the process of dislodging one last piece of ice wedged in the main hinge when the ship came out of the clouds.
The proximity alarms sounded, and Kieron lifted his head, staring in horror at the mountain. The ship sailed closer and closer, and if they couldn’t pull in the fin and veer hard to starboard, they might tear the fin off, at best, or simply rip open the zeppelin’s main gas envelope, or simply dash the whole thing against the cliffs.
“Brody!” The quartermaster was calling for him. “You done?”
“Yeah!” he shouted, moving to get up, to reach for the side of the ship so he could climb back up. “Don’t use the hydraulics yet, I have to–”
But it was too late. The fin lurched into motion, throwing Kieron against the side of the ship as it folded itself in. He hit his head against the hull, and slumped against the struts, clutching the canvas with panicked hands. He struggled to find a handhold so he could scale the ship and get back over the rail, shouting, “Quartermaster! Wait! You gotta pull me up!”
Panicked, Kieron yanked on the line holding him, calling out. “Pull me up! Nate? NATE!”
The receiver in his helmet squealed and popped, and Kieron’s pleas grew ever more panicked as the fin pulled in. He lost his footing on the folding canvas, and the struts swept toward him with a grinding shriek, crushing him against the ship as it banked starboard.
He thought of Jet, as he always did, when he was afraid, and then the world went dark.
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