This is Issue #31 of DeathWatch, an ongoing Serial. Click that link to go find ‘A Beginning’ and read from there, if you need to catch up.
* * *
He remembered the feel of the strut against his ribs. Frigid. Impossibly huge. Crushing him.
He remembered the feel of his ribs caving in.
He remembered the chill of the air at fifteen thousand feet.
He remembered the way they all called to him. Told him to hold on. They sent another line. They didn’t close the fin on him again. They were headed back to the mountain — but it wasn’t over.
Not yet. He was climbing. He would make it out of this.
He remembered the feel of his hand settling into the Captain’s. She was almost smiling.
Then he felt the world tilt, turn sideways, get gray and narrow. He felt that slipping.
He tried to breathe, to scream. To resist.
Her face wasn’t smiling — it was screaming.
But then everything was black.
* * *
And then it wasn’t.
He drew breath as he knelt, body taut, muscles trembling. He was staring up at someone, somewhere he’d never been, couldn’t even recognize. The architecture was gorgeous, delicate, but entirely foreign. The man in front of him equally so, with his tattooed chest and his sculpted face, his flowing clothes and long, dark hair.
What was horrifying to him was what he felt at his own throat. His arm was up; he had just finished dragging a great sharp knife against his own flesh. He struggled for the breath that had wanted to come, but the end of it was a sucking cold whistle — his eyes widened impossibly as he dropped the knife away from himself, struggling to swallow, to breathe against the sudden tide of blood that poured forth, rocking as he looked up at the man who watched him do this one act with — what was it? — fascination?
Breathless, bleeding to death, Kieron fell forward, hitting the stone floor. As he slumped, he turned his head to the side, his eyes fell upon another person, there on the stone with him. Barely out of arm’s reach. Even ragged, half-starved, clad in filth, with weeks of scruff against his cheeks and jaw, even with his face a mask of horror as he began to scream, long, high and loud, agonized, Kieron knew those eyes. That voice.
Kieron’s whole body jerked; if there had been a way to bring the bleeding man back to life with sheer will, it would’ve happened. Jet. Instead, he grew colder, felt the stone against his skin, pressing up against his bones. Look at me, Jet. I’m here. His eyes were wide as he struggled to speak, muscles growing weaker. Jet.
His vision of Jet was half obscured as the man who’d watched him kill himself strode through the puddle of blood, dragging fingers through the crimson pool, and then painted Jet’s face with it. There on the floor, unseen, Kieron used the dying man’s body to try to say something. Anything.
Where are you? What happened?
The world went grey again.
Kieron fought the dark, panicked, knowing somewhere back where he came, his body had perhaps only minutes left.
Knowing somewhere, Jet was screaming in terror, painted in the blood of another man.
He could already feel himself falling.
Jet was dragged away from him as the world went black.
* * *
“No, fuck, BRODY!” The Captain moved to lift herself up onto the railing, to reach further.
The Quartermaster moved faster.
“Captain, duck!” He ran from where he’d anchored the line, boots thudding across the deck, said a prayer as he got to the rail, and one gloved hand reached down and slipped around the rope as he stepped up, put a boot on a crate, another on the rail, and launched himself off the deck, over the Captain’s head. As he flipped, he watched her astonished face, and counted himself lucky for the gratitude he saw amidst the shock.
He’d gone diving before, dozens of times, and they always played around like idiots, but this time — this time he’d manage to save the boy’s life, or they’d both be dead.
In split seconds, he was nearly to the folded fin, level with Kieron, who was only barely tangled in the rope, an instant from slipping free and falling to the earth far below. Nate tightened his grip on the rope to stop himself from falling as he wrapped himself around the younger man. His falling slowed to nothing, but the rope itself burned through the glove and tore open his palm, while the weight of his body plus Kieron’s all but tore his shoulder from its socket.
His own scream echoed through the comms as the line snapped taut, and they were crashed against the fin. “PULL US UP!” Nate howled. “PULL US THE FUCK UP!”
Nate held Kieron gingerly; he could feel how the young man’s ribs were cracked, grinding against one another beneath his skin. He could see blood on the inside of the boy’s O2 mask. If he survived at all, it would be a miracle.
When he got to the rail, the Captain had everyone pull them both up, getting them back onto the deck, and the surgeon was there, immediately pulling off Kieron’s mask and putting a fresh one on him. The Captain settled Nate to the deck and eyed his shoulder, then him.
“Do it now,” he said tightly, in pain but resigned.
“S’gonna hurt.” Her voice had a warning tone.
“Don’t be a baby.”
“Fine, hold still.”
The Captain had the First Mate brace himself carefully, and then she laced her fingers with his and grabbed hold of his hand… and pulled. There was a stomach-clenching, wrenching, sucking noise, and Nate made a brief choking sound, then simply fainted. “I’m never letting you live that down,” she said, trying to laugh. “Fucking idiot.” She turned toward the surgeon and yelled, “DOC! Will he live?”
The surgeon looked up from where he ministered to Kieron, whose face was bloody. “Let’s get them below decks, and then I’ll tell you.”
She nodded grimly, let other airmen pick up the two wounded, and bear them below decks as she yelled into her personal radio. “Gator! If we’re through, take us down!”
* * *
He woke, trying to cry out, feeling like he was falling, but the feeling of his broken ribs drove his cry higher, took the words away, took his breath away.
Almost immediately, the Captain was at his side, with a hand on his cheek. “Shh,” she hissed. “S’agoddamn order.”
Kieron shuddered, staring up at her, tears in his eyes. “Jet,” he whispered. “I saw him.”
“No. Be quiet, and sit still. I didn’t almost lose my quartermaster so you could get yourself locked up with crazytalk,” Sha whispered.
That got Kieron’s attention. “Nate?” he whispered. His heart sank.
“But what happened?”
The surgeon who was still there, in the cramped quarantine area, said “He jumped off the railing t’save you. Y’shoulda seen it. Boy flew.”
“He did what?” Kieron’s eyes bulged open. He moved to sit up, to look around for the first mate, and then winced and groaned, a shocked look crossing his face as he quickly laid back down.
“That’s what I’m saying,” the Captain growled. “You cracked three ribs with your little stunt. Nate damn near pulled his arm out of his socket. Burned a hole in his fucking hand. Now you lay still, and you recuperate, you hear me?”
“Aye-aye, Captain,” Kieron said, nodding. “If he wakes up again before I do… Please tell him thank you for me.”
“Tell ‘im yourself. Don’t fucking die on me.” The Captain walked away, and Kieron turned his head to the side, to look at the man who’d risked his life to save him. Nate lay in the bed beside Kieron, small cuts and scrapes stitched and bandaged. One arm was set in some kind of plaster cast, while the shoulder was poulticed and heavily bandaged, the whole thing in a sling, keeping him immobile. His eyes were closed, and his expression was tight, but he was alive–they both were–and that was something, at least.
Kieron thought of Jet, and how he would watch him sleep, how his expression was always like that, tight, pained, like something in his dreams was hurting him.
Jet, who had always protected Kieron — until Kieron had wanted to protect him. There had to be some way out of this mess.
Kieron watched the Quartermaster sleep for awhile longer before he felt himself succumbing to exhaustion, and finally closed his eyes and whispered, “Thank you.”
* * *