This is Issue #44 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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A hundred thousand things has Kieron heard in his life that have made him doubt the veracity of the speaker, including learning things that shook his worldview to the core. None were as unbelievable as what he’d thought he just heard. “I’m sorry — his wife?”
“Juliana Vernon O’Malley,” the Captain said, laughing. “Herself in the flesh.”
“Was that her, earlier? In the, ah — riding the –” Kieron stammered.
“Wakeboard. Yes, that would’ve been her, goggles and hair and all,” the Captain said, looking amused. She turned dark, merry eyes toward Kieron. “If you want to meet her, and I’m certain you do, go help everyone get shit secure, and we’ll all join the raiding party.”
Kieron’s eyebrows went crooked again as he looked over to his Captain, saying “Uh. The what?”
“Boarding party. Raiding party. We’ll be bringing back a load of fresh foods from the Maxima. Couldn’t be a settlement ship, so it ended up being a resupply ship. It’s not like we’re the only scout ship out here, Brody. Just the fastest,” Sha said, winking.
It didn’t take all that long to get things sorted; ropes were lowered from one ship, caught by the others, and everyone connected one ship to the other, knots and buckles, specific rigging knots that could be undone in a flash, if necessary, so the ships could go their different directions, especially quickly. The pulley system for loading goods was set up, and a few of the crew planned on staying aboard to keep things running smoothly. “Don’t worry,” the Captain told Kieron. “They’ve been aboard resupply ships before, and some of the crew from the Maxima will come aboard, so they get to talk and be sociable with new folks.” The Captain let a load of crew go down before her; she smiled, watching them, something like a mother duck overseeing her brood.
Kieron noted the pride, the fondness in her features, and he couldn’t help but realize he was making those faces, as well. “I like it here,” he said aloud, almost surprised at himself.
“On board the Jacob? In the air? Hovering over enemy territory? Standing at the rails?” Sha wondered, smirking.
“On your crew,” Kieron said. “I think Jet would like it; I really do.” He held the rail and looked down toward the ship below, eyes seeking out the faint ghostly outlines of all its riggings, the boat beneath the massive balloon holding it aloft. “If there’s a storm–” he began.
“Then our pilots and their pilots will work it out, and if we need to, we separate and do team dives to get back on board,” she finished, shrugging.
“Brody — do you want to go visit the Maxima, or not?” Sha asked, turning to look over at him. There was a pause, a full four beats, and then her eyes widened. “Did you see someone?” she asked. “Someone from that ship?”
“No, no,” Kieron said, shaking his head. “Nothing like that. It’s just that when I saw my father designing these things, when I read about them — they were supposed to be islands unto themselves. Fully contained. They were perfect for what they’d been designed to do. You’ve made a thousand thousand little modifications, and now we’re tethered to this other monstrosity, and I guess–”
“You climbed out on a fin and were nearly crushed to death, and you still go up in the rigging and out on the fins to observe and assist the technics, and you’re worried about a rope bridge?” the Captain asked, laughing.
Kieron blushed, smiling at the Captain, and shrugged, saying, “Okay fine you have a point. Let’s get on over there so I can meet the infamous Jules.”
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Getting down the massive rope relay wasn’t hard, even with things being damp and slick; when he reached the other ship and hopped down onto the boards, he was given a hearty welcome by other crewmembers who clapped him on the back, shook his hand, and in general, seemed to be in quite good spirits. He found himself grinning warmly, and shook hands with several people before he managed to see Nate and his companion, and went over to say hello.
As he approached, he couldn’t help but watch Nate’s face while he talked to the woman. His normal smirk had been replaced by a genuine smile, while his eyes, often squinting in concentration, irritation, or indignation, were wide and bright, watchful and curious. He looked at Jules as they approached, and the way she stood, lightfooted on the deck, as sure as if she were on the ground. The wind played with the flame of her hair, a curling tangle the color of wild carrots that was only barely restrained by a gogglestrap. She wore flight leathers and only came up to Nathan’s shoulder, but even though she was petite, she was larger than life, the way she laughed and talked, vibrant enough to bring color to the whole ship.
“Ears burning, Brody?” Nate wondered as they got close. His whole face was bright with joy, grinning mischievously. “Jules? This is Recruit Kieron Brody.”
Kieron turned and looked at Jules again, and offered a salute, watching her. She snapped one off in return, immediately, grinning. “Well aren’t you a tightass,” she said brightly. When he blushed, she burst into laughter and reached out to clap him on the back much like Nate often did. For a petite woman, there was a lot of force in her, and the blow against his shoulder blades was impressive. “I like this one,” she said to Nate, winking. “A pleasure, Kieron — can I call you Kieron? — it’s always good to meet the men and women keeping Nathan in line.”
“Ohgod,” Nate said, rolling his eyes. “I’m gonna go see if the Captain’s come over yet.” He walked off, leaving Kieron with Jules, who looked him over for a very long time, studying his face with a measure of curiosity. She was silent, playing with an errant curl of her carrot-orange hair, her greyblue eyes staring quite intently until she finally wondered, “So… Kieron Brody. You wouldn’t happen to be Delia’s boy, would you?”
Kieron’s face went brittle, and Jules’ face quickly did as well. “Fuck the stars,” she breathed. “Did she die? Tell me she’s not dead. I am the sky’s most oblivious asshole if she’s passed.”
“She’s not dead — at least, she wasn’t when I deployed. The family lawyers are instructed to get word to me by any means necessary if that changes,” Kieron said, his lips tight. “She took ill a few months before I–” he murmured, swallowing roughly, glancing away as he felt the prick of tears stinging his eyes. “How do you know her?”
“Met her a long time ago; your father brought her to an unveiling where I was hoping to get near a ship,” Jules explained. “She told your father to let me pilot it,” Jules laughed. “She was a real boiler, your mother. I think she’s the reason I ended up out here. I’d heard she was ill — I’m glad she’s not turned the worse. Still, it’s terrible. You have my sympathies, Kieron,” she said. She watched him, looked over his face, and her own expression registered sadness and regret.
Kieron nodded, clearing his throat, struggling to push back the unwelcome thoughts of home and family, shoving them back and down. And that is when Juliana Vernon O’Malley reached out and drew Kieron into a hug, pressing her cheek to his. It wasn’t motherly. It wasn’t sexual. It was warm and sweet and the tears that pricked his eyes before threatened to spill. There was a relief so real when he hugged her, he didn’t know what to do with himself. “Delia’s strong, Kieron. She is. She’ll get back up and she’ll write you a letter and she’ll tell you to come home because war is no place for a boy, and you, sir, had better listen to her, because she’s not wrong,” Jules said, releasing him.
“Hey now,” said Nate, returning with the Captain. “Jules, don’t go getting all familiar with–Brody, are you crying?”
“Nathan Einin O’Malley!” Jules snapped, hands on her hips. “How is it you have never once learned to keep your fucking foot out of your fucking mouth! Can’t you see the boy is–”
But Kieron was doubled over in laughing, hooting merrily as he and the Captain leaned on one another. They laughed helplessly, clutching one another and looking at Nathan who had his arms crossed and looked irritated. “That’s it,” he grumbled. “Get it out of your system.”
Kieron barked with laughter, wiping his eyes, redfaced and wheezing. “Einin?” he giggled. “Seriously? Your middle name is Einin?”
“I forget how hilarious it is until I hear her yell at him,” Sha laughed, shaking her head.
“What!” Nate said, exasperated. “It means bird! My mother liked birds!”
“You can’t be too mad, love,” Jules said. “You are a bit of a knob, really. It’s only fair to give the boy a laugh,” she said gently, leaning her head against Nathan’s shoulder, talking quietly so only he could hear. “His mother’s in a bad way. Father’s a worse knob than you. You know the drill.”
“I do. How is it you make everything clear, and difficult all at once?” Nate sighed, matching the quiet of his voice to hers, putting an arm around her. “I should divorce you,” he said.
“Right?” she laughed. “I’m terrible. Run off and marry Sha, y’should. Make an honest woman of her.”
“Are you kidding?” Nate said, keeping his voice low as he watched his Captain laughing with Kieron. “No making her honest. She’d eat me alive.”
Jules laughed, clapping Nathan on the back, agreeing as she said “Like the little bird you are.”
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