This is Issue #42 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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After weeks in the sky, the vast expanse of cloudbanks grew monotonous. Everything was always chill and damp; the boards would swell, and the ropes would get slick. Kieron gave himself burn more than once, forgetting to put on gloves, and then slipping when he lost track of what he was doing and strained to look out into the nothing, hoping to see a glimpse of land, a break in the clouds — something.
Once, during a storm, a technic fell out of the rigging and broke his collarbone hitting the deck. It wasn’t odd for the surgeon’s quarters to have more than one airman in the bunks at a time.
Nothing about the job was particularly glamorous, especially when it came to information gathering. They weren’t the spies of old, hiding within the country, among the peoples in plain site, they were the sort that hid outside and peered in, listening, hoping to never be detected, staying far and away from any happenings themselves.
The navigator shouted down, “Clear and holding!”
Kieron could hear the Captain call back, “Reading you five-by. Keep us safe in the clouds, ‘gator. Nice and safe and boring!”
“Aye, aye, Captain!” It was the same conversation they’d been having for days.
“Awright, crew, listen up!” Nate’s voice was sharp and clear, even in the damp mountain air; when he shouted to the crew, everyone from the topmost rigging to the bottommost fin could hear him. Because of his standing, even the most well-seasoned officers and standard crewmen alike would listen to his orders — he kept things running when the Captain was busy speaking to the navigator or other pilots. Because so much of this part of the journey was waiting, Kieron found himself with the technics, hanging from a rope thirty meters off the deck(no fins for him, for awhile), checking cable locks, and trying to hold very still so he could hear everything the Quartermaster was saying.
A little farther above, the navigator called down, “Still clear and holding! Nothing below – mountain range to port!”
“Yes sir, Gator!” The Captain’s voice pitched well, but there was no way to make any of it sound interesting; it almost would’ve been easy to drown them out, no matter how loud they were shouting.
“We’re waiting for probes to come back with long-distance readings of the ground below; we’re following in this cloud bank to keep from being detected until we can pass behind another small ridge and avoid any potential sensors, so we have to send the probes down, to get information we can’t see from the scopes. So far, there’s been no indication on the ground or in the air that anyone has seen us, and that’s fucking fantastic.” Nate looked earnest, watching around, his bright eyes meeting those of the crew; he liked the people-aspect of the ship, and he was damn good at it.
“Clear and holding!” called the navigator.
While they scudded alongside the mountains, after the last issue with the stuck fin, the reports were to come in twice as often, at least, though at this point, several of the technics were considering making sure the navigator’s non-pilot communications radio stopped working, at least for a time.
Nate lifted his voice again, saying “It means a lot of work for technics who are always trying to improve our speed and our navigational tools, but it also means a lot of you are bored as fuck. ”
A short cheer went up from the crew, to acknowledge his words; the roar of it disguised something the navigator was saying.
Something that, to Kieron, did not sound like ‘Clear and holding’.
Nate stood on the deck and laughed, nodding and waving. “I hear you. All I can tell you is that we’ll be on our way, soon, and–”
Suddenly, proximity alarms began to shriek. “Engines spin up! Hard to fucking port!” screamed the navigator, suddenly, sounding panicked.
“The MOUNTAIN is to fucking port!” called back a pilot, but all the same, the whole ship rocked as the fins and ballonets were readjusted. The engines spun up so quickly, the boards shuddered, and all the canvas rippled like pondwater hit with stones.
The crew scrambled; technics dropped from the riggings like spiders fleeing their webs while others strongarmed their way back up, crawling quickly, and those on deck pulled up their ropes to help them move faster. Kieron spun to adjust his grip, and then flipped the catch on his harness and slipped out, riding the ropes down aways before simply dropping out of the rigging to roll across the slanting deckboards and come up to his feet, swaying.
He stood next to Nate, who was staring off into the white, one hand on a guyline, the other on the butt of a pistol.
The sound was a strange humming buzz, like a doubling of the engine sound of the TS Jacob, coming from far away, thundering closer, a throbbing hum that set the teeth on edge as it rose.
The sound of something coming closer, out of the white shadows of the clouds.
On the starboard side, the ghost of a hulking figure cut through the sky; another ship kissed past the Jacob, and the sky was full of the sounds of the aether engines’ distortion interfering with one another for a brief moment, sounds like warbling screams and long-gone radio transmissions. The ship was gone, lost in the clouds again.
And then a real scream — from off the starboard bow there was the frequency-shift of a sound growing higher in pitch, and then Kieron stood frozen on the deck, staring at the figure hurtling in an arc.
It swung by the fins, wearing goggles, holding a rope, standing on some kind of board, and banked hard to try to avoid getting tangling in the rigging. It, too, was soon lost in the clouds, but the sound of it could still reach those aboard the TS Jacob.
The sound of brazen, challenging laughter.
Kieron could see the Captain, the navigator, the boatswain — everyone screaming at once, running to their stations, dealing with orders, but not Nate.
The ship settled from its lurch, while people scrambled to make sure nothing and no one had been thrown overboard. Nate had run to the edge, and was gripping the rail and watching the sky with huge eyes. When Kieron came up to join him, a slow grin broke over the Quartermaster’s face.
“Captain!” he cried. “Captain, I think it’s Jules!”
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