This is Issue #51 of DeathWatch, an ongoing Serial. Click that link to go find ‘A Beginning’ and read from there, if you need to catch up.
* * *
They could see the trail The Maxima had left before they found the ship itself. From 10,000 feet, the ground was a patchwork quilt of farmlands and rivers, sprawling cities and remote villages. There were deserts, but they were small, swallowed slowly by advancing populations and advanced terraforming and irrigation techniques. “There,” Kieron said, pointing out the small dark patches in a river valley to the southeast.
The descent made the crew nervous; there was a giddying sensation, a strange and horrible feeling of lightness that brought the stomach to the throat, and those who stood at the rails wore grim faces. They sank out of the last of the misty clouds and were closer to the ground than they’d been in months. As the TS Jacob drew closer, passing the blueblack clouds of smoke, the scents of sweet char and bitter ozone clung to everything.
“I didn’t want to believe you,” Sha said, staring out against the sky, looking at the ground below.
An airman who suddenly realized what the scent was began to vomit over the rail, sobbing.
Nate’s hands curled into fists and he bared his teeth shaking his head. “This can’t be,” he hissed. “Someone’s… it was a mutiny. Abramov would never. Jules would never,” he said, refusing to accept what he could see.
Far below, sprawling villages lay in ruin. Houses, farm plots, animal grazing fields, the animals themselves, and every other living thing was burnt beyond hope. Everything was blackened to ash, trees so hot they split through the bark and steamed still, in the quiet air.
Every last thing was dead and smoking.
Not a soul moved on the ground, not a herd animal or yardfowl, not a worker or child.
Where people had obviously begun to crowd and run, there were vast piles of blackened bone shrouded in ash and smoking meat.
The crew looked to Sha, and more than a few of them wondered, “What do we do?”
“Go faster,” she told them. “Catch up. For the love of everything you believe in, catch up.”
* * *
The Maxima was not too far ahead after too long, but it would not respond to hails. Those aboard the TS Jacob watched as great gouts of aetheris were churned through a modified engine to spray below. As the gelatinous mist fell, several members of the crew worked together to ignite it.
It made a sound like shrieking thunder, and flamed blue silver all the way down.
Far below, the people in the village looked up to see twinkling lights falling from the sky. Kieron could just make out the shape of a child reaching up toward the clouds when suddenly the aetheris burned through his skin. Half of his face was gone before he could understand enough to scream, but by then it was too late. He dropped to the ground, smoking, blackening, thrashing even past death as the electrical current in the liquid caused his body to convulse. His mother had moments to understand what was happening to her child before she could make a decision about what to do for him, but then she was smoking, melting as he was.
Kieron felt his gorge rise, and he turned away from the sight.
They drew up alongside The Maxima, and hailed again. The comms officer and recruits looked shellshocked as they watched the carnage continue. People and animals attempted to flee, but the cloud of death was too big and too fast; it consumed everything under the sky, and scorched the earth until it smoked blue, and smelled like electrified meat and mud.
“We have to stop them,” the Captain said. “Short of ramming, what can you give me?” she asked her officers and their recruits, standing in the main comms room, looking at schematics.
“Let me go over there,” Nate said. “I can–“
“Don’t be a fucking idiot,” Sha snapped. “If it isn’t them doing it on purpose, something’s gotten control of them. If everyone on board The Maxima has been compromised, you going alone isn’t going to do anything except get you killed. Give me something else.”
Kieron stared at the schematics, thinking hard about anything he may have ever learned about ships like the TS Jacob, and those like the Maxima, but in the horror of the situation, he felt woefully unprepared, and unable to focus. “What about, uh, can’t we, ah — can we overload their comms system, somehow? So they can’t use their own radios for coordination? Or to — to — to force them to talk to us?”
“Oh! Yes, I can — I can — I can –” began one of the recruits, looking suddenly excited. “I can do that!” she said, nodding, almost feverish in her desire to help, her short black hair bobbing as she nodded vehemently. “I’m gonna need, uh, some parts, though–“
“What’s your name?” Sha asked the woman.
The expression on the woman’s face as she answered was worried, as though she’d spoken out of turn and was giving up her name to be punished. “Hana?”
The Captain turned to Nate then, and said, “Quartermaster, you’re on this. Coordinate with Comms and first-deck technics to get Hana what she needs. Doubleshares and promotions for the fucking lot of you if you can get me Abramov on the line in less than an hour.”
“Aye-aye,” saluted Nate, who immediately turned to Hana and the group he’d been given.
“Aye aye!” said Hana, eager, and she began rattling off a list of what she needed to the people assigned to help her.
While they were engaged, Sha turned back to look at Kieron, the boatswain, the master gunner, and the rest of her officers. Her expression was grim as she led them out of the comm room and into the adjoining room. “If we can’t get them to stop,” she said evenly, meeting the eyes of those in her circle, “we will have to put them down.”
Most everyone nodded in silence, their expressions as grim as hers.
“Gunner,” Sha said, “Get me everything you’ve got, and get it ready. They’ll get a warning shot, and then you take out their engines so they can’t be doing what they’re doing. If the Maxima puts up resistance, based on their size, their capabilities, we’ll have to punch it and run, because if we miss, or don’t incapacitate them, they could take us out much easier than we can take them.”
Kieron glanced over his shoulder at Nate, who was engrossed in his duties, and looked to Sha, shaking his head, looking horrified. “You can’t mean th–“
Immediately, the Captain turned to look at Kieron, and shifted to put the shoulder of her tallcoat near his face. She pointed to her shoulder, to the stripes and raptor there, and said “Brody, what is this?”
Kieron blushed hotly, and said, “The Captain’s insignia,” through his teeth.
“Don’t tell me what I can’t mean, airman,” she said warningly, leaning in so he could hear her clearly. “I wear this, not to remind you that I get to make the hard decisions, but to remind me that I have to make the hard decisions. You get me?” Her eyes were fierce, then, and unforgiving. “I don’t want to, but if it comes to shooting down someone I love — a whole ship of someones, in fact– or instigating an actual all out war with a power that could wipe us off the map because we turned into the monsters everyone says they are? I will blow The Maxima out of the fucking sky without a second thought–” She pointed her finger at Kieron and jabbed it directly into the center of his chest, baring her teeth. “–and you will follow my orders to help me do it. Is. That. Clear?”
* * *