This is Issue #52 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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“Aye-aye, Captain,” Kieron said, nodding. This was happening. This was truly happening. The people he’d met and made family with only weeks ago had decided to add wholesale murder to their resupplying missions.
“Pilot, bring us about. I need us nose to side with the Maxima. We need to watch what they’re doing more clearly. Gunnar, give me the signal when you’re ready. Someone find out if Hana has–“
“Captain!” came the cry. “Captain Onaya! I have Captain Abramov on the line!”
Sha turned and ran back for the comms room, where Nate handed her the mic. “Abe! Abe, are you all right?”
“Get off signal, Captain,” came the thickly accented growl. “Very busy.”
“No shit!” Sha said, laughing nervously. “Was there a mutiny? What–what’s happened? Give me a status.”
“Is okay, Sha. Is no mutiny,” he said. “Now get off signal.”
Sha looked hurt, confused, and then mostly furious as she snarled, “Captain Abramov — you’d better give me some fucking explanation for what you’re doing; you’re not supposed to engage the enemy.”
Kieron watched, listened, silent as he stood near Nate, who looked calm, but grim. This would get sorted. This would get handled. It was fucked up, and it was frightening, but they would handle it.
“Not engaging enemy, Captain,” the man replied, sounding disinterested in the conversation. “Cleaning up vermin.”
“Abe,” Sha said. “What the fuck is going on?”
“Have waited too long for Centralis government to do what has promised us since we signed up as children for old man’s war,” came the answer. Abramov’s voice sounded cold and angry, far and away. “Tired of waiting, Captain. Tired of enemy lies, enemy attacks, enemy always ahead of us. Months ago, we stop in Borderlands. For years has been stable for trade. This time, we are harassed by Ilonan scum. They hurt Yana–“
Nate’s expression changed from calm to sickened in an instant. His eyes narrowed, and he looked at Sha, curious.
“–wait, what?” Sha said, going pale. She had just seen Jules. Barely weeks ago, they had seen one another again — why had she not mentioned it? “Why didn’t she–“
“Same reason you would not,” Abe said darkly.
Nate’s eyes glittered; there was murder on his expression, and then he shook his head, and cleared his throat. His hands clenched into fists, and released, clenched into fists, and released.
Hana, who was listening on a headset, fiddling with knobs, making sure the connection held, lifted her head up as though scenting the air. She glanced toward the Captain, as though seeking assurance.
Sha had none. She closed her eyes and bowed her head, and it took great effort for her to lift it again, to look at Nate as she said, “That doesn’t justify–“
“—this week we receive word two other scout ships went down. The Pioneer,” he said darkly. “And Isabella.” Abramov’s voice cracked as he said the second one. A few of the older crew aboard the Jacob bowed their heads.
Nathan winced, pinching the bridge of his nose.
Sha put a hand to her chest as though she’d suffered a physical blow. “Abe,” she began. “I’m so–“
“Fuck your sorry,” Abramov said lowly. “My little ones, Valentin and Anatoly, they were grown men now. Valentin had wife. Anatoly had port-sons. Ilonans shot ships out of sky. Sent back Captain’s hands, holding crew tags. Sent back Quartermaster’s hands, holding crew ears. Ilonans are not people, Sha. Ilonans are filthy vermin.”
Sha’s voice — to her credit — did not shake as she said, “I have to ask you to stand down, Captain. I’m going to send over Nate to relieve you of duty. You understand, Abe? You have to stand down.”
“Get off channel, Captain Onaya,” Abramov returned. “Having work to do.”
“I can’t let you, Abe. I can’t. Abe, you’re killing children,” Sha said.
“THEY ARE KILLING CHILDREN!” Abe shouted in return. “GET OFF SIGNAL, CAPTAIN. OR I–“
Sha turned down the channel and looked back through the doorway, at the Master Gunner. She nodded to him, and he turned to give his own orders to his group.
“What are you–” Nate began, looking pained. “Captain?”
By then, the TS Jacob was facing down the broad side of The Maxima. Those within the front deck could see out the huge window, could watch the destruction. The auxiliary soundcannon fired, and the report was soft thunder. The TS Jacob rocked, ever so faintly. When the first tracer shot streaked across the bow, Nathan’s shoulders sagged in relief. Only a warning shot. Abe would understand they had to mean it. He would back down. He had to.
They waited. They watched. More than one person held their breath.
“Captain?” the Master Gunner called.
Another round of aetheris rushed out of the Maxima’s engines, spilling brightly to the ground, carving through houses, farms, bodies and anything else it touched.
“Oh,” Hana said, staring out the window at the horror happening not too far away. Kieron stood near her, his expression echoing her own. He turned to tell the Captain to wait a moment, to give the engines a chance to clear the fuel. Before he had a chance, she gave her order.
“Fire,” said Sha, and there were no tears, not yet, because there couldn’t be.
The Master Gunner gave the order, but this time, the report was louder. The main soundcannon was used, and the TS Jacob rocked in the air. The shockwave struck the Maxima in the rear port aether engine, and for a moment, it seemed as though the engine’s spindown was a perfect success.
Until the blowback from the ignited aetheris, no longer being forced down from the engine, traveled back up through the engine.
Kieron saw the glitter of the bluesilver flame stop falling, and instead fold back in upon itself.
His eyes widened.
It felt like time was slowing.
“ENGINES FULL REVERSE!” shouted Kieron, backing away from the window. “Captain! The Maxima! It’s–” He’d read a dozen-dozen different schematics about the way the fuel pumps and combustion chambers worked, and he remembered warnings upon warnings for working with aether engines. What could happen, under certain circumstances. If they overheated, or if an engine fire took one, all of the various consequences, from shutdown to full on destruction. “We have to move back!” he cried.
“You heard him!” Sha shouted. “Get us the fuck out of here! Everybody move! Get to your emergency stations!”
The TS Jacob began to go into yaw while Nathan stood at the window and put his left hand to the glass, heart in his throat. “No,” he whispered, staring across the sky. “Oh please no.”
The sound seemed to come almost before the fury — there was a roar as if a great beast had been awakened.
The entire left rear quarter of The Maxima folded in for one brief, surreal moment —
— and then it exploded.
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