This is Issue #55 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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The sky was fierce in its color, furious washes of lightning seeming to curl around the ship; the aetheris crackled and dripped, consuming chain and canvas, board and flesh alike.
The rear quarter of the Maxima’s port side shimmered in a blaze of silver blue; the shockwave of the explosion rocked the TS Jacob enough to throw people to the ground — the glass of the main window throbbed, shivering, but did not break. Nathan stood there, eyes wide, breath panted, fogging the glass. He watched in horror as guy lines snapped left and right; boards and bulk and airmen alike fell out of the sky toward the very ground they’d been annihilating.
The TS Jacob began to turn, to make its escape, and Nathan turned, looking at Sha in betrayal. His eyes were wet, wide; in them was all manner of heartbreak that could not be spoken, dared not have a voice lest it wail loudly enough to make the world bleed.
She returned the look with one of grim apology; bright eyes fierce. “If the ship goes, and we’re still this close, Nate, we’re all dead,” she said. “I can’t–“
Nat’es own gaze turned hard, staring her down. “Get us up,” he growled. “Higher,” he said. “Let me go over–“
Kieron’s eyes widened. To the Maxima? That ship, if it didn’t tear itself to pieces, was bound to fall out of the sky any minute.
Sha’s expression shut down; her shoulder slumped. “Quartermaster,” she said briskly, and he flinched when she didn’t use his name, “I don’t want to have to relieve you of duty for being completely insane, so I need you to–“
“I’d do it for you, too,” Nate said, his voice breaking. “You know I would.”
“And if Jules were the one you were asking, she’d tell you no, too,” Sha answered stiffly, looking hurt.
“Captain,” Nathan said, and Kieron could see his eyes were a strange mix of agony and determination. “Get us up. I’m going over the side. One way or another. Only way to make sure I maybe hit that ship on my way down is to get us above it.”
Kieron watched Nathan’s expression as he spoke; the shine of his eyes, full of tears that dared not to fall. The look on Nathan’s face was much like that of Jet’s when he had stood before Kieron, shouting at him in anger for signing up to join the scouts.
Jet. How long has it been since I thought of you? Is this what is, to mend a broken heart? With a slow and steady series of forgettings? What an odd thought to have, right then. Kieron shoved it away, blinking back his own tears, and cleared his throat.
Sha and Nate were still talking. She still looked unconvinced. “And then wh–“
“Then you get below, and let him jump again,” Kieron blurted. He couldn’t stand that expression, the hurt that lay behind it, the need to do something but feeling thwarted at every turn.
Nathan’s eyes flicked to Kieron, something like gratitude on his face. He nodded to Kieron, then, the muscles in his jaw working — he was itching to get moving; every second he stood there trying to convince Sha was one more second he stood there not knowing if Jules was already gone.
“It’s suicide,” Sha said.
“Then say your goodbyes. I’ll go over the side, first chance I get, if you make me watch this and do nothing, so it’s suicide with a chance of redemption or it’s just my body on the rocks for no reason,” Nathan said darkly. “Sha, this is Abe and Jules. I don’t even care if he’s murdered all of Ilona in their beds. We need to see this done.”
Kieron watched the exchange, once again silent on the sidelines; the memory of Abe and the man called Immanis shouting at one another gnawed behind his eyes — was Abe repentant at all? And how was Juliana involved? Did she order the aetheris through the engine? Did she sign off on the crew turning from scouts to killers?
Sha looked toward the ship and is destruction, and looked back at Nathan, and pinched the bridge of her nose. “This isn’t for fun, O’Malley,” she said lowly. “And it can’t be in desperation. If you’re off, you’ll hit the main envelope and bounce. If you miss the deck, you’ll end up in the farmlands. If you get near the fire–“
“Yeah,” Nathan said, rubbing his face with his hands and raking his hair back out of his eyes. He stared at Sha for a long moment, as though working out what to say. “I’ll take a comms with me,” he said. “If it goes pear-shaped, run. Go back across the Ridge. Tell the Generals to watch out for Ilonan incursion, because after what we’ve seen here… it’s more than likely.”
“I’ll give you all the time I can,” Sha said. “But if we have to run–“
“–then you have to run,” Nate said. He clasped her hand and leaned in to kiss her mouth, turning to whisper something to her that made her laugh aloud.
“Go,” she said, shaking her head, the mirth in her eyes dead before the laughter.
Then Nathan turned to Kieron, swallowing roughly. “Brody — ” he began, but then simply squeezed his shoulder. “Come help me rig up and send me off.”
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As Kieron tightened the buckles on Nathan’s harness, the Quartermaster said, “Brody — listen to Sha. She knows what she’s doing. Best Captain I’ve ever known. Ten times her brother.”
“Don’t say goodbye,” Kieron said, looking up at him. “I expect you and Jules on the deck of the Jacob. You’re not jumping ship just to die. You’re crazy — not stupid.”
Nate laughed, then, and said, “Then I’ll see you soon.”
Kieron nodded, and they waited as the Jacob climbed, soaring to get over the top of the mangled goliath ship.
Once they were circling in position, Nate got a running start, and Kieron watched him as he ran up, boots thumping on the deck, then up, up, up — box, crate, barrel, rail — and flung himself up and over, out into the open air. Kieron felt his heart in his throat as he saw the Quartermaster drop like a stone — and then the gearbox on the harness snapped into action, and the collapsible pistons expanded, and the set of billowing canvas wings arched out from Nate’s backpack. When the wings extended, Nate wheeled up, catching an eddy of wind, gliding high until he oriented himself. He ducked one shoulder and swung around toward the ship, disappearing from Kieron’s view.
As the great sky swallowed him, Kieron closed his eyes and whispered, “Goodbye.”
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