This is Issue #87 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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As the clouds thickened and darkened around the TS Jacob, it climbed through the sky. Djara was thinlipped at the main wheel while Penny muttered prayers and curses under her breath, laying beneath the gyro deck. They shouted back and forth at one another, getting things configured, aligned, so they had a hope of flying the great machine without electric controls once it went above the clouds. Frost rimed the thick glass that let them look out at the world, and heavy ice began to coat the canvas and chains. Great spidery slips of frost fell from the rigging, and the TS Jacob‘s engines took on an unearthly howl as they tore up through the gathering storm.
All the gators wore goggles and scarves and parkas and gloves, and chattered back and forth with the pilots and comms, giving as much information as possible about the cloud formations and the state of the ship. Their noise took up a full channel on the comm units; one of them wore two sets — one so she could hear the gators, and the other so she could hear the officers, relaying the information to Comms.
While they were getting their tanks, Sha and Nate stepped in to Comms to watch the screens for the last few minutes before they went dark. They stood apart, but the way they held themselves mirrored one another. The way they each narrowed their eyes and clenched their fists in both fury and hope made them twin suns of determination, bright spots of light against the cloudy haze of chill and fear.
Though most everyone on board was trembling in anxiety, the crew seemed hushed and reverent with them around, and inspired when they passed.
Hana showed them the approaching Domitors, and how their tracks began to change as the Jacob shrieked up through the sky. The cadet responsible for watching the monitors for the inner pressure of the aether tanks called out that they were rising — slow, but steady.
“When, Comms?” Sha barked.
“Not yet,” Hana called back. She looked nothing like frantic, but instead had a gleam of fascination in her eyes. “Not yet — hold it. Hold it–“
The cadet monitoring the aether tanks piped up again, “Pressure’s rising faster, but we’re not redlined yet.”
The collective breath of the crew of the TS Jacob began to be held as the clouds blanketed the ship so closely. The heavy, damp cold began to feel suffocating, and everyone who had a comm listened in as Hana did her part to get the ship hidden.
Sha watched the blips following them continue on their course, but when Hana gave the signal to Djara and Penny to alter their course from ‘forward and upwards’ towards port, and the ship gave a rattling whine as the ice in the riggings and canvas shook loose, the tracks of the following ships did not change — they continued to follow the original line of the Jacob. “It’s working,” Sha said, her heart in her throat.”
“Faster!” Hana called out. “Captain, we need to go faster and higher! We need to be further from them once we start drifting!”
“Djara!” Sha shouted. “You heard the girl!”
Djara cursed under her breath and eased the ship faster, watching her instruments with a sense of hope and dread.
“I said faster!” Sha called.
“Then fucking hold on!” Djara shouted back. Her line was still open when she muttered “Penny — grab something,” and everyone who could hear her braced themselves. One ‘gator in particular signaled his buddies to grab hold tight, and when Djara punched it, opening up the throttle and gunning the engines, the Jacob streaked upwards like some shining bullet, the scales on the front cone rattling and bending. Not a single one tore loose, much to the pride of the technics, and everyone in the ship could feel the pressure of the acceleration right down to their bones.
The whole ship gave a great shudder.
“Captain!” came the cry over the comms. “The aether tanks! If we go any higher, we’ll redline!” The news made everyone freeze. If Djara could’ve stopped the ship in midair and simply held inside the clouds, she would have.
“Bleed them!” Nate shouted, his expression frantic.
“Belay that!” Hana shouted in return, and then clapped a hand over her mouth and looked frightened and apologetic all at once.
The captain growled, her eyes narrowed, “Cadet?”
“I’m sorry! If you bleed an aether trail into the sky in the storm, it could ignite. At best, the other ship would find us. At worst… the ship would be incinerated,” Hana explained, her eye wide, nearly wild. “You can’t bleed the tanks. If we level off now, and don’t get pushed ahead of the storm into an area of lower pressure, we should be okay.”
“Should?” Nate said, worried.
“It’s all I’ve got!” Hana cried.
“We can’t level off yet; we’re not atop the clouds — we’d be blind!” called one of the ‘gators.
For a moment, there was silence, as everyone took it in.
“Djara’s got us going fast enough,” Nathan said. “Bleed the tanks. If the trail ignites, we’ll see it. We can shut off the bleed and level off then, but at least we’ll have a chance.”
Sha nodded. “Bleed the tanks, cadet! And watch the trail!” Sha shouted back down the line. “Warn us if we’re all gonna die — I’d like at least enough time to manage a prayer!”
“Aye-aye, Captain!” called the cadet, his voice shaking over the crackling sound of the radio.
The Jacob climbed higher. The tank pressure did, as well, just for a moment, and then it began to drop. Behind the TS Jacob, a shimmer of aetheric fuel began to billow into the clouds. Black as they were, it shimmered against them, dusted silverblue.
Just as the cadet clicked his comms to tell everyone they’d were back well below redline, the gators gave a cheer that they were above the clouds. Hana shouted “NOW!” And Djara and Penny all at once shifted from automatic to manual gearing. The crew responsible for flying the Jacob each turned off their dashes, and every system aboard went dark, one by one by one.
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Aboard the Tropaeum, a Domitor-class airship, the Ilonans moved with efficient grace, though many of the officers were snarling in fury, angry that their chase had been ruined. “What do you mean, it’s gone?” the Lord Captain snapped. “Coordinate your scanners with the other ships. It has not disappeared. We were ordered to get it down out of the sky, and we will not rest until we have done so.”
The lower officer at the comms station called back, “Yes, Lord! But we have already done this! The other ships are reporting the same phenomena. Even with linked scanners, there is no report. The Eburneis Dea is not on our screens! It no longer registers!”
“Did it fall?” the ruling officer wondered, walking to the glass and looking out and down toward the rolling hills, darkened by the stormclouds. He placed a hand on the glass, and felt the hum of the Tropaeum’s aether engines throbbing against his fingertips.
“No, Lord,” the commsperson answered. “If it fell, we would have been able to see the wreckage.”
“Then it has risen into the storm, my soldiers, and may our gods strike it from the sky for its insolence,” the Captain hissed. “Aim into the clouds.”
“The clouds?” the gunman asked, glancing over his shoulder.
“Yes, gunner. The ion cannons at maximum power. Aim them toward the last known trajectory of the ship, but fire in maximum spread,” the Captain said, looking pleased.
“Yes, Lord,” the gunner answered, and adjusted his weapons. “All cannons aimed and armed, sir. Ready to fire on your mark.”
“Excellent,” the Captain said, and his eyes glittered in triumph. “They think they can hide from me? The cowards think they can burn our lands and disappear into the darkness? I think not. Lets light them up.”
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