This is Issue #90 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 ghost ship sailed above a roiling black sea, trailing a glittering mist of silverblue. Frost bled from its sails and chains, but there was no hum of life to its engine. Dark and darker, it slipped along on the high jetstream, while everyone inside held their breath.
As the sun dipped below the Ridge, the men and women who dared to be ‘gators hung from their posts and stared back at what the Ilonans called the Luminora — the edge of light — and watched the way the sun burned up the sky. Above the clouds, the world was painted in blood and gold, and there was radio silence as each member of the Jacob did their task, caught either in fear, or in beauty.
The sky went from whitegold to whitepink to bloody orange to crimson and indigo, to twilight and stars. The moon was purely a sickle, huge but mostly hidden, and the known world was dark enough that it was easy to know which way they were headed, even without being able to see the land below.
Most everything was blackness, save for pinpricks of light, a landscape of serenity that belied the bounty of ships below, and their weapons.
“Lightning’s coming,” the ‘gators called.
“That goes down,” Nate said, smirking.
“You know,” said Jules, walking in and rolling her eyes. “You smirking is never a good thing.”
“Don’t you pick on my smirk,” Nate laughed, putting an arm around Jules.
“Ugh, stop with the cute. You two make me want to throw up,” Sha said, rolling her eyes.
Nate snorted, rolling his eyes in return, and quietly asked Jules, “You seen Brody?”
“No, you were goin–”
“Sirens. Didn’t make it down. But he’s not in here.”
“I’ll get ‘im,” Jules said, and leaned up to give Nathan a kiss on the cheek. “Look alive, O’Malley. This teacup’s in for one hell of a ride, yeah?”
Nate laughed and said, “Ain’t it always? Go on with you, then,” and watched as Jules disappeared back out the door.
“The fuel,” Hana said. “How are the tanks?”
“Just below redline, for pressure,” the cadet called back, “But we had to bleed off nearly thirty percent of what we had.”
“Putting us at what?” Nate wondered, turning his attention back to the crises.
“Each tank’s at 25% right now,” the cadet answered.
Nate nodded, and said to Sha, “Plenty of fuel for another two months, and we’re not staying on this side of the ridge that lo–what in hell’s–?” Nate ran for the window and looked down, all but pressing his face to the glass.
Far below and well behind them, the black clouds began to light up, to glow. In flashes and rippling waves, they burst into whitehot brilliance. The buffeting energy made the ship rock and turn.
“–the fuck?” Sha breathed. Everyone in the comms room stared out of the side windows, looking back, watching as massive plumes of light speared through the clouds, following along the trail they’d been on. “Ion cannons? What, are the Ilonans just shooting blind?”
“They’re nowhere near us,” Nate marveled.
“Your plan worked,” Sha said, clapping Hana on the back. “Damn good job, cadet.”
“Don’t thank me yet,” Hana breathed. “If those are ion cannons–”
“Captain! Captain! Permission to shut off the bleed!” the cadet in the fuel room broke in, sounding terrified.
Realization flooded the expressions of those in comms, followed shortly by a burst of fear, and then determination. “Granted!” Sha shouted back. “Get it done, cadet! Djara! Penny! Figure out a way for us to move faster, or we’re all–”
The sound of the explosion was deafening, and the ship itself gave up a long, grinding groan.
* * *
The redhead turned around to see Kieron staggering back from the head, looking bewildered. His eyes were dark and glassy, and he still looked almost punch-drunk. Every time she saw his wounded face, she was ashamed of Nathan. Every time.
“What the fuck is–”
“We’re flying dark, cadet. Ilonan Domitors are below us, shooting up into the clouds. I’m guessing they managed to hit something,” Jules said, looking grim.
Over Jules’ radio, they both heard the Captain, “I need eyes on the fuel line cadet! He’s not responding.”
“Got it!” Jules shouted back, and grabbed for Kieron’s hand. “Let’s go, cadet.”
They ran from the bunks to the belly as quickly as possible, boots pounding on the boards, busting through doors until they got to one marked ‘Fuel Room.’ The metal wheel was rattling, and the roar behind it was deafening. When Kieron managed to get the latch open, the door flung wide, pulling both him and Jules out it.
The fuel room — the tanks… the cadet responsible for monitoring the tanks… everything in the rear bottommost level… gone. He could see the twin screws of the aether engines spinning, and the yawn of the sky opening wide to greet them as they tumbled. Below them, it raged on fire, with ion cannon shots piercing the veil of mist and setting the aether trail ablaze.
On his way past, Kieron grabbed for the door latch, and somehow managed it, cutting open his fingertips and tearing his nails. It was slippery, but a measure of sheer desperation allowed him to hold on even as Jules fell past him and grabbed hold of his ankles.
He could feel his blood in his ears, and couldn’t catch his breath; the chill frosted his eyelashes as they swung there, pulled back toward the screws.
“Climb me!” he shouted to Jules.
“Climb me!” Kieron screamed. “Before one of us has… a motherfucking vision, Jules, CLIMB ME!”
She wasted no more time, grabbing fistfuls of his uniform, crawling up him until they were face to face and she was reaching for the inner wheel of the door. “Don’t let go, Brody,” she shouted at him, hoping he could hear her over the roar of the sky. “We’ll get out of this. Just hold on!”
“You got… maybe… thirty… seconds,” he wheezed.
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