This is Issue #96 of DeathWatch, an ongoing Serial. Click that link to go find ‘A Beginning’ and read from there, if you need to catch up.
* * *
Dead in the air, the TS Jacob floated, fuelless, the screws twisting lazily. Waves of clouds and explosive drifts of aetheric fuel spun around them. Debris from the original explosion was found to have made holes in the main envelope.
The ship was sinking, back into the storm.
The Comms room was a flurry of chaos.
“We don’t know how much fuel we have left, and we don’t know if the lines are safe. We aren’t going to spin up yet; we don’t know if they can see us through the storm!” one of the helmsmen cried.
“We should turn around,” Djara called.
“A full turn? We don’t have the fine control to get back through the notch–” Penny said.
“–then what, we’ll stay here?” Djara snapped.
“Jules? Hurry it up,” Sha called. “The natives are getting restless!”
“She went to grab Brody — I’ll run down, and do some checks on the way,” Nate said, hurrying out. He ran, the pound of his boots on the boards feeling familiar and oddly comforting.
He wended his way back and back until he got to the last long corridor. The door to it was shut, and the pressure monitor said it was drastically low. Nate tapped the glass and cocked his head to the side. He leaned in, listening at the door, and heard the roar of the empty sky beyond. “No,” he whispered, and he spun the wheel and undid the latch.
When the door opened, he was pulled through, and scraped and bruised himself badly as he was pulled down the hall, toward the open door that swung, clanging, revealing the storm below and beyond, the lightning, and the gaping sky that had swallowed the cadet, the fuel tanks, the backbelly of the ship, and possibly a large part of everything he loved. He jammed his boots against the wall and stared down the hall until the alarms reminded him that pressure inside the ship was dropping now, too. He pulled a rope from the wall, and swung it down to catch the wheel on the open door, then pulled it shut. Once it latched, he hurried down the hall so he could spin it, and let the hall repressurize.
“Jules?” he called over his comms. “I got the fuel room. It’s, uh. How’s Brody?”
There was no answer until the Captain’s voice crackled over the line. “Sitrep on the fuel room.”
“Short answer: We’ve got a hull breach. Cadet Wales is gone. I’ll brief you when I get up,” Nate said bluntly. “Jules, did you find Brody?”
“Commander Julianna O’Malley!” Sha called.
Sha’s voice sounded more irritable than panicked. “Anyone got eyes on Jules?”
Frustrated, Nate hurried back from the belly of the ship, running for the bunks. When he got to Kieron’s space, he stood there silently for a moment. The boy wasn’t there. “Brody?” he called. “Anyone got eyes on Brody or Jules?”
A shaking voice came up over the line, “They both went down to the rear belly, Quarter. They went to check on the cadet who was working on the pressure.”
“Fuck,” Nate breathes, putting his hands to his face.
“What’s the panic, Quarter?” the Captain called. “It’s a big ship, and her comm battery might not have been charged, and Brody didn’t have one. Get back up here.”
* * *
“She’s gone,” Nate said, fingers curled so tightly, they left bloody halfmoons. “She’s fucking gone, Sha. She’s gone. Her, and Brody, and Wales.”
“Hey, hey, stop,” Sha said, one hand on Nate’s shoulder. “We don’t have time for this. What makes you think she went out with Wales? Even if she did, there is nothing that can be done for them now. We’ve got half a shot at turning around and saving everyone else on this ship, at absolute best.”
“We don’t even have that,” Nate said darkly.
Sha froze, looking cautiously at Nate. “What are you talking about?”
“Backbelly of the ship is gone, Sha. From last door to tanks. You can see the screws and the sky. We’re dead up here. S’how I know she went. That last door was open. She and Brody must’ve gone to check on Wales, and–” His voice was grim. “Either way, still here, or not… Jacob’s done-for.”
There was silence, for awhile, as the Captain of the TS Jacob took it all in. Sha finally nodded, saying, “I’ll send everyone packing. Chuting through the storm and avoiding the ships won’t be easy, but if everyone drops, maybe they’ll be able to land close enough together they can all head back for the border, or go north to the ice seas. Safety in numbers. Maybe they die on the way down. Maybe they die in running. But chances are better there than here.” She looked almost optimistic at the idea of it; in reality, she was simply avoiding thinking about how close everyone alreadty was to death — no point in panicking. No point in lamenting the loss of her commission, her ship, the last thing tying her to her brother, all these people under her care. Now, priorities had to change. The only thing left: make sure her people survive, if possible. “Help me spread the word?”
Nate nodded, and they spent the next thirty minutes spreading the news, relaying the information to grave-eyed, solemn-faced soldiers, and wide-eyed cadets who hadn’t realized it but had become soldiers along the way. Once they told someone, they asked that person to pass it on. Everyone worked hard and fast to get packs, chutes, masks, and any emergency gear they could. They packed essentials only, and a few people grabbed some sentimental junk. A picture here, a letter or a piece of jewelry there.
Nate kept twisting the ring on his finger, and asked everyone he was telling, “Have you seen Jules?”
No one had.
* * *
The Jacob was skimming the top of the roiling stormclouds when the first of the crew began to jump. Somewhere below, there were Ilonan Dormitors ready to fire — they had to hope they could avoid them, and get all the way to the ground. Groups of them jumped together, in hopes of braving things more easily, due to not being alone.
“Captain, I don’t–” Djara was saying.
“It’s an order. Jacob’s not going to fly again. I don’t need you to steer it into Ilona. I need you to live,” Sha ordered.
“Pilot!” Sha snapped. “I don’t have time for insubordination!”
“Yes’m,” Djara said, snapping off a salute. “We’ll see you on the ground, Captain. Quarter. Sir!”
She and Penny and another round of cadets jumped, hand in hand.
With every chute that opened, radios went out of range and the Jacob grew emptier and emptier, until finally it was just Sha and Nate, standing on the deck, masks on, as the Jacob drifted down into the storm. Lightning arced all around them, struck the chains; wind tried to spin the ship. He held her hand and looked over the side, saying, “We riding this thing down?”
“I am,” Sha said. “Want to come with me? I got a bottle of something clear and lovely. I think I owe you.”
“Holdin out on me til a grave situation, hm?” Nate said, shaking his head. “I see how it is. Well, I can’t drink anything with this damn mask on. You want to go below?”
Sha rolled her eyes, smirking. “Yeah, let’s go get pissed and crash an airship, huh? We’ll just get it as far as we possibly can, so there’s no way this hulk or any debris will hit any of our guys.”
Nate’s voice was steady, even as his eyes stung in their goggles. “Let’s not hit any little villages either. The Ilonans might get mad and ruin your ship.”
* * *