This is Issue #6 of DeathWatch, Book II: tentatively called Heart Of Ilona, an ongoing Serial. Click that link to go find DeathWatch, the first in the series, or start from the beginning of Book II!
* * *
The Kriegic warship Hellebarde hovered in a long holding pattern, cutting a droning spiral through the sky. On board, the soldiers practiced fighting formations and drills, maintained and improved the ship’s defenses, and kept a steady watch on the southern horizon.
They were waiting.
Danival didn’t mind waiting.
Garrett hated it.
In that, he shared a particular feeling with Sha, who paced the underdeck of the ship, irritable and restless, and tried to keep both her hands and her opinions to herself. This wasn’t her ship. This wasn’t even one of her nation’s ships. She was a guest, at best, and — according to any of the Allied forces who could find out she was still alive — a deserter.
Her duty was to take Kieron and get back to home territory, back to Centralis for debriefing.
But she couldn’t.
Not while Jules could be still alive, in the hands of the Ilonans.
* * *
Kieron clung to the rigging of the main envelope, clad in a technic’s rigging on the upper deck of the ship, examining each and every fastening. He worked alongside the Kriegsman who had been called out of the Allied forces, to return to their homelands.
They didn’t mind the assistance; Brody did not design ships purely for Centralis, after all, and the boy’s innate sense of the ship–any ship–was uncanny. He showed them how to polish the deflection discs around the front cone to keep the ship moving as quickly as possible, to keep the envelope shielded during frontal assaults.
He told them about scrambling the opponents comms channels — not that he knew how, but that it could be done, and would be useful when engaging — something he’d learned about from Hana.
He had to keep working, had to keep moving. He shut his eyes against the bloodied ruin of the Maxima’s crew. He shut his eyes against Hana’s lifeless form. He shut his eyes against seeing Nate fall, over and over and over again. He shut his eyes against the masked animal that had touched his face with gentle, intimate fingertips, as though it knew him. He slept little, and that sleep began to be hard-won with exhaustion and more than once, when the opportunity presented itself, a healthy dose of alcohol.
He made friends — or at least, something like friends, but he was no longer the wide-eyed recruit stumbling about all entitled-like, as he’d been when he defiantly boarded the TS Jacob, determined to change fate.
* * *
Days passed, while the Hellebarde was outfitted more securely, with enough food and ammunition to lay waste to the Ilonan city state in a way that broke Kieron’s heart a hundred times over.
* * *
“We are holding for another ten-day,” Danival said, turning off the screen in his office and sitting back, rubbing his eyes.
“Onaya won’t like it,” Garrett said quietly. “And anyway, I thought you were supposed to be leading this grand invasion? I thought they wanted you to, I don’t know, just come in and obliterate everything in a full frontal assault? Isn’t that the Kriegic way?”
Danival rolled his eyes and said, “Alec, for having matured significantly, something about being back on ship seems to turning you back into eighteen year old brat. Is not amusing. Is not good. Please to be going to your quarters.” He thumbed through an envelope of what appeared to be old photographs of soldiers, pulling some out, reordering them, frowning in thought.
“I just don’t understand what the fuck it is we’re doing, Dani,” Garrett said, sulking.
“At times, things are not for you to be understanding,” the Krieg said, tightly.
“All I know is, you came to pick us up, and I asked you to get us back to Centralis, or at least to Kriegsland. We need to check in with the Allied Forces. They need to know what happened to all their soldiers,” Garrett said. “Instead, you decide you’re going to turn around and buzz back to Ilona, to save one woman, because… Because why, exactly? Dani, I need to get Brody home. I need to get the boy to his parents, do you understand?”
“He is not wanting to go home, and Brody is not just boy. Brody is soldier. You are soldier–”
“I’m a professor, Dani,” Garrett growled. “I left.”
“Da,” Danival growled, nodding. “Meaning you are civilian, here. Meaning your opinion is little. Your skills are good. Necessary if we are to succeed. And if you not are using them to help, then you know what it means. When you can be doing good, and you do not — the bad is resting on your shoulders then, yes?”
Garrett flinched, looking stunned.
Red faced, Danival stood up from his desk and said, “Needing air.” He took with him a clutch of photos that seemed too small for his massive hands.
Frustrated, Alec Garrett stepped to the side and let Danival go past him, out the door. He didn’t let him escape entirely, though, but followed after, not dogging his footsteps, but never quite letting him out of sight within the ship’s narrow passageways.
* * *
“Captain?” Danival’s voice was low, but it still penetrated the doorway to Sha’s small quarters on the ship.
The door opened.
“Am I still a captain, if I haven’t got a ship?” she drawled, smirking. The half smile twisted her lips in definite amusement, but the look on her eyes suggested it was less of a joke and more of a lament.
“Captain until you are promoted or demoted,” the Krieg shrugged. “I can be calling you Airman Onaya if you are preferring?”
“Fuck no,” Sha said, snorting and rolling her eyes. “My brother used to get his jollies calling me that,” she said, smirking wryly. “Why the visit, General?”
“Questions,” Danival answered. “May I be joining you?”
“Sure,” shrugged Sha, stepping aside. “Brody and I were contemplating drinking ourselves to sleep, but it can wait.”
When Danival entered, Garrett paused in the doorway, uncertain as to whether he were welcome.
“C’mon in,” Sha said, looking him over without rancor. You were a legend, to most of us, she’d said, hadn’t she? Something like that.
Garrett wondered how he’d managed a reputation like that without really realizing it.
“The more, the merrier, I guess?” Sha offered.
He smiled, pained, looking abashed, and said, “I appreciate it.” When he stepped in, his eyes went immediately to Kieron, who looked away from him, uncomfortable.
“What’s this all about?” Sha wondered, looking to Danival.
The Kriegsman held out the photographs he’d been holding, saying, “This man. Do you know him?”
The photos were of various Allied infantry, young men and women not much older than Kieron was now, in various groups, arms around one another, bright young faces smiling to the camera lens. Some wrestling, rough-housings, some in formation, some in uniform, some with pretty young women or men who obviously liked to hang around those in uniform, some with family.
Though a few faces repeated, there was a single young man whose bright eyes peered out from every picture.
Kieron looked over Sha’s shoulder, and felt the wave of recognition pass through her, to him.
Even without his tattoos, even without his scars, even without the look of sardonic amusement — this man was barely more than a boy, young and eager, with his whole life ahead of him — he was still recognizable.
Kieron’s eyes went wide as Sha flinched, looking up at the impossibly tall Kriegsman who hid both worry and grief behind determination, and pure will.
“You’re him. You’re Dani,” Sha said, reaching to put a hand on Danival’s. “You’re the Kriegsman.”
* * *