This is Issue #80 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!
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A hearty laugh moved through the crew, and Hugo and Nate smirked at one another.
“Go,” Jules called. “Get cozy with your stations, and get cozy with your mates. It’s been fucking months of horror for so many of you, and it’s not quite over yet. You’ll need sleep before the dawn — our allies say we’re safe enough here for the night, but nothing’s guaranteed come morning.”
“Morning,” Hugo said. “I heard tomorrow, maybe the night, the Kriegs’ll be here. That they’re invading, finally.”
Jules nodded. “Let me be clear about one thing — tomorrow, we fight against the Kriegs.” She lifted her hands up to stay the sudden rising volume of shocked cries. “If you can’t do it, and I sure as faith’n’fuckall won’t make you, I’ll need you to stay below,” Jules explained. “This is an Ilonan ship, and the Kriegs will blow us out of the sky if they can. When the battle’s over, we’re promised freedom. Does anyone doubt me?”
“You?” Brett laughed darkly. “Never. Ilona? Every day, every word. But if you say this makes us safe, Commander, then we’re safe, and we’ll follow you.”
“Safe? Mm, that’s a loaded word, ‘gator. We’re safe enough, for the night. As far as the rest of it goes, I say we’ve got a choice, and a chance, and that’s more than a lot of people have, right now,” she answered. She raised her voice, let it ring out to her crew. “Are you with me, Agilis?”
The call back was a bright, loud chorus.
Jules saluted Brett, cupped his cheek with one hand, and when he leaned down, she kissed his forehead. “It’s good to be aboard,” she said. “Now get some rest, eh?”
“Yes, Commander,” Brett promised.
She headed to her cabin, more exhausted than she realized. She glanced back, and saw Nathan disengaging himself from the others; she gave him an easy wave. “M’not going anywhere,” she promised.
He nodded smiling, and mouthed, “Be with you soon.”
Jules nodded back. A wash of nausea and dizziness passed over her; she’d been out from her earlier slip, but hadn’t rested yet, and she was nearing the end of her ability to stay conscious. She managed to make it all the way onto her bed inside her quarters before she passed out, boots and cloak still on.
Her last thoughts as the darkness claimed her, were of Coryphaeus, and promises.
* * *
When she woke, it was only a little while later; she woke to the feeling of someone undoing the buckles of her flight suit, and that white lightning fear slammed through her. She went stiff, panicked, and her eyes wide open wide, huge in the dark.
The smell of sweat and gun oil was heavy on her tongue, familiar, but not enough to soothe. She uttered a low cry in her throat, turning her face away and squeezing her eyes shut.
There was a slithering sound, a rasping, metallic sound, the groan of leather armor, the sound of skin on skin.
Pressure, on the bed.
One hand lifted her, gentle, while the other freed her from her uniform. Her heart thundered as she struggled to keep from screaming.
When Nate’s lips touched hers, she flinched.
Immediately, the feel of being surrounded was gone. A lantern was flicked to life, and in the dull blue glow of the aetheric torch, Jules sat up, staring at Nathan as though she’d seen a ghost.
He put a finger to his lips, got up, moved to lock the door, and then went to sit on the edge of the bed, within arm’s reach, but without hovering over her.
“We better start talking, love,” he said quietly, “But if you want, I can go first.”
“I’ll go,” Jules whispered. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you, back before the Maxima–“
“I have to stop you.”
Jules rolled her eyes, laughing. “You’re terrible at waiting your turn.”
“It’s just that Abe already spilled the beans on that one. When we confronted him in the Valley. You don’t owe me an explanation. I want to know, Jules, but if it doesn’t help to tell, then I don’t want you to do it for my sake. I want to hear it, for yours, if you need it. I’m curious. I’m concerned. But not every story’s mine to know.” Nathan’s voice was soft, and he offered out a hand, laid palm up on the bed, for her to put hers in.
She did. “Fell into a rough bunch of Ilonans in the Southlands. Weren’t truly Ilonans, now that I’ve learned more about it. Were Tenebrians,” she explained quietly. “Crew was taking turns on dock leave, whoring, drinking. The city was open, crawling with our side. Abe was runnin a game. I left him to it. Stupid of me. Took a walk, got myself bagged.”
“…oh, Jules, no. Y’didn’t — they did it to you–“
“They did it, I did it, it happened. Don’t quite matter much on blame. I don’t take blame on that bullshit,” she snorted. “Point is, it got ugly.”
“Ugly enough y’couldn’t tell me.”
“Ugly enough I didn’t want to.”
He could hear the defensiveness in her voice, and he stroked the back of her hand with his thumb. “S’okay. Y’know I’m not the guy who pushes. You’ll come t’me in time if y’need me. If y’want to.”
“I’m comin t’y’now, Einin,” Jules said, her voice low, trembling.
“Lay it on me, Mrs. O’Malley.”
“They hurt me,” she said softly. “N’I thought I’d been done with it, but then I saw those soldiers on the pier. Came rushing back. Scared the wits out of me,” she said, turning to look up at Nate’s eyes, watching the way the lantern burned there.
“Y’not a woman t’be scared, I know.”
“I’m not scared of monsters,” Jules whispered.
“No monster as terrifyin’ as a man,” Nate whispered back.
There was silence, for a bit, and Jules leaned into Nate’s arm. “I can’t give you sons and daughters, little bird,” she finally said aloud, into the dark.
* * *