This is Issue #98 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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The first shots were fired as the last of the stars came out.
The Ilonan airships launched, full of soldiers, as the Kriegic army came out of the clouds, guns blazing. Missiles, shipspears, soundcannons, flashbombs, — the thunder above the land was deafening and within only minutes, death was falling from the sky. Bodies and debris, smoke and fire — it took palace guards and an uneasy truce with The Guild to keep the city from all-out riots as the battle drew closer to the airspace above the city itself.
The ion cannons lit up the sky so brightly, it seemed day had returned.
When the Kriegs called for the offensive they’d already begun to march thousands upon thousands of men and women in tanks, on foot, on horses, churning the green countryside to black mud as they rode south, ready to kill.
The armies that Jet’s loyal soldiers had been recruiting rose as one, on the ground, in the air, to battle the offensive as efficiently as possible — the Kriegs had no time to reassess their engagement as they began to fall to the Ilonans. The northern warriors were shocked by the sheer size of the force that came to meet them, by their well-honed tactics, their precise strategies.
The Domitor-class ship that Jules captained moved quickly through the sky, avoiding skirmish after skirmish, dodging missiles left and right.
“Y’damn good,” Nate said, clapping the newly promoted first pilot on the shoulder. The woman laughed low, without humor. “Now don’t die, n’y’ll get even better,” he added wryly. Her answer then was a warmer laugh, touched.
“Faster.” Jules’ voice came over the comms, sudden and clipped. “Higher. Get us higher.”
“Where’re we goin?” Nate wondered aloud. “N’why aren’t we shooting down any of these ships?”
“S’been enough death, Quarter,” Jules answered. “We’re not gonna shoot anyone. Not down, anyway.”
“We’ve got more artillery at our disposal than seems right t’just not use,” Nate sighed. “Seems we picked a side and we ought to be doin something to help it–”
“We are,” Jules said. “Pilot, move it. Higher. Quarter, sound the O2 alarm and get everyone in their masks.”
“Where in the fuck are we going? P-comm, Cap,” Nate said, headed up to the decks. He urged her to switch channels to the private comm between the two of them, and as he came up the main well, he flipped the switches that sounded the alarms to remind all the hands to get their O2 masks on. Some things seemed universal, between Ilonan ships, and those made by Centralis. He paused, his hand on the hallway wall, remembering the face of the Captain who pushed him off the ledge to let him fly or fall.
He remembered the hum of the engines on the ship that found him, brought him back to life.
Suddenly, and without too much scramble, the decks were full of soldiers grabbing their masks, getting them on, and doublechecking that their fellow soldiers were properly outfitted. Jules’ worry that the masks might be different was luckily unfounded; it was easy to get oriented on the airship — the whole thing had been well-designed. A few grabbed gloves, some got coats — the higher they all got, the colder it usually became.
He remembered being high, and then falling, the drop — he’d fallen, hadn’t he?
And he hadn’t flown. Not the first time, anyway. Not when he went over the hill.
Not when he and the Emperor had been locked together, the knife of black glass piercing his flesh again and again.
“You will not stop me, Westlander! I will send you to oblivion!” He remembered the sound of the Emperor, how that order had nearly ended it.
He remembered how he shouted back, even as he began to let go, “You can fucking try, Ilonan — I’ll take you with me!”
He saw it, as though it weren’t his body, saw it as though it were someone else. He felt a hand on his, reaching, slipping away, there and gone again and then came the sudden drop.
There had been no more fight, in that moment; the wild beast that had promised his death only instants before had clung to Nate as Nate then held to him, as the wind in their ears was louder than any scream they’d managed.
“Live, my black stone. Live forever, and carry my lov–”
He came to himself with a startled jerk, his breath caught in his throat.
After another heartbeat, Nate realized Jules hadn’t answered him, and so he asked again. “Where’re we goin’, Captain?” His voice was flat; almost a demand instead of curiosity.
“Higher,” Jules answered, a panted snap that let Nate know she was not planning on explaining herself anytime soon. “N’don’ch’roll yer eyes at me, little bird,” she added.
Nate pursed his lips and squeezed his eyes shut, mid-roll. A snort of laughter interrupted his sigh and he shook his head. “Wouldn’t dream of it, Mrs. O’Malley.”
The ship rocketed upwards through the clouds, banking sharply to avoid a barrage from an enemy flak cannon, and in only a matter of moments, came out above the misty grey, to where silver moonlight gleamed off the decks of the Hellebarde.
“Fuck me,” Nathan whispered. “This is part of the plan, Jules? That’s a fucking Kriegic drop ship! They’ll vaporize us! You cannot–”
“Take out as many of their deck guns as you can, and then go for their fins,” Jules interrupted, already switching back to the main channel. “We’re gonna leave ’em hanging in the sky — on my mark –”
“Oy!” Nathan shouted, boots stomping the deck as he ran out into the middle of his crew, his eyes wide. “Any of you who are still green and don’t know better, masks on and tie off, NOW!” He pulled his own on, but didn’t tie off — he couldn’t stay still while this was going on.
His boots thudded the deck as he looked for anyone struggling with their oxygen.
“Are ye with me?” Jules’s voice was quiet, determined.
Nathan’s voice was sure and steady, with the chorus of everyone else on comms. “Aye, Captain.”
“Steady, pilot. Steady, gunner. Aim — and –”
Nathan felt his heart in his throat, listening to the sound of his wife’s voice in his ear.
He closed his eyes.