This is Issue #58 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 first thing to hit the topmost netting was rolled up in canvas. Rather than tangle in the ropes, it bounced against the main envelope, and on its arc, the canvas flapped loose. A ragdoll body dropped to the next level, nearly missing the netting entirely, but its arm and leg got tangled, and the descent stopped there, with the Jacob’s Quartermaster laying unmoving out over open sky, hammocked in the netting constructed from the fin tips to the tail of the ship.
“Bennett! Li! GET HIM DOWN HERE!” the Captain shouted, even as the second body fell. This one tucked and turned, grunting in pain as she came tumbling past the swell of the envelope and hit only the edge of a top net, then went spinning and was caught up by another net, wheezing as she clutched at the ropes to try to hold still. The Captain called “Brody! Get Jules!” and turned to head for the rail to see if Bennett and Li were having luck getting Nathan.
Kieron already had a rigging harness on and was tying it off when the call came.
“Captain! We have to go, NOW!”
“Three minutes, ‘gator! I got the Quarter on the wing!” She was off and running for the rail already, snapping down the buckles on her harness and threading a line through.
“You don’t have three minutes!” the navigator was insistent, panicked, almost.
“In two fucking minutes, we’re going to be sucking Ilonan cannon, Captain! It’s go now, or every airman on the Jacob dies!” But the Captain of the TS Jacob threw the rope to Bennett, who tied off the end and held the slack while a wide-eyed Li came in off the wing whose gears had engaged, ready to pull in.
“Thirty fucking seconds!” Sha shouted.
“DAMNIT, Captain! Your fucking count is thirty!”
And with that, Sha Onaya jumped, tallcoat and all, for the netting, and her First Mate. Kieron was climbing the rigging, and had almost reached Jules, when he saw her go over.
“Count is twenty!” shouted the navigator.
Kieron lifted himself up onto the netting, where he saw a white-faced Jules clutching the ropes, and braced himself so he could curl her up and bind her, to help lower her back down. “We’ve got you,” he said, shouting over the sound of the wind, and the fire getting louder.
“Nate?” she asked, lifting her head up, looking around.
“With the wing. Captain’s getting him,” Kieron promised her, reaching up to touch her forehead, to gently urge her to lay her head back down.
“Count is ten!”
“On the wing?” Jules said, tensing, trying to sit up. She groaned, wincing, and laid back down, clutching the ropes, panicked. “He’s on the wing? We’re gonna bank. He’s gonna fall!”
“Count is five! Four! Three–”
“Captain!” Jules cried, forgetting she didn’t have Nate’s comm. No one below could hear her. “SHA!” She writhed against Kieron as he struggled to buckle her into a harness.
“I got him! I’ve fucking got him! Pull us in and get us the fuck out of here!” the Captain called. The wing began to pull in, while Bennett and Li hauled the Captain and the Quartermaster back up on deck. The whole ship rocked, turning to the side, and Kieron wove an ankle through the rigging and pulled Jules close, holding on to the yardarm.
“It’s going to get rough,” Kieron said to Jules. “You have to hold still, all right? Sha’s got Nate. They’ll be all right. You stay with me, and we’ll hang on right here while we get away.”
“Fucking Abe,” Jules said muzzily. “Can’t believe he did it,” she said, laying against Kieron. “Locked me in my own fucking cabin,” she said and then she put on her best ‘pretend-Abe’ voice, saying, “Is being done, Yana. No more talking. Just doing.” She switched back to her own voice, mournful, and whispered, “I’ve known that man for half my fucking life. How could he just do…” Her voice trailed off, and she sagged in Kieron’s arms.
Kieron gave her a shake, holding her tight against his body as he clung to the yardarm while the TS Jacob came about and its aether engines spun up. “Hey now. Wake up, Jules. Jules!” he called sharply, looking down at her as she stared off glassily.
“Mmm?” she wondered, lolling her head toward him. “Whattisit, Brody? Ain’t got time t’dance,” she slurred, her skin gone a greenish pale.
“You’ve got to hang on,” he said. “I’m gonna tie us in. No way we can get to the deck before they spin up and get us out of here,” he said, decisive.
The sound of the aether engines spinning up was comforting; they would engage with the props momentarily, and the ship would run — and hopefully, the Ilonan ships would stay back with The Maxima. The Jacob rumbled, and every bit of chain and rigging began to hum; the throb of the engines reached a critical peak, and it began to accelerate away from The Maxima even before it had finished turning.
Not a moment too soon, as massive projectiles began to rocket past The Jacob. The Ilonan ships were firing on them as they reached closer to the Maxima. Kieron watched as, even though the enormous ship was on its way to falling out of the sky, the Ilonan airmen appeared as if they were going to board it.
The Jacob picked up even more speed, and Kieron remembered the Captain telling him (before he knew she was the Captain) that her ship could do ten kliks in three minutes. “Now would be a good time for that,” he said aloud. Another missile keened past them, and two of the airships docked as far from the fire as possible. Soldiers swarmed the deck, while the other ship provided cover, the shining metal and polished wood of its skin gleaming against light of the the blue fire.
They ran about for a bit, perhaps to find salvageable materials, or a Captain to apprehend, or to see if they could fly the ship away from the village, so no other people would die when it came crashing down.
All at once, however, the soldiers filed back to the ships; Kieron watched, his eyes watering in the wind, as they hastily both attempted to uncouple from The Maxima. The covering ship began to pull away from the area — one ship turned away and began to hurriedly fly, while the third was still dealing with its rigging-lock.
And then the Maxima finished what it had begun, and with a howling, rending roar, it tore itself and the ship still attached to it to shreds, pieces of it sailing far and wide.
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