DeathWatch No. 53 – You Insult My House, Plaga

This is Issue #53 of DeathWatch, an ongoing Serial. Click that link to go find ‘A Beginning’ and read from there, if you need to catch up.

Happy Reading!

PREVIOUS

* * *

Plaga sneered at Immanis as the man drew closer. The look of naked hatred on his face was startling to Jet, who had grown used to the expressive warmth of his brother’s smile, and the way people responded to him with respect, and genuine love. It was not so, with these outsiders, these men who were not from Ilona, but somewhere far away. Plaga and his men had their weapons half drawn, but Immanis didn’t look worried in the slightest, lifting up his hands as he said aloud in words most easily understandable to Jet, “Peace. You’re in my home. Let us sit and drink; there is much to discuss, would you agree?.”

Jet thought it a reasonable suggestion, but assumed the visitors wouldn’t go for it — they were so fantastically angry-seeming, but Plaga’s expression, twisted as it was, dissolved into ease. He nodded, snapping his fingers, and one of his men stepped forward, offering out a stoppered carafe. “Aetheris,” he said. “We use the vulgar tongue now?” he wondered amiably enough.

“My brother,” Immanis said, gesturing to Jet, “is most comfortable with that tongue. To honor him, you will use it.”

“To honor him,” Plaga returned, narrowing his eyes briefly, as though straining against some unseen thing.

“To honor him,” Immanis stared down the visitors, a half-sneer curving his lips as he took the bottle.

Plaga looked at the bottle, and nodded; it wasn’t long before all the men were seated in Immanis’s receiving room. The guards were dismissed as was often the case in visits Immanis declared ‘safe enough’, and the doors were shut. The newly-brought bottle of aetheris was poured into glasses and shared between them, and when Lucida arrived, well-slept but unamused at being left neglected, Jet made sure to pour her a glass.

She sniffed it and made a face, but drank it down, shaking her head briefly. “Tastes of the Dead River,” she said, setting the glass down.

Jet gave her a secret smile and nodded to his glass, still full, set aside on the bookshelf. Even the scent of aetheris made his teeth ache.

She smirked in return and threw herself on a chaise, lounging, cat-like.

“Forgive my sister,” Immanis chuckled, and Jet smirked at the sound of it, the low rumble, the leonine purr that was the Prince’s laugh. “She prefers the huqqa; she’s always loved the fire.”

Lucida rolled her eyes and said, “Yes, forgive me, what a terrible slight I have made.” She laughed aloud then, and stretched languidly, still exhausted from the time watching over Jet’s rebirth.

“And if I do not wish to forgive?” Plaga wondered, smirking. “If I prefer to challenge such a slight?”

Immanis sighed heavily. “I would have to stand for my sister, and if you were in fact, so petty, when I bested you, I might command you to slit your own throat, hmm?”

Sneering, Plaga stood, and said, “Best me then, Princeling. Ilona’s gone soft, mothering little milkskins, speaking the vulgar tongue, and I think it might be because of you.”

Immanis laughed aloud, as did Lucida and Jet — it was an absurd thing that Plaga said, it had to have been a joike, but then there Plaga was, getting up, standing, pulling a blade from his sash, and gesturing to Ilona’s prince. “Get up, Venator.”

Immanis lifted a brow and raked his hair back from his face, narrowing his eyes through the thinning haze of aetheris, and got up, his lips tightening into an expression of distaste. “You insult my house, Plaga.”

“You are challenged, Venator. Are you weak that you do not accept?” Plaga’s words were needling, he kept his blade out.

Raising his brow, Immanis said, “Weak? Plaga — are you prepared to cede your citystate to my house? That is what will happen when this is done. Your men will be mine and will pledge their blood to my house, or die shortly after you.”

“Get. Up!” Plaga spat at Immanis’s feet.

That was enough — Immanis rose to his feet with easy grace, and took a blade that Lucy offered him from her pillowed spot near Jet.

Jet, for his part, watched without worry — Immanis and Lucy were amongst the best fighters he’d ever seen. He was right to not worry — at least for that. It took all of thirty seconds for Immanis to best Plaga; the victor stood over the loser, shaking his head, and then stepped back. Plaga looked furious, but didn’t move, merely stared up at Immanis for some time, watchful. “Kneel,” Immanis finally snapped at the other fighter.

Plaga rolled over and knelt before Immanis, his blade on his knees, grinding his teeth, his shoulders hunched.

“Look at me.” The command was sharp, angry. Immanis glared down at Plaga, shaking his head.

Plaga lifted his head, and his expression was half digust, half blank obeisance.

Jet remembered, for one moment, Essen kneeling across from him, and the shining look of adoration on his face as he submitted entirely, the desire to follow Immanis’s command somehow embedded in his blood. Essen had watched Immanis as though he were the sun and stars, the reason for being. He smiled, even as he slit his own throat. There had been no anger there — only a strange sort of joy, a hungry sort of love. Jet blinked away the memory, and watched Plaga, frowning, studying his face.

Something wasn’t right.

Immanis looked down at Plaga and was silent for some time, until the other man grew impatient.

“Well?” Plaga said, his voice almost a snarl. “Get on with it!”

Lucida, feeling the faintest tingle from the aetheris, was watching Jet, whose eyes were only on Plaga, and she saw the recognition slide over his face. Everything felt as though it were moving too fast around her, as though she were too slow. She turned to look at the men talking, tension mounting, and saw Plaga’s men setting the bar through the doors of the lounge. She frowned — why would they shut themselves in for an execution?

Sighing, Immanis said, “As you are inexplicably eager to die: End yourself, Plaga.”

Plaga lifted the blade against his throat, his lips half parted in a sneer.

Immanis stepped forward then, leaning down close, as though to drive the point home. “Be done with it.”

* * *

NEXT

You Are Distant

I remember you,
hot feverskin
against cold shiversnow.
I remember you,
iceblond and magnificient,

and you would hold
ice cubes in your mouth
before you put your tongue
against me,
and laugh around me

as I shook,
as I writhed,
as I reached for you.

You are distant
and lost to time,

and perhaps it is best that way,
my Danival,
that I will remember you
and never reach for you again;

this way you can remain perfect,
and I can pretend
I did not
have my heart broken by someone
even more frightened of love
than I.

Some Moments

Some moments we wake up
filled with a glory we must share.
Some moments, we hide away
our every thought, in fear and pain.
Some moments, we settle further
into slots we’ve worn,
grooves we’ve made
of patterns we should fix,

but won’t,

because the stone of our lives
has been polished enough
that we are fooled
into thinking it beautiful,
when it’s only heavy, solid.

Just because it is strong
doesn’t mean it is safe;
just because it is old
doesn’t mean it is good.

All of our moments should be fire

and if those fires burn us,
we must remember:

we are the ones
who gave them fuel,
and we asked to be warmed —

and in wanting to be illuminated,
we must expect
that we will sometimes be burned —

so we should be delighted by it,
and thank them for it,
and blaze as brightly
as we possibly can.

DeathWatch No. 52 – It Felt Like Time Was Slowing

This is Issue #52 of DeathWatch, an ongoing Serial. Click that link to go find ‘A Beginning’ and read from there, if you need to catch up.

Happy Reading!

PREVIOUS

* * *

“Aye-aye, Captain,” Kieron said, nodding. This was happening. This was truly happening. The people he’d met and made family with only weeks ago had decided to add wholesale murder to their resupplying missions.

“Pilot, bring us about. I need us nose to side with the Maxima. We need to watch what they’re doing more clearly. Gunnar, give me the signal when you’re ready. Someone find out if Hana has–”

“Captain!” came the cry. “Captain Onaya! I have Captain Abramov on the line!”

Sha turned and ran back for the comms room, where Nate handed her the mic. “Abe! Abe, are you all right?”

“Get off signal, Captain,” came the thickly accented growl. “Very busy.”

“No shit!” Sha said, laughing nervously. “Was there a mutiny? What–what’s happened? Give me a status.”

“Is okay, Sha. Is no mutiny,” he said. “Now get off signal.”

Sha looked hurt, confused, and then mostly furious as she snarled, “Captain Abramov — you’d better give me some fucking explanation for what you’re doing; you’re not supposed to engage the enemy.”

Kieron watched, listened, silent as he stood near Nate, who looked calm, but grim. This would get sorted. This would get handled. It was fucked up, and it was frightening, but they would handle it.

“Not engaging enemy, Captain,” the man replied, sounding disinterested in the conversation. “Cleaning up vermin.”

“Abe,” Sha said. “What the fuck is going on?”

“Have waited too long for Centralis government to do what has promised us since we signed up as children for old man’s war,” came the answer. Abramov’s voice sounded cold and angry, far and away. “Tired of waiting, Captain. Tired of enemy lies, enemy attacks, enemy always ahead of us. Months ago, we stop in Borderlands. For years has been stable for trade. This time, we are harassed by Ilonan scum. They hurt Yana–”

Nate’s expression changed from calm to sickened in an instant. His eyes narrowed, and he looked at Sha, curious.

“–wait, what?” Sha said, going pale. She had just seen Jules. Barely weeks ago, they had seen one another again — why had she not mentioned it? “Why didn’t she–”

“Same reason you would not,” Abe said darkly.

Nate’s eyes glittered; there was murder on his expression, and then he shook his head, and cleared his throat. His hands clenched into fists, and released, clenched into fists, and released.

Hana, who was listening on a headset, fiddling with knobs, making sure the connection held, lifted her head up as though scenting the air. She glanced toward the Captain, as though seeking assurance.

Sha had none. She closed her eyes and bowed her head, and it took great effort for her to lift it again, to look at Nate as she said, “That doesn’t justify–”

“—this week we receive word two other scout ships went down. The Pioneer,” he said darkly. “And Isabella.” Abramov’s voice cracked as he said the second one. A few of the older crew aboard the Jacob bowed their heads.

Nathan winced, pinching the bridge of his nose.

Sha put a hand to her chest as though she’d suffered a physical blow. “Abe,” she began. “I’m so–”

“Fuck your sorry,” Abramov said lowly. “My little ones, Valentin and Anatoly, they were grown men now. Valentin had wife. Anatoly had port-sons. Ilonans shot ships out of sky. Sent back Captain’s hands, holding crew tags. Sent back Quartermaster’s hands, holding crew ears. Ilonans are not people, Sha. Ilonans are filthy vermin.”

Sha’s voice — to her credit — did not shake as she said, “I have to ask you to stand down, Captain. I’m going to send over Nate to relieve you of duty. You understand, Abe? You have to stand down.”

“Get off channel, Captain Onaya,” Abramov returned. “Having work to do.”

“I can’t let you, Abe. I can’t. Abe, you’re killing children,” Sha said.

“THEY ARE KILLING CHILDREN!” Abe shouted in return. “GET OFF SIGNAL, CAPTAIN. OR I–”

Sha turned down the channel and looked back through the doorway, at the Master Gunner. She nodded to him, and he turned to give his own orders to his group.

“What are you–” Nate began, looking pained. “Captain?”

By then, the TS Jacob was facing down the broad side of The Maxima. Those within the front deck could see out the huge window, could watch the destruction. The auxiliary soundcannon fired, and the report was soft thunder. The TS Jacob rocked, ever so faintly. When the first tracer shot streaked across the bow, Nathan’s shoulders sagged in relief. Only a warning shot. Abe would understand they had to mean it. He would back down. He had to.

They waited. They watched. More than one person held their breath.

“Captain?” the Master Gunner called.

Another round of aetheris rushed out of the Maxima’s engines, spilling brightly to the ground, carving through houses, farms, bodies and anything else it touched.

“Oh,” Hana said, staring out the window at the horror happening not too far away. Kieron stood near her, his expression echoing her own. He turned to tell the Captain to wait a moment, to give the engines a chance to clear the fuel. Before he had a chance, she gave her order.

“Fire,” said Sha, and there were no tears, not yet, because there couldn’t be.

The Master Gunner gave the order, but this time, the report was louder. The main soundcannon was used, and the TS Jacob rocked in the air. The shockwave struck the Maxima in the rear port aether engine, and for a moment, it seemed as though the engine’s spindown was a perfect success.

Until the blowback from the ignited aetheris, no longer being forced down from the engine, traveled back up through the engine.

Kieron saw the glitter of the bluesilver flame stop falling, and instead fold back in upon itself.

His eyes widened.

It felt like time was slowing.

“ENGINES FULL REVERSE!” shouted Kieron, backing away from the window. “Captain! The Maxima! It’s–” He’d read a dozen-dozen different schematics about the way the fuel pumps and combustion chambers worked, and he remembered warnings upon warnings for working with aether engines. What could happen, under certain circumstances. If they overheated, or if an engine fire took one, all of the various consequences, from shutdown to full on destruction. “We have to move back!” he cried.

“You heard him!” Sha shouted. “Get us the fuck out of here! Everybody move! Get to your emergency stations!”

The TS Jacob began to go into yaw while Nathan stood at the window and put his left hand to the glass, heart in his throat. “No,” he whispered, staring across the sky. “Oh please no.”

The sound seemed to come almost before the fury — there was a roar as if a great beast had been awakened.

The entire left rear quarter of The Maxima folded in for one brief, surreal moment —

— and then it exploded.

* * *

NEXT

DeathWatch No. 51 – What Do We Do?

This is Issue #51 of DeathWatch, an ongoing Serial. Click that link to go find ‘A Beginning’ and read from there, if you need to catch up.

Happy Reading!

PREVIOUS

* * *

They could see the trail The Maxima had left before they found the ship itself. From 10,000 feet, the ground was a patchwork quilt of farmlands and rivers, sprawling cities and remote villages. There were deserts, but they were small, swallowed slowly by advancing populations and advanced terraforming and irrigation techniques. “There,” Kieron said, pointing out the small dark patches in a river valley to the southeast.

The descent made the crew nervous; there was a giddying sensation, a strange and horrible feeling of lightness that brought the stomach to the throat, and those who stood at the rails wore grim faces. They sank out of the last of the misty clouds and were closer to the ground than they’d been in months. As the TS Jacob drew closer, passing the blueblack clouds of smoke, the scents of sweet char and bitter ozone clung to everything.

“I didn’t want to believe you,” Sha said, staring out against the sky, looking at the ground below.

An airman who suddenly realized what the scent was began to vomit over the rail, sobbing.

Nate’s hands curled into fists and he bared his teeth shaking his head. “This can’t be,” he hissed. “Someone’s… it was a mutiny. Abramov would never. Jules would never,” he said, refusing to accept what he could see.

Far below, sprawling villages lay in ruin. Houses, farm plots, animal grazing fields, the animals themselves, and every other living thing was burnt beyond hope. Everything was blackened to ash, trees so hot they split through the bark and steamed still, in the quiet air.

Every last thing was dead and smoking.

Not a soul moved on the ground, not a herd animal or yardfowl, not a worker or child.

Where people had obviously begun to crowd and run, there were vast piles of blackened bone shrouded in ash and smoking meat.

The crew looked to Sha, and more than a few of them wondered, “What do we do?”

“Go faster,” she told them. “Catch up. For the love of everything you believe in, catch up.”

* * *

The Maxima was not too far ahead after too long, but it would not respond to hails. Those aboard the TS Jacob watched as great gouts of aetheris were churned through a modified engine to spray below. As the gelatinous mist fell, several members of the crew worked together to ignite it.

It made a sound like shrieking thunder, and flamed blue silver all the way down.

Raining fire.

Far below, the people in the village looked up to see twinkling lights falling from the sky. Kieron could just make out the shape of a child reaching up toward the clouds when suddenly the aetheris burned through his skin. Half of his face was gone before he could understand enough to scream, but by then it was too late. He dropped to the ground, smoking, blackening, thrashing even past death as the electrical current in the liquid caused his body to convulse. His mother had moments to understand what was happening to her child before she could make a decision about what to do for him, but then she was smoking, melting as he was.

Kieron felt his gorge rise, and he turned away from the sight.

They drew up alongside The Maxima, and hailed again. The comms officer and recruits looked shellshocked as they watched the carnage continue. People and animals attempted to flee, but the cloud of death was too big and too fast; it consumed everything under the sky, and scorched the earth until it smoked blue, and smelled like electrified meat and mud.

“We have to stop them,” the Captain said. “Short of ramming, what can you give me?” she asked her officers and their recruits, standing in the main comms room, looking at schematics.

“Let me go over there,” Nate said. “I can–”

“Don’t be a fucking idiot,” Sha snapped. “If it isn’t them doing it on purpose, something’s gotten control of them. If everyone on board The Maxima has been compromised, you going alone isn’t going to do anything except get you killed. Give me something else.”

Kieron stared at the schematics, thinking hard about anything he may have ever learned about ships like the TS Jacob, and those like the Maxima, but in the horror of the situation, he felt woefully unprepared, and unable to focus. “What about, uh, can’t we, ah — can we overload their comms system, somehow? So they can’t use their own radios for coordination? Or to — to — to force them to talk to us?”

“Oh! Yes, I can — I can — I can –” began one of the recruits, looking suddenly excited. “I can do that!” she said, nodding, almost feverish in her desire to help, her short black hair bobbing as she nodded vehemently. “I’m gonna need, uh, some parts, though–”

“What’s your name?” Sha asked the woman.

The expression on the woman’s face as she answered was worried, as though she’d spoken out of turn and was giving up her name to be punished. “Hana?”

The Captain turned to Nate then, and said, “Quartermaster, you’re on this. Coordinate with Comms and first-deck technics to get Hana what she needs. Doubleshares and promotions for the fucking lot of you if you can get me Abramov on the line in less than an hour.”

“Aye-aye,” saluted Nate, who immediately turned to Hana and the group he’d been given.

“Aye aye!” said Hana, eager, and she began rattling off a list of what she needed to the people assigned to help her.

While they were engaged, Sha turned back to look at Kieron, the boatswain, the master gunner, and the rest of her officers. Her expression was grim as she led them out of the comm room and into the adjoining room. “If we can’t get them to stop,” she said evenly, meeting the eyes of those in her circle, “we will have to put them down.”

Most everyone nodded in silence, their expressions as grim as hers.

“Gunner,” Sha said, “Get me everything you’ve got, and get it ready. They’ll get a warning shot, and then you take out their engines so they can’t be doing what they’re doing. If the Maxima puts up resistance, based on their size, their capabilities, we’ll have to punch it and run, because if we miss, or don’t incapacitate them, they could take us out much easier than we can take them.”

Kieron glanced over his shoulder at Nate, who was engrossed in his duties, and looked to Sha, shaking his head, looking horrified. “You can’t mean th–”

Immediately, the Captain turned to look at Kieron, and shifted to put the shoulder of her tallcoat near his face. She pointed to her shoulder, to the stripes and raptor there, and said “Brody, what is this?”

Kieron blushed hotly, and said, “The Captain’s insignia,” through his teeth.

“Don’t tell me what I can’t mean, airman,” she said warningly, leaning in so he could hear her clearly. “I wear this, not to remind you that I get to make the hard decisions, but to remind me that I have to make the hard decisions. You get me?” Her eyes were fierce, then, and unforgiving. “I don’t want to, but if it comes to shooting down someone I love — a whole ship of someones, in fact– or instigating an actual all out war with a power that could wipe us off the map because we turned into the monsters everyone says they are? I will blow The Maxima out of the fucking sky without a second thought–” She pointed her finger at Kieron and jabbed it directly into the center of his chest, baring her teeth. “–and you will follow my orders to help me do it. Is. That. Clear?”

* * *

NEXT