All The Way Down

This is Part 25 of DeathWatch, the ongoing serial.

Go to the Serials page if you need to start at the beginning, or to find the rest.

Happy Reading!

* * *

In the weeks-long voyage it took to approach the warfront, the men and women who’d joined the scout ship crew fell into regular routines. They were rotated through various duties, learning everything from rope-splicing to navigation, from patching tarpaulin so the steering fins and sails worked seamlessly to servicing aether engines. There was an easy equality to the crew; no job was unimportant, though some were far from enjoyable, and some were used as punishment.

The recruits quickly learned how to be fast, and how to be safe — when it was a good idea to run up the rigging to tighten a loose piece of canvas, and when it wasn’t — and if it wasn’t whether one should do it anyway, and wear a harness in case he or she was tossed overboard.

Kieron stayed with the Captain, or the Quartermaster, for the most part, learning the ins and outs of planning, handling a crew, and just what would happen when they managed to get into enemy lands.

They passed through the mountains, and the weather changed for the worse, bringing about a damp chill that caught in the bones of some of the crew. More than a few of the new recruits caught a fever, and though it nearly claimed three lives, the only casualty during that time was an aeronaut who’d been aboard the TS Jacob since the Captain had taken her place. He’d never been an officer, never been given a job more useful than powdermonkey, and he never asked for one. According to the established crew, he had never quite fit, had never wanted to fully submit to the orders of the Captain or the Quartermaster, and when he was caught rifling through the goods of those who were too sick to defend themselves, he was summarily hauled to the rail.

“Listen up!” the Captain cried, standing before the man. He struggled in the arms of his captor, the Quartermaster, looking unafraid, but angry, spiteful. The new recruits came in close, while the others went on with their duties — they knew this talk. “This man was caught in the act, stealing from us. He has eaten with us, slept with us, been trusted to guard us in the night. We’ve given him shelter and food and pay, and in return, he has been a thief.”

“Mercy?” one of the Kriegsmen offered. “Mistakes are made.” A few of the other recruits nodded, men and women who had worked beside the thief, and perhaps even considered him a friend.

“And if I were to tell you this was the third time in as many days he has been taking things that were not his? Things of yours?” the Captain said, looking at those who’d offered mercy. “If I were to tell you I have already given mercy, and my generosity was repaid in this fashion?”

The recruits immediately became angry, shouting for punishment, lashings, half rations, docking pay, a court martial as soon as possible. The Quartermaster called for silence, and they quieted, turning an angry gaze on the crewmember who’d been caught.

The man hawked and spat at the Captain’s feet, saying, “Mercy? You’d have thrown me overboard the first night if it weren’t for that one.” He gestured rudely to Kieron. “He your new cabin boy?”

The intimations in his tone were clear; the Captain raised her brows, and said very clearly, “Careful now. He’s the one that said I ought to spare you. I wouldn’t go assaulting his character. You’re treading where you oughtn’t.”

Kieron stood near, with a leaden feeling in his gut. He wasn’t watching the man at all, but instead, he was watching how the ship sailed through the mountains, drifting through wisps of clouds, the world around him cool, but not cold.

“Oh?” the man snarled. “I was an airman long before you were spreading it to get yourself a Captain’s, and let me tell you something — I ain’t ever tread where I oughtn’t. Just where people din’t want ’cause they keep secrets.”

“I don’t keep secrets from my crew,” the Captain said darkly, white teeth bared, challenging. One hand pulled her tallcoat aside, revealing one of the pistols at her hip.

“Sha–” Kieron began, looking pained.

It was the Quartermaster who heard him say her name; one brow lifted. He looked at the Captain, who was still staring down the man held to the rail.

The thief laughed, and said, “No secrets, eh? So they all know about your brother?”

“Ain’t a damn thing to say about my brother,” the Captain growled.

“I know a few things about him. How he died, for inst–”

The gun was out, and the trigger pulled twice, before anyone noticed. Two redblack holes opened in the thief’s chest. He stared down at them with wide eyes, sagging against the rail, mouth working to speak. The Captain turned to look at Kieron, and her voice was hard as she asked, “Was it two? Or three?”

All eyes were on Kieron. “Three,” he said, still looking out at the mountains.

The Captain nodded, and pulled the trigger a third time. “Toss him for the vultures. Keep his blood off my deck.”

The Quartermaster nodded, and singlehandedly hauled the thief up and over the railing, to let him fall from the heavens. No one, not even Kieron, bothered to watch him go down.

She got up atop one of the barrels and looked around at the recruits, dark eyes angry. “Before any of you start bellyaching about murder, let’s get one thing straight. You’re my crew. You’re my responsibility. You keep this ship running, and I keep you safe. You do what you’re told, and it makes my job easier. You try to hurt one another, steal from one another, or make it so we can’t trust each other? I can’t have that. You’re done. You follow that airman all the way down.” She looked out, around at all of them, chin lifted. “Now I don’t have any secrets from you. My brother’s dead. He’s the one who had secrets –” Her eyes fell on Kieron, and she kept right on talking, “– and they killed him. He was the finest Captain, finest man I knew. But he’s dead and gone now, and if you want to have a conversation about him, it’ll be short, and pretty one-sided, because the truth is, I had to shoot him, and other than that, I’ve got nothing left to say.” She paused, then, and re-holstered her pistol, sighing. “Now we’ve only got two days until we’re within spitting distance of the Blacklands. This tour is about getting as far in as possible, completing maps, getting intel on where the enemy is located, sending that information back to the generals, and eventually getting the fuck back out, without getting dead. We rely on one another. We have to. It’s the only way to survive. I need to know that you’re all with me, not wasting a single second twittering about the fact that I threw a known criminal overboard without aiming to let him land in the scales of Justice.”

“We’re with you,” Kieron said aloud, immediately. He had turned back toward her, as she spoke, watched her face as she talked of her brother. When given the chance, he wasn’t the only one who spoke, but he was the loudest, and it caused a smirk to twist the Captain’s lips. The crew raised their hands in salute for her — hell, they cheered for her, and they cheered for themselves, a singular crew with singular purpose: Get in. Get out. Survive.

“All right, crew! Let’s keep moving — you’ve all got shit to do,” the boatswain called out, allowing the Captain and the Quartermaster to head back to the stern, toward the Captain’s quarters.

Kieron lingered at the rail, and finally turned toward it, leaning over and turning his face toward the earth, far below.

He closed his eyes as they passed over the shadow of the mountains.

* * *
Click here for part 24.

I’m Looking For Someone

This is Part 24 of DeathWatch, the ongoing serial.

Go to the Serials page if you need to start at the beginning, or to find the rest.

Happy Reading!

* * *

“You’re still going through with this?” Garrett’s words were less inquisitive and more resigned — a formality, rather than a real inquiry. He had bypassed the depot entirely and gone to the market road that led to the docks, where he watched Jet get out of the carriage and pick up his backpack.

“I have to,” Jet said, his expression resigned. He could almost be excited over something like this, an adventure, if he weren’t doing it alone. With Kieron would’ve been better — on his way to Kieron would have to do. “You do see that, right? He ran away because of me.”

“Because he thinks you’ll die because of him,” Garrett said, getting out of the vehicle to come around and stand near Jet. “Yes, I know.” Garrett sighed, running his hands through his hair. He’d never felt quite so rumpled; the trip had been hasty, ill-thought-out. Now he was several hours away from the academy, and it was nearly dawn. Missing morning meditation wouldn’t cause too much of a stir, but if he wasn’t in time for his classes, he could face another meeting with the Headmaster.

“You should get back to the Academy. Olivier will be furious if he knows what you’ve done.” Jet offered out his hand, half-smiling to the older man.

Garrett rolled his eyes and stepped forward, pulling Jet into a fond embrace. He clapped the younger man on the back, and then released him, sighing. “Right now, what you’re doing seems clear,” he said. “At some point in the future, your path and your reasoning might get clouded. Know when to change course, and when to hold firm, all right?”

Jet kept his smile, though pained, and nodded. “I hear you, Professor.”

Garrett turned to go, but only walked as far as the edge of his motorcarriage, leaning against the hood to watch Jet make his way through the market toward the docks of the airfield. He could see how the boy’s head was tipped back to stare in awe at the giant hulking aircraft huddled close together. Eventually, even wishful thinking couldn’t help him see Jet in the crowd. He got back in his vehicle, and turned to head back toward the Academy.

* * *

“Papers?” The man with the clipboard looked bored or perhaps half asleep.

“Lost ‘em,” Jet said, shrugging, looking unapologetic. “I’m looking for someone.”

“This ain’t a meet’n’greet, kid,” the man said, dusting off the front of his faintly rumpled uniform, looking irritable. “You got papers, I send you to the ship you need.”

“That’s just it. I need to get on the same ship as the guy I’m looking for. I’ll pay you.” Jet was already holding out a small stack of coins, as though he anticipated the insult. “It’s worth a fair deal to me.”

The money was snatched from his hand immediately; the clipboard was set down, and the soldier leaned in and said, “I’m all ears.”

“My height or so,” Jet murmured. “Thinner. Paler skin. Dark hair, probably would’ve been wearing a cadet’s uniform from the Academy, like this one. Would’ve been going to the ship that takes recruits to scout training camp.”

Though he listened to the description, it didn’t seem to ring a bell. Until the mention of scout camp. At that statement, the guy looked uncomfortable. “That ship left.”

“That’s fine. Just tell me what other ship is going to that camp,” Jet said easily. “I’ve got the coin. I need to get to there.”

“Ain’t another ship goin that way,” the man said, eyeing Jet, fingering the coins in his pocket. “Just that one.”

“What, only one ship of recruits will ever go to the training camp? I can wait until tomorrow if I have to.” Jet tried not to look or sound impatient, or desperate — he had more money, but he had no desire to part with it if he didn’t have to.

“No, I mean… You can get on another scout ship, but it’s not headed where that one’s headed,” the man said.

Jet rolled his eyes, sighing, and said, “Then tell me where it’s headed, and I’ll make my way there.”

The man laughed and said, “I can’t, kid. Ships headed across enemy lines don’t broadcast their location. Whoever you’re lookin for… ain’t comin back for two years, if he’s comin back at all.” He shrugged then, and decided Jet wasn’t worth any more of his time, and he turned to try to talk to the others who were coming up with their papers, to figure out where they were headed.

Jet felt his body tighten, the taste of metal on the back of his tongue. “There must be some mistake,” he began, leaning in, trying to regain the soldier’s attention. “He wouldn’t–”

“Listen,” the man interrupted, growling. “The only scout ship that’s been in today has already gone. The TS Jacob. It’s heading to the front, and then if it doesn’t get blown outta the sky? Right on through. Your friend’s either stupid, or runnin from somethin’.” He put two stubby fingers together and jabbed Jet right in the chest. “Now get. I got shit to do.”

* * *

“Now that’s a long fuckin face. Shove over.” A lean, rangy man got atop the stool next to Jet, looked at the empty glass in front of him, and gestured to the bartender, calling him over to have him deliver another two.

When the glasses ended up in front of Jet and his new compatriot, Jet picked his up and drank half, then set it aside, still looking morose.

The man who’d ordered the drinks swallowed half of his, then coughed, looking at the glass, and looking at Jet. “Water?” he said, his eyes shining in disbelief.

“What of it?” Jet said, turning away, leaving the man to sputter.

On the other side of him, now, leaned a woman who smirked at him as she ordered two glasses of something. When they arrived, they were the color of her hair, like honey. She slid one in front of Jet, and her eyes were bright and mischievous. “Join me,” she said. “Nobody should be drinking alone, and the only time you oughta drown in water is when you fall asleep in the tub.”

Jet smiled politely, but gently slid it back, looking tired. “You’re beautiful, and I’ll bet any other man in this place would kick me for refusing, but no, thank you.” She was beautiful — that much was the truth. From her honey colored hair to her daring smile — muscled and graceful, she certainly wore her flightsuit well. Why she was talking to him? He had no idea. He shrugged apologetically when she didn’t take the drink back.

The woman sighed, and said, warningly “Suit yourself, but whatever’s got you making that face? This’ll help you deal with it.”

“Yeah?” Jet said, looking sullen. “My best friend left for scout training to get away from me. We were supposed to join the Corps together, but I got left here. Now my best friend’s onboard a ship that won’t come back for two years, and no one will tell me where it’s going. What’s in that glass that’ll help?”

The woman knocked hers back, and slid his back in front of him. “Honey whisky. Besides, couldn’t have been much of a friend to leave such a pretty boy here to fend for himself, hmm?” She reached over and cupped his cheek, rings on her fingers cool against his face.

He grew still, watching her, brows lifted, uncertain of the new development.

“Such pretty eyes,” she said, looking amused.

“Like my mother’s,” he said weakly. Jet stared the glass down for a long while, looking in the sun-colored liquid for some kind of answer. Eventually, he sighed, picking it up. If only to make her go away, he told himself. He raised it to the woman and said, “To dealing with it.” and knocked it back.

The liquid heat didn’t make him cough like other sips of whisky had; it warmed his belly and was sweet on his tongue. Within moments, a pleasant haziness settled into his chest, suffusing him with warmth. He looked at the glass, surprised, and set it down, then looked over at her. She winked, waved to the bartender, and had the man bring over another.

* * *

The world spun; the floor was treacherous.

* * *

All sounds were the thunder and klaxon of a busy city at street level, even moreso.

* * *

All lights were slashes of sharp hatred, meant for his eyes.

* * *

All scents were gun oil mixed with rancid lampfat and dead roses.

* * *

Jet threw up. It wasn’t the first time. It wasn’t the last.

Blackness called.

He answered.

For awhile, it was bliss.

* * *

Somehow, morning found him.

Everything was agony. Jet thought he might weep, if it wouldn’t simply add to the pain. He reached to hold his own head, but his arms were impossibly heavy, and something made a rattling noise that made him shudder and wince.

He could hear people talking, smell food that turned his stomach.

His throat burned as he twisted to the side and vomited weakly, shuddering.

He groaned in misery and tried to curl away from his own sick, but couldn’t manage anything other than closing his eyes.

Blackness returned.

* * *

And receded.

“How many are left?”

“Half a dozen. Including your favorite.”

“He’s not my favorite. He’s just the prettiest.”

Jet recognized the two voices — both from the bar. The man who’d mistakenly ordered them both the water. The woman who’d ordered him the whisky.

He groaned, struggling to sit up, and the rattle and clank of chain made him wince. It drew attention. He heard booted footsteps draw closer.

“And awake, too! Hello, sunshine!” The woman’s voice was loud and sudden. He flinched back, but she was crouching in front of him, with her fingers on his chin, turning his face to hers. “Oh, aren’t you a pretty thing,” she purred. “You’re exactly what I was looking for,” she said, “but god you reek. Go back to sleep, sunshine. We got a long ways to go.” She slapped him, almost fondly, on the cheek and walked away.

Blackness came back, yet again.

* * *

In dreams, Kieron had returned.

They laid in his bed, hands twined, looking up at the ceiling while snow fell outside. “…and after one tour, we’ll come home,” Kieron had said. “We can return to the Academy. Professor Garrett can help us get teaching positions.”

“Both of us?” Jet had asked.

“Of course both of us,” Kieron laughed. “Where would I go that I wouldn’t want my best friend with me?”

The echo of that laughter rattled the remains of Jet’s shattered heart.

The sound was hollow, and followed Jet back down into the dark.

* * *

Click here for Part 23.
Click here for part 25.

Chuck Wendig/Terrible Minds Flash Fiction Challenge: Drabble – Dialogue

Wendig’s Challenge this past Friday was simple, and not: Drabble. 100 words of flash fiction. Anything. Just go.

All right, then.

*cracks knuckles*

* * *

“She here?”

“Not here right now, sir.”

“Comin’ back?”

“She’s not here, right now, sir.”

“Can bloody well tell she’s not fuckin’ ‘ere right now, y’stoat-felchin’ stoma-fucker.”

“Please don’t use that language, sir.”

“…she here?”

“No, sir.”

“…she comin’?”

“Don’t believe so, sir.”

“Why not?”

“Everyone’s already here. There’s no one left.”

“S’no one left.”

“That’s right, sir. Everyone else is gone.”

“Gone?”

“She’s gone, sir.”

“She wouldn’t let me stay like this. She’d end it proper-like.”

“Not nice of her.”

“Perfect of her.”

“If you say so, sir.”

“I burned her.”

“Sir?”

“S’okay. She burned me back.”

This Isn’t Your Goddamn Captain Speaking

This is Part 23 of DeathWatch, the ongoing serial.

Go to the Serials page if you need to start at the beginning, or to find the rest.

Happy Reading!

* * *

Kieron’s expression went through so many feelings, he felt like it was hard to settle on just one. His heart was still thundering, though it slowly fell into the same steady, rhythmic throb as the hum of the aether engines. “What?” he said, tightening his hand around the loop at the ceiling. I didn’t hear her correctly. It isn’t real. He cleared his throat, glancing away, his eyes flicking to seek out any other thing to look at: A globe, an astrolabe, a massive empty birdcage, rolls of maps and star charts. He wouldn’t meet her eyes for anything.

The Captain’s hand at his cheek turned insistent; she slid her callused palm down his face and then curled her fingers down against his jaw. Suddenly, she gripped his chin and turned him to face her, leaning in, her dark eyes urgent. “Who died, Brody? I fucking know that look. Who was it?” Something in her voice wasn’t demanding — it was needing.

“I don’t know what you mean, Captain,” Kieron said, closing his eyes, trying to be still. He didn’t feel pain, or dizziness, but he was worried, now, that in speaking, he would be breaking some kind of code or trust. Or worse, tipping his hand as some kind of a crazy person, and ensuring he got sent back to the Institution. Can’t tell. Don’t tell. Never tell. They’ll never believe you. Oh, how he wanted Jet. Even if he wasn’t kitten-weak and sobbing from the pain of it, he wanted Jet’s arms around him, now.

Two years, at best. Two years and that’s if and only if they both survived the ordeal. And even then. God, even then, would Jet ever forgive him? He lost himself in his reverie, feeling hot tears behind his eyelids.

The hand on his chin pulled away — his eyes fluttered open, the tears in them glittering — and then came the slap. Her open palm against his skin was loud, cracked like a whip. It stung, rocked his whole body, made his ears ring. He’d have a mark, red and angry, against his cheek. Hell, maybe even a bruise. He lifted his hand, fingertips touching where hers had struck. He winced, looking startled, his unshed tears now spilling — as much from pain as from the sheer shock. He was lost, staring at her. He couldn’t imagine why she’d be so furious, so hurt. Could she really know?

“This isn’t your goddamn Captain speaking,” she hissed. Her teeth were bared as she stared him down. “This is Sha Onaya, little sister to the man this ship is named after. I know that look because my brother wore it. He was a seer, and he watched death, again and again and again. I know that look because being aboard my ship was the only thing that kept him from puking his guts out when he came back from his waking dreams. He became other people, Brody, and then bled for them, and I can tell, you do, too. I don’t think you’re crazy, I won’t turn you over to the tops, and I’m not going to throw you off the ship. So who. Fucking. Died?”

“I don’t know, Cap–Sha,” Kieron said. He saw the look on her face and flinched back, saying, “I mean I don’t know who he was! A soldier. He wore a uniform like the one your men wear. He had been up in the air, like where we are now, but with more mountains. He’d been shot. He was falling,” Kieron whispered, closing his eyes again, remembering the last instants before it all went black, passing through the shadow of the mountain, opening his eyes one last time, as the ground came rushing up, and then the sudden obliteration of everything as he struck, and how it felt to come right back into this moment, with her arms around him. He shuddered, swallowing roughly.

“Night? Day?” she pressed. She was standing near him again, reaching up to put her hand to his cheek once more, gentle again.

“Day,” Kieron said, his breath catching as he closed his eyes once more. He wasn’t dizzy, wasn’t pained — so why couldn’t he stop shaking? “A little cloudy, but not raining. Cool, but not cold,” he said, wanting to give her detail, as though it would help. As though it could tell either of them anything useful.

“Mmm. We’re about to skirt the mountains. According to the charts, though, we’ve got clear sailing for days,” she said. “Maybe we’ve got some time.” She moved away then, her hand dropping away from his face. She moved with ease, while the ship sailed along, and grabbed a shining bottle from under the mapdesk. Tin cups were pulled from hooks on the wall, and she poured out two measures of something gold and glittering. She handed one to him, and raised hers in silent toast.

He nodded, wide-eyed, still tense, and didn’t exhale, didn’t allow himself relief until she stepped back, sighing. He took the cup from her, raised it in salute and drank it down, trying not to cough. His eyes watered, and he swallowed again and again, the burn of the whisky settling into his stomach. “I didn’t, ah. I didn’t know there were others like me,” he said, to break the silence.

She knocked back her inch of whisky, throat working, and said, “Dunno ‘at there are.” Another two were poured, and she drank hers, and watched him drink his. She didn’t fill in any explanations, just seemed to be following the burn of the whisky.

“Your brother–” he began.

“No.” She cut him off even before he’d finished saying the words, shaking her head.

“But you said–” Kieron whispered, panicking suddenly. No? Had she lied? He gritted his teeth, struggling to think, watching her close up, her dark eyes go from bright to dim, turned from him. His heart stuttered, dropped low, felt sick. “You said your–”

“Dead,” she said, and took the cup back from him, and hung them back up, capped the bottle, and stowed it away. “Ship’s named after him,” she said. “That’s the only time you’re going to hear it. Drop it, Brody.”

“Sha–” Kieron said, pained.

She turned back to look at him, all wild hair and huge, dark eyes, all tall-coat and heavy boots and, he realized, two guns and a saber at her hips. Ready for death, at all times. She lifted her chin, staring down her long nose at him, and her voice was ice. “Captain.”

* * *

Click here for part 22.
Click here for part 24.

Like Candies and Cannons

This is Part 22 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!

* * *

The look on the Captain’s face was one of such profound amusement, Kieron wondered if it was a joke — how could the military be taking the newest recruits and dragging them off into enemy territory? And what had he been thinking? To leave the Academy and try to get as far from Jet as possible, so his best friend wouldn’t die for him? Now, more than ever, more than anything, he wanted Jet beside him. He was, without a doubt, miserable and frightened, and they’d only just begun lift-off.

The roil of his stomach made him grit his teeth and close his eyes; he felt the world spin. “Not here, not now, not here, not now, not here, not now–” he hissed under his breath. The whole idea of being able to run away from everything that was wrong suddenly revealed itself to be what Kieron had insisted it couldn’t: childish and selfish. He was going to slip soon, and there would be nothing to do for it — he’d embarrass himself, and likely get someone hurt when he couldn’t be reliable. This truly had been a remarkably stupid decision.

“Damnit, kid, don’t you sick up in my office,” the Captain snapped, wearing a warning expression. “The aether engines haven’t even finished spinning up yet.” Just then, a low whine kicked up in the air; everything from the floorboards to the dust in the air gave a shimmering ring — and the ship moved forward. The Captain, standing close, swayed forward against Kieron, chuckling. “That’d be them,” she said easily enough.

He felt her sway against him, and he held firm, rocking backward for only a moment. The smell of her was sudden, sweet, hot — like candies and cannons. He opened his eyes, reaching to stead himself by planting a hand on her hip. She was solid and warm, steady, but he could already feel the world slipping away, fading out. “Fuck,” he breathed, feeling his eyes nearly roll back into his head.

One eyebrow shot up, and the Captain cleared her throat.

“Fuck,” Kieron squeaked, jolted back to the here and now, and pulled his hand away as though she were a branding iron. “I’m so sorry, Captain,” he said, opening his eyes and looking pained.

Rolling her eyes, the woman said, “God, you greensticks are adorable. You gonna be all right? I don’t want my first casualty this tour to be from airsickness.”

Kieron opened his mouth to speak, but the ringing that he’d felt earlier seemed to build, to wash over him. “Capt–” He tightened his hold on the loop that felt like his only connection to reality. He felt his knees weaken, and the bottom drop out of the world.

* * *

The sky was so immense — but the earth, more so. Kieron listened to the thundering whistle of the wind in his ears. He looked down, and watched the world rise up to greet him, faster and faster. He couldn’t scream, couldn’t quite catch his breath, couldn’t anything, but it didn’t feel like panic. He felt something almost like serenity, and simply let everything keep rushing by. Not even the gaping bullet wounds in his chest seemed to bring on fear. He noticed those with a fleeting sort of curiosity — the blood ran over his bared skin, his torn clothes, while his heart struggled to keep pumping it.

Dizziness washed over him, and idly wondered if he would die before hitting the ground. How much blood had he lost already? A great deal, if the darkened stain across his front was to be trusted. Did he lose any while he’d been up in the air? He was wearing a scout uniform — could be someone on his ship. They were somewhere around ten thousand feet, sailing along. The fall would likely last about a minute, from the initial spill until he hit the ground, presumably striking nothing but the earth at the very last instant. He stretched out his arms and legs as though he could slow himself from an all-out dive to a lazy floating fall, like a leaf freshly dropped from an oak.

Kieron wondered what the soldier had done — was he on the right side? Or the wrong side? Didn’t matter too much; he was on the losing side; that was true. He imagined by the time he slipped into the body, he was over half done, and the edges of everything seemed gray already. He felt like he couldn’t breathe, and everything was so damned cold. He fell into the shadows of the mountains he was falling past, and closed his eyes.

Wouldn’t be long, now.

* * *

“–ain, m’feelin’ dizzy,” he slurred, staggering, and found that he was still upright. He gripped the strap his hand had been caught through, blinked his eyes, and found himself in the Captain’s arms. He laughed nervously, and stared at her, his heart pounding. “I’m not dizzy anymore,” he whispered, swallowing roughly, and in truth, he wasn’t. Something had changed.

Some manner of low hum suffused him, his bones rang, and he found himself lulled into calmness, even as he worried he would vomit. All dizziness had left him. The gut twisting agony that gripped him every time he returned from slipping into another body simply… didn’t show up. He reveled in the low throb of the aether engines, their sweet song somehow keeping him from horrors that had always followed his trips.

“I’m not dizzy,” he said again, marveling, swaying as the Captain did, while the airship moved through the atmosphere, navigating the sea of the skies. His eyes were alight with astonishment. Was it the flying? The aether engines? He didn’t know — but he didn’t care, either. Nothing could ruin this discovery.

But then the Captain came into full focus, her expression awe and wonder, curiosity and terror all at once. She had held him up and kept him steady, and stayed close, smelling of cinnamon and gunpowder — candies and cannons. She pulled back, but not entirely, one calloused hand on his face.

He smiled at her, dazed, but not at all in pain. Until she spoke.

“Brody,” she said, and her voice was low, and urgent. “What did you see? Who died?”

* * *

Click here for Part 21.
Click here for Part 23.