This is Issue #19 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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“Brody!” The call was sharp; Kieron stepped forward and handed over the clipboard.
The uniformed soldier took it with his left hand, and looked it over for a few minutes before looking back up at Kieron. “You from the Sidmuth Brodys?” he asked easily enough.
Kieron, however, was staring at the right half of the soldier’s body. The arm was missing, and much of the shoulder looked to have been destroyed. The man’s face was a study in contrast; his pale skin had five o’clock shadow on one side, while the other was pale to the point of seeming false, the waxen scarring of it displayed in shining whorls of haphazard regrowth, claiming a nostril, an eyebrow.
“Like as not, eh? Them with good breeding usually instill manners enough so a proper man wouldn’t stare, am I right?” he snapped.
Kieron blushed hotly, glancing away, and stammered an apology.
It was only halfway out before the man roared in laughter, reaching out and slapping Kieron in the arm with the clipboard. “Fuggoff, kid. We’re at war. No time for manners. If you see fire, like most scouts have, an’ you’re lucky, you’ll look like me or better when you’re done. Not so lucky, you’ll be ugly enough they put you in a box n’send you back home,” he snorts. He checks a few things off on the clipboard, and hands it back over. “Dunno why you’d run away from so much money, Brody, but if you live, consider runnin back to it. Most men in these units are more desperate than a young one like you oughta be.”
After having been teased, the assumption raised Kieron’s hackles. He straightened up and lifted his chin, staring down the soldier, and said “Is everything in order? Shall I board? Or would you prefer a few more minutes of behaving as a classless git at my expense? I’d assumed soldiers had a measure of honor and respect to their air, but perhaps your arm wasn’t the only thing blown off?”
The soldier paused, his remaining eyebrow shooting up. He thrust the papers from the clipboard back at Kieron and laughed again, shaking his head. “You’ll get a thicker skin by the end of all this, even if it’s only from scar tissue,” he says. “You’re on the T.S. Jacob, an AE-867. Last one on the left. Now go, before I remember your name long enough to tell your new CO to push you off the rigging.”
Kieron took the papers and folded them briskly, stuffing them in his inside jacket pocket and said archly, “S’Brody with a Y. Of the Esmuth Brodys.”
At that, the man howled with laughter, shaking his head and pointing toward the docks. “Right!” he crowed, his face red, his eyes shining. “As if Ellison Brody would let ‘is only son join the fucking scouts!” he said, his mirth following Kieron all the way past the line of men and women signing up to board one of the various ships at the docks.
Kieron himself smiled as he walked away, his own face suddenly merry. “Right,” he echoed. “As if.”
* * *
“I’ll bet it’s the toughest ship in the fleet.”
“What?” Kieron turned around, looking at the woman who had spoken. She was his height or perhaps even moreso, in heavy boots and a tall-collar splitcoat that hid most of the rest of her. A kerchief held back the wild array of bronze curls from her dark skin, and her even darker eyes were shining. She stared up at the sleek thing with some sort of awe that bordered on love. Against one hip, she held a full monger’s basket of bright green fruits.
“I said I’ll bet this is the toughest ship in the fleet,” the woman said again.
“No, I don’t think so,” Kieron said, turning to look back at the ship.
“Excuse me?” said the woman, putting her free hand to her other hip. Her expression shifted from love to irritation.
“Toughest ship’s probably an SE-664,” he murmured. “Those are steam ships. Armored. The Jacob’s an AE-867. The aether engine makes for a fast, quiet ship. The 767 was the one with the stripped prow, but the 867 has, in addition, padded cables and less chains. Lighter, quieter. Can do almost two kliks a minute,” he said.
“Well the captain says this one can do ten in three,” the woman said.
“Not for all three minutes,” Kieron snorted, turning to look at her in amusement. “Maybe for thirty seconds before the aether engines gave up.”
“And if they didn’t?” she countered, her expression coming alight.
He rolled his eyes and said, “Then the solar louvers past the needle would need to be milled to perfection, otherwise they could get torn off on maneuvers–but that’s crazy. No captain worth his wings would risk it!” He raised his voice as a troop of people passed them–new recruits and older soldiers moving to board The Jacob–talking over the sound of them clanking and stomping. “It would take ten technics ten months — even if they were skilled — to get it done,” he said.
“You know your airships, then, Mr–?”
“Brody,” he said, turning to her, and offering a hand.
She shook it, and her gloved grip was firm. “Brody, hm? Pleasure. Well, it looks like you were headed aboard. I’ll leave you to it.”
He nodded, releasing her hand. “Likewise,” he said. “Hope you have a good market day,” he said kindly, gesturing to her basket.
For one moment, the woman looked positively baffled, staring down at her hip. She laughed aloud then, a head-tossing, boot-stomping sort of belly laugh.
Kieron couldn’t tell if she was genuinely amused, or if she was simply laughing at him.
“Thank you, Brody — I hope I do, too.”
He rearranged his hold on his bags, and headed up the gangplank. When he reached the top, he laid a hand on the oak of the rail, marveling that it was the first time he’d ever touched one of the ships he’d read about for most of his youth, the ships his father designed. His moment of reverie was disrupted when a uniformed soldier took his paperwork, handed him a small string-tied parcel, and said, “Follow the others to the bunks. Stow your shit, open your kit. Welcome aboard the TS Jacob.”
* * *