This is Issue #37 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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Dreams were not the same as slipping; he knew he was himself. Even so, they were disorienting, especially ones laced with pain medicine.
Kieron woke up in a cold sweat, panting, grimacing in anticipation of pain as he moved to sit up, but there was none, and he couldn’t decide if that was a good thing, or a bad thing, as he sat up fully, shivering in the warm infirmary.
“Hey,” came a low voice, off to the side.
Kieron turned, his bright eyes wide in the dark. He panted, teeth chattering, clutching the blankets in a sudden, dizzying wash of fear. Where am I? What happened?
“Key,” said the voice, and the nearby cot creaked, then Kieron’s own cot creaked as someone else sat on the edge. “Key, what happened?”
Kieron let out a sob and turned to throw his arms around the other boy. “How did you get here? Who found you?” he wept. Once the floodgates were opened, he simply held on, and let go, all at once, fingers digging in, clutching the other boy’s shirt. “I’m so sorry,” he sobbed. “Forgive me, please. Please forgive me. I’m so glad you’re safe. I’m so glad you’re all right.” He pulled back to wipe at his face, to get a good look at the boy he’d abandoned, but he looked at his own hands as he scrubbed away his tears, half-laughing, trying to calm himself — they were reddened, sticky with blood.
“Wait–” he said, stiffening, feeling a sudden spasm of fear grip his belly. He turned to reach a hand to bring up the lantern. “Jet, are you–?”
“Why did you leave me? You knew I’d come find you,” Jet said, accusatory, and moved closer, as the light came up.
“No–” Kieron whispered, horrified.
Jet was dead, bluelipped and milky-eyed, wearing his Academy best, covered in blood. “You knew,” he said sadly. “How could you leave me like that?”
Kieron woke up in a cold sweat, panting, grimacing in actual pain as he moved to sit up, crying out, struggling to get away from the phantoms that haunted his sleep.
“Hey,” came a familiar voice, off to the side.
Kieron turned quickly, eyes wide and wild with fear; he clutched his blanket tightly, flinching back from the voice.
“Hey, hey easy,” Sha said, reaching out a hand to touch Kieron’s shoulder, fond irritation touching her voice. “Lay down, yeah?” she said. “Before I have to make it an order. You’ll fuck up your ribs worse, and nobody needs that. You should–” Genuine concern crossed her face. “Brody?” she murmured, leaning over him. “You all right?”
“Yes?” he said, panting, struggling to swallow back tears.
Sha looked around the small infirmary, and with the surgeon off on another task, she nodded to Kieron, and moved to sit on the edge of his cot. “You need to tell me about it?” she wondered.
“Jet,” he said. “I saw Jet.”
“Who’s Jet?” The Captain asked quietly.
Kieron’s cheeks flamed pink as he whispered, “A friend.”
The Captain, unfazed, said, “Right, but who is he?”
The answering blush was deeper scarlet. “A classmate. A roommate. We schooled at the Academy together.”
“In your dreams?” she wondered, making no jokes, no faces, not at all teasing, not responding to the blush with anything but calmness. We don’t have to talk about that part of it, her eyes said. We all have things we keep close.
“When I… when I went. I saw him. He was alive. But just now, I saw him dead.” Kieron’s hands wrung the blankets in a nervous fidget.
Sha nodded, staying near him, solid and warm and real. “Dreams aren’t the same as your sight,” she reassured him. “Nightmares are fucking frightening, I’ll give you that. But you’re awake now. It can’t hurt you.”
“I left because he was going to die. He kept dying. I kept seeing it. He died because he was with me, over and over and over,” Kieron said, feeling suffocated, like he had to sit up, to breathe. “I ran away, to keep him safe. But in my dream, he died because he followed me when I ran away.” When he moved to try to sit up, the world spun, and he turned faintly greenish and shivering.
“Did he follow you? Could you tell where he was?” Sha wondered. “Stay down, Brody. You got a concussion and cracked ribs, how many times I gotta say it?”
“I think he must have, but he’s nowhere I recognize. Marble floors, vaulted ceilings. Looked like a palace. Some dark-haired crazy man in tattoos and body paint,” Kieron said. “He was watching me die. He loved it, it was–” Kieron explained, panting, laying back.
The Captain froze, her eyes going wide. “Immanis,” she hissed. “Fuck, Brody, your friend is in the Blacklands. He didn’t follow you — he’s ahead of you. He’s with the Prince of Ilona.”
“I don’t… I don’t know what that means,” Kieron said, watching Sha.
“Fuck, don’t they teach you idiots anything useful at the Academy?” she snapped, tossing her head. “Every couple years I get fresh graduates, and you’re just getting meaner and stupider.” She sat up and stomped in a small circle, pacing.
Stung by her outburst, Kieron said defensively, “I’m not mean! And I know a lot! I know we’re at war. Even if the Centralis government doesn’t tell the people that, or says it’s just a minor conflict. My father has been designing airships and war vessels as long as I can remember. The Allied Territories want to Annex the Blacklands. It’s just a bunch of desert and wastelands, full of roving bands of illiterate tribes, all savages without our technology or our medicine. We could bring them true government and advances for agriculture and industry, but it’s hard to unite the people, because they’re all fighting over what little resources they have.”
The Captain stared at Kieron for a long time, incredulous. “That’s what they’re teaching you?” she whispered, shocked. “Does that jibe with the vision you had of a magnificent palace?”
“I… ah…?” Kieron looked lost.
“Oh, Brody. I’m so sorry. You… Okay. I’m… hold on a second, okay?” she sighed. She got herself up from where she’d sat on the edge of his cot, and walked out of the infirmary, leaving him to lay still and look toward Nate, who lay quiet and still and pale, on the mend from his rescue of Kieron.
When the Captain came back, she carried a large stack of books, and set them beside Kieron’s bed. She picked one, and flipped through a few of the pages before handing it to him. She picked up another and opened it to a middle page, and set it on the bed on his lap. She tapped one and said, “This is a map of the Allied Territories. How big are the Blacklands?”
He stared at the page, frowning slightly, looking at the map, then looking at her. “This is my book–”
“I know. Based on the map, how big are the Blacklands?” she said, pinching the bridge of her nose.
“Based on the map, I don’t…. I don’t know. They’re not on the map,” he said quietly, confused.
“Okay, not based on the map, then. Based on what you’ve learned at the Academy. You were about to graduate, right? How big are the Blacklands?” she said, pressing.
“They’re the size of.. half… half of Kriegsland?” he ventured. Seeing the shake of her head, he said, “Bigger?”
“Ah… roughly the size of the Western Sands?” he offered, running his fingers over the map. He lifted his eyes and looked at Sha, feeling his heart heavy in his chest.
“Kieron,” she said, and her voice was gentle, and pained. “Ilona itself is half the size of Kriegsland. And Ilona is only one city-state. The Blacklands are easily ten times the size of the Allied Territories,” she explained. “See the rest of these books?” she said, pointing them out on the bed. “Treatises on medicine. On alchemy. Physics. Weapons. Mathematics. Aether mechanics,” she said. “My brother collected these books. From Ilona. These were written by Ilonan scholars centuries ago. Not only are they not illiterate savages, Brody, they are ahead of us in so many things, because we came from them, but didn’t have the resources this side of the Ridge. The Allied Territories are the squabbling bands of roving tribes. We’re the savages,” she whispered.
Kieron felt his heart skip a beat as he struggled to comprehend this notion.
“There is a war,” she said, closing the books and setting them back beside the bed. “You got that much right.”
Kieron closed his eyes, feeling the lurch that meant soon he’d be gone, but he was there enough to hear his Captain’s next words.
“It’s just that we’re losing.”
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