This is Issue #45 of DeathWatch, an ongoing Serial. Click that link to go find ‘A Beginning’ and read from there, if you need to catch up.
* * *
“What are you all doing on ship? Pilot tells me we can’t go because have barnacles,” comes a gruff voice.
“Pirates!” yelled Jules. “I told you they were pirates!”
“Close lips, Yana–”
“–don’t call me that you mule-brained–”
“–don’t shouting every time you talking–”
The both of them ended on that last word, squared off against one another, but in the last moment, as the Captain of the Maxima showed up from across the deck, stalking toward Jules, Nathan stepped in front of her, lifting his chin, and crossing his arms in front of his chest.
His expression was anything but amused; he looked like he might haul off and crack the Captain a good one upside his jaw.
Maxima’s Captain was massive, himself. A solid six and a half feet tall, perhaps an even three feet wide, broad shouldered and bald and bearded, with a tallcoat that had to have been made from the corpses of three other ones, at least.
Kieron froze, his eyes wide. He tensed, ready to run for Nate’s side, feeling his heart pound in his throat.
And then Maxima’s Captain laughed aloud and swept Nathan off his feet in a hug. “Ah, is favorite airman’s wife!” he said, setting Nathan down and ruffling his hair. “Have not seen you in too long!”
“We’ve been pulling northern duty,” Sha said, embracing the Captain.
Kieron stood still, looking shocked, until Nathan turned around and grabbed hold of his hand, pulling him up and pushing him in front of the new Captain.
“Brody, this is Abramov, Captain of the Maxima,” Nathan said. “One of my oldest friends, certainly one of the best. Abe, this is our newest Captain’s recruit.”
Kieron tried not to flinch back as Abramov reached out a hand that looked as large as a halfkeg. He put out his own hand, and when Abramov’s grip swallowed it, Kieron felt himself hauled forward into a bear hug. “Recruits — they are smaller every year. This one looks like student!”
“Behave, Abe,” Jules said. “This is Delia Brody’s boy. You remember her, yeah?”
“Ah, beautiful Delia,” Abe said, his eyes lighting up. “You know she was flying fighter plane trials? Is how meeting your father. I hear she is not well. You tell her Poruchik Abramov says expecting visit on Borderlands. Has been too long.”
“My mother what?” Kieron gasped, his jaw dropping. He stood on the deck, swaying, completely baffled at this sudden announcement.
“Finest pilot in Centralis ranks,” Abe said, nodding. “Now — so much catching up, but little time. We four must talk, while you assist in supplying ship, meeting other soldiers, because this is not what you do forever, yes? You will return home after silly war-games, yes? Live through first, last, and only tour of duty. Go home. Make babies, give grandchildren to your mother, yes?”
Kieron laughed, smiling at Abe, and said, “I’ll think about it, Captain. Thank you.”
“Is serious, Kieron Brody. Tell mother hello for Abe, yes?” the giant said, patting Kieron on the back.
“I will, Captain. I will.”
* * *
The clouds remained, thick and damp, while the ships clung together. Kieron made a circuit of the Maxima, learning it physically, discovering all the modifications. In his head he took stock of the food rations, fresh to dried, counted up the aether charges, the shots for the fire cannon, and other weapons. He noticed odd kegs tapped with strange piping he’d never read about in classes or his father’s design books, and asked a technic, “What’s this?”
The technic, busy doing calculations out on paper, said “Aetheris.”
“What’s it for?” Kieron wondered, putting his hand on a jar. Briefly, he felt it hum and throb. It reminded him of the engines themselves.
“Burning,” the technic said, glancing at Kieron, his lips pursed.
“I see,” Kieron said, though he didn’t — he supposed it was an alternate version of fuel for the various lamps and stoves on board, and resolved he’d look it up later — “Thanks!” He wandered off again, not liking the way the technic looked at him, and resolved to get himself nearly lost on board the Maxima, to find all the modifications that had been made to the ship.
* * *
“How’s it been?” Jules wondered, sprawled on her bed, grinning up at Sha. “Haven’t seen you in forever. What was it, Port of Light, two years ago?”
“It was!” Sha laughed, and they clinked glasses, drank, and poured more. “That was a fun time. I think I was hung over for days afterward, though.” Her dark eyes watched the chess board between them; they played again and again, drinking and talking. Mostly drinking and playing, easy to find it easy to be silent, for some of it. “This group of recruits is turning out well. We’ve managed to get them working faster than any other crew. I might have to get you to teach them to wakeboard,” she laughed. She tapped her lips with a captured pawn as she stared down at the board. She finally made her move, and the concentration on her face blossomed into satisfaction.
“How long will you stay this time?” Jules wondered, barely watching as she moved a piece, her eyes mostly on Sha.
“Few days at most. You could always come with us?” Sha offered, the satisfaction on her face turning to pure bewilderment at the move.
“And what, give up my ship?” Jules laughed.
* * *
“How much longer do you think Jules is going to let you run the Maxima?” Nate teased Abramov, sucking on a cherry pipe and making lazy smoke rings.
“Is funny how you try joking,” Abramov said dryly, rolling his eyes. “I see you are Quartermaster, still? You have no ship of your own? Holding still, Natan.” The brushes looked minuscule, ridiculous in Abe’s fingers, and yet he wielded them with deft care, putting shadow and light to canvas.
Nate shifted, briefly, to get a little more comfortable. “I’m too valuable to waste as a captain,” Nate said, smirking. “I’m needed to wrangle the crew — though maybe it would be easier if I ran the ship. How’s it going?” he wondered, craning his neck as though he could see around the painting. “Are you getting my good side?”
“Is no easier, even if you are captain,” Abramov chuckled. “Patience. Is taking time. Holding still.”
* * *
Engines off, fins tucked, sails dropped, ballonets purged, the ships stayed nestled to one another like some kind of whale and her calf, while supplies went from the Maxima’s holds up to Jacob’s. Airmen were delighted to see one another, to go from ship to ship, to feel less closed in, to see new things. The mountain’s clouds were in no danger of clearing; staying there would be easy and safe — at least for the moment.
* * *
Anyone listening in would be able to catch the story, almost all at once, considering how everyone talked over one another.
“…and then they closed the fin!”
“You weren’t supposed to be on it, still!”
“Wait, so how are you not dead?”
“I have no fucking clue, but that’s not even the best part.”
“You don’t have to–”
“The best part was when Nate–”
“–really, it was nothing–”
“No, I want to hear.”
“Story is good. Keep to be telling us.”
“–flew off the side of the ship–”
“–wasn’t that big of a–”
“–wasn’t wearing a rigging harness–”
“That is Natan. Never having protection.”
“–looked like something out of an adventure story–”
“–Jules, you gotta understand I was just trying to help–”
“You suicidal maniac!”
“–dove down and caught me, with one hand!”
“It was fairly amazing, really.”
“You pulled your shoulder out of socket, didn’t you?”
“–didn’t hurt that bad–”
“Bullshit. You fainted.”
“He saved my life!”
“…with one hand!”
* * *
“Okay, I still don’t understand it,” Kieron said, as he, Nate, Abe, Sha, and Jules sat about, playing a game of cards. “How are the two of you married?”
“What you’re asking,” Jules said, smirking, “Is more like ‘what’s the point of being married if you’re not doing it like my mum and da did?’ — am I right?”
Kieron paused, picking up a glass and knocking back a healthy swallow of something Nate had delightedly called ‘Clear and lovely’ and then coughed for a moment, redfaced. “Sorry, sorry,” he laughed. “Yeah, I guess that’s exactly what I’m asking. You don’t live together or work together. You barely see one another, and I know for a fact now that you both have other lovers, thank you, the lot of you, for constantly giving me far more information than I might ever need,” he said, rolling his eyes.
“He’s looking at you, Abe,” Nate smirked.
Kieron coughed then, but it sounded an awful lot like the word Kriegsman.
Jules howled with laughter and poured them all more of the drink, then dealt out another hand of cards. “He’s m’best friend,” she said, looking over at Nate, who was glassy-eyed and smiling in a way that made Kieron’s heart ache. “Just because I don’t see him often enough doesn’t stop that. It’s hard, yeah, but this life we’re leading — it isn’t forever. We put away money so we can retire from active duty before we’re too old to enjoy it, and then we can travel. See the world from the air on our own schedule,” she said. “And in the mean time, the other lovers we have don’t take anything away from what we have with one another. We come first, and our lovers know it, and that’s it.”
“Amen to that,” Sha said, lifting up her mug and laughing. “Means I don’t have to clean up after his personal messes. I can have the fun without the heartbreak.”
“Wait, I have personal messes?” Nate said, looking offended.
That time, everyone else at the table coughed, and it sounded an awful lot like the word ‘Kriegsman’.
* * *