This is Issue #75 of DeathWatch, an ongoing Serial. Click that link to go find ‘A Beginning’ and read from there, if you need to catch up.
* * *
“How’s everyone taking it?” Sha lounged in her room, holding a glass of something potent, and looked over paperwork. A pair of glasses perched on the end of her nose gave her an almost kindly, bookish look. She turned, curious, and said, “Are you even listening to me?” She stared at the back of the man who was watching the sky from the portholes in her rooms. He held a glass that held the same thing Sha’s did, but he seemed oddly disinterested.
“Sorry — I was…I think Jules is knocked up,” Nathan blurted.
“Oh for heavens–” Sha looked exasperated. “It’s a good damned thing we’re headed back. The two of you could put in for completion. You’ve done enough tours. You could be active, but not afield? How far along? She isn’t round yet.”
“I don’t know. She hasn’t mentioned it,” Nate murmured.
“Then what the fuck makes you think–”
“–vomiting. She can’t sleep. She looks exhausted. She doesn’t want to–”
“Her ship blew up, you ass,” Sha snapped. “Think maybe she’s depressed?”
He looked hurt, turning back around to face the woman. His expression was offended, but not indignant. “Why’re you–”
“We’ve never gone home early, Nate,” Sha sighed. “I know it wasn’t us, but it feels like failure. We’re going to have to explain what happened, and I’m not sure I want to.”
“I know,” he said, and he crossed to Sha, and gently caressed her cheek, fingertips familiar with the crease of her smile. He leaned down and kissed her then, and said “It’s late. Call’s already been made. We’re turned and headed to the Notch. Gator will make all the calculations, and we’ll be sailing through it by breakfast. Then we’ll burn a hot trail all the way back to the depot, meet up with brass, and see who’s staying, and who isn’t.”
She nodded, stood with him, and kissed him soundly, then said, “Drink up, and fuck off, Quartermaster. It’s late, and I’m still exhausted, myself. Maybe tomorrow while we’re going against the wind, we’ll hunker down in here and talk to Jules, yeah?”
He pulled back from the kiss, grinning crookedly, and said, “Yeah. If that’s… really happening–” He paused, saying nothing, but the light in his eyes told the story he couldn’t say aloud. The rest of his glass was emptied, and he kissed Sha once more, saying, “Ready to be an auntie?”
She laughed, shooed him out, and shut the door behind him.
Before he headed to his own bunk, he went up out to the deck, and made his circuit; even when he wasn’t on watch, he liked to check in with people, breathe in the night air, and watch the moon for awhile.
At the rear of the ship, he came upon something that made him wish he was truly sober; he saw a figure up on the rails — no rigging harness, no rope. It looked like he or she was wearing a backpack — perhaps a parachute, though it would be hard to make enough of a leap from the rear and not get burned in the engine wake. He approached carefully, feeling his heart slowly creep up in his throat. “Hold up, cadet,” he called out quietly. “Whatever it is, m’sure it’ll look a damned site better in the morning.”
The heart he felt pounding stopped dead and cold when the cadet turned around.
“It won’t,” Kieron said. “Not if I end up on the wrong side of the ridge by morning.”
“What.. what are you doing, Brody? I’m not fucking sober enough for this,” he said, moving to join Kieron on the railing. He grabbed ropes and made his booted feet manage the trip; when he got to the other man, Nathan reached out and touched Kieron’s shoulder. “Hey,” he murmured. “What the fuck’s going on?”
“I can’t go back,” Kieron answered. “I can’t. Jet’s still out there, Nate. He’s still in Ilona. With the Prince. He’s… he’s in danger. I can tell. I can–” His voice grew high and tight, and he bowed his head, feeling tears in his eyes. He turned and looked at Nathan, desperate. “I can’t. If this ship goes through that ridge, Nate–” His eyes were wide, wild, almost panicked. “I can’t be on it.”
* * *
“We’ll meet here in, what, twelve hours? Seems like forever.” The trains rushed past the two men talking; as they went further and further into the station, the Kriegsman walked further from the young man in uniform.
“It’s only twelve hours.” The Kriegsman was older than the uniformed man — an infantry cadet, it looked like.
“And you’re sure you don’t want me to come with you?” Ever hopeful, the cadet reached for the Kriegsman’s hand, and curled his fingers there.
The Kriegsman gently took his hand back. “It’s just a funeral, Nathan.”
“It’s your mother, Danny.” Nathan’s voice was gentle, kind.
Danny’s was… not. “She didn’t like me very much.”
“Well it’s not like I’d be meeting her. I can meet everyone else.”
“They won’t like you that much.”
“They’ll love me. Everyone loves me.”
“They won’t love us.” Danny’s comment was short and to the point; he turned to look at Nathan, pursing his lips.
Nathan’s expression shifted to crestfallen. “…oh,” was all he could think of to say.
The barest hint of apology came to Danny’s eyes; he reached out and patted Nathan’s shoulder. “Won’t be long, vännen. It’s just something I must do.”
Nathan looked up to his companion and said, “Come back to me, Danny.”
“Of course. And then you can take the rest of your leave with me?”
“I’ll take the rest of my life with you, Danival.”
In what seemed an uncharacteristic display of affection for a Kriegsman, Danny leaned in close, and pressed his lips to Nathan’s forehead. “Snälla förlåt mig,” he whispered.
“…what’s that mean?” Nathan had wondered, his eyes bright.
“It means I’ll see you soon.”
* * *
“Hey, hey–” Nathan began, squeezing Kieron’s shoulder. “It’ll be–”
“No!” Kieron said, and when he turned, one of his boots nearly slipped off the polished railing. “No, you don’t understand!” he cried, jabbing a finger against Nathan’s chest. “I never should have left him! He’s there because of me! He’s out there, Nathan, because of me!” Kieron’s voice broke as he smacked his hand against his own chest, beating his fist against his uniform, eyes full of blame, teeth gritted to hold back the tears. “He loved me for years, and my father tried to crush it, but he didn’t care. I was the scared one, Nate. I ran away, not just to save him, but because I was scared,” he admits, and his shoulders sag in defeat. He let go of the rigging to wipe tears from his eyes, and took a step back to reorient himself.
His boots slipped again, but this time he wasn’t holding himself steady.
“Brody!” Nathan moved fast; he had an arm around Kieron’s waist, and he pulled them both off the edge, dropping to the deckboards, pulling the cadet into his arms, embracing him fiercely. “Fuck,” he breathed, swaying on the deck, keeping Kieron on his feet, shushing him. He pulled back, and put his hands on Kieron’s shoulders.
“He’s going to die,” Kieron whispered. “I see it. I see it constantly. Over and over again, Nate. I can’t do this. I can’t. He’s gonna die.”
Nate shook his head, and leaned in to kiss Kieron’s forehead, closing his eyes.
* * *
The train station was quiet and empty, in the wee hours. Hardly anyone ever took the trains at night. A lone figure sat on a bench, waiting.
It had been not twelve hours, but thirty-six.
When the last train of the night pulled up, Nathan could see a tall, imposing figure on it; his heart leapt. When the Kriegsman disembarked, Nathan was astonished and disappointed beyond measure to realize it wasn’t Danival — just some other brilliantly tall, beautiful blonde man. He had been half-running toward him, but then he stopped, shoulders slumping. The other man noticed him at that point, however, and in a low, heavily accented voice, asked, “I help you?”
“I just… thought you were someone else,” Nathan said, shrugging. “Someone… someone gave me a message, but I… I think I got it wrong. I was supposed to meet him here. I thought you were him. He’s uh. He’s a Kriegsman as well; you’re all so damned tall–”
The man raised a brow, and Nathan cleared his throat, glancing away. “Sorry. I, ah. Sorry.” He shrugged, and then laughed, and it was a bitter thing, covered in a joke, as he said, “I must’ve lost something in the translation, you know?”
“What was message?” the man asked. “You have? If is in Kriegic, I translate.”
“It..” Nathan looked pained, but blurted out, “Snälla… snälla förlåt mig.”
The man blinked, looking at Nathan, and then his expression shifted from ‘curious’ to ‘saddened’. “Ah. Yes. I see. Message means this: Your… your friend? Is not coming.”
Nathan’s expression shifted back and forth between agony and rage a hundred thousand times in but a moment. “Thank you,” he whispered, gritting his teeth, struggling not to cry. “I, ah. I must have… maybe I misheard him,” he said, clearing his throat.
“Perhaps,” the man said. “The real translation of ‘snälla förlåt mig’ is ‘Please, forgive me’.
Nathan’s shoulders slumped, and he wiped tears from his eyes as he said, “Right. I’d… I’d better go. I’ll miss the ship back.”
“You wear a walking soldier’s clothes,” the man noted. “Where is your ship taking you?”
“Dunno. Got asked by a scouting ship to sign up,” he said, peeling off his infantry overcoat and tossing it onto the bench. He looked at the empty track and shook his head, then smiled bitterly to the other Kriegsman. “Why not? Guess there’s nothing keeping me here.”
* * *
“We’re all gonna die, Brody,” Nathan said, opening glittering eyes to the here and now. He then released Kieron, wearing a smile that Kieron could tell wasn’t entirely happy. “But maybe… maybe you don’t have to lose him, just yet.” And with that, he ran off, booted feet stomping across the boards.
“Nate? Nate!” Kieron began, stunned. He touched his forehead. “Where’re you going?”
“Can’t turn the ship around from there, Brody,” he called back over his shoulder. “Gotta get to the pilot’s seat!”
* * *