This is Issue #86 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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“How could you, Nate?” Jules asked him, when they were alone. “How dare y’hurt that boy and blame it on wantin a baby?” she wondered, putting her hand to his cheek. “I love you, Nathan. With all my heart. I love you more than life — but I was ashamed of you, when I saw the fear in his eyes.”
“I’m not –” Nathan began, and then swallowed down pride and shame, and said, “I aim to apologize to him, if he’ll let me. But I wanted to tell you I’m done waiting. I want out, Jules. I want out with you. I want a family, and I want to move to the other side of the country, far from the Ridge of Damnation, and I want to have a life where we aren’t a few pulleys and gears from death. Abe–” For a moment, Nathan’s voice faltered, and he swallowed hard, struggling to keep himself in check. He took a deep breath and sighed, then continued. “Abe lost it. He lost his boys, and then he lost his mind, and I… I don’t want that. I want… I want a little house in Portsmouth or Bridgewater.” His face lit up as he knelt before her, taking her hands, smiling hopefully up at her. “I want you and I to fill it with children. I want to leave, before it’s too late.”
Jules’s hands went tight in Nathan’s. As he spoke, her expression shone bright with some indescribable emotion. When he was done, she cleared her throat and said, “That’s — that’s a big dream. You want to be sure, a thing like that.”
“I’ve never been more sure,” Nathan beamed. “Jules, I want to get out of the sky and have my life. I want to raise a dozen kids. I want to grow old, and die listening to the sound of my grandkids and great grandkids playing, not the sounds of artillery shells and aether engines.”
Her own eyes glittered as she leaned in and kissed his mouth, saying solemnly, “I want y’t’have your dream, Nathan.”
He kissed her back, beaming and said, “First, I gotta go make somethin right. I love you, Jules.”
“I love you, Nathan.” She nodded, letting him go, and tried, like she’d always tried, to get used to the sensation.
It still didn’t work.
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Relieved as he was by unburdening his heart to Jules, Nathan felt a twisting churn in the pit of his belly as he headed toward Kieron’s bunk.
He was most of the way there when the siren went off.
“Storm’s got a fucking sense of humor,” he said, rolling his eyes. He ran topside, and began to direct the people there, shouting orders listening to messages from everyone on comms who was tracking the sky.
The Quartermaster of the TS Jacob felt things were well-enough in hand as the clouds around them thickened — there was no way out but through, unless they wanted to be seen by troops on the ground, and there was already report that Ilonan forces were approaching from the south.
And then came the second round of alarms.
Nathan’s boots hit the deck hard and fast, sounding like gunfire; he ran all the way to comms, where Sha was leaned over Hana, staring at a longview screen, a grim expression on her face.
“How bad?” he wondered.
“They’ve only sent one, but it’s a Domitor,” Sha said darkly, looking back over her shoulder at Nathan. “If the storm doesn’t get us, that ship will.”
“Go higher,” Nathan urged. “Domitors can’t go as high as we can.”
“Their cannons fucking well can,” Sha hissed. “If we ice over and a Domitor cannon hits my ship, Nate, we’ll be knocked out of the sky.”
“S’the only chance we’ve got, Captain. If we’re going to try to get back to the wreckage of the Maxima and look for our downed people, we’re going to have to evade–”
“We could just hide, though,” Hana piped up.
“Speak on,” Nate said, looking over at her. “We don’t have much time.”
Hana looked squeamish at being directly interrogated, but managed to keep herself calm enough to answer. “If we go high, if we fully purge the ballonets and get ourselves above the topclouds, we could go dark, ride on the front, and let the storm carry us west, where we’re trying to go. Djara and Penny would both need to work, one of them in the manual gears, and the gators would need to be up in the nests with binocs. We could use the battery comms, but that’s it,” she said.
“Above the clouds?” Sha said, looking doubtful.
“We’ve got plenty of air. Everyone will stay below decks in the sealed compartments, except for the ‘gators and any technics on support. The belly’s full of more cans; we haven’t gone high for most of this run,” Hana said, eager.
“Pressure on the aether tanks will drop,” Sha countered. “They’re not rated to go too high above the clouds.”
“But we can monitor that. Ride the line. I mean–” Hana pressed her lips in a thin line and lifted her chin, determined. “If it’s rise and possibly die, or stay here, and definitely die, Captain, let’s take the chance we’ve got. Ilonans don’t take prisoners — and even if they start to, they’re not likely to be kind, after what we saw the Maxima do.”
“So it’s climb the clouds and hide on the storm, go dark, and… hope?” Nate says, looking at the lone blip on the screen.
“Might be our best option,” Sha said, frowning as she chewed her lower lip.
Hana’s station began to blare alarms; both Captain and Quartermaster turned to look. Another blip came up on the shortrange scanner. And then another.
“Fuck everything,” Sha breathed. “Well we can’t outrun that many. Hana, tell Quarter what you need — if we live through this, I’ll see you’re made Lieutenant.”
Hana nodded and began rattling off to Nathan what she would need Penny and Djara to do once they were above the clouds, and how the navigators would need to do, and how everyone would have to communicate.
He hurried off to coordinate the efforts, pulling in the Boatswain and making the crew run about.
Sha ran from comms to the pilot’s chamber. “Djara! UP! Haul ass!” She had barely finished speaking when she ran for the deck and ordered everyone out of the rigging, telling them to see Quarter or get below. Alarms blared as technics dropped from the sky. Everyone who needed to moved to get their air tanks, and both Sha and Nathan stood out on the deck as the ship rose higher and higher, until they, too, had to get below, to get their air.
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