This is Issue #114 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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“If you wanted intelligence, friend, y’shouldn’ve blowed up her fucking ship.” Nate’s laugh was real, but it cut off as the blow landed against his stomach. He doubled over, groaning, and was manhandled into a seat, and shackled there.
Sha sat next to him, eyeing her shackles, then rolling her eyes at Nate’s humor. “You’ll get yourself keelhauled you know,” she laughed darkly.
“Eh. I’ll piss all over Ilona while I’m up there,” Nate laughed.
The Ilonan in the room with them cuffed him in the back of the head, and finished bolting his chains to the floor. “Welcome aboard the Tropaeum,” he growled.
Beyond the humor, Nathan watched Sha, and Sha watched Nathan, both of them with eyes on the other’s face to assess pain and potential. Each of them tried to figure if they could get out of the trouble they were in, and whether the other could make it, if they tried to escape.
“You expect me to believe you simply rode a twin-screw into the ground, and walked away?” the Ilonan snorted.
“That’s what I said!” Nate said, tsking. “S’why she owes me another bottle,” he added, nodding to Sha. I’m all right. I promise.
She nodded to his arm, where it was still strapped against his body, bleeding sluggishly, useless.
He shrugged, and tried hard not to wince.
“You gave us quite a chase,” the man said, his lips pursed.
“Hard not to run when your downed ship is being fired on,” Sha muttered, rolling her eyes. “Wasn’t going to stay and wait for the welcoming committee — they seemed… I don’t know… angry about something.”
“Can we go back to the camp now? I loved the ambiance. Campfire. Rainstorms. Unholy screaming,” he offered, biting off those last words with bared teeth. His heart thundered in his chest; he had heard her voice. Jules. Her name rested behind his eyes, on his tongue, a prayer he whispered to himself almost constantly, when he wasn’t being watched. She was alive. She was alive, when she made that sound. Perhaps she was alive, still.
He was ignored, much to his chagrin.
Another Ilonan came in with a small sheaf of papers. He spoke lowly to the first man, and they eyed both Sha and Nate with distaste. When the second one left, the first one said, “You will be taken to Ilona proper, into the capital,” the man said dully. “You’ll be turned over to the Prince. His Majesty will do as he sees fit.”
“Oh, goody. I’ve always loved meeting royalty,” Nate said, wagging his eyebrows and grinning with great false cheer.
He received another punch, this time enough that he slumped in his chair, unconscious.
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The reunion below decks was bittersweet. The crew was chained to one another, and to the ship itself, and the quarters were inhumanly close. When Sha and Nate were brought down, people gave a cry and a cheer, thrilled to see their Captain again.
“Hey now, hey now,” Sha said. “I’m glad to see you all, too. I figured it would be better if we all died together, eh?”
The gallows humor got a laugh and another cheer from the crew; even the cadets seemed heartened.
“Jules? Jules!” Nate cried, immediately looking for her. “Is she here? Did she make it?” he asked the chained soldiers and cadets.
A familiar voice answered, “She survived the fall. And the jump. And the first battle, and whatever questioning they put her through. Then she had a vision, and they took her away.” The sea of cadets and soldiers split, and Sha and Nate beheld Kieron, dirty, stitched, ragged, but alive. “I haven’t seen her since. They brought me down here a little while ago.”
“Fuck, Brody, you look like shit,” Nate said.
“And you, Commander, are a sight for sore eyes,” Kieron said, smiling exhaustedly.
Long minutes passed, or perhaps hours, while what was left of the crews of the Maxima and the Jacob shared stories and swapped quiet remembrances of fallen comrades.
The ship gave a lurch, suddenly, and the cadets froze, while seasoned airmen and women shrugged it off. It was one of the smoothest liftoffs they’d ever felt.
“Is she on the ship?” Nate wondered aloud. “Fuck, is she even on the ship?”
And that is when the door to the hold opened again, and soldiers marched in, dragging a small, angry form.
“Put me down! I can walk! Get your fucking hands off me! Let me fucking go!” Jules snarled, struggling and kicking at her captors.
An impassive, unfazed Ilonan chained her to another crewmember, and dropped her on the hold floor, and walked away.
She got up and moved to charge after him, but the chain wouldn’t go far enough, and she was jerked back, cursing and swearing up a storm. She only stopped, flicking her mussed copper curls out of her face when she turned around and saw Nathan there, plain as day, staring right back at her, goggle-eyed. “You,” she breathed. “Oh, you stupid, wonderful, crazy–”
He laughed aloud to see her, the sound ragged and triumphant all at once, his voice breaking as he exclaimed, “You daft, perfect, ridiculous–”
She reached to put her arms around him, but her chains kept her just shy of managing it; they rattled, and her hands strained, opened and shut at the end of her shackles, pulling at the cuffs. She uttered a low scream of frustration, thwarted from the only thing that mattered.
He reached for her, but had the same problem: his chains and his wounded arm kept him from getting close enough.
Snarling in frustration, Jules strained in her bonds, and managed to get her fingertips almost close enough to brush his. She felt like she could feel the heat of him, and her eyes fluttered shut as she leaned as far as possible, breathing it in in long, heavy gulps, desperate for the connection.
Nathan strained, shifting, reaching, and gritted his teeth against the agony. Something still felt wrong, pulled loose or torn, or perhaps simply cut too deep.
“Don’t,” Jules breathed, looking to him as though they were not surrounded by hundreds of the crew. “We’ll have time. Don’t hurt y–”
Nathan’s eyes seemed to light up; he pulled, growling, furious, determined, and the awful sound of his shoulder pulling from its socket was heard. He uttered a low cry and staggered the extra few inches, grabbing her hand with his, looking nearly faint.
The instant Jules’s palm slid over his, and her hand clutched it tight, Nate wept, bowing his head.
“I love you, Jules.”
“I love you, Nathan. Shh, shh, Einin,” Jules whispered, rubbing her thumb over the back of his hand. “Mo Einin. Na caoin — don’ cry, love. Don’ cry. You’re all right. I’m all right. We’ve lost some good ones, but we took some with us,” she whispered fiercely. “Don’ cry,” she pled, her own eyes filling with tears.
The two stood in the center of the hold, surrounded by their crewmates, but all alone in their brief connection, he with his head bowed, she with her eyes only for him.
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