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Of Æther & Æon

She watched him move across the deck as she had a thousand times before. Every day, just before muster, he walked this way. And every day, she watched from behind the main canon, peering around the cascabel, hoping that one day he would see her. Notice her. Love her. If only Jonah would look at her, he would see.

It was the middle of a very long war. It had begun before

Constance had even joined the RAN nearly a decade ago. She had served as the HMS Æther’s Chief Navigator for just over three years now. How time flies.

Jonah was above her in rank, but not by much. Lean and strong, his body moved with grace, and Constance felt clumsy. Even she, a woman, didn’t move with such grace and poise and confident purpose. He had dark brown hair, deep chestnut, that extended past his temples in cocoa colored mutton chops, following the curve of his strong jaw. The leather baldric that ran from his right shoulder to left hip accentuated the breadth of his muscular chest, even beneath both the shirt and regulation waistcoat.

“Connie,” a deep voice said. “Let’s go, we’ll be late to the morning muster and then there will be hell to pay.”

“Morning, Samuel,” Constance said without taking her eyes off Jonah, who was talking with another officer on the starboard side of the airship. He laughed, and Constance found herself catching her breath at the sight of his brilliant smile. His cheek held the slightest suggestion of a dimple when he smiled.

Although they worked in close proximity, he as the Chief Engineer and she as the Chief Navigator, she effectively hid her feelings for him while on the job. It was only in the few moments of the morning that she could let her guard down.

“Mornin’, Con. What’s got yer interest?” Samuel followed her gaze to the handsome officer across the way. “Ah. Of course. Shoulda known.”

Constance blushed and forced herself to look away. She turned to Sam and had to shade her eyes from the rising sun behind him. During the day, the great balloon that held the dirigible aloft blocked out most of the sun, but the during the early morning and the late evening, it shone between the great blimp and the top deck of the battleship. The movement felt too familiar.

“Déjà vu,” she said.

“Really?” Samuel responded. “Me, too. How odd.”

“Quite,” Constance agreed. “Let’s move.” She stepped out from behind the canon and, after a quick glance to check that the seams of her knee-high spats were running straight up the center of her shin, strode across the deck toward muster. She fell in and stood at parade rest, her feet shoulder width apart and hands folded at the small of her back over the lacing of her regulation steel-boned corset, just above the small bustle, a tie-on piece that covered the derriere and gave the appearance of the bustle sway that was so popular down below. It was a recent addition to all women’s uniforms, said to keep the men from being distracted. Although Constance felt that it did more to draw the eye.

If only it would draw his eye.

“Attention!” the first mate yelled, and the entire mustered block snapped to attention. Constance stood stiffly with the rest of her crew and listened to the Captain speak.

“At ease,” the Captain said, and the entire company returned to parade-rest, synchronized. “Today is an important day,” he continued. “Earlier this morning, the Communication Officer’s team intercepted a message from the enemy. I am confident that this piece of information might be just what we need to sway this war back into our favor. And it’s high time, too!”

Constance felt a wave of hope rush through her core. The energy of the entire muster changed, and she felt that, too. Out of the corner of her eye, she chanced a look at Jonah, and had to catch her breath when she saw that he was looking at her as well! She snapped her eyes back to the front and realized she had no idea what the Captain was saying anymore. The blood rushed into her cheeks, warming them against the cold air. The rising sunlight caught the lens Jonah’s goggles atop his flight cap, so she knew he was still looking back at her.

Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.

“Dismissed” was the next thing that registered in her distracted mind. She took the opportunity to duck away in the opposite direction from Jonah, hoping that Samuel would tell her what she had missed. She took the long way around to the Chart House, past the great engine cogs that pierced the floor of the port-aft deck and up the back stairs past the Signal Bridge. The Chart House was empty. Samuel was not yet here, and the night watch, already off duty, had left for the day. Bending over a large map spread over the center table, she commenced work immediately.

“Interesting turn, no?” Samuel asked as he stepped inside the small room just above the main deck in which they both worked.

“Indeed,” she responded, not wanting to admit that she had missed most of what the Captain said. Surely it would come up in conversation.

Samuel moved a tarnished astrolabe off the counter left over from the night watch and picked up a brass sextant. While Samuel took the morning readings, Constance calculated their current location on the map. She adjusted the divider based upon their speed, air velocity, and cross wind readings set down by the night watch and then walked the divider across the map from the last recorded position to their current one.

“What did you think about the Captain’s lecture?” Constance asked as she wrote the new figures down in the navigational log, but Samuel didn’t answer. He stood at the front window looking through the sextant’s eyepiece, then readjusted its arm and looked through the eyepiece again.

“Sam?” Constance said.

“Somethin’ ain’t right,” he said. “According to these here readings, we are thirty-three degrees off course.

“That can’t be right,” Constance said dropping the divider and rechecking her figures. She pulled the brass compass out from the tiny pocket on the front of her corset. “Unless the night watch wrote down the wrong calculations again.” Sure enough. The compass confirmed it. She snapped it shut and placed it back into its pocket. Its long chain bounced against the steel boning as Constance moved over to Sam. Taking the sextant from him and looking through it herself, she confirmed it once again. “This is unacceptable,” she said, thrusting the sextant back into Samuel’s hands. “Sam, I think it’s time we split up. You will have to take the night shift with Airman Hannigan, and Sergeant Fredricks shall take the day shift with me. This is the third time this month, although it’s by far the worst.”

“Aye aye, Lieutenant Commander McCoy” Sam said with more than a hint of sarcasm. He obviously didn’t want the night shift, but since Constance outranked him, he knew he couldn’t argue.

“You know we cannot afford mistakes like this, especially not after what the Captain said this morning. This might be the turning point for the war,” she offered, as it was truly the only thing she heard, “and we do not want a navigational error to jeopardize this mission.”

Constance pulled her bound tablet out from a pocket in her belt and scribbled down some new headings. It always amazed Samuel just how fast she could calculate even the most complex formulas. She ripped the last page with the new headings out of her bound tablet and, handing them to Samuel, said, “Fix this. Fast.”

“Aye aye,” he said again, without the sarcasm.

Constance went over to the stock cabinet to get a new tablet, but before she could open the door, a deep, melodic voice said, “Lieutenant Commander McCoy, might I have a moment?”

It was Jonah. Her mind filled with a mixture of pleasure and fear. Perhaps he had come to berate her about the navigational error, although that would not be the responsibility of the Chief Engineer. She forced herself to be the officer she was and responded, “Of course, Commander Beaufort.” Then continuing to Samuel said, “Sergeant Whitford, please relay the new headings to engineering.” Samuel nodded in reply and moved over to the sound telegraph they used to communicate with other parts of the ship. Putting the flared earpiece to his ear and speaking into the similarly flared mouthpiece, he said, “Engine Room.”

Jonah stepped sideways out the doorway in which he had been standing and put his hand out, inviting her to go before him. She caught her breath, no matter how much she tried not to, when she passed so closely in front of him. The two walked down the front stairway and up toward the foremast, where he stopped her.

He just looked at her and after a moment, smiled.

“There was something you wanted to speak with me about, Commander Beaufort?” Constance said, folding her hands in front of her, as if she was a proper lady from the ton. She took very conscious deep breaths and reminded herself again that she was an officer in the Royal Air Navy.

“Of course, Constance. But, please call me Jonah. We have worked together for so long,” he started.

Breathe.

“Well,” he said rubbing his neck and looking out over the edge of the ship into the horizon. “In light of what the Captain said this morning, I seem to have new hope regarding this war and… life, I suppose.” He laughed a little here, and Constance felt her heart jump in her chest when the faint dimple appeared along with the joyous sound of his laughter. “I really should’ve done this long ago, but things have been quite dire with the war over the past months. Still, now with this new hope.” He shuffled his weight from foot to foot and laughed again.

Heart. Jump.

“Anyway, what I’m trying to say is–Would you like to have dinner with me tonight?”

His gaze turned down to her with the question, and he bit his lip, which only made to deepen the dimple, as he waited for her response.

Constance had not realized she had been holding her breath for the last several seconds until she let it out. Then she took another one and held it again.

Jonah must have taken her silence as offense, for the smile left his eyes, but still politely stayed on his lips as he said, “Forgive me, Lieutenant Commander McCoy. I have overstepped my bounds.” With a slight bow, he turned and began to walk away.

Constance forced herself out of h er shocked catatonia and yelled after him, “Yes!”

He turned back.

“Yes,” she said, breathing a little more rapidly now than normal. “Yes, Jonah, I would love to have dinner with you tonight.”

He smiled and then returned to her, sweeping her into his arms and stepping behind the great foremast to block them from view of the rest of the crew. She felt his taut body pressed up against hers, and it was a good thing his strong arm, wrapped tightly around her waist, held her against him, for her knees were weak. They most certainly would not have held her weight if he were to let her go. She prayed that he would never let her go.

His grey-blue eyes looked intently into her green ones for a moment before closing. She felt his soft lips press down over hers, and she met the kiss in kind. Her hand found the bristly chestnut chops along his jaw. His tongue brushed hers ever so slightly, and it sent a wave of longing down her entire body, settling heavy in her deepest part. He withdrew his lips, leaving her breathless.

“Until tonight,” he said. He touched her cheek and let his hand slowly trail along her jawline before removing it completely. Images of quenched longings filled her minds and she thought that there was too much time before now and dinner. Would this day were done!

He stepped out from behind the foremast and she followed, a little wobbly, but before he could get too far away, Samuel called down to her from the Chart House stoop.

“Lieutenant Commander McCoy, get up here quickly!” he shouted.

The edge of panic in his voice caused Jonah to stop as well.

“What is it, Sergeant,” Jonah said.

“The night watch,” he said. “You had better see for yerself.”

Constance and Jonah rushed back up the stairs to find Airman Hannigan and Sergeant Fredricks on the floor by the supply cabinet, as if they and tumbled out of it. Both their bodies were twisted in unnatural ways, and their empty eyes stared out from their strangely angled heads at nothing.

Constance stifled a scream, but she could not look away from the horrific sight.

“Sabotage,” Samuel said. “That’s why we’re off course.”

“I shall alert the Captain,” Jonah said, touching Constance’s shoulder to show his concern.

Jonah turned and went down the stairs and Constance followed. “I shall come with you,” she said. As she reached the bottom of the stairs, she ran right into the back of Jonah who had stopped suddenly.

“Jonah, what is it?” she said. He stepped aside and, looking past him over the port side of the ship, she saw a vessel, smaller than their own but no less armed, rising to their altitude. “Where did that come from?”

“It must have been beneath us, hiding. Waiting.” Jonah took off in a run toward the bridge, and Constance followed. But by then, the entire ship had been alerted. A steam whistle sounded in alarm, piercing the quiet of the morning. The sound of panic shortly followed as the crew members crisscrossed the top deck.

They were not prepared for this. They had been miles from anyone last night.

“Battle stations!” the Master-at-Arms shouted into the increasing chaos of the crew. Men and women pulled their goggles from off their caps and covered their eyes as they manned their stations around the main deck’s peripheral cannons. Others rushed passed Constance and Jonah trying to get to the lower decks in time for the fire command.

“Get back into the Chart House, Connie,” Jonah looked back at her, and his goggles were already in place, covering his grey-blue eyes. He gently took hers from off her cap and placed them over her eyes as well. After a tender kiss, he turned to follow the others downstairs, heading to the engine room. She started back toward her station as well to await orders.

The enemy vessel had matched their altitude, and simultaneously, what seemed like every canon on their ship fired. Jonah and Constance had but a moment to catch each other’s terrified eyes before the HMS Æther was hit.

Great booming sounds in rapid succession accompanied by a blur of motion filled Constance’s mind, and she was thrown against the side of the ship. Catching herself from going over, she saw several of her crew mates falling through the sky towards the unforgiving ground below. Frantic, she turned to see if Jonah had been one of them, but all was chaos. She could not see him. The wounded cried out from all along the deck. Smoke billowed up from the lower decks through the new holes in the floorboards and from portholes on the side of the ship. Even the huge engine cogs had been broken. The largest one was broken in two, and two of the smaller ones, still larger than a man, had been forced up through the now fragmented deck. She looked around for Jonah, trying to force her brain to catch up with what had just happened. All was but a blur of blood and smoke and splintered wood. There, she finally saw him, laying against the large capstan, bleeding. He hadn’t gone over the side, but he was hurt. She rushed up to him just as she heard the command, “FIRE!”

The HMS Æther rocked back as its canon’s fired back at the enemy.

“Jonah!” Constance shouted above the din. She got to him and knelt by his side.

It was not good. Several shards of wood stuck out from various parts of his body. His leg. His arm. His shoulder. His neck. All were bleeding. By far the worse wound must only have been inches from his heart. It was a metal rod, like the main shaft from some engine gears, and it was deep.

“Jonah!” she shouted again. She lifted the goggles from his eyes, which rolled over to focus on her. She lifted off her own goggles so that she could see him more clearly.

“Connie,” he said weakly. He reached out and touched her cheek. She felt the wetness of blood, and she clapped her own hand over his, holding on. “I guess I really should have asked you to dinner sooner. So much time. Wasted.”

“Shhhhh,” she said. “I’ll get the medic.”

“No,” he said, putting his hand on her knee as she began to rise. “Stay with me.”

She tried not to cry at the sight of the bright red blood dripping down his face and into his mutton chops. He had a head wound as well as the rest, and his breath was quickly becoming raspy. Gurgling noises wafted out from his shallow breaths. The shaft must have punctured a lung.

“I can’t see you,” he said, rubbing his eyes with his uninjured hand. “There’s blood in my eye.” He laughed and then coughed, splattering more blood on his already darkened uniform.

“I am here, Jonah. I am here with you,” she said, and the tears came, blurring her vision as well. She wiped them angrily away, wanting to see him clearly. Knowing there were but moments left, even if she could have gotten to the medic, this was not a battle one walked away from. Any of them.

“I have loved you for so long,” he said. “I should have asked you out sooner.”

They had finally found each other, and now this. There was not enough time, but she would spend every last moment with him. She would hold on to every last moment with her life. There just was not enough time.

“I really should have asked you sooner.”

And with that, he died.

“Jonah?” she said, shaking him, but there was no response. “Jonah! Stay with me. I’m here now. Stay with me!” But his eyes, still eerily fixed on her, were empty. Dark.

“Jonah!” she cried. “NO!” His head lolled to the side, so she pulled it close to her breast, steadying it.

“I’m here now, Jonah. Don’t leave me.”

The commotion of the surrounding havoc crept back into her consciousness as she held her lover’s dead body. It was so surreal. Just moments ago he had been kissing her. She could still feel the softness of his lips, his tongue. His cologne still filled her nostrils. Only a short time ago.

Tears streamed down her cheeks, and it made them sting in the cold morning air.

A frantic Airman rushed by screaming, “They’re aiming for the balloon! They’re aiming for the balloon!”

“No. The hydrogen,” Constance said to Jonah’s blank stare. There was no panic in her voice, for the pain she felt was too great. What she felt had surpassed pain. Surpassed numbness. There was no escape, but she would be with Jonah again soon. Forever.

She held him closely and accepted her fate. Letting everything else fall away, she felt the cool morning air sting the tears on her cheeks. She blocked out the screaming and chaos around her and just felt Jonah’s body pressed up against her. She looked down at his handsome, blood-stained face and brushed her hand over his jaw, feeling the roughness of his mutton chops, then with her finger she traced the place on his cheek where his dimple had been.

The blast came. It sounded faraway as if in a dream. Then she saw the cannonballs fly, and they appeared to be moving in slow motion. She saw them hit the great balloon, and she saw the beginning of the explosion. As the fireball rushed towards her, she felt as if she was being squeezed into a narrow tube. A horrible sensation of moving backwards, as if being yanked forcefully back into a room you had just left. A blur of brilliant lights filled her peripheral vision, forming a funnel around her and the entire ship.

Then she was standing on the deck looking into the sun rising in the East. She turned away from the brightness of it, blinking several times to clear the spots still flashing on the inside of her eyelids.

There he was.

She watched him move across the deck as she had a thousand times before. Every day, just before muster, he walked this way. And every day, she watched from behind the main canon, peering around the cascabel, hoping that one day he would see her. Notice her. Love her. If only Jonah would look at her, he would see.

 

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