LOCALE Smith’s Rest, New Anchorage
TIME // Afternoon
Alan pulled at his collar watching the others talk and give their little speeches. This was hell. Putting them on display for all of these civilians-what did they expect? Graham’s words seemed to echo around in his ears—his warning on repeat; almost becoming obsessive in Alan’s mind. Den of vipers. Venom. Danger. There was nothing more dangerous than foolish scared people, and the new Minister seemed to wield her weapon with excellence. Alan had no idea if these civilians were here on order or by choice; but either way he realized that Ryn and Percy were not the two best people to go first.
And you are? The voice seemed to sink in like a cold knife in his back. He was a waster and he and Ryn have seen how the public treated them for years now. Usually they left some of the larger guns with guns at their backs. Other times led to blood on their hands.
Cold metal iron. Calluses on the hand. Blood. The shape of the skull caving. Rapid smashes. Alan was 17. The man had been drunk, belligerent, horny. Pulled a knife on him, placed it to his throat in a seedy back alley bathroom somewhere south of Chicago. A pipe had given way; Alan had swept his leg and came upon him like a wild animal, only stopping when the man’s body had been reduced to a twitching bloody mess on the floor.
Ryn stepped away from the microphone and the crowd seemed awkward in their applause. Next came Percy. They’d spoken momentarily in the canteen. Hell, they’d interacted a few times outside of training. Alan had called him Percival once; which just made the man confused. Of course he didn’t read Tennyson; no one did anymore. He bit his lip as the man’s speech broke apart; unraveled and left the man a broken mess at the end.
He glanced to Celina as she called for the crowd to come to a sense of calm; to return to order. Order was something the woman seemed to wield like a very blunt hammer; and so far it had made things quite awkward between the people and the pilots.
What can you do? All they’ll see from you is a waster. A thief. A vagabond. A liar.
Alan stood up. He shifted his collar around, trying to ignore the tiny beads of sweat that emerged, either from the discomfort of the uniform he was forced to wear, or from the nerves that were slowly beating his heart like a war drum. Thump. Thump. Thump. How did that nursery rhyme go? The boys in the burrow go thump thump thump on the door? Thump thump thump, jumping up up up on their beds. Running thump thump thump down the halls? Banging thump thump thump on the doors? And when the lights go out and they’re left all along their bodies go thump thump thump in the ground?
Alan gasped. He needed air. He needed water. He needed to be anywhere but here. He’d stood up, and was making a slow, methodical pace towards the microphone. Every second felt like ten years, twenty years, growing with each step until it took a painful century to cross to the very front of the microphone. He made an audible gasp for air before he closed his eyes. Home. Warm beds. Fresh baked bread from Pip’s grandmother. Aunt Rosemary’s mushroom tea on a cold autumn day. Mother’s voice. Father’s large, calloused hands. Alan’s hands stopped shaking.
"My name is Alan Fouren."
Everyone is looking at you.
"I pilot The Wild Wolf."
Alan’s gaze focused away from staring at any one person; and attempted to keep his gaze above the heads of the crowd. No need to stare at any one person, no need to focus. Just answer the questions and sit down. The danger of Celina echoed in his head again. No; he couldn’t simply answer questions flippantly. She was watching and the people were watching. He was under a microscope, flayed out and ready to be examined by the masses. He had to make this work; at least until he found the Gold NC.
The first question came, and there was wariness to it. "Where are you from?"
They’re afraid of you. They don’t want a waster here. What will they think about home? Alan closed his eyes. All dead. Fire, gunpowder, blood. Debris everywhere. "It's a little town called Dead Springs-about a quarter of the size of New Anchorage here. Small enough that everyone knew each other."
Their faces flash in his mind. Uncle Bill’s body, torn to shreds. Alan could never find the legs. Just a torso split apart by thermal weaponry. He’d probably died from the impact. Cora the local nursemaid; her body hunched over the burned bodies of the local children. Daisy, who’d kissed him before the ramshackle scrap barn: her body spread across the local town hall.
“It’s a tight knit little community.”
"It sounds nice. Why did you leave?"
"Small town meant that everyone had to pull their weight. Me and three other boys from the area all tested positive to receive the NC implant. Working as caravan guards, extra backup on raids, small-time jobs. It helped keep food on the table."
"So you're planning to go back, then?" another asked.
Alan sighed. "If I could, I'd be back home as soon as my tour ended." These were normal folks; that's who he had to win over. "I heard about your recent raider attack; some time before some of these pilots and I arrived. I was relieved to find the settlement in good condition, and-" he turned a glance at Percy’s empty chair, before facing going back to looking out at everyone again. "I am truly sorry for everyone you lost in your attack."
Forgive me mother. He’d never even seen their bodies. His home had collapsed on top of them in the attack. Their home was their grave marker. And here he was, about to dig them up and parade them around for fucking sympathy. The deep pit inside of Alan twisted, as if his shame had contracted a dark sickness growing inside of him.
"Dead Springs didn't have the same kind of defenses you have here at New Anchorage. Raiders attacked fast while my team was on leave. By the time we returned and tried to fight back it was too late. We lost everything."
He turned back to face the crowd, placing on a mask of something that seemed...brave? Faux confidence. A guise to try and seduce these people. "I swear to every person here in this crowd: I will never let another attack like that happen again on my watch."
Celina let her grin out, if a bit, in tandem with the crowd. "We're glad to have your loyalty, Mister Fouren. Many people are hesitant to trust those who live their lives in the roughest places of our world. Consider yourself as setting a precedent, we'll all have interested eyes on you. Next question."
He felt as if he’s sprung a trap. Here he was, a wild animal pinned under Celina’s words; a sharp vice now. He wanted to run; any animal would simply tear away at its leg to escape a trap. It would be simple, leap off the stage, make a break for the hangar, climb into the Wolf…
"Do you have any family? A wife or child?" The question broke Alan’s fantasy and brought him crashing down, a fantastic meteoric crash back into reality and where he was. Here. Now. Answering these fucking questions.
”I uh…look-” Alan seemed to rub his eyes in contemplation of exactly how to answer this question. “I’m still quite young. But-and this is my own personal belief, because I’ve met many pilots who had families and a happy family life-but I would feel that the amount of danger a NC Pilot undergoes, alongside the fact that a pilot tends to be away for long stretches of time would cause unnecessary strain and pain in a relationship. It’s simply easier to focus on work than to really….think about those kinds of things.”
Alan looked downward and scratched his head. He’d never even had a long lasting relationship with anyone since becoming a pilot. Many people simply looked at him and treated him like he was diseased.
Another man stepped up. "Would you call New Anchorage your home?"
Celina must look like the cat that caught the canary.
Home. "That's...a tough question. Pilots like me, we don't get the chance to settle down much. We're expected to follow jobs. A lot of people like to characterize us as thieves, lowlives and vagabonds."
Get to the point. She's got a knife to your back. Any inch, she wants any inch to dig deeper.
"If you guys will have me, I'd be honored to call New Anchorage my home."
He could feel Ryn's glare on the back of his head. She of all people knew the truth. He wasn't a man with a home. He wasn't a man of ideals. He was exactly what he called himself. He knew what he told them was a half-truth. He never expected any of these people to accept him for what he was; and part of him, deep down didn’t want their acceptance. Ultimately there was one reason for him being so far north; so far from easy pay and safety. That NC. Once he found them; once he finally settled up with that pilot; there wouldn’t be any need for anyone to call him a liar or a drifted any more.
Tentatively, that answer seemed to satisfy the crowd. There was applause in any case, begun by Celina herself no less. "I'd have'im for a drink," said one. "Bet he hunts well, growin' up in a waste," said another. "Well he's gotta survive, first."
"Yeah I've seen pictures--" "--looks like a heap of junk--" "--on earth it even moves, let alone fights."
"Do you think you're capable for the job?" arose a question at last. "These attacks have been brutal and organized, have you ever been up against enemies like that and won? Could you really protect us?"
"I became a pilot when I turned sixteen."Alan scratched his nose, trying to tie the words as eloquently as the great writers and orators he grew up reading had done.
"Since then I've been involved in countless sorties. And while I lack the experience some of our more veteran pilots have, I can say this: when pilots work as a team, they can be unstoppable. I know it seems scary, and I know it is easy to look at pilots with fear for the work we have to do." He motioned to the pilots behind him. "We come from different places, Different backgrounds, different walks of life. But we all came here to serve you, New Anchorage. From trained military to self-taught survival skills, we have decades of experience between all of us." He gave a grin, "I don't simply believe, I know we will be the ones to keep New Anchorage safe. I'm proud to serve with all of my fellow pilots."
Broken vets. Green fools. Foreign military. Ryn. What a fucking team.
"We will make you all proud of us."
Something had changed in the air. Perhaps it was the sudden shift in the style of his response, or perhaps what he was saying was simply a step past where the people were willing to trust a waster. Either way, it would become clear that Alan's inspirational speech was not hitting its mark, at least not with the audience. Celina, though, was still grinning.
"Thank you for those...rousing words, Mister Fouren. I believe that will be all, unless there are any other questions." The crowd shifted, but stayed silent. Celina straightened. "Then, next."