This is a direct continuation of The Circus in the Sky, where I try to take the very standard opening of a mecha story I began with and take it in some direction that is more my own thing. Something not enough series really dwell on is the cold war type feeling that would come between the exciting first sneak attack (be it the Crossbone Vanguard’s attack in F91 or the ice station raid in War in the Pocket) and open war reaching whatever remote place the action begins in. War in the Pocket is a good example of this; from the excitement of an underwater raid on a secret base the action cuts to a child at school, living in a community that is aware of war but has yet to really experience it. There’s a tension – the audience knows the war is going to reach this place soon, but the people live normal lives until it does.
In this story I wonder what would happen if the defending forces didn’t simply win, but won apparently decisively; the sneak attack is driven off. Obviously the threat of retaliation or a follow-up attack exists, but morale is comparatively high. All of this is really secondary, though, to the characters at the centre of the story – a protagonist unsure if he’s really helping, and his new companion who is really in no state to comment.
There’s a young man called Caile lying on my bed dead to the world, and I’m tidying up again. Hiding all the things I’ve got used to having within easy reach but which make me look disorganised and perverse. I don’t want to think how late it is, but I can’t very well sleep with the house in this state.
I dragged him from the field to where I live, unaware before I started of how really heavy a body is. It was slow work, but now he is laying on the bed, a plaster over the cut on his face, and I need to think about what I will do when he wakes up. His uniform is still fairly intact, but I don’t recognise the patch on it. Just the name badge. I really don’t know the etiquette of dealing with a wounded stranger, let alone the medical side of things. He doesn’t seem badly hurt now I’ve cleaned him up, so I guess I should let him come round in his own time, call a doctor if he needs one.
I’m going to sleep.
Thankfully I wake before he does, and I’m able to get changed and-
Will he want food?
I prepare enough breakfast for two just to be sure, and it proves a good idea. I hear movement upstairs, unsteady footsteps, and rush up to make sure my guest is all right. He’s limping, probably from a sprain I didn’t notice.
“Where am I?” A natural question, I guess.
“You were knocked out in the fighting. I took you home. This is Sail Cay. I’m Yosuke.”
“I’m… I’m Ensign Caile Zenan. I-” He suddenly collapses, grabbing hold of the bed to try and keep some balance and falling back onto it. “I’m sorry. I think I hurt my leg.”
“I made breakfast. Can you make it downstairs?” I think a moment. “Ah. The bathroom. Yes. Opposite here. You’ll need to know that.” He pulls himself upright and limps across the hall, locking the door behind him. I hear the shower start running. My bed is dishevelled, stained with some grey residue off Caile’s suit and streaks of blood. The shattered helmet is sat on the floor, inside still weirdly slick with some mixture of things that stain my fingertips rust red. The room smells. I feel hypercritical to notice this, after all I have probably just saved this man’s life, but for the first time in too long someone is in this house who does not live in it. I find some clothes I don’t feel too bad about him having and leave them by the bathroom door, then head downstairs. It probably won’t do to be waiting for him outside.
He makes it down the stairs, slowly, I’ll admit, but otherwise fine. The t-shirt doesn’t really fit, he’s a bit slighter than I am. He begins eating breakfast. Quite normally. I don’t know what I was expecting, really. He’s not some prisoner of war, half-starved, or some washed-up castaway. He’s just someone who last night got into a cockpit, and ended up unconscious in a field.
“How did you find me?”
“I was running away from the fighting, and saw the wreck in a field. I… I don’t know why I was drawn to it, but I found you inside.”
“I’m quite grateful really. I wasn’t sure if my beacon was working. Could have been bad.”
“Can you tell me what happened?”
“About the getting shot down thing?”
“About the war on my doorstep. About the fact I…” Something has gone. This whole situation has finally stopped making the sense it seemed to. “About the fact you’ve even ended up here.”
“I wish I knew. Asking questions isn’t something we’re encouraged to do, but someone wanted to take the Lily last night so we did our duty as soldiers. I’m sure the enemy units are being analysed as we eat.”
Of course he wouldn’t know. Why should he? He’s been asleep on my bed while the war began. “You should rest your leg. I’ve got some things I need to do, so if you don’t mind sitting down a while in the lounge?”
“That sounds fairly welcome to be honest.” There’s a stiff formality in both our voices. I don’t want to cause offence. Caile, I think, is slightly embarrassed at the imposition he sees himself as. Probably also embarrassed at what happened. I get the impression he’s inexperienced, but won’t ask to confirm it. “I will clean the dishes first. I think I can stand well enough to do so.” He won’t be stopped at that, quickly and smartly clearing up and repeatedly insisting I’m not to help. I realise I should probably have cleaned the kitchen.
By the time I’ve finally convinced him to sit down and stop putting weight on his bad leg, it’s early afternoon. Sail Cay is dead about now, deader than it usually is because people are afraid there will be another attack, which makes it the perfect time to go out in my mind. I leave Caile watching television and walk and think for a bit. The streets are empty, and the air feels like the whole world is collectively exhaling after a moment of intense stress. Ideally I’d spend most of the afternoon out here, but I can’t bring myself to and before long I’m headed back home to see if he’s OK. I don’t want to fuss. I don’t want to force myself into his life, bother him too much. But I’m still headed home to make sure.
He’s asleep on the sofa. Worried I’ll disturb him, I make myself busy around the house doing things that won’t make too much noise. Tidying upstairs, sorting my bookshelves, watering the garden. This is the most organised I’ve been for a long time. It’s like I’m trying to impress him.
Finishing, I sit down on my bed, several rooms seeming a respectful distance away from where he’s sleeping, and begin to read.
I’ve barely opened the book when there’s a knock on the door. Hurrying down the stairs, I notice Caile has also woken up and swear at whoever is disturbing us. The front door opens to a slight woman with the most vilely oily hair in braids and a slight squint in one eye. She’s wearing a black-and-grey uniform and looks tired.
“I represent the Pillar of Heaven Defence Army, did you see, or were you aware of, the crash of a- oh. There you are.”
“Toki?” Caile limps into the hall. “Toki?”
“Is there a good explanation for this?”
I step in, terrified at what I’ve done. “I- I was walking home last night when things happened. The fighting. It was above where I was. I found the wreck in a field. I took Caile back to my place to rest, make sure he wasn’t badly hurt.”
“Was he badly hurt?”
“A twisted ankle I think, and a cut on his forehead. He’s been sleeping it off most of the day.”
“Well.” The woman might be wearing a neatly cut jacket and a pleated skirt like she’s smart and professional, but all I can sense from her is the smell of someone who doesn’t shower often enough, and the drained look of someone who barely sleeps. I’m reminded more of the near-recluses who devote their lives to online gaming than anything else. “Are you fit to come back, Caile?”
“I don’t know.”
“The doctors will. Thank you for your help, whoever you-” She’s barely looking at me, and that’s quite terrifying.
“My name’s Yosuke. Before you go, can I ask you something?”
“What is happening?”
“When we know, we’ll let you know.” She begins to turn, swivelling on a heel and preparing to walk off, and then hesitates. “Caile?”
She makes it one pace down the path to my front door. “You. Yosuke. You might as well come along.” She sees me panic, reads in my eyes the fear that I’ve broken some military law helping this man. “I want to thank you for saving my man. You didn’t have to. It took courage. Do you know where we can get a drink around here?” She’s looking askance at me. “Somewhere that doesn’t mind too much what condition you’re in.”
“Yes. Maybe.” I’m hesitant. Her voice is impossible to read. “Let me get some shoes.” It’s the banality of that that I think finally breaks the tension. Toki – I’m not sure if that’s her name or a nickname – takes Caile’s hand and helps him walk alongside her. I hurry along behind. “Is the fighting over?”
There’s an odd silence and I realise I’ve probably killed the mood completely.
“Let’s leave that question to the people who know why it started, shall we? In the meantime, everyone just keep winning.”