Genre: Action, investigations, my usual strange humour, tiny touch of angst, some weird politics and a bit o' romance (yes, I still know how to write those - just don't expect anything majorly fluffy)
Rated: NC17 - for language, violence, sexual content
Archived: http://www.raygunworks.net and GWAddiction under the pen-name Maldoror
Feedback: Please! Particularly what you like/don't like about the fic.
Spoilers: Some, for series and episode zero.
Disclaimer: Gundam Wing belongs to its owners (Bandai, Sunset, and a whole host of others, none of which are me) and I'm not making any money off of them. The very idea is laughable. See? This is me laughing. Ha ha. Songs quoted aren't mine either. So there.
Author's Note: Dedicated to Dacia :) Huge thanks for the GWAddiction reviews! I lurve you guys *tackleglomp!*
Outside the ground at Luton Town
A crazy opportunist has sprayed upon a wall
A simple proclamation for all to read
"Revolution is a better game than football"
Freeport by Maldoror
Wufei woke to a whining sound; a piece of metal complaining about being forcibly introduced to another piece of metal it wasn't particularly fond of. He lifted his head to stare blearily at the workbench.
" ...isit time t' getup?" he mumbled.
"Only if you want to." This was the Duo who'd picked him up in Scythe, Wufei thought, confused and muddled. The trench coat was nowhere to be seen; he was wearing grey cargo pants, woolly blue slippers and thick protective vest, gloves and goggles. He was working on the Aries stabilizer unit. He had a small wrench in one hand, a set of long pincers in the other, and he moved like a surgeon. Wufei noted absently that Duo held the pincers in the right hand, mainly with his three good fingers, and the wrench in what should have been his weaker left hand; after two years of using it, it probably wasn't the weaker now.
"I told you I had something to do today, right?" Duo tossed absently over his shoulder. "Well, this is it. Gotta fix this. Will probably take me awhile. Son of a bitch. Jesus Christ, they really expect me to work miracles... "
Wufei struggled to sit up. He was... tired. He'd slept five hours, according to his watch, which should be enough. It wasn't as if he'd done any strenuous activity yesterday. But he'd been running on the tail end of his reserves for two weeks or more now. The relative lack of adrenaline the day before had given his body the idea that now was the ideal time to rest and recuperate, and it didn't seem eager to listen to any opinion of the contrary.
"But... we need to track Carver... " Wufei muttered, to Duo and to his own sleep-fogged brain.
"Don't worry about it." Duo swivelled around in the chair and slid the safety goggles up on his forehead. They left light red panda-like marks around his eyes, which Wufei found rather cute in his muddled, vulnerable state, until he caught himself. "We did most of the preliminary work yesterday. Now we gotta let things simmer. There's not much more we could do right now. Why don't you go back to sleep. You know, I didn't want to say anything, but I thought you were looking a little peaky when I picked you up at Hilde's. Doesn't Une take care of you? Feed you right? Put you to bed at ten?"
"Screw you, Maxwell... " Wufei stifled a yawn and sank back into the pillow. Wasn't much he could do on his own... might as well recuperate... if he could sleep with Duo working in the same room...
Oddly enough, he could. He found himself drifting off to sleep, listening to the strangely familiar sound of grumbled profanities as Duo hammered away at a suit part. As if they were back on Peacemillion, catching a few hasty hours of rest before the next wave of mobile dolls attacked...
Unfortunately, Duo's last teasing words had more influence than those five-year-old memories. Wufei sunk into a heavy, sticky sleep full of weird dreams where a larger-than-life Une was trying to mother him. She was threatening to spoon-feed him the rice soup if he refused to eat it, and send him to bed without desert, when-
"Jesus, Mary and Joseph! Whadya want, you stupid piece of junk! Blood?!"
Wufei shot half out of the sleeping bag. His sword had sprung its scabbard before his eyes were fully open.
"Ooops, sorry, man, did I wake you?"
"Did- who- did you just shout?" Wufei stuttered, looking around frantically for any attackers.
"Yeah. This... damned pile of shit just won't play ball. I think Monique can kiss this one goodbye." Duo heaved a disgusted sigh and prodded the stabilizer with a small wrench, as if it might bite.
Wufei sheathed his sword and glanced at the time. Two hours had elapsed since he'd woken up the first time. He doubted he'd be able to get back to sleep now. Remembering the dream he'd been having, he wasn't sure he wanted to.
"Whaddya want to eat, Wu? I could use a break." Duo heaved an aggrieved sigh and glared at stabilizer. Then he brightened up. "I know! I got some frozen pizza rations! Okay, they're a bit manky when you use the microwave to-"
"Energy bar," Wufei muttered, rubbing his face.
"Those are kinda light. And I won't have time to take you out to dinner later; I've got another piece to fix after this one. Hmm, there's those little cake things, I've got some squirreled away; they last forever, they're chockfull of recombinant protein, calories and preservatives, and I find the sugar rush actually keeps me going for-"
"Or I have a portion of borscht in the freezer that I really need to eat at some point, Babka wants her bowl back-"
"Just give me the N-bars, Maxwell!"
"They're in that cabinet over there. Oh, and let me introduce you to a nice bloke called Mr Coffee. I think you two need to get acquainted, like, now."
There was something about Freeport that made Wufei feel perpetually grimy. He showered for longer this time, and without any further incident, but the feeling didn't go away. It was as if the smell of chemicals and sewage, and the seedy, casual violence, were an oily residue on his skin that the cheap soap/shampoo couldn't even begin to remove. He wasn't in the best of moods when he returned to Duo's room.
Duo was still in his chair, feet on the table, sipping a cup of coffee and eating one of the creamy sugary chemical cake things he'd mentioned. The sight brought back a lot of war memories. Wufei shuddered and concentrated on the cup of bitter coffee on the workbench next to the other swivel chair.
"Are you sure there's nothing we can do today?" he growled into his cup.
"Positive," Duo answered, with a long-suffering roll of the eyes. "Look, Wufei, it's crucial that I don't attract suspicion. I'm a freetrader, okay? I have the credentials. But a canny guy like me doesn't start on a new trade route without shitloads of information and months of preparation-"
"Months?!" Wufei spluttered, choking on coffee.
"It'd take months for me to be able to set up a steady supply run of weapons to the X9 colonies, yeah. But I'm not actually going through with it, remember? I should have the information I need on Carver long before that. As long as nobody gets suspicious." Duo stressed the last word by tapping his fingers on the workbench. The prosthetics mad a clicking sound.
"Couple of weeks, and I should have the names and an introduction to the few moon-cursers who would have the balls to run Carver out. Then we're good. But I have to play it cool until we get the info; I can't move any faster or do anything differently than if I were setting up a route. Once I know who ran Carver in, I'll continue to work on the cover story for awhile. I'm sorry if this gives you ulcers, my friend, but that's the way it is. After a few days, once I'm sure everybody's bought the cover story, I'll let it be known that the deal fell through and that I don't need the route after all. By then we'll be hunting for Carver properly."
"Assuming he's not left to go and kill someone else," Wufei ground out.
"Que sera, sera, Chang. Just remember, the riots and the arrests probably screwed up Carver's contacts too. He'll take his time to re-establish himself, if he's aiming to return anywhere in L2."
"If. He also worked on L3 and Earth, before L2."
"Fuck, what am I, Saint Maxwell, patron of lost causes? Why does everybody expect miracles outta me?" Duo threw up his hands dramatically before swallowed another cake-thing whole. Wufei shuddered and looked away. Duo's voice was slightly muffled as he continued. "We'll find out who he is, Chang! Who he works for outside, where he's headed, who his pals are. If we don't get him this time, I'll be here waiting for him when he gets back, and I'll make sure Trowa knows when he leaves again and where he's headed, and you can go and pick him like a fucking daisy."
"What if he doesn't come back here. What if this is our only chance." Carver's future victims were bleeding in Wufei's mind, staring at him accusingly. It infuriated him that Duo could be so flippant about something like that.
"No, he'll be back. This is his home." Duo was looking at the stabilizer again, as if trying to drill through it with his glare. "He's a citizen, I'm sure. I told you, an outsider can't bribe his way in."
"I did," Wufei muttered.
That got him a blank look that nonetheless packed a punch.
"You're not fully in, Chang. If you think you are, why don't you take off that collar and go hunt for Carver yourself? I'll bet Scythe you don't get further than three sectors."
"Why couldn't I - or Carver - pretend to be someone who just landed?" Wufei countered. Duo was supposed to be the specialist here, but Wufei just couldn't take his word for this. In the Preventer's view of the world, Freeport was a sink; criminals hid out here all the time, smugglers, pirates, terrorists, gun-runners, drug-dealers... A hitman was nothing! "Enough money to bribe people to-"
"No currency," Duo reminded him sweetly.
" ...credit or whatever," Wufei muttered, though actually, if Freeport had its own credit system, that did put a brake on what a newcomer could do.
"The only way Carver could hide around here without actually being known in Freeport is if he's in quarantine. But I got that covered; I sent a message to someone who has the power to check that."
"Quarantine?" Duo had mentioned that before.
Duo was working on the stabiliser again, plugging a voltmeter into a socket. "Anybody can live in Freeport. But they have to go through quarantine first."
"A year. Sometimes more-"
"Yeah. They have to work in the mines on the resource satellites or in the shipyards for a year. Or on a Sweeper ship as a gunny and swab. They can't set foot in Freeport otherwise. During that time, they're fed and clothed and they're given a few books and movies, and they work fifteen hours a day. Back-breaking, hard work, the most boring, repetitious stuff."
" ...cheap labour, huh?" Wufei muttered, disgusted. This was the Freeport slavery he'd heard about, apparently. Though he'd not realized it was limited. "It only lasts a year?" Suddenly he blinked and examined Duo's profile more closely. "Did you do this?!"
"Yes to both questions. In theory, I didn't need to; I could have migrated after my time aboard with the Sweepers, swabbing for them before the war. Howard himself said he'd vouch for me. But... " Duo shrugged. It was a simple movement. It spoke of someone who never took the easy way out. "So yeah, I worked on the shipyards. Started there six months after the war. And it's as fucking hard as you might have heard. Freeport saves on tools and expensive maintenance by using the quarantined instead of automated machinery. It's sweaty work."
"Why do people go through with this?"
"Why do people come to Freeport in the first place?" Duo quizzed. "Because they've fallen about as low as you can go, through the cracks you guys outside pretend don't exist any more, and they don't have a fucking choice. And for your information, we have almost as many migrants now as we did under the Alliance."
"And Freeport abuses this, forces them to work."
"People have to work in Freeport anyway," Duo countered. His eyes were still on the stabilizer, but he wasn't reading the voltmeter's output. "This just gives them a foretaste of what they're in for. If they can't stand a year of it, then they won't be able to stand living in Freeport anyway. But we don't give up on people. Not like you guys do." Wufei stiffened in his chair. "If they need a break, if they crack and disappear from quarantine for a few months, no problem. They're credited with the time they've already spent; if they come back, they only have to work the rest of their year. We also have a detox unit if they're hooked on something, and a psych ward if they need that. They'll always have a second chance here, but they have to work for it. They have to work for themselves. If they can't do that, then they're already dead meat; they just haven't found their place to die yet."
Wufei stared at his one-time ally in confusion. He was surprised that Duo, who preferred things fast and loud, deadly and immediate, would put up with a year of boring labour. It was even stranger that he seemed perfectly convinced that this was a good thing. That... just didn't jibe with the man Wufei remembered.
Why had Duo come here? This was more than just a hide-out and a smuggler's way-point. Why did anybody accept what came down to one year of slavery, or penal labour, to be able to enter a colony where they'd be at the mercy of pirates and gangs, exploited by the ship yards, forced to work-
"Stop thinking, Chang. It's making my head hurt all the way over here," Duo grumbled. He'd connected the stabilizer's input sockets to the ports of a battered old laptop and was hammering away at the keys.
"And stop asking me questions. I have to finish this."
"What exactly are you working on, for whom, and how much are you being paid? Or credited or whatever."
"Why do you give a shit?" Duo asked with a hint of irritation as he glared at some unsatisfactory results on the screen.
Because it's interfering with our hunt for Carver, was what Wufei wanted to say. He wasn't entirely persuaded that Duo had been forthright when he'd said they couldn't advance the investigation today. Surely there was some other avenue to explore. But if Wufei said that, he'd probably start a fight. The faint camaraderie they'd established yesterday was stretched; their talk of the quarantine had been a blunt reminder that Duo was 'inside' and Wufei was definitely from 'outside'.
"I'm curious. I'm trying to understand how things work here," Wufei extemporised, and then realized that this was also true.
Duo grumbled something under his breath. "The stabilizer is for one of the shipyards' construction mechas. Monique Desjean asked me to fix it for her. I said okay. She needs this and another piece fixed by tomorrow. I lost time coming to pick your ass up at Hilde's, so now I'm in a hurry. I'm not getting paid. Is that all you wanted to know?"
"You're not getting paid?!" Wufei stared at him. "Why are you doing it then?"
Duo's lips twisted sardonically, as if he'd expected Wufei to ask that. "Out of the goodness of my heart. Go and make yourself some more coffee. I need to-"
"Why do you have to work on it so urgently if you're not getting paid for it?"
Duo carefully put down the wrench and turned towards him slowly, shoving up his goggles. He smiled, hard and cold. "Because I gave her my word, Chang. It happens to be as important to me as it is to you. That's-... the way things work here."
"And what am I supposed to do in the meantime?" Wufei growled, not particularly intimidated by Duo's flash of irritation.
Duo looked like he was busy sorting through a few really good suggestions of what Wufei could do in the meantime. When he finally spoke, his voice was acerbic. "Clean up the place. Help me out. You're supposed to be my Hound, after all. Heero used to work on programs while we had downtime; he rewrote my security network and stuff."
"Computers aren't my forte," Wufei grumbled.
"I need the laptop anyway. I know, you can go and clean up the yard; it's not had anyone do that since Heero was here last." Duo smiled like a shark, visibly amused at having two of the Preventers' best Special Agents pick up his garbage at regular intervals.
Maxwell had to be fucking amazing in bed for Heero to put up with this. That crude and discomforting thought skittered through the back of Wufei's mind before he could stop it. The surge of self-directed annoyance didn't do anything for his temper.
Cleaning out the yard was probably the best thing he could do at this juncture. He didn't trust himself to open his mouth.
Wufei hunted around at the side of the door and found a switch. It turned on two floodlights, one at either side of the yard, and allowed him to get a better look at the place. It was full of junk, was his first impression, and his lips thinned angrily at the thought that it could well take him days to clean this lot up. Then a second glance corrected that first estimate. Though some of the pieces showed superficial rust, a lot of it was still functional, and the heaps were ordered. One contained bits and pieces of a construction mecha, another, truck parts. Pieces of rubber and plastic had been heaped against one wall, Wufei could barely see the top of the pile; a laser cutter and a heat shaper next to that heap indicated that Duo used these as spare parts if he needed to make something. Next to that was a smaller stack of motherboards and gutted computers, which he probably plundered for spare circuitry. Yes, there was a deceptive order to the chaos.
The yard was a box of corrugated steel, twenty feet by thirty and two stories high. There was a high, wide roll-up door in the opposite wall that probably led out to one of Freeport's little back alleys. The piles of scraps occupied two thirds of surface area, leaving an empty space to Wufei's right. Oil stains and grooves on the metal floor suggested that Duo occasionally worked on heavy machinery in this part. It was empty at present. There was a basketball hoop at one end of that section; Wufei looked at it and had a sudden flashback to the war again - that was happening a lot these days, and he hadn't actually thought much about the war for years now.
He remembered the netless hoop Duo had made himself, screwed to a wall in the big, echoing space of the engine room in Peacemillion. Duo had challenged Heero at every opportunity, whenever Wing's pilot wasn't busy with his Gundam. When Heero blew him off, Duo would challenge Trowa. Since Peacemillion only had partial gravity, .6G in the engine room, that led to spectacular matches between the two agile pilots.
Wufei stared at the hoop, deep in memory. Duo had asked him once if he'd wanted a go. Wufei had declined. Duo had looked completely unsurprised. He had never asked again.
The memories left an acrid tang on his tongue, flickering through his mind like an old film reel fading from red to black; the monochrome of blood-soaked revenge. Battles, repairs, rest, battles, repairs, rest. Had he been rude to Duo, when the pilot had challenged him to a game? Had he scorned him for indulging in a puerile pastime? He had quite a lot on his mind at the time, and enough hateful anger, simmering behind his self-imposed calm, to fill the vacuum of space, so he wouldn't be surprised if he had... Wufei found himself beneath the hoop, staring up at the circle, trying to remember. It seemed important that he remember. Now that he thought of it, he recalled how he'd merely shrugged at Duo and walked away. The game had seemed to be a good form of exercise and a way for the others to relieve stress. But it had gone without saying he needed neither and had no wish to join in the fun. The notion had been too alien to him, caught between battle and mourning.
He shook his head abruptly. Enough wool-gathering. The war was over. And he had a yard to clean.
There were pieces scattered between the piles that probably needed putting away, and triage would consign some of them to a bin. Paper, cardboard and foam from the scraps had scattered throughout the yard, clinging to the floor, dried up and shrivelled black in oil stains, gathering in corners like overgrown and battle-hardened dust bunnies. Wufei looked around, spotted a broom and a garbage can near the door, and got to work.
The trash was swept and picked up fairly quickly; he started sorting through the bits and pieces of machinery and materials that had been dumped in corners or between piles, waiting to be put away or discarded. He did what he could, but he wasn't sure, in a lot of instances, what was junk and what wasn't. Duo had previously saved, in his piles, bits and pieces that Wufei would have tossed away without a second thought. His one-time ally was a bit cross with him already this morning; Wufei didn't want to provoke him by throwing away something useful.
He glanced at Duo as he went to get a drink of filtered water from the bottle in the fridge. The smuggler was glaring at the recalcitrant stabilizer, as if he felt like reminding it why they once called him Shinigami.
Wufei glanced at the half-dismantled piece over Duo's shoulders, and didn't think he could make a difference. He didn't have Duo's skills with mechanics, and it looked like a one-man job anyway. There wasn't much more Wufei could do around the yard or the room. Maybe go out in the back to meditate...? He just... didn't like feeling so useless. He wanted to do something to further his investigation.
"Do you need me for anything? Would it be a problem if I go for a walk around the sector?"
Duo started slightly and turned towards Wufei as if he'd forgotten the latter was there. Give Duo a mechanical puzzle and he had Yuy's mission-mode single-mindedness. Blue eyes blinked at Wufei from behind the goggles. "Huh?"
"I'll wear my collar," Wufei growled. "If you don't need me for anything, I think I'll go out."
"Wufei... that's rather dangerous." Duo swivelled towards him and pushed up his goggles.
"Why? Don't you send your 'Hound' out to fetch things from time to time? If you tell me where to go, I can pick up dinner and save us from microwaved pizza. Oh, except I can't talk." Dammit.
"You don't get it. You're not my go-fer, Wufei. You're my right hand. And right hands don't wander around without the body. Just... here, I finished with the laptop. Heero always has fun with that."
"I'm not Heero."
"Ah, right. I suppose he's the only one who can spend quality time visiting a laptop. Well... " Duo looked momentarily hesitant. "You're not supposed to wander around without me, but you can walk a few blocks."
"Why are we attached at the hip?!"
"Because I told you, I'm responsible for you. I'm the reason you're not in quarantine. People see a Blade wander around without his Handler somewhere nearby, they'll assume you're some kind of rat who snuck into Freeport, stuck a collar around his neck, and is walking around under the nifty excuse that he can't answer any questions."
Which hit uncomfortably close to home...
"Gossiping is the Freeport number one competitive sport," Duo added with a wry grin. "So most people this side of Makh know you're my new Blade. Hell, they probably know what size underwear you have on. You should be safe. Don't go any further than a few blocks, though. Here." Duo leaned over, picked up a stray piece of cardboard, and scribbled a few words on it with a leaky well-chewed pen. "Take this with you. If things get ugly, show them this. They'll walk you back here and check with me."
It was Duo's name and address. Wufei glared at it.
"I'm surprised I don't have a medallion on this collar saying 'Property of Duo Maxwell, please return to him if found'!" he growled.
Duo looked blank for a second, and then exploded into fits of laughter.
"What?" Wufei muttered, feeling himself redden as he watched Duo nearly fall off the swivel chair.
"T-too many- too many jokes to make!! I can't- even choose- oh god! Can't even choose- w-which one- to use- first! Jesus! Oh, does this mean I- I have to h-house-train-"
"Give it a rest!" Wufei snapped, stuffing the piece of cardboard in his pocket and grabbing his jacket and sword. Duo was still helpless with laughter as the door slammed shut behind him.
The streets were fairly quiet again, to Wufei's relief. It seemed that the streets of Freeport were only full at the end of shifts. He intended to return to Duo's at the first sign of that returning trickle of people. Duo's warning and precautions were ominous. Wufei didn't feel like getting lynched to the nearest lamppost by a suspicious crowd if he wandered too far. Damn, not only could he not talk, he couldn't even go further than a leash's length from his 'owner'?! Duo could laugh, but Wufei certainly did feel like a fucking pet at the moment!
But he wanted to get out and do something. He couldn't hunt for Carver; if only half of what Duo had told him about the suspicion he might encounter was true, he couldn't take the chance of running his own investigation. Besides, he had no idea where to start. But he could try to get a better feel for his undercover role. What he'd seen so far in Freeport, and what Duo had told him, had been rather confusing. It was all very well for Duo to tell him to shut up and avoid breaking his cover accidentally, but Wufei was persuaded that the more he knew about this place he was infiltrating, the better.
And there was no denying he was curious.
One source of confusion was that he'd expected they'd be tracking Carver through Freeport's red light district. Hell, he'd expected the entire colony to be one big red light district. Sector after sector of brothels, drug dens and bars. Places to host the pirates returning from their looting, and to tempt them away from their earnings. Like Neo-Tokyo, or the Promenade on L3-X442. Both of those were shuttle ports and cargo-holding areas with ultra-low docking fees and shipping taxes, and notoriously lax customs. They attracted the cheapest haulage companies, Sweepers cutting their profits to the barest margin, and of course, pirates and smugglers. An entire fauna of parasites fed off of them and the money flowing freely into the ports. He'd naturally assumed Freeport would put these to shame.
The sectors full of buildings, scrap yards and playgrounds defied his expectations. What kind of criminality had he actually seen? There'd been Pot-Belly, Theodora and all the smuggler scum they'd met. There'd been some thugs and pirates hanging around - but not actually doing anything illegal. He'd seen no drug users, no prostitutes - hell, he'd not even seen any winos or beggars.
But then there was the duel. Wufei swallowed the bitter taste as he remembered the heavy chains biting the air, and his inability to stop them.
It hadn't been an isolated incident, either. He and Duo had witnessed another fight yesterday, on their way back to Makh. Not anywhere as bad as the duel, which Wufei had promptly classified as Second Degree Murder, writing down the bystanders for Aiding and Abetting. No, the second instance was just a scrimmage between half a dozen of the hoodlums hanging around. It looked like it was more to relieve the boredom than over anything important. Wufei had been disgusted but not surprised that Duo and every other passer-by had walked on without a second glance, ignoring the meaty thuds, scuffles and ragged shouts from the small plaza. This was nothing to get upset over. It was part of the scenery, like the smell, the lack of lighting, and the gaudy carts near the airlocks. Life was cheap in Freeport, playtime was rough and death was violent.
The low, rumbling rattle of a train passing shook the sector, causing him to flinch briefly. It hammered overhead, as if it were trying to drive itself through the metal ceiling. Wufei had actually managed to forget the deadly ballet of ships and satellites surrounding Freeport this morning, but he was remembering them now. The sound rose to a crescendo, then started to fade. Freeport's usual background noise came back to the fore: pipes groaned beneath his feet, lights buzzed, a dog barked at the last echoes of the train, feral cats yowled from a nearby junkyard. Someone was singing in the distance, slow and mournful. It sounded like Russian.
Wufei circled the three-block area Duo had allowed him. This left him near the airlock to Volt. He hesitated briefly, but there was no one around, so he went quickly to the airlock and checked the mechanism. It was old, hell, practically antique, but it looked well maintained and functional. That was a relief. He took a minute to decipher the sector's name above the lock. Nestor Makhno. The designation of one of the former cellblocks? Or the name of one of the old jail-birds who'd shored up the place and survived here beyond all odds? He checked the name above the other airlock; Volt sector was in actuality named Voltairine de Cleyre. Huh. He wondered if Duo knew where the names came from.
There were people walking the streets in Volt, and vendors sitting behind their carts. He spotted Chris's gaudy 'Candy Shop' in the distance. He prudently retreated back to Makh.
He softened and muffled the scrape of his boots as he walked, trying not to raise any echoes in the deserted streets. It felt like a ghost town after that brief glance at Volt's busier sector. No children shouted in the playground, no gossips standing at the corner, and the single lone vendor cart he saw was unattended. Because of the lack of a night/day cycle, each sector had its own rhythm, based on the to and fro of shifts. Apparently this was Makh's 'night'. Duo and he were de-synchronized by their arrival and the fact they'd been working in other sectors, which followed a different shift. Workers were probably heading home in the streets of Che or Berkman. When Makhno sector got out of bed, those other sectors would turn in. It was a handy system: it kept the factories running twenty-four hours a day.
He followed the sector's wall a ways. There was graffiti everywhere, as he'd expected. Gang signatures, elaborate and sometimes oddly elegant in their savage red, blue or yellow slashes. There were also messages on the wall, with responses occasionally scribbled beneath, and Wufei stopped to examine some of them more closely, intrigued.
'Jeremy: plz check airlock 3 iyc? Is creaking again. Thx. Olga'
'Alice! How about that date? Please! P.'
'Alice, don't go out with this loser.'
'I won't. Alice'
'Man, 5'6'', red hair, nose like a potato. Saw him go down in basement 3 St,
lost him. Any1 know him?'
'Yes, maybe Igor Kralovka. New migrant. Check w/ Andrev Palto, 6th St and 4th, number 140.'
'Any1 got P90 metal glue? Commissary is out. Nicole Karadan, 4-400, 3rd floor'
'CAN SOME1 CHANGE FUCKING EM LIGHT 6TH ST???'
'Y dont u?'
'FYI: Constantina Milova died in that crash on shipyard AA3, 4th May. RIP.'
'Knew her. Good citizen.'
'Friend of mine. Miss her.'
'There is no god they should have spaced SOB who caused crash!!!'
'Got Mic8.96 circuit in ur pile? Got fuel inj. Corve X7, 4 swap.'
Apparently this was the local corkboard. The messages were written in between the graffiti, which seemed oddly respectful of these small missives. They'd been spray-painted on quite neatly, apart from the one complaining about the lighting on sixth street. They spoke of a living, breathing community. One that had apparently little respect for property value, or didn't mind spray-painting on it, but a community nonetheless.
Higher than the average tagger could reach were massive messages which could probably be seen from the whole sector, if the lighting wasn't so poor. They weren't the billboard advertisements you'd find on other colonies. Wufei could only read a few of them without going further than his leash allowed, but they seemed to march along the whole wall. They were somewhat cryptic.
'Do what you want if you think you've earned it'
'Only My Freedom'
'Live now. Tomorrow we die.'
The last sounded very Slavic, which suited the name of the sector as well as the ethnicity of many of its inhabitants.
He walked away from the wall once he was roughly three blocks away from Duo's place, and headed towards the centre of the sector. He slowed as he approached 4th Street. There were people here, the first he'd seen so far on his walk. One of them was up a very long ladder which rested against the front of a building. The second man was anchoring the ladder and giving instructions and encouragements; these weren't helping much, from the way the man up the ladder was swearing. They were changing the street lighting, Wufei realized. He remembered the complaint about them on Sixth Street. Maybe these had had problems as well. All the lights on one side of the street were off for the repairs.
"Fuck this!" The man at the top of the ladder was trying to undo something with a wrench. Something very stuck. "Get loose, you fucking bastard! I want to go to bed!"
"Why? You have to be at the plant in three hours, why bother to-"
"Fucking hell!" Presumably there were people sleeping in the building to which the light was attached, but that didn't stop the man from swearing at the top of his lungs. Considering the frequent racket of trains running overhead, it was likely that most of Freeport's citizens could sleep through the apocalypse.
"Okay, okay, calm down. Lenny can start your shift, okay? I'll tell him that you stayed up helping me do this, he can explain it to the super."
"Great, I get four hours of sleep instead of two!"
" ...I've been thanking you at every light on the street, but I guess I'll say it again: Thank you! Now stop bitching. Please. My head hurts." The man holding the ladder at the base had only one arm, which probably explained why he hadn't offered to take over for his exasperated friend yet. Wufei had seen a lot of amputees and wounded during the investigation yesterday. Not many people could afford prosthetics like Duo, and Freeport had apparently received more than its fair share of the war-ravaged.
"Mother... fucking... son... " The man at the top of the ladder growled, addressing the screw. Wufei had drifted nearer, because if the guy continued to-
The man barked something that sounded Russian and very rude, hauled at the screw again, moved too far and unbalanced. Not much, but enough to send a shiver down the ladder. The one-armed man at the base gasped and clutched it, but it still wobbled and screeched as it slid a few inches.
Wufei's hands gripped it and helped steady it. The man at the top was silent, probably scared speechless by the sudden sense of how precariously he was situated. Wufei heard the sharp 'ping' of the wrench as it fell three stories to hit the rough metal of the walkway.
There was a moment of stillness and silence.
"Can I come down?" The man's voice at the top of the ladder sounded a bit weak.
"Yeah, come down, Mirael. Forget the fucking thing. We'll ask the Red Band to request a crane or something." The one-armed man was looking Wufei over with sharp curiosity.
Wufei braced the ladder and Mirael came down. Once on the ground he grasped the ladder like a lifeline and let out a trembling sigh. He was in his mid-thirties, dressed in the faded and oily grey overalls of a factory worker.
"Hey? Who's this?" Mirael stared at Wufei, first the collar then the sword, and then he glanced around in surprise. Looking for Wufei's Handler, Wufei realized.
"Donno. Oh, wait... " The one-armed man had been staring at him with the same intensity, but now he blinked. He wasn't much older than Wufei. His arm was missing just under the shoulder joint, and from the way he'd moved as he'd made way for Mirael, he'd suffered some spine or pelvic injury as well. But at rest, his back was soldier-straight in a faint echo of standing at attention. "Wait, Gilla over on Second Street told me that that young grease-monkey in his building, Maxwell, brought a new Blade in. He said the guy was Chinese," he ended with a speculative look at Wufei.
A very awkward silence fell between the three men as Mirael and his friend realized they couldn't ask Wufei for confirmation, and Wufei bitterly remembered Duo's no-communication directive. He wasn't even allowed to nod to indicate they were right.
"That must be it," Mirael concluded with a last look around, in case Wufei's Handler showed up to contradict them. "Well, thanks... er, Gilla didn't mention his name, did he, Kolia?" Mirael looked a bit embarrassed as he turned towards his friend.
" ...Started with a vowel I think... sorry... erm, yeah, thanks for helping with the ladder. Mirael n' me have been changing the lighting on the street. It was starting to fritz out here, too. But it's been ages since they changed them last, and some of the screws are stuck."
Who the hell were these people? It was apparent that Mirael was only helping; this wasn't his job, he had 'factory worker' written all over him. And if this was Kolia's job, to do basic maintenance, then he wasn't very well equipped for it. For that matter, who did civil works in Freeport? The corporation which exploited these workers? A company paid by local taxes? Neither of these men looked anything like a professional repairman sent by the Electricity Board. And they were poorly equipped; they should have a lifter and a security harness for this kind of work. But Kolia had a cart full of long-lasting streetlight neon replacements, and those were not cheap. They had to come from somewhere.
Mirael glared at the light three stories up, then at another one fixed onto the front of the next building. "Stupid cunt screw," he muttered. "Only two lights left. Hate to leave a job unfinished."
"I hate to call a crane over for just two lights," Kolia added with a resigned sigh. "But-... "
Mirael and Kolia looked at the light above their heads, then speculatively at Wufei. Their eyes lingered over his wiry frame. They glanced at each other and then at Wufei again, with an expression that could only be described as artfully hopeful.
Wufei sighed - inwardly - and picked up the fallen wrench. He dropped his jacket on the ground and slid his scabbard over his jumper. No offence to Mirael and Kolia, but nothing was going to make him leave his father's sword attended by two strangers. He grabbed a rung of the ladder and started climbing. Hopefully this was something a Blade was allowed to do without his Handler's permission.
"Thanks, man!" Three eager hands grasped the ladder behind him as he climbed, wrench stuck in his back pocket. "You need to undo two screws at the top, then bring down the whole box. There's a clip-on strap in the toolbag up there. Clip it on to the box and bring it down, Kolia will change the circuits and the bulb."
"That's assuming you can get it undone. Er, don't kill yourself. If it won't come loose, forget about it, we can-"
Wufei had reached the light fixture already, moving quickly, poised and balanced, keeping his feet in the middle of each rung to stop the ladder from barely shivering under his weight. There was a cloth toolbag tied to the last rung of the ladder, and a directional flashlight throwing its narrow beam on the screw that Mirael had been working on. The neon was similar to colony lighting boxes everywhere. He fished out the wrench, set it to the screw, checked his balance, concentrated a second and twisted.
"Bloody hell!" That was Mirael. The snicker was from Kolia.
The second screw was easier. Wufei carefully put them in his pocket, then lifted the box sideways and down to loosen it from its frame.
"Bloody-" Mirael lapsed into muttered Russian and Kolia laughed.
Wufei clipped the rough canvas strap onto the box and made his way down again. Kolia motioned him to put it on the metal floor. He changed the neon bulb quite skilfully considering he had only one hand and he was steadying the piece between his knees. He proceeded to check the circuits and clean them out. Wufei had crouched down on the other side of the box, in case Kolia needed an extra hand. Seeing that the other man was doing fine, he undid the plating on his side and started cleaning out and checking the fuse box and circuits around it. Wufei had worked on similar lights before; they'd used the same on A206, in the mobile suit bay.
"Huh, you know your way around," Kolia commented absently. "Thanks, man."
When they were done, Wufei carried the box back up the ladder and reattached it. Then the three men moved the ladder to the last light. Mirael didn't comment this time as Wufei easily undid the screws and brought the box down. He was busy yawning.
"And there... " Kolia murmured, doing his work again with Wufei's help. "It's nice to have another handyman around. Hmm... Mirael, maybe we could go over to Maxwell's place, and see if we can, er, get this guy's help for when we work on the vent mechanism near Center street in two days' time? Right now, I only have you, me and Maria booked up for that, we could really use another mechanic or two." Kolia glanced at his friend hopefully.
"Kol, don't get the guy into trouble... " Mirael murmured tiredly. He was propping himself against the ladder as if it were the only thing keeping him upright. "Maxwell might feel obligated, but I'm sure they both have other stuff to do."
"Like what? Why does a grease-monkey need a Blade anyway? No offence," Kolia added to Wufei.
"Maxwell's a Scissorman, too, and a freetrader."
"Oh. I hadn't heard that. Okay." Kolia looked disappointed as he screwed the box shut. "Ah, never mind, we'll make do. Thanks, man!" The last was tossed at Wufei as he carried the light back up the ladder.
Once that was done, Mirael and Kolia thanked Wufei solemnly, giving him their full name and address, though he wasn't sure why. There was a stilted silence as they realized he couldn't answer in kind. Then they grinned and waved, and Mirael slumped and started muttering about bed.
Wufei watched them as they walked away, talking quietly, pulling the cart with the remaining bulbs, the tools and the ladder. He wished he'd been able to ask them some questions. More small puzzles added to the bigger one that was Freeport. He shook his head and made his way back to the house. According to what he'd overhead from Kolia, people would be going to work in a bit over an hour. Already windows were opening, and further down the street, an old man settled behind a cart full of food. Better get back.
In the building's hallway, the first door to the right opened as he neared it. A pair of glasses beneath tight grey curls popped out, barely visible in the hall's dim lighting.
"Ah! It's you. I was hoping to catch you. Please, do come in."
She threw the door wide and waved him in. Wufei hesitated, but there was really no polite way of refusing the invitation if he couldn't speak. She motioned again and he entered hesitantly, with a glance at Duo's door at the end of the hall.
She closed the door behind her, then looked him up and down with a warm smile as he stood, uncertain, in the centre of the cluttered room.
"My name is Tina Archinov. But everybody here calls be Babka." Her smile became luminous. "And your name is Wufei. I hope you don't mind my using your first name; Gilla didn't remember your last."
Wufei caught himself in the middle of a nod and looked at her a bit helplessly.
Babka's smile twitched and a faint blush touched her sallow cheeks. "I'm glad I got this chance to introduce myself properly. I completely forgot to tell you my name yesterday morning. I guess I was caught a bit off guard. Not many men bursting through the door to take a look at me naked these days."
Wufei winced and flushed. She laughed merrily, sounding much younger than her nearly-seventy years, and he blushed to his hairline.
"Oh, don't look like that, it wasn't your fault! You're new. It doesn't matter much anyway. Sit, sit! I was about to have breakfast, and it would be a pleasure if you can join me. I made some tea; good stuff, not like that tar Duo drinks and mocks with the name of 'coffee'."
She had a faint Slavic accent, very faint. Otherwise her tone was even more cultured than Gilla's. Wufei sat in an old chair, the ersatz wood creaking under his weight, and watched her curiously. She bustled around, boiling water and pouring it into an old samovar, its beaten copper sides glinting under the neon from her kitchen.
"Here," she said, handing him some tea and a slice of crumbling pastry; it had been placed on an old ceramic plate that looked like it had been decorated by a grandchild. "I've received some really good cake from Tirza over in Barbieri. And I won't eat it all by myself. Eat!"
Wufei looked down at the cake and the tea on the table before him, and hoped Duo wasn't getting worried. Though it wasn't as if he could refuse politely if he couldn't speak. At least she wasn't expecting conversation. He'd never mastered the art of small talk.
"I hope you'll be staying," she said abruptly, after a sip of her own cup. "Heero was a nice young man, but he never stayed."
Wufei nearly choked on the tea on hearing his friend's name. He covered it by taking a bite of pastry. It was very sweet and felt oily on his tongue. If it had any other flavour, it was covered by Freeport's usual aroma and the smell of boiled beets that seemed to occupy the room. Babka was beaming at him though, so he smiled in fake appreciation and honest thanks.
"Good, right? Tirza can do wonders in that kitchen of hers! You should taste her empanadas!"
Wufei took another bite, in the hope that it might actually taste like something this time. No, still nothing.
"Duo's alone a lot. That's not good for a young man his age. He doesn't work in the shipyards very often, especially since the accident. Mainly he stays here and fixes things. He fixed my radio!" She beamed at an old-fashioned CB at one side. Wufei looked at it blankly. "Then he goes off on that ship of his, still all by himself. I hope he doesn't take any risks." Babka sighed and sipped her tea.
Wufei glanced at his surroundings while pushing the cake around with the small fork. The room was about as big as Duo's, though squarer. It was much homier, filled with old furniture, pieces of which had been carefully repaired. A few cheap knickknacks decorated small shelves. The kitchen had an oven and stove, not as big as Hyun's, but more than sufficient for one person. Maybe she cooked for the neighbours too. She had a small bed off to one side, almost the size of a child's bed.
"I live alone. My husband's dead."
Wufei glanced around quickly, embarrassed that his scrutiny had been noticed and his conclusions guessed. She was looking at him placidly, not at all upset.
"He's been dead for... twenty six years. My, how time passes us by... " Babka nodded slowly. Then she brightened and nodded at a side-table that was full of photographs in richly crafted silver frames. "Those are our children. We had six of them. Good thing I was a school-teacher! My brood filled my small class over the years. We lived on a small resource satellite for eighteen years after our marriage, and there were never more than eight children at a time in our school. Milla and Jay are on L3, now; they live in nice colonies. They work in engineering, and Jay is a Professor of Mechanical Science."
Her voice was rich with pride. She didn't mention any of the others. Wufei examined the pictures in their heavy silver frames; children, two older men smiling, three young men and one woman, two of them in Colony Defence uniforms. There were small candles in front of most of the pictures. He didn't comment. Not that he was allowed to anyway.
Babka said nothing either. Her eyes were proud, old and rich with decades of experiences, good and bad. She looked like a revered elder in her small, tatty home full of repaired furniture, a queen in a faded green jumper and black skirt. Wufei glanced at the pictures again. One of the smiling young men, a handsome teen with Slavic features and black hair, was wearing a Sweeper uniform. Presumably that explained Babka's presence in Freeport. But there was a small candle in front of that picture, too. Wufei wondered why Jay and Milla left their old mother in this place if her connection here was dead. She didn't belong here, at all.
He finished off his tea, wondering how he could excuse himself. The propriety, which occasionally tried to trip him up, was giving him hell again. He stared at the door, but she didn't take the hint, merely beamed at him.
"Did you want some more cake? Oh, sorry! I do tend to forget. You're not allowed to speak. Oh dear. I had the same problem with Heero. Though he wasn't very-ah, he was a nice young man, but he-erm, was probably a bit shy-" She interrupted herself with an embarrassed cough, and nodded at the counter where the cake was. "Do go and help yourself if you want some more. Have some tea as well."
One more cup of tea wouldn't hurt, his propriety argued; she might be insulted otherwise, and he couldn't thank her for her hospitality as it was. He poured the tea from the samovar, not attempting to tip it from a height with the elegant motion she'd used.
As he turned, a picture caught his eye. There were a lot of landscapes on the walls, not very well done, and a few children's drawings, but this was different. It was a long scroll in a frame, white paper glinting creamily under the light from an old lamp nearby. Elegantly painted Cyrillic words danced, black against white.
"Ah, you're admiring my Tolstoy? Have you read him, child?"
Tolstoy? Wufei's studies - his life's pursuit, before the war - had been centred on Sino-Asian literature and philosophy, but he'd still read widely from other cultures. He'd read 'War and Peace' when he was nine years old. Was this a quote?
"It's my favourite excerpt of his writings. I made it myself."
Wufei obligingly went to examine it more closely. The Cyrillic was beautifully drawn. A short poem? He didn't read or speak Russian.
Babka must have guessed: "In standard English, it says, 'Without Authority, there could be no worse violence than that of Authority under existing conditions'."
Wufei's cup rattled against the saucer. He stared at her proud smile and felt very thankful for the collar around his throat. He'd be damned if he'd have known what to say otherwise.
"Of course, his ideas were very pure. Not a problem in itself, but not always adequate in the face of reality. Now, Lucy Parsons, she was someone who knew what she was talking about! She was born into slavery, did you know that? She said-"
"Ah, you're back! I was getting worried!" Duo exclaimed without lifting his head away from the stabilizer, which was now purring like a contented cat.
He glanced briefly at the small plate Wufei placed by him, the ceramic clicking against the table.
"Ah. Babka," he said softly, smiling affectionately as he examined the small bit of pastry.
Wufei stood next to him, staring blankly at an empty spot on the worktop.
"The old lady next door is a radical anarchist," Wufei blurted out.
Duo gave him a sunny smile.
"Of course she is, Wufei. Haven't you figured it out yet? We all are!"
End Part 7
On to Chapter eight
Back to Chapter six