Author: Maldoror
see chap. 1 for warnings, notes, disclaimer

AN: Dedicated to Dacia!

Thanks and huggles to Anaitis for the beta Huge thanks for all the reviews and encouragements. I let my mailbox get on top of me once more, so anybody who sent me a question or comment requiring an answer probably got it a week late; but I do try to answer eventually! Big hugs to you all *HUGS* and enjoy the chapter

Freeport + Chapter 20

"This is necessary
This is necessary
Life feeds on life feeds on life feeds on life feeds on-
This is necessary
This is necessary
Life feeds on life feeds on life feeds on life feeds on life."


- Tool, 'Disgustipated'

+

When he saw the simple airlock, Wufei realized with some embarrassment that he'd expected a large somber portal with 'Abandon all hope' or something equally pithy above the frame.

Berating himself for his frivolous thoughts, he suddenly realized that Duo had not yet reached out to spin the airlock's handle. His friend had spent a few minutes disarming the security net on the door, but didn't seem in any hurry to open it. Duo's eyes rested blindly on a section of the sector wall, his stance closed and defensive; come to think of it, he had been unusually quiet on their way to Recyc.

"Maxwell?" Wufei finally prompted.

"Just thinking how we want to handle this," Duo muttered absently. "The Trolls aren't a bunch we want to cross."

Wufei had heard the term before, and let it slide as just one more thing that annoyed the hell out of him in Freeport. But here, at the door to Recycling, he finally snapped.

"Don't call them that!"

"Huh?" Duo glanced at him, his concentration visibly breaking.

"Tr- what you call them. It's disrespectful."

"Here's the PC shit again," Duo sighed. "What do you call them on the Outside?"

Wufei felt his throat tighten as his mind scoured his memory for the name that surely he must know. "...Recycling Technicians," he finally hazarded.

"Well, here, they call themselves Trolls," Duo answered briskly. "They deal with shit, piss, death and decay. They got the worst job on the colony, or possibly the best, if you look at it from their point of view: nobody ever bugs them or rubs them the wrong way, that's for sure. And that includes us. So here's a quick list of do's and don'ts. Don't annoy them. If they tell us to leave, we leave. If they attack us, we run without a fight. If you see a door with a skull - that'll be a real one on our colony, by the way, not a namby-pamby painting - then you don't touch, you don't enter, you don't even look too close. If-"

"What kind of- barbarians live in there?!"

"Well, that's just the question, ain't it. What kind of people would do this?" Duo asked him, cocking his head at Wufei. "Come on, even on the Outside, people working in Recyc are weird. Comes from turning dead bodies into plant food and water all day long, as well as recycling every other bit of waste the human body produces. Well in Freeport, they have the freedom to be as damn weird as they want to be, and that's pretty weird, let me tell you. They form tribes, I'm told, depending on what their specialty is; they have their own lil' society, their own religion of death and rebirth, their own rules, their own customs, and they don't like outsiders. I can't guess how Herb got them to put him up; he must have connections. We don't. Much. I did a favor for- but that was a long time ago, and I don't count on it being remembered. So we go in very smoothly, very discreetly, and if they find us, very politely. Or we won't be leaving. Got it?"

Wufei grumbled something about chaos and anarchy, which Duo took as an affirmative like he usually did. The rat-catcher stepped up towards the airlock and spun the wheel.

The lock hissed open; a wash of air, damp, fetid warmth, trickled out. It brushed them like a corpse's drowned fingers, and went to haunt the cold, dry streets of the living.

Wufei had always known he had a bit more imagination than a good warrior needed, and he'd learned to keep it under tight control. He roped it back in again now and immersed himself in the clear, cold, black-and-white universe of the hunter.

The door opened into a narrow, dark corridor full of pipes, similar to the maintenance shafts beneath sector floors. The lighting was faint, from distantly spaced light bulbs with a mesh of wire over them to keep people from burning themselves against hot glass. Oily water dripped from pipes, electrical cords and ceiling; the rendering, flocculation and fermentation processes produced heat and humidity that would feel like luxuries in Freeport if you didn't know where they actually came from.

Wufei realized he was breathing shallowly through his mouth; with self-directed annoyance he forced himself to breathe deeply and normally. They might have to fight or run at any moment, and a cramp at that point wouldn't be good news. The air was musty and smelled of chemicals that were not the usual run of Freeport stinks, but if the Technicians were doing their job correctly down here, it shouldn't smell of anything worse.

His eyes swept their surrounding as they came to a small junction thirty feet down the corridor. Then he looked again more closely, taking in all the details. Duo was right, he thought darkly; these guys are not Recycling Technicians. They are definitely Trolls.

The corridor junction was ten feet by fifteen; its black walls were decorated with splashes of red paint, crude pictograms that only the denizens of this realm would understand. And a bundle of shinbones twisted in wire hung from the ceiling.

"They believe in setting the mood right from the start," Duo whispered casually over his shoulder. "It's just a way of keeping people out. They're fairly nutty, but they're not that bad."

Oh good, Wufei thought sarcastically. As a warrior, he wasn't disturbed or frightened by this reminder of his own mortality, but it was an indication of the kind of people they were dealing with here. It tallied with Duo's unease outside; they would have to watch their steps very carefully.

Behind Wufei's tight control, though, a young child felt oddly vindicated. That six-year-old Wufei had always known that Recyc was a troll's lair.

Not that anybody had told Wufei about it when he was that age. Recyc was a taboo that the adults themselves rarely discussed or thought of.

The broader subject of waste management was a serious issue, the sort of thing an election campaign would hang on; how to get rid of the masses of garbage produced by humans when they lived in a contained environment and couldn't pollute the space lanes that were their lifeblood. Every colony recycled its garbage to the hilt, not only to save on imported replacements, but also to avoid paying for removal by Sweepers.

But nobody wanted to remember that the human body produced a good amount of that garbage in need of recycling, before becoming a piece of it itself.

As a child, Wufei wasn't supposed to know anything about this. But children had their own stories and rumors about what happened in the shadowy sectors of their colony, and in the void of Space around them. Somehow the stories were forgotten as the children grew up, yet they somehow passed to the next generation, discussed in frightened, excited whispers after the adults had switched the lights out. Recyc was full of Mole Men who built their castles out of bones; in the vacuum around the colony lived a long-haired hag whose tendrils could invade anything not kept tight, and rip it apart; and at the heart of their colony lived a secret sun which only Master Li was allowed to visit; if the old man died without a successor, it would come out and set the colony on fire.

Wufei swallowed the bitter taste in his mouth. Turned out that last one had been right. He shook his head, dispelling memories of happier days and the blood and fire that had destroyed all he knew. It was the past; that fire had forged him into the sword he was today. To regret it would weaken him. He brought his wayward concentration back to where it belonged, focusing on Duo's shape a few feet ahead. Really too much imagination for a warrior...

The corridor led out to a ramp snaking its way up the wall of a big room. A huge machine rested in its centre; its purpose was unclear, and it didn't look like it was working. Wufei merely glanced at the still, silent hulk; he concentrated on the space around it, scouring the darkness for enemies and potential hiding places.

Duo stopped at the top of the ramp, carefully observing the hallway opening before them. Wufei took the opportunity to lean close to him and whisper into his ear.

"How are we going to find Herb in here?"

He'd known before coming that Recyc was as big as a sector in itself, but he thought it would be one large well-lit factory, with helpful citizens to guide them to a dorm where Spasson would be hiding. The reality was more convoluted than he'd thought, and there were no signs of the natives, friendly or otherwise.

"We're going to go round to where Recyc leads into that sector where Herb was seen," Duo muttered, glancing at a palm top with a blueprint of the colony's inner sectors scrolling over it - a somewhat illegal possession that Heero had apparently hacked for him ages ago. "If he's looking to bargain a way out, he won't be too far from there."

"Why didn't we go there in the first place?"

"Because I'm still not sure we don't have a tail," Duo muttered, glancing behind him. "I could swear there's somebody at my back, Wu, although maybe it's only Mr Paranoia. Donno. Not taking the risk. They won't follow us through recyc."

"I don't blame them," Wufei muttered as they skirted a squat machine with a dusty skull perched atop of it's control console. "These people are obviously insane. More so than the rest of the colony, I mean."

"I'm not saying it'll be easy to get to Herb in here," Duo continued, ignoring the observation. "We may not find him. I got Cesar - remember him? That rat-catcher in Zapata? He's watching the pirate route for me. I'm gonna owe him solid if Herb slips through our fingers and Cesar has to pick him up before he bolts. Come on, let's do our best."

Wufei nodded tersely and followed Duo through the dark tunnels.

They came across their first sign of activity ten minutes later. Duo slowed; Wufei could hear noises up ahead. They were not hiding as such, but they were trying to be discreet; if nobody saw them, all the better. Duo took a corridor at a right angle, and ghosted up some stairs, Wufei on his heels. There was a window along the new tunnel they entered. It looked down upon the room they'd skirted.

Four men were maneuvering an electric cart onto some rails. They were dressed in the usual grey factory jumpsuits, but in addition they had large red scarves around their shoulders, necks and faces and they were wearing hard hats. Wufei suddenly remembered seeing similarly dressed figures in the streets from time to time.

The cart was a flat-topped carry-all with two body bags on it.

"Those are outer Trolls. The guys who maintain the sewer pipes, collect organic waste, and go and pick up the dead from the morgue and wakes," Duo whispered, staying out of sight of the men below. Wufei stared at them over Duo's shoulder, noting absently that Duo smelled of sweat and the generic shampoo he used, much more appealing than the rank chemical scent that haunted the air around them.

"The other guy's an inner Troll," Duo added, tilting his chin towards the fifth figure. The man was short and squat, and wore a shapeless grey poncho falling to his waist; it looked like it was made of plastic. Beneath it, he had a grimy plastic apron, which had been transparent at one point in its existence; it hung down to his thick plastic boots. He wore a large surgical mask over all his lower face, goggles and a hard hat with a light affixed to it. Mole Men and their burrows of bones...Wufei shook his head to dislodge the memory.

"Duo..." he whispered - Duo started slightly and twitched towards him, close enough for Wufei to feel the warmth of his skin even through Recyc's heat and humidity. "I've said it before but...your colony is a madhouse."

"Really?" Duo murmured, a gentle smile on his face. "I think any human who lives surrounded by vacuum is crazy, mate. In Freeport, we just show our true colors."

"That you do," Wufei whispered. "Now, are we going to ask one of them where Herb is?"

"They won't tell us. But I know where we are now."

"...You mean we were lost?" Wufei inquired, his mouth an inch from Duo's ear.

He thought he saw a shiver beneath the black coat, but Duo's voice was as casual as ever. "Not lost. Just turned around a little. We're near the sector Herb was seen in. Let's root around, once they're gone."

The outer Trolls had finished putting the cart onto its tracks. One of them handed the inner Troll computer chits - death certificates presumably - with an oddly ceremonial gesture, and the inner Troll accepted them with the arrogance of a high priest receiving a sacrifice. He turned and shuffled away. The cart hummed and lurched after him, apparently of its own volition. He must have a remote under that poncho. The outer Trolls waited until both man and cart had disappeared behind a curtain of plastic slats, then they turned and left towards a distant airlock, dragging a gurney with them.

Wufei and Duo waited until everybody had left, then went back down the stairs and, after Duo had glanced at his palm top, headed across the receiving room towards a door further along, near the plastic curtain.

They walked through corridor and tunnels, occasionally dodging down one to avoid a Troll lumbering along; they were fortunately easy to spot with their headlamps gleaming from a distance.

"There's a place up ahead where they pack up the hydroponics elements into barrels and crates," Duo breathed into Wufei's ear as they stopped in the shadows to let another round light bob past by like a corpse's candle. "I bet that's where Herb's waiting. It's not as creepy as the rest of Recyc. It's near the place where he met with that pirate."

"Lead on," Wufei muttered, following the disappearing Troll with his eyes.

"This way - shit!"

Duo leapt back, almost running into Wufei.

"That's not good..." Duo muttered, sticking his head cautiously around the frame of the open door. Wufei imitated him.

The door opened out onto a platform of metal grids half way up the wall of a huge room. An industrial-size air-purifier, the best one Wufei had seen to date in Freeport, huffed and hissed in its center; the room was a maze of pipes, metal stairs and gangways leading to various points of the building-sized machine.

Wufei analyzed the decor with one glance, and focused on what Duo had seen; two men were on the landing of some stairs on the opposite wall, nearly hidden by a corner of the huge air purifier. Superficially they looked like the outer Trolls, with red scarves over their faces, but they weren't wearing hats or thick plastic boots, and their nervous tension could be felt sixty feet away; they were both holding crossbows as well. It was obvious these men didn't belong here and were well aware of it.

"Herb's ‘friends', looking for him?" Wufei murmured.

"That's what it looks like. Somebody else must have heard about him breaking cover. Either that, or the pirate sold him out." Duo's eyes were narrowed like gun sights, tracing the distant shapes of the two men.

"What do we do now? Does it look like they found Herb?"

"Hard to say-"

Both of the strangers started - Duo leaned back abruptly, tense against Wufei's body, but he and Duo were not the cause of the men's alarm. A third figure had appeared at the head of the stairs. The two armed men seemed to recognize him, and went over to talk to him.

Duo was out the door in an instant, walking as silently as a ghost along the metal grid of the gangway. Wufei followed him quickly, any shuffle of boot against metal covered by the hisses and grinding clangs from the purifier. But if those men glanced back - he and Duo would be sitting ducks on that gangway against a pair of crossbows.

He kept his eyes fixed on Duo's back, ears open for sudden shouts behind them. Soon, the bulk of the machine was between them and the men, and he breathed easier. Up ahead, Duo ducked under the gangway's thin rail and hung precariously over a thirty foot drop. Then he leapt gracefully and silently towards a huge pipe that was traveling up the wall to disappear through the distant ceiling. Duo grabbed the flimsy ladder at the side of the pipe to break his fall, and started to climb quickly. Wufei followed as silently as he could.

Fifteen feet up, near the ceiling, the pipe passed by two platforms, one on either side. Duo shimmied around the large pipe in a move that Wufei could only hope he'd be able to imitate, and leapt, black coat flaring out behind him, towards the platform furthest away. He was heading across the room towards the men they'd seen, while staying above them and hopefully out of their sight.

Wufei arrived at that height and took a deep breath. The pipe was in sections, rim bolted against rim at the joins; about an inch of foot purchase around a smooth cylindrical object over a fifty-foot drop. Easy. He took a deep breath, then another, eyes fixed on the railing of the platform he was aiming for, assuming he made it that far.

Duo had glanced back to see if he was following - blue eyes widened, a warning gasp-

Instincts sent Wufei half-falling, half-sliding down the ladder a few rungs, head tucked into his shoulders. Something hissed overhead and bit into the metal pipe where his skull had been.

Duo's yell echoed- "Wu-!" - shouts from the men ten feet below as they heard the commotion, without being able to see it where it was coming from-

Something jerked beneath Wufei's fingers; the rung he was gripping gave a sickening lurch.

The blade that had nearly severed his head had cut through the thin ladder; the fixtures holding it to the pipe nearest the cut had already sprung loose under his weight. The ones near his hands were giving an alarming metal squeak as the shouts and the sound of a blade being wrenched from metal faded.

Wufei didn't hesitate. He twisted and pushed away from the ladder with all his might - it tore away under his feet - he threw himself through the air and managed to grab the edges of a gangway above him.

Unfortunately, his lifeline was also the platform his attacker had been standing on when he'd launched his attack at Wufei. Footsteps clanged on the metal, coming near-

Duo shouted, the maniac cry he'd used in his Gundam. Wufei heard a stiletto hiss through the air- but Duo was on the other side of the pipe, and with the ladder gone, he couldn't come back to help -

Trusting that Duo's blade would have either downed or distracted his enemy for that crucial second, Wufei did the mother of all pull-ups and hoisted himself onto the platform in one smooth movement, sliding beneath the railing and unsheathing his sword at the end of the roll. His blade was up and in a parry instinctively-

A weight crashed down on it like an avalanche; Wufei twisted and bent beneath it, dissipating the shock of impact. If his opponent had hoped to break his wrists or his blade, he would be disappointed.

Wufei, on one knee, gazed up past the straight metal of his sword, past the thick wide blade of a machete, and up into Carver's face.

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