see chap. 1 for warnings, notes, disclaimer
AN: Dedicated to Dacia!
+ Chapter 33
"I know that the
sunset empire shudders and shakes
I know there's a floodgate and a raging river
I say see the silence of the ribbons of iron and steel
I say hear the punch drunk buddle drive hammer and wheel
Sometimes you're beaten to the call
Sometimes you're taken to the wall
But you don't give in"
- Midnight Oil, Sometimes
Mako sauntered over to the
Breaker carrying the meat hooks. He chose one of the crude weapons and
swished it around carelessly by the handle. Wufei's eyes stayed fixed
on the vagaries of the ugly bent hook. He barely noted how the Breaker
handed the second weapon to Carver.
"Wufei, this is nuts," Duo hissed at him, his eyes on Carver as the larger
man tested the sharp end with his thumb. "You have to let me do this.
You got beaten up not two hours ago, and you've never fought with a hook
"Have you?" Wufei asked without tearing his eyes away from the instrument
in Mako's hand.
"I've fought with lots of different weapons-" Duo started to say evasively.
"That would be a 'no' then. I've trained with short sticks and wooden
"That won't be anything like it!" Duo snapped. "This isn't something you
find in a dojo, Chang. It's not a sword."
"He's right," Mako said, approaching on the tail end of Duo's exclamation.
He tossed the hook at Wufei when he was four feet away. "This thing has
no fucking balance at all."
Wufei caught the long piece of metal, bent into a sharpened hook at one
end, and had to agree. It wasn't quite as heavy as he'd thought it'd be,
but the weight was all in the u-bend at the end.
"Be smart, Duo," Mako added, as Duo started to protest again. "With your
fingers, you can't hold the grip firm. You wouldn't stand a chance; not
against that big ape. You and Rav have your differences, but I think we'd
better work together now. I'll help Chang get ready here; you two try
to figure out what happens after the duel, however it goes. Morgenstern
won't go down easy even if Chang wins."
Duo grumbled, but let Mako shoo him off to one side of the platform where
Ravachol and a Red Band were talking in low voices.
"Take off your shirt; it'll not protect you, and you'll just be giving
him something loose to grab. You're right handed. Right?" Mako drew out
a roll of wrapping from his back pocket, the kind boxers put on beneath
"Just can the act, Chang. I know you're no Blade. If you want to keep
up the rigmarole, I can ask Duo to give you permission to talk to me.
But let's not do that and say we did. If we wait too long, your public
will get restless," Mako added with a toothy smirk.
Actually, the crowd seemed to have settled down a bit. There were still
people shouting here and there in the Esplanade; even from the elevation
of the platform, Wufei couldn't tell if the fuss was due to agitators
or just undirected brawls. Most of Freeport's citizens were quiet though,
that strange, ominous stillness Wufei had noticed before. It was, Wufei
suddenly realized, the way people watched duels all over Freeport: with
intense concentration that he had once mistaken for bloodlust. Oh, there
was indeed some anticipation here; Freeport could be a cruel and violent
place, and people adapted to their environment. But more than that...there
was a hunger here for a resolution. For a conclusion. They were witnesses.
This duel before them was part of the pact that kept Freeport together
even when internal strife threatened to tear it apart.
The crowd was not getting impatient, but Wufei had given Morgenstern his
word that he would try to expedite things. And Mako knew who he was by
now; no point in being coy. Wufei nodded tersely and gripped the meat
hook's handle in his right hand. The metal was screwed into a large wooden
grip that didn't fit his fingers too well; butchers probably had bigger
hands than he did. He lowered his arm; the hook ended at the ankle. About
the size of a short Jian, and Wufei had trained with that sort of blade.
"Don't think of it as a sword," Mako said, as if reading his mind. "I've
fought with a tool a bit like this once before. I'd show you the scar,
but I'd have to strip, and the audience ain't here for that kinda show."
"I'm glad you're finding this amusing," Wufei muttered, turning his face
away from the crowd to hide his lip movements.
"It's good advice I'm giving you. Though fuck me if I know why I'm helping
a Pig," Mako said lazily, pulling off a length of wrapping band. "Don't
try to use the sharp end. If you snag him somewhere non-vital, you won't
get the hook out again before he can kill you. You have to use it to break
bones; that's the trick. Use it like a badass cudgel, and don't worry
about the hook until he's down and ready for the kill."
Mako roughly taped Wufei's fingers over the grip of the meat hook and
tying it at the palm, making sure he'd keep his hold on the weapon. Then
he grabbed Wufei's other hand and wrapped up his knuckles and wrist as
Wufei almost asked Mako why he was helping him, but Mako's attention was
only partly on what he was doing. Wufei followed the man's gaze to where
it rested on Carver. There was a cold, calculating anger in Mako's grey
eyes that the lazy smirk couldn't quite hide. Wufei remembered that Joshua
Brindlow, one of the men Carver had killed, had been a friend of Ravachol's.
Maybe Mako had known him too. Even if he hadn't, in Freeport, your friends
and the friends of your friends were as vital as the air you breathed.
The pale grey eyes left Carver and fastened on Wufei's arms, assessing,
before they rested on his features.
"Kill him for me, and I just might let you live, Preventer," Mako said
"Either that, or stand in line and I'll get to you when I'm done with
him," Wufei murmured, resting the weight of the metal hook against his
Months ago, when he'd first set eyes on Mako, Wufei had been distantly
interested in the man's mouth. He'd been correct in his assessment back
then: Mako really did look exceptional when he smiled.
"It's been awhile since I was outside," the killer said slowly. "Are there
a lot of Pigs like you out there?"
Considering what Wufei was about to do..."No, probably not," he conceded.
"Their loss." Mako measured Carver with a glance. "He's got the weight
and the range, but I still think you got your chances. Kill him. Okay,
Chang's ready here!"
A space had cleared itself in the centre of the stage; people had moved
to the sides, or gone down the ramp to join the crowds at the edge of
the huge pit over which the platform was hanging. Carver and Morgenstern
were standing to one side. The financier was talking to his Blade in a
low voice; Carver was nodding in response to the last-minute orders. They
glanced up at Mako's signal. Carver's brown eyes fastened on Wufei.
Someone gripped Wufei's shoulder.
"I hope you know what you're doing, Chang," Duo commented, not sounding
all that concerned.
"Get Babka and the others out of here if you can. Morgenstern said he'd
make sure they were in the frontline if things blew up," Wufei said quickly.
His eyes were fixed on Carver, while he traveled through the reaches of
his mind towards his centre, detaching himself from the tangles of past
and future and moving towards the Now.
"He won't lay a finger on them," Duo said with steely arrogance.
Wufei glanced at his friend. Duo had that hard crooked smile on his face
again. He was entering into that frame of mind too; where you soldiered
on despite the losses, and you didn't mourn your dead as long as they'd
managed to take enough of the enemy with them. It was necessary; it was
what was called for. But...
Always for the greater good.
Never for us.
Wufei knew that his job now was to take down Carver whatever the cost
to himself. It would be a blow against Morgenstern, it would protect Freeport,
it would give Duo a chance. Three good reasons to die.
But Wufei suddenly decided he wasn't going to. He'd take Carver down,
yes, but he was damned if he was going to die. Duo had lost a lot in his
life. Wufei didn't want to become one more cross for Duo to bear. His
lover didn't deserve that. Duo had trusted him, had taken him in. Even
when he'd learned how much Wufei had lied to him, Duo had accepted that
and the necessities of Wufei's job. He'd seen beyond it, in a way Wufei
sometimes struggled to. Remembering the way Duo had reached out to him,
and the work they'd done together, Wufei could almost let himself believe
he deserved to live for his own sake as well as Duo's.
Duo glanced at him briefly, but at the core his eyes were blind and focused
"...Have a plan ready for when I finish this, will you?" Wufei said quietly.
It wasn't what he'd wanted to say.
Duo stared at him and the hard smile slipped. Maybe those other words
hadn't been needed after all.
His lover looked away. "Just get back in one piece and I'll let you in
on it," Duo muttered quickly, as if he was trying to get that said and
done before Fate realized they were making promises to each other and
decided on one last universal irony.
Wufei nodded. It was as good as a vow.
He walked towards the centre of the platform. Carver was already there.
Wufei didn't pay heed to the sound of feet hastily backing away from the
He'd made a promise, now he had to keep it.
Wufei's mind moved past the noises of the crowd; it faded from his mind.
Carver had stripped out of his shirt and jacket as well. Scars pockmarked
the Space-pale skin. A bullet impact; a few ragged tears from a blade.
Carver was holding the meat hook as if it were weightless, but without
the benefit of having it strapped to his fingers. Wufei might be able
to disarm him.
Wufei slowly detached his mind from Duo, from his friends, from Freeport's
fate. He stared into Carver's eyes.
They were frighteningly steady and sure. Carver had moved into the warrior's
headspace faster than Wufei had. Maybe he never really left it.
Wufei wasn't surprised by the sudden attack when it came. It had been
in Carver's eyes all along.
He fell back and sideways, evading the charge. Carver wasn't swinging
the hook; it was held out like a hand ready to grasp. He was probing.
Wufei circled. His eyes measured the other man.
Memories of Carver's victims passed fleetingly through Wufei's mind. He
forced himself to distance himself from them. He could not afford anger
or indignation; not if he wanted justice for those dead.
The platform faded from Wufei's senses; only the essence of its boundaries
remained, the space he had to work with.
The crude instrument in his hand was starting to feel familiar beneath
his fingers. It didn't matter that it had no balance. That it couldn't
cut. That it was barbaric and brutal. It was becoming a part of him.
So was Carver.
The big man moved like a tiger, muscles rippling as he sprang forward
at a tangent.
Wufei was ready. He swung out, a short sharp jab with the shaft of the
hook, aiming at Carver's elbow.
Carver dodged the blows; Wufei spun around on one foot and struck down
at Carver's knee with his heel.
The blow didn't connect, Wufei's timing and speed were slightly off, and
his opponent was fast. Carver backed off a step, then he hammered down
with his hook, aiming the sharp point at Wufei's head.
Wufei dodged sideways- the metal almost brushed his bare shoulder, the
swish of its passage leaving a cold trail on his bare skin.
Both fighters broke and started circling again. Measuring each other once
more with the aid of this new knowledge they'd gained.
The blood was pounding at the back of Wufei's head where he'd been hit
earlier, and his bruises and the small burn on his neck were flaring under
the cold air of Kropotkin. He could feel the edges of his reserves; he
didn't have the luxury of dragging this fight out. But he didn't let that
knowledge panic him as he slowly focused fully on his opponent.
He stared into the flat, brown eyes and thought: We are quite alike, you
It was a difficult admission, but in this void created by his concentration,
there was no room for self-delusion.
There was a lot of loss and anger behind those eyes. It wasn't directed
at anyone still living. It had formed like a cyst around Carver's soul.
Carver had given over his future, his choices, his existence to another;
to a man who could still look into the future and make plans. Carver no
longer made plans, or judgments or decisions; he merely performed the
duties that his master gave him. It wasn't cowardice; he'd chosen his
path, and he would walk it to the bitter end, because that was his choice.
We could have been even more alike...but in the end, I chose differently.
Wufei was no longer looking at Carver with hate, disgust or even pity.
They'd both chosen the road that had taken them here; they both wore a
collar, like most men did in the end.
Now Wufei had a promise to keep; and Carver had orders.
The real battle started here.
It would have to be short. The longer it lasted, the worst Wufei's chances,
as his injuries started to drag him down.
Carver attacked again. He darted in from Wufei's right, the hook trailing
behind him, wound back and aimed at Wufei. The Preventer took three steps
to the side, taking some of the deadly arc out of that potential swing,
his own instrument at the ready for a parry.
His opponent's hook shot out at knee level, to knock Wufei's legs out
from under him.
Wufei leapt back- analyzed the attack automatically. Carver's blows were
still probing, looking for an opening, but at the same time he was forcing
Wufei back towards the guardrail of the hanging platform, towards the
empty space and the abysmal plunge into the under-level of Kropotkin.
He'd already reduced Wufei's range and space by a dozen square feet.
Wufei weaved back a couple of steps, voluntarily boxing himself in a bit
more- then he plunged forward. Carver's weapon scythed out, tried to catch
him, but it whistled above his back, Wufei had lunged way too low, one
hand hitting the ground and helping him tumble and get to his feet again.
If he'd been in better shape, the move might have given him a short shot
at Carver's back. But it took him a precious second or two to catch his
balance, and Carver was amazingly fast for someone that big. Wufei was
back on the defensive, but with over half the hanging platform behind
Carver grimly started herding him towards the distant guardrail again.
And why not? It was a good strategy. He'd either wing Wufei with one of
his long, vicious swings, or he'd corner the Preventer, or he'd simply
wear him out. In any event, Carver was going to win.
Wufei let himself stagger a bit, a tempting target-
When Carver swung at him, Wufei grabbed the bent end of his own hook in
his free hand and parried. He took the blow of Carver's weapon against
the shaft of his own, bracing both arms against the shock. Carver's eyes
widened- Wufei jerked down with his hook, snagging the shaft of Carver's
weapon with the U of his own and pulling away, trying to rip it from Carver's
Then he barely dodged a massive punch to the gut.
Carver leaned forward and shoved his weapon against Wufei's-
Wufei went flying straight back. With a speedy flick of the wrist, he
managed to disengage their hooks even as he stumbled, or he'd have been
brought up short by the grip strapped to his hand, and then he'd have
been at Carver's mercy.
He hit the deck hard, and rolled to his feet with more difficulty this
time. His head was spinning; cold prickles ran down his spine. If that
punch had connected...Damn it, that freak was fast.
Carver moved forward at a prudent pace, he'd obviously reevaluated Wufei's
skill and speed yet again. But he must also have realized the extent of
Wufei's injuries. Carver stalked forward as if he'd already won, and it
was just a matter of wearing Wufei down until Carver could finish him
Wufei took a few steps back. He knew Carver's advance was pushing him
into a corner again, but he needed time, just a few seconds...
It was the way Carver had used the hook for the two blows he'd aimed at
Wufei. That was what had caught the Preventer's attention and sent his
warrior's instincts racing to formulate a strategy.
Carver's grip was like steel. Wufei would not get that hook from him without
weakening him first. The man's greater reach was like an impenetrable
wall around him.
But the way he was holding his hook...and that punch- if Wufei had had
the opportunity Carver had just had, he'd have kicked, and broken Carver's
knee. Carver was not trained as fully in the martial arts, and it looked
like he'd only used a machete before, never a staff or tonfa. Carver was
concentrating on what he thought was the killing part of the long metal
hook: the bent metal end. Wufei's use of his weapon had caught Carver
by surprise (though damn had he ever recovered fast...)
The thoughts and conclusions darted through Wufei's mind in a couple of
seconds, more impressions than actual formulated analysis.
He had a plan now. It was a gamble, and a dangerous one, but Carver was
as good as Wufei remembered. The greater gamble would be to continue probing
that strong defense, dodging those vicious blows and waiting for an opening
that might not occur before Wufei was too weak to take advantage of it.
Wufei went from edging backwards to a full-swinging attack in a fraction
of a second.
Carver's eyes widened in surprise- but his well-trained body was already
falling into a parry-attack stance.
Wufei pressed- speed was key here, he could not allow Carver time to think,
only react. He hammered at Carver's wrist with the shaft of his hook,
then slammed the weapon down towards Carver's thigh when his opponent
whisked his arm out of the way.
Wufei dodged one counterstrike and attacked again, staying on the balls
of his feet-
Carver grunted and threw a sideways swipe with the hook, right to left,
just to get Wufei to step back and fall into the defensive again. The
gesture was confident; he was giving Wufei no openings to exploit, and
his range was greater. He knew he had the advantage.
Instead of falling back, Wufei braced himself and threw up his left arm
in a parry.
In that sliver of a moment, he actually saw Carver's eyes widen with anticipated
The metal hook slammed into the flesh of Wufei's upper left arm.
It hurt more than he thought it would. Pulsing agony as the muscle tetanized
around the intruding spoke of metal.
But Wufei had been ready, he'd expected it, and his body had been primed
to carry through the next move regardless. Through vision full of black
splotches, he took another half step forward and he punched Carver right
in the jaw with the heel of his right hand. The skill he'd acquired from
his lifelong training gave the blow a deadly accuracy; the weight of the
unused meat hook in his hand added venom.
Carver's head snapped back with a sharp crack.
Wufei slammed his hook into Carver's wrist on the downswing of his punch.
It connected with a meaty thud.
Carver's hook jerked in the muscles in Wufei's arm- then the flesh was
ripped at again as Carver, still staggering from the vicious punch, lost
his grip on the wooden handle.
Wufei's vision went black.
He was on his knees. A pounding heartbeat and darkness filled his mind.
He'd heard a metallic clang nearby. That would be his enemy's weapon hitting
Wufei tore himself out of the darkness by sheer strength of will. If he
Wufei blinked. He could suddenly see again. The scene before him was like
a snapshot, flat, lifeless and unreal. Carver leaning forward, eyes barely
focused, blood gushing from his mouth where he'd bitten his tongue or
lip, reaching for the fallen hook on the ground.
In what felt like slow-motion, Wufei struck out with his hook, batting
Carver's arm away. Then he swung up with his weapon and caught Carver
full on the chest. It wasn't much of a blow - Wufei was still in shock
- but it knocked Carver back. The bigger man landed back down on the ground
with a thump; he must still be reeling from the punch.
Wufei could see more clearly now, but it still felt like someone else
getting to his feet, someone else turning towards the hook on the ground
and kicking it as hard as he could. It skittered away, out of reach.
Wufei turned without watching where it ended up. His weapon was already
Carver had scrambled to his knees. He saw it coming. He moved his head
out of the way- but he was still dazed enough where he couldn't avoid
the entire blow. It struck him on the shoulder, felling him to the ground
Wufei swung the hook underhand and upwards- he didn't even know which
way the point was anymore, but he wasn't aiming to use the sharp part.
The shaft of the hook caught Carver under the chin as his head sagged
forward. It hurled him backwards, his skull snapping back.
Wufei swayed. He couldn't use his left arm; his entire left side was dead,
distantly hot and throbbing. But the fight was over now. Just a few more
seconds, and he could bind the injury.
Carver knew it was over too, but no fear stained the brown eyes. They'd
gone completely flat, barely human in the bloodstained, bruised face.
His gaze was fixed and staring, as if he could only see one path before
him, the one he'd chosen, and he was going to walk it to the end. Dead
men had eyes like that.
He staggered to one knee, tried to dodge Wufei's next strike, but the
two blows to the head had taken too great a toll. He could barely stand.
Wufei hit him hard on the shoulder again; heard/felt something give under
Carver fell back, rolled onto the uninjured side, tried to get out of
range. He was heading circuitously towards his weapon, which had slid
to a halt near the edge of the platform. There was no hope in that action;
it was nothing but an automatic attempt, like choreographed steps in a
mock battle whose outcome was already decided.
Wufei followed him, ignoring the sensations in his body, the growing weight
of the hook in his hand. He let Carver go for the weapon at a scurrying
crawl, because he knew what he'd do then, and it was as good an ending
Someone was shouting off to the right...
Shadows flickered around him, but they stayed out of his mental battle
space, so he didn't track them too closely. All his attention was on Carver,
who was trying to close his fingers around the handle of his weapon; Wufei
had broken his clavicle, and maybe his wrist as well.
Carver used his left hand, and, with an effort that forced admiration,
rose to his feet. He had to know what was coming; but then again, it was
an easy way out for him as well.
Wufei spun around on his left leg and kicked Carver high up on the chest,
hurling him backward. Carver's hips hit the guardrail of the platform
behind him, but the force Wufei had applied was too great and aimed too
high, the metal barrier couldn't stop Carver from pitching out over it
and into the void.
Wufei walked to the railing, automatically making sure. Carver could have
grabbed a handhold. He saw only darkness leading down into the under-level
below Kropotkin. Far below, among the storage tanks and crates, would
be the broken body of a Blade whose name Wufei had never actually learned.
Good. Carver might not have deserved the small compassion of a relatively
quick death; maybe getting slowly ripped apart with a meat hook was some
form of justice for his victims. It wasn't Wufei's justice, though.
He glanced at his left arm, for the first time since Carver's hook had
dealt its damage. Looked ugly; the puncture wound itself wouldn't have
been too bad, compared to other injuries in Wufei's violent past, but
the blows and tugs had ripped the hole bigger and chewed up the triceps.
It was bleeding like hell, but not enough to kill him. Probably. A couple
of days in a regen unit and a few weeks of rest and reeducation and-
Wufei was on his knees and gagging. There was a pair of boots in his graying
field of vision. They were familiar. Just the sight of them made the pain
a bit more bearable.
...kept my promise, Duo...
Then his arm hurt a whole hell of a lot as hands that could be a mite
gentler applied pressure and dealt with the small hemorrhage.
Duo's voice, one long agitated diatribe, was piercing the fading ringing
in Wufei's ears. "Fuck what a stupid stunt I can't believe you'd do that
you could have taken him without doing that- or you could have fucking
let me do it- what a fucking mess, if you bleed out on me-"
"I won't," Wufei sighed. His whole left side was an aching throb, but
his head was clearing again.
"Get the hell away from us, Mako." A knife sliced down the wrapping on
Wufei's right hand, freeing him from the hook. The metal slipped through
his limp fingers and hit the platform with a ringing thud.
"Maxwell! The situation-"
"You're going to be fine," Duo said, inspecting the dressing he'd improvised
from Wufei's ripped-up shirt and boxing tape. "It's not bleeding enough
to kill you, anyway. No, stay down-"
Wufei slowly got to his feet. "I'm okay."
"You won't be for long! That's still bleeding!"
"Maxwell!" Mako jerked Duo around by the shoulder. "Rav needs you!"
Wufei had thought it was his heartbeat ringing savagely in his ears, as
shock, stress and adrenaline finally had their way with him. But it wasn't.
As if Carver's death had been a catalyst, the intently quiet crowd had
erupted into small knots of fighting. People shouted, some screamed. There
was a concerted movement away, but there were also tides of people flowing
into the Esplanade to join in the fray, hampering escape. It didn't look
like a riot; the violence was too scattered, turned inwards on itself
instead of on a figure of authority. But it didn't look pretty.
"What's going on?" Wufei croaked.
"Some people have finally figured things out and want answers," Duo replied,
carelessly freeing himself from Mako's grasp without even looking around.
"Others have decided they're standing by Morgenstern, whatever he's done.
And some guys out there are always two seconds and one punch away from
blowing a fuse anyway. At least they're not heading straight to Lao Tzu
with Morgenstern at the helm."
"It could still go that way," Mako said tightly, his gray eyes on the
"Yeah, it could," Duo answered flippantly. He slipped Wufei's uninjured
arm over his shoulder and walked away from Rav's henchman as if that was
all he cared to discuss. Mako muttered something and went to stand next
to Ravachol, who was on the edge of the platform, staring bleakly out
into the mob.
Morgenstern was nowhere to be seen; he'd taken his men and probably dispersed
into the huddle of Kropotkin citizens, fanning the flames where he could.
Wufei wondered distractedly what Morgenstern had felt when his Blade had
taken that plunge.
"Duo...we have to..." Wufei looked at the crowd's movements helplessly;
this wasn't a riot. This wasn't something a Preventer had ever seen before.
It looked like a barroom brawl, spread over a whole sector. It looked
like the start of a revolution, but with thousands of separate sides.
He didn't even know how to begin to defuse this chaotic situation.
Then Duo was taking him down the ramp and he could no longer see the boiling
crowd, only a group of Rav's men and Babka, Gilla and a few of the older
Makhno citizens, looking tense and worried. The younger ones who'd shown
up to defend Wufei were no longer present. Either they'd made it out on
their own, with the wave of other escapees who didn't feel up to this
fight, or else they'd chosen a side and joined in.
"Wufei, you're gonna be pissing mad at me for this. But the way I see
it, you owe me for that stupid duel you agreed to," Duo said.
Wufei glanced at him in confusion. "Huh?"
For answer, Duo propped him up against Gilla's chair. "I want you to go
to the clinic with Babka, Gilla and anybody else who'll come."
"I'm okay," Wufei said. He felt a bit light-headed, and the pain was nibbling
away at whatever reserves he still had, but- "I'll stay with you. You
might need me to watch your back "
"You'd be more a danger to me than anything else," Duo pointed out bluntly,
"and in your present shape, you could barely watch yourself. You did your
bit. You helped us draw Morgenstern's fangs. Now go to the hospital. It's
neutral territory. Nobody will harm you there. I can't be worryin' about
both of us. Here." A knife was pressed into the fingers of Wufei's right
hand. "Make sure the others are okay on the way over."
Clever, putting an obligation like that on Wufei. The Preventer glanced
around him. Gilla was looking at up him in silence. Babka was next to
him, but she was staring at the agitation in the Esplanade with sadness
and pain in her old eyes.
"Damn it," Wufei muttered, but he knew his lover had a point. If he went
with Duo, somebody was bound to remember that Preventer picture, or the
duel against Morgenstern's man. He'd be a lightning rod. Better make a
getaway now while things were too volatile for anybody to think.
"I'll be fine," Duo said, sensing he'd won the argument. He made sure
Wufei was leaning against Gilla's chair. "I know my way around, and Rav's
gonna need a hand with this mess."
Wufei nodded, and closed his eyes tight as he felt a wave of nausea shake
him. He was still dazed and dizzy. When he opened his eyes again, Duo
was already gone; just like that, before Wufei could tell him anything
more, or caution him, or threaten him with a thorough ass-kicking if he
got himself hurt.
Wufei found himself numbly pushing a silent Gilla, though maybe it was
Gilla who was moving his chair with his strong arms grasping the wheels
and Wufei clinging to it to avoid falling over. Babka's hand was on the
chair's other handle. Some of their friends were behind them and others
up ahead, slowly making their way through the incoming crowd, skirting
the heart of the agitation.
Marta Bernstein was with them. Wufei stared at her dully, his mind still
too confused to fully analyze her presence here. He'd thought she'd join
with Rav's men and fight. She was holding a thick cudgel, but it dangled
from her fingers. She was crying. One tear trickled down her face set
in an unreadable mask, then, a minute later, another one. She didn't speak
to him while their small group navigated through the growing mob; or in
the echoing hallways outside of Kropotkin; or during the long trip through
a disturbed Freeport to the hospital complex. Nobody said anything, except
for Babka. She stood on the shuttle platform (before they realized that
somebody had cut the service, and they'd have to make their way on foot)
and said: "I'm glad you're okay, Wufei."
Freeport didn't have a regen
unit, to Wufei's absolute lack of surprise. He made do with analgesics,
a local anesthetic and micro-suture repairs to the muscle by a harried
surgeon. Wufei knew that with that kind of fix for this injury, he would
lose motility in the arm, unless he had corrective surgery on the Outside.
But that was so far in the future, it could have been another age and
another universe. Wufei had more immediate concerns.
The surgeon left nearly at a run, leaving the nurse to finish knitting
the epidermis with the suture gun and bind the wound. The doctor's hurry
told Wufei that other casualties were starting to flood into the clinic.
Despite Duo's assurance that he'd 'done his bit', Wufei's sense of failure
was eating away at him.
The nurse had finished his bandage and was checking his bruises and talking
about the possibility of a mild concussion, when a Red Band appeared.
He didn't talk to Wufei; he dragged the nurse aside and they conferred
for a short while.
Ten minutes later, Wufei was herded away from the wards and into the nurse's
lounge, and the Red Band took up guard in front of the door. It wasn't
clear if he was there to stop Wufei from leaving, or to protect him from
potential reprisals. Possibly both.
The coffee machine in the corner hummed as it warmed its water again and
again as the minutes, then the hours, passed. Wufei stared at it blindly
as he tried to organize his thoughts, come up with possible plans, and
accept the failures that had brought him here. And he waited.
At least he'd done something right; he'd made sure his friends from Makhno
had made it to the clinic with him. He'd seen Babka before the Red Band
took him away; she was in a large room - once a ward, now getting set
up as triage - and working at setting out sheets and supplies on a long
table. She hadn't seen him. She'd looked alright, and he was ready to
bet she was going to stay here and help the staff with the wounded until
the crisis was over. Assuming it was going to end any time soon. He hadn't
seen Gilla, or Marta, or Dannie, or any of the others who'd come with
them to the clinic. He hoped they'd stayed somewhere around the compound
or sector. He wasn't sure how safe Makhno would be for them right now.
The lounge was comfortable, with a camp bed set up in a curtained corner
for interns to rest, but Wufei would have preferred to wait in triage,
to see if someone was bringing in his lover at any point. The doctors
here wouldn't even know to warn him if Duo was brought in- and Wufei couldn't
inform them, that wouldn't be safe for Duo.
So he waited.
The coffee machine muttered, warming up more water that no one was using.
No nurse came in for its produce. Maybe they had another lounge, and they'd
been told this one was off-limits by the Red Band guarding the door. Or
maybe the flood of casualties was as bad as Wufei's pessimism was telling
him it could be, and the nurses didn't have the time for coffee. There
were eighty thousand people living in Freeport. This hospital had room
for three thousand, big maximum. Which was a stupidly low number, considering
the population working in a high-risk environment- maybe Freeport had
Wufei was sitting on a sagging couch, his aching arm in a sling. He was
trying to meditate, find his focus and be ready for any eventuality, but
the pain in his arm and the dull throbbing in his abused body and sore
head were distracting. He couldn't manage more than a light dazed state
of trance. He felt so useless.
He could probably break out of here. However damaged he was, that Red
Band would not be able to stop him, and everybody else was too busy by
the sound of it. But if he left, he'd get himself killed, or assuming
he was amazingly lucky and found Duo in the chaos, he'd get Duo killed,
and then that would be- that would be unimaginable.
In the distance outside the hospital, someone started shouting into a
loudspeaker. Wufei stood up - felt momentarily light-headed. He went closer
to a vent in one side of the windowless room, but he couldn't make out
Someone ran past the door to the lounge, but people had been running past
it for the last three hours he'd been here, that was nothing new.
Ten minutes later, his surgeon showed up again. The man looked strained,
but he was not yet panicking about the state of his colony, as far as
Wufei could tell.
"You're up? Didn't somebody tell you that you could use the bed?"
Wufei didn't glance at the bed the surgeon was gesturing at. He stared
at the man with the most frustration he'd felt since he'd arrived near
Freeport and Duo had put the collar around his neck and those bloody rules
on his back. Chances were, this doctor knew who Wufei was now, or wouldn't
really care if a Blade grabbed him by the shoulders and asked him what
the hell was going on outside. But discipline was something bred into
Wufei's bones, and there was always the fear that betraying himself to
the wrong person could harm Duo...he stayed silent by sheer force of will
that left him swaying slightly.
"Good god, sit, sit," the surgeon muttered, shoving Wufei back into the
sagging settee. "Here, let me look at this. Hmm...no abnormal swelling.
I bet it hurts though. "
Wufei glanced at the wound the surgeon had revealed. He had massive black
and blue splotches spreading from shoulder to elbow, the wound was still
puffy and straining against the stitches, there was blood and fluids seeping
onto the bandages. And yes, it hurt; fancy that.
The surgeon drew the dressing back on. "We'll have a nurse change this
in a couple of hours. Or more. Sorry, we're a bit busy."
Wufei gave him a Look. The air was about to sizzle with his frustration,
and the no-communication tradition be damned, surely the surgeon could
The doctor smiled reassuringly as he straightened up. "Freeport is holding
together, don't worry. I've not been following the newsnet, but as far
as I can tell, things are going fairly well, considering the circumstances.
We've not run out of beds yet. I have to go."
The surgeon quickly washed his hands in the lounge sink. Wufei stared
at his back, chilled not only by the fact that Freeport had already seen
thousands of casualties, enough to threaten to fill up the hospital's
beds, but that the doctor still felt that this was pretty good 'considering
the circumstances'. That meant this fairly cheerful, harried man could
see it getting a hell of a lot worse indeed.
"The nurse will give you a second shot of immuno-boosters when she changes
the dressing, as well as something for the pain. Please lie down now.
If you collapse, that just gives us more work," the doctor pointed out,
already half out the door. "I'm surprised you're still standing. Don't
worry, I've been assured by the Elder of our sector himself that you're
safe here, and you won't be taken anywhere against your will, so relax,
Wufei didn't say anything, but he signaled his understanding and acceptance
of the reassurance by going to sit down on the bed. He'd noted, through
the open door behind the doctor, that two more Red Bands had rejoined
the first. What that meant...he no longer knew.
The doctor had a point.
Wufei curled up on the bed, making sure the scalpel he'd automatically
palmed during his surgery earlier was within easy reach. He forced himself
to shut down and rest. He might need his energy later.
He dozed lightly, waking up at each sound of footsteps in the hall. A
nurse came in to change his dressing and give him a couple of shots, but
she said nothing and didn't even look him in the eye. When she left, Wufei
went back to sleep with the mental discipline he'd cultivated most of
his life and particularly during the war. This was starting to feel like
those times all over again.
In a strange way, it reassured him. It would take more than a riot and
an anarchist conspiracy to bring down Shinigami. Wufei had to use patience
as a weapon and wait until he could act, as he had in the Lunar Base prison.
Wufei fell asleep and dreamt of death and war.
He was instantly awake when
the door opened.
It had been over fifteen hours since Carver had taken that final plunge
to his death. Wufei felt a bit better physically, though his wounds were
aching worse now, and the uncertainty and stress of the situation were
nibbling away at his restraint.
He sat up slowly, eyeing the newcomer. It hadn't been the man he was waiting
for, the one he desperately wanted to see. But it wasn't an execution
squad either. It was Elder Braun.
"Is Duo alright?!" Wufei snapped. This man knew he was a Preventer; he
knew Duo was a Rat-catcher who'd helped Heero and then Wufei infiltrate
Freeport. Elder Braun had called them both in when Josh had been murdered,
because he wanted Wufei's policeman expertise. Wufei didn't need to keep
up the Blade pretense around him. That Braun was here instead of one of
Morgenstern's buddies was a good sign, Wufei hoped.
"Maxwell?" Braun muttered, rubbing his eyes. "Don't know, to tell you
the truth. Probably. He has a knack for survival."
Wufei took in Braun's appearance: unshaven, pale with exhaustion, eyes
reddened, looking even older than when Wufei had first seen him...the
jacket he was wearing was twisted and was missing half its buttons, as
if someone had grabbed it and wrenched...maybe his presence here wasn't
such a good sign after all.
"How bad is it?" Wufei asked.
"Not as bad as it could have been," Braun answered, blinking at Wufei.
The neon of the nurse's lounge seemed to be bothering him. "It's not over
with, we still have a few wounded coming in- so far, we've accounted for
two hundred dead, give or take, and I didn't see the latest reports on
the injured. But the worst hasn't happened, so we're all good."
"You must have thousands of casualties already; what the hell do you people
consider worse than that?" Wufei growled, irrationally irritated that
Braun had the same kind of strange cheer as the doctor, and also that
he'd not had any news on Duo.
"Worse? Let me see: Elders being involved, high-jacking the council and
spreading the unrest. Someone getting hold of the self-destruct codes
and using that as leverage. Sabotage of the Command Centre or Air Control.
Kamikaze strike by a ship into the colony- oh, I'm sorry, Agent Chang,
didn't you realize how close to the edge we were here in Freeport?" the
Elder added sardonically as Wufei stared at him in horror.
"But-but what are you doing?!"
"Me? Personally? Nothing. A lot of things have come to light in the last
few hours. As a consequence, I have one last duty left to perform, and
then I've been relieved of my function as Elder," Braun said pleasantly.
"It looks like I might be looking at that retirement finally. I will present
the facts and the reasons for my actions to the citizens of my sector
in a few days, when things are a bit less noisy, and they will decide
if they still trust me as their representative, or if they'd rather kick
"I'm sorry," Wufei muttered.
Braun sniffed, as if Wufei's apology insulted the resolution that had
pushed Braun to take the risk of giving Duo his support in the first place.
Braun must have had a powerful reason to let a Preventer on board, because
it had been obvious to Wufei that Braun hadn't liked him or the necessity
of his presence, when they'd met over Josh's body. Whatever those reasons,
he was apparently willing to stand by them and face his people's judgment
without having a Preventer worry about him.
"The last duty concerns you," Braun said abruptly, dismissing the cloud
hanging over his own head, and bringing it to bear on Wufei's instead.
Wufei straightened, prepared for anything with the grim resolve with which
he'd flown suicide runs in Shenlong, years ago.
"We have a favor to ask of you."
The Preventer blinked. 'Prepared for anything' hadn't quite covered that.
"Favor? From me? What...do you need my help identifying Breakers- Morgenstern's
people? I've seen many of them, I could-"
"Oh no, Agent Chang. We don't do things quite like that here." There was
a flicker of frustration on Braun's face. It was almost instantly gone,
but Wufei had noted it with some surprise. "Some of the people behind
this little plot have proudly come forward and declared their support
to their leader; they will stand or fall with him. But the others, and
I'm sure there are plenty of others, have stayed in the shadows until
they see which way the wind is blowing. If they're smart and have friends
who still believe in them, chances are we'll never know who they were.
I don't mind for those who were merely misguided. But for those who committed
crimes against Freeport...unfortunately, there's no mechanism here to
prove such a crime, to bring them to account for their acts. They can
disappear, or continue to live freely in their sector as long as they
still have their credibility, and there's little I can do about it without
Braun wandered over to the coffee machine and grabbed one of the nurse's
mugs. Finding it clean enough, he hit the button and sighed at the liquid
splashed against glass.
"There's still fighting in Kropotkin- it's been worse there, as you might
expect. I would never have thought it of Alan. Never. I've known the man
for almost fifteen years, and I might not have liked him a lot, but I
would have trusted him with all our lives. He'd have had my vote for Elder
if we'd held that selection three days ago. Maybe it is time I retired..."
"So the situation is resolving itself?" Wufei asked, startled; Braun made
it sound as if the worst was already over, and now there were only loose
ends to tie.
"Yes and no. After Ravachol and Maxwell managed to block an outright revolution,
Morgenstern tried one last gamble. He walked into the Council of his own
free will and asked to be heard over a general newsnet broadcast, to ask
Freeport to decide if they would support him."
"...You allowed this?" ...
"Yes, of course. Until he's been proven to have committed a crime against
the community, he's a free man; he could do what he wanted. As an important
member of his sector who was ready to report a serious problem, with friends
behind him and vouching for him, he had the right to access our systems.
The Council of Elders approved his request to have his plea broadcast
to the colony's newsnet. It was the easiest and fastest way of getting
all the facts out to everyone and put a momentary halt to the unrest,"
Braun added, when Wufei stared at him completely flummoxed. "He- I'm sorry,
did you want some coffee?"
"No," Wufei snapped. "What happened?"
Braun took a sip and made a face. Then he took another and continued speaking,
without looking at Wufei.
"He made a good case. But in the end, the people voted against him. Every-"
"You had time to organize a vote?! In the middle of a riot?"
"Easiest way to end said riot," Braun pointed out. "And the mechanics
for a colony-wide referendum are already in place in every sector, linked
to the Lao Tzu computer, and can be used within the hour."
"Of course," Wufei muttered, rubbing his temples with his good hand.
"Yes, 'of course'," Braun said with a certain amount of arrogant pride
in the system that had just stripped him of his function in Freeport.
"So the riot's over?"
"Not by a long stretch. Well, it's no longer a riot, but there's infighting
in some sectors. Some of it is only loosely related to Alan's plot, and
is more about fundamental beliefs in Anarchy and what it means. Some of
it is just brawling and settling of old scores while the attention of
the colony is elsewhere. There's fighting, but apart from the odd duel,
there are no longer many fatalities...Besides, there's funny rumors running
around that's dampening the unrest. Rumors that the Preventers are about
to send in a peace-keeping force-"
"I know, but some citizens are gearing up to defend the colony instead
of wasting their time arguing ideology. Another rumor is that anyone who
supports Morgenstern will garner the enmity of the Trolls, and I'm afraid
that threat was a lot more effective than anything you people might do."
Wufei laughed briefly, a tattered sound, and then he frowned. "Is Fred
Braun paused with his cup halfway to his lips. "Who?"
"A Troll-...someone who was with me and Duo. He was injured; we were trying
to get him out of the under-level when I was caught. Never mind, you probably
wouldn't know. You really haven't heard anything about Duo?"
"No, sorry. But that's good news." Braun's voice had gathered a thin layer
of sympathy; he was looking at Wufei with a bit more attention than before.
"If something had happened, I'd have probably heard of it. I have my sources
where young Maxwell is concerned."
"So...the citizens voted Morgenstern down..."
"Yes. In the end, they had a choice. Morgenstern tried to convince them
that it was their duty to spread Anarchy across space, for their own safety
and for the liberation of the oppressed everywhere- yes, I can see you
know the kind of speech. Many who live here believe deeply in our way
of life, Agent Chang. Although right now we're seeing the ugly side of
it, we're also seeing the inbuilt mechanisms of self-control that is stopping
this from turning into out-and-out madness, without having to bear the
repression of a police force that would control us the rest of the time."
"'Without Authority, there could be no worse violence than that of Authority
under existing conditions'," Wufei whispered, thinking of the framed words
on Babka's wall.
That earned him that strange, thoughtful look again. Then Braun seemed
to dismiss a question he was about to ask and took a sip of coffee.
"Morgenstern really believed he could win this; he really believed there
were enough people ready to help him spread anarchy throughout the solar
system, especially when he waved the fear of a Preventer strike around.
But in the end...the majority voted, at seventy-one-percent with a ninety-three
percent turnout of citizens, to not form a Freedom Committee with Morgenstern
at its head, and to leave whatever control Freeport can be said to have
in the hands of the Elders. You can see this result in one of two ways,
Agent Chang. Either Freeport has the wisdom to realize that true Anarchy
cannot be brought about by tricks, by violence, by imposing it on the
people of other colonies unless they strive for it themselves. Or that,
in the end, Freeport cares only about Freeport, and the rest of you lot
can go to hell as far as we're concerned. If you want to live under a
tyrannical regime, that's your choice."
Wufei laughed again. It was a brittle sound and it hurt his head.
"You don't look too well," Braun commented. "I hope you can walk."
"Ah yeah, the favor," Wufei muttered. "I don't get it, what the hell do
you think I can do now?"
Wufei blinked and steadied himself against the frame of the camp bed he
was sitting on. "I...I beg your pardon?"
"It was his choice." Braun shrugged; it obviously would not have been
his own. "I'm sorry, I've confused you; I forgot you haven't been hanging
off our news channels like most of the other non-combatant citizens. He
had a choice, you see. When he was voted down. I mean, he'd virtually
broadcast over the entire colony that he'd conspired to pull us all into
an ideological war, even though he didn't put it quite like that. We don't
have any laws and rules, Chang, but-"
"Traditions," Wufei muttered dazedly, wondering if the nurse might come
in soon with another one of those shots.
"-but something like that is still considered a no-no." Braun had the
caustic levity of someone who had accepted that he no longer had a battle
to fight. "So he had a choice. He could go back to Kropotkin- oh yes,
we'd have let him; don't look so surprised. We don't have the right to
arrest and hold people against their will; not unless we have proof they've
committed a crime against the colony, and the mechanism to gather and
present that proof are rusty or nonexistent. Most things are settled at
the sector level, and by popular decision. So yes, he could have walked
out of Lao-Tzu. Once back on his home turf, he could have started a sector-wide
riot, until someone cut his throat or the colony tipped off the edge of
the abyss. I'm glad to say he did not choose that path; I had not misjudged
him that badly. Another choice would have been to present himself for
the council's judgment - we would have convoked him there sooner or later
anyway, as soon as we managed to put our proof together and present it
to the colony. That would end in exile or getting spaced. Or he could
choose the final option. To answer for his crimes Outside, where he'd
committed most of them, in front of a Preventer Tribunal."
"He chose that?! You have to be joking. He's...he's an anarchist. He has
no respect for our institutions. Why did he-..." Wufei had met Morgenstern,
and he felt sure that that man was not afraid of death the Council's judgment
might have earned him.
"You'll have to ask him. Since that's the favor. The small sloop Euclides
is docking at Bay 49 in three hours. She will be bearing a small Preventer
taskforce. We would like you to escort Morgenstern aboard and arrest him
once he's off of Freeport territory."
"It's the best way. And his choice. And it gets both you and him out of
the colony, out of danger, out of ways of reprisal and more agitation.
The rest...the rest of this is Freeport's business, Agent. Not yours.
Please be ready to leave in two hours."
Braun put down his cup and turned- then he stopped. He hesitated, head
tilting one way then another as if he was arguing with himself. Then he
fished around in his pocket and produced a pen. He grabbed a medical notepad
from the counter near the door, tore off a sheet and scribbled something
on the back. He walked over to Wufei and handed it to him without looking
Wufei glanced at the paper and frowned.
"I don't understand-"
Braun was already at the door. "It's a formality. A tradition, if you
will. Keep it. Put it in your Preventer office and frame it. It'll be
a conversation piece. I guess you can even say you've earned it. Yes,
I guess you have."
There were still three Red Bands outside, but Braun appeared not to notice
them. "I think I'll go see if they need help in the hospital cafeteria
now, what with the influx of patients. I'm not needed anywhere else, my
sector is fairly peaceful and in good hands. Besides, I used to work in
the galley of a Sweeper frigate. Granted, that was forty years ago, but
I bet I can still make better coffee than that. Good luck, Agent Chang.
Thank you for the favor."
Wufei looked at the closed door in silence, then at the piece of paper.
It was a suitably odd end to his time in Freeport.
He was leaving Freeport. He was leaving Duo, and he didn't even know if
his lover was dead or alive. It was over. And all he had to show for it
was a prisoner he'd done little to capture himself, and a scribble on
the back of a torn-off medical prescription.
Wufei folded the piece of paper up and put it in his pocket. It never
occurred to him to throw it away, even though Braun might have meant it
as a joke.
[chap. 32] [chap 34] [back
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