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. The songs/quotes used in the chapter heads don't belong to me either.
Author's Note: Dedicated to Dacia!
Also dedicated to all the people who emailed me and reviewed, encouraged, poked and generally enjoyed this fic ^_^ A heartfelt thanks. And of course, huge thanks to Anaitis for the beta, despite all that pesky packing and moving going on. Thanks hun!
"For god's sake burn it down
Nothing ever burns down by itself
Every fire needs a little bit of help
Nothing ever burns down by itself
Every fire needs a little bit of help
Give the anarchist a cigarette
Burn baby burn, burn baby burn"
---Chumbawumba, 'Give the Anarchist a Cigarette'
Freeport by Maldoror
When Duo casually strolled into the alley, Wufei couldn't stop himself from raising one last protest.
"Look, are you absolutely sure-"
"Yeah, I 'm quite sure."
"Duo." Wufei caught him by the elbow and forced the smuggler to turn towards him. "I don't claim to know that much about Freeport, but even I realize that if this plan backfires, you'll find yourself isolated and maybe ostracized." Wufei glanced anxiously around the buildings of Kropotkin surrounding the alley. People were at their windows, chatting or hanging laundry, children were playing nearby... Wufei couldn't have felt more exposed if he'd had a neon sign with 'Preventer Spy' blinking on and off over his head.
"Actually, if I break into Morgenstern's place and it turns out I'm wrong about him, I'll find myself 'ostracized' right off the colony, or possibly 'ostracized' from life too. But I'm not wrong." Duo said it quite simply, as if the possibility wasn't even worth discussing.
"But we've been following suspected Breakers-... " Wufei interrupted himself as he realized he was rehashing the same old argument again.
A week ago now, Duo had told Wufei about his suspicions regarding Morgenstern. Well, that was far from all Duo had said that night. That moment on the roof had left marks on both of them and in the way they acted together that seemed to cast shadows and light on every touch, word and gesture they shared. Things between them sometimes felt raw, fragile and new all over again. Fortunately, they had a rather important mission to focus on. It kept all the emotional stuff in the background where it didn't interfere or feel too overwhelming.
When Duo had told Wufei the plan he'd come up with a couple of days ago, it had been rather easy to forget all the soul-baring and feelings, and focus on the rather dangerous move Duo was planning.
Yes, Morgenstern was somebody Wufei thought they should investigate. But they had no real proof of his link to the Breakers. None of the men they'd been following - not even Tor Kendle, supposedly one of the Breaker's lieutenants - had even approached Morgenstern's house or workplace in the past weeks.
Duo glanced around, then leaned close and tapped Wufei's chin teasingly. "What's wrong, copper? You need the bloody fingerprints and the coroner's report?"
"Yes," Wufei growled, embarrassed by the affectionate grin directed at him.
"Well, this is Freeport, we ain't gonna get-"
"We could!" Wufei glanced around and lowered his voice. "There is always evidence out there, even in Freeport. We've already narrowed the Breakers down to Kropotkin. We could continue to follow them until we prove - or disprove- a connection. We can wait until they make another mistake. With Braun's help, we could tap their comm lines, or-"
"You just can't trust my gut feelings?" Duo tilted his head and scrutinized Wufei, exasperated.
"I do trust your gut feelings," Wufei replied through gritted teeth. "I'm not entirely without intuition myself."
Truth be told, Morgenstern was a much more likely candidate for a Breaker than Ravachol and Mako and the other small-time crooks Wufei and Duo had encountered. The man was a politician, a financier, the kind of man the Breakers recruited. This was the sort of man who'd have the connections and the know-how to bribe a politician or Preventer high-up to get Wufei pulled off the case. He'd be the kind of man to think of doing it that way in the first place; someone like Ravachol would have just organized a lynching party and gotten it over with.
A whole lot of little details were pointing towards Morgenstern's involvement. Carver didn't only kill terrorists and radical politicians on the Outside; he'd also hit some financial fraud types and others who might hurt Freeport or the Breakers in ways that Ravachol wouldn't even be aware of, but a financier like Morgenstern would have caught them. Anyway, Morgenstern had been living in Kropotkin for too many years now. He knew everything that went on in the sector and he knew everybody; the Breakers would not be able to operate there without his knowledge. And Wufei had met the man; Morgenstern was idealistic, driven and ambitious. He would not let something like this go on in his sector without either opposing it or becoming fully involved.
Considering Morgenstern's charisma, his leadership abilities, his control over Kropotkin, his past history as a rebel... There was in fact a chance Morgenstern was rather high up the Breaker hierarchy.
But they had no proof! Wufei's cop instincts rebelled against meting out justice when there was still a good chance they could be wrong. And for all Duo felt free to fight based solely on his intuition, Wufei was sure there were other people in Freeport who would like to have more proof than that, even in this anarchist society.
"The problem with following a gut feeling is that your guts have very little impact on a raging mob," Wufei ground out.
"Aw, Chang, are you worried about me?"
Of course I am, you bastard, he thought, striking away the hand that was trying to grope him.
"Look." Duo rolled his eye, absently rubbing the fingers Wufei had thwacked. "We're not going in and arresting him. We'll poke around and see what we find. Maybe we'll find that proof-"
"In a manila folder with 'Secret Breaker Plans' written on it?" Wufei snapped.
"Sure, if he has one lying around. I was thinking his computer might be more useful."
"Neither of us is a hacker of Yuy's caliber. We won't have the time-"
"We went through all this last night. More than once." Duo sighed with a show of heavy patience. "I told you that this was reconnaissance and that you didn't need to come with me."
"Like hell I'm not coming with you."
"Sometime today then?" Duo turned and sauntered away.
Wufei glared at his back, but he followed, of course. Duo was the kind of man who gambled on his intuition and acted on it immediately. Wufei knew where Duo was coming from, but he wished his friend would be a bit more cautious. Wufei had a lot in his life to feel guilty over; the thought that Duo might become one of those regrets...
Particularly after what they'd shared up on the roof last week. They didn't talk about it, there was an unspoken agreement that it wouldn't be brought up casually, but it was there, between them all the time. Wufei sometimes had the oddest feeling that in a way they were still up there, together in the darkness, every other person left far beneath them. The feeling was making him jumpy, off balance. Wufei had felt like a target since the very first day of his arrival in Freeport and it hadn't particularly bothered him, but now he felt he'd dragged Duo into the bull's-eye. The thought that something could happen to Duo haunted him.
But nothing was going to happen to Duo. Because Wufei wouldn't let it. Duo was right, they had to move now against the Breakers; the lives of a lot of people, Duo's included, now rested on the outcome of their mission. But Duo was going to get out of this safe and sound if Wufei had anything to do with it.
The alley was long and winding, delineated by fences and walls of laundered sheets. Duo strolled along as if he didn't have a care in the world, as if he was only taking a short cut to the avenue beyond.
He paused at one of the small yards in what appeared to be surprise.
"Hi fellas. You working on the drains?"
Three Outer Trolls looked up from where they'd been crouching over an opened sewage grid in the yard. They didn't answer. One of them slipped down into the narrow space alongside the sewer pipe without a further glance at them.
"Yeah," one of them finally answered stiffly. "We, er... got some reports of a problem... "
"Go," the third man hissed at them as his eyes swept the buildings around them once more.
Duo and Wufei had been discreetly examining the windows as well. Most people were at work, but there were always plenty of curious bystanders in Freeport. Time to take a gamble. Wufei fell into step with Duo as the latter walked over to the opened sewer line, then, after a last quick glance around, let himself down into it.
The space was very tight; good thing neither of them was the brawny type. The big pipe next to them was tepid with the warmth of human refuse, though it was sufficiently well isolated that it didn't stink; there was only a heavy, throat-grabbing smell of mildew, dust and oil in the air, with a faint echo of sewer behind it all. Wufei crept forward, right on Duo's heels. Up ahead he could see the Outer Troll's hard hat.
Fifteen feet of narrow walkway gave way to a small junction, barely big enough for the three of them. The Outer Troll was waiting for them with a flashlight. The man's shoulders and back were stooped. A heavy tool belt around his waist seemed to weigh him down. The only thing Wufei could see of his face, below the hard hat and above the red scarf, was a nest of fine lines in which his eyes, brown and splotched with floating red veins, nestled like newly-laid eggs. He wasn't looking at either of them; his eyes wavered and circled their features without ever settling on their faces.
"The King gave me a message for you," he muttered in a deep, cracked voice. "He said that if I do this for you-"
"That settles our debt, yeah, yeah, I know," Duo drawled.
The Troll's brow scrunched beneath the hard hat and his eyes swept across Duo's face briefly.
"The King gave me a message for you," he mumbled again, as if repeating verbatim, and maybe he was. "He said that if I do this for you, it will be a right mess for all of us if you're found out. So don't get found out."
"Oh. Hah, I'll do my best," Duo answered with a grin.
"Amos was a nice kid."
Amos? Ah, the Troll who'd been killed in Recyc during Carver's escape. One more of Carver's bodies.
"He gave me soup once," the Troll added intently, staring at Duo's right ear.
"Er... that's nice."
"It had those crunchy things in it," the Troll added in a secretive whisper.
Wufei turned slowly to Duo and gave him a 'remind me why you thought this was such a bright idea, Maxwell?' look. Duo smiled sheepishly in the light of the torch.
"The King's message said that Fred here is the best Troll there is when it comes to going through the underbelly of Kropotkin," Duo told him, his eyes urging patience. "Right, Fred?"
"Croutons. That was what Amos called them. I've been working these tunnels for fifteen years. Keeping the sewer lines watertight and shipshape."
"So you can lead us to where we need to go, right?" Duo prompted.
"Know every Troll tunnel beneath this sector. And a lot of the maintenance tunnels too. But Amos was a good kid."
Apparently that was supposed to make some kind of sense and serve as an explanation, because the Troll abruptly turned around and crawled away, hunched over in the tight space, his flashlight poking at the darkness ahead. He took one step and started mumbling.
"Four straight, one left, four straight, one left, four straight- King said it was fourth Avenue and sixteenth Street. That's a nice place. I found a green bottle of fresh orange juice in the trash there once, and it still had some juice in it. That was good juice. But Amos gave me soup. And he always said 'Hi' when we met in the Temple."
Duo followed the muttered words without hesitation, and Wufei was forced to fall into step, trying to keep his sword from clunking into the pipes of electrical cords above. He was following a crazy old Troll down dark corridors into potentially hostile territory, this was just great. But that being said, most Trolls were crazy one way or another, and that didn't stop them from doing their job. The King obviously thought Fred was reliable enough to get them to their destination. And in Kropotkin, there really was no other way of breaking into the house of someone as well-known and respectable as Morgenstern without half the sector finding out and showing up with a couple of ropes.
The place was a maze. Wufei guessed that they were walking along one of the main sewer lines for the sector, but then Fred led them down an even narrower crawlspace which appeared to collect the waste from the block. Pipes from the individual buildings flowed into the main one at odd intervals and angles, leaving them to scramble under and over them as they progressed. At one point, they dropped down a level to crawl their way beneath the gridding itself, when the tangle of pipes became too much to get through.
Every block or so, Wufei estimated, the crawlspace was blocked by a locked grid. When Duo said the Trolls were paranoid about their territory, and allowed no non-Trolls access, he hadn't been exaggerating. Fred would haul out a huge keychain with hundreds of small electronic keys. They were indistinguishable one from the other, only the tiny chip at the end would differentiate them, but Fred would pick the right one without hesitation
"Turn left here. I've never brought Unbelievers through here. The King told me to bring you. Nobody goes where Trolls go. This is our territory. Only me, Quin, Reichert and Marla come through here. And Missou and the King, for inspections. But the King said it was okay to bring you. Just this once. I remember this junction. The pipes burst here three years ago. Some idiot screwed up in Waterworks. Put too much flow through. Three years ago, and ten months. The King said the idiot would not get near Waterworks again. I spent thirty hours straight here. Quin said I should leave to go and get the jab. But if I left, then the other pipes might back up, 'cause all the flow was going through them. That's no good."
Wufei noted the man spoke about the pipes like they were cherished pets that Fred raised and cared for. This is good, Wufei thought to himself; next time I think my job sucks, I'll remember Fred...
"Didn't get the jab after all. Didn't have the time. Came down with that lep-too-spiro-sas. I was all yellow. So was Quin. He said I had to leave to get the jab, but he didn't get it either. He stayed with me all the time. Quin's my best friend. But Amos was a nice kid too."
Fred frequently brushed the pipes with his free hand as he passed, a gesture like a soothing caress. He walked with a practiced slouch, bent at the knee, his sloped shoulders rounded to fit the narrow walkway. The ceaseless mutter seemed to fill up the minute space that was left by the sewage line, the electrical cords, the junction control boxes and the metal grids on which they walked. Up ahead, roaches the size of credit-pieces skittered away from the beam of the torch.
"Remember when this flow equalizer caught fire. Some bastard had hacked into the landlines above. Was trying to run some big machinery. Overloaded the circuits. Big fire. Five years and seven months ago. Took us three weeks and two days to get in replacements for all the pieces-"
Three feet ahead of Wufei, Duo paused, hoisted up his sleeve and wiped his forehead with a part of his wrist that had been covered until now. Wufei knew how he felt; sweat was dribbling into his eyes, as the warmth of the sewage pipe and exertion took their toll, but Wufei's entire skin felt contaminated by the filth, the ceaseless mutter and the roaches. He could only see his friend's profile in the shine of Fred's torchlight, but he knew that set of Duo's shoulders. They were both in the soldier mindset, the one that let them walk through filth, death and enemy fire without flinching, without letting it touch them or disturb them.
"-went around carting wastes away in trucks, so that the pipes-shhh."
Fred stopped at one of the turns in the labyrinthine maze of crawlspaces, corridors and junctions to peer through a grid of thick metal bars. He was mercifully silent for a couple of minutes, his head tilting back and forth to look at the corridor beyond, apparently listening attentively. Wufei and Duo both fell into the absolute stillness of practiced infiltrators, waiting patiently.
"We're leavin' the pipes here," Fred whispered as he glanced back at them. "We need to cross over."
He made it sound like they were going to creep through a no-man's-land complete with strafing gun-turrets. But once Fred had opened the two reinforced locks and swung open the grid, it turned out to be a maintenance tunnel, like the ones you found beneath every sector. Fred hopped out and scurried along the tunnel like one of the roaches, looking uncomfortable without the presence of his beloved sewage pipes. Ah, of course, Wufei reminded himself. The maintenance tunnels were patrolled and used by the people of the sector; they were separate from the sewage tunnels which were the distinct property and territory of the Trolls.
Fred's mutter had resumed, higher pitched and visibly agitated.
"This part was flooded too, back in '94, when the tank on Sixth Avenue broke. Real bad, damaged the whole undercarriage of the sector. Washed out our tunnels too. We replaced fourteen junction boxes, two controller stations - watch your step, oil puddle. Not good, they should clean this up. The lighting's okay in here though. Kropotkin is much better than Vanzetti. I worked in Vanzetti when there was the outbreak of Blue Fever- here, this is where we get back to the pipes. This is Reichert's section."
A jangle of keys. Fred quickly fitted the two separate keys into two separate locks, opened the grid and ducked in. With a nearly imperceptible sigh, Duo followed, and so did Wufei, after a last quick glance around.
"Fifth on the left. Fifth on the left. Then first right, and we're in under the building. Then I open the grid. Then the King said I do nothing. The King said I don't leave our tunnels. At all."
So they were near Morgenstern's building, Wufei deduced. And they could have reached it a whole lot faster and with considerably more comfort if they'd taken the maintenance tunnel from the start, instead of the blocks and blocks of cramped sewage lines. Wufei glared at Fred's back, but the man was obviously disturbed, and would probably be too nervous to have led them through the wider maintenance tunnels that weren't 'his domain'. Oh well, they were at the Trolls' mercy here, and they had no choice regarding either the guide or the route taken.
"Right here. This is the building's limit. There's the pipes from the west wing. This line leads to the east wing. And this one is the garbage compactor, for- this floor section has been cut. Mabye Reichert did some repairs under here. But he never mentioned it."
"Fred, move it," Duo whispered at their guide who'd stopped to sweep his flashlight along the floor.
"I need to inspect this. If there's a fault in the floor grids, there could be a fault in the infrastructure beneath, and we're near a junction-"
"Later. Look, lead us to the east wing, okay? And show us the exit. Then you can come back here and do your work."
Fred turned in the narrow space and glared at Duo's right shoulder. "Work must be done right away. There's only me, Quin, Marla and Reichert working this sector. We have to take care of it all. If we see something that might put the pipelines in danger-"
"Yeah, okay, but lead us to the exit first, okay?"
Fred's raw-egg stare grew more agitated, skipping from Duo's chest to Wufei's sword and back. "But the King said we should always check-"
"He also said to guide us to the exit," Duo interrupted, his voice growing a thin layer of steel. "You gonna disobey the King?"
Fred hesitated, nervously riffling the tools on his belt, his eyes darting from Duo's hands to the grid beneath them. "But it looks damaged," he muttered. "It could- Reichert never said- but Amos- the King said-"
He abruptly turned and shuffled away, fortunately in the right direction. Wufei followed, feeling the slight give of one of the floor grids as his weight bore down on it. Definitely damaged, and that did nothing for his faint claustrophobia, as he imagined some kind of accident in these tunnels, stuck with no way out, listening to Fred's mutterings until they all died of thirst or- steady, Chang.
Fred's mutter sounded more like a growl now, and it had dropped to where Wufei couldn't distinguish the words, which somehow didn't make it any better. He occasionally caught the name 'Reichert', and the words 'floor', 'sector' and 'repair'. He wondered if the inhabitants of Kropotkin knew of the muttering mole-man who paced the tunnels beneath their feet, caring ceaselessly for the disposal of their wastes and filth, and eventually their bodies... like the vacuum of space around them, it probably didn't bear thinking about too much, or you might lose it.
Finally they arrived at another junction, and Fred reached up to undo a hatchway made of crossed bars in the ceiling. The metal swung down in silence, its bars forming the rungs of a crude ladder to climb.
"Wait for us here. Or at that broken place back there, if you got to. But don't go any further," Duo whispered.
Fred nodded sullenly, his eyes on Duo's boots, his scowl obvious despite the hard hat and the red scarf.
They emerged into darkness. Wufei blinked, trying to adapt to the absence of Fred's wandering torch. A glimmer made him glance to one side, where he saw Duo's lighted watchface float like a will o' the wisp.
"We got three hours or more before the workers in this sector finish their shift. Fortunately those financial freaks work very long days; we should be well clear of the building by the time any of them start to come back."
They were in the building's furnace room, Wufei realized, finally able to make out the lumps and shadows around them. A thin rod of grey light crept beneath a nearby door, showing them the exit.
Time to take yet another gamble. Wufei listened attentively at the basement door, and then twitched his hand in a 'move' gesture. Duo ghosted by him, cracking the lock on the door with ease. In the faint wash of light from the hallway outside, Wufei noticed the twisted grin on Duo's face; he looked like he was having fun, Wufei decided grumpily.
They met no-one in the hallways up to Morgenstern's. The financier lived in a building right behind the hangar which housed the trading floor. Because it was a nerve centre of Freeport, the entrances and exits were watched by volunteers, and busy streets surrounded them at all sides. This was the best way Duo had devised of getting into Morgenstern's place while the financier was away, and the plan was far from perfect. They could run into the wives or husbands of the people working on the trading floor at any time.
Wufei stood next to Duo, shielding him from a casual glance from the stairwell nearby, his ears pricked and nerves humming. He could feel the minutes pass like the blood flow from a critical wound as Duo checked every millimeter of Morgenstern's door for alarm and traps. Then it took a few more minutes to disable the one he found. Seconds ticked by like the timer on a bomb. If someone came out of one of the doors nearby, Wufei wondered if they could pretend to be here to fix the doorbell...
"Got the bitch. Good security," Duo breathed, attacking the lock on the door, which finally opened with the gentlest of clicks.
They eased into the apartment, and then spent a tense half hour prudently going over every foot of the place looking for more alarms that could betray them. The two small rooms were completely unremarkable. The furniture looked sparse and worn under Duo's careful flashlight beam. Morgenstern obviously believed in living as simply as anarchy and Freeport's necessities dictated. No wonder he'd invited Duo and Wufei to the communal cafeteria to eat and chat, a few weeks before.
Wufei was thinking of those conversations now, as he examined a series of framed photographs on the wall, memorizing the faces around Morgenstern. The financier had been so enthusiastic about Freeport and anarchy. If he was being guarded around Wufei, it wasn't obvious at all. If he was a Breaker and knew Wufei was a Preventer, why had Morgenstern invited him over repeatedly, and talked like a revolutionary? To keep tabs on him... ? Doubt was prickling up and down Wufei's spine as he stared around the barren room; not even a weapon in sight. The lack of manila folders with 'Secret Breaker Plans' on it was conspicuous.
Duo had leafed through a few papers on the crude metal desk pushed into one corner, but he'd not spent much time on it; he'd settled at the computer almost immediately and was busy typing away.
"Any luck?" Wufei whispered, leaning over Duo's shoulder.
"Absolutely none at all!" Duo exclaimed happily.
Wufei looked at him strangely.
"I know the guy who installs most of Freeport's computers, I know all his backdoors and his tricks, and in this computer they've all been blocked. The security's been beefed up, and there's some com line scrambler on the hub here that I've never seen before. I can't even get into the cache," Duo announced with a wide grin.
Wufei continued to look at him strangely.
"This isn't usual security," Duo finally explained. "Not by a long stretch. People guard against online intrusions and attacks, but they don't normally turn their home computer into an electronic bunker. It's as good as the manila folder you were looking for."
"This man controls Freeport's finances," Wufei countered. "He probably takes work home with him. He'd protect it as much as he could."
"He doesn't bring stuff home with him; Morgenstern does the business, but the info and the system on the trade floor belong to Freeport. I know it looks like they work in a shed with recycled computers, but in fact the system has more security than all the banks in the Space Sphere combined, and it's completely locked, hermetically sealed both physically and online. You can't download stuff or ftp or even remove a hard disk without the deadswitch turning it into a heap of spare parts. This is Freeport, remember? We don't do blind trust and 'innocent until proven guilty'."
"So you think he's got information on the Breakers on his computer?"
"He's got something he doesn't want people to see on his computer. And some pretty nifty security. I think even Heero wouldn't have hacked this baby from outside this room."
"How are we going to hack into it then?" Wufei asked with heavy patience.
"We may not be able to- wait a sec. Hah, they always forget that one."
"What?" Wufei snapped, watching command lines scroll down on the screen.
"Did I mention I know the guy who sets up most of Freeport's systems? Morgenstern's built on that; he's added tons of security, disabled all the backdoors, but he forgot a few simple base command lines."
"Like what? Those won't allow you to hack into anything. You said even the cache was protected."
"Like the backup routine." Duo grinned and whipped out a chip which he inserted into the drive. "As long as he didn't protect his drive- no, looks like he missed that one too. Most of the security is set up to keep people from outside hacking in via the com line."
"So I'll do what every responsible computer owner should do on a regular basis," Duo said with a virtuous expression, running the appropriate command. "I'll back up Mr. Morgenstern's computer for him."
"Onto your disk." Wufei's eyes flickered towards the chip Duo had inserted.
"Exactly! Wouldn't want to lose this information in a crash now, would we?"
"But the information you're backing up will still be completely locked-"
"Yes, but once we're at home, I can install it on an instance on my laptop, and then spend three days cracking it if I need to. Heero left me all kinds of very, very nice and completely illegal tools." The disk drive was humming as it wrote the information down on the chip.
"Better than nothing, I guess," Wufei sighed. If Morgenstern was guilty of anything other than being paranoid about his personal information, and if he kept incriminating information on his computer, and if Duo could hack into it in a reasonable time frame... they might actually be getting somewhere. He wasn't sure it was worth the risk they'd taken, but they had been getting nowhere fast before anyway.
Wufei went to listen at the door; they still had some time before the traders started returning, and all was silent in the building around them. Then he went to leaf through the papers on the desk a bit more thoroughly.
Wufei glanced up in surprise. Duo was speaking tersely as he whipped out the chip from the reader.
"Donno. The hub's com line indicator started flickering like mad. Maybe he's just getting a really big mail."
So why are you worried? Wufei wondered, putting his ear to the door. He made a 'Silence!' gesture as he heard footsteps. His instincts were beginning to prickle. If they'd tripped an alarm, surely someone would be at the door by now... but something was wrong. He had no proof of it, but he could feel it.
The footsteps passed the door; two kids, one older, one whiny younger one. They squabbled all the way to the stairwell, and started climbing. Wufei was going to let them get a good headway, but Duo was already opening the door silently. He shook off Wufei's cautionary hand on his sleeve, and mouthed 'no time' in the dim light of the hallway.
They locked the door and Duo set the security back on, then they made their way back to the basement as cautiously as they could. Wufei's instincts were still prickling, but there were no running footsteps in the silent hallways around them, no alarms, nobody coming to investigate... Duo walked swiftly to the hatchway down to the sewer system and jumped, landing on the grid below with barely a murmur of stressed metal. Wufei followed him, closing the hatch behind them. Hopefully they'd erased all traces of their passage. Damn it, they should have taken longer to extract, been more careful.
"Fred?" Duo hissed, his flashlight darting around them.
"He's probably at that broken floor grid," Wufei muttered.
They stared at each other in the light bouncing off grids and sewer lines.
"Fuck!" Duo snapped, plunging into the nearby tunnel. Wufei followed as quickly as he could, his instincts now screaming at him. They'd overlooked something; they'd made a mistake!
The loose floor section had been removed. It was stuck up against one side of the wall. The small space underneath was clear of dust and old oil stains, unlike all the other places they'd seen till now. Wufei cursed himself as he remembered how the hatchway to Morgenstern's basement had opened without a creak, how the door to the furnace room had apparently been recently oiled - damn it!
"Right under our noses," Duo whispered bitterly, his flashlight pointing straight up so that only the echoes of its light illuminated the hole in the bottom of the sewer lines; a carefully concealed trapdoor where there shouldn't be any, going from the Troll's sewer lines to the undercarriage of the sector. The space below was dark, a metal ladder welded to one side. There were no signs of Fred.
"We should have realized. Best way to keep a think like the Breakers secret is to not meet where anybody in Freeport can see you. Down in the undersector, and going through tunnels most people can't access... yeah, that'll do it."
Duo was glaring down at the black hole of the open trap door.
"But thousands of people work down in the undersector," Wufei whispered, trying to keep his voice from echoing in the Troll tunnels.
"Not right down there, if we are where I think we are. We're near the section with the broken spoke of the colony. Happened twenty years ago, but it put stress on the outer hull, and it was too big a job to fix properly. There are still damaged areas down there where people don't bother to go. It's not livable room, and we have storage elsewhere. If the Breakers are smart, they'll have cordoned off an old container haulage center; a few rooms, hangars, an old escape hatch out to space they'll have repaired; electricity stolen from Kropotkin above them... And inaccessible from the under-sector, where people might wonder why Kropotkin financiers are strolling along the haulage crates. No, all access will be from up here and through other maintenance tunnels."
Wufei fingered the hilt of his sword. "Who did Fred say was the Troll in charge of this sector... ?"
"Reichert," Duo bit out. "And I know what you're thinking. Reichert has to be in on it. No way a Troll wouldn't know about a brand new hatch appearing in a tunnel in his sector. You saw how Fred reacted."
"The Breakers must have bribed him to keep quiet about this, and to let them-"
"Nobody bribes a Troll. But if their arguments were good enough, he'll have joined them. The King will crucify him."
Wufei stared down into the darkness. "Do you think this Reichert would have heard we were coming today?"
"Fred knew, the other two Trolls outside knew... this traitor might have heard about it. But remember the way the Breakers broke into Recyc? They probably had Reichert's help there too. If the King has any common sense, he'll have realized he might have a leak, and taken steps to keep our visit a secret."
They stared down at the hole. This could very well be a trap, and all they had to rely on was the common sense of a man who'd dubbed himself the 'Troll King'.
"He's also pretty paranoid," Duo added reassuringly.
Wufei didn't answer. The darkness around them seemed to grow inky black.
They both knew they were going down there, though. They weren't going to leave Fred at the mercy of the Breakers. Wufei, remembering Josh and Herb, just hoped it wasn't too late. If they were lucky, Fred was still down there and unharmed, investigating this strange underground construct that was parasiting his beloved Troll tunnels. If they were lucky, Wufei and Duo would find him before the Breakers did.
Wufei wasn't feeling lucky.
"Let's go. I'll take point, you cover my back," Duo whispered.
Wufei wanted to protest, but Duo had already let himself swing through the hole. There was barely a whisper of metal from below as the light-footed smuggler started climbing down the ladder.
Wufei unsheathed his sword and followed.
"You hit him too hard, now we'll have to carry him," the man said, then made a strangled choking sound when Wufei's fist slammed into his temple.
His colleague shot to his feet from where he'd been kneeling besides Fred's limp body. He fell just as quickly when Duo slammed his elbow into the back of his neck.
"Looks like we're in luck," Wufei whispered, glancing around. "It doesn't sound like they had time to raise the alarm. Is he alive?"
"Hmyeah, looks a bit confused though," Duo said, checking Fred's pupils by the beam of his flashlight.
"Nothing's changed then," Wufei grumbled. Fred had started to groan and stir.
Wufei glanced around, looking for more Breakers. The ladder had led them down into what looked like a typical section of the undersector, badly lit by a few red emergency lights, some of them broken. It was a labyrinth of huge containers, five time the height of a man, the kind that were sealed up and pulled through space by tugs from colony to colony, delivering goods.
But unlike the undercarriage beneath other sectors, the containers here were empty, and many were damaged, their metal crumpled or their sides torn off. Apparently this had become a graveyard of haulage units. From the thick dust that lay on the containers, these had been here for ages; but that same dust on the ground was crisscrossed with fresh tracks.
Wufei's instincts told him they'd been right, they'd stumbled upon the Breakers headquarters. This would be the place they hid people like Carver from the rest of Freeport, and got together to plot whatever it was they thought they were doing in the Space Sphere. No wonder Duo and Wufei had been unable to find any trace of Carver, or see Tor Kendle meet up with Morgenstern and other Breakers.
But if Breakers had cordoned off this sector for their own use, unknown to the rest of inquisitive Freeport... that spoke of a high degree of organization, of a mole in the Civil Planning department, and perhaps the complicity of an Elder or Two...
They'd found Fred by following his shuffling footsteps in the dust, until they'd rejoined a path between containers that had many traces of movement in it. Trust Fred to wander right into a Breaker thoroughfare.
Neither of the two ex-Pilots had been very surprised to find that Fred hadn't escaped detection long in those circumstances.
"How are we going to get back up?" Wufei asked, crouching to check the men they'd knocked out. They'd be unconscious for a few minutes, hopefully incapacitated for longer and unable to raise the alarm right away. He didn't feel like killing them in cold blood. "We can't take Fred back up the ladder. And it'd be suicidally insane to wander around a compound full of Breakers."
"There won't be that many Breakers down here," Duo muttered, absently wiping away some blood from a cut on Fred's forehead with a rag from the Troll's pocket. Fred was moaning, stirring and blinking blearily. "These bastards are shamming as ordinary citizens - hell, I guess they are ordinary citizens in a way; that means they have twenty-five hour workdays like the rest of us. They don't spend all their time hanging around down here. There'll be a few on patrol - like these two - and maybe a half a dozen in case of trouble."
"Unless they're just happening to have a big meeting today, in which case they're all here."
"Our two glasses are always gonna be half-full and half-empty, huh?" Duo chuckled with a strange smile in Wufei's direction. "I hear all couples have an optimist and a pess-"
"Duo!" Wufei hissed furiously, feelings his face heat up despite the biting cold. This wasn't the time to be talking about- and besides, Fred was staring at them with glassy eyes coming into focus.
"I c'n... get us out... "
Wufei and Duo turned to stare at Fred, who must be a good deal more awake than they'd thought. The glassy, unfocused gaze was his natural state, Wufei remembered.
Duo gave Wufei an unnecessary warning look to keep quiet from now on; a Blade could talk to his Handler with others present, particularly in cases of emergency, but it would be best to avoid it.
"How can we get out, Fred?" Duo asked, wiping away a new trickle of blood. The flow from the cut was slowing a bit, but Fred was shuddering, either from cold or from shock. He would never be able to climb up several stories of ladder to the upper sector, then make his way through miles of tunnels.
"... recognized this area... " Fred mumbled, staring at Duo's right shoulder. "Worked here a few years back. When we were trying to get this part of the sector functional again. Then they- some guys - communal decision- somebody decided we shouldn't bother."
"How long ago was that?" Duo asked sharply, to Wufei's relief since he'd been dying to ask the same question.
Fred just looked confused. "I... ten... years?... No... I... "
"That's okay, Fred, tell us later," Duo sighed, tying the bloodied rag around Fred's head to staunch the bleeding.
Wufei examined the dilated pupils and hoped Fred didn't have something seriously wrong with his already scrambled brains.
"Just tell us how to get out of here," Duo added.
"Tunnels." Fred's voice immediately became firmer as he went back to familiar grounds.
"There's Troll tunnels in the undersector?" Duo asked, visibly puzzled.
"Emergency hatches. In case of flooding and breaches in the upper levels."
"But that'll just be a door with a long ladder leading up. I don't think you can climb far-"
Duo suddenly nodded. "Who has the override code?"
"The King. Only the King."
"Excellent. Do you remember where it is?"
For answer, Fred grabbed Duo's shoulder and tried to scramble up.
Wufei and Duo helped the Troll to his feet and the man lead them off through the rows of containers as if he had homing instinct for his beloved tunnels. Wufei supposed they were heading towards the sector wall, dimly visible over the stacks and rows of containers a dozen yards ahead. If Wufei had understood correctly, there would be an emergency escape route inserted into the wall, for Trolls who were stuck in the tunnels of Kropotkin during an amber emergency, like a hull breach. That meant an airlock, and only the King could open it once triggered. Duo and Wufei could leave Fred at the bottom of the ladder, safe from the Breakers, and go get help.
This could work. It was almost enough to turn you into an optimist.
Then they heard a soft noise in the darkness behind them.
Wufei and Duo exchanged a grim look. Wufei had always found pessimism easy to rely on, and it rarely let him down.
"Fred?" Duo asked very softly. "How far is-"
"Not far." Fred's face was white beneath the grime, he was sweating, jaw clenched and eyes gleaming in panic, but he was tugging Duo confidently towards the left, around a container that looked like it had exploded under vacuum. Wufei hoped Fred did indeed have some mysterious homing instinct for sewer tunnels, because this labyrinth of wrecks might have changed in the ten-or-whatever years since the half-crazy Troll had been here.
Behind them, they could hear the occasional discreet shuffle of footsteps. Too discreet. If these were Breakers looking for their two missing friends, they'd be shouting. No, this was much more serious.
Wufei and Duo didn't need to say anything, not wanting to alarm Fred any further. They didn't need to say anything, they both knew the score. They both remembered the way Morgenstern's com line had started to flicker while they were in his apartment. The two Trolls who'd found Fred might have been a patrol who'd run into him by coincidence. But before that, maybe as soon as he'd broke open the hatch down here, Fred must have triggered an alarm. The Breakers knew there were intruders down here, and they were all coming to silence them.
Duo hauled Fred forward at a fast pace. Wufei fell back three steps, sword drawn. They hobbled through the Breaker realm, Duo grimly supporting a taller, heavier Fred.
Wufei could feel them gather in the darkness behind them, it felt/sounded like dozens of people. They knew the intruders were here, and more than that, they sounded remarkably organized for a group that should have been caught by the alarm unprepared.
"Hey- they're here!" somebody behind Wufei shouted.
Wufei spun around. Four men had turned a corner Wufei and Duo had just passed; they looked startled, but also ready for a fight.
"Go!" Wufei snapped, stepping between the Breakers - swords and cudgels already unsheathed and ready - and Duo.
Behind his back, Duo swore and shoved Fred. Fred stumbled forward with a whinny of panicked fear at the sight of the weapons.
The four Breakers hesitated for an instant, maybe waiting for more of their friends to join them. Then they must have realized they were only facing two puny-looking guys and a wounded Troll. They attacked a second later.
Four against one were not Wufei's favorite odds. He ducked beneath a blow and threw himself past his attacker, trying to corner one of the others against a nearby container.
A quick swipe of his blade across an exposed wrist- the big dagger hit the floor and the man grasped his arm in pain.
Wufei dodged around him, using him as a shield, and attacked the second and third man, who were trying to get around their friend.
No time to play around. Wufei slashed at one man's throat, swung his weight on one leg and kicked up hard at another, catching him in the jaw.
By the time he turned around, the fourth man had run off. He ignored the injured Breaker who was huddled on the floor and clutching his wrist, and ran after Duo, trying to spot his friend and Fred in the badly-lit labyrinth.
"We're here! Come on!" Duo shouted a few dozen yards away. Wufei realized there was a gap between two walls of solid metal containers; it led towards the sector wall. Duo's voice had come from there.
Wufei sprinted towards the gap, relief flooding him. Looked like they were going to make it; he could hear running footsteps behind him as their attackers started to charge the intruders, but the Breakers were too late.
Duo had switched on his flashlight to illuminate the emergency hatch and guide Wufei towards it. Wufei ran between piles of tarped crates and broken containers towards that faint, flickering promise of escape.
A stack of boxes had been shoved aside and knocked over, one of them spilling repairman's tools on the floor, to reveal the Troll's emergency hatch. Odds were, the Breakers hadn't realized it was there, or hadn't considered it might be used outside of the event of a hull breach.
Wufei was a dozen yards away. Duo's flashlight painted the scene in black and white. Duo was standing near an open airlock, waiting for him.
Fred was behind Duo, sticking a key from his belt into a dusty, grimy console, a grimace of fear and pain on his face as he stared out at the darkness behind Wufei.
Duo, sensing something wrong, twisted around-
"Fred! NO! Wufei's not-"
Duo threw himself at the Troll to stop him from turning the key.
Wufei was only ten feet away-
He saw Duo reach Fred- the Troll's eyes were full of blind panic as he triggered the hatch.
The airlock beeped once in warning and then slammed shut just as Wufei reached it.
End Part 30
On to Chapter thirty-one
Back to Chapter twenty-nine