Lies - Between Friends and Lovers
by Dyna Dee
Delays in leaving L4 and then journey from that colony to L2, including several mandatory stops along the blockade route, took much longer than Wufei had anticipated. It wasn't until the next day that the Preventer shuttle docked on L2 at precisely 8:15 a.m., Thursday morning. While waiting for the internal shield door to open, and after a brief debate, the two investigating Preventers decided to set aside their uniforms to explore the colony in civilian clothing. The torturous screeching that resulted from the heavy door sliding across its rusty track caused the men in the shuttle to wince painfully. Finally, blessedly, the near ear-bleeding sound came to a sudden end. With the silence as their cue the two men opened the outer shuttle hatch and left behind agents Shoemaker and Donnihan, entrusting them to guard the ship. Wufei and Trowa were immediately met by four extremely thin men dressed in ragged clothing, sporting untrimmed beards and exuding a most disagreeable odor of uncleanliness. Their greeters' eyes displayed various reactions to their unexpected arrival, including curiosity, hope, undisguised resentment and distrust.
"You from the UEC?" one ragged, gray bearded man asked as he stepped forward.
"Yes," Trowa answered before Wufei could identify them as Preventers. "We were sent to investigate the conditions on L2."
"Ya mean someone actually gives a shit about us?" the man returned with a sarcastic snort.
"There are a number of people concerned for your welfare," Trowa replied.
That answer didn't seem to placate the man or his scowling companions. "They sure didn't jump to our defense when the effin' blockade was put in place, cuttin' us off from everything, includin' food supplies."
"Many have voiced their concerns," Wufei added, and the man's piercing gaze turned to him.
"It's been years," he snarled. "These "many" voices gotta be damn weak and whisperin' for all the good they've done."
"Will you allow us to pass?" Trowa asked.
"Tell me your names."
"Trowa Barton and Chang Wufei," the auburn haired man supplied. He stuck out his hand to the man they'd been speaking to.
The ragged man glared at the offered hand for a moment, then almost begrudgingly stuck out his own boney, stained and dirty hand to give Trowa a firm shake. "Nate Andrak, guardian of the gate today."
"Guardian?" Wufei asked as Trowa stepped back to allow him the opportunity to shake hands also.
The man extended his hand to Wufei also, and as they shook he answered, "A volunteer." He motioned to the men just behind him. "Guardians see to things around here, protect and defend those who can't do it for themselves and make sure the food gets passed out evenly."
"Sounds like a difficult job," Trowa guessed.
Nate shrugged. "Not so bad now. Everyone here is too weak to care much about anythin' but getting their food and protectin' it from greedy thieves."
"If you don't mind, we'd like to have a look around," Wufei said in his most cordial manner to other man.
The guardian paused, and for the first time since they were greeted, he conferred with the other men in his group. A moment later he turned to address them again. "Sure, you can enter, but just don't ask for no food or water; we got none to spare. Oh, and don't wander too far from this port" he added. "We can't guarantee yur safety if ya go into places where yu're not welcome."
"We'll be careful," Trowa said.
The ragged leader sighed. "Follow me then."
Once they exited the abandoned terminal, the small band of men separated, leaving only Nate standing next to them. He pointed to his right. "Yu'll get a good idea of what it's like here if ya go that way. Stay clear of the alleyways, and for God's sake don't go down any of them. It would be best if yu're back in your shuttle by dark. Nothin' good happens on the streets when the lights go out."
"Thank you, Nate," Trowa said with a polite nod.
"Just do me a favor, heh? Tell the truth of what's gone on here to anyone who'll listen. We're being killed off here and we can't figure out why. Is this happenin' to any other colony?"
"No," Trowa replied. "But there is a growing fear throughout the colonies that L2 is meant to be an example to the rest of us, an unspoken warning of what will happen if we don't fully cooperate the UEC."
"I don't know who the hell is running this UEC, but it ain't right what they're doin' to us," the man muttered, then with hunched shoulders he walked away, leaving the two off-colony men behind.
Wufei took a look around. At first glance L2 looked like the population centers of the other colonies, being surrounded by metal, multi-storied buildings. But the lack of motor vehicles and foot traffic was hauntingly chilling, and the offensive stench of sewage and the stink of unwashed bodies filling the air was nothing like the other well-maintained colonies. He wondered for a moment about the filtering system. Had the UEC supplied the colony with the most fundamental supplies for living on a colony and, namely filtering, heating and oxygen systems?
"Let's go," Trowa said, interrupting his partner's thoughts by stepping in front of him and moving in the direction Nate had directed them to go.
Though they were casually dressed, Wufei had no idea about how out of place he and Trowa would appear in their worn blue jeans and t-shirts until they walked the streets of L2 and saw the beggarly appearance of every citizen they encountered. It was glaringly obvious by their clothing and healthy, well-fed appearances that they were newly arrived on the colony, that they didn't belong there. He felt a momentary wave of guilt about the large breakfast that had been set up in Quatre's den that morning, sensing that no one on this colony had known anything like that for the past two years, if ever.
There was no litter on the streets, at least not in front of the buildings they passed by. The alleyways, though, appeared clogged with broken refrigerators, metal tables and chairs, mattress frames and other unrecognizable items. No doubt there were some unfortunates living on the fringe of these suffering people who took refuge in such places, having nowhere else to go.
Carrying their weapons beneath lightweight jackets, the two men walked cautiously along the streets, fully alert to their surroundings and an arm's distance away from each other, leaving enough room to act if they found the need to defend themselves. Though there was animosity in the eyes of those who took notice of them, the general populace seemed apathetic. It was impossible to overlook the haggard appearance of the citizenry. Everyone appeared gaunt and emaciated, their clothing well-used and hanging on boney, slumped shoulders. These people were obviously starving, and seeing proof of the hardships caused by the UEC's blockade made Wufei angrier than he'd been in a very long time. No wonder the media had been banned from L2, he inwardly fumed. If the people of Earth knew what was happening here, there would be a public outcry.
Or would there?
He knew from living on the planet for several years now, that with distance came apathy. If danger, disasters, famine or murder didn't happen in your own backyard, people had a tendency to turn away from it because it didn't affect their daily life.
"Look," Trowa pointed to a place up ahead. There seemed to be a gathering in front of a building. As they drew closer, Wufei observed a group of people, young and old, standing in line. They were orderly and strangely quiet. He and Trowa paused to watch them for a moment, wondering what was going on. When a child came running by, Trowa reached out and grabbed him by the arm. Wide frightened eyes on a dirty face looked up at him.
"What are they waiting in line for?" he asked the boy in a gentle voice that Wufei was sure he must have used when taming the wild animals at the circus.
The boy looked from Trowa to the line of people. "That's where we wait in line fur food," he answered, trying to pull his arm out of Trowa's firm clasp.
"Is that where you're going?" Wufei asked.
"Nah, I'm a kid, gots first pick come Monday. Can I go now?"
Trowa let go of the lad, who took off in a shot. "For a lawless colony, they seemed to have a system worked out," the taller man observed.
Wufei gave a nod in response. He wanted to reserve judgment until he'd had a better look around. Together they moved closer, and as they passed by those individuals standing in line, he couldn't help but notice that most of their eyes were fixed, with a look of desperation in them, on the double doors of the store they were lined up against. A quick glance at the sign hanging above the window confirmed that it had been a food market. In the upper half of the front window, a handwritten sign on a... bed sheet, from the looks of it, renamed the store Distribution Center #5. Surprisingly, and unlike most of the empty and abandoned stores they'd passed, the barred window appeared intact and fairly clean. As he peered through it, Wufei was stunned when he recognized one of the people rushing around inside. He narrowed his eyes, disbelieving what he was seeing. But there was no denying it, he was looking at Duo's friend from the war, Hilde ...? He couldn't recall her last name, remembering only that it was German sounding and began with an S.
"Trowa." When the auburn haired man turned, he pointed to the window.
Trowa followed his direction and looked through the window. His eyes lit up with recognition. "Let's get in line." Turning around, they went to the back of the line of curious yet lethargic people just as the front doors to the store opened. In a surprisingly orderly manner, the silent group shuffled forward, the two Preventers moving with them.
It took about thirty-five minutes before they were able to get inside the building where they observed that food items and water were carefully being handed out to each citizen who displayed a badge of some sort to the person helping them at a counter. The workers included two beefy men who stood at the front door like sentinels and five individuals working behind the counter long counter. Those five briefly studied the badge of each and every person presenting themselves before disappearing behind a curtained-off area. They returned several moments later with an armful of food. After explaining to the two guards the reason for their not having a badge, that they were observers sent from Earth, they were allowed through. Even then it took yet another ten minutes before they were able to approach the counter where a somewhat clean, plain-looking woman of questionable age looked them up and down before belligerently asking, "Who'r you?"
Trowa smiled at her. "Could we speak with Hilde Schweibecker?"
"We're old friends, from the war."
The woman continued to scowl, obviously suspicious of the two strangers. After heaving a loud sigh, she shook her head and turned to look over her shoulder towards the curtained doorway to yell out, "Hilde. There's a couple of off-colony strangers out here claiming ta be friends of yurs... from the war." The room, which had been strangely quiet to begin with, now fell completely silent and all eyes were unabashedly fixed on the two outsiders.
Hilde came out from behind the curtain and her eyes widened after recognizing the men at the counter. A slow smile grew on her thin yet still pretty face. "Well, I'll be damned," she grinned. Speaking to the other working behind the counter she instructed, "Go ahead and finish up, then bolt the doors for the night." She then turned back to the two off-colony men. "Come back to my office where we can talk." She motioned them around the end of the counter with a smile that made them appear as if they were close friends.
She kept up the facade of being on friendly terms until they had moved behind the curtained partition, past open boxes of supplies and into the very back of the building. Turning swiftly enough to startle them, with a suspicious glint in her eyes, she asked. "What the hell are you two doing here?" She kept her voice down as much as possible while her eyes were ablaze with anger.
"Preventer business," Wufei answered. Now that he was standing close to her, he could see the same gauntness in her face that he'd observed on everyone else he'd encountered on the colony. He recalled Hilde being a wisp of a girl when he'd seen her just after the war. Two years of struggling to survive seemed to have kept her locked in that girlish state. Her figure lacked most of the womanly curves he'd expect of someone her age. She was as slight as a boy with only the barest hint of two slight curves at the front of her blouse, evidence that she was indeed of the female gender. Her black hair had grown, he noted, but it was limp, greasy and held no luster. Once cut as short as Heero or Quatre's, she now wore her black, dull hair in two braids that fell several inches over each shoulder.
Her eyes narrowed suspiciously as she questioned them. "Are you here to help us or cause more problems?"
"We mean no harm to you or anyone else on L2," Trowa answered.
"Then you're here to help?" she asked with a gleam of hope shining in her eyes.
"We're trying to track a group of pirates," Wufei explained. "We were wondering if you have seen any unfamiliar people who might be storing stolen goods here on L2, perhaps selling them on the black market?"
"Pirates? Black market? That's what you came her for?" The young woman looked astonished at the Chinese Preventer's questions, than a quick flash of annoyance swept over her thin face. "I can't fucking believe it," she said with a disbelieving shake of her head.
Then turning towards Wufei with a look that was anything but friendly she answered, "If someone was bringing food into L2, it damn well wouldn't be stored or sold on the streets," she answered acerbically. "Believe me, starving people can sniff out a can of vacuum-packed dried food even if it was disguised as garbage. There's no food being stored on this colony, other than what's in this room and several other supply stations. As for the black market," she gave a disdainful snort. "The only market here is bartering. Money has no value. People sell their bodies or trade clothing, blankets, water or food for whatever they want. That's L2's only market these days."
"Have you seen any off-colony strangers?" Wufei asked.
"If there were we'd consider them angels sent from God and wouldn't be stupid enough to tell you."
Looking around the room and noting the open boxes, Wufei moved to peer into one and caught the sight of foil packaged food neatly stacked inside before Hilde stepped in front of him. "What are doing?" she demanded. "You can't go snooping around here. Don't you need some kind of warrant to butt around in my business?"
"I was just curious," he answered, taking a step back. "You sound as if you have something to hide."
"You should be able to understand my distrust of anyone representing a government that is starving us to death."
"The UEC is trying to contain the lawless..."
"I know what they're doing!" Hilde shouted, her eyes blazing with anger. "I live the nightmare every time I take a breath. Take a look around, Mr. Preventer. What do you see? Are we rioting in the streets? Are we murdering each other in broad daylight? The thugs the UEC disapproved of have been dead for well over a year, but no one seems to care. Why have our pleas for help to those who deliver the monthly charity supplies been ignored? Why are we, the men, women and helpless children, still being punished?"
Pushing a loose strand of hair behind his ear, Wufei tried to think of a plausible answer. He couldn't. "I don't know," he replied. "But you can rest assured a full report will be made to my director and the questions you've asked me will be answered."
"Yeah, right. Like I haven't heard that before," Hilde mumbled with a look of utter weariness in her eyes. She ran a boney hand down one of her braids. "Look, I have to get back to work."
"We understand," Trowa said, the first words he'd spoken since meeting up with Hilde. "Is there anything we can do for you? Is there anyone off colony you want to send a message to?"
"Not that I can think of. Have you seen Duo? Is he keeping himself out of trouble?"
"He's doing well," Trowa answered.
She nodded, satisfied. "I'm glad he's not here. He had his share of hunger and suffering during his childhood. He certainly doesn't deserve to have a life like that now, being a war hero and all."
"Does anyone deserve this?" Trowa asked.
Wufei turned to appraise his friend, wondering where the Preventer's loyalties lay. That Trowa allied himself with his lover was no secret, and Quatre had made several public statements challenging the legality of the UEC cutting l2 off from all space travel and trade.
Hilde's ire was stirred up once more as she said, "Incarcerated convicts on Earth are treated better than we are, with adequate food, clothing, air and water supplies. They even have television and contact with their families and friends, things that are denied everyone on L2. We've not been charged with a crime, nor convicted in a court of law, and yet the entire colony has been put on death row. How's that for United Earth and Colony justice?"
Hilde obviously didn't expect an answer because she turned and motioned for the two men to follow her to a door at the back of the building. "Our discussion is over. You'll attract less attention if you go out this way," she said as she unbolted the lock on the metal door. Swinging it open on rusty hinges, the terrible screech of metal on metal grated on their ears.
"Thank you for speaking with us," Wufei said, preoccupied with thoughts of the UEC's policy and how wrong it seemed from his current point of view.
Hilde caught Trowa's arm as the man moved past her, momentarily halting his exit. "Say hi to Duo for me. Tell him he still owes me a steak dinner."
Trowa's lips curved slightly upward. "I will," he told her. She released his arm and shut the door once the two of them were out of the building.
For the rest of the day the two Preventers walked the streets near the terminal where their shuttle was docked. Few words passed between them as they observed the wretched conditions that the citizens of L2 were forced to live in.
They entered the Preventer shuttle to a barrage of questions from the two men waiting for them. Wufei halted them with a raised hand. "I want to stay a bit longer and gather information, interview some of the people and take pictures. Do we have enough supplies to last the four of us a couple of days?"
"More than enough," the red headed Donnihan replied.
"Good. Separate two days of rations from the food stores and put the remainder in a bag for us to distribute." Looking at Trowa, he got the nod of approval he expected. He then excused himself, leaving his partner to tell the other two men what they'd seen. For himself, Wufei wanted to meditate on all that he'd experienced, to weigh out in his mind the UEC's reasoning behind the blockade with the suffering he'd witnessed.
His thoughts remained troubled as he sat on the floor of the bathroom and took up the lotus position. He tried to clear his mind in order to get into a meditative state but failed when the image of Duo's friend, Hilde, with her gaunt face and weary eyes, refused to be banished from his mind's eye. Frustration swept over him as his mind and body failed to relax, even after using all the techniques he'd been schooled in since his youth. Hadn't he fought for his colony to prevent them from suffering under the tightening grip of the Alliance and then OZ? How could he continue to justify what the UEC was doing to the people of L2? Hilde was right; she and everyone else on the colony were being treated worse than convicted criminals in UEC's prisons.
He had to do something.
Taking a deep breath, he plotted out his own course of action. He would write down a detailed report, recounting interviews from various citizens, attach photographs as proof of their suffering and articulate every detail of the atrocities he'd witnessed that day, describing the skeletal bodies of men, women and children and sickness caused by the lack of fundamental necessities. He had every intention of personally handing the report to Une and asking the same questions Hilde had asked him earlier. He decided then and there not to leave the head of Preventer's office until he'd was satisfied the answers to all of Hilde's questions, and maybe a few of his own.