Lies - Between Friends and Lovers
by Dyna Dee
Trowa and Wufei exited the shuttle early the next morning wearing the same clothes they had worn the day before. This time, however, they also carried with them a large duffle bag filled with food. Their first goal of the day was to find the former Preventer headquarters, occupied until just before the embargo sanctions had been levied on the colony. Trowa had agreed with Wufei's plan to use the food to loosen the tongues of the otherwise reticent colonists. They hoped to gain information about the marauders as well as to collect proof of the appalling conditions the UEC's sanctions were causing the people of L2. Both reports would be dispatched to Director Une immediately after leaving the colony.
Wufei had initially proposed they hand the extra food on the shuttle to Hilde, believing it would be distributed fairly. Yet after some discussion they came up with the idea of using the food to benefit not only the people they encountered, but to gain their confidence. The few citizens they had questioned the day before had been suspicious of them and were reluctant to speak openly. As a result, they'd gathered little to no information.
They cautiously walked the nearly deserted, early-morning streets, following an old map and they'd gotten from the ship's computer that indicated the location of the former Preventer headquarters. Their progress was viewed with suspicion by the stand-offish residents in that area. Both men felt a measure of relief when at last they stood before their destination. With no lock or doorknob on the front door, they simply walked inside and inspected the building. It came as no surprise to either man that the offices that had once housing twelve Preventers were stripped bare. The four large rooms were completely divested of all furniture, floor and wall coverings.
"What now?" Trowa asked, setting down his backpack.
"We question anyone we can lure through the doors," Wufei answered as he reached down to the duffle bag and unzipped it. He pulled out several silver ration packets and moved to the front window, the glass surprisingly intact. He set them on the sill, then moved to the front door and opened it.
"We've just advertised that we're Preventers, you know."
"It doesn't matter. They already know we're off-colony, looking as healthy as we do."
The two stayed near the open door, ready to greet anyone who braved entering. Three hours passed before a small reluctant party arrived, but they weren't exactly what Wufei had anticipated. Three ragged, skinny and unkempt children cautiously leaned into the open doorway, immediately spying the two men sitting on the floor looking as non-threatening as possible. Trowa stood first, rising slowly with his hands out in front of him.
"Hello," he greeted them with a small smile. "Don't be afraid. We won't hurt you."
One of the children bravely stepped forward with only his eyes displaying his fear. "You got food?"
"Yes we do," Wufei answered, rising with deliberate slowness in order to not startle the children. "We have some to spare."
"Whadda ya wants to trade fur it?"
"Just a chat," Wufei replied. From the corner of his eye he spied Trowa lowering his tall body down on bended knee in order to be at eye level with the three.
"You see," Trowa continued, his voice calm and entreating, "we're off-colony people, and we want to tell everyone how bad things are here. Do you think you could spare a little time to talk with us?"
The lead child studied them with narrowed eyes. It was difficult for both men to determine the sex of the little leader due to the baggy, ragged clothing, the long and dirty unkempt hair and the dirt smudges on the small face. In fact, all three children were in the same bedraggled condition with eyes that looked larger than normal on their thin, almost skeletal faces.
"We'll talk as long as we can eat," the one in front said.
"I'm Trowa and this is Wufei," was the simple introduction.
"I'm Al," the leader said with a stony expression. The child motioned to the two other children. "That's Stef and Ben. Don't mess wiff Stef or we'll kill ya."
"We have no intention of messing with any of you," Trowa said quickly, hoping to reassure the three. "We only want to talk."
"Talk ain't cheap."
Wufei bent over to remove three pouches from the backpack. "Come and sit in front of us. We'll talk while you eat," he offered.
Timidly, obviously not trusting the two strangers, the tallest of the three took a step forward. The other two, with a hand on Al's shirt, were pulled forward as well, their eyes darting about the room as if they were looking for a trap to be sprung.
Trowa sat where he was, crossing his legs in front of him. Wufei, assuming his height might be intimidating to the children, followed his example. He waited patiently for the three to sit down before handing them the desired packets.
"Are you brothers and sister?" Trowa asked.
"Nah, but we takes care of each other," Al replied while tearing the foil pouch with yellow teeth.
"Do you have parents?"
"We did, now we've got each other."
Trowa cast a glance at his partner, his eyes sad. "Duo," he whispered, and Wufei knew they were thinking along the same lines. Their former comrade was an orphan with no recollection of his parents or how he came to live on the streets of L2. They both turned their attention back to the three devouring their food packs and couldn't help but wonder if this was how their friend had looked when he was a child: ragged, near starved and unwanted except for the gang he hung out with. Wufei thought it was no wonder their friend never wanted to return to L2. There was probably nothing but bad memories and heartache for him in this rotting metal shell of a colony.
"Where do you live?" Wufei asked the eldest child.
Al looked up with food on his lips and chin. "Ya gotta be kidding me. I thought you guys were on the up and up."
"We are," Trowa replied. "You don't need to tell us exactly, we're just curious to know if you have shelter at night."
"We've all got a place, the Guardians see to that. We're holed up with a couple of bums who steal our food whenever they can. See, being kids we gets more ta eat at the dis-ta-bution place than they do, so they take our food thinkin' we got more than enough, that we won't get hungry. They're wrong," Al said sullenly. "We're always hungry."
"Do you mind if I take your picture?" Wufei asked as he pulled a digital camera out of his backpack.
"This is a camera," he explained, realizing the three probably had no idea what a camera was. Tilting the silver device, he first pointed to the top. "When I push this button, your image is put inside of it, and when I plug it into my computer your picture will come up and I can print it on paper." That was the simplest definition he could come up with. "This will enable me to show others what you look like when I tell them about our conversation."
With a stubborn tilt of his chin Al firmly stated, "We're not takin' our clothes off."
Bile rose up from Wufei's stomach at the insinuation. Evidently these children did know something about cameras. "Of course not," he rushed to agree.
Al thought about the request for a moment. "Okay, but ya have ta give us another package of food."
Wufei handed the camera to Trowa in order to pull out three more silver packages from the duffle bag, deliberately choosing desserts. Six dirty hands reached out for the food, but Wufei held them back. "After the picture," he said.
The three unsmiling children looked less than thrilled as Trowa snapped their pictures, but a definite spark of life sprung up in their dull eyes when the food packages were handed over to them as promised.
Again the three ripped the packets open with teeth that had probably never seen a dentist. The two men watched as the children got a taste of the sweet contents of their package. "What's this?" gasped the child Wufei remembered was named Stef.
Leaning over to read the lettering on the pouch, he answered, "Apple cobbler."
"It's the best. Taste it, Al."
The leader dutifully dipped a grubby finger into the pouch and then put the gooey mess into his mouth. His eyes widened with surprise. He then hurried to taste his own. "It's different. What's this one?"
Trowa sat closer to the boy, so he turned his head to read the label and answered, "Chocolate cake."
Al let the other two take a taste from his pouch and then the third, younger child, Ben, shared his cheesecake dessert with them in return. Having eaten all of their desserts, the three ripped the packages open and proceeded to lick the inside lining clean. Al looked up and with a pleased grin said, "Thanks, mister."
With their permission, Wufei took another picture of each of the children and then another one of the three together. As for himself, he wouldn't need a picture in hand to recall these three little ones. Their faces, voices and smiles would be forever imprinted in his memory. They spoke a bit more with the three children and learned that the general populace had very little to do during the day and that they generally stayed indoors, in the rooms assigned to them, to conserve their energy and avoid those who roamed the colony at night, looking for trouble.
"Do you know who brings food to the colony?" Wufei asked as casually as he could manage.
Al looked at him as if he were daft in the head. "The Guardians bring us the food. Who else?"
"No, I mean the men who fly the food here, in shuttles. Do you know who they are?"
The boy shrugged. "Alls I know is that the Guardians bring food to the dis-ta-bution center and the workers dole it out ta us."
"How often do they bring new supplies?"
The boy rolled his eyes upward and his mouth twisted slightly as he thought about the question. "I dunno, at least once between every pickup day."
"Pick up day?" Trowa asked.
Those brown eyes rolled yet again. "The day we pick up our food. Man, you guys don't know nothin'."
Trowa grinned. "Perhaps not. But that's why we're talking to you."
The sudden sound of a female voice calling their names had the children's heads turning to the open door. When the woman sharply called out all three names a second time, Al jumped to his feet and the other two followed. "Gotta go," he said in a rush. He moved quickly towards the doorway, pushing the smaller two smaller children in front of him. He stopped before disappearing out of it to say, "Don't tell nobody ya gave us the food. They'll raid our stash if they think we got more than our fair share."
Both Preventers stood and watched the three disappear out the door. Moving quickly to the front window, they observed a woman of undetermined age scolding the three while eying the former Preventer building. For a long moment her eyes focused on the packages of food sitting on the window sill, but instead of being enticed by the promise of food, she turned and grabbed hold of both Ben and Stef's collars and pulled them down the street with Al in tow.
"I can't say we learned much in exchange for six packages of food," Wufei said thoughtfully. "But I don't begrudge those children having them. I wish I had a ship full of food to give them."
"Perhaps the pictures and reports we turn in will be a catalyst for change."
Wufei didn't reply, but sighed deeply as he turned from the window and returned to sit on the floor, prepared to wait for another hungry person to come looking for a handout.
By the end of the day they'd spoken to four other children, two lethargic men and an older woman who appeared to be mentally challenged. Unfortunately, they hadn't acquired any more information from them than they had from Al. As the day drew to a close, the two Preventers returned to the shuttle for the night, heeding the warning to be inside and off the streets before the colony's lights dimmed.
The next morning they returned to the same building, hoping that word of mouth would bring more people to their door. Al, Steph and Ben came back, but this time Wufei gave them only one package of food each, knowing there were others who were in the same desperate need of food but were to afraid to approach them and ask for help. Five others came through the door of the Preventer building that day, mostly single men, but no one was able, or perhaps willing, to tell them anything about who, other than the monthly UEC charity drop, was bringing food to the colony.
Seeing that they were getting nowhere with their food-for-information plan, the two men agreed that they should walk around the immediate area and take as many pictures as possible. Unlike the day before, more people appeared to be out on the streets, and Wufei decided their presence provided them with the opportunity to take their pictures. Their near-starved, emaciated state, captured on film, would say more than mere words could describe.
Trowa accompanied his partner as he took shot after shot of the wary L2 citizens, acting as Wufei's backup while he took the pictures. It was obvious that the Chinese man was deeply disturbed by the experience. After taking a picture of a toothless woman with a severely bowed back, then watching her hobble away with the newly acquired food pouch clutched in her hands, Wufei leaned against the wall of a building to inspect the quality of the shots he taken on the camera's viewer.
"Are you all right?" Trowa asked, concerned by the heartsick look on the other man's face.
Wufei looked up from the camera in his hand. He was shaken by the images and the people he'd spoken to. "Let's go, I've got all that I need. The sooner I can get this information back to Earth and report what we've seen, the quicker things can be remedied."
A skeptical eyebrow rose as Trowa asked, "You really believe that our reports and these pictures will change the UEC's mind about L2?"
"If they won't listen, I'm sure the news media will."
"You'll be going against Preventer policy if you go to the press, endangering your job."
Wufei's gaze remained fixed on his partner's face, his dark eyes filled with anger as he thought over the risks of going to the media. "I guess I'll cross that bridge when I get to it," he said at last. "I only know that I cannot stand idly by while this travesty continues."
"One has to wonder if there's another reason for this systematic extermination of the people of L2, other than the gang violence and anarchy" Trowa said thoughtfully. "If an embargo can happen here, what's to stop the UEC from acting in a similar manner when the other colonies don't bow to their rules or demands? I suspect that whoever is behind this has an agenda. We can only blindly guess at this point who it is, the true reasons behind the embargo, and what it's final purpose might be."
"Does Quatre know who might be behind this?"
Trowa shook his head. "He has his suspicions, but the person or group responsible has covered their tracks well. Several months after the sanctions on L2 were put in place, we hired a discrete private investigator. He gave us the names of several men in the UEC's parliament, those who aggressively pushed for the sanctions. His investigations revealed that three of them were former Alliance officers stationed on this colony before Operation Meteor began."
"Could the embargo be the means for a coverup?" Wufei questioned and his stomach clenched at the idea that so many people were made to suffer in order to hide the mistakes of a few men.
"That's what we believe. Shortly after he began working for Quatre's sister, Duo gave an interview that was printed in all the major magazines. He questioned why the UEC never investigated the atrocities committed on L2 by the Alliance and OZ. He suggested the plague that killed so many when he was a child was purposely released to eliminate the increasing number of poor and street people. Two months after that interview, the sanctions were levied, successfully halting any further talk of an investigation."
"You don't think it's a coincidence, do you?"
Trowa shook his head. "No, we don't."
"Why didn't you mention this before?"
The brunet looked his friend in the eyes and answered, "Until now, you weren't ready to believe the UEC to be morally capable of starving a colony much less deliberately releasing a killing virus on helpless victims."
Wufei turned his head to survey the deteriorating colony that was unlike any other place he'd been. It was abnormally quiet for a colony, with no commerce, traffic or businesses. The people shuffled from one place to another with their thin shoulders slumped in hopelessness. "I think we have all the information we need," he said quietly. "Let's get the hell out of here."
"Why don't you return to the shuttle," Trowa said. "I'm going to hand out the last few pouches, maybe give them to Duo's friend, Hilde."
"Do you think it's safe to go alone?"
"If anyone wanted to hurt us they would have the day we arrived. I'll be careful and shouldn't be more than ten minutes behind you."
Wufei looked at his wrist watch. "If you're not back in fifteen, I'll come looking for you."
The two parted in front of the shuttle terminal, with Trowa, the duffle bag of food slung over his shoulder, headed towards the distribution center they'd visited two days before.