Sunday the 15th, Lunar 3, Luka 16
Tianjin Ancillary Port 3
It ended up being only me, Cove, Quail and Kipley. Hart and Jack not-so-mysteriously failed to appear when they heard I was involved. Mwenze was out, too. He wasn’t helping with the food like he said; he only told me that to make sure someone got the mopping done while he went out and met up with some of his friends to watch soccer, slipping out before anyone could notice him gone.
It was just the four of us along with what seemed like dozens of crates of packaged meals stacked on pull-carts not equipped to handle the sort of cobblestone path that led down to the docks. We walked in relative silence at first, each straining a bit as we pulled our carts of food and supplies behind us. It gave me time to take in my surroundings. I’d never been to Tianjin before, though I’d seen pictures in textbooks.
Tianjin is an older colony, decommissioned like Carthage. Unlike Carthage, it had been left in a state of flux and decay long enough that the life support systems were beginning to collapse. The moment I got off the ship this was evident enough. Trees that once lined the port had long since died, and the ground around them dried up and cracked like in a desert. It was hot, too, hotter than it should’ve been in Lunar 3, as each of the colonies was programmed to experience the same seasons as Lumeria proper. The temperature and climate control systems must have been beginning to go haywire. Unlike a lot of newer colonies, too, parts of Tianjin were obvious in their artificiality. On Carthage, you wouldn’t have known you were on a colony anywhere, except maybe for in the port — the sky looked authentic, like the sky back on Lumeria, with two suns and a night full of stars. Here, the closest layers of the sky dome above were beginning to crack, resulting in obvious tears in the sky, revealing lights and deep green metal beams far above, some of which were sprawled with bold, red writing from a long time ago. I couldn’t read any of it; it wasn’t in my language.
Quail, native to Tianjin along with Kipley, claimed it wasn’t like this everywhere, that Tianjin had once been known for its splendor and simulated beauty. He tried to tell me a little bit about it while him, Kipley, Cove and I wheeled down more crates of food packages from the ship and into town, but I was more focused on how gross and out of breath I was getting, especially with my head all covered in a bandana and another horrible wig.
“We’re doing oxygen today, too, right?” Cove asked, as he wiped some sweat from his brow.
Kipley nodded back over her shoulder. “Sure are. Good thing Pietro’s here to help.”
“Oxygen?” I asked, noticing my breathing was a bit fast. “There’s no oxygen here?”
“Oh no there is… some,” Kipley said. “Just, some people need more.”
“There’s less than you might be used to,” Quail said, sounding a bit strained himself. “Don’t worry. You’re not that out of shape. Just think like… you climbed a mountain and you’re up high.”
“Whatever you need to tell yourself, buddy,” Cove said, to Quail, and tapped him on his stomach. He snickered, though he was just as encumbered himself.
“So you’re not from around here?” I asked Cove, remembering that both Quail and Kipley were.
Cove shook his head. “Hell no. Flanders born and raised, thanks much. My only memories out east here are bad ones.” He pointed on out far ahead into the distance, the opposite way of which we were travelling. “There’s a pretty big re-ed facility down by Tongzhou Ward. Serves the whole eastern quadrant of the system.”
“You went there?” I looked away, sadly. “I’m so sorry. Jane told me it’s…bad.”
“Yeah, we were in at the same time,” Cove grumbled. “About a year and a half ago now. These knuckle-heads took me when they sprang her.”
“And we’ve all lived together, happily ever after,” Kipley said, glancing back at us.
“Not for long,” Cove said. “I’m about ready to blow this joint.”
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“Back home, back to school and my family,” Cove said. “The Boss was helping me pay for my transition, but I’m getting to a good spot. And nobody would recognize me anymore, so…forge a few papers and bam, I’m in the clear.”
“He always says that.” Quail glanced back to us over his shoulder. “And somehow, he never leaves.”
“You just wait and see. I’m serious,” Cove said, defensive. “Just gotta settle a few more things, is all.”
It was weird for me to imagine Cove just up and leaving, but I guess that’s how the pirates did things. What surprised me most was that just the other night, Cove had been one of the loudest shouting about revolution and violence. He wasn’t planning on staying to stick out the fight himself?
Once we began to distance ourselves from the port, I began to see what Quail meant about the beautiful architecture. Some parts of the city did have beautiful, red wooden architecture and what looked at once to have been grassy strolling parks and gardens once, some of which were more discernable to me than others. There were some small tents set up. I’d thought they were dwellings like on Carthage, but they were actually aid tents, and the makings of a marketplace.
We weren’t the only ones there handing out food. There were a few different teams of aid workers running around, most of them from Lumeria.
I couldn’t help but stare. It wasn’t the Corps, rather, regular people. Volunteers. They wore a uniform, but it was more like T-shirts and khakis.
“So are we here to spy on those guys?” I asked, to Quail.
Quail looked over, seeing the ones I was looking at. “Oh, them? No. They’re cool. We just ignore each other.”
“Well what are they doing?” I asked.
“Bringing food and stuff — probably a little better than ours,” Quail said. “They come by a couple times a month too.”
“And we do too?” I asked, still not getting it.
“Of course. There’s something only we can do,” Kipley said. “Or… will do.”
Just when I was about to ask Kipley what she meant by that, I heard someone calling for me.
I turned, resting my cart behind me for a moment. The break felt good. I recognized that voice, though being called Mister was a new experience — but not a bad one.
It was Isi, that little Lumerian girl from Carthage. She looked much cleaner now, wearing a cute little red dress with ladybugs on it, and a big, shiny red bow in her hair. Her smile beamed at me, and she was missing yet another tooth now. She had relief bags in both her hands, each almost as tall as she was.
“I thought that was you!” she cried, her face beaming, missing tooth and all.
“Isi!” I said, abandoning my cart. I ran toward her and bent down on my knees, to be at her level “How are you?!”
“Are you here for food too?” Isi asked. “You can have some of mine.”
“Oh I don’t need any,” I said, shaking my head. “I think I owe you.”
“Did you come see my mom and the baby?” Isi asked, her eyes all wide. “They’re in the hospital.”
“She had the baby?!” I almost squealed. “I’d love to!”
“Hey–don’t you dare,” Cove said.
Kipley shushed him. “We’re headed there too, actually. Why don’t you and your little friend go up ahead, and catch up?”
“Really?” I asked. I ran back to my cart. “Can I take them something?”
“She already has food,” Cove said.
Quail smacked him upside the head. “Of course you can,” he said. “We’ll see you in a bit. Try not to get into too much trouble, okay?”
ψ ψ ψ
I carried the bags of food while Isi led me to the hospital, updating me on the great many happenings she’d enjoyed in the less than three days since I’d last seen her. She was now a big sister, of course, to a lovely younger brother named Rowe, who was born totally bald (except for his teeny, budding antlers). She also lived in an apartment now, and might even get to go to school soon.
“You didn’t go to school before?” I asked.
Isi shook her head. “Mommy taught me though. And my Dad before that.”
“Where is your dad?” I asked.
Isi shrugged. “Mommy said he’s on Lumeria now… isn’t that where you’re from?”
I nodded. “Sure am. Same with those guys in the purple shirts back there, the ones with the food.”
“Wow,” Isi said. “I wish I could go there. I miss my Dad.”
“What’s he doing?” I asked. “Maybe I can help you find him.”
“Really?” Isi’s face lit up again. “But I don’t know what he’s doing, Mister Pietro. My mommy said he’ll be gone for a long time.”
My face fell, realizing what that might have meant. Swiftly changing the topic, I asked about the new apartment, and Isi was happy to share a lot about it the rest of the way.
The hospital wasn’t what I imagined a hospital would be. On Lumeria they were huge, and sort of obvious as hospitals from a distance with huge, purple trident symbols on them. This was just a concrete block that looked like an office building or maybe old apartments. The walls were chipping and yellowed, and the Bots we passed at Registration looked like the kind I saw in old movies, from when my parents were kids. None of this fazed Isi, however; she gladly skipped along with me, not growing tired a bit even as we traversed six flights of stairs. There were no elevators in the building, only stairs.
Isi’s mother’s room was private, though there were no windows, and no security of any kind — Isi and I walked in without anyone so much as checking on us. When the door opened, she looked perplexed — not at Isi, at me.
“Mommy,” Isi called, running to her mother’s bedside. “It’s Mister Pietro!”
I waved awkwardly, the bags of food in my hands. “Hi there,” I said, lingering in the doorway.
“Hello there,” Isi’s mother said, nodding for me to come in. The infant was laying against her naked chest, making soft sounds.
Closing the door behind me, I got a bit closer, and sat the food down. I was somehow too terrified to get any closer, lest I might somehow break the baby by existing in the same space as him.
“I didn’t think I’d see you again,” Isi’s mother said. “Where is your friend?”
“Jane’s back home today,” I said, hearing my own exasperated voice. “She’ll be really bummed she missed this.”
I am not a baby person. Even when it was my own brother, Duncan, I was terrified of babies, but there was something about seeing this child, knowing he and his family may not have survived what we’d been through a few days before but somehow had, that struck me, made me care even though I was looking at a newborn just as alien and wrinkly as any other I’d ever seen.
“Can I go play?” Isi asked. Her mother nodded at her, and Isi left us.
“Uhm… I brought you these,” I said, motioning toward the boxes. “Isi got some of them from the volunteers but the rest is from me. A thank you for that ice pack.”
Isi’s mother grinned. “Your face is looking better,” she said, keeping her eyes on the baby the entire time. “You want to hold him?”
“No,” I said, with lighting speed. “I mean, I–I don’t know how. And he’s so… so little.”
“That’s okay. I completely understand,” she said. “It was kind of you to visit. I didn’t know pirates made house calls.”
“I-I didn’t either,” I said, chuckling to myself. “I’m pretty new at this myself, actually.”
“Well, you’re welcome to stop by anytime. My girl’s taken a real liking to you.”
I smiled. “She’s a sweet girl… say, she mentioned to me… her father is on Lumeria?”
Isi’s mother froze, her entire body seizing at the mention. “That’s what I said. He’s…”
“I thought so. The Corps?”
“Uh-huh. On Carthage… he stood up to one of them, and he wouldn’t back down. He…” Tears fell down her cheeks. “I didn’t have it in me to tell her.”
I looked away. “I’m sorry I asked. I just…” I breathed out. “I told her I could look for him.”
“You really are too kind,” Isi’s mother said, smiling weakly. “I don’t know if I should thank you for giving her hope, or be angry.”
I left not long after that, making up some excuse about needing to find my team, but really I didn’t want Isi’s mother to watch me cry like a total bitch, so I went to hide in the bathroom and bawl my eyes out in a bathroom stall. It was just like school, except this time I was having an actual existential crisis about more than wearing a fucking dress.
What the fuck is wrong with me? My problems back home felt so small and inconsequential when I thought of people like Isi, or her mother, or even Jane or any of the other pirates. I felt so silly and pissed at myself. There were so many times when I felt like I had the worst luck in the world, times when I ignored the things Portia and my parents tried to say about what a great life I had. Maybe there were things that could’ve been better, but I suddenly appreciated for the first time things I’d never considered before, like that I had two parents, that I never had to worry about the police killing them if they talked back, and that both of them were undoubtedly safe at work now, and that my brother and sister were at school, or doing homework, or going for a swim. And to think that that morning I’d been considering leaving, even ratting out the pirates, all because someone said something that made me feel uncomfortable… it just made me sick.
I sat in the bathroom for quite awhile, until I finally collected myself, and then stepped out. In the mirror, I caught a surprising glimpse of my reflection. I hadn’t even realized I was scratching again, but I’d went at the left side of my scalp so badly that it was bleeding.
ψ ψ ψ
When I finally made my way back downstairs, Kipley, Quail and Cove were waiting for me, taking a much-needed breather.
“Finally,” Quail said, rising from where he’d been resting on his cart.
Cove was sitting on his, too, the both of them sweaty and gross. Cove looked worse of the two, appearing to have lugged my cart along with his.
“Did you have a good visit?” Kipley asked, chipper as usual.
I nodded. “Yeah. I’m sorry I didn’t help more.”
“Well, you can help now,” Kipley said. “We’re just going through this path over here, to that building next door.”
“Isn’t that just more of the hospital?” I asked.
Quail nodded, taking his cart. Kipley took hers, too, and Cove left me with mine. I followed.
We walked out through what was once a courtyard, now just dried, caked, cracked dirt and stones like the areas I’d seen by the docks. In a shady area toward the opposite side of the courtyard were a line of people in wheelchairs, outside enjoying the fresh air out of the light of the suns. I’d thought they were old people until we got closer. Some of them were, but they were of all ages. The only thing they had in the common was the same pattern of wounds and scars on their faces, similar to Kipley’s.
“This is the thing only we do,” Kipley said, turning back to me.
No one said a word for a bit. Quail and Cove got set up and began taking out bags of food, taking them inside. Kipley knelt down close to one of the people in the chairs, a frail, thin koibito man whose body shook almost nonstop. He didn’t look that old, either, though he was hunched over and didn’t seem to have limited movement outside of the shakes. His scars were older, healed, but readily evident in his skin. Apart from the two on his temple, he had one near his right eye socket, high on the bridge of his nose.
“Hi Uncle Andrew,” Kipley said, beaming at him. “We brought you some tasty food again!”
The man made a sound back at her, but not words. He seemed happy, still. I didn’t think he was really her uncle, but he could’ve been. Inside there were more; Quail and Cove were already distributing food, although to nurses instead of directly to the patients. Some of them could walk, it appeared, but most were in wheelchairs or used walkers, seeming to struggle with balance. Many of them shook.
“Who are these people?” I asked.
“I think this is what the boss wanted you to see,” Kipley murmured, turning back to me. She got up and faced me head on, suddenly serious in a way I’d never seen her before. “These are re-education survivors, Pietro. Each one of them underwent a procedure when they failed one of the re-ed programs… and this is how they live now.” I stood in absolute utter silence, horrified. Kipley pushed up her bangs, revealing her forehead to me. I’d seen the scars before, not knowing how she got them. “I was lucky. I was only seventeen, so even though the doctor cut pretty deep and I had to learn to walk again, I recovered.”
“But why?” I asked, my voice coming out waif-like and lost. “W-why would they…”
“It’s their last resort. If you can’t beat the deviancy out of someone, or bribe it out of someone… you cut them until there’s nothing left,” Kipley said, looking away from me, somewhere in the distance. “Vegetables make good, compliant citizens.”
She said something else, but my brain failed to process it. All that ran through my mind was those prisoners I saw on Carthage, the ones that we couldn’t save, and the dots on my arm, being seventeen — the same age I was turning at the end of the summer — and what it meant. It could’ve been me. It would’ve been me. And it was each one of these people, even the ever bouncy, bubbly Kipley Sappho.
“Well, they’re not all vegetables,” Kipley said, once again tending to the man she called Uncle Andrew. “Some of them just die. Others are… more okay. Some even like me. And I’d like to think I’m okay underneath it all, you know?”
I stood there in silence for a long time, longer than I realized, before I finally spoke, tears streaming down my face again. The sun felt like it was beating down on me, and my already uncomfortable head felt like it was burning. “Kipley,” I asked, my voice much darker and deeper than I expected it to be. “Why did Legato want me to see this?”
“Oh, I think you know why,” Kipley said, shooting me a crooked little grin. “It’s your decision in the end. None of us will force you but… I hope you know that we really need you, and we’re not the only ones.”