Allenby can't sleep.
She shifts and tumbles in her bed and punches at the pillow and practices kicks on the thin blanket and ends up drumming out a sparring rhythm on the wall, her fists thumping satisfyingly against the grimy plasterboard like if she hits them hard enough she can rattle the filth right off.
Everything's so dirty and old in Neo-Hong Kong. Allenby thinks the Neo part must've been a joke because Neo means progress and sheen and all of the things that her Neo-Sweden is, that glittering pinnacle of space-colony power floating immaculately above the battered, battle-scarred Earth. Neo isn't crowded, stinking streets and noisy vendors selling unsanitary food and horrible, horrible plumbing that looks like it was installed two centuries ago. She's been sheltered from the worst of it so far but Earth amenities are only so good.
Compared to the ancient hotel where she and her handlers are staying, the Neo-Swedish Space Forces' facilities are so sterile, a sterility she grew up telling herself she liked, that it was home and the more she accepted that fact the less everything would hurt. Now the pain's become just as much a part of her as the sterility. It's easier on her psyche if she just keeps reminding herself that everything's gonna hurt—operations, fights, losing control of her own body as the remote-controlled energy flickers and pulsates through her neural implants and down her nerves and tells her to just destroy, destroy. Pain is something most people shy away from but Allenby Beardsley knows that in order to survive and bring glory to Neo-Sweden she's gotta embrace it.
She gets clearance from her superiors to be taken to the hangar where Nobel Gundam stands asleep, under the pretense of wanting to check something in the cockpit. She doesn't have a match tomorrow but does have one the day after, and the anticipation is jagged under her skin. She just wants to get all of this over with and it's weird that she's been training for something almost literally her entire life and after next week it'll be done. Will they use her again for the next Gundam Fight, four years from now? She'll be twenty then, her body won't have started to slow down yet. What about the next one, and the one after, and after that? How long will she have to keep doing this, and what'll become of her when she's tired and spent, assuming she survives that long?
The hangar is quiet and empty and only one sickly-yellow-green fluorescent light remains lit, hanging precariously in a forgotten corner. The mechanics have already gone for the night. Allenby's now aware that other Gundam Fighters have good rapport with their support teams, which is utterly foreign to her. She doesn't even know the names of her mechanics, faceless men and women that putter about her Gundam and regard her the way the rest of Neo-Sweden does: a means to an end.
Nobel Gundam is a second body to her, one that she often feels bare when she's outside of, and she wonders if it's because she's spent more time inside the machine than out of it these past few years. When she's piloting it, she feels every hit that it takes and it's frayed her until sometimes she's not sure which is her real body any more and she'll wake up in the middle of the night staring at her hands trying to remember if they're supposed to be skin or metal.
Allenby was twelve when they finished building Nobel and put her into it for the first time. She still recalls vividly how they swept her through merciless training exercises; she'd already learned how to fight, but not yet how to fight as the soul of a seven-metric-ton machine. Her limbs had been heavy and sore and her ears rang with the sounds of pistons and servos firing every time she twitched, but she adjusted, she toughened. Now it's just second nature, or maybe even first nature. Maybe she's been a machine this whole time and just hasn't quite come around to realizing it. After all, she can't remember her parents. Maybe she didn't have any.
She puts her hand to Nobel's—no, her own cold metal foot and feels her gleaming, white-painted steel resist her warm flesh. Maybe this is what the military's been trying to tell her all along, that the future of humanity lies in becoming inhuman. That the sooner she gives into that, the sooner she'll be able to be an example of the ideals she's supposed to stand for.
Footsteps. Allenby tenses, turns, and sees a tall man with a trenchcoat casually shrugged over his shoulders, his hands in the pockets of his tailored suit. His long dark hair is in a thin ponytail and he's wearing small, round-lensed sunglasses even though it's night, but he's smug enough to pull that off.
No introductions are necessary. He's Wong Yunfat, Prime Minister of Neo-Hong Kong and current ruler of the world. She's Allenby Beardsley, Neo-Sweden's finalist in the 13th Gundam Fight and a puppet in his spectator's sport, at least until she wins the tournament and control of Earth is wrested from his four-year grip and put in the hands of her commanders. They've both accepted this. Or so she thinks.
How did he get in here, she wants to know.
He shrugs. If he's learned anything in his life it's that everything is possible with enough money.
Sure enough, she glances to the entrance and sees her handlers thumbing through thick wads of cash. Has he come to sabotage her?
He answers her question with another question: she can't sleep, either?
This makes her pause, unused to people actually wondering about her welfare. Her handlers and technicians always just know; that's the reason they've implanted biosensors, so they'd never have to ask. What's it to him?
Does she want to go on a stroll? he queries. Neo-Hong Kong is a big city and it never sleeps. Maybe she just needs a break from the monotony of training.
She can't think of any reason not to accept.
Wong leads her down narrow, crooked streets and across tilted elevated walkways with the air of assurance that only a master of his own city could possess. She stalks confidently beside him with the air of assurance that if anyone tries to mess with them she'll beat them senseless, and she glares fiercely at anyone who looks their way. But they all seem hesitant to cross Wong's path, almost afraid of him. Everyone knows who he is and no one does anything about it. Allenby gets the impression that he's survived too many assassination attempts to make assassination attempts worthwhile any more, and he knows it.
The grime of the city is even more evident on foot, and Allenby never knew a place could smell so gross. She suddenly very much misses the cold, odorless tang of the space facilities where she's usually kept. A drop of water hits her nose and she looks up to see a tangle of leaking pipes running between buildings overhead, held together by damp rags. How do people live like this, she wonders. Neo-Sweden will sweep all the filth away for them.
Neo-Hong Kong is a hive of light and color and sound, and nowhere is that cacophony more perfectly encapsulated than the arcades. Rows of brightly lit screens all hawk for attention from sweaty caffeinated nightwalkers willing to spend the last few coins in their meager paychecks to be heroes for two minutes.
Wong asks Allenby if she likes video games.
She doesn't quite know what they are and the arcade is overwhelming to her senses, like a fight where she has twenty opponents ganged up on her, if those opponents were wearing flashing lights and shouting nonsensical things in tinny mechanized voices.
Instinctively she reaches out her hand to strike at the phantoms in her mind, and Wong places a handful of coins into her palm, telling her it'll be fun. For Allenby this translates into him telling her it'll be a fight. The association is automatic in her mind and it isn't just because she's spent her life fighting at the mandates of others. She remembers always thinking of combat as a game, albeit an incredibly important one, even back when she was a child and used to be pitted against other children in the same experimental program as her. The years passed and she stopped fighting them, one by one. Her handlers told her it was because she'd outclassed them, progressed enough to move on to simulations. What they didn't tell her, she found out later—the others hadn't survived their operations.
She and Wong start with a two-player shooting game, an older model, not as sophisticated as some of the newest VR sims but engaging nonetheless. Although she's shaky with a gun at first (Nobel's strictly a melee unit except for its forehead-mounted rapid-fire ordnance, weak but effective as a distraction), she quickly catches on and soon she's gleefully shooting grotesque aliens with her impossibly fast reflexes, so fast that the game often has trouble registering. She's really the one doing all the work and Wong's just hanging back and watching amusedly, only firing on occasion so as not to look too helpless. Allenby doesn't even notice, she's so into the action, yelling and hooting and taunting her simple-minded AI opponents. She beats the game all too quickly and Wong can't help but smile at her childlike enthusiasm and awe as she realizes she's made it onto the high-score list and inputs her initials like she's recording them in a sacred tome of championdom.
She wants to play all the games, she excitedly announces, looking around to try to scout out her next target, imagining her name emblazoned on every high-score screen in existence, envisioning it displayed on top of the results for the 13th Gundam Fight.
Wong chuckles, pretends to be exasperated, pats her shoulder condescendingly. They can stick around for one more game, and then wouldn't she like something to eat?
Allenby only really hears the first part of his sentence because her peripheral vision catches familiar movement and she turns to see two fantastical fighters hovering in the air, kicking and dodging and throwing energy at each other. They're suspended above a holographic emitter, on either side of which are two guys mimicking the movements of the holograms, or, she realizes, the other way around. Immediately she rushes over, eager to get in on the fun, eager to win. If she wins here, even if it's against these people who aren't real fighters, it'll help her feel more like she can beat Neo-Japan's finalist in the preliminaries the day after tomorrow, she thinks.
The health of the blue-clad ninja finally runs out and he collapses dramatically with a shout, the scene fading as both gamers step down from their platforms and hand their VR helmets to the next people in the two lines behind them. Allenby practically dances with anticipation as she waits her turn.
Finally the helmet's placed in her own hands, warm and sticky from the palms of endless strings of players. She steps up to the platform confidently and jams it onto her head; this is nothing compared to the excruciating discomfort of getting fitted into her Gundam's Mobile Trace System every time she pilots it. The helmet's damp with sweat and smells like other people's heads but it's a small price to pay for something that'll hopefully do a good job of emulating what she loves. The game flickers on and she goes through the roster of fighters, picking one that's fast and lightweight like she (and by extension Nobel) is. She flashes a fierce grin at her opponent, a girl in a leather jacket, and the fight begins.
Needless to say, she garners a pretty quick reputation in that arcade.
As they finally leave, Wong suggests that she go there more often if she likes it so much, and when she says that she doesn't know if her handlers would allow it, he hints that the fighting game seems to be excellent practice to keep her in top combat condition for the real thing. And, he adds, it would be yet another way for Neo-Sweden to vaunt the technological superiority of its prize fighter.
She agrees although it's a little half-hearted. The game had seemed like a sanctuary from the kind of fighting she's usually forced into, so strict and regulated and heavy-handed. The Gundam Fight is lofty prose with a hundred rules about meter; the game is earthy free verse. She doesn't know if she could handle that small freedom being taken away from her, if she could let this reawakened love of raw battle be appropriated and quantified, its purpose shifted from her own enjoyment to the glorification of her mother colony.
Wong seems to catch on to her reluctance and smiles disarmingly. It was only a suggestion, he assures her.
She's so eager to please that she has a hard time not taking suggestions as orders.
Their next stop is a noodle joint, the smell of hot meaty broth permanently leached into the moisture-stained walls, which are plastered with faded posters of movie stars and champions of Gundam Fights past. This place has the best noodles, Wong proclaims as he gets them a booth. The jolly-faced owner seems delighted to see him again; it turns out Wong's been frequenting this shop since before he became Prime Minister.
Allenby stares at her soup, recalcitrant. Nutritionists and bio-engineers have been carefully meting and moderating her diet for as long as she can remember. She eats to live, not the other way around. And now she's presented with a sloppy bowl of fat and flavoring and carbohydrates and it doesn't seem like something that's even supposed to enter someone's system, especially not someone modified like she's been. Who knows what havoc these substances could wreak on her sensors and implants.
Wong, who has been slurping his noodles noisily, sees the look on her face and laughs good-naturedly. He laughs again when she explains. One bowl of soup won't cost her the tournament, he promises. It might help to lift her spirits a little.
She's honestly not sure whether to believe the ruler of the world over her nutritionists, but the soup smells good regardless.
Wong teaches her how to use chopsticks.
The soup tastes even better than it smells.
They stop for a while at the apex of a wide old bridge decorated with carved-stone lanterns. Allenby looks down and sees rubbish floating lazily down the waterway below, and wonders if at some point in the distant past this was a natural river, or if it's always been just a garbage gutter meant to sweep trash to the sea. Neo-Sweden has neither.
The two of them are a lot alike, Wong mentions, using two fingers to slide his glasses back up his nose as he stares into the distance. They're both powerful and they both love power.
That's true, Allenby replies. She can't deny the rush she gets from being sixteen meters tall and able to rip solid steel apart with her bare fingers. It makes her think all the pain's been worth it. She is well aware of just how elite she is compared to the rest of humanity, especially those without her training, without Gundams.
She thumbs the railing of the bridge absently. It's wooden and old and bristling with splinters and she muses on the fact that if she runs her hand on it the wrong way she'll get a palm full of pain. It almost makes her want to try it. It's just like in a fight, one wrong move means hurt, it means her body sustains damage and she has to bring it back to the hangar and leave it temporarily so the mechanics can repair it, and in the meantime she's a mere wandering ghost.
Why is battle a metaphor for everything. Maybe she doesn't know any other metaphors.
She's confused, she explains to Wong, her fingers gripping the weathered wood tighter. Other Gundam Fighters have support teams. She has handlers. That's the Space Force's official term for them, like they're overseeing something nonsapient. She thinks she's a barely-tamed wild animal because she can see the fear in their eyes every time they approach her. That's part of the reason why they installed the berserker system in her head. It's not just so she'll be unbeatable; it's so they have some way to control her, even if means, paradoxically, sending her out of control. She doesn't even know if she's human any more. She again gets the urge to splinter herself just to see if she'd even bleed and she smacks halfheartedly at the railing like it's the source of her discomfiture.
What's she doing after the tournament? Wong asks after a moment of thought.
Training for the next tournament, of course. She has to keep the title for Neo-Sweden for as long as she can. She has no other prerogatives.
Has she ever thought about fighting for Neo-Hong Kong?
Allenby is shocked at the suggestion. Neo-Sweden built her; her allegiance to them is a default part of her being.
Yes, Wong responds, but she's losing herself. He's offering her a chance to finally be her own person, to reach a potential that those starkly science-minded fools can't comprehend in the calculated safety of their labs. He would be happy to buy her off of Neo-Sweden's Space Force. After all, they can always go find another orphan, right? The procedures they developed and tested on her could easily be used on someone else now that they have a handle on the experimental technology.
(He doesn't know, she realizes, about the other children, but then why would Neo-Sweden publicize its failures. No one missed them.)
She thinks about this for a long while, feeling the ribbed grains of wood. She's simultaneously sleeping upright in a hangar waiting for another fight and standing on a bridge wondering if she bleeds. She blows a few messy strands of aquamarine hair out of her face. She'll consider his offer and let him know after the tournament. After all, if—when she wins, she'll be a national hero and invaluable to Neo-Sweden and he might not have the money any more to allow her to switch factions.
He agrees that this might be the case, but smiles without a trace of disappointment and tells her to remember that the other finalists haven't gotten this far because of a fluke; she has to be prepared to accept a loss, although he knows he'll see a good showing from her regardless of her ultimate ranking.
She grins and thanks him, and he takes her back to the hangar and wishes her a good night. On the ride back to the hotel she says nothing about her outing and her handlers have been paid well not to talk. Inside, she's ecstatic, because for the first time someone, a very powerful someone, actually sees her as a person. Is this friendship? Is this what the other fighters have with their teams? She craves more of it. Right now it's the only thing keeping her grounded in this body instead of pining for her Gundam. That metal body was made to fight, but this one was made to feel.
It's only a matter of time, Wong thinks, before he's finally able to give her the power she deserves.