ONE HOUR AGO . . .
Lucien trudged his way through the hot desert sand with his group of orphans in tow as the two remaining Dispatchers escorted them back to the city gate. The officers were still clad in only their undergarments—something he knew Edmond, the Second Lieutenant, would have quite a time explaining to his superiors. Still, the young orphanage elder was grateful for his loyalty. Sacrificing the captain must not have come easy for him. There were many moments during which Lucien had grown fearful that the ruse would fail. His act hinged on multiple parties, not all of whom had cooperated as expected. If a single domino fell, the entire structure would collapse.
On the one hand, there was Max Ferrier—by all accounts his only true friend, though still too naive, overconfident, and goody-goody to be trusted with the truth. He was not much more than a pawn. On the other, there was Igor—the villain, and therefore the most uncontrollable variable. Thank god he had come through. Many other allies existed in Lucien’s game of course, most of whom had been bribed onto his side. Edmond Fache was one such ally. He couldn’t help but crack a smile at the sheer depth of his handiwork. They were all such fools.
The truth of the matter was that the boys of Barreau Orphanage didn’t have to set traps and steal Dispatcher equipment to survive. All the money they needed for monthly upkeep or renovations was locked away in a safe in the main office back home—or at least it had been until Lucien began appropriating the funds elsewhere for his duration as treasurer. “We’re cut off,” he had told them on the same day the City Commission had shut down the Barreau District. The timing was perfect, and they never stopped receiving grant money. Because of this and the black market trades of stolen tech wares the orphans brought home, he had amassed a small fortune.
Lucien enjoyed having carved out his own personal slice of the world. To him, it was fair justice for having endured a childhood of no-name misery. He could have easily inherited everything; stocks, corporate bonds, full shares in the largest corporations in Cavarice including DuPont Steamworks, if only his mother hadn’t dumped him off in Barreau following the Workers’ Rebellion and subsequent coup. The only thing she ever gave him was a new surname, and that was useless. “It’s to keep you safe,” she insisted.
Safe from what? Wealth and power? A suspected blood relation to the most well-known criminal in all of Viktorium? His birth name was a badge of honor! And to think she would have kept the identity of his father a secret forever. Ha! It hadn’t been too difficult. The man had sent a coded telegram to a safety deposit box two years prior. Lucien could hardly believe his eyes the moment he read it. By some miracle, his father had survived a death sentence carried out by his own private Dispatchers. For all intents and purposes, they had murdered him. Now he was reaching out across the frequencies to his only son.
It was at this revelation that Lucien began what he had come to call his ‘Great Work’. This new slice he was carving out was not just for him alone. He had to prepare a place for his old man’s triumphant return. Together, they would breathe new life back into Viktorium as father and son.
They approached the north gate at last. The rest of Lucien’s crew were panting and shuffling their feet on the verge of collapse from dehydration or heatstroke—maybe both—but neither he nor the Dispatchers seemed as fazed. He had warned his team to pace themselves once they’d left the villa. There was only one canteen of water to share amongst them. Still, he was tired as well. Dealing with Igor half the day had been a nerve-racking experience he didn’t wish to relive for quite some time. Neither, for that matter, was the memory of what the boy had done to Captain Georges. Yeesh.
He gazed up at the massive two hundred-foot gate which loomed above. The city wall was a reinforced stone structure surrounding all of Cavarice with four main points for entrance and egress. The north and south gates typically remained closed; the City Zoning Commission had scrapped an adjoining highway that would have connected the city to the provinces of Falvarre in the north and Helias in the south. A team of fifty Dispatchers patrolled the wall at all times with phase units drawn, especially on this side. They never knew when the Outlanders or some other foreign threat might attempt a break-in.
As Lucien waited for Edmond and Isaac to appeal their superiors along the wall to open the door and let them through, he wondered if Max had made it safely out of the villa. He certainly hoped so. Not so much out of genuine concern than for the fact that Max was still a necessary component of his greater plan to take control of the city. But to that end, he needed the equipment his young friend was now sneaking through the tunnel which ran twenty feet below them back into Barreau District. Then the revolution could begin.
“Just open the bloody gate!” Isaac shouted, tearing him from his thoughts. The three squads of Dispatchers patrolling the north gate had fallen into fits of laughter upon seeing them in their underwear, trailed by a crowd of tired children.
“Igor eat your clothes this time?” one of them called down.
“Aw look, you’re so generous to the orphans you gave them your clothes!” another chuckled.
“Wait a second, where’s Georges?” asked yet another.
“At least one of you has his head on straight,” Isaac muttered. “Pascal, the door!” he demanded.
“Oh, right. Sorry!”
A few seconds later, the group felt a thunderous tremor beneath their feet as the many locks and magnets began to shift below. The massive gate roared open, and with it, a loud reverberating boom sounded across the length of the wall, ejecting dust from the cracks between the stones. It was one of the great technological marvels in the city, soon to be replaced by something even greater—Tesla was rumored to be working on an electromagnetic force-field. Lucien took a moment to marvel at the times in which they were living. Back in the world from which they all originated, it would have been deemed sorcery.
All seemed to be going well for their reentry until Pascal suddenly halted them at the gate. An exchange of nervous glances and whispers ensued among the two Dispatchers ahead of the group with the other squad. Edmond glanced back apologetically, choked up over something that was said. They were thrown a pair of spare trench coats in the meantime to cover up. Isaac continued through, but Edmond lingered behind to inform Lucien of what was going on. The two made sure to speak well enough away from the group of orphans so as not to be overheard.
“Our District Commander is patrolling the wall,” he sighed. “I can get you through, but not without a lengthy checkup. We could be detained a while.”
“All right, no harm,” Lucien shrugged. “Nothing incriminating here. Our boys are smuggling in the equipment underground as we speak. What’s got your balls all shrunk?”
The Dispatcher swallowed hard.
“This District Commander is…recently retired.”
“Christ.” Pontius was a former captain of the Dispatchers who could lay waste to their entire operation with the mere bat of an eyelash. He was ruthless, cold, stubborn in the pursuit of justice. Few things escaped that stony gaze of his, and whatever did didn’t survive long. He often buried everything in procedural paperwork as well, documenting every detail down to the last microbe. Since they were entering the city under the guise of rescued hostages, Lucien could only imagine how much time he’d waste constructing an official report.
“Let me do the talking,” Edmond insisted.
“Sure. At least until you fail and I have to pull out my mother’s card again.”
“I’d prefer you didn’t. We’re all trying to make our best impression on him, and…what the hell do you think you’re doing!”
Lucien had already turned away, charging toward the gate with dogged determination. It was like this every time he had to deal with the Dispatchers. Always the same reasoning. ‘You don’t understand the pressure’. He’d heard it enough growing up with his mother in the political sphere as she snuck him through the shadows and catacombs below the city to keep his existence a secret. This is about the fate of an entire city, not just you. You’ll understand when you’re older. It was something the orphans were told every day of their lives. Lucien, however, was not an orphan, and a mere surname could convince him otherwise. He still had a fighting chance at legitimacy in Viktorium, unlike the rest of them, and he’d be damned if anyone would strip him of it.
“Excuse me, can we get through?” he barked, addressing Pascal.
“Not until Pontius gives us the go-ahead.”
“Fuck Pontius! We have trekked two miles without food or water, me and my boys.” His heart was beginning to race. “Four if you count us being dragged out of the city and treated like animals by those monsters out there. Now unless you want an injunction brought against you, I suggest you stand aside and let us pass!”
“Just a moment,” Pascal sighed, turning his back to discuss the matter with the rest of his squad. After deliberating for some time, they scattered off to the left just out of sight. Lucien paced around in aggravation, muttering curses. Who the hell are they to tell me what to do? Surely they know who my mother is! Edmond grabbed him by the shirt and yanked him aside.
“You have no authority here!” the Dispatcher spat through clenched teeth.
“I certainly have more than you. Now take your filthy hands off me before you lose your job!” Lucien replied, swiping out of his grasp. He thought that sometimes, he ought to make a show of things to ensure no one caught on that they were more or less accomplices. Edmond quickly countered and dragged him back.
“You want to go to prison? I can make it happen!”
“I’m sorry, how much was your bribe again?”
“What the hell is going on here!” a deep voice bellowed from the gate. The two boys immediately tore away from each other. Pontius. Lucien did his best to remain still while his heart thudded away in his chest. The heat of the argument combined with the desert air wasn’t helping matters. His nerves were crashing back into the same chaos as a half-hour ago when Igor was playing slice-and-dice with Captain Georges. No sudden movements, he reminded himself. Not that the veteran’s personality put him off—he could handle that. But the older Dispatchers tended to be far more trigger-happy than the novices thanks to their service during the Workers’ Rebellion.
“N-nothing,” Edmond stammered.
Pontius squinted in the sunlight and lumbered toward them with suspicion. His leg had been crippled beyond repair during a fight in the coup, and he walked with a cane. Half his weight sunk onto it with every step. Up close, his face was a boulder; cracked and battle-torn, full of scars and canyons that made him appear a decade older than his forty-three years. It certainly served well to intimidate. Lucien could imagine Igor peeling the skin off his skull with a dull blade and laying it out to form a perfect topographical map of the desert.
The two boys hung their heads low as the district commander paced an uneven circle around them.
“Where is Captain Georges?” Neither of them answered. After several seconds of silence, he raised a hand and whacked Edmond across the face so hard that he nearly fell over. “For god’s sake, you’re a Dispatcher! What the hell happened out there?!”
“Please…” one of the boys in Lucien’s group whimpered. He had been rocking back and forth for some time now, his breathing rapid. “Water…I can’t…” The boy teetered backward and collapsed in the sand, but none of the Dispatchers seemed willing to budge around their commander. Lucien suspected it was for fear of making sudden movements. The man shot an accusing glance back at them.
“Will someone get the kid some water? And you can bring them the whole bucket while you’re at it. Jesus,” he breathed, training his eyes back on Lucien. “Well well, if it isn’t the good Mr. Riviere. Your reputation precedes you.”
“Good to know,” the elder smiled.
“That’s not a compliment,” the man spat on the ground. His breath stunk of chewing tobacco. “Perhaps I should ask you what happened, since baby Edmond here is about to wet his pants. You got anything?”
“Yes. Sir, my boys and I were kidnapped and taken as hostages by the Outlanders-”
“Oh no, no, no,” the man chuckled, cutting him off. “Do I look that stupid to you?”
“Don’t answer that. Like I said, your reputation precedes you. You still got your Level One pass, right?”
“Need to see proper ID to let you in.”
“Given the circumstances I just described, I do hope you’re kidding.”
“Do I look like I’m kidding? Two of my officers are missing their phase units! Proper precaution, you understand.” The commander set an elbow on his cane as he knelt and patted loosely down the boy’s trousers, finding the wallet bouncing against his left outer thigh. “Take it out.”
“Take what out?” the boy grinned.
“You fuckin’ smartass,” Pontius rolled his eyes, bashing him in the shin with his cane. “Remove the wallet.”
Several of the Dispatchers laughed—perhaps none more than Edmond—as he yelped and stumbled backward, digging out the thick fold of leather to place it in the commander’s calloused hand. Pontius turned his back to the sun and thumbed through it in search of the document. He let out a bitter sigh upon snatching out the booklet which held Lucien’s pass, carefully reading it over and checking the watermarks to be sure it was legitimate.
“Appears to check out,” the man said, looking back. Lucien breathed a sigh of relief until he heard what came next. “Up until two months ago. Which means I get to detain you,” the commander grinned. “God, I love my job. Isaac, Pascal,” he called, snapping his fingers, “let’s get them inside the gate. This conversation is best had inside the wall. I wouldn’t want Mr. Riviere or his cohorts running off. Not that they’d have far to go. Edmond, would you be so kind as to escort him through the door? I mean…if you can handle that.”
Lucien smirked as Edmond shoved him along.
“Enjoy it while you can,” the elder whispered.
“Oh, I will.” The Dispatcher gave him a swift kick.
The other two squads proceeded to escort the Barreau boys through the north gate with Pontius leading the way. With Edmond’s knuckles buried in his spine and another hand clamped firmly on his shoulder, Lucien searched his mind for any explanation that might get the district commander to back off. He felt stupid for not having thought it through before. How would the Outlanders have taken them hostage in the first place? If he mentioned the tunnel in his story, Pontius would immediately send squads to flush it out. That would mean the end for Max, to say nothing of his little revolution.
Then it hit him. Quentin Vaugrenard. The boy was instrumental in carrying out the majority of Lucien’s dealings with the Outlanders. Whether they needed to trade equipment, dispose of threats, force cooperation, or more recently, gain him access to a private military airship hangar that even his mother’s Level One signature couldn’t afford, Quentin’s connections with the fearsome gang could do it all. The only problem was that he was now under Max’s watch, and Max looked after his orphans like a bloody hawk. Quentin had no way to sneak out without being noticed, unless…
Andre Casanov likes heroes on his stupid radio show, and Max likes to listen, he thought. If I can get there in an hour and out him, Max will run off to look for his documents. In the meantime, Edmond can validate my story and pick up Quentin himself before the other Dispatchers get on it. If Pontius asks how the Outlanders snuck us out, I’ll tell him we were blindfolded. He’s got nothing on an expired pass.
“Pascal, don’t forget to shut the gate since you clearly forgot to open it in a timely fashion,” Pontius ordered as they strolled through.
“I’m not-” the boy began to counter, then quickly remembered who he was talking to. “I mean, yes sir.”
“And yes, Pascal, I’m afraid you are stupid,” the district commander sneered.
“I’m sorry sir, I-”
“Save it, you’re not hurting anyone’s feelings, just do your damn job.”
“Kids these days,” Pontius sighed, removing a metal flask from his pocket and guzzling down a shot’s worth. “That’s why they used to enlist orphans, because they’re smarter than you idiots. Aren’t you?” He turned to address Lucien and the rest of the Barreau boys. The thunderous rumble came beneath their feet again as the gate closed behind them, followed by the quaking boom. “Drop the act,” the seasoned veteran chuckled. “It looks terrible on you. We know you’ve all been working with the Outlanders.”
“That’s a bold accusation. What proof do you have of this?” Lucien challenged in a smug tone. “Rumors? Fine Dispatcher you are.”
“Man, I love this guy,” Pontius laughed. “He’s got a set of brass ones.” He downed the rest of his flask.