House of Rats – Part 18

Pascal knew, despite Pontius’ constant remarks, that he was not the most inept member of the Dispatchers force. But the fact he ended up being singled out by the man each year during the weeks of the welcome gala wasn’t what bothered him most. It was that the other Dispatchers saw no shame in joining in on it. And so he would often become the primary target of their practical jokes, even though the gala weeks were the most crucial security time of the entire year, which meant they all had to be at their sharpest.

“I just don’t get it,” he sighed as he took his nightly stroll over the west gate with Serge, one of his few friends on the force. “I take my job seriously. The rest of them just want to laugh and screw around at my expense. The gala is coming up, I thought that’s the whole reason they put Pontius back in charge. But he doesn’t seem to take his responsibilities seriously either.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean,” Serge agreed. “The man drinks so much, he might as well be swimming in it.”

“Hey,” Pascal whispered, grabbing his arm. “There he is now.”

The two stopped over the center of the gate and knelt down at a crenel just out of sight to watch the courtyard. The streets below were bathed in shadow due to failing electricity on this end of the city, though the Dispatchers had placed several gas lamps along the sidewalks to compensate. Almost everyone at this time of night was off doing patrols elsewhere, whether on the wall or throughout the city’s various districts.

Pontius stumbled into view from the left building where they’d constructed a temporary headquarters. A glass bottle of whisky swung loosely in his hand. He downed several sips as he shuffled along, stopping to survey the empty streets now and then, perhaps deep in thought. Not quite stinking drunk as usual, though certainly enough to affect his work. Pascal’s heart skipped a beat when he tripped over one of the gas lamps and it broke, sending a fireball of glass shards into the street.

“Aw shit!” the man slurred, throwing his bottle aside and kicking sand at the fire until it died. Meanwhile, the whisky landed on its side, pouring out all over the sidewalk.

“Jesus, he’s a mess,” Serge closed his eyes, sitting back against the merlon.

“What ever happened to him?”

“His son got kidnapped by the Dalishkova Knights a few years back.”

“I thought they didn’t have as big a presence in Cavarice.”

“They don’t, but Pontius is from Helias. It’s become the state religion over there.”

“But why kidnap his son?”

Serge peered out over the corner again. Pontius had resumed shuffling about the courtyard, holding his head and blinking his eyes in a vain effort to focus.

“No one is really sure. I’ve heard he was part of a group that led demonstrations against the Dalishkova in the early days, so maybe they did it for revenge. He’s not the only one it happened to.”

“So what do they do with the kids they kidnap? Hold them for ransom?”

“Worse,” Serge replied. “They turn the children into one of them. You forget who your real parents are. But the parents…”

“They never forget,” Pascal whispered, looking sadly back at their district commander, still lumbering aimlessly about the courtyard.

“Well hey,” Serge stepped to his feet, “we ought to get back to our patrol, yeah?”

“Right.”

The two boys continued on down their section of the wall, taking care that all the usual safeguards were in place around the gate. Pascal leaned against one of the merlons and gazed out over the landscape once their run was complete. This was the young Dispatcher’s favorite part of the job. Civilians never got a view quite like it. Light pollution obscured many of the natural nightly phenomena present throughout Viktorium, and they were not permitted access to the wall. But from up there, one could see it all.

A gentle breeze had begun to blow out across the blackened desert up from the southern Sea of Helene, carrying with it the pleasant scent of salt. Clouds of dust, green as the Northern Lights, whisked about the dunes beneath the glow of a full moon. The stars too, hooked in their places for countless millennia, shone down like an ocean of ancient gems.

Then the young Dispatcher caught sight of something far in the distance that did not belong there. Pascal immediately reached down to his utility belt and unhooked a spyglass to observe it more closely. Approximately six hundred yards away, he could make out a series of blue flickering lights emerging from the right of a large rock outcropping. They abruptly went dark, then fired up again for several more seconds.

“Serge, get over here!”

“Mmm, what?” His friend had been munching on a sandwich.

“Now!”

“All right all right, calm your nuts,” he said through the last mouthful, tossing his food over the wall for their German Shepherd, Milton, to finish. The dog eagerly bounded over to lap it up. “What do you see?”

“Have a look over there. To the right of that dune.”

Serge took the spyglass and did as instructed. “Looks like a bloody distress call. But who would be calling for help? It’s not like we’re missing…holy son of a bitch, it’s Captain Georges!”

“Give me that, you’re bluffing!” Pascal snatched it back. “Oh my god,” the boy’s heart pounded. “Serge, what do we do?”

“I’m not sure…can you see anyone else with him?”

“I don’t think so. The only lights are coming from his jacket…shit!” the boy cried.

“He’ll be at the gate soon enough,” Serge said. “Get Pontius.”

“He’s probably passed out by now!”

“You have a phase unit, yeah? Zap him sober.”

“Does that even work?”

“Damn it, just go, GO!” Serge shouted.

Pascal turned and bolted back across the top of the gate and down the stone steps aside the door, heading for their makeshift headquarters. He quickly fired a pulse to break the glass of the lobby door and leaped through. Always wanted to do that. Half of a bombed-out office just up another flight of stairs served as the district commander’s quarters. There he found Pontius, stone drunk and passed out over his desk with a picture of his son illuminated by a single candle in the corner. It was almost burnt all the way down.

“Pontius?” Pascal shook him. “Pontius, you’ve got to wake up right now!” The man stirred briefly over his desk in a pool of saliva, but went back to snoring. “Commander! Wake UP!” the boy shouted. He did everything else he could. Slammed his fist down on the table, beat on the man’s back, slapped his face. Nothing. “I’m very sorry to do this,” the boy sighed, charging up his phase unit, “but you need to lay off the drinks.”

He placed his hand over the man’s stomach and turned the power up to almost halfway—enough to stun a small animal—and shocked him. Pontius immediately awoke, vomiting all over the desk and knocking over the candle in the process. It sizzled out. The district commander turned his head and glared at Pascal. The young dispatcher backed away, clinching his nose as the puke stench took hold of his own stomach.

“I drank too much again, didn’t I?” the man groaned. Pascal nodded. “Thanks…hit me with it one more time, will ya? Little above halfway. Point 513 should do it.” The boy obliged and zapped him again. “Whew, holy shit!” the man exclaimed, holding his head. “All right. Now what were you yelling about?”

“Captain Georges is heading for the gate.”

The man’s eyes went wide. “What?!”

“I saw him in the distance, six hundred yards!”

“You sure this ain’t some mirage?” the man rubbed his face. “We get a lot of those at night.”

“Serge saw it too.”

Pontius sighed. “All right, gather the others, I’ll be along.”

The district commander looked wistfully at the half-empty bottle of scotch on his desk and reached for the portrait of his son in the corner. The boy looked maybe seven or eight, around half Pascal’s age, with straight black hair and large, dark eyes like coal. He was standing in shallow water near a dock holding up a rather large fish, trousers pulled up over his knees. But the boy wasn’t smiling. He looked rather serious. Even angry, almost as if he hadn’t wanted his picture taken in the first place. Pontius carefully wiped the vomit off the bottom of the frame with his sleeve and stared at it a moment, then laid it face down on the corner of the desk. He took one last sip of scotch.

Pascal was still standing back, watching the man, unsure of what to say.

“I’m sorry-”

“Didn’t I tell you to get the others?” Pontius cut him off. “God, you’re stupid.”

“Right…”

“Pascal! Get out here!” Serge called.

As the boy turned to leave, he noticed the commander’s cane resting in the corner next to the door and tossed it over to him. The man gave a slight nod of approval and stepped to his feet. Pascal rolled his eyes, continuing out through the door. He wasn’t about to help Pontius outside after what he said. Besides, considering the angry expression on his son’s face, he got the feeling there were deeper reasons as to why the boy had been taken by the Dalishkova.

Pascal emerged to see Serge had turned on the floodlights above the gate with the help of Conrad and Abel’s squads, who had arrived back from their patrols just in time. He hurriedly bounded up the steps to join them. A bright white glow shone over the gate in the cool night air to illuminate the path of the approaching figure. Trails of sand followed behind Georges as he limped along, visibly exhausted, barely forming full footprints before they were swept away. Beneath his Dispatcher’s trench coat, the captain was clad only in a grimy undershirt and briefs with numerous light blood stains. Scrapes and cuts covered his body from head to toe. As he drew closer, Pascal noticed an assortment of belts wrapped around the boy’s torso with phase unit parts and blinking blue lights. Dried blood was scabbed over the lower half of his face.

“Jesus, what have they done to him?!”

“Fucking savages, I’d like to rip them limb from limb!” Serge snapped. “We should open the gate.”

“Wait a second, boys,” Abel trembled. “I don’t like the looks of this. How do we know nobody’s followed him? And what the hell could be under that coat? That’s more than one phase unit’s worth of parts, damn sure.”

“No, he’s got to be alone, I didn’t see any other lights out there,” Pascal assured him.

“Still…best to be cautious. It’s protocol.”

“Screw being cautious, we know who it is! Hey Georges, are you all right?” the boy called down. He’d barely uttered the last word when Serge cupped a tight hand over his mouth and dragged him back from the merlon.

“Would you shut up until we know what to do!” he rasped.

“Let me go, it’s Captain Georges!”

“I don’t care if it’s the bloody Queen of England, we follow proper protocol, got it?” Pascal was still struggling beneath his grasp. “Hey!”

“Yeah, I got it!” the boy tore away from him.

“He’s right, you know,” Pontius muttered, straining his way to the top of the stairs with his cane. “And if any of you over-excited shitheads try to open that gate, I’ll have the lot of you court-martialed, is that clear?”

“Are you serious?” Pascal balked. “This is how you’re going to treat our captain?” He glanced around at the rest of his fellow Dispatchers, but none of them seemed willing to budge in front of their district commander. “So you’ve all turned into cowards. I don’t believe this!”

Pontius shook his head, his face glowing pale as a ghost under the bright light. “You’re clearly forgetting the events of this morning. The Outlanders took a few Barreau kids hostage and traded them for a more valuable one who could get them inside the gate. This is a diversion. They’re counting on us to open it.”

“But I don’t see anyone,” Pascal said, leaning over the merlon. “No one is out there.”

“All the same,” Pontius warned, “nobody’s opening that gate on my watch.” The man scowled as he stepped toward the boy, the cracks in his face reminding Pascal of A Trip To The Moon, a silent film he’d seen some weeks ago while on leave in the Metropoliès.

Meanwhile far below them on the outside, Georges had reached the entrance. His legs looked like they would give way before he got to the door, but once he did, he began to moan and cry incessantly. A rhythmic tapping began from the disgraced officer, then before long, an intense banging of desperation. The other Dispatchers were leaning over the crenels now trying to get a glimpse of him, but the gate was laid far enough into the wall that they couldn’t see.

Pascal remained steadfast as he and the district commander continued to stare one another down.  His heart thudded in his chest so hard, he feared it might rattle his bones apart. Both of them knew how this would end, that was a given. He wasn’t about to leave his captain outside the wall to suffer just because of some stupid protocol that insisted they martyr themselves whenever they got captured. Georges had managed to escape. The way Pascal saw it, his death would be on Pontius’ hands if anything happened, which meant he would be the one getting court-martialed.

Uncertain if his fellow Dispatchers would side with him about opening the gate to save their beloved captain, the young boy decided to attack his district commander in the only way he knew they could all agree with.

“You’re unfit to lead us,” Pascal narrowed his eyes.

“Excuse me?”

“You heard me. You all heard me!” Even Georges must have heard him, since the banging on the gate became ever more intense as he spoke. Don’t worry, I’m coming for you, he thought. The rest of the Dispatchers backed away from the crenels now to stand behind Pascal, exchanging worried glances. Let’s see them make fun of me now.

“Pask, what are you doing?” Serge asked.

“He’s a fucking drunk!”

Georges was banging against the gate harder now.

“He is our district commander,” Conrad swallowed.

“And he’s been drinking. Which makes him unfit to lead, or make crucial decisions.”

“You have to step down, Pontius,” Abel said. “It’s the rules.”

“But he’s not going to step down. Are you?”

Pontius chuckled to himself. The captain sounded as if he were slamming his entire body into the door now.

“You kids can’t be serious. You really think there’s any kind of respect, recognition, or honor for you in doing this job anymore? For you? A bunch of fucking teenagers? Newsflash morons, I’m the one who kept this city safe during the Workers’ Rebellion and government coup, I’m the one who worked for Charles-fucking-DuPont, I’m the one who wrote the goddamn book on Dispatcher procedures! Now you want to criticize me for having a drink once in a while because I’m old and retired? And yeah, my son is missing, so sue me! I’ve still seen more action than you babies could ever hope to get from your own hand!”

“Stand down, Commander Pontius.” Serge charged his face unit and fired up a blue spark. Another slam impacted against the door.

“You don’t want to do this, kid.”

“Oh, I think I do. Pascal,” he nodded, “go ahead and open the gate.”

“With pleasure,” the boy smiled, whipping past Pontius to man the controls.

“So you want a court-martial then. Fine,” the district commander smirked, turning to stop him. “But the only time that gate opens is over my dead-”

BOOM.

A sudden explosion tore through the west gate and shook the entire length of the wall, knocking Serge and Conrad over the edge to the ground just inside the courtyard. Pascal found himself sprawled halfway down the stone staircase with the weight of what felt like a body crushing his back. His ears rang with a tone that threatened deafness. His eyes too had gone blurry, though he could just make out an array of flickering shadows between the scattered flames now dotting the street below the wall. Far in the distance, people were shouting unintelligible things. But something deep in the young Dispatcher’s gut told him not to try moving just yet. Still, he tried to sort through in his mind what exactly had happened.

Georges. I was about to open the gate. Oh no…

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House of Rats – Part 17

Quentin Vaugrenard took a deep breath and descended the crumbling stairwell that led down to the tunnel entrance where, just hours before, the Barreau boys had reentered the city. The black sack he’d slung over his shoulder felt heavier with each step as the breath drawn from his lungs grew painfully thin. Perhaps it was the weight on his conscience. Or how fast he had run from East Central. He wasn’t quite sure, but his muscles ached. Everything in his gut screamed for him to turn back. Sure, he scared the piss out of Lucien earlier just to regain a sense of power, but there was no such freedom when it came to the Outlanders. It was too late to back out now. He’d already made his stop at the orphanage.

He had wanted to pull Max aside throughout the day to tell him everything—how Igor had placed him in the city as a mole to gather information on how to return, and that Lucien was far more dangerous than any of them were willing to see. But he’d given up once he realized that his orphanage elder could no longer protect him anyway. Not from the Dispatchers, not from Lucien’s demands, certainly not the Outlanders. And what troubled him most of all was the fact that not even Severo could shield him from his fate now, wherever it lie.

The young Dalishkova Knight had approached him some months ago to pry for information about Igor. During that time, Quentin kept his secret well from the rest of the gang, though he often grew frustrated with the boy’s constant reminders to trust him. Just be patient, I can get you your freedom. Yet those promises had turned out to be as empty as the state of belief induced by that prayer amulet the knight carried—probably because the object turned out to have no effect on Igor whatsoever. Quentin was thankful Severo trusted him enough not to use it on him, though in some respects it certainly would have dulled the pain of being torn in so many directions with no place left to call home.

But this was it. The final door.

Quentin threw down the bag of phase units and opened a small control panel on the wall. Leaned his head against the cool concrete, just for a moment. Come on, Quent. Just go back and it will all be fine. Yeah right. Not a chance. Lucien would sooner have him kidnapped and tortured. Igor would do worse.

He nervously punched in the six-digit entry code to open the lock, followed by a specific sequence of knocks the Outlanders previously established; if he’d tried turning the wheel to open the door outright, they would assume it was a squad of Dispatchers and open fire. His heart fluttered in his chest when the heavy thing swung inward. As he stepped over the threshold, he hoped he didn’t have to deal with Igor for once, that maybe his former leader was off satisfying his ego elsewhere, perhaps torturing a small desert animal. No such luck.

“About time you got here, chicken,” the dirty little rat rasped. He’d brought three of his subordinates with him; Deirdre, Will, and a newer boy they called Joran. “What took you so long?” Igor wasted no time invading his personal space, forcing Quentin to back away until he nearly tripped over the steel threshold.

“Just got back from the metro.”

Igor snatched the black bag from his hands. “You stink like shit.”

“Likewise.”

“They’d better all be here.” The leader tossed the bag over to Will, who proceeded to do a count to be sure. All the while, Quentin did his best to avoid Igor’s iron gaze, but every time he looked up again, the boy was staring him down like a lion would its prey. He didn’t quit, even after Will confirmed that there were ten phase units. An eternity of silence passed before the former Outlander worked up the courage to speak.

“What more do you want?”

“Why the hell did you leave us?” Igor sneered.

“Obviously I haven’t if I’m still here.”

“The fuck you are!” The leader struck him across the face. “Tell me, how is your nice cushy life inside the wall, eh?”

“Not as cushy as you’d think,” Quentin trembled, rubbing his cheek. He nodded toward the bag of phase units. “So why all this? You could all just come through the tunnel right now. You’ve known about it for months. I’ll even let you in, get you into some abandoned place. Plenty of them on the Barreau block. You don’t have to do this, you know-”

“Oh, it’s not that I have to. I want to! Or did you forget what those Dispatcher scum did to us?!” Igor charged forward, pinning him to the wall and tearing his shirt down the middle to reveal the branding scar on his chest. “Don’t tell me that you FORGET!”

Quentin swallowed hard, trying to ignore the flecks of spit on his face. “So what’s your side of the plan?”

“We’re going to have us some fun!” Igor grinned. “And you’re going to join us.”

“And if I don’t?” He had to choke back bits of vomit as he spoke. Igor’s halitosis was unbearable.

“Then who’s to say what will happen next time you come around with Max and the gang?” the leader challenged, backing away to join his subordinates. “We might not be so nice to you. That’s if we even need your services after tonight. We’ll be city dwellers again, after all. Who knows…I might just come by the orphanage one night and cut all your pretty little chicken throats while you’re fast asleep.”

Quentin shuddered as the scrappy child grinned in that menacing way of his, knowing full well that he could do it if he really wanted. The former Outlander had witnessed Igor do far worse during those first initial months in the desert villa. Things like smashing the skull of the weakest boy, Ewan, then gutting him and cutting off pieces of his body to cook for food. Of course Quentin had lied to Lucien about that part. But the thought of it happening to any of the Barreau boys…

“Look, why don’t you just come through now?” he whimpered. “There’s plenty of room for you at Barreau, I’ll talk to Max. You can join us. You can have a family, a real family! It’s not much, but-”

“SHUT UP for Christ’s sake!” Igor struck him again. “I didn’t plant you in the city so you could find a family and live happily ever after! The Outlanders ARE your family! So either you can die a hero, or you can die a coward. But if I were you, I’d choose wisely, ‘cause there’s only one way out of this, mate.”

“No…” Quentin backed against the wall, his heart hammering away in his chest. During his short life, he’d been ready for a lot of things, but nothing could prepare him for the prospect of death. The very thought hit him harder than any other.

“What’ll it be, then?” Igor asked. “Front lines, or a big bloody chicken coop?”

“I c-can’t just stay in the villa?” the boy choked up.

“What?” his leader gasped, grabbing him by the shirt and dragging him close. “And miss my fireworks, eh? I don’t think so. Nobody stays behind. Not even the girls. Shit, even Deirdre here is going, with her fine pair of tits,” he grinned back at her. “I’ll be right by your side, too.”

“You will?” Quentin was taken aback.

“Unlike Lucien or Max, I’m a hero who does my fighting on the ground with my family. Joran’s going too, and he’s the newest of us.” The boy proudly saluted Igor. “See how committed he is already? More than I can say for you,” Igor turned away.

“He’s indoctrinated.”

The leader chuckled. “I see the city’s turned you soft. What ever happened to you? You were my right hand man, Quent. You used to kill for me. Surely you haven’t forgotten that.”

“No, but I do my damnedest to try,” the boy trembled.

“And if your Barreau boys knew, you really think they’d take you back?”

Quentin felt his heart drop to his stomach. The burgeoning lump in his throat had finally burst, giving way to sobs of defeat. Igor was right all along. Freedom was nothing more than an illusion. He could fight it with words and citizenship documents as much as he wanted. He still had no other choice. In fact, he never did. The moment he joined the Outlanders, he belonged to Igor. None of the Dispatchers would come to his rescue if he were a Barreau boy, either. He’d been branded as one of the hunted long ago. I don’t belong anywhere. As if to seal that fate, he took notice of Will in his peripheral vision proceeding to shut and lock the tunnel door behind them. Nowhere to run. He already felt the tight strap of a phase unit going around his wrist. He didn’t bother fighting it.

“Fine.”

“Welcome back to the family,” Igor smiled. “You’re going on the front lines, chicken. Don’t worry. If you die, we’ll name a bridge after you.” He gave the unit one last tug to be sure it was secure and handed him off to Joran and Will. “Take him to join the others by the hatch.”

A sudden electric crackle echoed down the tunnel as Will sparked a blue pulse to light their path.  Quentin plodded quietly into the dark ahead of Igor and Deirdre, the prior warmth from his tears now plastered cold as stone onto his face. His thoughts drifted back to home. Not his home with the Outlanders, or even his home in the Barreau District…Paris. The sound of the phase unit must have triggered a memory lost from within. The last thing he recalled about life on Earth was slipping into an alleyway, curious about some electrical disturbance. Perhaps it was a downed live wire. He had heard his mother’s voice calling behind him clear as day until it abruptly disappeared.

The more he focused on this memory, the more Quentin found himself beginning to feel almost blissfully resolute concerning his probable fate. Family, he thought. Someone out there had loved him. Even in his darkest hour, that seemed enough. Besides, if his mother was not still looking for him on this side of the afterlife, he took solace in the fact that Max definitely was. Perhaps there would still be a chance to escape after all. And when he got back, he would try to find his parents.

I just have to make it through the gate.

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House of Rats – Part 16

Edmond yawned and ran a hand through his dark, crewcut hair, perusing various reports from the prior week that had been dropped onto his desk. It was always the last order of business he attended to after filing away his other obligations for the day. He was exhausted, and yet he couldn’t shake the feeling that something seemed off. A minor detail he had overlooked. He hoped it was just a stamp or two in the stack of papers, which didn’t trouble him much. He made sure to triple-check his work before the fatigue caught up with him. Still, it was odd. Like someone or something demanded his attention.

Captain Georges. What if he were alive somewhere? But of course, that was a ridiculous notion. They’d all watched him bleed profusely from the groin, and even Igor himself said he was dragging the boy off to kill him and have him cooked over a fire. It was difficult to believe the events had only happened that morning. Filing that report had taken Edmond nearly three hours, and he’d sacrificed his lunch break to do it. No stone was left unturned. Anything Pontius might have wanted to hear was in it.

Of course, he could never tell his district commander what he really wanted to; that in fact, Lucien Riviere had completely foiled him, bribed several high-ranking members of the Dispatchers force to look the other way, and in short, made a total mockery of the entire precinct. Not that Pontius could do anything about it even if he wanted to. Constance Renou was Lucien’s mother after all—the only fact which made him untouchable by the Cavarice justice system. One day, Edmond thought with a sigh. One day I’ll get you.

The young lieutenant was torn out of his thoughts a moment later by a stampede of footsteps out in the station hall. A hurried exchange of voices followed, and he swore he could make out phrases like “we’re in the shitter now” and “Edmond is not going to like this.”

“Sir!” Isaac at last turned the corner with Antoine in tow. “Sir, we’ve got a major security breach!”

Edmond jumped to his feet, feigning surprise. “Where?”

“Munitions storage, sir. Several phase units are missing!”

“WHAT!” The lieutenant’s heart began to pound. “That’s impossible, I checked the inventory myself! And that was long after Lucien left!”

“You may want to take a second look.”

A lump was building in his throat as they led him back through the corridor and down the long stairwell to Munitions. All the while, he kept thinking of how right they were, how his career was now on the line for multiple reasons, how yes, they were most definitely all in the shitter for this. How could it have happened? It’s impossible. That boy was barely out of my sight all afternoon. Then a more chilling realization began to hit him. What if it was one of their own? A Dispatcher under his watch, in their own precinct, at this very station. I would hang them up by their testicles.

“This can’t be,” Edmond said in disbelief. He hoped it was some sort of prank. At the very least, it would serve to wake him up so he could finish the rest of his reports in confidence and head home to get some well-deserved sleep.

“I didn’t think it was possible either,” Antoine explained. “Then the power flickered.”

“The power?”

“Yes sir,” Isaac sighed, unlocking the door and swinging it open.

The munitions storage room was a converted storm cellar about thirty feet long and twenty wide with a gray floor and walls all around. Two rows of three concrete columns supported the ceiling. On the walls, footed by work tables, were silver racks of various equipment; everything from knives to utility belts, climbing gear, handcuffs, and more. Over on the left far wall were the phase units. Edmond counted again up and down the rack with his eyes to be sure. There appeared to be twenty. But just as he was waiting for one of them to yell gotcha, Isaac handed him a flashlight.

“Cut the lights,” the boy told Antoine. The entire room went dark, and Edmond shone the flashlight over the rack.

“One, two, three, four…what the hell?” Ten. Ten units were missing. “What’s going on!”

“I’ll show you,” Isaac said. “Lights up.”

Once again, there appeared to be twenty phase units.

“Here.” Antoine stepped over and pointed to a small black triangular-shaped device in the top right corner of the equipment rack.

“What the hell is that?” Edmond asked.

He handed the flashlight back to Isaac and climbed up on the silver work table. Given a closer look, he could now make out a small beam of light projecting outward from the base of the triangle. He placed a hand on one of the phase units, only to watch his fingers slip through it as if it were air.

“No…no, no, no!” he cried. Then he set his hand down over the triangle itself. Ten phase units immediately disappeared. A hologram. Edmond ripped the tiny black device off the equipment rack and jumped down to the ground, stomping it beneath his foot into a thousand pieces. So that’s what was in the black bag he gave to Quentin.

“LUCIEN!” he screamed.

_______________

A cool breeze could be felt in the night air as the Barreau boys arrived back at the mess hall for supper, out of breath and an hour behind schedule. They’d had to take a subway train out of the Metropoliès District, which by then was gridlocked with crowds of people heading home from their daily jobs. The underground was marginally more forgiving to travelers. Upon exiting West Central Station, they split into separate cable cars, finally reuniting two blocks down from their destination. All of it could have been avoided of course if Mayor La Cour had chosen an earlier meeting time. Still, Max was grateful. Given all the rushing around he had done from place to place since midday, it seemed a wonder he had any time to breathe.

Yet in the midst of all the surrounding chaos—the flickering lights, the streaks of shattered stars far below the Morcourt balcony, the sea of endless, chattering voices he now found himself swept up in—a trail of lingering questions continued to follow the young elder wherever he went. The heaviest of these was now the mayor’s proposal.

He had told the other boys of it while on the subway to avoid flying into a rage.  He’d even come up with a white lie, assuring them his decision stood firm—that he did not intend to accept such an offer. And though he told the same to La Cour himself, the truth of was far more complicated than he was willing to admit. What if I make the wrong choice? he thought. There was far too much at stake.

Deep down, Max knew he deserved better. What’s more, he wanted to escape and be embraced by a family who would love and take care of him—to go to school, to have the chance at a future, perhaps even a wife and kids of his own someday. But of course that’s what the rest of the Barreau boys wanted, too. And Max wanted it more for them than he did for himself. Besides, what kind of leader would he be if he abandoned the flock? He certainly felt no better about leaving Lucien in charge. In fact, he shuddered at the very thought.

He eyed the boy to his right, who towered nearly an entire foot above him. Those big blue eyes, the narrow nose, those dimples and that self-assured smirk, all generating an aesthetically pleasing face topped by a blond, curly mop. The kind of boy who had no trouble getting what he wanted. In an odd way, even his appearance was quite suspicious. Max wasn’t sure if he had always looked that way or if his perception of his fellow elder had simply changed since that morning, but something didn’t seem right about him. He felt less like a friend and more like…maybe that was just it. The reason La Cour’s proposal bothered him so much.

Max’s memories of his prior life were fuzzy at best, so he tended not to dwell on them if he could help it. But he could recall—or at least he thought—that he may have had a brother at some point long before his arrival in Viktorium. This ‘brother’, he was reasonably sure, looked nothing at all like Lucien, yet they would quarrel just as much. Max would always get into trouble because of things his older brother did; if he broke or stole something, little Maxy would get the blame.

And it always seemed to happen like that as they shuffled around from home to home during the months they weren’t on the streets selling newspapers. The moment they were taken in to a place he liked, his brother would do something stupid again that got them kicked out. Except for the last time, when they got separated. There was a fire, then a bright blue electric flash. Then Max didn’t have a brother anymore. If he ever had one at all, it probably wasn’t a blood relation, just another orphan he traveled with. Still. That was who Lucien reminded him of.

“Filthy rats to the core,” he muttered, turning to Bernard. “That’s what we are.”

“I still can’t believe he actually filled out adoption papers for you,” the boy laughed.

“Yeah. Stupid,” Max smirked. “I reckon I’d get bored pretty fast in a family like that anyhow. What do they even do all day? Sip tea and watch the world go slipping through their fingers?”

“I can’t believe you were dumb enough to turn it down,” Lucien snapped. “Here’s a man who drops a life of wealth and privilege right into your hands, not to mention the chance to live with a hot piece of ass like Cecile, and you actually said no? Idiot!” he smacked Max across the head.

“And you’re going to lead the whole orphanage yourself, are you?”

“I could,” Lucien said with confidence. “Probably do a better job of it than you.”

“Yeah, well unlike you, I think about more than just myself. We’re supposed to do this together.”

“Supposed to. Not required to, and besides, I don’t have to agree with all of your decisions about how things are done.”

“Nor do I, you, but good leadership is about knowing when to compromise. And communicate, for god’s sake!” Max shoved him. “None of us knew what was going on this morning until after your little stunt.”

“Sorry, Mum,” Lucien rolled his eyes. “I was too busy trying not to get us all killed by those little cannibal shits in the desert. But that’s why we have our own groups to look after, isn’t it? You do things your way, I do things mine. Although I happen to think that my way is better.”

“You would,” Max let out a nervous laugh. “It ensures you don’t have to think about how your actions impact the rest of us, or our living situation. I had to close the deal myself. Not like you give a shit about our reputation with the Outlanders.”

“Why should I? They were exiled for a reason. Don’t think they wouldn’t double-cross us the first chance they get. Besides, it’s about time we found some more reliable prospects that don’t involve us parading around like idiots in desert garb every time we need to cash in. Another reason you’re an idiot for turning down La Cour’s offer.”

Max ignored the last comment. “So all that radio talk about them reintegrating into society, that was just a means to an end? Not all of them are bad people. Some are even on our side, in case you forgot.”

“So you’d rather run back to a den of wolves and risk being eaten alive just to save one pup because he’s good? Jesus, you and La Cour have martyr syndrome! What are you so afraid of, anyway? That people will hate you if you fly the coup?”

“No, I just-”

“Then stop feeling guilty! No one here would blame you. Everyone uses each other in this world Max, for better or worse. If you didn’t know that by now, you’re either incredibly naive or flat out stupid. I’m beginning to think the latter. You’ll agree to steal his phase unit when he’s handing you the whole bloody house? It’s not a difficult decision.”

“It is if you’ve got a conscience.”

“Conscience is what has held our mayor back, and it will hold you back too!” Lucien retorted. “You’ve got to accept that we can’t help everyone who comes banging on our front door. This world was fucked long before we got here. Take what you can and survive. That’s the only game I care about.”

Max took a deep breath and swallowed the burgeoning lump in his throat. It couldn’t really be coming to this. And yet the more he considered the events of the past several months, all the signs were there. His friend was no longer the easygoing, optimistic idealist he once knew. On those occasions he was, it seemed to be more of a front. Otherwise, Lucien had grown oddly secretive, demanding, and sometimes mistrustful. It was hard to know when he was even telling the truth anymore. No use in keeping the pup who eats the whole litter, either.

“Well Lucien, it seems we’ve both made our choice,” the elder sighed, steeling himself even as he broke a sweat. “Once we divvy up the funds from the mayor’s phase unit, there is a vacant building across the canal. You could open your own orphanage and over the next month, we’ll see who does better. Loser gets exiled.”

“Challenge accepted,” Lucien smirked.

“It’s not funny.”

“No, but what is funny is that I’m already several steps ahead, and you’re completely oblivious.” The tall boy then turned to whisper in his ear. “Just between us, you may want to do a proper head count, yeah? Looks like you’re missing someone,” he smiled, patting Max on the back.

The young elder’s mouth dropped open as the line crept into the narrow hall. He had forgotten to do a count of his boys before they left the subway station platform. They’d split off into groups of two or three several times while maneuvering through the throngs of people to make their way back to the surface. He had done a rough estimate with his eyes, but they needed to be absolutely sure no one was left behind, lest they get caught alone by the Dispatchers; not all of the boys’ citizenship documents were finalized yet. That was what he’d wanted to discuss with Cecile before being held up by the mayor, but of course by then it was too late. He proceeded to count in his head now as they neared the food court. Marcus, Hugo, Tomas, Louis, Marcel…

Lucien was right.

“Hey Bernard…” Max gasped. “Have you seen Quentin?”

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