The young elder cautiously led what remained of his group out across the end of the Barreau block, mirroring the path he had taken roughly nine hours prior on his way to the old courthouse. It was difficult to fathom how much seemed to have changed since that morning. He had woken up to the familiar green sunrise around six o’clock as always, somewhat dreading the day ahead with the Outlanders, and yet he’d been confident. Confident because he knew his friends were looking out for him. Confident because he trusted them to always be there, that no matter what challenges the boys of Barreau Orphanage happened to face, they would emerge victorious because they were a family. Every piece mattered. And now that family was fracturing. Max prayed he had the necessary resolve to keep his group together.
They scurried through the thickening fog into the next alley, where an angled passage veered sharply to the right and ended at Rue de Charmont—the back way to the orphanage. Upon second thought, Max realized it was a bad idea. There was no way to tell if anyone was lurking just around the bend. A firefight there would mean suicide, as the path was far too narrow to accommodate more than one person at a time. They’d all be dead before any of them had the chance to turn around. It was the perfect place to spring a trap, if the Dispatchers thought that far ahead. Too late to turn back now. Walls of fog were beginning to rise around them, bringing with it the heated stench of garbage strewn throughout the alley that had been thrown from the flats above. Any light from distant streetlamps was snuffed out by the shadows as well. This place was a dead man’s walk.
“It stinks,” Bernard coughed. Several of the other boys groaned along with him.
“Hold your breath and stay back with the others a moment,” Max whispered. “I’ll check the corner up ahead to be sure the coast is clear. Don’t let anyone make a sound.”
“Mon Capitaine,” his friend nodded.
The elder’s heart began to pound as he tiptoed his way alone through the haze ahead, hyperaware of each step in the dark. Broken glass and rotten food lined much of the path. He was certain that worse things lurked in the shadows. Occasional squeaks could be heard echoing upward off the walls, and streaks of some kind of greenish residue had built up on the stone architecture in vein-like patterns traveling down from the rooftops. Feeling a gag reflex coming on from the stench, Max raised an arm to cough into his sleeve and nearly lost his footing.
“Shit!” he gasped, catching himself on the walls. They alley was next to impossible to navigate without light. At least the moon shining intermittently through the clouds provided a forgiving enough glow. He considered firing up a pulse on the phase unit, but thought better of it. If anyone is hiding around that corner, we’re done for. Then he noticed a range of subtle crawling movements beneath the fog and knelt down to get a closer look. The stream extended clear around the corner, as if the cobblestone path were slowly coming alive.
Rats. Hundreds of them.
“Oh…god,” the boy cringed. By now, his gagging had become uncontrollable, giving way to an intense nausea which tore through his stomach. There was no being quiet anymore. Max vomited and fell to his knees. He consulted the path ahead one more time to be certain he wasn’t hallucinating. Sure, he had seen rats around these parts before, but never so many in one particular alley. Where had they all come from? Not like it mattered anymore. A blinding blue light descended into the alley from directly above him, closing in fast.
“MAX, LOOK OUT!” Bernard screamed.
The elder immediately flipped the switch on the phase unit and flipped onto his back, crushing several rats beneath him as he caught the pulse in his palm. Impossible! He extinguished the bolt and gazed up to the rooftops. His eyes darted from one corner to the next as he lay there on the ground with a flood of questions consuming his young mind. Rats gnawed at his clothes and fingertips. Tiny claws scratched at his face. Max didn’t budge. Then a light breeze blew down the narrow path from around the corner where the army of rats seemed to have been amassing. Little by little, the darkness fled as more blue pulses burned steady, illuminating the stone walls. A second breeze, too, drafted up from Barreau Street down the way. Strange. The elder could make out pulses, but no bodies attached to them…
“Cloaker coats!” he exclaimed. Bernard stepped over and helped him to his feet. Two special ops units of Dispatchers in gas masks surrounded them from both ends of the alley, flickering into visibility as they powered down their cloaking devices. “We’re not looking for any trouble, we’re just trying to get home!”
“It’s true,” Bernard said. “We live just up the block at Barreau-”
“We know,” one of the young men cut him off, removing his mask. “I’m Lieutenant Antoine. Apologies for the rat trap. It wasn’t meant for you. Although I do find it rather curious…if you boys aren’t looking for trouble, what’s the meaning of that?” He gestured to the phase unit on Max’s wrist. Shit.
“We found it.”
“Found it, eh? Where?”
“Ten phase units had gone missing from our munitions storage down at the precinct hours before the wall was breached. You wouldn’t happen to know anything about that, now would you?”
“How could we!” Bernard snapped. “We’ve been holed up at the orphanage all day, you even came to visit if I recall!”
“And none of us has a Level One pass!” Max added.
“Well I’m sure you must know something, given that one of your associates is none other than Lucien Riviere, a boy who caused quite a lot of trouble for us this morning. I must say that his fascinating hostage story involving the Outlanders had more holes than the leaky roof I live under.”
“I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about!” Max coughed, still trying to shake off the unbearable stench from the alley. A rage was building inside him now. “Lucien and I are no longer associates. And maybe if your boys Jacques and Alfred bothered to do a proper interrogation instead of going out with him for drinks at the pub, you’d still have your bloody phase units!”
Antoine sighed. “Unfortunately, we had no probable cause for detaining Lucien. You, however, are clearly in unauthorized possession of a stolen device reserved for Dispatcher use.” He grabbed Max by the arm and turned his wrist to get a look at the serial number. “Ah yes, unit 006374. Number eight on the list of the missing ten.”
“WHAT?!” Max exclaimed. “That’s not possible!”
“And that’s what they all say. I do apologize. We’ve had quite a long day, you understand. I simply can’t afford to take chances.” The lieutenant unstrapped the stolen unit, tearing it free from his arm, and signaled three of his men to begin apprehending the boys. A series of metal clicks echoed throughout the alley. Max winced in pain as the cuffs clamped down tight over his bony wrists. “Apparently I was wrong about the lot of you. Perhaps I didn’t misjudge when I set the trap. Perfect location, really.” The young man coughed and pulled the gas mask back over his head.
Max was aghast, but did as he was told. He leaned back against the stone wall in silence while the remainder of his Barreau boys were cuffed, dreading the inevitable march out of the alley to god-knows-where. None of it made sense. Sure, the unit was stolen, but if it was the same one Tomas always tinkered with, it was most certainly over a year old—not one of those Antoine claimed as missing. Still, it occurred to him to do another headcount. And of course, it seemed another from the group had gone missing. Florian, that bastard. Always loyal to Lucien.
The boys were led at a brisk pace back onto Barreau street and up the block toward the orphanage. For a few moments, Max remained hopeful that perhaps they were being escorted home and let off with a warning, though he wasn’t foolish enough to believe it. No. Antoine was next in the chain of command below the second lieutenant, which was Edmond Fache. And since Edmond was now the de facto squad leader in place of Captain Georges, Antoine was required to report back to him before pursuing any further course of action.
“I believe they’re taking us to the west gate,” Max whispered, quickening his stride to catch up with Bernard. Deeper questions, too, were beginning to take root in his mind.
“I gathered as much,” Bernard answered. “Any brilliant plan for getting us out of this?”
“They’ve got our phase unit, so no. Clever move by Lucien, leaving Florian behind to sabotage us.”
“You really think he had something to do with the ten stolen ones?”
“I wouldn’t put it past him. How else do you explain the matching serial number? Lord only knows what Lucien was up to, getting drunk with that squad earlier. Besides, I thought you were keeping an eye on Florian!”
“Quiet!” one of the Dispatchers shoved Max along.
“I’d think you’d appreciate some of my insights when it may involve the men in your precinct!” the elder snapped.
“If you’re wise, you’ll save your banter for Commander Pontius,” Antoine said. “He enjoys a good story now and then. Especially of the fictional sort.”
Max grunted in frustration and turned back to Bernard. An idea had sprung to mind. He wasn’t so sure it was a good one, and there was no guarantee they would escape. Still, it provided a means of distraction until he could figure out their next move. Start a fight. Why not? It was all he had left. Besides, it seemed to have worked in the few movies he had seen.
“You know, of all the nights I’ve needed you to watch my back, this is probably the one time where I’ve needed it most.”
“I beg your pardon?” His second-in-command appeared genuinely insulted. “You saw how thick the fog was in that alley and how dark it was! You’d have lost Florian too. Don’t you dare pin this on me, Max!”
“Excuse me if I’m beginning to question everyone’s loyalties around here.” The young elder made eye contact with Bernard and winked.
“Well you’re certainly one to talk of loyalty, aren’t you?” the African nodded. “You’ve been driving this divide for weeks all by yourself.”
“Yeah? How you figure?”
“You hardly let Lucien lead when he’s proven himself more than capable. Shut down every decision he’s ever made, even when you know it’s better than yours. Like you said before, good leaders are willing to compromise. So what compromises have you made, Max Ferrier?”
“I’ve made more than my share!” The elder shoved him as far as he could, considering the cuffs. He hated to admit that although this was a bit of staged improv, the notion of compromise was still a mental trigger for him. He’d always been sensitive as to whether or not he did enough to take care of the boys, and if there were perhaps better alternatives he hadn’t considered. But that was where he and Lucien always traded off—the partnership worked because they each had different ways of leading. And who was he to say that his former friend was entirely wrong? Supposing the new arrangement worked out for the better, it was something he would have to grow to accept. Max didn’t like it.
“So have the rest of us!” Bernard shoved back. The group had just turned right into an alley a block away from the old DuPont Steamworks building. Max and his newest fellow elder exchanged a series of light punches, each taking care not to hurt the other while doing their best to disrupt Antoine’s team enough for the other boys to escape. Of course it was of little use; the so-called cloaker coat Dispatchers were well trained in riot containment. In seconds, the Barreau boys found themselves surrounded in a circle of pulsating blue light.
“I think that’s quite enough,” Antoine sneered. “Let me make myself perfectly clear. None of you are being let off easy tonight, and certainly not with Outlanders on the loose. Now if you’d be so kind as to save your shit for Pontius before I-”
“Why Pontius?” Max cut him off. If his immediate superior were not available, he would have understood why, but it made no sense. Edmond was acting captain of their precinct now. Pontius was a glorified figurehead. “Edmond is the one you answer to, correct?”
Antoine smiled in a way that made the young elder uncomfortable. “Let us just say that sneaky things have been afoot in our ranks for quite some time now. Nothing personal, of course. But someone must ensure that the order is preserved. Edmond has been corrupted, as have many others. Not to worry. They will be taught the error of their ways soon enough.”
“SIR!” a voice shouted from the other end of the alley, followed by hurried footsteps plodding their way up to the group. “Sir,” a lone Dispatcher panted. He hunched over a moment to catch his breath, appearing stunned at the display of phase units before him. “Whoa…bad timing?”
“What is it, Gabriel?”
“Pontius is down, and we could use your assistance clearing the other alleys.”
Antoine’s eyes narrowed. “What happened to Pontius?”
“We’re not sure, sir. He said something about heading for the subway. Claude’s squad found him passed out on the sidewalk near the church.”
“Let me guess. He’s been drinking again, hasn’t he?”
“It appears so, though not quite enough to be inebriated. His eyes were rolled into the back of his head, blood coming out his ears. We don’t know what to make of it.”
“Also, Lieutenant Edmond has requested that should you run into the Barreau boys, you’re to escort them safely to the west-”
“FINE!” Antoine snapped. “I’ve had enough of babysitting this lot anyway. Solomon,” he ordered one of his men, “would you please see to it that the Barreau boys are escorted over to our acting captain.” The scorn with which he emphasized those last words cut like a knife. He clearly couldn’t bear to speak the name of his superior. “Oh, and be sure to show him this,” he said, tossing over the confiscated phase unit.
“Yes sir,” the masked man saluted.
“Good luck with them. You’ll need it.” Antoine stormed off with Gabriel out the far end of the alley. Solomon kept the ranks well in formation around the Barreau boys, muttering something about keeping them protected. Of course Max knew it was all a ruse to be sure none of them attempted escape again. Still, it comforted him to know that they were at last being led back to Edmond. And while he did have a few choice words himself to share with the Dispatcher who’d been responsible for Quentin’s abuse, he did hope to at last get some answers about what happened that morning following Lucien’s reentry into the city.
As the boys came out onto the street and wound their way through the next alley, an odd sensation of static clung to the air. Far above them, damaged power lines strung across rooftops sparked and crackled in the rain, and with it, the streetlamps on the other side appeared to flicker ever so slightly. Max smirked. It was fast becoming more difficult to trust his own gut about things in this strange world. Things he thought he’d heard, things he saw, lies he was so sure could be uncovered—it was enough to drive one mad. Still, he liked to believe that perhaps there was a god left somewhere in this place, or that some benevolent being was watching over them. It was easier than trusting his friends, anyway.
The group passed a spiked iron fence on their right upon emerging from the alley. The jagged, narrow structure of the Catholic church loomed above more like a menacing dagger than a sanctuary of hope, and yet the diocese had offered many of the Barreau boys shelter upon their arrival. It was an odd sight to see on this side of the afterlife; priests taking confessions, nuns offering their services to the poor, Mass held as usual. This particular church had been boarded up some time ago for fear of vandalism before the Outlanders were exiled, though several more still left their doors open on the surrounding blocks.
Max glanced down the sidewalk as they passed the front yard and caught sight of Antoine and Gabriel knelt over a body. A team of Dispatchers further down appeared to be zipping several more into black cloth bags. The elder immediately grabbed Bernard’s shoulder and pointed at the spectacle.
“Hey, check it out! Holy shit, this is intense!” he exclaimed.
“And too close to home. Think that one’s Pontius?”
“Yeah, but he’s two blocks over. Why would he just run off and abandon the wall? He’s supposed to be there for defense until the gala, regardless of what happens.”
“Keep moving, you’re not at the theatre!” Solomon commanded, prompting the other Dispatchers to shove them along across the street.
“And this one’s got a missing fuse,” Max muttered. “Sorry for getting us into all this.”
“You were leading us home, how were you supposed to know there were cloaker coats? Besides, the whole fight with Lucien and then Florian’s sabotage…perhaps it’s too early to say this, but what if Antoine could be our ally?”
“What!” Max laughed. “I hardly think so.”
“If the Dispatchers are being bribed, who do you suppose is behind it?”
“We’ve already been over this. It can’t be Lucien. He doesn’t have the resources-”
“Then we ought to find out who does, and figure out why they’re so desperate to pay off the Dispatchers. It’s obvious at this point that Lucien is involved somehow. Antoine said he wants to keep the order preserved. The more of them who are against Lucien, the better it is for us.”
“I’m sorry, do you want a war, Bernard? Because that’s how you start a war! Although Lucien seems to know which side he wants to be on, whatever that means.”
“I fear it’s already begun, my friend.”
Max smirked as they exited the final alley onto Rue D’Or, the street which ended at the west gate. “Come on, how much damage do you really think the Outlanders could have done with…oh…my god…”