Edmond Fache slumped onto his desk at the precinct with his chin resting on the knuckles of one hand while he twirled Severo’s prayer amulet in the other. He found himself toying with it ever more frequently since that morning, when they’d all been called down to General Rodin’s office for a firm reprimand. He had been almost certain he wouldn’t have the motivation to process every individual report from the Dispatchers stationed at the wall the previous night, and yet somehow, he’d managed to blaze through fifteen of them before the lunch hour. It felt strange to ponder, but it seemed that shiny hunk of metal in his palm was increasing his ability to concentrate on heavier tasks he might have otherwise put off. Whatever works, he thought, setting it aside.
His mind drifted back to the events of the previous night, and to the long lost friend who had showed up seemingly out of nowhere. The last time he recalled seeing Severo was when they were both about eight years old. Pontius, having fought the Dalishkova for years, made the mistake of vacationing in Helias. Severo couldn’t stop talking about when he discovered Edmond’s parents had planned a trip there in the early spring. He’d begged his father to go. Even Edmond himself was excited to show his best friend around and help him reconnect with his heritage as much as he could. Severo was born in Helias after all, and the longing in his heart was stronger than anything else.
On the last night of their stay at the Hotel Apollonius, they’d been leaning over the balcony of their second story room to listen to the waves on the beach and watch the stars twinkle overhead. The plesiosaurs were still eating the last of their fill for the evening, raising their heads now and again to let out the gentlest of roars. A calm breeze drifted in from the Sea of Helene, bringing with it the aroma of salt combined with fresh fish from the merchant markets up the street. The atmosphere was so serene, yet bittersweet. Severo’s excitement still had not waned. But something in particular about their conversation from that night stood out to Edmond, and he would never forget it.
“I really want to visit the temple! I hope my mom will be there. You think she will?”
“I don’t know. The temple is off limits to visitors.”
“But I was born in Helias. I’m sure I could get you in.”
“I don’t think so. And I’m starting Dispatcher training in a couple years, so this is the last time we’ll be able to come here.”
“Oh…promise we’ll always be friends, Ed?”
“Of course we will, stupid. Why do you ask? You sound sad.”
“I’m just homesick.”
“It’ll be all right, I promise. Tomorrow we’ll run off on our own and meet our parents back at the boat, and we’ll have the best day ever! We’ll remember it and talk about it a lot until the day you can come back.”
“Father would never let me return to Helias…”
Edmond had placed an arm around his friend to console him. Perhaps he had changed the subject, he couldn’t remember. But it didn’t matter what was said after that. The next morning, the two of them had run back to the docks and stood in line to board the Cassius. They even held hands so they wouldn’t be separated. Edmond was sure of it. So sure, in fact, that he recalled Severo boarding the vessel. Yes. They’d spoken on the return trip. Sometime that evening, when the last green rays of Viktorium’s sun were fading from the sky, the boy said something about exploring the lower decks and ran off. By the time the ship docked on the south port of Cavarice, he had vanished.
Pontius searched the vessel from top to bottom, along with two teams of Dispatchers. They shone spotlights at the water and along each side of the hull. Another team dove into the sea. They threw out crates, overturned tables, tore down the sails, chopped apart barrels of rum, dumped all the remaining cargo. No single inch of the ship was left unexplored that night, and yet…nothing. And the more they searched and called his name, the more enraged Pontius became. He shouted at the crew, held the captain down by his neck and choked him on the wheel until the Dispatchers pulled him away. The next morning, he had the entire vessel scrapped. Still nothing.
Some weeks later, reports came in from Helias about the body of an eight year-old boy who had washed up on the shores near the statue of the Salt God. He matched Severo’s description to a tee—raven black hair, pale skin, wearing the exact same clothes. The pictures were published in the Viktorium Free Press a week later. Sure enough, it was Severo. But how could that be? He had boarded the Cassius, and there were enough witnesses to corroborate the fact. Even if Edmond’s memory indeed failed him on the events of that day, the boy’s name was logged in the passenger manifest for the return trip. And he certainly could not have floated all the way back to Helias, given that they were closer in range that evening to Cavarice when he’d claimed he was going to explore the lower decks. None of it made sense. Then again, few things did when it came to the Dalishkova.
“‘Father would never let me return’,” Edmond whispered. “I’m sorry, Sev.” He remembered, too, how his own father had scolded him for losing his friend. His mother, naturally, favored a more mild approach. Everyone had seemed keen on pointing fingers that night, even the passengers who hadn’t known the boy. But Edmond did blame himself, and had for a long time. Yet suddenly, here his childhood friend was, back from the dead? Impossible! The sound of footsteps nearing his office prompted the second lieutenant to shove the prayer amulet back in his desk drawer.
“Sir?” Isaac appeared to address him timidly with a knock on the door frame.
“What is it?” Edmond sighed.
“A rather curious old man is asking about the bodies.”
“Um…attack on the wall…last night, boom boom? Captain Georges, Outlanders blew through the west gate-”
“Yes, yes, I’m awake, thank you much,” Edmond cut him off, yawning again. “Sorry, I’ve been swamped by all the paperwork General Rodin wants on his desk tomorrow.”
“Looks like you’ve got a lot done for the evil bastard.” Isaac raised his eyebrows at the giant stack in the outgoing tray. “I thought you hated processing reports.”
“I do, but…something about that amulet Severo gave me last night…I’ve never felt more motivated in all my life. Can’t explain it.”
“Yeah, well just don’t let Antoine see it. You know how he feels about the rivalry and all.”
“Yes,” Edmond said, rising from his chair to circle around the desk. “His sister was taken by the Dalishkova too.”
“Taken? I thought she-”
“Drowned? I just saw my best childhood friend last night for the first time in seven years, Isaac. I looked him square in the eye, I felt him in my arms. Trust me. She’s alive. I don’t know how, I don’t know where, but I’m sure she is. Something fishy is going on in Helias. Not that it matters, since all public transport to the island was cut off after DuPont’s exile. We have more urgent matters to attend to. You were saying?”
“Strange old blind gentleman showed up at the precinct earlier. Says he’s the Barreau kid’s grandfather. Wants to reclaim the body or something.”
“Quentin?” Edmond balked. “He was an orphan, which means no documentation of surviving relatives was found anywhere in Cavarice. This better not be one of Lucien’s tricks!”
“Doubt it,” Isaac shrugged. “I mean, the man could just as well be a new arrival. Besides, it’s not like Max or Lucien wanted the body anyway. And do you really want more paperwork to add to that ridiculous stack of reports-”
“Fine!” the second lieutenant huffed. “He can have the bloody corpse for all I care. I just hope he brought his own wheelbarrow. That thing is pretty messy.”
“Right…” Isaac moved for the door, but Edmond stopped him.
“Wait! I want to meet him first. Seems odd. If this man is really a new arrival, what the hell does he know about burial rites in Viktorium? They’re all told that people don’t die here. This is ‘the grand and perfect afterlife’. We don’t even have so much as a morgue or cemetery.”
“Oh please, you know how fast news travels, what with the Free Press doing all their damn exposés. I’m not sure how La Cour hopes to do any damage control after last night. Pretty soon, there may not be much of Cavarice left to defend.”
“Good, I can’t wait to retire and go to Heaven.”
“And I can’t wait for my shift to be over,” Isaac smirked. “Got my own bit of Heaven to catch.”
“Gross,” Edmond rolled his eyes at the boy. He often forgot that Isaac was a homosexual. Not that it mattered one bit to him, though he did fear for the safety of his colleague; such behavior was overlooked among the lower classes of society, but for the Dispatchers, it was an offense punishable by expulsion from the force and significant jail time.
As the two made their way down a corridor that led to the main lobby, the young lieutenant considered the implications of releasing any corpses. They had rarely done so before, and only in certain special cases. Being that no morgue or cemetery existed in the capital city—they had to maintain an aura of perfection, after all—a small freezer had been built at each precinct site for storage. They were required to keep the bodies for a period of one week. Proper protocol dictated that any claimants were to sign nondisclosure agreements, after which a squad of Dispatchers would escort them to the desert outside city walls and allow them to hold a brief burial ceremony at what was essentially a small pit. Once the grieving parties said their goodbyes, the squad would power up their phase units and incinerate the remains, and that was that.
But claimants in general made Edmond nervous. Newcomers tended to be testy. Not that they could legally cause damage, being that the first release form they signed was a similar NDA stating that they could not speak of the second form’s contents outside precinct walls. No one would believe them, in any case. No public transport came in or out of the west gate anymore, and no registered civilians could cross into the desert without special clearance or Dispatcher escort. Still, the events of the previous night had shaken the entire force to their core, and it seemed odd that on the very next day, a claimant had appeared to take the body of the one Cavarice civilian killed in the attack. Not only that, but the one who, Edmond knew, had ties to both the Barreau boys and the Outlanders. He did not like it at all. In fact, he prayed it was one of Lucien’s tricks. At least then, he could shut it down quickly. As they entered the lobby, however, it seemed anything but.
A blind elderly man with a kind face was waiting patiently on a bench to the side, twisting his cane. Edmond approached him with skepticism while Isaac took a seat next to him and began to verbally explain the forms. He had no choice, of course. They did not have Braille copies at the precinct. Convenient, the lieutenant thought. Everything about this stinks. And all the while, the man nodded, even as he turned his head in Edmond’s direction and smiled.
“May I ask what you want with the body, Mister…?”
“Ah, Vaugrenard!” the man exclaimed, extending a hand. “Fernand Vaugrenard, pleased to meet you.”
“I am Second Lieutenant Edmond Fache,” the boy breathed, reluctantly shaking his hand.
“Edmond, really?” Isaac protested.
“Oh no, that’s quite all right my dear boy,” Fernand chuckled. “You have protocols, I understand. I realize this must seem rather odd, doesn’t it. Well, fact of the matter is, I just arrived here in Cavarice about two days ago. The young woman down at Immigration Affairs said my name sounded vaguely familiar, but she couldn’t find any documentation. I was being escorted back to my assigned flat last night on the metro train when I overheard the news about the west gate. This morning, my nurse was reading me the obituaries in the Viktorium Free Press, and Quentin came up. I had hoped to reunite with him here, but fate, it appears, is not so kind. He was my grandson.”
“I’m so very sorry,” Edmond sighed, taking a seat next to him. “And I can assure you, those responsible for the attack on the wall will be met with swift justice.”
“It’s good to know you boys are doing your job, despite the circumstances. I cannot imagine it’s easy.”
“I take it you weren’t shocked when you discovered people die, even in the afterlife?”
“Edmond!” Isaac scolded again, but the boy put a finger to his lips and shook his head.
“I may not look it now, but I’ve seen quite a lot in my lifetime,” the man smiled. “Nothing people do to one another shocks me anymore. Besides, before my murder in Paris, I was a complete cripple, wheelchair bound for life. And here I am now, fit as a fiddle for the most part. Who am I to argue with what choices the Good Lord makes?”
“Right,” Edmond sighed. For god’s sake, stop getting so worked up over a bloody corpse. “You understand what you’ll be agreeing to once you sign the release forms? Following a private ceremony, all bodies must be cremated, personally, by us. No questions, no complaints. Or else no body. Also, our conversation regarding this does not leave the precinct.”
“Understood,” the man nodded.
“Sign away,” the boy patted his shoulder and stood.
“I do have but one small request,” Fernand said. “The body…might I be permitted a few moments alone with him? He was my only grandchild. I’d like to properly say goodbye.”
Once the man signed the release forms, the boys escorted the old man down to the cellar and unlocked the walk-in freezer. Edmond removed his beige trench coat and draped it over the man’s shoulders to keep him warm while inside. A blast of cold air greeted them as Isaac pulled open the door. The bodies of the slain Outlanders—or at least the parts that were left of them—had been stacked crudely in the corners in black trash bags. Those of the Dispatchers, several of which had already been claimed, were placed in alcove beds built into the sides of the walls. Quentin’s nude body lay on a table in the center, his head draped in a black cloth. Isaac shivered and leaned against the door frame. Neither he nor Edmond took their eyes off the old man for a second.
“What do you think he’s doing?”
“I don’t know.” The second lieutenant watched with curiosity as Fernand removed a small vial from his coat pocket and proceeded to anoint the body of his grandson in some kind of white oil, even removing the face cloth which covered the ghastly wound where the child’s skull had been torn open by phase unit fire.
“I think I’m going to be sick!” Isaac wretched, ducking around the corner to vomit. Edmond rolled his eyes. How any of the Dispatchers had developed such weak stomachs, he would never know. Then again, he’d seen plenty of death in his lifetime.
“All finished?” he called. “I don’t mean to rush, but we’ve got quite a busy schedule ahead of us today.”
“No worries,” the man cleared his throat and stuffed the empty vial away in his pocket.
“Isaac, you ready?”
“Yes, just a moment,” the boy gagged.
“Forget it, I’ll take care of it.”
Edmond plodded into the freezer and gently removed his trench coat from Fernand’s shoulders, wrapping it around Quentin’s body. He made sure to tie the face cloth over the head before lifting the dead child off the table to hoist him over his shoulder and took the old man’s hand to guide him out. Once the door was locked, Isaac appeared from around the corner to help him carry the boy up the steps. Another squad of Dispatchers aided them the rest of the way.
Every protocol was then followed, right up to the incineration. Overall, there turned out to be nothing strange about it. The old man thanked them for their help back at the precinct and went on his merry way. But Edmond still couldn’t help the sinking feeling in his gut that something was terribly wrong.