House of Rats – Part 22

Most of the Dispatchers had already scrambled out of the mess hall on Rue de Charlet a full half-hour prior to when the alarms began to sound. Max had heard the com units on their utility belts come alive with static and garbled chatter as the group of orphans neared the front of the line. The sound ripped a hole deep in his chest. Voices were shouting something about an attack on the west wall, and still Quentin had not returned. This was bad. What if the Dispatchers found him on the way? If the attack involved the Outlanders, forget his registration papers. All it would take was for them to see that O-shaped brand on his chest and he was done for.

For several minutes, Max had taken to pacing up and down the line to observe the sea of familiar faces who frequented the mess hall. He noted every discernible detail. Every visible article of clothing, even as they gazed at him with the rudest of expressions like he was some sort of madman. Bernard had placed a hand on his shoulder to console him amid the feelings of panic and terror that consumed. Perhaps Quentin just gotten lost in the shuffle somewhere. The Metropoliès was a big place after all, and it was easy to go off track if you weren’t paying attention to your surroundings. Especially on the metro. Yes, that was it. Their young friend would be along soon enough. Nothing to worry about. Pay no attention to the buzzing of the comlinks.

But of course that was thirty minutes ago. Now the klaxons were screaming all throughout the mess hall as the few Dispatchers who remained shoveled a few more bites into their mouths before scurrying off. Trays and silverware crashed haphazardly into the collection bins near the kitchen, splattering food and drink everywhere. Many hadn’t even bothered to clean up their tables. A hurricane of trash littered the tile floors. Scuff marks from their boots formed curved lines that Max liked to imagine were some form of cursive when he stared at it for long enough. It was a nice way of maintaining a sense of order in the madness. After all, he reasoned, if I keep looking down, the path ahead won’t seem as daunting.

And yet the more he looked at those scribbled marks, the more they became waves, and the garbage seemed an ocean of chaos. By the time the klaxons stopped and he tore his eyes away from the mesmerizing scene, he realized the Barreau boys were the only patrons left in the entire mess hall. Even the Dispatchers who normally worked security there had gone.

“All right, that’s it,” Max jumped to his feet. “We’ve got to go find him!”

“Yeah, where do you propose we start?” Lucien smirked. “It’s after curfew, the subways have shut down, and the Metropoliès is probably a traffic jam of people trying to-”

Max grabbed Bernard’s cup of apple juice and splashed him in the face.

“You don’t get to make any more excuses today after all the shit you pulled!” the leader shouted.

“Have you gone mad?!” Lucien yelled, grabbing a handkerchief to wipe his face.

“The last thing Quentin needs is to be stuck out there alone with a bunch of trigger-happy Dispatchers on the loose!”

“And the last thing any of us need is to get involved! He’s an Outlander, Max. The west wall got bombed. Take a wild guess where he is.”

“You son of BITCH!” the elder shouted, shoving trays aside as he lunged across the table at Lucien. Bernard wedged himself between the two boys to pry them apart, but it was no use. Max reached under his arm and grabbed his rival by the jacket all the same. He’d taken a steak knife from one of the other boy’s trays on the way over and held it directly over Lucien’s eye now, a snake ready to strike. Everyone at the table gasped. His heart pulsed and flickered through his head like the failing electricity of the Barreau District, yet deep down, he knew he did not have the guts to do such a thing. Lucien knew it too. And that angered Max even more, the realization that no matter what he did, no matter how hard he wished it, he could never be the one to permanently wipe that self-assured smirk off his rival’s face.

“Max,” Bernard shuddered, “let it go.”

The elder huffed and glanced down at the rest of the boys at the table, their faces awash with shock and fright. Several of them appeared just as angry at Lucien, though he noticed some were glaring in his direction as well. Tomas had also grabbed a steak knife and was prepared to use it if necessary. Dear God, what have I done? He let go of Lucien and backed away, hurling the knife to the floor to add to the ocean of chaos. Tomas kept his eye on Max all the while, even after the elder managed to sit back down.

“Are we all good here?” Bernard asked.

“Yeah, we’re golden,” Lucien grinned. The young African socked him hard across the face. There was an audible crack. Max wasn’t sure if it was his fellow elder’s jaw or the bones in Bernard’s hand; all the same, the boy cradled his fist and bit his lower lip as he sat back down, muttering curses under his breath. Lucien said nothing further. He took up his tray and went to clear it. Silence filled the air, broken only now and again by the crashing of silverware and plates being cleaned by the kitchen staff.

“Now,” Max breathed, “if we are all finished eating-”

“We are now, thanks to you,” Tomas snapped, grabbing up his tray and storming off.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t-”

“It’s a bit late for that,” another boy said. Several others got up to join him.

“Oh come on, guys! Louis, Marcus, really?!”

“Max,” Bernard sighed, shaking his head. “Don’t bother.”

“This isn’t what I wanted.”

“Perhaps it was inevitable after this morning.”

“Goddamn it, we’ve got to find Quentin!” the elder pounded his fists into the table. A lump had formed in his throat, and much as he screamed, it wouldn’t let go. His heart, too, kept him in a state of never-ending panic. He felt solely responsible for guiding his boys in the proper direction—a road which Lucien seemed adamant on destroying. The prospect of what might happen if the orphanage lost one of their most valuable assets was unthinkable. That boy was their only connection to doing business on the Outlanders’ turf. But of course, Lucien stated he didn’t give a damn about the Outlanders. Now, it seemed they had attacked the west gate. I wonder…

“Hey Lucien,” Max called, taking his own tray to the counter.

“What do you want, rat? I have nothing more to say to you.”

“Oh, I’m the rat now? Seems to me that you’re the one drawing this line. I thought we were in this maze together, but I guess I was wrong.”

“Wrong is a matter of perception.”

“Don’t fucking philosophize this. I realize you’re scared for whatever ridiculous reason, probably because you had to go on that radio show and tell the entire city that Outlanders can be reformed. A position which, now considering the attack on the west gate, will get you lynched. Is it really worth fracturing our group over?”

“No, is it really worth keeping Quentin over? That’s the real question. Besides, only conspiracy theorists take Casanov seriously. The fact we happened to run into one at this shitty dive earlier isn’t so surprising.”

“Lucien-”

“I’m exactly where I want to be when this war starts, Max. Are you?” The elder threw his tray into the pile with the others and stormed out with his new band of loyal followers, at least three of which he’d won over after having the steak knife pointed in his face. For a moment, Max had to wonder if perhaps the older boy had a point. Mayor La Cour, even with the greatest of intentions, could not help them. They did need more reliable business connections, and they couldn’t save everyone. This job had made that fact painfully clear.

Still, inciting fear was not the path to positive change. And if there was one thing about which Max remained certain, it was that Quentin Vaugrenard was as much a Barreau boy as the rest. He would never willingly betray them. There was no way he had anything to do with the attack on the west wall. But there was no reasoning with Lucien. Not anymore.

“Shit,” Max closed his eyes.

“Hey!” a female voice boomed from the kitchen doorway, startling him. A large, heavyset woman in a hair net and white apron poked her face out to glare at the group of Barreau boys. “We’re closing up now, it’s after curfew. Go home!”

“Thought you were open twenty-four hours,” Bernard pointed out.

“Only for Dispatchers. You guys got badges?” The group let out a collective sigh. “Didn’t think so. Out with you. Now! We got a lot of cleanup to do before the next shift and we need you gone.”

The Barreau boys who remained rose to their feet and carried back their trays, grumbling in protest. Max waited by the doorway to do a head count before escorting them out. It pained him to remember that several of his group had left with Lucien. For better or worse, the lines had been drawn. He wondered what that feisty devil was up to now. Would they be returning home to a wall of tension, or was he intending to move out tonight? Neither scenario seemed fair to either party, and even less so to the boys under their watch. But there was no going back from it. Max could only do what he felt was best for his own flock from here on out.

Drizzling rain and a humid atmosphere greeted them on the streets outside, exhuming deep, earthen scents from the underground. Street lamps flickered now and again up the entire length of the block, though they burned so dim it was barely noticeable. Max and Bernard stayed well ahead of the group to keep a lookout. The shadows were a dangerous place to be past curfew, and given that the west gate was mere blocks from their orphanage, the last thing any of them needed was to encounter Dispatchers who might mistake them for Outlanders. The young elder shuddered at the thought. But even more important than the question of how the Outlanders had managed a successful attack on the wall in the first place, the most pressing matter still remained. Quentin.

“What are we going to do, Bernard? It’s past curfew, I can’t go sneaking around now. God only knows where he is. This is all my fault.”

“You can’t blame yourself for every mishap. Our numbers have grown over the past year. Even with the two of you in charge-”

“The two of us now,” Max corrected him. “Might as well make you official, you’ve been keeping the ranks in line for months and you do as good a job as either of us have. I could use an extra wingman.”

“Still,” the boy sighed, “it’s a lot to keep track of.”

“Well we can’t just abandon people, now can we? That’s Lucien’s thing.”

“Have you considered that perhaps this split is a better idea?”

“I’m not ready to accept that,” Max said. “Though if he ends up doing everything he’s supposed to, I might be swayed. It would certainly take some pressure off our backs. But what about funding? The grants are only for Barreau. I’m not working overtime trading Dispatcher parts to support his petty vendetta if it becomes a permanent arrangement. Not like any of that matters without-”

“Quentin,” Bernard finished, as they rounded the corner into the alley behind the old courthouse. “Sorry for changing the subject. Look, Max…you’ve dealt with quite enough for one day. Why don’t you get Hugo, Marcel, Florian, and the younger ones home? The rest of us can spread out on the surrounding blocks to look for him.”

The young elder sighed in defeat. “That’s if he’s even in this district, and you know it’s not a good idea with Dispatchers patrolling the streets. We are not splitting up. Let’s just get home and deal with it in the morning.”

Max felt hopeless as he strode ahead of the group through the thickening rain, haunted by memories of his earlier interactions with Quentin. Having arrived back at the orphanage to find the boy shaking against the window with his face bloodied and broken was more than enough to stir the elder’s rage. Of course there was still the question of what Edmond had been searching for in the first place. Why had they not taken the boy into custody? He wondered, too, about the validity of Severo’s accusation that morning, or if File 3601 even existed. The Dispatchers are not as innocent as you think.

Blue flashes in the distance tore him from his thoughts as the group crossed Rue La Monte and made their way through a fence in the next alley out onto Rue d’Auseil. A sudden clap of thunder cracked the sky, followed by a torrential downpour. Max felt his heart begin to pound and stopped in his tracks. More flashes came from off in the distance, somewhat closer, though he couldn’t be sure at first if it was lightning or phase unit fire. Then the unmistakable sound of a deep viol cut through the humid air. A soothing melody at first, then powerful, full of emotion, with all the absolute melancholy of unrequited love before descending into shrieking loss, and the erratic feeling of walking on a fraying tightrope whilst the bow bounced haphazardly off the strings. Lightning.

The elder’s eyes went wide, and he immediately gave a hand signal for the boys to hurry across the street into the next alleyway. Several in the group almost tripped over a fallen fire escape that blocked most of the path. Bernard hobbled along behind them after catching the ankle of his trousers on a jagged edge of metal, doing his best to help the smaller boys over the debris. Still, the entrancing music of the viol played on, though didn’t seem able to encapsulate the alleyway. Max waited in the shadows at the far end for the rest of his group to catch up. Strangely enough, the rain seemed to have died down throughout the alley, though it continued to fall in buckets back on Rue d’Auseil.

“Max, what the hell was that?” Bernard huffed.

“Just a creepy old man playing a viol,” the elder replied, peering around the corner to survey the Barreau block. Occasional phase pulses continued to illuminate the night sky in distant alleyways, though the flashes seemed to be dying down. The air was growing evermore humid, giving way to thick fog in the streets. Max hoped they wouldn’t have any problems sneaking back to the orphanage. Dispatchers could be quite stealthy in the dark. Then again, so were the Outlanders. A shudder went down his spine at the thought of running into Igor. Stay focused.

“That was not just a man,” Bernard insisted.

“Rue d’Auseil is a complicated street full of memories after dark. Never go there alone.”

“Holy shit!”

“Keep your bloody voice down! What is it this time?”

“Max…it’s a body.”

“Huh?” The elder glanced down to his right, where the pale corpse of a young boy in tattered clothes lay in a mangled heap. “Fuck!” he shrieked, backing away against the brick wall, not expecting to lean into a hole. He nearly lost his footing until Bernard reached out to steady him.

“Careful.”

“This wall was not crumbling before,” Max panted. “That fire escape wasn’t blocking the path, either. Something happened here.”

“You recognize the boy?”

“No. Wait. That’s Ephram!”

“Outlander?”

“I remember him from the first floor this morning at the villa,” Max nodded. “But he’s been stabbed.”

“Clean through, too,” Bernard pointed out, carefully turning the body. “Some kind of sword.”

“Who the bloody hell in Cavarice carries a sword?”

“Not the Dispatchers.”

“Right. Everyone stay sharp!” Max called out in a hushed voice. His heartbeat quickened as he motioned for the group to back against the wall. Something else was lurking out there in the fog-drenched shadows beyond. He could feel it in every fiber of his being, though he heard no footsteps and the flashes of phase unit fire had ceased. He kept a lookout through the haze in case the streetlamps began to flicker. Nothing. Then he remembered they were carrying no weapons. “Shit,” the elder sighed. “Anybody got so much as a knife on them?”

“Got better than that,” the ten year-old Florian grinned, tossing a phase unit over to him.

“Where the hell were you hiding this?!” Max exclaimed.

“Kept falling down my arm, so I put it ‘round my thigh. Ain’t no Dispatchers touch me there.”

“I just hope you didn’t piss on it,” Max smirked.

“Tomas has done plenty of dirty things with it though on the lower settings,” the boy giggled. Bernard elbowed him in the ribs. “Ow!”

“Enough! You boys are sick,” the newest elder rolled his eyes.

“Well it’s not like there are many girls around. Except Louis, he likes it up the-”

“What did I tell you!” Bernard hissed.

“Kids these days,” Max shook his head and strapped on the phase unit, powering up the familiar blue pulse. The emitter sparked several times before burning a steady bolt in his palm. Satisfied that it worked, he dialed it back down to zero to avoid being noticed by any Dispatchers who might still be on patrol near the Barreau block. “Everyone stay close.”

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House of Rats – Part 20

Time slowed down as the phase unit flew through the air. Pontius felt a sickness begin to stir in his gut. Sickness at watching Pascal die in a pool of his own blood, sickness at feeling as if he’d lost another son. The sight of fire reflected deep in his golden eyes, and within the flames, he foresaw every last Outlander burning in eternal ruin for what they had done. He would send them all to the pits of Hell, if such a place even existed. Pontius only hoped he wasn’t about to join them, lest he discover that Igor, that twisted little snake now wriggling free of Pascal’s dead body, was in fact the devil himself. The unit descended. Time to move.

The district commander took the arm of the boy holding a knife to his throat and hurled him overhead to the ground. He caught the phase unit midair, flipping it on top of his wrist. Charged a shot. Blasted through the skull of the kid he’d just thrown. An Outlander approached from his left to jab at him with a dull blade. He grabbed her wrist and slammed the phase unit across her arm above the elbow, breaking it. Took her hand and rammed her own blade into her eye. A splash of blood, a scream. The commander whirled to his right and fired pulses clean through the chests of two others bounding down the stairwell at him. Another to his left. Sharp left, center. Two o’clock, eleven. He then trudged his way forward toward the leader and the young boy who had slit Pascal’s throat, snatching up his cane from the sand as he went.

“IGOR!” the man roared.

“Come get me, chicken!” the boy shouted back, unsheathing a machete from his back. “I will cut off your noisy beak!”

Pontius fought off several more underlings along the way. One charged at him on the left. He whipped his cane at their legs, tripping them as he blasted off the arm of another to his right. One more came from behind and managed to slash his back. A sting of pain ran down his spine. The man threw back his cane over his shoulder and jabbed them in the eye. Whirled around, whacked them in the left side. Blasted them through the neck. The commander dropped to his knees just in time for a machete to swing over his head from behind. He leaned backward, changing the setting on the phase unit to ‘flame’ and shot up a fireball in the boy’s face, who fell screaming into the sand. He was satisfied until he realized the boy was not Igor. Shit.

The dirty child howled in animalistic rage past his fallen subordinate and leaped onto Pontius’ chest, knocking him fully onto his back. Igor staggered his stance with one foot on the wrist, another on his chest, and dug the edge of his machete into the old man’s throat. The cane lay just out of reach of Pontius’ left hand. “Any last words before I cut your pretty little throat?”

The aged veteran laughed and spit blood in his face, switching the dial back to ‘pulse’ with one finger. “Yeah. Cluck cluck, you little FUCK!”

He discharged the unit to overload, sending a bolt of electricity up Igor’s leg that made the boy drop his machete and stumble backward. Now free from the weight, he took hold of the cane and whacked him across the jaw. The leader fell to the ground unconscious. The district commander then rolled over to face the last boy standing next to Igor. It was the same one who had taken Pascal’s life just moments before, and the only Outlander left standing in the courtyard. The child dropped the knife and fell to his knees.

“Please don’t kill me!” he pleaded, throwing his hands up. “He forced me to do it, I swear I didn’t want to, but he was going to kill the rest of the Barreau boys if I-”

“Shut up!” Pontius shouted, kicking the boy to his back. He held him down with the cane pressed against his throat. “What’s your name?”

“It doesn’t even matter now…”

“I SAID, WHAT IS YOUR NAME?!” the man roared. Sweat was pouring down his forehead. He could feel the heat welling up in his chest now, boiling his blood until it set aflame with a vengeance hotter than the desert sun. Deep down, he knew it didn’t matter what the boy’s name was; he was going to kill him all the same. But he wanted to hear it just to have the satisfaction of utterly destroying Igor’s best.

“Quentin…” the boy whimpered. “Quentin Vaugrenard…please…OH GOD PLEASE DON’T-”

The boy’s head exploded in a splash of blood and static before he managed to finish his last sentence. Pontius felt his heart stop. He struggled to breathe. A sudden sharp pain slammed him deep in the chest, and he fell to his knees with only the cane to hold him up. The courtyard around him grew eerily silent. That name. Something about that name was important. He took a long look at his surroundings, at the flickering flames, the pale, lifeless corpses of Outlanders and Dispatchers alike, the crimson river of blood that flowed up the darkened street into the shadows beyond. Then it hit him.

“The Barreau boys,” he gasped. “The hostages…he wasn’t an Outlander.” He closed his eyes and shook his head to rid himself of the horrid nausea building in his stomach. A smirk broke across his face, followed by nervous laughter. Pontius reached inside his jacket pocket and removed a flask. Took a brief sip, then a long gulp. “Fuckin’ unreal.” The sound of footsteps pounding the pavement in the distance convinced him to down half of it. He wasn’t about to be sober when every Dispatcher in the city arrived to ask what happened.

A harsh gust of wind kicked up from the south, swirling sands and covering the dead in a torrent of golden dust. Smaller flames around the courtyard were snuffed out or flickered in agitation. The district commander glanced over at the damage done to the gate. The hole that had been blown clean through the door was a gash approximately twelve feet tall, maybe fifteen across. Live wires from the interior still shot out the occasional sparks as sand drifted in with the breeze. The irony of it all was that the gates were to be outfitted with emergency force-fields in just a few weeks.

Pontius blinked his eyes and shook his head again, this time to ward off the spins. Stay focused, old man. Hurried footsteps were gaining closer. Phase units fired from a couple blocks away, mixed with the sound of shouting. The aged veteran turned to pinpoint the exact direction as blue pulses lit up the night sky. That’s when an Outlander flew into peripheral view mere feet from him with a phase unit of his own drawn and ready to fire.

“SHIT!” The man dropped to the ground and threw up his cane as the boy skidded to a stop over him.

“Thought I missed one,” he grinned, the light from the pulse illuminating a slew of jagged scars on his face. “Hey Deirdre, over here!”

“Coming, Joran!” a girl called from the alleyway.

“We’re about to take out every last one of your friends.” The boy chuckled, but the look of satisfaction on his face dimmed to horror. A short sword pierced him through the chest from behind, sending a splatter of blood showering down onto Pontius.

“Joran? Joran-” Deirdre was cut off by the same blade before she could let out so much as a shriek from fifty feet away. The district commander rubbed his eyes and squinted to focus at the scene unfolding around him. Much of it was a blur, though his best guess was that the Dispatchers had engaged in a firefight with the Outlanders, some of whom were now fleeing back to the gate. The only sound that made no sense was a continuous clanging of metal and sharp cleaving along with the misfiring of phase units. What the hell is that noise? he thought. Dispatchers don’t carry swords.

Stumbling back to his feet, Pontius adjusted the dial on his unit and shocked himself to stay awake. Whatever was going on, he was determined to catch every detail. That turned out to be easier said than done. There were no words for it. Human eyes could not move as fast as the trail of blue electric light now zapping back and forth to make mincemeat out of the fleeing Outlanders. The second someone started bleeding from the throat, another was penetrated through the stomach. Legs were cut off, arms sliced, faces, backs, eyes. Every bit got slashed. Stab, slice, zap, zap, slice, zap, slash, stab. A head went flying up in the air at one point with a geyser squirt of blood. Occasionally, wet hacking noises could be heard amid screams as the sword chopped through bones and severed apart limbs.

It was difficult to make out anything but the string of traveling light. It darted to the left, to the right, far in the distance, back to foreground. Even that was so thin as to be nearly invisible. The sword, too, seemed to show up out of nowhere every time it cut. There was a distinct sound of electric static permeating the air as each blow landed, after which the light would travel onward. Pontius shocked himself again, and for the briefest of moments, he at last saw an outline clear as day of a lone figure appearing to teleport between each target.

“That’s impossible!” And yet there they were. The figure was short in stature, just over five feet, and seemed to be wearing some kind of backpack. On their right wrist was attached a crimson-colored gauntlet which Pontius immediately recognized as that worn by the Dalishkova Knights in battle. That explained all the metal clanging. Such armor was outfitted with electromagnets in the palm, so swords could easily be retrieved if dropped, or otherwise be maneuvered in a variety of different positions to defeat an enemy. But combined with whatever technology this person had utilized for instantaneous travel, this was clearly no battle. It was a one-sided bloodbath. And nobody had a chance.

By the time the last Outlander had fallen and the trail of light disappeared, Pontius again found himself on his knees and struggling to maintain focus. The shocks from the phase unit could only keep him so sober. His head swam as he kept trying to process all that had happened between the bomb and the flashes. He couldn’t. And the familiar sight of that crimson gauntlet only filled him with further dread and sorrow. He had run from his past in Helias and everything having to do with the Dalishkova years ago. What could they possibly want with him now? They’d already taken his son from him. Was that not enough?

The man closed his eyes, pressing his forehead against the cane to fight back tears. It had to be one of the Knights, and it had to be a warning. What he’d witnessed was nothing less than the work of a trained assassin; he knew of no way that an outsider could get their hands on Dalishkova technology. None but their innermost circle had access to the munitions vault. Even getting into the city center of Helias without familial ties was often difficult. And unless it was something new, they certainly didn’t have the capability to teleport. Hell, no one in all of Viktorium did, save for perhaps Charles DuPont himself.

“Dear god, what happened?!” a voice called out from a nearby alley. Dispatcher squads were just beginning to arrive on the scene. The district commander opened his eyes.

“You boys missed the party,” he sighed, stepping to his feet.

The squad leader raised an eyebrow. “You did all this yourself?”

“Yeah, Gabriel,” Pontius smirked. “Obviously I had help, but as you can see…” he scowled and pointed around with his cane.

“Sorry we didn’t arrive sooner. We were tracking an anomaly several blocks-”

“Yeah, about that,” the man cut him off. “That thing is no anomaly.”

“Sir?”

“I hesitate to share this for risk of being court-martialed, but seeing as how I managed to kill someone here who wasn’t an Outlander, I think drinking on the job is the least of my worries now. I’ve been shocking myself to stay sober. In between, that thing showed up. Teleported. I didn’t catch sight of them for long, but whoever it was, they had a Dalishkova gauntlet. Made short work of the Outlanders.”

“Understood, sir. Do you perceive any threat from them?”

“Not for you boys, anyway,” Pontius said. “It’s personal.”

“Of course.”

“You can get to securing things here and cleaning up this mess…” The commander trailed off a moment as he surveyed the streets around him. Something about the scene reminded him of the past, though he couldn’t quite place it. “The Workers’ Rebellion,” he whispered to himself. “Defense Minister Corcini, blueprints. Flushing out the tunnel…Gabriel!” He called the boy back over.

“Yes sir?”

“That tunnel in the old Steamworks building off the Barreau block, I want it locked down and sealed immediately!”

“Already done. Second Lieutenant Edmond and his team have secured it.”

“Good,” the man breathed. “Any reports of suspicious activity from that block?”

“Not that we’re aware of, sir.”

Pontius nodded. “All right, I’m heading down there. Got a funny feeling how this all started, and I have to have a little chat with Edmond.”

“Sir, I’d advise you to take my squad with you. We can’t be sure we’ve captured all the Outlanders just yet, and if any are out roaming the streets-”

“Noted,” the commander cut him off. “I’ll be fine. Have fun with cleanup.”

“I’m sure we will,” Gabriel muttered.

Pontius continued on his way alone to a nearby alley two streets across from Barreau. He stopped in the shadows and dug out his flask again, well enough out of view of the squads now descending on the courtyard and atop the wall. His mind was still awash with thoughts of his son as he looked over the pile of corpses near the gate. No matter how much he drank, it never seemed to silence all the memories of what happened that day in Helias, nor his subsequent actions as General under Marco Corcini. Together, they had branded and killed many innocent children—even those who had no previous association with the Outlanders—to make room for the city’s emerging population. Glancing over the bodies, he wondered which of them he’d personally exiled. The veteran gasped as he began to take count.

“Igor…” The infamous leader of the Oulanders was nowhere to be found. Pontius considered alerting Gabriel to run a sweep of the surrounding blocks, but thought better of it. The boy was running scared with no backup in a city crawling with Dispatchers. If he hadn’t run home with his tail between his legs already, he would be caught in no time. What a foolish plan.

The district commander fastened the knob back on his flask and proceeded through the darkened alleyway. It smelled old, dank, untraveled for some time with just a hint of rust. Barely a footnote on the sad history of the Workers’ Rebellion in this district. A sudden movement stopped Pontius in his tracks. His heart pounded. It looked to be the shadow of a child, though he couldn’t say for sure. His vision was blurry and the light cast from the street was too dim to tell.

“Shhh,” a voice whispered. The old man squinted to see, but the specter scampered off around the left corner and vanished.

“Hey, wait!” Pontius rushed forward and tripped over a nearby crate. He fell to the side and caught himself on the wall, using his cane to steady himself. Another step brought his foot down onto a pile of jagged wood pieces and broken bottles that crunched beneath his boot. A nail strewn in the mix drove hard into his heel. “Gah, fuck!” the man cried out, hobbling out of the alleyway. He gave a quick glance up and down the empty street at the corner. There was no sign of the child anywhere. Damn.

Pontius huffed and knelt down, palm resting on the cane as he pivoted his foot outward to reach for the nail. A series of breaths and cringe later, and he’d torn the sharp object from his heel. No time to patch up now. He had to square things away with Edmond, and if there was any chance at finding that mysterious specter—whether it turned out to be Igor, or the stranger with the Dalishkova gauntlet—the old veteran wasn’t about to delay himself. Besides, he thought, bleeding out some of the alcohol will do me good.

“This way, quickly!” a hushed voice said from across the street. Pontius caught sight of a group of ragged children making their way out of the alley just up the block next to an old Catholic church. They clung to the shadows like bats in a cave. Their appearance suggested that they were Outlanders—the dusty, matted hair, crumpled hats, bindings on their legs, crude, worn shoes with holes, torn trousers, frumpy jackets. A shadowy figure dressed all in black, looking far better kempt than the rest, was directing them at the corner.

The district commander made his way toward them on a diagonal path. He squinted all the way, hoping they wouldn’t catch him lumbering along to take cover behind a car on the opposite side. A sudden round of pulses fired through an adjacent alleyway from where he’d come. Frantic shouts followed. But the figure in black remained resolute, even as the younger children began to whimper and run faster down the sidewalk. He seemed determined to hold his position until every last one of them had gone ahead.

Pontius felt his heart thud harder in his chest the closer he drew. The facial features of the boy in black were coming into sharper focus now, and he could also see his skin was paler than the others. His hair was black as the feathers of a raven, eyes like deep charcoal. His chin was soft and rounded. The downward curl of his lower lip made him look like he was frowning. But Pontius knew that he wasn’t, because he would recognize that face anywhere. It had been quite a few years. He was a teenager now, yet the basics remained, and the boy had developed the unmistakable features of his mother.

“Severo?” the man whispered, feeling the heaviness in his chest like a pile of bricks that would not lift. There was no question, now that he was close enough to see his own child. He knew that face, and he missed it beyond words. To have smelled the scents of sweet perfumes mixed in his hair from the merchant markets of Helias, to have kissed the boy’s forehead as he slept, to have run with him through the salty surf and fished with him on the docks as the sun set. Every memory, every moment came flooding back in that instant. “It can’t be…Severo…”

Several blue pulses tore through the edge of the brick wall of an alley on the other side of the church. Bits of concrete and shale went flying out onto the street as a group of four more ragged teens flew past Pontius to join the rest of the group ahead. Two Dispatchers emerged in hot pursuit still firing. One of the pulses caught Pontius in the shoulder, and a sharp, burning pain shot down his arm. His trench coat sizzled with smoke and fused onto the bloody, charred flesh of the wound. But the brave veteran braced himself and continued on, determined to reunite with his only son amid the chaos. Tears streamed down his face. So many thoughts and emotions were flooding in through the haze, despite his wounds. So many thoughts…

“Severo!” the man shouted. “Sev!”

“Sir, we need to get you back to headquarters right now, you’re wounded and we’ve got to clean out this block!” One of the Dispatchers had rushed back to assist him.

“Get your hands off of me!”

“Sir, please listen-”

“That’s my son, you hear me? Sev!”

“The Outlanders are getting away!”

“Get the hell away from me!” Pontius charged his phase unit and shoved the boy backward into the iron fence at the front of the church.

“Sir-”

He blasted the boy straight through the chest and watched his lifeless body slump over on the sidewalk, leaving a red hot hole burnt through the bars behind him. But the district commander of the Dispatchers was too consumed with reaching his son to care anymore. It was all that mattered, and no amount of pain and no person, Outlander or Dispatcher, even Dalishkova, was about to stop him from doing so. He dug back in his coat pocket. Took another long gulp of whiskey and looked up at Severo, the boy he so loved, who was now looking back at him. A genuine frown had spread across the teen’s face. He shook his head. No.

“Severo, wait…Sev!” the man cried frantically, blinking away the blur of tears and waning sobriety as he rushed toward his son. He made it within two feet.

The last thing Pontius saw were the boy’s eyes turning white. A throbbing pain slammed through the veteran’s skull as he fell backward.

Then everything went black.

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House of Rats – Part 19

Pontius had been right all along. All that banging the captain was doing must have been to set off the bomb. Either way, Georges was dead for real now. And Pascal, the would-be hero, was not a hero at all. For all he knew, the Outlanders were already making their way into the city. Cavarice would fall because of him. Pascal, the stupid little boy from Courgent who was foolish enough to think he could ever make a difference by taking up the uniform of a Dispatcher. What the hell was I thinking? But then he began to hear a voice through the blackened haze calling out to him. An old, determined voice. One that made him believe that maybe he still had a chance to make things right.

“Pascal! Found the fire warm!”

“Huh…” Everything sounded like gibberish. His entire body ached. He feared he had broken or fractured several bones. And yet something about that voice set off a fire in him that caused him to want to try moving anyway. He tried popping his ears to listen more closely.

“Pascal, the silent yard!”

“I can’t…” The boy struggled to get up, feeling around him as he did so. His fingers, still too delicate for this job, brushed against the rough concrete. He reached up to the side of his head and was surprised to find another pressed right against it. Officer Bertrand. Dead. He slowly grabbed the edge of a step and shifted his weight toward the crumbling remnants of the stone railing, pulling himself closer to it so the body would slide off. His eyes were beginning to focus again now, and he saw the corpse go sliding down the rest of the staircase as he flipped himself onto his back. “I’m so sorry, Bert,” he whispered, pausing to choke back the tears before addressing the person shouting above him. “Say again?” he called out in a frail voice.

“Pascal, the alarm!” Pontius yelled from the top of the stairs. “Sound the alarm!”

“Aye, sir!” he called. With renewed strength, the young Dispatcher gathered himself as best he could and scrambled to his feet. He thanked whatever gods there were that nothing appeared to be broken, though a sharp pain shot through his left ankle with ever step. After limping to the top with some difficulty, he fell to his side and assessed the controls. Everything was still intact. He slid open a small cover on the keypad and punched in the emergency code: 4-8-1-5-1-6-2-3-4-2. A loud siren began to blare from atop the west gate of the wall along with flashing red lights that lit in a pulsing sequence over the merlons. Similar alarms would soon sound throughout the city, sending every Dispatcher on the wall to their location. Even those off-duty would be alerted from various pylons set up on street corners.

“Pascal,” Pontius leaned back, “just out of curiosity, which code did you enter?”

“The one for the alarm.”

“I said to hit the silent alarm…”

“Oh…oops…”

“Now that the Outlanders know we’re still alive,” the man smirked, struggling to pull himself up. “We better get the hell out of here. Quick.”

“I am so, so sorry!” Pascal whimpered.

“Save it. I’ll get you a clean discharge after the gala. You belong in school.”

“Thank you, sir. Which way should we go? Across the top of the wall?”

“Yeah, there’s a guard tower not far. We’ll need all the phase units we can snag.”

The boy wrapped Pontius’ arm around his shoulder to help the aging veteran to his feet, surveying the damage below in the courtyard. He had to admit it was far worse destruction than what his formerly drunk district commander was capable of. Most of the gas lamps had exploded with the bomb. Small fires lined the darkened street below, illuminating heaps of crushed concrete, shattered glass, and twisted rubble in their wake. Pascal recognized several pieces from the gate itself, being an off-beige color different from the wall.

He also stole a glance from behind him, back at the desert with its many greenish-colored drifts, which still appeared as calm as it had moments before the blast. The stars were still hooked, unchanged in their places, and the moon shone just as bright. But the air didn’t smell like the Sea of Helene anymore. It smelled like sulfur and twisted iron.

“Hey Pascal!” a voice called from the street below.

“Serge!” the boy shouted happily, dragging Pontius with him down the stairs. “Oh my god, you’re alive!”

“In the flesh, my friend!” Serge laughed. “Other squads are on their way.”

“Yeah, this isn’t a bad idea,” the district commander rolled his eyes.

Pascal let go of the man and bounded down the steps to embrace his friend, but something in his peripheral vision stopped him short. A dark object with a silvery glint came flying out of the shadows from the left and planted itself deep in the side of Serge’s neck. As Pascal slid to his knees, the expression on his friend’s face immediately changed from one of joy and relief to one of pure horror. He choked. A sudden flood of deep crimson squirted out of from the boy’s jugular as he fell, spitting up a spray as he went.

“NO!” Pascal screamed. He kept screaming until he was out of breath. By this time, a swarm of scrappy-looking boys and girls had descended upon them and the remaining Dispatchers with knives in hand. Some of them wore stolen phase units, and a crowd had begun to block the west gate—the only remaining exit that wouldn’t have required them to fight their way through.

“Aww, tsk, tsk,” a crackly voice echoed from the shadows where the knife had been thrown. Pascal was surprised to see a young boy with a shaved head emerge. The kid was shorter than himself with a sun-drenched complexion, clad in an oversized coat and trousers. He stunk horribly, sauntering about his ranks in such a way that no one knew what he was about to do next. Though Pascal had never before seen the boy with his own eyes, he certainly knew his name.

“Igor.”

“In the flesh!” the boy mocked, kneeling down to tear his knife from Serge’s throat. “How did you like our little stuffed chicken trick?”

“Amateur at best,” Pontius remarked, plopping down on the crumbling staircase to light up a cigarette he’d found in his trench coat pocket.

“Well if it isn’t General Pontius Proulx! Nice to meet you again. I look forward to slashing your heels and sending you crawling off into the desert sun.”

“You realize you can’t win, right? Every Dispatcher in the city is going to be here in about ten minutes. So as adorable as your whole human piñata was, you’re straight up fucked. Plus Pascal here…he’s the best on the entire force.”

“Best on the force, eh? Pretty child,” he said, kneeling down with Pascal. “Ah, yes. If you could only see the look in your eyes when I took your friend’s life. Ha! I swear, the color changed from light blue to this very deep, almost like an ocean…”

“So you want to see blue?” Pascal smiled, sparking up a pulse from his phase unit in Igor’s face. “Because it’ll be the last color you ever see, you piece of shit!” The young Dispatcher grabbed the scrappy child by the coat and jumped to his feet to drag Igor with him in the center of the circle of Outlanders that had formed inside the gate. Many of them were now holding the surviving Dispatchers at knifepoint—Conrad, Dominic, Abel, and a few others.

“Pascal, don’t!” Pontius warned.

“Why not? Look at him,” the boy laughed. “Who’s the scared chicken now?”

But to his surprise, Igor only grinned. A wide, mostly-toothless grin.

“Cluck cluck!”

A series of screams, quickly silenced, rang throughout the darkened street. Pascal raised his eyes and looked around him in horror at the circle of Outlanders as they proceeded to slit the throats of every single Dispatcher they’d brought to their knees. Streams of blood gushed and splattered everywhere onto the concrete, forming pools in the golden glow of the flames that now lit Pascal’s eyes ablaze with the vengeance of a thousand suns.

But he knew it wouldn’t come, because he already felt the knife blade tight against his own throat. And at the same time, that was okay. He had made a believer out of Pontius, a man who never believed in him to begin with. Not only that, but he had finally earned the full admiration and respect of the entire Dispatchers force. Maybe being a martyr wasn’t so bad after all. It was time.

“Pontius!” he yelled, unfastening his phase unit as he felt the sharp stab of pain slice across his neck, “find your son!” And with one final motion, he hurled the device over to his district commander, surrendering the fight forever.

_______________________

Severo’s team had just begun to enter the midpoint of the tunnel from the northwest corridor when a muffled boom came from above, shaking the entire structure and loosening sand from the cracks in the walls. The young knight stopped in his tracks to halt the line. Far behind them, stalactites and rocks could be heard breaking off from the cavern ceiling and smashing to the floor. A chorus of voices cried out beyond the bend as shuffling footsteps raced to keep up with the rest of the group.

“Everybody all right?” Severo called.

“Help!” a young boy screamed.

The knight rushed back through the man-made corridor and turned the bend into the cave. He found Arturo, a child of twelve years, his legs crushed beneath an avalanche of rocks. The biggest had pinned the back of his right thigh above the knee. A small patch of blood was quickly pooling around the site, a broken white bone jutting out through the skin. No way the boy was getting out of here.

“Is it bad?” he cried.

“I don’t see anything broken.”

“Don’t you dare lie to me Severo!” he grabbed the knight’s cloak. “Oh god, it hurts!”

“Help, back here!” Trapped voices called out from behind the pile of rocks, which had cut off access to the adjoining cavern. A half-circle of Outlanders gathered behind the young knight, ready to assist if they could. Severo wasn’t yet used to it, but he was their leader down here. Whichever choices he made in the next few seconds were crucial. Steeling himself, he gazed back apologetically at the crowd, all of whom looked as if they expected the worst. He felt another tug at his cloak.

“It’s okay,” the boy assured him. “I’m ready to go home.”

Severo removed the silver amulet from around his neck and pressed it between Arturo’s palms as he took the boy’s head and began to recite the Pinnacle, the most sacred of Dalishkova prayers. To his amazement, the group of boys and girls behind him began to join in the recitation of verses, even those trapped in the next cavern over. It was a strange thing to hear. He had never revealed himself to any of the Outlanders aside from Quentin, and whenever he did pray, he always made sure it was whispered. Yet they joined in with him all the same, as if they had been doing so for years. By the end of the prayer, Arturo had sunk his tiny head with a smile and died.

The young Dalishkova opened his eyes and gazed back upon the group with confusion.

“How did you all know those verses?”

“Olivier stole your prayer book and copied down some so we’d all have something to read,” Emilie admitted. “We shared it with each other over the past couple months and started having meetings in the east junction where we read it aloud. The Dalishkova faith comforts us…will you teach us more?”

Severo felt his blood start to boil as he rose to his feet. “You shouldn’t be reciting things you don’t understand!” he snapped.

“Please?” the girl pleaded. “We want to know about the Salt God.”

“Why? You went rummaging through my room. This was an undercover job! None of you were supposed to know I was Dalishkova!” the knight yelled. “Do you have any idea what will happen if they discover I’ve been found out?”

“It’s not like we mind,” the girl shrugged. “As long as your personal mission doesn’t endanger any of us. We just want to know there’s hope. Igor’s robbed us of most of it these days.” Several of the boys around her muttered words of agreement. “About time we had a competent leader with us. That is why you’re here, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, Severo should lead!” one of the boys in the back said loudly. “Yeah!” others chimed in.

“Look,” the knight said, “I cannot discuss any particulars of my mission with you. If you want to know the Dalishkova religion, fine. But that’s all I can offer. I am in no position to serve as your leader.”

“Just tell us one thing,” the girl demanded. “Can you help us get rid of Igor?”

Severo shot her an annoyed glance. “There’s work to be done!” he insisted. “I’ll need some of you to stay behind. Emilie, you’re in charge of the group going back to the villa.”

“What?!”

“Just do as I say! You, you, and you two,” he pointed to several boys and girls. “Start pulling the rocks from the top of the pile and work your way down to free the others from the cavern and head home. Igor’s going to get half of us killed and I’m not letting him sacrifice anybody on my side. Some of you will have to survive in the catacombs below. Don’t worry, I’ll send rations of food.”

“But-”

“Don’t argue with me Emilie, just do it!”

“Sure, whatever,” the girl huffed.

Severo left her behind and turned back for the tunnel, listening with pride as she began barking out orders to the boys under her watch. He always had faith that she would make a great leader someday, though it took a bit longer than he expected for her to take up the mantle. Then again, the girls in the Outlanders gang were outnumbered by the boys four-to-one, and there were comparatively few boys comfortable with the idea of a girl taking charge. Still, Severo saw this as a sign of hope. If he could work to unite the Outlanders behind the scenes even after having revealed himself as a stranger to them, it would make it far easier when it came time to appoint Max as their new leader.

Severo’s group, now thirteen in all, advanced through the tunnel in relative silence. Thoughts of dread consumed the young knight as to what might be happening on the wall above. No doubt every Dispatcher in the city had been summoned to secure the site. Igor would only have a small window of time in which to storm through the gate before the chances of his team making it to the safe house dropped significantly. That was assuming of course that the bomb even made a single dent in the concrete and steel-reinforced door.

It had taken two extra phase units to construct the device than they previously thought, which only left a total of six to be used for the ensuing firefight. In addition to that, the Outlanders were untrained on Dispatcher equipment and thus less accurate and more prone to the effects of recoil. All of it seemed a fool’s errand from the outset. And despite Severo’s best attempts to dissuade their young leader from following through with the plan, he had charged into it headfirst anyway.

The knight also worried about the success of his own group in getting out of the Barreau District. Security would not be of major concern upon exiting the tunnel, but the safe house was located mere blocks from Rue D’Or, the main street which ended at the west gate. That meant they still risked running into Dispatcher squads making their way to the site. Of course Igor hadn’t thought any of this through because he was so hell-bent on exacting his revenge. How many Dispatchers were dead, and how many Outlanders? Had any civilians been caught on the crossfire? Would either group make it to safety? Severo grabbed hold of his prayer amulet and repeated the Oath to will away any thoughts of failure. I am a Knight of the Dalishkova Order, he reminded himself.   

Finally, they neared the end of the tunnel. The knight halted his group ten feet from the door and stepped forward to check the lock. The indicator light above the wheel was still red, which meant no one had yet opened it from the other side. He withdrew a moment to set the gas lamp on the floor before turning the wheel. That was when he realized he’d forgotten one crucial thing. The knock sequence.

Severo and his group of Outlanders swung open the door, only to be greeted by the sound of charging phase units pointed directly in their faces. The young knight’s heart sunk to his stomach.

“Hello, boys!” the leader smirked. Edmond. “We’ve been expecting you.”

“Look, this really isn’t the time!”

“Oh no, I think this is long overdue. Be a good lad and get down on your knees.”

“No,” Severo held his ground, even as the second lieutenant fired up a blue pulse in his palm.

“I won’t ask again.”

“In case you boys hadn’t noticed, there are bigger things to worry about. Igor strapped a bomb to Captain Georges and marched him into the west gate-”

“Oh, we know,” Antoine cut him off. “The private channels are all screaming about it. Don’t worry. Your friends will be dealt with soon enough. As for the lot of you, you’re coming down to the station with us to spend the night in a nice cozy, brand new cell. Compliments of Mayor La Cour.”

“On what charges?”

“Theft of Dispatcher equipment, conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism, aiding and abetting a known criminal…talking back to an officer, to name a few,” Isaac pointed out. “We’ll let the judge decide the rest.”

“We haven’t a single phase unit amongst us, nor did anyone in this group conspire to build the bomb,” the knight explained. “Listen to me gentlemen, you will have your day of glory soon enough, that I can promise you. But right now, you must let us pass!”

Edmond eyed him as if he’d lost his mind. “And why should I do that?”

“Because I’m your only hope to take down Lucien.” Severo tore off his prayer amulet and tossed it to the second lieutenant, who caught it overhead and glanced down at the engravings. The boy’s eyes narrowed as he turned to consult the others in his squad, a skeptical look overcoming each of their faces. The knight held his breath. Come on, have faith.

“Can we really trust a Dalishkova?” Edmond finally asked, throwing back the amulet.

“You can trust this one,” Severo said. “Besides…I think you already know him.”

The second lieutenant immediately lowered his phase unit as the boy smiled, recognizing him now that he’d dropped the veil. Many years had passed since the days of their early childhood, and the knight feared his old friend would no longer remember him without the influence of the prayer amulet. But as the two now stood facing each other, Edmond’s eyes wide enough to pop out of his skull, Severo relished the moment. His powers had increased after all.

“Fuck me, you’re still alive!” the leader cried, pulling him into a tight embrace as Isaac and Antoine exchanged confused glances.

“It is good to see you, old friend.”

“And you! What the bloody hell happened? Last I remember, our families had boarded the ship together to head home, but when we docked, you were gone-”

“A story for another time, I’m afraid,” the knight cut him off. “What have you boys done with Quentin? He was supposed to be here to open the door.”

“Haven’t seen him,” Edmond said. He turned to his squad. “Either of you boys?” They both shook their heads. One of the Outlanders stepped forward and tugged at Severo’s sleeve.

“Sir, when we were gathering in the south junction, I overheard Igor say something about putting him on the front lines.”

“Shit!” the knight snapped. “All of you follow me, quickly!” He stepped over the threshold to lead the group up the stairwell, but Antoine and Isaac blocked his path, raising their phase units again. Severo briefly considered occupying their minds to force them aside, but thought better of it. There was no more time to waste on getting to the safe house. Either they broke through now, or they would be caught by another squad.

“Just where the hell do you think you’re off to?” Antoine asked.

“Both of you let him go, he’s on our side!” Edmond insisted. “Unless you want trouble with the district commander.”

Isaac looked incredulous. “What are you going to do, report us?”

“Are you defying an order?” The second lieutenant powered up his phased unit. “Trust me. Let them pass.”

“Yes, sir,” Antoine replied through clenched teeth and stood aside with Isaac.

“Thank you.” Severo nodded and removed the amulet, placing it in Edmond’s hands as his group bounded up the crumbling stairwell ahead of him. “Here…for luck.”

“Most Dispatchers don’t take kindly to the Dalishkova,” the boy sighed. “I probably shouldn’t be seen with this.”

“Then don’t. But I want you to hold onto it awhile.”

“I’ll keep it somewhere safe,” Edmond assured him. “Whatever you’re doing, Sev…be careful.”

“I will. Godspeed, old friend,” the knight squeezed his shoulder.

“Godspeed.”

Severo turned and rushed up the stairs as quickly as he could. By the time his group made it onto the street, they could already hear the sound of discharging phase units coupled with screams far off in the distance. Some of the younger children became frightened. The knight halted them at the corner and surveyed the rest of the block to be sure no one had seen them. Directly across the way stood a dark, crumbling office building with a broken fire escape ladder to the side which led down to a fenced-in alleyway. Barreau Orphanage. Much as he wished he could drop off the most vulnerable of his group now, it would raise far too many questions. But at least now he knew where to send the letter to Max.

“Steady everyone,” he whispered.

They rounded the next alley to the left and made haste for the safe house.

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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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House of Rats – Part 14

Cecile La Cour quite enjoyed being a flirtatious girl, though she knew she wasn’t quite as flirtatious as Lucien Riviere hoped. His gaze barely wavered an inch from her rear end the entire way up the grand staircase. Even when she couldn’t see him, she felt those piercing blue eyes of his burning something fierce into her being. This would not have bothered her so much had she not grown romantically conflicted over the past month.

As it happened, it was not a boy, but a young girl who had recently zapped into her life and stolen her heart. She was not yet sure what to make of it. Marceau was a bit of an enigma in her own right, but Cecile had never before been attracted to a woman. Anyway, she hated to regard her love in such trivial terms as gender. All she knew was that for some reason which defied all logic, she had fallen quite madly for the tech-savvy traveler.

This presented a major problem. Marceau existed on a separate frequency altogether. Things were…complicated, to say the least. While it did work out well for hiding from the disapproval of Cecile’s father, it also made having a relationship that much more difficult—talking to an empty room was like talking to a ghost. To make matters worse, the Dispatchers had caught on to Marceau’s signal two weeks prior and promptly increased security for the welcome gala as a precaution. They thought she was an anomaly. Two units had thus been assigned to monitor the La Cour family at all times, which should have made her father sleep easier. Of course the man still insisted on commissioning Tesla for a phase unit. It all seemed poised for disaster.

From a practical standpoint, Cecile knew she should be with a young man like Lucien, if only he were born of wealth and privilege. Most of the finer points were there—charisma, passable intelligence, leadership qualities, pride, loyalty, and dashing good looks. Even better, he was a close friend of the family. Money, however, was a luxury he did not have. Not that she cared. So long as she was happy, Cecile was the kind of girl who could date someone with holes in their pockets. But all of her friends were courted by wealthy men. She had her reputation to consider. Besides, Lucien always managed to make her feel more than a bit uncomfortable.

“I’m going to do the talking here, yeah?” she heard him whisper to Bernard. “So you’d better linger far enough behind.”

“Sure, whatever.”

Cecile sighed as she heard the boy’s footsteps coming up fast to match her pace. The other orphans trailed along seven feet behind. She wondered if Marceau was watching them, though the lights hadn’t flickered for some time now. Perhaps her lover was leading the Dispatchers on a chase to the opposite end of the building. The petit traveler enjoyed toying with them. Cecile thought it reckless of course, only because she worried. But Marceau seemed like the type who could handle herself.

“How have you been since we last spoke?” Lucien inquired.

“Not bad. Stressed more than anything. You know my father and his silly welcome galas. Everything always has to be perfect.”

“He does a beautiful job. You ought to be proud,” he smiled.

“Nonsense! His advisors do most of the work. He lifts a finger for the table order, that’s about it. And how about you, Mr. Riviere? I heard you caused quite the scuffle this afternoon.”

“You heard about that, eh?”

“Casanov’s show is a guilty pleasure of mine. So you’re a hero. Congratulations!”

“Yeah,” Lucien cleared his throat, “but let’s just say that not everyone on the Dispatchers force made things easy. There’s a certain friend of yours who shouldn’t be working the wall.”

“Pontius?” Cecile chuckled. “He’s a bit rough around the edges, but he’s the friendliest man I know! We’ve been acquainted since I was a little girl. He’s very loyal to us.”

“Loyal as a dog. Although that’s probably an insult since dogs could do better.”

“Watch it!” she pushed him. “I could have you thrown off the premises like a common criminal.”

“You wouldn’t do that.”

“No?”

“You like me too much,” Lucien grinned.

“I don’t quite think you know what I like.”

“Of course I do. The same things all girls like.”

“And that would be?”

“Power and prestige. Neither of which I have…yet,” he sighed. “But someday.”

“I wouldn’t be too sure. What do you call your band of Merry Men trailing close behind us?”

“At least you think I’m funny.”

“That wasn’t a joke,” Cecile insisted. “People respect you, and that’s something. Still, I wish humor was all it took. Not my choice, you understand. Father can be so demanding.”

“Perhaps he’s just demanding with you because he can’t force his will elsewhere.”

“Well, I am his daughter. And that’s not entirely accurate. Daddy’s been working on pushing through a few reforms that could improve this city for the better,” she explained as they rounded the corner of the balcony. The lights were beginning to dim ever so slightly.

“Such as?”

“The reinstitution of the Dispatchers Training Programme, for one. There aren’t as many volunteers anymore, and it’s not something the wealthy want their sons taking part in. They’ve got their universities to attend, their girls to court.”

“I wouldn’t know. Us poor sods in the Barreau block aren’t good enough for that.”

“Of course you are. Daddy’s been trying to revitalize the canal properties for years and get everyone into proper schools, but he keeps getting shut down by that insatiable bitch Constance Renou. She’s always arguing about extending the lines for business transit. Pretty soon, we won’t have any business left. No wonder the city of Helias refused to sign our last trade agreement. They know as well as my father that those properties are a gold mine, but she won’t have it.”

Lucien frowned. “Anyone else pulling his strings?”

“Not that I could name off the top of my head. I’d have to look at the gala list.”

Cecile had elected to show the boys a small exhibit of artwork set up in the Green Room which had been carefully selected from the finest painters and photographers in all of Cavarice. But the farther they walked, the more the lights overhead began to flicker, and the more nervous she became. Any moment now, a unit of Dispatchers would be rushing their way to insist she return to her bedroom at once and lock the door. Never mind the fact that anomalies—and Marceau—could travel through walls.

She was getting annoyed, too, by Lucien’s presence. He joked quite a bit and possessed a very charismatic attitude, but it was obvious the boy had ulterior motives which her father was too blind to see. What those motives were was anybody’s guess. She didn’t care for the way he treated Bernard or the rest of the orphans either. Like they were his personal slaves, or some sort of burden he sought release from.

Cecile longed to be in the arms of Marceau again, if only to escape and be assured her girlfriend was safe. Of course, she had planned this particular tour route around the location of her bedroom just in case the Dispatchers came along. Sure enough, hurried footsteps could be heard echoing down the hallway adjacent to them just as she pulled the golden key from around her neck to open the gallery doors. But of course it wasn’t the key to the gallery at all—it was the key to her bedroom. The timing was too perfect.

“Miss La Cour! Miss La Cour!” the shouts came as the three men rounded the corner. Everyone except Cecile turned to address the commotion. The mayor’s daughter simply leaned back against the wall, swinging the chain with the golden key around her finger.

“Let me guess,” she rolled her eyes. “ ‘Get back to your room, Cecile.’ ”

“We reckon that’d be safest, Miss,” the captain huffed.

“And you boys do realize that anomalies can travel wherever they please? My door is not going to stop them.”

“That’s why we post guards at the end of the hall. Until the flickerin’ stops.”

“Until the flickering stops,” Cecile laughed. “I’ll be sure to let you all know when my love life needs rescuing.”

“Miss?”

“Forget it. It’s over your heads,” she sighed, turning to Lucien. “I’ve got to go.” Several of the orphan boys began to whine.

“Please, can’t we see the Green Room just once?” Tomas asked.

“I’m sorry,” Cecile stepped over, tousling his hair. “Maybe I can sneak you up during the welcome gala. For now, I’ve got to abide by the good captain’s orders.” She eyed the man with contempt. “And there’s this dreadful dinner I have to get ready for soon.”

“Are we invited?” Lucien asked.

“You wouldn’t want to be. Some ridiculous fundraiser affair, but it’s how Daddy gets his money to fight off Renou in the coming elections, so…”

“I understand,” the boy frowned.

“You all can find your way back down? There’s another stairwell just up this hall.”

“We’ve got it, m’lady,” Bernard smiled and kissed her hand. Though his skin appeared darker beneath the flickering lights, Cecile swore she could detect a rosy blush in the African boy’s face. It was certainly more flattering than Lucien’s approach.

“See you at the gala, Bernard,” she hugged him.

As the last of the Barreau boys exited the hallway, Cecile rushed over to her room and locked the door behind her, leaning back against it. Her bedroom at Morcourt was inexplicably cold no matter what the outside temperature was. Goosebumps radiated over her soft skin in the dark, shapeless shadows. All was quiet now, save for the Dispatchers jabbering on down the hall about anomaly charts. She lit a candle on her bookshelf to carry over to the nightstand, where she plopped down in bed. A slight buzz sounded in the air to her right, almost like a fly, but quieter.

“I know you’re here,” she whispered. The buzzing noise encircled her on the bed, causing her skin to tingle. A mischievous grin spread across her face. “Feels nice.” Suddenly, it stopped. A hushed voice emerged from the darkness and seemed to echo from across the room, though Cecile couldn’t pinpoint exactly where. Whenever she spoke with Marceau, she always questioned whether or not she was going crazy. Did the voice come from within her own head or from outside? It could very well have been both.

“Why do you entertain that boy?” the traveler asked.

“It’s just gala business,” the girl sighed. “And Daddy thinks highly of him.”

“Lucien is dangerous.”

“He’s just a boy.” The lights flickered on and off. “Marceau!” Cecile protested, sitting up. “Really now, I wish you would stop this. It makes it so hard to talk when I can’t see you.”

“I can’t dial down for extended periods of time, I’ve told you. That’s the risk you take when you date someone who lives on a separate frequency. Why don’t you join me? The air is nice and crisp here.”

“Come on, you know I can’t do that,” she smiled.

“Why not?”

“You know why, Marcy.”

“So you would still choose Lucien over me-”

“No, definitely not Lucien!” She could follow the voice now as it traveled in distinct directions, first above her, past her face to the right, then the left. Wherever Marceau was, she had taken to pacing back and forth.

“But anyone else. Someone you can feel and see with your own eyes.”

“Maybe if you chose to live in the real world with the rest of us, things would be easier.”

“How?” Cecile felt the girl’s breath hot in her face. “We would still have to hide because your father wouldn’t approve of you being with a girl anyway.”

“That’s not his decision to make.”

“Then whose is it, Cecile? You’re seventeen. You’re a big girl. You don’t have to stay here.”

“I wish it were that simple.”

“Isn’t it?” The girl finally appeared visible in front of her and knelt down at the side of the bed to hold her hands. Cecile leaned in to kiss her softly.

“Not quite. You sure you can’t dial down for longer? I just want to be with you,” she said, stroking her girlfriend’s face and brushing over the stubble on her shaved head. She thought it a most peculiar thing that a young girl would want to be free of all her hair, but Cecile didn’t mind. Being with Marceau felt almost the same as being with a boy—or at least it seemed less confusing to think of it that way.

“I know, baby,” the traveler kissed her hand. “But I have to conserve power. Plus it’s dangerous for me, I risk scrambling my frequency and getting lost. Now if I could get my hands on that phase unit your father ordered from Tesla, it might be a different story.”

“But he doesn’t even have it yet,” Cecile sighed, laying back and pulling the girl on top of her. They kissed again.

“I don’t need the actual unit. Just the blueprints.”

“The blueprints won’t arrive for another week. Anyway, Daddy keeps things like that locked in his safe. Even if I knew the combination, I have no clue where the safe even is in this building.”

“Could you find out?” Marceau asked, planting kisses down her neck.

“I guess I could ask, but…god, would you stop?” the mayor’s daughter giggled. “I can’t say no when you do this!”

“I know,” the traveler grinned. “So is that a yes?”

“Fine. Yes.”

“That’s my girl,” Marceau whispered. “Sweet girl.” She pressed her warm lips to Cecile’s one last time before zapping away without a trace. All the lights in the room immediately flashed on. The bulb overhead broke, sending glass raining down on the bed. Cecile shrieked and scrambled to the closet, then froze. She listened to the air for a moment. There was no more buzzing noise, no more flickering. No more echoing voices and no more temperature shifts. Dead silence. Her girlfriend was gone.

“Goddamn it, Marceau!”

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House of Rats – Part 13

Later that evening, the Barreau boys had gathered at Morcourt Hall to plan for the annual welcome gala with Mayor La Cour. Max always found it to be a boring affair, though the boys under his watch were more than happy to be involved in something that made them feel important for once. The mayor rambled on as he led them about the sprawling, lavishly adorned grand ballroom with one of his advisors, who took notes as they walked. Everything concerning the layout was much the same as it had been in the past year. Decor was recycled. Security checkpoints were identical. The same Dispatchers—minus Captain Georges, of course—would be attending the event. Little more than the table order of the wealthiest figures in Viktorium had been switched.

“And Miss Constance Renou will be seated here, with her longtime film director friend Giovanni Abbascia on the opposite side…let’s see…Fritz Lang will go over here. No wait, that’s not right…”

Lucien let out a long sigh beside Max. “Can’t you just feel the life slowly draining out of you with every word this man speaks?”

“I’m not sure,” the elder replied. “There’s a running tally in my mind between his words and yours. I can’t quite decide who is worse.”

“You’re seriously going to continue this nonsense?”

“You still owe Quentin an apology.”

Lucien leaned forward and tapped the boy on the shoulder as the group continued on, cupping his hand over his ear to whisper something. Quentin rolled his eyes and stomped on the elder’s foot, sending him hobbling backward into a table. As he fell, Lucien managed twist around and drag the entire cloth off, sending the vase of flowers crashing to the floor where it shattered in a million pieces. The entire group glowered with scorn.

“Good lord boy, watch your step!” the mayor snapped.

“Sorry,” the elder sighed, stepping to his feet.

La Cour turned to his advisor. “Get clean-up in here right away.”

“Yes sir.”

“Can’t blame him, but at least you tried,” Max smirked, brushing bits of glass off him.

“Yeah…still doesn’t earn me any points.”

The two caught back up with the group, lingering a few steps behind so they could speak privately whilst observing their younger subjects. It wasn’t difficult to keep an eye on everyone now since they seemed far more enthralled than their elders just to be touring the Metropoliès District. The opportunity didn’t come often for them. Still, Max resented the fact it was simply a pity move on the part of the mayor. Not like he sensed the man could do much to improve their situation; he always seemed to have his hands tied. It was nice camouflage, anyway.

“So how were those drinks with the Dispatchers?” Max asked.

“Can’t stop taunting me, eh?”

“Actually, I was wondering how close you got with them.”

“Not as close as I wanted to.”

“Munitions storage?” Max felt like a hypocrite. What Lucien had done bordered on the unforgiveable, and yet here he was, wondering if it might in fact be a good idea to continue fostering such a connection. But it seemed too late to be angry anymore. The welcome gala was coming up fast, and there were far more important things to worry about following the celebration. Rooms at the orphanage still had to be renovated so the boys could pair into their own flats. They needed their own kitchen and dining hall, and a staff to maintain it. All of it required precious funds, none of which the mayor could provide on his own.

“Suddenly we’re curious!” Lucien grinned.

“We need money. I don’t quite care where it comes from.”

“Now we’re talking. I never got around to the armory, unfortunately. But I did come across something better.”

“Better? Nothing they carry is more valuable than the phase units.”

“It is a phase unit. Or at least the plans of one.”

“I don’t follow.”

“You know how sometimes the Dispatchers make private deliveries to ensure nothing gets lost or stolen at the post office? The majority of those directives are issued by Tesla.”

“Yeah, so?”

Lucien stopped and pulled Max back behind a nearby column.

“So I noticed blueprints on the lieutenant’s desk. A phase unit prototype, special-ordered by Mayor Nicolas.”

Max’s eyes went wide. “Mayor Nic-”

“Keep your voice down!” Lucien covered his mouth. “The blueprints are scheduled to arrive here just before the opening gala begins.”

“Blueprints are useless without parts.”

“I checked the list. It might take some scavenging, but we have most of the necessary inventory. The bulk of it is in the wiring.”

Max peered around the corner to be sure the mayor was still distracted. The group was getting a little ahead of them, though not too far. The old man was still rambling about who sat at which table.

“How is this different from the other units we’ve seen?”

“It’s meant to dispatch living tissue.”

“We already know that phase units would likely kill a person-”

“Not kill. Dispatch.”

“For the mayor?” Max gasped. “I thought those were outlawed after DuPont was exiled! What the bloody hell is he so afraid of?”

“I don’t know, but there are rumors security has been tighter around his residence. No doubt it will be increased on the upper floors here for the welcome gala.” Lucien glanced above them at the second floor balcony. The La Cour family always took vacation leave at Morcourt during the two-week period of the gala run. “Jacques told me they’ve been detecting anomaly readings around Nicolas for the past month.”

“Strange.”

“Yeah…”

The power flickered, causing an array of hushed gasps from the orphans. Max looked around them for a moment, his gaze drifting up high to the balconies and rafters, then back down to every exit in the ballroom. He wasn’t sure if he expected to see something—or someone—dashing out in a flash of electric light, though he found himself snapping to attention much quicker ever since his experience in the courthouse. He wondered if more people like that strange boy might exist. What if there were an entire collective of them who traveled up and down the frequencies, if indeed any higher dimensions existed than Viktorium? Would such people be friendly, or were they biding their time until they arrived to destroy the frequency? Of course there was still the possibility that Bernard was right after all, that it had been a figment of his imagination brought on by the strobe effect of the flashing lights combined with the unit of Dispatchers in the courthouse basement. But I know what I saw.

“Ah, Cecile!” the mayor exclaimed.

Max snapped out of his thoughts. He and Lucien both turned their heads to look at the glorious angel of a girl approaching from across the ballroom. Her rich, golden hair was cut shorter from the last time they had seen her, styled in a wavy bob of curls that bounced freely about her face. Her dress was Paris green with black lace running down the sides, tailored in a cut that bore a hint of cleavage and a tad too much thigh. No other woman in Viktorium would dare wear such a thing. Mayor Nicolas cleared his throat in unvoiced disapproval as she took his hand and swirled into his arms with a smile.

“What do you think, Daddy?”

“I think it’s lovely, my dear,” the man kissed her cheek. “But you’re not wearing that to the gala.”

“Daddy, please!” she pouted.

“Certainly not!”

“Well our guests from the Barreau block like it. Don’t you, boys?” she cooed with a curtsy. The young orphans murmured approval amongst each other and nodded, gazing up and down her curvy figure.

“I think it’s lovely,” Lucien grinned. Max elbowed him in the ribs.

“Exactly my point,” the mayor sneered.

“But I’ve just turned seventeen! I can’t be your baby forever, you know? I promise I’ll only dance with you if it makes you happy.”

Her father let out a weary sigh. “I’ll consider it.”

“Oh, thank you so much Daddy, I love you!” she smiled, wrapping her arms around him.

“Yes yes,” he patted her on the back. “Now would you mind running along for now? There’s so much preparation work to be done for our welcome gala-”

“Oh don’t be silly Father,” Cecile cut him off, “you know the setup is exactly the same as last year and you’re boring these poor boys half to death! How would you gents like the upstairs tour of Morcourt Hall?”

“Now wait just a minute!” the mayor protested, but the boys were already surrounding his daughter in excitement. Nicolas threw up his hands and turned to his advisor. “I give up. Just leave it the same as last year aside from the front tables. No one will know.”

“Yes sir,” his aide nodded.

Max rushed to join Lucien and Cecile at the front of the group as they all headed up the grand staircase to the second floor, but a voice beckoned him back.

“Hey Maxwell!” the mayor called from the bottom.

“Yes sir?”

“Not to tear you off my daughter’s tour, but I was wondering if I might have a word. Would you mind walking with me? I’ll show you the view from the roof,” the man smiled.

Max considered it a moment. He still didn’t feel comfortable letting Lucien out of his sight, especially not with Cecile. Then again, Bernard would keep watch and it wasn’t as if he’d have the chance to pull anything stupid while the rest of the group was in tow anyway. The young elder also felt a certain weight of guilt beginning to wear on his chest. Knowing the mayor’s private concerns regarding anomalies, and that he was having a special phase unit constructed—a unit he and Lucien intended to steal at the first available opportunity—it didn’t make him feeling like feigning honesty.

Max and the other boys had become good friends with the mayor and Cecile in the last couple years they’d worked the welcome gala together. It was a pity to have to lie to his face. It felt wrong. Then again, Max had witnessed Viktorium devolving into a house of rats ever since his arrival. No one could fully be trusted, but in some ways, that was okay. It was easier to justify when the mayor had done little to help them. Still, he hated knowing that even under his watch, the Barreau boys were becoming as corrupt as the rest of the city. He couldn’t live with that forever.

The elder breathed a deep sigh and trudged back down. This was going to suck.

“All right.”

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House of Rats – Part 12

In the center of the city just outside the Metropoliès, there stood a lab with a glass ceiling bathed in darkness. And in the center of that lab sat a pale, shirtless thin man of forty-three years with smoke emanating from his skin. He took a deep breath and repositioned himself upright in the chair, allowing his heart to slow before exhaling calmly in the cold silence. He opened his eyes.

The familiar form of his young German assistant scattered the shadows around them as she stepped out from behind the control panel of his electric coil. Gretel was not the prettiest girl, though she was certainly not the ugliest, either. Her braided blonde hair sat rigid like a doll’s on her head, ending into two unremarkable pigtails draped over her shoulders. Her dress was hideously plain in appearance, her gaze intense.

But underneath it all, she possessed a certain power never seen before by the likes of any man on Earth. This power—the manipulation and production of electricity—had frightened her entire village so much to the point she was ridiculed by fellow classmates and neighbors, and later shunned by her own family. And that was precisely what had drawn the aging inventor named Nikola Tesla to the girl known as Gretel. Where the townsfolk had seen a witch, he envisioned a prodigy. Something akin to a daughter to whom he could pass on his legacy, for the inventor had no children of his own.

Still, he couldn’t help feeling a twinge of fear in her presence. It was one of the few instances in his life that he felt such profound humility and reverence for another living creature; if she truly wished, she could destroy the entire city with a mere flick of the wrist. But Tesla knew for a fact that Gretel did not want these things. The only reason she had harmed people in her village was because they’d frightened her.

It was for this reason that the inventor did his best to keep her safely tucked away in his lab, though he knew it was far from a permanent solution. On several nights over the past month, he had awoken to discover she had ventured out on her own. He expected it would happen at some point—Gretel was a growing girl of sixteen, after all. But he feared what the Cavaricians might do if they discovered her power.

“Why did you stop?” the man asked, grabbing the towel he’d draped over the back of his chair to dry himself off.

“Coils were overloading again. I didn’t want you to get hurt.”

Nikola sighed. “When will you learn to trust me?”

“All due respect,” the girl answered, “but unlike you, I can feel when there’s a problem.”

“I think I know my own coils just fine.”

“And I can feel the voltage surging through my own bones just fine. We have worked together on these things. Why can’t you trust me as well?”

“My dearest Gretel,” the inventor stood, sliding an arm into his shirt and buttoning it back up, “you know that I do. I notice you’ve been going out lately, and I don’t try to stop you. But this is still my lab. I’ll have the final say in my own experiments.”

“You have all the answers at your disposal, yet you refuse my knowledge,” she said, sparking a bolt of electricity that bounced between her fingertips. “Why?”

“Because that would be far too easy,” he smiled, grasping her shoulders and planting a kiss on her forehead. She was right, of course. But what was a mere mortal in the face of a goddess? Gretel knew such things instinctively, whereas Tesla was determined to learn through experiences encompassing trial and error. Aside from that, his mind experiments had become his most trusted method. What worked for them both were two different things. But he didn’t dare call himself the ‘Master of Lightning’ anymore.

“Now there was one other test I wanted to run,” he snapped his fingers in thought. A loud banging noise came from the thick steel door on the balcony above. They both turned their heads. “Ah, great,” Nikola sighed. “The woman of the hour herself. It’s open!” he shouted.

The wheel in the center of the steel door squeaked over to the left and slowly creaked open. One silky white leg stepped through, then another. Tesla could hear a series of audible grunts and curses echoing in the silence of the lab as the heavy door continued to drift outward at a staggering crawl. The hem of an emerald green dress also appeared out of the void beyond.

“Can I help you?”

“No, not at all, thank you much!” the woman snapped as she struggled the rest of the way inside. Only one person in all of Viktorium spoke with such a grating tone that made him want to stab out his eardrums whenever he heard it. “I see you’ve improved your coils,” she huffed, grabbing hold of the railing. “Spectacular piece of machinery. Edison would be proud.”

“What can I do for you, Constance?”

“You can build a proper door, for starters.” She flipped her golden hair aside with a gloved hand and readjusted the small black hat on her head. Her pale blue eyes gleamed bright, even in the dim lighting of the lab as she descended the grated stairs. “I was just wondering if you’ll be attending the mayor’s welcome gala this year, or if you have more pressing matters to attend to.”

“Regrettably, I don’t believe I can make it this time,” Nikola sighed, turning back to his work table to calibrate a phase unit prototype he had been working on for the mayor. It was a commissioned project he wasn’t particularly ecstatic to build. The unit was to be a measure of protection, and so came with a lethal setting—the only one of its kind, and the only one he vowed to ever build. Being responsible for a death in Viktorium was not something he wanted on his conscience, but he understood the mayor’s fear of another coup, and that was the only reason he had agreed to it.

“Everybody who’s anybody will be there,” Renou continued, testing his patience.

“And since when have I cared about who anybody is?”

“That’s what I don’t understand about you. You’re one of the most eligible bachelors in all of Viktorium, yet here you are holed up in your lab, which I pay for by the way, tinkering away with all of your silly inventions-”

“Are you here for a reason, Miss Renou?”

“I’m sure that little slave girl of yours doesn’t appreciate being treated like your lowly servant either,” she ignored him.

“Careful,” Gretel snapped, firing up a blue bolt in her hand.

“Oh come off it, dearie,” the woman smirked. “Your theatrics don’t frighten me. You ought to be in a school, you know.” She leaned against the work table, tossing her hat down. “With other children your age? Not cooped up in some dark corner like a lab rat with a man old enough to be your grandfather.”

“Harsh,” Tesla raised an eyebrow, tightening a gear. “I am sixty-three by Earth standards, but I hardly look it thanks to my electro treatments. Forty-three is my age in Viktorium. Or doesn’t she recognize that?” he asked Gretel. The girl shrugged. “You want to go to school?”

“No.”

“There, you see?” the inventor grinned. “She doesn’t want to go to school. It’s settled.”

“And what might she hope to learn from a man like you?” Constance challenged. “That obsession is the road to genius? Ha! I already wasted my years with a man who once thought as much, and I can assure you that will not end well.”

“Perhaps not, but without electricity, this city would not function. Neither would the whole of Viktorium, or the world beyond it. Neither would your trains, for that matter.”

“Oh I’m sorry, is that a threat, dearie? Remember who pays your rent!”

“Again, I could cut you off just as easy. And again, are you even here for a valid reason?”

“As a matter of fact, I am,” the woman huffed, stepping back from the table to wander about the lab. “Your Machine Men. They’ve been causing problems for me.”

“Really? What sort of problems?” Tesla had set the phase unit under a magnifying glass to rearrange the wiring. The output wasn’t yet functioning at the level outlined in the mayor’s letter.

“We’re building a southeast extension on the rail to cut around other throughways.  Part of the line extends into your junkyard.”

“I’m curious as to why you have to cut into my junkyard in the first place,” the man sighed. “I thought we established these boundaries long ago.”

“And they still remain. The line itself will not drift into your yard, but it still travels above it. That means steel girders must be placed on the ground level to support a bridge. Your Machine Men have already put four of my best workers in the hospital, nine others have been taken. God only knows what they’ve done with them!”

“My Machine Men have a will of their own, but they defend my junkyard from scrappers regardless,” Nikola said, tightening the last screw and strapping the phase unit on his wrist. “Of course…you could always have asked me to instruct my Machine Men to do the building for you, rather than going behind my back, thus ensuring the untimely disposal of your workers. They can get pretty grisly,” he cringed.

“Ugh!” Constance fumed, snatching her hat off the table. “I am finished with you! You both can expect a visit from my personal Dispatchers. I think you might find they like to get a tad grisly as well,” she smirked. “Cheerio, darling.” She shook Tesla’s hand mockingly. “It’s been quite a pleasure.”

“Indeed it has,” the man smiled and activated the phase unit.

“What the hell is this?! What have you-”

A flash of blue electric light sparked up, and Constance Renou exploded into a hot heap of translucent white goop. Globs of sticky, burning organic matter clung like egg whites all over the inventor, the remains of what had been her hand still stuck to his arm in the form of a melting gelatinous substance. The woman’s face continued to dissolve away in the multicolored puddle of soup, eyes coagulating with her nose and lips in a waning expression of bubbling terror.

“Ah, yuck!” Tesla exclaimed, shaking the goop off his arm. He frantically tore out of his shirt to wipe down the rest of himself. “That one went really bad!”

“Sorry,” Gretel sunk her head.

“Not your fault,” the man grumbled, tiptoeing over the steaming puddle. “The organic matter ratio must be off, so when the highest charge of electric particles hit, it just…does whatever the hell that just did! The mayor wants a phase unit that will dispatch living tissue, but without Charles’ original plans, there’s just too much guesswork involved.  Of course, why make it easy for us when you can complicate the shit out of everything!” The man threw up his arms in frustration. “This hardly teaches us anything about how it would react to a real person. And now this damn thing needs to be cleaned,” he sighed, unstrapping the phase unit and tossing it on the table. “Yet again.”

“Nikola?”

“Hmm?”

“Look.”

The puddle of white goop on the floor was beginning to coagulate further, bubbling up just enough for a slight form to emerge. Tesla’s mouth dropped open. A dome shape was rematerializing out of the hot liquid, soon taking the form of a human skull. As the eye sockets drained, its bright blue eyeballs reemerged. The inventor immediately scrambled back to grab a revolver from his work table and pulled back the hammer to take aim. But he and Gretel stood frozen in curiosity for several moments exchanging glances, too intrigued to look away or attempt to destroy it. Neither of them had seen anything like this in the previous tests.

Once the skull had formed, further layers continued to carve themselves out atop the framework. Muscles, cartilage, ears, a nose, a mouth, hair. But it was not the Constance Renou either of them had programmed. This was more of a botched mess devoid of any element of perfection—maybe what Constance would look like if she had been born with massive facial deformities. Still, that face looked up at them, eyes wide with terror. Then it began to shriek the most horrible sound.

“Fuck!” Tesla wasted no time firing two shots into the head, but it was no use; the bullets just absorbed into the gel. He reached for the phase unit to try dispatching it again. No luck. Gretel tried as well with her own powers. After that failed, the inventor finally fired up his blowtorch and blasted it further until it melted into a hot, sticky, tar-like mess. They finished off with fire extinguishers. No movement persisted from the remains.

“Sorry,” Gretel said again.

“About what she was saying,” the man slumped back against the wall, wiping his face with a handkerchief. “You really think you’re my slave?”

“No. I programmed her a couple months ago before I started sneaking out. Old feelings die hard, I suppose.”

“All’s well that ends well,” he smiled. “But you’d better stick around now, my dear,” Tesla huffed. “We’re back to square one.”

“You think the unit will be ready for La Cour’s gala?”

“I sent the blueprints to the Dispatchers earlier so they’ll deliver them to him personally. Hoping the excitement will hold him over in the meantime while we figure out this mess. Let’s get back to work, shall we?”

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House of Rats – Part 11

The kitchen staff at the mess hall on Rue de Charlet found themselves in an overworked frenzy as they struggled to keep up with lines that extended longer than usual. The public cafeteria three blocks up had shut down in recent days due to a rat infestation, which meant all their usual patrons needed somewhere else to eat. No restaurants in the Mendrés District remained open, so of course the closest place was the mess hall on Charlet, a building typically reserved for the Dispatchers.

Because of the obvious tension between the two groups, the Barreau boys always made sure to arrive an hour later than they had at their previous cafeteria. Any earlier, and they risked running into the Dispatchers during shift changes. It was bad enough to be eyed with suspicion all the time. But this particular day was not one in which they wanted to chance any further encounters. The schedule took some time to work out; Tomas had left ahead of the others to scope it out before the walk down, as he had done for the past week. When the coast was clear and the line just short enough for them to wait inside the building, they scurried in.

But splitting meal times with the Dispatchers was not what worried Max most of all. What concerned him as he stood just inside the door, barely enough for it to close, was the possibility of running into Lucien in public. His fellow elder had yet to show his face, and the time was going on three o’clock. Max was not even so sure he wanted to speak to the boy. What would he even say?

Lucien had outed Quentin on a radio show broadcast to millions of people in Cavarice and the next province over. The Dispatchers had come banging on their door, and while Max was grateful they hadn’t taken Quentin into custody, it didn’t exactly make him want to forgive Lucien either. Edmond and his gang had still done a number on the boy. I’ll have words for that scummy rat, he thought to himself. I’m not sure what those words are yet, but I’ll know when I see him.

The line inched forward at a glacial pace. The rest of the orphans were growing impatient. Shift changes occurred every two hours, barring an emergency. It wasn’t likely a squad of Dispatchers would come barging in for a meal anytime soon, though it was a possibility Max remained wary of. They had to be ready to scatter at any moment. To that end, Bernard seemed to be working out a plan of escape with three of the boys ahead. His eyes darted around the hall every few seconds to keep a constant lookout. Max had been doing the same up until now, though his gaze was beginning to linger as thoughts consumed him.

“Hey,” Bernard snapped him out of it, “you all right?”

“Yeah, just thinking,” the elder sighed.

“Lucien?”

Max nodded. “Doesn’t help that we’re in enemy territory, either.”

“It’s a public place, so at least it’s easier to run,” Bernard reminded him.

“But you can’t hide. Not really.”

The electricity buzzed and flickered throughout the narrow corridor from front to back. Though it was already quite dim in the hall, the sudden flash of pitch black reminded everyone just how dark it was.

“Good god,” Bernard breathed. “These phases are getting worse.”

“Everything is getting worse. There are more Dispatchers on every corner now. Have you noticed that? It’s like every time we walk out the door, we’re being watched.”

“I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if somebody figured out our little operation somehow. But they haven’t made a move before today, which is strange. Even when Edmond showed up, there was something…”

“What is it?”

“He seemed really high-strung,” Bernard explained. “Like somebody was on his case about something. And they didn’t bother taking Quentin into custody, even though we didn’t have his citizenship papers. They even saw Tomas with one of their old phase units and brushed it off like it was nothing.”

“It’s not what they were after,” Max pondered. His mind searched for answers that seemed just out of reach. He considered everything that had occurred so far that day. What Severo had told him of the Dispatchers not being trustworthy, of all the ways in which Lucien had drawn a wedge between them with his actions, as if he had to get away for some reason. Then it dawned on him. “Shit!” he exclaimed. “If I wanted to talk to Quentin in private, how might I go about doing that?”

“You’d close the door, obviously,” Bernard said with a condescending smirk.

“Outside of the orphanage. Far enough away from anyone who might try to eavesdrop.”

“Out on the street? Perhaps in an alley. But that’s farfetched Max, you don’t honestly think that-”

“Oh, I do think,” Max cut him off. “Why else would he go to the radio station and say all that shit to put us on edge?”

“He can’t be working with the Dispatchers!”

“And why not?”

“First off, what motive would he have for doing something so stupid?” Bernard reasoned. “And where would he get the money to pay them off? It would be a losing game. He’s in the same boat as the rest of us.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Max sighed. Dead end. “He could be stealing extra parts and pocketing the money.”

“Would that really be worth the trouble? He’s an orphan. There’s no buying your way out of that. He would need to secure a Level Three pass at the very least to even set foot in another district before the gala celebrations. Those aren’t cheap, even on the black market.”

“True. But what if Cécile-”

Max found himself cut off by the slamming of a door against the back wall halfway down the hall behind him. Boisterous laughter filled the corridor as two squads of Dispatchers rushed their way in, shoving through the line and pushing people aside to get to the front. Their arrival was met with a sea of angry glares from the civilian public, but of course no one dared say anything. It was their mess hall after all, and they got priority. Most of the Barreau boys turned their faces toward the wall as they passed by for fear of being recognized by someone. Bernard looked to Max, ready to scatter if necessary, but the elder shook his head. They would wait until the second squad had gone by.

This presented a problem. Much to their surprise, the other three Dispatchers did not seem to be in any hurry to eat. Instead, they cut in line right behind Max and kept jabbering away. The young elder’s heart began to thud in his chest. The power flickered again through the hallway as their chuckles filled his ears, and he felt a rush of panic when he recognized two of their voices. Jacques and Alfred. The officers from the courthouse. But who was that third voice giggling with them? He swore it sounded even more familiar.

“Remind me to buy us all another round next time, yeah?” the boy laughed. “That wasn’t a bad game!”

Lucien.

“I’ll drink you to the floor next time, Riviere,” Jacques assured him.

“I think Alfred here’s got a better chance of that. You should bring along that other chap  next time, what’s his name?”

“Phillipe.”

“Yeah, good ole’ Phil, that’s the one!”

“I’d prefer not to,” Jacques insisted. “He’s a bloody drag.”

“So are some of my boys, but they’re good kids.”

“You don’t know Phillipe like we do,” Alfred sighed.

“Aw, give the kid a chance, he can’t be that stupid.”

“Good day, Lucien,” Jacques rolled his eyes. “It’s been grand and all, but I’m half-smashed and starving. Come on Alfred, let’s skip the line.” The two stepped around the group of Barreau boys and pushed their way up.

“Suit yourselves, gentlemen,” Lucien muttered. “Some of us can’t have all the luck in the world.”

Max had been biding his time listening to the exchange. He could hardly believe his ears. Gallivanting with Dispatchers? How stupid and reckless could you possibly be! The cold sweat and panic that had gripped his heart in the moments before was now replaced by a fury like none other. A hot rush of adrenaline coursed through his veins, saturating his muscles. Soon there would be no choice but to act. The line inched forward. Still, he waited for what seemed an eternity in those last seconds. Did Lucien even realize where he was standing? What excuse would he have?

The power flickered again. Time to move.

Max whipped around and threw his old friend against the wall, pinning his chest. Knocked the wind clear out of him. Though the young elder was considerably shorter than his taller, lankier counterpart, his strength and speed were much greater. The people who had gathered in line behind them immediately backed away. Shock and embarrassment flooded Lucien’s face when he realized who had plastered him against the wall with all the force of a locomotive.

“You’ve got some explaining to do!” Max shouted. The crowd fell quiet. Bernard and the rest of the boys jerked around in fright, prepared to run if they had to. The elder glanced over his shoulder apologetically. He knew it was best not to cause a scene for their sake, and yet he wanted to. He wanted everyone to know just how much of a filthy rat this boy was. A minor scuffle in the mess hall was a grain of sand compared to the floodgates Lucien had opened with his radio appearance.

“Look, I’m happy to do that,” the lanky teen said, in between jumbles of nervous laughter. Max gripped his throat.

“I’d love to hear it! Tell everyone here what a rat you are!”

“You really think it’s wise to discuss this in the Dispatchers’ mess hall?” Lucien choked.

“Why not? It’s not like they don’t already know, now that you had to go off and run your fucking mouth on Casanov’s show for all of Viktorium to hear-”

“Max!” Bernard urged, grabbing his shoulder from behind. “I share your anger my friend, but you don’t want to do this. Not here. Let him go.”

The elder looked around him at the sea of staring faces in the line. Some appeared to be waiting for the mayhem to commence, others rolled their eyes or stood with arms crossed in disapproval. The corridor had grown quiet as a grave. Lights buzzed and flickered again, briefly shattering the silence that hung in the air. Max hated to admit it, but Bernard was right this time. He let go of Lucien and stepped back.

“Fine,” he breathed. Lucien peeled away from the wall and straightened himself. The two boys took back their places in line as the crowd resumed their conversations.

“Somebody’s tense.”

“You have no idea what kind of day I’ve had because of you!” Max snapped through clenched teeth.

“Hey wait a second, I know you,” a middle-aged man said, peering out from halfway down the line as they neared the doorway. “You, the tall blond kid.”

Lucien’s eyes went wide and he glanced back.

“Yeah, you! I heard you on the radio. That’s the guy that said something about the Outlanders being reformed. One of those scumbags killed my little brother and cooked him in pieces! They can’t be reformed! And if one of you Barreau boys is hiding them, you sure as hell ain’t eating here with the rest of us!”

Max shot Lucien a confused look. “Reformed?”

“Apparently you missed the rest of the broadcast.”

“Get over here, I’ll rip your measly throat out!” The man went wild, shoving everyone who tried to hold him back as he tore out of line and charged toward them. The woman controlling the line at the door rushed in to block him, inadvertently allowing in more people than she had intended. Lucien dragged Max through the door just in time before an off duty Dispatcher rushed over to assist.

“Sir! Sir, you need to get back!” the woman shouted.

“They’re harboring an Outlander right here in our city!”

“Thank you, but it’s been taken care of,” the Dispatcher explained. “Now either you need to get back in line and behave sir, or we’ll have to ask you to leave.”

“I’m not leaving, I’ve come this far and I’ll kill those rats!” the man shouted, struggling against the boy’s hold.

Max and Lucien laughed as they grabbed their trays and joined the food line, observing him from afar. Lucien gave the man a wave, which only made him more livid. The Dispatcher at that point charged up his phase unit and fired a pulse which knocked him out. Alfred and Jacques left their meals at the table and ran over to assist in dragging the unruly patron out to the curb. Max turned back, grateful the man wouldn’t cause any more trouble for them and began filling his tray with an assortment of clean silverware, plates, and a bowl.

The Dispatchers’ mess hall afforded far more options than the cafeteria the Barreau boys had previously attended. The food was up to date and of much higher quality, whereas before, they would wait in line for half-stale items. Max felt good that his group of orphans were better taken care of here, and yet he knew it would only be a matter of time before the other hall opened again. Then it was back to green muck that posed as beans, rock hard bread, and other amorphous or congealed choices that sat too long under heat lamps.

As the rest of the boys took a seat at a corner table far across the room from where the Dispatchers were eating, Max coaxed Lucien to the end nearest the wall for privacy. His anger had faded since the incident in the line. Knowing he had missed a crucial segment on the radio show earlier made him realize that perhaps he was jumping to conclusions about his friend. It was quite possible he’d been detained at the gate, or forced into some strange position of public admission about their actions concerning the Outlanders. Maybe he was simply covering the best he could.

“So what happened?” Max asked. They had to speak over the din of the crowd, but he tried not to be too loud.

“Well,” Lucien sighed, “I can see how you might have misunderstood what I said. Especially that whole bit about Quentin.”

Max glanced over at the boy at the other end of the table, his face still swollen and bruised from the Dispatchers’ abuse. At least he was eating well and socializing with the others. Still, a visit to the doctor was probably in order to assess the damage.

“Yeah, you got him beat up pretty good,” the elder frowned.

“I didn’t intend for that.”

“I’m sure you didn’t intend for a lot of things. You still owe him an apology. Igor wants my balls for taking more than our fair share of the parts, by the way.”

“You wouldn’t be the first,” Lucien chuckled. “Anyway…we got detained at the gate by Pontius. He buried me with questions. Kept asking about Quentin, where he went, why he wasn’t with us.”

“What did you tell him?”

“That he was recaptured by the Outlanders.”

“And why go to the radio station and tell all of Viktorium that I was hiding him?”

“The Dispatchers wouldn’t get off my back otherwise. Pontius was convinced we were working with the Outlanders for whatever reason, despite his lack of any evidence-”

“So you proved his theory?” Max cut him off.

“I had to validate the hostage angle somehow! I figured if I told them something about how the Outlanders could be reintegrated into society with the proper care, it would get them off our backs and make us look good at the same time. And that maybe Quentin would be the martyr who saved us or whatever. Then I joined them for a round of drinks in solidarity. I messed up, okay?”

“I had to go to the old courthouse to retrieve his documents and nearly got caught myself! Then when I returned, I found out the Dispatchers paid us a visit. But oddly enough, they didn’t take Quentin into custody. Now why was that, Lucien?”

“How the hell should I know, I wasn’t there!”

“Maybe you were. You would have had enough time after the radio show.”

“Would you listen to yourself? This is insane.”

“Is it?” Max observed a slight quiver in his voice, as if he’d just broken out in a sweat. “You also seemed eager to leave our morning operation early. So I’m sorry if I really don’t know what to think anymore,” the elder sighed, slumping into his palm. “I just want the truth.”

“That is the truth, honest to God!”

“God doesn’t mean shit in Viktorium.”

“So you don’t trust me? Fine friend you are,” Lucien retorted.

“You’re on very thin ice,” Max stood, grabbing up his tray to go sit with the other boys. “But the welcome gala is in a few days, and we’re helping with security again. Should give you an ample chance to prove yourself.”

“Oh come on!” Lucien pleaded.

“Put it this way,” the elder answered, backing away, “If you screw me again, I’ll be handing you over to Igor on our next run. I’ll let him have his choice of which body part he wants to eat.”

Max left him to join Bernard and the others. He hadn’t believed a word that came out of Lucien’s mouth, though he certainly wanted to. There was just no way to give him the benefit of the doubt when all the cards were stacked against him. He shuddered to think about working security at Mayor La Cour’s annual welcome gala, where any manner of things could go wrong. Of course up to two squads of Dispatchers would be deployed with them, but Severo’s warning remained clear in the young elder’s mind. So if I can’t trust the Dispatchers and I can’t trust one of my own, then who is left?

Max shook off the feeling and finished his lunch, listening to the mindless chatter of the Barreau boys. It provided him a sense of calm and belonging in the chaos of the world. Yet deep down, he knew nothing was static. That thought frightened him most of all.

Then Quentin looked over at him and smiled in the way that friends with secrets often do.

Perhaps I can trust the Outlanders.

The power flickered again.

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