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 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 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 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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House of Rats – Part 7

The building adjacent to the orphanage was an abandoned factory space with broken windows all along the first floor. Very few were smashed enough to pose no cutting hazard. Max pulled himself in through one to the right of the locked door and crept with caution through the shadows and columns, stopping now and then to peer outside. He had resolved to sneak out of the next alleyway over in case any Dispatchers might already be patrolling their street. The farther away he could get from Barreau without being seen, the better.

The floor was littered with varying amounts of debris and overturned shelving. Broken tables and chairs formed an odd maze in some places which made it difficult to navigate through the shadows. Intermittent squeaks and coos could be heard from the farthest corners of the walls, the pigeons or rats who had long since taken refuge here now startled awake by an unfamiliar presence. Max suddenly wished he had brought a flashlight. Enough sun shone through to illuminate a meandering path to the far wall, but one could never be sure what else might be lurking in the dark.

The Barreau district had fallen on the harshest of times in recent years. Plenty people were homeless and found shelter anywhere they could. That included many children, who in some way or another managed to avoid drawing the attention of the Dispatchers. Max had taken in those he could through the use of forged documents in the last several months, largely thanks to his friend Cécile who worked at the immigration office and also happened to be Mayor La Cour’s daughter.

His heart suddenly skipped a beat at the thought of her. She always smelled of strawberries. Her lips were pouty, the perfect shape, not too big or too small. Her blue eyes were full and clear as crystal. The way her long golden hair cascaded around the sides of her neck and down to her plump bosoms was perfect too, and how they moved when she breathed was like—

“Shit!” Max yelled as a black cat hissed and scurried across his feet from out of the shadows. “Well, thanks for keeping me on my toes. Waste of time to think about her anyway. Sorry if I caught your tail.” The cat meowed and licked its lips at him. He knelt down to pet her as she purred. “I’m sorry, I’ve got no food on me. But stick around and I’ll pick you up on the way back, yeah? Antoinette…that’s what I’ll call you, because you almost made me lose my head.”

Continuing out to the next alleyway, Max made a right and weaved a path around the next building to look back onto Barreau Street from the corner of Rue d’Auseil. There was still no sign of the Dispatchers in either direction. He scampered quickly across the end of Barreau and onto the next block, dodging the occasional car or passerby as he went—few people frequented these parts anymore.

A series of rundown apartment buildings and abandoned upscale restaurants lined the path of Rue d’Auseil, a strange contrast what with the 1500 block of the old corporate district just around the corner, which had continued to operate for some time following the Zoning Commission’s shutdown of the rest of the block three years prior. It was also a bittersweet sight for Max; he was old enough to remember what the downtown centers looked like in their heyday when he had first arrived.

The sky above had glowed with an otherworldly greenish hue, scents from nearby perfume shops drifted out into the streets creating an aura of magic, pubs served all manner of spirits to the jolliest of patrons, and restaurants were flooded every night with people eager to taste the array of rare, delectable dishes from foreign master chefs. Live music had once been a particular staple of the area, too. He recalled a jazz bar on the corner having been especially popular. But just like that, within a year of his arrival, it had all vanished. Broken promises, he thought.

Max veered to the right and took a shortcut off of Rue d’Auseil. He decided on taking the back way to the old courthouse, as it was quickest and far less conspicuous. The Barreau boys had trekked there numerous times before in groups of three. Some would go in one by one through the front, others took the alleyway from Rue d’Auseil to Rue La Monte, and others went around the opposite side of the 1500 block to come in all the way from Rue La Seine on the left of the courthouse. Getting in or out in groups was simple enough. Being on his own however, Max worried that he would be left without an exit if the Dispatchers arrived. There was no one to cover the back alley for him. Still, he had to risk it. If they got to Quentin, all of Barreau Orphanage was finished.

He peered out onto Rue La Monte and scurried across the sidewalk to the back. The alley was empty on all sides. Perfect. They had already broken a back window on a previous run, so he knelt down backwards and slid inside, dragging a few stray shards of glass and debris with him to the floor. His feet hurt again from the impact since the wall was rather high on the inside, though it was certainly better than the drop from the fire escape.

Max suddenly recalled what the Outlander named Severo had told him earlier, now that he was here. Floor B3, Suite 7, Cabinet 5, File 3601. Bottom drawer. The Dispatchers are not as innocent as you think. The curiosity was killing him, almost as the cat had minutes ago. He wanted to do it. He had to see what was in that file that might be so important. But now wasn’t the time.

“Quentin,” he reminded himself aloud. “I can always come back.”

The light above his head to the right suddenly buzzed and flickered. Power issues were becoming a common nuisance in the Barreau District lately for some strange reason. The buildings in that sector may have been abandoned for years, but they still burned bright as ever with the same free electricity that had powered the entire city for the past decade, thanks to Nikola Tesla. The buzzing and flickering throughout the courthouse now, however, seemed far more frequent than usual.

Max turned the corner and bounded over the stairs to the next hall and down the south stairwell junction heading to B1, the first lower floor from ground level. He skipped a few steps and leaped to the first landing. Suddenly, the power cut out.

“Shit.” His heart dropped to his stomach. “I won’t have an easy time getting out of here, will I?”

“Don’t lose your head,” a voice whispered beside him. The breath was so close, it felt hot on his cheek.

“Who’s there?!” Max cried. The lights flickered back to life. He spun frantically around, trying to regain his bearings. He looked down. He looked up. To the left. To the right. He even looked diagonally and every other which way. No one was there. A wave of panic began to seize him, the same as it had the moment Igor stabbed Captain Georges in the crotch. Trapped down here without power. The doors might easily lock behind me. But Max shook off the thought and willed himself to go on.

“I haven’t been sleeping enough, that’s probably it.” He jumped down to the next landing and was about to open the door when the lights cut off again. “Oh, come on!” This time, no one spoke. Instead, a crippling, nauseating feeling ripped its way through his stomach. The lights slowly flickered, but remained dim as the young boy doubled over in pain. That’s when he heard distant voices traveling down the hallway from the left. Dispatchers.

The lights didn’t come on to full power again until the squad had passed, at which point his stomach also stopped cramping. Max then began to reason that whomever—or whatever—the presence was that had spoken to him clear as day just seconds before, perhaps it was trying to help him in some way.

“An anomaly,” he whispered. “That must be why they’re here.” He hesitated to grab the door handle, expecting the power might cut out again. It remained constant. He assumed that would be his warning from now on; whenever the power flickered off, it meant to stay out of the way. Fair enough. He opened the door and turned right—the same direction the Dispatchers had gone. Unless it was blatant misdirection on the anomaly’s part to lead the Dispatchers astray, it likely wanted him to follow it in the same direction. As it happened, the room which housed the orphanage records from up to two years prior was at the far end of the hall down the next corridor to the left.

Max adjusted his scarf to be sure it covered his face and crept cautiously along, eyeing every room and keeping close to the wall in case anything sprang from the shadows. The power kept flickering at semi-regular intervals. When he got close to turning the corner, it cut out again. He stopped dead in his tracks. The Dispatchers were approximately twenty feet down the hall. He inched his way closer to hear them.

“Well I don’t know Alfred, maybe if you set your infrasound to the right fucking decibel levels-”

“I’m telling you mate, it’s right!” Alfred cut him off.

“Obviously it’s not, mate!” the other boy taunted.

“Jacques, this isn’t the time,” another said. “Maybe it’s not down here.”

“I’m telling you, it’s down here, Phillipe!” Jacques yelled. “Look at the power. There, look, you see that? Or are you bloody blind?”

Max took the cue and whirled himself over to an office on the other side of the hall just as the lights went dark again. His heart thudded in his chest at how close they were. If the lights didn’t continue giving him signs, he had no idea how he could sneak past the three of them unnoticed. They were directly in his path to the file room. He glanced toward the far end of the office where another open doorway stood, leading to an adjacent room across the hall. When they started talking again, he would make a run for it.

“Suppose it’s not an anomaly,” Alfred suggested.

Max made his move.

“Now that is the stupidest thing I ever heard in my life, what the hell else could it be?”

“He might have a point,” Phillipe reasoned. “All the anomalies we know have only ever shown up on a certain frequency range.”

“Yeah, so what?”

“This one would go far beyond anything we’ve ever encountered before. It’s off the bloody chart.”

“So you’re saying that just because we have never found one this high above the range, it couldn’t possibly be an anomaly? Enlighten us, Phillipe!”

Max stepped out to duck across the hall, but the power cut out again just as he did. They had seen him.

“Son of a bitch, I told you someone else was down here too!” Jacques yelled, charging into the next room toward him. Terrified, Max swirled around just in time to see him make a grab for his shirt. But the moment the Dispatcher’s hand reached out to touch him, an audible zap sounded, and the young boy was launched backward through the air and slammed into the brick hallway by an invisible force. The other two scrambled to his aid.

“Holy shit, you all right?” Phillipe asked.

“Get off me,” Jacques said, shoving him away.

Max dashed out the adjacent doorway across the hall and into another office. It suddenly occurred to him that they had yet to make any mention of Quentin. Perhaps they haven’t heard yet because the anomaly is blocking their incoming transmissions, he thought. It was certainly known to happen while they were coordinating attacks. He was beginning to feel an impending sense of unease about the anomaly as well. Suppose it’s just toying with all of us. If I’m the last one standing, it may not let me leave.

He tried to formulate a plan of action and only came up blank. At worst, the Dispatchers here would catch both him and the anomaly, and the Barreau boys would all be finished. At best, he would get Quentin’s documents and head home only to find that another squad of Dispatchers had taken him into custody while he was away anyhow. He figured it was hopeless in either case. Goddamn you, Lucien. Still, against any sort of better judgment, he continued following the flickering lights.

“Did you see the anomaly?” Alfred asked.

“It wasn’t an anomaly,” Jacques shouted, passing the doorway, “it was someone…there!”

Out in the hall, Max swore he saw someone between the flickers of power this time. Perhaps a trail—or rather a bolt—of electricity discharging between each instance of the lights going out, taking the form of a person with it. Zap. Jacques tripped and fell face-forward, slamming his jaw into the floor. Max stumbled out into the hallway again, determined to reach the back room this time and grab what he needed. Alfred managed to cut him off at the last second.

“Ah ah, mate,” he said, shoving him back. Zap. Alfred got slammed to the right, then to the left, then down to the floor with an apparent uppercut to the chin. Zap, zap, zap.

At this point, Max was far too startled by what he was seeing to be able to move. All the flashing and static in the air was making him dizzy. There were still five more feet to the file room. He was unsure if he should even try, or if he should continue following the lights as before. Phillipe bounded toward him. No time to think. He instinctively ducked out of the way just in time to hear another zap, and down the Dispatcher went as the last light bulb in the hallway exploded above them. All had been knocked unconscious.

That’s when Max at last saw his savior for the first time. No more flickering, no more shadows, no more tricks. The mysterious stranger to whom he owed his life was not in fact a ghost or anomaly after all, but a flesh and blood human being. The boy had a shaved head with goggles so dark, his eyes could not be seen. He wore raggedy trousers which had been cut into shorts just below the knee, and an olive-colored undershirt stained with grease and oil. Around his wrist appeared to be some sort of rusted red gauntlet covered with gears. Various wires were strung up around his arm and fed into a pack on his back.

That was all Max could make note of before the stranger charged forward, shoving him aside and zapping back to wherever it was he had come. A single bolt of electricity trailed in his wake for a second or two before dissipating. The lights flickered back to full power.

Max dashed into the file room, grabbed Quentin’s documents, and left.

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House of Rats – Part 6

Following the initial shock of hearing Lucien’s voice on the radio along with the outrageous accusations which followed, Max leaped out of the tub to change the station. He turned on the shower again, extra hot this time, and resumed furiously scrubbing himself down. Scrubbed so much, his skin turned red. His heart was on the verge of exploding. What the hell is Lucien on about? The young elder was aghast. As he looked back on every experience they shared together, he started to analyze every detail that didn’t fit. His actions made no sense.

Why had Lucien been so eager to leave during their operation, and even more puzzling, how could he know Igor would go along with it? The leader of the Outlanders had little incentive for keeping them alive in the first place, even if the Dispatchers had walked right into their trap and dropped their equipment. It wasn’t as if they could survive in the city. Besides, they had proven they certainly didn’t require the help of the Barreau boys either. Something more was amiss here and Max was determined to figure it out.

He grabbed a towel from an end table and quickly dried himself off, waiting for the music to finish before switching off the radio. He was about to start gathering a fresh set of clothes from his corner dresser when there came a frantic knock at the door.

“Just a moment!” he called, adjusting the towel around his waist. The incessant banging continued until he turned the locks. When he opened the door, Quentin barged in, consumed by a fit of hysterics.

“Max, you’ve got to help me!” he cried. The young elder was stunned. Fourteen year-old Quentin was never one to be the emotional type, not even in the face of extreme danger or potential loss of life, yet he appeared horribly distraught.

“All right Quent, calm down.”

“You don’t understand! On the radio, the Second Lieutenant Dispatcher, he named me, and then Lucien-”

“I heard,” Max assured him, slamming the door shut and locking it. “Okay, listen. Here’s what we’re going to do. You obviously can’t meet us in the mess hall. I’m not so sure I should go either because they’ll be looking for me too. In the meantime, don’t go outside until I can grab documentation proving you’re a legitimate citizen.”

“Where are you going?”

“I’ve got to sneak over to the old courthouse,” he said, throwing off his towel and snatching a pair of trousers from his dresser. “Stay up here. There’s food in the ice box if you want to make yourself something.”

“What if they come while you’re away? You’ve got to hide me somewhere!” he panicked, tearing open the cabinets for any empty space he could fit.

Max sighed. “They already think I’m hiding you anyway. Not that it will do much good, but there is a trap door under my bed with a crawl space. Look, Quentin-”

“Ah perfect, thanks!” the boy smiled, diving to the floor to yank up the rug.

“Quentin, I’m proper angry too, but we’ve got to keep our heads. So what if they know your name? They could find out all of ours if they wanted. Nothing will come of this once I get your documents to save them the trouble. Anyway, I’m sure they were far too traumatized by what happened in the desert to come here and start messing with you.”

“Lucien just tied us directly to the gang, and I’m the one who led them into that trap! We’re finished, Max!”

“Of course if they do figure out the details of all we’ve done, perhaps they’ll stop messing with us.”

“Or they’ll cut what little funding we do have and exile us and we’ll be forced to turn into cannibals too! I really don’t think you’re getting it. We’re proper fucked! Completely, totally fucked!”

“Quentin-”

“They’ll tie us all to the gang and, and they’ll exile us and then Igor will chop off our balls and eat us all alive while they f-force you to watch, or maybe the Dispatchers will find me and hang me from a telephone wire, they’ve done it before you know with that old Brady man, what’s his name!

“Quent!”

“And then maybe Lucien will take the opportunity to chop off my cock too and, and feed it to Igor, just blood and guts reigning down on that psycho child as he smiles and laughs and the Dispatchers will rape us all up the arse-”

Max slapped him across the face.

“SHUT UP! Just get your fucking head on, will you?”

“I’m sorry,” Quentin said, rubbing his cheek. “I’m just so scared, I didn’t know where else to turn.”

“Look,” Max said, grabbing his shoulders. “I’m scared too. But you’ll be fine up here for a while. I promise I won’t let anything happen to you. Use the crawl space if you need to, yeah?”

Quentin nodded.

“Thank you.”

“Bernard’s downstairs, I’ll let him know what’s going on.” Max looked in the mirror next to his dresser, pulling on the rest of his clothes. “Something missing…aha!” He had nearly forgotten his head covering. If he were recognized on the street, it would only make things worse. Quentin briefly poked his head out from examining the crawl space when the elder opened the corner window.

“You’re going through the alley?”

“Through the next building over, then the alley. I’m sure as hell not walking out the front door,” Max said. “I’ll see you when I get back. Lock the window.”

“Yes sir!”

Max stepped out onto the fire escape ledge and made his way down the crooked ladder against the brick wall, the wind taunting him with every step. It hung at such an angle that he always feared it might fall. He closed his eyes and shook off the vertigo. It’s only from the second floor, he reminded himself. The drop to the ground wasn’t so bad once he got to the bottom. But just as he hit the last rung, the first floor window opened in front of him.

“Where are you sneaking off to?” It was Bernard.

“The old courthouse, and holy shit!” Max exclaimed.

“Sorry.”

“You know I hate this ladder!”

“Why the courthouse?”

“I guess you didn’t catch Andre Casanov’s show,” Max caught his breath. “For whatever stupid reason, Lucien went on and got himself branded a hero, then outed Quentin. I need to break in and get his documents before the Dispatchers come. He’s holed up in my room.”

“Need me to stall them if they show up?”

“Please.” He took out his pocket watch to check the time. “The radio show just ended a few minutes ago, so we at least have a small window. If I’m not back before lunch, you can lead our boys down to the mess hall without me.”

“What if the Dispatchers take Quentin for questioning?”

“Would you like to spend the night with our cannibal friends outside the wall?”

“Of course not!”

“Then don’t let it happen. I’ll see you in thirty.” Max dropped down the ten feet from the ladder, a sharp pain reverberating through his legs as his feet hit the ground hard. He hopped it off and turned back when he caught wind of Bernard chuckling quietly at him. “Shut up!” he smirked.

“Careful out there, mon Capitaine.”

Max saluted him and went on his way.

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House of Rats – Part 4

ONE HOUR AGO . . .

Lucien trudged his way through the hot desert sand with his group of orphans in tow as the two remaining Dispatchers escorted them back to the city gate. The officers were still clad in only their undergarments—something he knew Edmond, the Second Lieutenant, would have quite a time explaining to his superiors. Still, the young orphanage elder was grateful for his loyalty. Sacrificing the captain must not have come easy for him. There were many moments during which Lucien had grown fearful that the ruse would fail. His act hinged on multiple parties, not all of whom had cooperated as expected. If a single domino fell, the entire structure would collapse.

On the one hand, there was Max Ferrier—by all accounts his only true friend, though still too naive, overconfident, and goody-goody to be trusted with the truth. He was not much more than a pawn. On the other, there was Igor—the villain, and therefore the most uncontrollable variable. Thank god he had come through. Many other allies existed in Lucien’s game of course, most of whom had been bribed onto his side. Edmond Fache was one such ally. He couldn’t help but crack a smile at the sheer depth of his handiwork. They were all such fools.

The truth of the matter was that the boys of Barreau Orphanage didn’t have to set traps and steal Dispatcher equipment to survive. All the money they needed for monthly upkeep or renovations was locked away in a safe in the main office back home—or at least it had been until Lucien began appropriating the funds elsewhere for his duration as treasurer. “We’re cut off,” he had told them on the same day the City Commission had shut down the Barreau District. The timing was perfect, and they never stopped receiving grant money. Because of this and the black market trades of stolen tech wares the orphans brought home, he had amassed a small fortune.

Lucien enjoyed having carved out his own personal slice of the world. To him, it was fair justice for having endured a childhood of no-name misery. He could have easily inherited everything; stocks, corporate bonds, full shares in the largest corporations in Cavarice including DuPont Steamworks, if only his mother hadn’t dumped him off in Barreau following the Workers’ Rebellion and subsequent coup. The only thing she ever gave him was a new surname, and that was useless. “It’s to keep you safe,” she insisted.

Safe from what? Wealth and power? A suspected blood relation to the most well-known criminal in all of Viktorium? His birth name was a badge of honor! And to think she would have kept the identity of his father a secret forever. Ha! It hadn’t been too difficult. The man had sent a coded telegram to a safety deposit box two years prior. Lucien could hardly believe his eyes the moment he read it. By some miracle, his father had survived a death sentence carried out by his own private Dispatchers. For all intents and purposes, they had murdered him. Now he was reaching out across the frequencies to his only son.

It was at this revelation that Lucien began what he had come to call his ‘Great Work’. This new slice he was carving out was not just for him alone. He had to prepare a place for his old man’s triumphant return. Together, they would breathe new life back into Viktorium as father and son.

They approached the north gate at last. The rest of Lucien’s crew were panting and shuffling their feet on the verge of collapse from dehydration or heatstroke—maybe both—but neither he nor the Dispatchers seemed as fazed. He had warned his team to pace themselves once they’d left the villa. There was only one canteen of water to share amongst them. Still, he was tired as well. Dealing with Igor half the day had been a nerve-racking experience he didn’t wish to relive for quite some time. Neither, for that matter, was the memory of what the boy had done to Captain Georges. Yeesh.

He gazed up at the massive two hundred-foot gate which loomed above. The city wall was a reinforced stone structure surrounding all of Cavarice with four main points for entrance and egress. The north and south gates typically remained closed; the City Zoning Commission had scrapped an adjoining highway that would have connected the city to the provinces of Falvarre in the north and Helias in the south. A team of fifty Dispatchers patrolled the wall at all times with phase units drawn, especially on this side. They never knew when the Outlanders or some other foreign threat might attempt a break-in.

As Lucien waited for Edmond and Isaac to appeal their superiors along the wall to open the door and let them through, he wondered if Max had made it safely out of the villa. He certainly hoped so. Not so much out of genuine concern than for the fact that Max was still a necessary component of his greater plan to take control of the city. But to that end, he needed the equipment his young friend was now sneaking through the tunnel which ran twenty feet below them back into Barreau District. Then the revolution could begin.

“Just open the bloody gate!” Isaac shouted, tearing him from his thoughts. The three squads of Dispatchers patrolling the north gate had fallen into fits of laughter upon seeing them in their underwear, trailed by a crowd of tired children.

“Igor eat your clothes this time?” one of them called down.

“Aw look, you’re so generous to the orphans you gave them your clothes!” another chuckled.

“Wait a second, where’s Georges?” asked yet another.

“At least one of you has his head on straight,” Isaac muttered. “Pascal, the door!” he demanded.

“Oh, right. Sorry!”

A few seconds later, the group felt a thunderous tremor beneath their feet as the many locks and magnets began to shift below. The massive gate roared open, and with it, a loud reverberating boom sounded across the length of the wall, ejecting dust from the cracks between the stones. It was one of the great technological marvels in the city, soon to be replaced by something even greater—Tesla was rumored to be working on an electromagnetic force-field. Lucien took a moment to marvel at the times in which they were living. Back in the world from which they all originated, it would have been deemed sorcery.

All seemed to be going well for their reentry until Pascal suddenly halted them at the gate. An exchange of nervous glances and whispers ensued among the two Dispatchers ahead of the group with the other squad. Edmond glanced back apologetically, choked up over something that was said. They were thrown a pair of spare trench coats in the meantime to cover up. Isaac continued through, but Edmond lingered behind to inform Lucien of what was going on. The two made sure to speak well enough away from the group of orphans so as not to be overheard.

“Our District Commander is patrolling the wall,” he sighed. “I can get you through, but not without a lengthy checkup. We could be detained a while.”

“All right, no harm,” Lucien shrugged. “Nothing incriminating here. Our boys are smuggling in the equipment underground as we speak. What’s got your balls all shrunk?”

The Dispatcher swallowed hard.

“This District Commander is…recently retired.”

“Pontius?”

Edmond nodded.

“Christ.” Pontius was a former captain of the Dispatchers who could lay waste to their entire operation with the mere bat of an eyelash. He was ruthless, cold, stubborn in the pursuit of justice. Few things escaped that stony gaze of his, and whatever did didn’t survive long. He often buried everything in procedural paperwork as well, documenting every detail down to the last microbe. Since they were entering the city under the guise of rescued hostages, Lucien could only imagine how much time he’d waste constructing an official report.

“Let me do the talking,” Edmond insisted.

“Sure. At least until you fail and I have to pull out my mother’s card again.”

“I’d prefer you didn’t. We’re all trying to make our best impression on him, and…what the hell do you think you’re doing!”

Lucien had already turned away, charging toward the gate with dogged determination. It was like this every time he had to deal with the Dispatchers. Always the same reasoning. ‘You don’t understand the pressure’. He’d heard it enough growing up with his mother in the political sphere as she snuck him through the shadows and catacombs below the city to keep his existence a secret. This is about the fate of an entire city, not just you. You’ll understand when you’re older. It was something the orphans were told every day of their lives. Lucien, however, was not an orphan, and a mere surname could convince him otherwise. He still had a fighting chance at legitimacy in Viktorium, unlike the rest of them, and he’d be damned if anyone would strip him of it.

“Excuse me, can we get through?” he barked, addressing Pascal.

“Not until Pontius gives us the go-ahead.”

“Fuck Pontius! We have trekked two miles without food or water, me and my boys.” His heart was beginning to race. “Four if you count us being dragged out of the city and treated like animals by those monsters out there. Now unless you want an injunction brought against you, I suggest you stand aside and let us pass!”

“Just a moment,” Pascal sighed, turning his back to discuss the matter with the rest of his squad. After deliberating for some time, they scattered off to the left just out of sight. Lucien paced around in aggravation, muttering curses. Who the hell are they to tell me what to do? Surely they know who my mother is! Edmond grabbed him by the shirt and yanked him aside.

“You have no authority here!” the Dispatcher spat through clenched teeth.

“I certainly have more than you. Now take your filthy hands off me before you lose your job!” Lucien replied, swiping out of his grasp. He thought that sometimes, he ought to make a show of things to ensure no one caught on that they were more or less accomplices. Edmond quickly countered and dragged him back.

“You want to go to prison? I can make it happen!”

“I’m sorry, how much was your bribe again?”

“What the hell is going on here!” a deep voice bellowed from the gate. The two boys immediately tore away from each other. Pontius. Lucien did his best to remain still while his heart thudded away in his chest. The heat of the argument combined with the desert air wasn’t helping matters. His nerves were crashing back into the same chaos as a half-hour ago when Igor was playing slice-and-dice with Captain Georges. No sudden movements, he reminded himself. Not that the veteran’s personality put him off—he could handle that. But the older Dispatchers tended to be far more trigger-happy than the novices thanks to their service during the Workers’ Rebellion.

“N-nothing,” Edmond stammered.

Pontius squinted in the sunlight and lumbered toward them with suspicion. His leg had been crippled beyond repair during a fight in the coup, and he walked with a cane. Half his weight sunk onto it with every step. Up close, his face was a boulder; cracked and battle-torn, full of scars and canyons that made him appear a decade older than his forty-three years. It certainly served well to intimidate. Lucien could imagine Igor peeling the skin off his skull with a dull blade and laying it out to form a perfect topographical map of the desert.

The two boys hung their heads low as the district commander paced an uneven circle around them.

“Where is Captain Georges?” Neither of them answered. After several seconds of silence, he raised a hand and whacked Edmond across the face so hard that he nearly fell over. “For god’s sake, you’re a Dispatcher! What the hell happened out there?!”

“Please…” one of the boys in Lucien’s group whimpered. He had been rocking back and forth for some time now, his breathing rapid. “Water…I can’t…” The boy teetered backward and collapsed in the sand, but none of the Dispatchers seemed willing to budge around their commander. Lucien suspected it was for fear of making sudden movements. The man shot an accusing glance back at them.

“Will someone get the kid some water? And you can bring them the whole bucket while you’re at it. Jesus,” he breathed, training his eyes back on Lucien. “Well well, if it isn’t the good Mr. Riviere. Your reputation precedes you.”

“Good to know,” the elder smiled.

“That’s not a compliment,” the man spat on the ground. His breath stunk of chewing tobacco. “Perhaps I should ask you what happened, since baby Edmond here is about to wet his pants. You got anything?”

“Yes. Sir, my boys and I were kidnapped and taken as hostages by the Outlanders-”

“Oh no, no, no,” the man chuckled, cutting him off. “Do I look that stupid to you?”

“Sir-”

“Don’t answer that. Like I said, your reputation precedes you. You still got your Level One pass, right?”

He nodded.

“Need to see proper ID to let you in.”

“Given the circumstances I just described, I do hope you’re kidding.”

“Do I look like I’m kidding? Two of my officers are missing their phase units! Proper precaution, you understand.” The commander set an elbow on his cane as he knelt and patted loosely down the boy’s trousers, finding the wallet bouncing against his left outer thigh. “Take it out.”

“Take what out?” the boy grinned.

“You fuckin’ smartass,” Pontius rolled his eyes, bashing him in the shin with his cane. “Remove the wallet.”

Several of the Dispatchers laughed—perhaps none more than Edmond—as he yelped and stumbled backward, digging out the thick fold of leather to place it in the commander’s calloused hand. Pontius turned his back to the sun and thumbed through it in search of the document. He let out a bitter sigh upon snatching out the booklet which held Lucien’s pass, carefully reading it over and checking the watermarks to be sure it was legitimate.

“Appears to check out,” the man said, looking back. Lucien breathed a sigh of relief until he heard what came next. “Up until two months ago. Which means I get to detain you,” the commander grinned. “God, I love my job. Isaac, Pascal,” he called, snapping his fingers, “let’s get them inside the gate. This conversation is best had inside the wall. I wouldn’t want Mr. Riviere or his cohorts running off. Not that they’d have far to go. Edmond, would you be so kind as to escort him through the door? I mean…if you can handle that.”

Lucien smirked as Edmond shoved him along.

“Enjoy it while you can,” the elder whispered.

“Oh, I will.” The Dispatcher gave him a swift kick.

The other two squads proceeded to escort the Barreau boys through the north gate with Pontius leading the way. With Edmond’s knuckles buried in his spine and another hand clamped firmly on his shoulder, Lucien searched his mind for any explanation that might get the district commander to back off. He felt stupid for not having thought it through before. How would the Outlanders have taken them hostage in the first place? If he mentioned the tunnel in his story, Pontius would immediately send squads to flush it out. That would mean the end for Max, to say nothing of his little revolution.

Then it hit him. Quentin Vaugrenard. The boy was instrumental in carrying out the majority of Lucien’s dealings with the Outlanders. Whether they needed to trade equipment, dispose of threats, force cooperation, or more recently, gain him access to a private military airship hangar that even his mother’s Level One signature couldn’t afford, Quentin’s connections with the fearsome gang could do it all. The only problem was that he was now under Max’s watch, and Max looked after his orphans like a bloody hawk. Quentin had no way to sneak out without being noticed, unless…

Andre Casanov likes heroes on his stupid radio show, and Max likes to listen, he thought. If I can get there in an hour and out him, Max will run off to look for his documents. In the meantime, Edmond can validate my story and pick up Quentin himself before the other Dispatchers get on it. If Pontius asks how the Outlanders snuck us out, I’ll tell him we were blindfolded. He’s got nothing on an expired pass.

“Pascal, don’t forget to shut the gate since you clearly forgot to open it in a timely fashion,” Pontius ordered as they strolled through.

“I’m not-” the boy began to counter, then quickly remembered who he was talking to. “I mean, yes sir.”

“And yes, Pascal, I’m afraid you are stupid,” the district commander sneered.

“I’m sorry sir, I-”

“Save it, you’re not hurting anyone’s feelings, just do your damn job.”

“Yes sir.”

“Kids these days,” Pontius sighed, removing a metal flask from his pocket and guzzling down a shot’s worth. “That’s why they used to enlist orphans, because they’re smarter than you idiots. Aren’t you?” He turned to address Lucien and the rest of the Barreau boys. The thunderous rumble came beneath their feet again as the gate closed behind them, followed by the quaking boom. “Drop the act,” the seasoned veteran chuckled. “It looks terrible on you. We know you’ve all been working with the Outlanders.”

“That’s a bold accusation. What proof do you have of this?” Lucien challenged in a smug tone. “Rumors? Fine Dispatcher you are.”

“Man, I love this guy,” Pontius laughed. “He’s got a set of brass ones.” He downed the rest of his flask.

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Ghost Frequency & Stabilization: A Brief History of Viktorium (Part III of V)

by Benoît Laurent

“I have searched during many years for some process or means to test the possibility of future existence by scientific experiment, and I have devised one, which, to my great disappointment, has failed. But perhaps some more skillful experimenter might succeed if I suggest to him the course…” – Nikola Tesla

 CONQUEST. It is perhaps an unfortunate fundamental truth of modern society that no great nation could ever hope to exist without it. Throughout the darker historical periods of our planet, such battles have often been waged without mercy or regard for innocent life. In the Modern Age of course, most civilized countries have done away with senseless barbarism. Perhaps that is only because we have forgotten what is necessary to found a country.

Long before Viktorium existed as we know it today, there were certain ‘anomalies’—for lack of a better term—which had to be cleared before habitation could commence. These anomalies are generally benign today, though still present throughout the world to varying degrees. It has been theorized that we may never truly be rid of them, though the number of such occurrences which pose a genuine threat is far fewer than it once was. It seems to dwindle with each passing year—major events are thankfully rare. But just what are these anomalies, exactly?

No one quite knows. Most of us call them ghosts, though that is an oversimplification. It is also an affront to our fundamental understanding of how Viktorium itself functions. Many new arrivals often stop me in the street to ask what all the fuss is about when they first catch sight of the Dispatchers making their rounds, patrolling the city walls or rushing through the marketplace in pursuit of some invisible entity. I must confess that most of the time, I am guilty of using the word ‘ghosts’ myself to describe what they are chasing after. Of course the arrivals balk at this answer. It is never good enough. There must be a more logical reason why these young men are leaping over rooftops and shoving citizens out of the way like rag dolls. At this point, I resolve to give them the long version I had hoped to avoid.

It is the same reason why paranormal investigators and ghost hunters document such phenomena on the Earth plane; something has crossed over into our realm on a separate frequency that should not be here. From a purely scientific standpoint, we now know that everything is made up of variable frequencies stacked on top of one another to form the basic fabric of reality as we perceive it. Earth’s reality, for instance, is one frequency. Viktorium is just a step above, where particles of matter vibrate at a much higher rate so as to escape the pull of visible light on the other side. And yet while neither of us can see each other, we both exist on the same planet.

Problems arise when those particles become shuffled about through specific circumstances. It is theorized that a particularly grisly death, for instance, has the potential to shatter the soul to the farthest imperceptible frequencies—grisly deaths, perhaps like those which occurred in Bezonvaux at First Crossover. Left to their own devices, these parts and pieces of the human soul then coalesce into bonds and seek out their own, drawn together by mutual emotional energy such as rage or fear. They often appear as disparate voices, cloaked distortions casting impossible shadows, abrupt changes in temperature or gravity.

On the Earth plane, they cause the phenomenon known as a ‘haunting’. In Viktorium, they have the potential to do far greater damage, up to and including complete destabilization of our reality. Fortunately, the great Charles DuPont envisioned a solution for this. Enter the Dispatchers!

The Conspiracy

Warned by Tesla that that the anomalies could pose such a threat, Charles wasted no time reverse-engineering his current machine for travel to Viktorium into something more sinister. A series of wrist-mounted prototypes were constructed not for the purpose of travel, but for ablation. His goal was simple—cut out the cancer. No one wants to live, much less vacation, in a haunted house. Especially not a house possibly haunted by the souls of those who died during First Crossover in the famous Viktoria I disaster. Of course it is quite possible that other habitable frequencies exist higher than ours, though we know of no way to travel there and even so, Charles himself was not willing to dream that big. Stabilization would be far too great a task to accomplish on his own, and it was enough to reinforce Viktorium.

To this end, he enlisted a team of several trusted men and their sons—physicists, electrical engineers, and hunters, all of whom were thoroughly screened. In addition to these, DuPont also appointed a rather curious Afro-German man by the name of Karl Richter, a seismologist who claimed the ability to track phenomena using gravitational waves. With their combined knowledge, the culling soon began. But this, too, was to be a disaster from the outset. A crucial element was missing from Charles’ equations. Something he had forgotten from his first foray into this land, and which he would later put to use in his improved machines.

A delicate balance in electromagnetic resonance must be maintained for any life to remain within reach of Viktorium’s frequency. It is known as the Law of Trade. We must consistently import a certain range of dense matter equal to or greater than what is dispatched. Nowadays, this is no longer a problem. Plenty of people arrive here every day, and so less phenomena poses a justifiable threat to warrant removal.

In the beginning however, it was a major concern. Bodies were needed for the gateway to remain open, and lots of them. Every action taken to open the door requires an equal countermeasure for stability. It is no secret at this point that Charles obtained numerous cadavers for this purpose as a temporary fix whilst he perfected his sales pitch to con rural French citizens into his colonization efforts. There is much debate on exactly where he obtained the corpses; he claimed they were donated by science, but of course this has never been verified.

Even more puzzling is the fact that in the months both before and following the First Crossover incident, thirteen males in the surrounding towns of Garronville, Ornes, and Douamont went missing. Rumors began to circulate of a murderer on the loose. At least four women from Garronville were admitted to a psychiatric hospital within a week of each other after suffering a fit of hysterics, claiming a ghostly apparition had snatched several of their relatives out of thin air. Viktorium, it seemed, was not as stable as DuPont had previously thought.

In order to understand the nature of what occurred in this conspiratorial conquest, one must first become acquainted with the term ‘dispatching’ as it applies to anomalies. Charles knew from the beginning that any loss of life was an unacceptable compromise. Eradicating the anomalies outright would throw off the resonant frequency of our world, leading to a massive collapse. By the same token, he didn’t wish to find out what might happen if a living person were to die here, either. It was out of this reasoning that the Dispatchers squads were conceived. For all intents and purposes, they would serve as policemen, keeping citizens in check whilst properly disposing of anomalies.

The wrist-mounted phase units they wear—which at first glance appear intimidating—are intended to fire variable electromagnetic pulses that break apart and scatter clusters of these anomalies, dispatching them to different frequencies where they can no longer cause any harm to our citizens. This is typically done in teams of three; one will fire a unit that discharges infrasound, drawing the anomaly into visible light. Another fires a torch to ensure it remains visible long enough for the third to discharge his pulse array and scatter the apparition, dispatching it into the dark unknown. Unfortunately, an unstable Viktorium combined with overzealous dispatching had the unintended consequence of reaching back to Earth’s frequency. Living people had become victims of the Dispatchers because no one could see what was happening on the other side. To everyday citizens, fireballs appeared out of nowhere and set their towns ablaze. Lightning bolts zapped their relatives into oblivion, or infrasound drew them into a panic.

Fortunately for Charles and his team, another unintended consequence occurred. Viktorium suddenly began to stabilize on its own. It was soon discovered that contrary to what he had previously thought, those who went missing on Earth’s frequency were not lost, as had happened with the Viktoria I—these people instead materialized in the outer reaches of our world, fully alive and with measurable vital signs. I wish I could say that our bold first leader only used this information to improve his ghost machines to facilitate travel. He did, of course. But given his prior record of egotistical decisions made at the expense of others, it is unlikely DuPont stopped there. Those times were desperate, and desperate times as we all know often call for the most unorthodox methods. Yet that is where the paper trail ends.

Various theories have been put forth as to why some people in Viktorium seem to age whilst others do not. These theories range anywhere from the highly plausible—that DuPont was not above kidnapping people, faking their deaths, and granting them a new identity—to the most absurd—that the apparitions, knowing their place of residence is threatened, prey upon the living energy of human hosts. If the latter was true of course, citizens would be dropping dead in the street every hour.

I do find it suspicious, however, that the Dispatchers and those close to them up until now have always seemed to age. This fact has never changed, despite concern among some of our more progressive politicians that DuPont may one day be able to use this to his advantage and plot his return. Following his exile to a range of higher frequencies, new contracts were drafted for every Dispatcher squad. These contracts are, oddly enough, so confidential to the point that they were destroyed after one viewing; the only person with remaining copies in their possession is our governor. In addition to this, I also find it suspicious that the old courthouse which sits at 1500 Rue La Monte in the Barreau district has not yet been demolished. It is unknown if all remaining records were in fact confiscated from its halls following DuPont’s exile.

Taking all of this into account, I would encourage both my fellow citizens as well as our new arrivals to remain wary at all times. Things in Viktorium have never been quite what they seem on the surface. If you are reading this paper on the street right now, please do me this honor. I would like for you to avert your eyes a moment and look above you this very second. Look, high above, to where the city meets the clouds. Can you see it? Our tall, sleek skyscrapers inspired by Roman architecture. The grand scope of a white and silver horizon, the Metropoliès at the very center, squeaky clean and shining and full of so much promise.

Now look back to the ground on which you stand. Look back, at the rust-ridden, condemned sectors of our city. The Barreau block, the polluted waterfront that once sparkled so crystal clear, the parks in a horrid state of overgrowth and decay. Look at the orphaned children on the street with sad, sunken eyes. Look at their distended stomachs, their dirtied hands, those which perhaps sold you this very newspaper you are reading right now. And look also to the jobless, the old man begging on the corner in the same sector, or even a recently evicted adult who was once promised an education of the highest standard.

These people are all your brothers and sisters! Do they not deserve the same equal treatment, the same chance as the rest of you? At least their desperation is honest and comes from a place of necessity. And yet this greedy lie which continues to be perpetuated by our current political lineup is permitted to continue. It is permitted because you, the average citizen, refuses to vote otherwise! I tell you, friends, you live in such blissful, ignorant opulence! If you have read these articles, if you can grasp the depth of what I am saying, I must encourage you to do some research and investigate further.

Go downtown to the Barreau district sometime. Visit the old waterfront, survey the empty parks filled with garbage. Learn of our history. For if you do not, you ignore it at your own peril.

Thanks again for reading, folks! I apologize for the late issue, but further research was necessary in the writing of this article. If you are enjoying this series on our history, please don’t forget to follow me here, as well as DuPont Steamworks and our Director of Viktorium-France Transit for all the latest updates!

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