Night of the Wolf – Part 10

“Igor!” the group of Outlanders shrieked. Severo was met with a cacophony of frightened voices that echoed off the walls and reverberated around the concrete columns of the safe house. He shook his head in an attempt to reorient his vision. His body ached and his head throbbed. Everything was brighter on this side. Brighter, blurry, and full of color, as if he’d been staring into the sun for too long. Once he came to, he caught sight of Igor sprawled out unconscious on the floor with his nose bleeding.

“My god,” he whispered. “What have I done?”

“It’s him, it’s him!” one of the girls shouted, pointing accusingly at the young knight. “Didn’t you all see? His eyes turned white and Igor fainted. He’s a bloody witch! You will answer for this!” The child charged at him, but Olivier moved to block her path.

“He is not a witch!” the boy snapped. “If anything, he saved Igor when I almost took his life the other night at the villa. And witches, really? In Viktorium? You need to stop reading those ridiculous serials.” He snatched a newspaper she was clutching in her hand and tossed it on the floor. “He’s Dalishkova. Aren’t you?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Severo swallowed. This was bad. Very bad.

“You’re what?!” Lucien exclaimed. “So that’s why you’ve been sitting on the floor meditating all this time. I swear to god, you little shit!” he stormed over, grabbing the knight by his lapels, “if you’ve done ANYTHING-”

“Get off of me, Lucien!” Severo spat through clenched teeth. “I have no quarrel with you.”

“Oh, but you don’t understand. Your kind were kicked out of Cavarice for a reason, and if I have to deal with an uprising on my hands once I reclaim my rightful destiny, I’ll have your head planted on a spire so high, the whole of Helias will see it!”

“Fine! If and when you reclaim your rightful throne, I will bow my head and you can sever it from my body, but until then, I need Igor alive just as you do! Now shut up and bring him to me.”

Lucien let go and backed away in fury. Severo felt his heart thud in his chest much faster than it ever had. What had happened to the leader of the Outlanders? His mind was still adjusting from the shock of returning to such a volatile environment. None of it made any sense. If where he’d been was a physical manifestation of Igor’s mind, then how had the Dalishkova managed to tap in? Even more curious…who was the boy who had shot arrows at him just before he left? But now was not the time to dwell on such things. He had to assess Igor to be sure he was all right.

Olivier grabbed the boy’s legs while Lucien took hold of his shoulders, and the two placed the young gang leader on the floor in front of Severo. The knight took a deep breath and sighed. Without his prayer amulet, he had no idea if there was even a point to reciting what prayers he knew. In addition, he could not recall all of them. His prayer book, too, he had left with Emilie back in the caves with the Outlanders that were loyal to her. He hoped just as well that she was surviving on her own, and that the boys under her were earning their keep.

“Right,” the boy sighed again. He placed his hands on either side of Igor’s head and closed his eyes to begin the incantation. His focus was off on the first attempt, and he forgot at least an entire phrase. Steady, he told himself. He tried again. Yet before he could speak a word, the young leader’s eyes fluttered open and he arched his back to sit up, coughing and gagging for air. He regained his composure several moments later as Severo continued to pray over him. The rest of the Outlanders gathered anxiously around, eager to make certain their leader was all right. Lucien gave the boy a few pats on the back to help clear his chest. Igor spat a thick mixture of blood and mucus across the dusty wooden floor, then shuffled to his feet. At last, the familiar personality they all loved to hate had returned.

“The fuck are you chickens all staring at?!” he snapped.

“You fainted,” Lucien replied. “Are you quite sure you’re all right? Or do I have to have someone else carry out your-”

“Want to lose your cock?!” Igor rasped, yanking him by the neck of his shirt. “You don’t need that to lead, chicken. I’m living proof, and I certainly don’t need mine to cut your dirty throat or anyone else’s. But if you fancy having all the meat sliced from that tender little bone of yours,” the boy grinned, whipping out his knife and poking a hole in the thigh of Lucien’s trousers. The elder yelped and tried to pull away, but Igor quickly positioned a foot behind his heel and shoved him to the floor. “That’s what I thought. Now bugger off.”

As the scrappy boy turned and paced across the room to take refuge and further collect himself, Severo rose to feet. Now was the perfect opportunity to take his leave and deliver Max’s letter to the post office uptown. If anything, the situation he’d been presented with had just grown far more urgent. Between Igor’s fainting spell and the visit he had received from the Dalishkova, not to mention Lucien discovering his true identity, the young knight’s safety would soon be in jeopardy. Slipping quietly past the throng of Outlanders, Severo made way for the stairwell.

“And just where do you think you’re sneaking off to?” Igor asked.

“Short stroll,” the knight breathed. “I need some fresh air.”

“Don’t wander too far.”

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Night Of The Wolf – Part 6

Pontius struggled to stay awake. He and the remaining squads of Dispatchers in charge of the west gate had been called into the office of General Rodin at midday for a firm bureaucratic reprimanding. They stood in line formation alongside the right of his desk now, arms tucked behind them and feet at the edge of an overly ornate tapestry rug whilst his sputtering screams of rage echoed off the chamber walls. He’d been at it for twenty minutes now.

The aging district commander closed his eyes with a sigh and tried in vain to pretend he was somewhere else. A pulsing migraine had set in around the ten minute mark. Still, it was nice to fantasize about the good old days of vacationing on the Sea of Helene; the plesiosaurs extending their long necks out from under the waves, the statue of the Salt God on bent knee over his sword, the naked courtesans bathing in the shallows with foam covering their tender breasts…

“PONTIUS!” the general shouted in his face, ripping him from his thoughts. “Pay attention.”

“Yes sir.” He waited for the man to step away before resuming the daydream.

It hadn’t been the easiest morning. He awoke in a cold sweat shortly before dawn with the worst hangover of his life. All throughout the night, he had tossed and turned, visited by an array of dark terrors both familiar and foreign. Flashbacks of Pascal, the battle, Igor, and other memories of things long past came to haunt him even in the daylight. To make matters worse, Gabriel and Antoine brought him to the hospital after he’d blacked out two blocks over from his assigned post. That meant the entire Dispatchers force was now aware that he wasn’t following orders, if they weren’t also aware of his drinking problem. Not that he cared. His stint as district commander would only last for the next couple weeks. After the mayor’s annual farce of a welcome gala, he could slip back into comfortable obscurity and leave this mess behind him to focus on what really mattered—finding Severo and bringing him home.

“How could you be so goddamn irresponsible?! Each and every one of you is an utter disgrace!” General Rodin continued. The man paced back and forth among the ranks, seething with authoritarian fury. Pontius rolled his eyes at the subterfuge. Archibald Rodin was in fact a leading corporate head who bought out the remaining Dispatcher precincts following DuPont’s exile. In the process, Governor Saunier quietly sent Pontius into retirement. It was his way of saving face and putting an end to a regime which held a very bad reputation in the minds of the Cavarice public; however, it also left someone wildly unqualified in charge of the most important security force in all of Viktorium. Of course none of the boys present in the room were aware of this fact. Probably why most of them were shaking in their boots.

“Now that the Outlanders have managed to reenter the city, I certainly hope you all know what’s at stake with LaCour’s welcome gala preparations in full swing. I think it goes without saying what happens next. An immediate full-scale investigation will be conducted over the course of the coming week, pending results of an internal inquiry.” The four squad leaders in attendance groaned. “Shut up!” Rodin yelled. “At this point, you ought to consider yourselves lucky you’re still on the job! If I could spare the manpower, I would suspend all of you without pay. But being that we lost no less than four squads in the senseless bloodshed that occurred last night, we’ll need all the boys we can get for gala security.” The man stopped pacing at the middle of the lineup. “Officers Simon and Perceval, you’re on recruiter duty in the Metropoliès tonight.”

“But sir-”

“The press will be having a field day at Morcourt, it’s the perfect opportunity for you to shine!”

“All due respect,” Pontius interjected, “that’s a horrible idea. Unless you’d like these two baby-faced jokers to be spokesmen for the entire Dispatchers force in front of the media. We have a reputation to uphold. At least two squads will need to provide additional security at Morcourt for the press conference to be sure no one assassinates La Cour. Now I can spare two extra teams at the expense of-”

“That won’t be necessary,” Rodin cut him off. “The mayor has his own private squads, and the last thing I need is for you to abandon your post at the wall following a critical attack. But that is something you did last night, wasn’t it?” The man narrowed his gaze and stepped over to Pontius, stopping inches from his face. He sniffed the air. Shit. “Why don’t you tell us, in your own words, Commander Pontius, why that was?”

He hesitated. Not because General Rodin was intimidating; quite the opposite was true. The chubby man stood a full foot shorter than him and possessed considerably less fighting skills, though he did manage to intimidate the rest of the captains in attendance. But it was difficult to recall the full details of everything that had happened between the actual event and his nightmares. He wished Pascal were here. The scrawny boy, though stupid, had proven himself a godsend in his final moments. In fact, he was the very reason Pontius was still alive right now. The district commander took a deep breath and resolved to do his best in memory of the fallen officer.

“The bomb went off a little after eight,” he explained. “Myself and two other squads were gathered on the wall above the west gate at that time. Pascal, Serge, Conrad, Abel, couple others. Pascal was arguing with me about opening the door because Captain Georges was knocking below. I expressly forbade him to do it, but he moved for the switch anyway. Then the blast came…Igor and his cohorts showed up. Killed three squads, easy.” Pontius winced a moment at his migraine before continuing. “I stumbled…down the stairs with my bum leg, grabbed a phase unit from one of the fallen kids. Took out as many Outlanders as I could. After that, Gabriel and his team arrived from the south end a couple minutes late. I saw Igor escape down an alley and tried to go after him. Got ambushed, that’s the last I remember before I was knocked out.”

“I see,” the general said, crinkling his nose and backing away. Pontius imagined he still reeked of alcohol. Rodin said nothing of it. “And you didn’t think to send Gabriel and the other arriving units after him? After all, you’ve a bum leg. And approximately how many Outlanders did you say you did away with on your own?”

The squad leaders in the room glared expectantly at him. Flashes of color and clanging metal filled the district commander’s mind as he struggled to remember the missing details of that fateful hour. He could recall a myriad of traveling blue sparks, but he wasn’t sure if that was phase unit fire or something else. Red was also a color that seemed rather prominent, and perhaps it was blood, but then came the slicing of metal, then white, then an ever-enveloping blackness…

“Pontius?”

“Yeah, sorry,” the man sighed. “Doc says I probably have a concussion after my fall on the sidewalk. Things are a little foggy right now.” The hangover migraine certainly wasn’t helping matters. The narrow space behind his eyeballs ached, his stomach was doing back flips, and his skull felt like a cement mixer. Still, there seemed one elusive detail between all those nightmarish flashes that presented itself again and again, as if the traveling blue spark were slowly reconnecting old synapses in his mind. He kept going back to the last figure he’d seen before blacking out, yet every time he tried to think clearly, the back of his head hit the pavement again. But he was almost certain it had been Severo. He was certain it was his son…

“I will of course expect a written report from you on this matter within three days time, no exceptions,” the general stated.

“Understood, sir.”

“As for the rest of you, your personal accounts are due on my desk by tomorrow morning. Rest assured gentlemen, no stone will be left unturned in this investigation. Every eye, every ear, every lingering touch, taste, and stench will spare no vantage point! I want to know exactly how those peasants managed to construct a bomb, and how in the bloody hell they got a hold of your phase units to do so! And I swear on my life, if it’s discovered in the course of your duties that any one of you aided these rats in any manner whatsoever, expulsion will be the very least of your worries! Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes sir!” the squads shouted in broken unison.

“Now get the hell out of my office.” The four squads quickly made a beeline for the door, more than eager to leave. Pontius leaned off his cane and prepared to stumble out with the rest of them, but the general blocked his path. “Not you,” Rodin sneered. “If I might have a few words.”

“Almost a half-hour speech and you still didn’t rattle off enough, eh?” the commander sighed. Far behind him, the office door clicked shut, leaving them trapped in that stuffy old room that smelled of so much mahogany and leather-bound books. His aging superior circled around the desk and dug a bottle of brandy out from the bottom drawer with a single glass. “Well I guess that means I’m in trouble.”

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Night of the Wolf – Part 3

The morning was dreary and cold. Max had been sitting on the radiator in front of his windowsill for almost an hour now to warm up, clad in only a ragged pair of dark brown trousers. It was almost time to wake the boys. He let out a yawn, fighting fatigue as he drew his knees up to his chest. The shift of his weight set off an odd sensation down below. For a moment, he’d forgotten why he wasn’t wearing any underwear.

“Laundry day,” he sighed. The young elder had hoped to put off thinking on the events of the previous day until at least after breakfast, but the absence of undergarments triggered a sudden flashback in his mind. “Captain Georges…” They had spent all of yesterday morning at the Outlanders’ villa waiting to trap a squad of Dispatchers and steal their equipment. The plan had gone off mostly without a hitch, until Igor decided to take Georges hostage. The rest was a blur, up until the attack on the wall last night.

“Quentin,” Max whimpered. The boy who had been their only connection to the Outlanders gang. The scrappy drifter he had worked so hard to turn around from the first day he had arrived at Barreau Orphanage several months ago. The sensitive soul with auburn hair and a heart of gold who had become like a younger brother to Max. He had died with the Outlanders, undignified, like a piece of gutter trash. But why? You said you needed to tell me something when the time was right. What was it?

Max gazed back on his tiny flat. To the bed, the creaky floorboards, the trap door and the hidden crawl space beneath it. Even the rug was still out of place from when the boy had thrown it aside, convinced that the Dispatchers were coming for him. Of course they had. And then that afternoon when Max returned, he had looked scared. No, that wasn’t the right word. Petrified. Yes. Quentin was right petrified out of his wits, even as he’d sat here in the very spot where the elder was now sitting, spreading out his tiny fingers to search for a sense of warmth that poor child would never feel again.

Max sniffed and drew his knees up closer to cry. The thin pipes of the radiator caught his bony rear instead, causing him to lose balance and slip against the window.

“No!” he cried out. Too late. One involuntary swipe of his hand against the glass, and half the messages they had scrawled to each other in the condensation the previous day were decimated. Ah well. No matter. Wouldn’t have lasted anyway, and yet still a tightness of something unresolved was building in the young elder’s chest. Quentin would not have just run off without leaving behind some sort of clue. If it were that important, he would have found a way. A sudden knock at the door tore Max from his thoughts.

“Come in,” the elder said, wiping his face. He didn’t know who it was, but he figured they couldn’t make things much worse.

“It’s just me.” Bernard entered, closing the door behind him. Max’s newest second-in-command was clad in little more for laundry day, save for a greasy undershirt. He seemed to be holding a collection of telegrams in hand. “Feel like talking?”

“It’s funny,” Max said. “Yesterday, I sat in this very spot and asked Quentin the same. He didn’t want to. But we wrote all this in the window. He said there was something he had to tell me. I keep going over it again and again in my head, looking for some clue as to what it might have been. Still nothing.”

“Whatever it was, I’m sure we’ll find out in time. The voices of the dead scream loudest in Viktorium, after all.”

“Let’s hope the living can still hear them,” Max sighed, plopping down off the radiator. He looked back on the window. The many fingerprints and curved lines strewn about the pane—those that had survived his hand, anyway—looked to him like the rivers on a map. Never still. Strange, that those words should return to him just now. He recalled the voice of an old woman having spoken them long ago. A kind voice, full of love. There were candles, words on a page…that’s it. She had read to him. “Never still,” he said aloud.

“What?” Bernard appeared confused.

“Something from the past,” Max clarified. “Back before I came to Viktorium, this older orphan boy took care of me. But he was always getting us into trouble. The last house we lived in, there was an old woman who used to read to me every night when everyone else had gone to bed. The squiggles on the window here reminded me of rivers. A story with rivers…‘the river is never still’, she said. ‘The tide is always constant, shifting. It shapes everything in its wake, creating puzzle pieces that fit together if only you step back.”

“Think we should retrace our steps from yesterday?”

“Might be worth a go.” Max gestured to the crumpled rug on the floor. “I can’t bring myself to move anything. Doesn’t feel right. Like a crime scene or something. I’d hate to think he died in vain.”

“He knew we loved him, Max,” Bernard put an arm around him. “And if there is an afterlife even after this…perhaps we’ll see him again.”

Max let out a chuckle.

“What’s funny?”

“You remember when he first came to the orphanage?”

“Oh god,” Bernard laughed. “How could I forget? He stole the blanket right off of Tomas in the middle of the night because his wasn’t big enough.”

“And the tug of war woke everyone up, remember?”

“He had lice, so we had to get rid of the blanket anyway.”

“Took him outside, hosed him off naked in the alley!” Max snickered. “The look on his face, he was so mad and kept trying to go back for the blanket even after we burned it. And then,” the elder gasped hysterically, “Tomas came out with the phase unit to delouse him-”

“He pissed on him and got electrocuted, and the two chased each other around the entire house!” Bernard laughed.

“He was always stealing my things when he got angry at me, too,” Max grinned. “My old silver watch went missing one morning, and I found all the pieces strewn in a trail leading to the closet in the office. All but the frame. Caught him chewing on the clock face! I didn’t know what to say, so I said…‘Do you know what time it is?’”

“You didn’t!”

“He said ‘break fast!’ and ran out the back door.”

“I never heard that one!” Bernard laughed. After some time, the two elders managed to catch their breath and settle down. Max stepped over to his dresser and threw on the last ragged shirt he had stuffed in the bottom drawer. Much as he enjoyed reminiscing about Quentin, there was much work ahead for the day, and still too many unsolved questions. None of them made any sense no matter how far back he could think.

“At least now we know the Outlanders are up to something bigger than just getting back to the city and scaring the shit out of everyone,” Max said. “Igor wouldn’t sacrifice that many of his minions if he didn’t think it was worth it. Whatever they’re here for, it’s worth dying over…anyway, what mail did we get?”

“Urgent telegram this morning,” Bernard said, handing him the letters.

“La Cour,” Max sighed, looking over the return address. “Probably about the gala. Great.” The elder tore open the envelope and sat down on his bed to read it. “I’ll need you to watch the boys tonight. Private meeting at Morcourt.”

Bernard chuckled. “The press will be crawling all over Centre Square after last night. Good luck getting to his doorstep.”

“Yeah. I’ll try to arrive by sundown.”

“Anything else you need?”

“Oh, goddamn it!” Max bit his lip and scrambled to the dressed to check his pocket watch. He hated to ask any more favors, but he’d almost forgotten. “You think you could take care of laundry shift in the meantime? I have to meet with Mordechai before breakfast to sell some of the parts from yesterday.”

He cringed as he spoke that last line. Mordechai, or ‘Papa Mordechai’ as he so oft insisted to be called, was a twenty-something orphanage reject and gang leader who surrounded himself with an army of naive young boys who were too weak to fend for themselves. Many of those under his watch could be seen sporting nasty bruises and lacerations, even fractures that hadn’t healed properly from the initiation process—Mordechai was a sadist who would force new members to fight one another for his own sick entertainment. Still, he offered protection from Dispatchers who would have otherwise exiled them to the desert. It was unfortunate he’d gotten to them before Max had.

“No problem,” Bernard assured the elder with a pat on the shoulder.

“You’re the best.”

“Are you going to be all right?”

“Yes…and no,” Max sighed. “Truthfully, I’d love to take in most of the boys he abuses, but you know how that goes.”

“Should I bring out the extra mattresses in case you manage to save a few?”

“Not necessary,” Max shook his head. “I’d rather just get this over with and try not to think about it. Besides, we don’t have time. It’s almost seven. Wake the boys, gather up the laundry, and take them to the mat. I’ll bring the oldest along with me and meet you for breakfast at the mess hall later…you know the drill.”

“Of course.”

As the two exited the bedroom, the elder still couldn’t shake the nervous feeling in his gut. It continued to grow, consuming what little resolve he had left over from the previous day. Meeting with Mordechai, he knew, would use up the last of it. He glanced back at the fading condensation on the window pane and the writing still visible from yesterday; the many squiggled lines like rivers, the words like passing ships. He looked, too, at his accidental hand prints which now dominated the frame. It seemed a storm was brewing, and had been for some time.

Never still, he thought to himself again. Those pieces fit together somehow. He wasn’t about to give up.

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Night of the Wolf – Part 2

With the trio now complete, the group continued on across the room, making their way toward a secret door that stood behind a bookcase full of fake textbooks and glued-on beakers. The young woman pulled on a green title which read ‘Electrical Engineering’, and the shelving unit slid aside to the left. Once inside the closet, she palmed a button on the wall. The door behind them abruptly closed. It produced a bit more noise than she would have hoped.

“Shit,” she cringed. “No doubt they heard that.” She felt a slight tug at her right arm just above the phase unit and looked down. Lucien’s clone was cowering at her side in the dark.

“Mum, I’m scared!” the boy whimpered.

“Don’t be such a baby,” her first son elbowed him. “It’s hard to believe you actually share DNA with me.”

“You’re scared too.”

“Am not.”

“Are too.”

“Am not!”

“Yes you are!”

“Boys, stop it!” their mother scolded.

“He’s just better at hiding it,” the clone said. “Fine. Not hard to understand why you wouldn’t be afraid. At least I wasn’t born several minutes ago. Fear makes me human. Why don’t you go running into the crossfire so the Dispatchers could get rid of you?”

Constance gasped. She had assured her only son that she could tell them apart, and yet just now, she swore that the one grasping for dear life at her arm was the clone. Then again, it wasn’t as if they were true identical twins. She’d been taught that in the childhood of twins, there was always an alpha and a beta. If there were to be a beta, she was certain the clone would be it. He should have been petrified of everything. Yet that’s when she realized the two were likely now afraid of two very different things—the clone of not belonging, and her son, that the clone would take his place. Neither of these fears would aid them in their escape. Even worse, it had the potential to hinder them. Why did I ever think this was a good idea?

But it was too late to turn back now. Constance said nothing, instead adjusting the phase unit on her wrist and straightening her dress. She was glad to have chosen something black with a shorter cut just above the knee that facilitated running. Unfortunately, the heels had to go. She stooped down to remove them next, surveying her twin sons along the way. After this, she powered on the phase unit a moment and paced around the boys, hoping to uncover any small detail in the dark which might give the clone away. Nothing.

“Mum…what are you doing?”

“Which one of you is the clone?” the woman asked bluntly. “Your places in the escape plan matter-”

“Why?” the boy cried. “If we’re both your identical sons, what does it matter who goes in the box and who comes out?”

Constance smirked. “I guess that settles it. You’re the clone, then.”

“How can you say that?!” the child snapped. “You said you’d be able to tell us apart, so since you can’t, what does it matter if I’m dead!”

“Darling, please-”

“You don’t care, don’t act like you ever did!”

“Lucien!”

But the boy had already shoved open the closet door and run off into the darkness of the gallery. His mother’s heart sunk to her stomach, giving way to instinct. No time to think now. The sound of Dispatcher boots rushing across the room drowned out all else. Constance steeled herself and shoved her remaining son behind her as she tore through the open doorway and fired off three pulses to distract the approaching squads. The last shot shattered the glass of a nearby display and caught Captain Karl square in the side. He went down screaming. The rest of the squad rushed to his aid, and Constance ducked low behind a golden suit of prototype armor with Lucien at her side.

“Now, remember what we planned,” she whispered. “You take the middle aisle up to the Liberté sculpture and switch places with your brother-”

“Mum, I’m not the clone, it’s suicide for me if we switch!” he cut her off.

“Are you bloody KIDDING ME right now?!” the woman snapped. “There’s no way this is going to work, you and I will not make it out alive if we stay together, that was the whole point of involving a clone!”

“Constance Renou!” a deep voice bellowed from the front of the gallery. Marco Corcini. “Oh yes. We know you are in here. I have waited a long time for this day. Five Earth years, to be exact, and yet it feels so much longer,” he chuckled, sauntering up the far aisle. Constance crept out from behind the armor suit, staying low against a row of glass tabletop display cases. She gestured for her son to move opposite her along the side of the aisle up until he reached the first gap, which led to the middle.

“Go!” she whispered, but Lucien wasn’t having it. He had knelt down with his back glued to a display, visibly shaking as a squad of Dispatchers crept along the middle aisle two meters away. Shit. Constance hadn’t seen or heard them over Corcini, so it was fortunate he had. The Defense Minister’s voice did have a way of worming itself into the brains of the vulnerable, a fact she’d almost forgotten, given his Dalishkova background.

“You can’t hide forever,” Marco sneered from across the way. Meanwhile, a series of quickened footsteps plodded along the opposite side of the gallery wall, prompting Dispatchers to fire pulses in their direction. When the noise of breaking glass and electricity stopped, Constance heard a snap of fingers farther down the middle aisle. The second squad appeared from around the corner and marched in their direction, kneeling to take aim.

“RUN!” Renou shrieked, shoving Lucien toward the center aisle and firing off several pulses. She managed to blast through the chest of one man, then the head of another. The blue glow of her phase unit illuminated blood splatter along the way as she charged on toward the entrance, stopping just short of the Liberté sculpture. She then ducked out of sight around a nearby display case and inched her way toward the bronze centerpiece. More Dispatchers were flooding the aisle from where she’d come, and the clone had since drawn another squad to the far side of the gallery. This had not been part of her original plan, but Constance soon realized the center aisle was now perhaps the safest place to be. She doubted this for a brief second until she saw Corcini’s staunch frame round the corner. Definitely the safest, she thought.

“Come now, Constance. You don’t honestly believe you can escape us, do you?” the man called out. “If you and your child would come quietly, I can ensure you will both live out the rest of your lives in peace on the Alabaster Coast.”

The woman bit her lip and drew her knees up to her chest, turning up the settings on her phase unit to the highest level. No way in hell. The ‘Alabaster Coast’ was nothing more than a fancy name for the Bay Asylum, where everyone with minor mental issues and other undesirables, to political enemies, to traitors, terrorists and assassins, all the way up to schizophrenic barbarians were kept under lock and key. And it most certainly was not a place of peace or safety, nor was it any place for a child. Sociopaths like Corcini, however, seemed to be permitted free reign in Viktorium.

Constance took a deep breath, her heart pounding, and peered around the corner of the display. She did not catch sight of any Dispatchers, however that didn’t mean they weren’t there. Marco often employed cloaker coats—elite teams of  special ops soldiers with cloaking devices—to flush out his enemies. In addition, she couldn’t make out much beyond the Liberté sculpture up ahead as it blocked the path, and even worse, she had yet to see Lucien…either of the Luciens. What if they’ve both been caught? she panicked. Somehow, she wondered if it even mattered anymore. Without her child, there was little left to fight for, and it seemed unlikely they would make it out of here alive. But I don’t know that for sure. Corcini would have announced it. Rising to her feet, Constance steeled herself again and stepped out into the center aisle. This was a stupid idea, but she figured as long as she could draw the soldiers her way, there’d be less of them to chase her sons.

“MARCO!” she shouted. Two cloaker coats immediately flashed into view on either side of the Liberté sculpture, prompting the angered mother to fire. Blinding blue bolts and static flew through the air, leaving trails in their wake. She blasted through the arm of the left one, but missed twice on the right due to recoil. The man returned fire. In the light of that pulse, the entire gallery seemed to come alive. Constance saw her life flash before her eyes. His shot would have taken her head clean off, had a pair of tiny arms not grabbed waist and shoved her to the floor behind a row of square cases. A loud sonic boom sounded as the spark extinguished further up the aisle, causing glass to explode everywhere. Of course. The phase units cloaker coats wore tended to have a shorter range for assassination purposes. Fortunately, the shock had only managed to crack the glass above Renou and her son. They were safe for now.

“Are you all right?” she whispered.

“Yeah…had to switch places with the clone-”

“LOOK OUT!”

A Dispatcher marched toward them from the far wall and fired. Constance caught the bolt in her palm and rose to her feet, firing it back at his leg. There was a bright splash of blood as the man’s kneecap exploded and he went down screaming. Keeping Lucien behind her, the angered mother ducked left around the corner, and again behind yet another row of display cases parallel with the Liberté sculpture. She lurched forward a moment to glance over the tabletop ahead of them. Another stupid idea, but it was best to reassess their chances of escape. The entrance was in sight, though guarded by a single squad of three, yet that hardly seemed protocol. And who knew how many cloaker coats there were skulking around the gallery.

Constance leaned back to check the settings on her phase unit again. She considered using the infrasound, but that was dangerous on one’s eardrums, and using the flame in the gallery was nothing short of suicide. Various banners and flags hung from the ceiling above, not to mention the curtains along the walls. Aside from that, if they were ever to return, she hoped to leave the house intact so they could live out the rest of their lives undisturbed. Yeah right. That might as well have been a fantasy. She wrapped a loving arm around Lucien a moment and listened. The room had grown eerily quiet. Then she heard the crunch of glass beneath a boot around the display case behind them.

“Shit!” she clenched her teeth, turning to whisper in her son’s ear. “You go left and run as fast as you can down the center aisle, I’ll stay close to the wall and cover you as we make a break for the entrance-”

“But Mum-”

“I love you, go, GO!”

The boy scrambled away, slipping over glass and rubble as Constance charged her phase unit and whirled around to fire at the Dispatcher behind her. She missed again, still not used to the recoil. He returned fire. She tried to dodge it by stepping aside, but the pulse caught her square in the left shoulder. She shrieked in pain and aimed at the only place she knew she couldn’t miss—the display table. A bright blast of electricity and static shattered the glass, sending shards flying up in the air. It gave her a chance to get away, at least.

Renou hopped over the next row of tables and ducked down, hearing a flurry of footsteps heading in her direction. Her entire body ached now, and she was certain the soles of her feet were cut up from plodding over broken glass. She poked her head out briefly to fire pulses again, trying to focus more on the Dispatchers guarding the entrance. If only her son could get away, that was all that mattered anymore. He was the future of Viktorium, after all. But she couldn’t see him in the center aisle anymore, and wondered if perhaps he’d taken a roundabout way. Staying low, Constance ducked back out over to the left and around another row of cases. That’s when Marco’s voice came again, stopping her dead in her tracks.

“Oh Constance!” the man shouted. “We have your son! You’d best give up now.”

The mother’s heart thudded deep in her chest.

“You’re bluffing!” she replied, remaining hidden. A lump was forming in her throat.

“Am I?” Corcini snarled. The crunch of broken glass and shuffling footsteps combined with the desperate gasps of a child had never been a louder sound in the cold dark of that gallery. Constance panicked. Either they had the clone or they had her real son, and all she could do was hope her plan would work, that they in fact had captured the clone and her real son was hiding somewhere safe in the shadows. But there was no way to know for sure. Not really, and being that she had also bonded with the clone, the loss of either one would prove devastating in so many ways. The only thought which lent her any comfort now was that they’d only managed to apprehend one of the two. We still have a chance. And still, she had to pretend as if this were her only son. That cut their chances of escape in half. Unless the clone had already been destroyed. The Helias Flesh was not known for being particularly stable, and she still could not be sure if they’d chosen the correct vial. Shit.

“You leave him alone!” she shrieked, rising into the open and tearing the phase unit off her bony wrist. The heavy thing fell to the floor with a thud. Two Dispatchers were holding tight to Lucien, who struggled and squirmed under their grasp until one of them held a knife up to his throat. The other switched on his phase unit to illuminate the boy’s face as they dragged him out into the center aisle near the sculpture. Constance rushed over the join them, but soon found herself in the custody of cloaker coats as they flashed into visibility ahead of her and took her by the arms. Suddenly, her movements weren’t her own anymore, and she struggled to escape.

“Unhand me, you fools! I’ll have you all demoted, no, worse! I’ll have you dispatched and deported, that’s a promise-”

“Do shut up,” Marco Corcini cut her off. They shoved her to her knees in front of him. All the mother could do now was look upon the terrified face of her child as he stood beneath the blue glow of phase units, powerless to save either one of them. She should have listened to Charles from the very beginning, but still, Charles should have listened to her before appointing this madman as minister of defense. A madman who belonged in the Alabaster Bay Asylum himself.

“What the bloody hell do you want from us?!” Constance yelled. The menacing man grinned, and the scars that covered his dark, aging face turned to daggers. His lower lip was turned downward in a permanent snarl reminiscent of a rabid dog. One had to wonder if he was just as insane.

“You know what I want,” he replied. “I’m looking for your husband. You and your son are no doubt a catch in the same web, however Charles was first on my list. If you would be good enough to give yourselves up now and reveal his location, I will-”

“Fuck off!” the woman spat.

“I believe I’m being more than generous in my offer,” Corcini bellowed, brushing a hand over her son’s hair.

“Don’t you dare touch-”

“Ah ah,” the man snapped his fingers. One of the Dispatchers holding onto Constance charged his phase unit and zapped her. The sudden shock jolted through her nervous system and caused her to vomit. Marco smirked and knelt down to look her in the eye, removing a small handkerchief from his pocket. She struggled to turn away as he proceeded to wipe her chin, though she gave in. “You know…royal families have been executed in coup d’états for centuries. You and your son could live out a decent life.”

“I’d rather choose exile than the asylum!”

“You would be living in the warden’s quarters, naturally,” the man sighed. “Admittedly not as luxurious a place as this, but,” he glanced around at the tapestries on the walls, “I would allow you to keep your lovely drapes.”

“You son of a bitch!”

“Ah, strike two,” the man snapped his fingers again, and a stronger jolt shot through Renou’s body. She dry heaved as a feeling of extreme dizziness and nausea overcame her. The outline of Marco’s figure began to grow blurry in the dark, and her nose started running. She looked down a moment at the illuminated marble floor beneath the glow of the phase units and her heart jumped. It was blood.

“Let my mother go, you can have me!” Lucien cried. “Please, please just take me!”

“No,” Constance whimpered in defeat.

“No? Ah, but I do think the boy has a rather splendid idea,” Marco sneered. “I have no children, after all. I have often wondered, if I were to have an heir of my own in this broken world which you are so adamant on saving-”

“Not over my dead BODY!” the woman shouted.

“Fine, it’s not as if you respect death anyway. Strike three.” Corcini snapped his fingers again, and the Dispatcher holding the knife to Lucien’s throat slashed his jugular. The boy’s blue eyes immediately went wide with horror, paling as he looked on his mother for the last time in shock. Blood squirted out like a fountain from his tiny neck, drenching the black and white floor and staining the crunched glass beneath the boots of the cloaker coats. His body convulsed in the throes of death like a wild animal, and still the Dispatchers held him steady so Constance was forced to stare at the entire spectacle until it had ended.

She felt like vomiting again. A series of audible gasps escaped her throat as she fought her captors to release her arm so she could cover her mouth, but they wouldn’t have it. The lump in her throat from earlier suddenly burst forth in raw emotion, and she cried. Sobbed. Wailed. She cried so hard, she feared the sound of her own voice might turn her deaf. And she prayed Corcini would silence her. Her stomach wretched, her heart sunk. If she could have exploded in a blast of electric light into sheer nothingness like those people who had entered the Viktoria I machine, she would have. Who was a clone, who wasn’t, none of it mattered anymore. They had just murdered her son, and that feeling was real.

Finally, Marco grabbed her by the neck and squeezed tight. Yes, do it. I have nothing left to live for now anyway, and I was foolish to believe I could escape. Give me the sweet embrace of death, that I might join my son.

“Now that I have your full attention…I’m not going to ask again,” the man said coldly.

“You bastard, are you insane?!” Constance chuckled in disbelief. “You’ve just lost your only leverage, and me, my only son. Why don’t you go ahead and snap my neck?”

“I’m sure I could,” the man reasoned. “But then I would be depriving you of the most beautiful feeling you could ever have. Indeed, it may very well be the only thing you can feel after tonight.”

“And what’s that?”

“Revenge, Miss Renou. Because I know Charles has slighted you, as he has done to us all. The way I see things, you and your child are just as much a victim as everyone else who has crossed over to this world, placing their misguided faith in the idea of a better future under DuPont. But I know you are smarter than that, which is why I am willing to allow you to stay here in Viktorium, provided you meet certain requirements.”

“Funny,” Constance rolled her eyes, “I thought you were speaking of revenge against you.”

“Don’t insult my intelligence.” Corcini narrowed his gaze. “You have acquired stock in various companies as a result of your association with Charles, yes? Zuviban Clockworks, LaFout Taylors, Courges Print & Press, Montcherie’s Clothing & Textiles…even access to DuPont Airships & Co. At least three of these are front organizations funneling funds into certain secret accounts in Helias. Accounts which, oddly enough, belong to several leading Radical Party members based in Cavarice who do substantial amounts of work on election campaigns. Need I go on, Madam President? If that is indeed the title you prefer.”

“I haven’t the faintest clue what you’re talking about.”

“You want your husband gone, and so do we,” Marco explained. “And the world we both come from is not so kind to the prospect of women gaining power. Here in Viktorium, however, anything is possible. That is why I would actually prefer you to remain here.”

“So why murder my son?”

“Because without an heir, you have no legitimate claim to this world, and neither does DuPont. Really, I am allowing you to live out the rest of your life as you wish, albeit as a glorified figurehead. It’s the best you can hope for, really, before your departure to the Reapers. As I said, I believe I’m being rather gracious. Still, I could kill you right now and there would be no happiness for you before you ultimately walk the Dark Realm. No before, and no ever after. No revenge against Charles-”

“Fine,” Constance cut him off. “He’s on the Dantua Road heading east for the Aussonne Mountains. There is an underground enclosure high in the hilltops close to the summit of Mount Verlaine. That’s as much as I know. I assume you can find him there.”

“Thank you for your cooperation, Miss Renou,” Marco said. “Although I believe it may be wiser to wait a few years…perhaps to restore faith in the people.” Corcini paced over to a large green and black flag, sewn by Constance herself, and held it out. The bottom, being solid green, represented the Earth plane, and the black above, the night sky. Crossed with diagonal green stripes and yellow stars, it was the first created to represent the frequency of Viktorium. “This was once our dream, was it not? A dream that would sooner break without Charles’ influence.”

“What are you suggesting?”

“Revolution, of course,” Corcini smiled. “The same manner in which the greatest empires of the world have been built. We can let them have their day. Let them believe it’s their doing, not ours. We founded this place, after all.”

“Charles founded this place,” Constance reminded him.

“Don’t tell me you feel sympathy for the old man already. Besides, you and I both know that’s not true.”

“So say we wait until 1915,” she continued. “Then what? You’re going to kill me?”

“You’ll have to stand trial, of course. Proclaim your hard-fought innocence. Then you’ll have your reign of power as president. I can’t promise I won’t cut it short. I do answer to the Dalishkova Council, after all, and they have their own ideas for governance. What I can promise you is that Charles will be gone, and the people will be inspired by your example. Again…it’s the best you can hope for.”

“You’re so gracious!” Constance mocked him. “Now if you are finished, get the fuck out of my house.”

“As you wish. Men!” he called to the remaining squads, “I think our work is done finished here. Bring the injured out to the forest and we’ll commence treatment. Goodnight, Miss Renou. Oh, and I’ll be in touch regarding which blocks are to be shut down first by the Zoning Commission. I will extend your stay as much as possible, however there are those in our organization who would much rather see Viktorium eradicated altogether, so I think it best to keep up appearances for now…make them believe we are complying while keeping the new arrivals satiated.”

“I see. And will you comply with the Dalishkova Council, then?”

“I have no intention of doing any such thing.”

“I didn’t think you would. Goodnight, Minister.”

The man said nothing more as he rounded up the remaining squads. They marched out without a word, leaving Constance Renou broken and alone in the darkness of the gallery. The ambient light from the gas lamps out in the hallway provided little illumination with which to see, so she scrambled over to grab the phase unit she’d previously discarded. Kneeling back at the sculpture over the body of her deceased son, she switched it on and set it on the floor. For the longest time, she sat there thinking on her sins, and all the many lies and cons which had brought her to this point. She looked around her at the shattered room, at the flags she had sewn, the many destroyed inventions of Charles put on display. And she looked too at Lucien, her only son, a pure, sweet, and innocent child born from the very worst of her transgressions.

The room was quiet now, too quiet, save for the flickering electric hum of the phase unit. But unlike a fire, it didn’t provide any warmth. Nothing did anymore. There was no one to comfort her, and no one to protect. Marco would be coming for Charles now, probably to enslave him until such time a public spectacle could be made over his exile. They were completely finished as a royal family in Viktorium. For better or worse, it seemed the Dalishkova had already won.

Constance began to cry. And yet for what specific reason, she did not know. Was it loss? And if so, loss of what? Pride? Sanity? Her child? After all, she was getting exactly what she wanted; guaranteed reign of power in Viktorium for a time, during which she could extend her influence as much as possible and hopefully turn the people against the Dalishkova. And yet not even that much was guaranteed. Who knew when her reign as president would end, after all? She still had to provide for her son, and…my son…

She stroked the dead child’s golden hair, the same color as her own, and sobbed quietly. Sobbed so hard, she felt her chest tighten and her stomach contract. Her heart was breaking. He was everything she had ever wanted, and up until now, everything she had done was for him. The money from Zuviban Clockworks was being siphoned into a private offshore account for him, so that when he came of age, he could attend a school or start his own business, whatever his fancy desired. Charles provided for both of them of course, but the truth was that she had never wanted to rely on the man. DuPont was nothing more than a greedy narcissist, and she had to get away from him.

Becoming the first female president, or hell, even mayor would have left her with more than enough to provide for Lucien on her own. Yet the sad truth was that she needed DuPont out of the picture. She needed men like Marco Corcini to help, at least for now. If that was the only way to safely remain in Viktorium, so be it. She may not win against the Dalishkova in the end, but she certainly was not about to go down without a fight. But now that he had taken her only son, what did she have left to fight for? She could feel the power, the well-bred strength and resolve of her mother’s genes draining away with every flicker of the phase unit.

And she cried because she felt so powerless here, alone, in the dark, with only the sounds of electricity and her own sobs, and the crunch of glass as footsteps approached from behind…

Constance didn’t think. She had nothing left to protect, and yet she’d be damned if one of those Dispatchers or even Corcini was about to disturb her peace by barging in on her as she mourned the death of her only son. In one swift movement, she snatched the phase unit in front of her and whirled around on her back to take aim at the intruder.

“Mum?” a golden-haired, blue-eyed boy asked. “Why are you crying? I’m right here.”

“Oh my god!” the mother exclaimed, dropping the phase unit and scrambling on her knees to embrace him. Broken glass scraped across her legs creating fresh cuts and wounds, leaving glittering shards in their wake, but she didn’t care. Her son was all that mattered. All that ever mattered. “Lucien, you’re alive!” she cried. “You’re alive, my sweet boy, I never doubted you for a second! It must have been the clone, my plan worked, they only killed the clone! Oh darling, it was the clone!”

Her spirit was renewed. An intense joy had welled up inside her again, and with it, an even better plan. Now, she knew she could win against the Dalishkova. Marco would never see it coming. As long as Lucien was alive, there was hope. But something began to seem off as Constance knelt in the rubble of the gallery, holding fast onto him. His body seemed to turn cold as a clam under her touch, and he shook with what seemed like fear. As Renou pulled back and took his hands, it looked as if he were sweating profusely.

“Mum…where did the rest of me go?”

“The rest of you?” the mother worried, holding a hand to his forehead to see if it was a fever. He was ice cold. “Darling, you’re here…you’re right here, and I’m so glad you are.” She stroked his face and went to wipe away his tears, only to discover they’d frozen onto his cheek. Curious, she chipped off the end of it with her fingernail. It broke off into her palm. “Lucien,” she panicked, “what’s the last thing you remember?”

“I closed my eyes and he wasn’t there anymore…I wonder if that’s why I’m sad.”

“Who? Who wasn’t there?”

“My brother,” the boy whimpered.

“Forget it darling, you don’t have a brother, it was probably just a bad dream,” Constance deflected. “I’m here for you now, all right? I promise. Mama’s here for you now.”

It was at this point that she realized she had been holding the clone in her arms all this time. Tears certainly didn’t freeze on a normal human face. She worried, though, if he would turn out to be okay, or if he would self-destruct at any point. It was a possibility. His skin was so cold, but after a long time of holding him, his temperature seemed to come up just fine on its own. Still, no one knew as much about the Helias Flesh as Charles, and yet after tonight, there was no way she could ask; Marco would no doubt inform DuPont of the boy’s death.

Constance would have to be vigilant. She would have to hide him somewhere, before the whole of Viktorium found out. Because for better or worse now, this clone was her son, or at least what was left of him. And if anything happened to her or Charles, the future of the afterlife would be in his hands.

Those ice cold, false-fleshed hands…

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House of Rats – Part 24

A lump caught up in the elder’s throat at the sight before them. They had just walked into a bloodbath. Torches were being placed along the perimeter in lieu of gas lamps, as most had been destroyed. The entire courtyard inside the west gate was lined with mangled corpses of Dispatchers and Outlanders alike. Many were missing limbs. Some, even heads.

Identification was proving a long and arduous process for the squads in charge of cleanup, and yet they were determined to do so regardless. Some had rushed stacks of papers from the old courthouse, others shuffled through notebooks. The press, too, seemed to have arrived early on the grisly scene to take photographs. And there, to the far left of the massacre, stood the city wall in all of its glory with a gigantic hole blown through the gate. Sparks and bolts still shot out from an assortment of frayed wires dangling about. Lieutenant Edmond seemed to be doing his damnedest to keep the press at bay, until finally he called over one of the squads in charge of identification to deal with them.

“Absolutely NO comments, got it?!” he grumbled to the squad, shoving his way past a throng of reporters. More were bounding in from up the street with pens and notebooks in their eager hands. Max counted only a handful, perhaps ten or so. But their numbers were definitely growing by the minute. Pretty soon, half the length of Rue D’Or would be crawling with journalists from every paper and news outlet in Cavarice.

“This is bad,” Max gasped. “This is very bad.”

“How the hell are we supposed to keep them all away?” one of the Dispatchers protested.

“I don’t know, break their cameras, arrest them if you have to!” Edmond shouted, marching in the direction of the Barreau boys. He appeared authoritative enough, though it didn’t take a genius to realize it was a mistake to leave him as acting captain for too long.

“Sir, would you like to put that on your official statement?” a reporter asked.

“Fuck off, how’s that for a statement! I’m sorry, this really isn’t my job, would somebody please get these insects off of me?!”

“I will, with pleasure,” Solomon stepped forward. “Shall we leave our gas masks on?”

“If you think that will frighten them away, by all means,” the lieutenant grinned. “You boys can disperse, I’ll take it from here. Max and Bernard are good friends.”

“Aye, sir. I should note that your third lieutenant did manage to confiscate this from them,” the man said, handing over the phase unit. “We believe it’s one of the stolen ten.”

“Stolen ten, eh? I doubt it.” The young boy grabbed a torch from several feet away and thrust it into the ground in front of them for more light. He turned the unit several ways, examining it for fair assessment. “The serial number checks out. Or it would, if Antoine had bothered to read the decimal point. Older numbering system means it’s an older unit. Also, the dial for the pulse only goes up to five. The most this thing will do is stun for a few hours, which hardly makes it a danger to us. That aside, we’ve got a magnificent hole in the wall. A child’s toy is really the least of my worries,” he said, tossing the unit to Bernard. “Now would you please take care of these bloodthirsty hounds from the press before there’s another massacre to deal with!”

“Yes sir. Men at attention!” Solomon called. “Let’s have some reporters for dinner.” The cloaker coats left in cacophonous laughter and began fanning out to encircle the group of reporters, many of whom began to complain about censorship. Ultimately, it would be of little use. The story would be blown open and spread far and wide, and by this time tomorrow, it was quite possible the entire city would be well on its way to anarchy.

Max glared at Edmond as the young Dispatcher fumbled with his pockets to remove a small key and proceeded to unlock their handcuffs. Once his wrists were free, the elder plucked the silver object from the boy’s fingers and took care of Bernard.

“Yeah, sure, if you want to just…pass that around, whatever,” Edmond sighed. “Look, I can’t tell you all how sorry I-”

“Save it!” Max snapped. “Just what the hell is the meaning of all this?!”

The lieutenant bit his lip. “I’m doing the best I can here to keep this contained. I know it’s not good enough, but you need to listen to me right now. I haven’t the faintest idea how this all came about, but I can assure you that I have detectives on the case and we will get to the bottom of it. I do have my suspicions, but I don’t have proof. That said…I believe you’re missing someone.”

“No,” Max gasped. “Don’t you dare, Edmond. Don’t you dare tell me what I think you’re going to tell me!”

“Max,” the boy looked grim, “we have a body. If you’re able to identify this person, it would help us a great deal. There’s a young boy with a brand-”

“NO!” the elder shouted. Tears started to blur his vision as the lump in his throat grew ever more painful. “You are not telling me it’s him. Don’t you DARE tell me it’s Quentin!”

“Max,” Bernard reasoned, “we don’t know who it is. It could be any other Outlander.”

“He’s not a bloody Outlander, he’s a Barreau boy and he’s coming home!”

“All right, I believe you,” Bernard said, putting an arm around Max. “He’ll come home. Let’s just have a look, all right? It doesn’t change anything.”

“Come this way please,” Edmond motioned, leading the group farther up near the gate over piles of crumbling concrete and rubble. Rivers of blood draining out from the array of bodies took on a golden hue beneath the light of the torches as it seeped into the cracked pavement to spread like veins beyond. Red footprints led off in various directions, thanks to the arrival of the press and the Dispatchers still struggling with cleanup. Most of the bodies were being covered with black sheets or placed into cloth sacks to be recorded later. It would still be some time before the coroners arrived. Max shuddered to think that any of that blood might belong to Quentin. Stop it, he urged himself. We know nothing yet.

Overall, the scene was too chaotic to make much sense of anyway. How had the Outlanders managed a successful attack on the wall in the first place? Max had made absolutely certain that morning that Igor wouldn’t get his hands on a phase unit. Aside from technological imports into Cavarice from the mining city of Mendres—the vast majority of which were small chips used in the construction of phase units—there was no way he’d have been able to build a bomb with enough power on his own, either.

Something else was going on just beneath the surface, and somehow those ten missing units had wound up in Igor’s hands. That much was obvious. And either Edmond was incredibly naive, or he was lying. Given both Antoine and Severo’s remarks about corruption in the force, Max assumed the latter. Such thoughts only increased the intense sick feeling now taking root in his stomach with every step that drew them nearer to the body he prayed was not that of his missing friend.

A twinge of nausea shot up to his throat as the group stepped over corpses here or there. It hadn’t seemed as grisly from the darkness of the alley, but up close with the putrid stench of death everywhere, it was becoming increasingly harder to stomach. Get a grip, Max. You came out of the rat trap just fine. And yet somehow as he wiped away the tears, an even worse sight greeted him just up ahead: Lucien standing stoic over the body that Edmond appeared to be leading them to.

“What the hell is he doing here?!” Max shouted. “What the hell-” The elder began charging, but Bernard grabbed his shoulder to stop him.

“Max…not now.”

“I sent for him,” Edmond explained as they reached the corpse. “I sent for you all. You were gone by the time my squad arrived at the mess hall. Under normal circumstances we would have waited until morning, but given the nature of this attack being close to home…and the fact that this one seems to be one of the younger of the originals we branded-”

“Don’t say it!” Max snapped, lunging forward to tear off the black cloth covering the victim’s body.

“MAX!” Bernard yelled, but it was already done.

For a moment, the young elder could only stare in shock at the horror below. The boy’s body was soft and pale, approximately twelve to fourteen years of age, smudged with dirt and sand. His face had been completely blown off and cauterized, an obvious sign of close range, execution-style phase unit fire. What remained was little more than a charred black hole clean through the skull. Blood had splattered everywhere and matted onto his clothes amid clumps of melted ash blond hair. The clothes were the first thing to be recognizable, yet plenty of poor children in Viktorium wore the same tailor-made outfits. There was only one way to be sure.

Leaning forward—and covering his mouth in case he had to vomit—Max carefully grasped the collar of the boy’s torn, crimson-soaked shirt and peeled it down to reveal a branding scar midway down the chest in the shape of an “O”. The elder gasped as he noted every detail; the bottom section of the brand wasn’t fully complete, the way the scar stretched out a bit on the top quarter. He peeled the shirt to the side, checked the boy’s nipples. Quentin possessed an unmistakable birthmark about three inches below the right one on his ribcage.

The mark was present.

“No…” he breathed. “No, no, no!” He turned away from the group and hunched over, heart racing as a cold sweat overtook him. This couldn’t be happening. At some point, this day had to have been a bad dream. Perhaps he’d fallen asleep or passed out somewhere. Anywhere was better than this. The lower levels of the courthouse, the roof of Morcourt, even the villa outside the city walls. Max blinked, he pinched himself, slapped himself across the face, and yet still the vision of the courtyard stood before him. How could this have happened? How could I have let this happen? But none of it mattered. What mattered was that Quentin was now dead, and there was no going home now. Not for anyone. All of his dreams for a better life had died in the black hollow shell that remained of his skull. So it was true, then. It was possible to die in Viktorium.

“You,” Max whispered, turning back to Lucien. “It was you. This is your fault,” the elder shook his head. “This was your doing, you got him killed!”

And still, the same self-righteous smirk had not left his old friend’s face.

“I did nothing,” the lanky boy said. “Though I do recall warning you that it was a bad idea to keep him around. Outlanders never change. Come on Max, you knew that. The entire city of Cavarice knows that. Of course what we don’t know is exactly how you managed to steal those phase units, but I’m sure we’ll figure it out soon enough.”

“You son of a bitch!” Max charged forward, struggling against Bernard’s grasp and managed to sock him hard in the face. The boy grunted in pain and grabbed his nose. It had started to bleed. Edmond whipped a white handkerchief at him as he stepped over the body, positioning himself between the two boys.

“All right, that’s enough from both of you!” The second lieutenant remained stern. “Thank you for your help,” he nodded to Max. “I’m so sorry for your-”

“Shut up!” the elder snapped. “We don’t need your pity. My friend was executed by phase unit fire. I want to know who the fuck did this!”

“I give you my word I’ll get to the bottom of it,” Edmond assured him. But Max didn’t back down. He glared at the Dispatcher with all the fury of an alpha wolf protecting its pack. If there was one lesson he had learned in all of his days as a Barreau boy, it was that you could never trust a Dispatcher, no matter how nice or helpful any of them would seem. Deep down he knew, and perhaps had always known that ever since his arrival from the deadly house fire up north which had brought him here. Something wasn’t right. Why would I still be alive?

“I hope so,” Max backed away with the rest of his group, mostly at Bernard’s urging. “For your sake.”

“Look, you can head on home,” Edmond sighed. “I’ll get on the radio and see to it you’re not bothered by the squads doing cleanup on the surrounding blocks.”

“We appreciate it,” Bernard nodded, as they made haste for the alley.

“Would you like his body released to you?” the Dispatcher called.

“Forget it!” Max yelled back. “It’s just a shell anyway.”

“Right…”

The young elder stopped as they reached the walkway, turning back a moment to take one last glance at the bustling scene unfolding around the west gate. As expected, Solomon’s crew of cloaker coats hadn’t been able to hold back the journalists and photographers for long. There were simply too many of them marching down Rue D’Or, determined to get their story. Some of those more desperate had even picked up slabs of broken concrete along the way to fend off the Dispatcher squads doing cleanup. Of course none of it would be happening if Pontius had not abandoned his post, and that was if he were even still alive at this point. Either way, there was no stopping it now.

Max thought too of Mayor La Cour’s annual welcome gala, and all people they were meant to deceive. All of it was about to be blown open even wider than the hole in the west gate. Viktorium, the place of new beginnings. Viktorium, the land of victory over death. Viktorium, the utopia of social equality where everyone is treated alike no matter what race, gender, religion, or creed. Viktorium, the land of lies. Viktorium, the house of rats. There would be no sugar-coating it anymore. Not after this. Perhaps not ever again. For better or worse, the lie was over, the veil lifted.

There would certainly be no business had with the Outlanders anymore, either. All the Barreau boys could do now was watch and wait, eyes aglow with the fire in which their hopes and dreams were burnt to ash on this very night.

“Say, Bernard,” Max pondered, leaning against the brick wall as a swarm of journalists came crashing through a barricade the Dispatchers had erected. “What do you think is going to happen now?”

“If I had to pick the most concerning thing? People will finally see there is such a thing as death in Viktorium.”

“Yeah,” the elder smirked, turning back through the alley as a Molotov cocktail went flying through the air in Edmond’s direction. “Get ready for a shitstorm.”

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House of Rats – Part 15

Mayor La Cour had led Max up to an observation deck on the roof via a private lift. The balcony afforded a view such that the young elder had never before seen in his short life. Far out in the distance, the last rays of the sun shone out over the golden desert, painting the sky in a series of hues that ranged from deep violet to pink, red to orange. Just before it set, there would be a flash of green over the horizon—one of the few natural indicators that Viktorium existed in an alternate realm from that of the real world. It was a beautiful sight, though a trifle bittersweet. For many citizens of Cavarice, it reminded them of a home they could never return to and the relatives they had left behind.

Max felt he knew what was coming as they paced the ring of the balcony, looking out over the city below with its many streaks and dots of light shining like a field of fallen stars. Shattered wishes cast by a child somewhere in the real world, that’s what they were. And that is what the mayor would want to discuss, as he did every year in the weeks leading up to the welcome gala. Always the same meaningless drivel. What can I do for you boys? But of course year after year, nothing changed. Max might as well have cast a wish on one of those fallen stars.

“So what did you want to talk about?” the elder asked, leaning over the railing. He let out a puff of smoke from the cigarette he’d inhaled. The mayor had offered him one on the way up, and though he typically didn’t smoke, the gala was always one such occasion during which he made an exception. “The rat-infested cafeteria? The shit-covered canal? Or I know…how about the failure of the Dispatchers Training Programme, or the renovations we need at the orphanage?”

“Actually, I was thinking of school.” The man lit up a cigarette of his own.

“School?” Max raised an eyebrow. “We can’t afford that. How would you even build one-”

“Just for you,” Nicolas cut him off.

“Me? I don’t understand.”

“Max,” the man sighed, joining him at the railing, “I see enormous potential in you. That isn’t something I would say lightly. Over the past four years I’ve kept an eye on you, I have watched you grow from a scrappy little devil into a respectable young man. There’s no reason for a boy like you to be stuck in that rotting Barreau District, heading an orphanage of children who are none the wiser about how the system fails them for life.”

“You would be surprised how smart they are,” Max said, inhaling another puff.

“All the same…if there were more I could do, I would. But I’d feel much better just getting even one of you out of that place.”

“But why me? Why not Lucien, or Bernard? They deserve it more.”

“Because you’re the leader. And Cavarice is in desperate need of young men like you.”

“I’m not a politician.”

“No,” the mayor said, “but someday, perhaps you will be.”

“I doubt it.” Max tossed his cigarette over the edge and watched it disappear into the void of fallen stars below.

“May I ask why you believe your stubbornness to be a virtue?”

“Because it’s not a choice,” the elder backed away from the railing, “I don’t have the luxury not to be. My place is at the orphanage. My boys need me. That’s all.”

“Bullshit!” La Cour spat. “You’re afraid of something. Tell me.”

“Who says I’m afraid?” Max smirked. “I’d just rather stay out of it.”

“Stay out of what?”

“Everything! All of it! This entire city is just a smokescreen, and you know it! All the way from the governor down to the very last piece of the puzzle, and even some of the pieces that lay outside. Every new arrival who comes here is treated with all this nonsense about a better life waiting for them. Houses in the Metropoliès, vacations in Verdevale, a cruise around Helias. Yet some of them will still end up in the Barreau District after their lovely stay at Morcourt is done, and their voices too will be silenced forever with the rest of the lower class! So why Nicolas, why the hell do we keep lying to everyone? Please answer me that!”

Tears were beginning to flood the elder’s eyes. Tears of sadness, but also anger. He could never stop thinking about the first year in which he arrived. Back when the Barreau District was thriving with business of all sorts. The jazz players, the dancers, the musicians, the connoisseurs of fine French cuisine. The promise of a better life, of a future. And here the mayor was, finally offering it to him, the chance of a lifetime. But Max knew it was only out of pity, and it would become just as much a lie. Sure, he could take it. But how would the other boys feel?

“I wasn’t going to show you this until after the gala,” the mayor sighed, producing a small brown envelope out of his jacket pocket and placing it in the boy’s trembling hand. “But I want you to see how well you’ll be taken care of.”

Max tore open the top of the parcel and carefully looked over the yellow legal documents inside. It can’t be, he thought. This isn’t real. There’s no way in bloody hell. His mouth dropped open as he skimmed them through and realized what they were. His vision began to blur even more, and for a moment, he hoped he was dying for real. But it was just tears.

“Adoption papers?” he gasped. “You’re joking, right?”

“I haven’t filed them yet,” the mayor explained. “But if it’s something you’d like to think about-”

“Forget it!” Max yelled, tearing the collection of papers to shreds and tossing them over the edge of the building. “So you bring me up here alone to talk about sending me off to school while the rest of the boys are left to suffer in the Barreau District? And what then after I’m your son, huh? It doesn’t matter because you’ve already lost control of this city!”

“Max-”

“No! This is just another one of your foolish empty promises, just like the rest!” the boy shouted. “Why don’t you just admit that you can’t do shit for any of us?”

“Would you let me explain?” the man pleaded. He set a hand on Max’s shoulder, but the elder smacked it away.

“Don’t touch me! God, look at you,” he laughed. “You’re pathetic, Nicolas. Truly and honestly pathetic. I’ll work your stupid welcome gala, but after that, I’m finished with you.” Max turned back toward the lift. La Cour stopped him.

“Fine,” the mayor said. “Forget about the adoption, that was stupid of me. I’m sorry. I should not have done that. But you should know that the reason I host these welcome galas is not to deceive anyone, or to secure votes in the coming election. It’s because I believe in something, Max. I believe in this city and all that Viktorium has to offer, which is why I’m going to take a lot of risks in my upcoming campaign to invest in our youth. I’m holding a fundraiser event tonight to con some of the bigwigs into forking over their cash under the guise of supporting a major military project they’ve wanted to invest in. Instead, that money will be exchanged through a network of trusted hands who want to make the Dispatchers Training Programme a reality again. With a little luck, it could be revived and running within the next several months.”

Max turned around, his eyes wide. “Really?” He couldn’t believe it. I could have the chance to be a Dispatcher! That meant unprecedented access to phase units and other equipment, a first look at every new invention Tesla had in the works, the thrill of hunting anomalies, and best of all, a Level One security pass that offered unlimited access to every district in the city, exclusive parties, and travel outside Cavarice walls. Not only could this become a reality for him, but to all the rest of the Barreau boys as well. They could have a legitimate chance again.

“Well, what do you say? I could send you to school, and in time, the other boys will be able to join you.”

“I don’t know,” Max said, leaning back against the lift door.

He had nearly forgotten about Lucien’s plan to steal the phase unit. The plan he had agreed to not even fifteen minutes ago. The plan that meant betrayal of everything Mayor La Cour had just offered him. Just say yes! his instincts were screaming inside. But he couldn’t. At least not yet. Not until he knew full well that the Dispatchers Programme would be a solid reality again, and even that, he didn’t trust. Either way, he could go to school. He could build a life. No.

“My place for now is with the Barreau boys,” he finally said.

“Fair enough. Of course if you change your mind…”

“Thank you, Mayor,” Max breathed. “I’ll give it some thought.”

But a nauseating feeling had begun to build in his gut, and it only grew progressively worse as they stepped back into the lift and descended down to the ground floor. Stealing the phase unit came with a fair degree of certainty, whilst the mayor’s offer did not. Yet he knew if he and Lucien attempted to steal from La Cour and got caught during the gala, they faced imprisonment or worse. And the man would never trust Max with anything ever again. He could say goodbye to any possibility of ever being a Dispatcher, to say nothing about the offer of school.

The rest of the Barreau boys were waiting at the end of the hallway, eager to head back to the mess hall for supper. The mayor thanked them all for coming and mumbled something about  getting ready for his fundraiser that evening as a Dispatcher squad escorted them to the door.

Max felt sick. He was still trying to process the weight of the conversation with La Cour on the roof. Adoption papers, school, the Training Programme…it was far too much, and the tears were starting to come again. He tried his best to trudge ahead of the group, but of course Lucien had to rush his way over and start jabbering on.

“So what do you think about stealing that phase unit?” he whispered. “Max…Max!”

“What?”

“Do you want take the unit from La Cour or not?”

“I don’t know anymore.”

“Come on, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime, we could get filthy rich!”

“Lucien…please just leave me alone.”

“Are you crying?” he smirked. “What’s wrong? Max!”

“Shut up!” the elder shoved him.

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