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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Night of the Wolf – Part 1

DuPont Mansion, Sereinnes Province, Viktorium
August 6th, 1910, 12:02 AM

 Constance Renou slammed her dresser drawer shut and finished strapping the phase unit tight onto her delicate wrist. She had cut the power to the rest of the house, so she hoped her plan would work. Far across the moonlit darkness of her bedroom, the radio crackled with the ominous voice of Marco Corcini, Viktorium’s Minister of Defense. The knife-like coldness with which he spoke had been enough to shake the skin from her bones ever since the day her husband made the mistake of appointing him. Of course, she had warned Charles about the crazed Italian on numerous occasions. He was never one to listen. Now, both of them were being hunted down like animals by their own private Dispatcher squads.

“You stupid egotistical bastard,” she huffed.   

“This world was never ours to colonize,” Corcini bellowed from the radio speaker. “Human arrogance did this. The very same human arrogance which will destroy Viktorium itself. The idea that one may overcome death simply by locking our souls in this perpetual Purgatory is foolish. This land is as unstable as the mind of the man who put the locks on our door. CHARLES DUPONT!” He spat into the microphone, sending an eerie ring screeching throughout the shadows. Constance knelt down beneath her desk, startled.

“Go on, say my name too you son of a bitch, I dare you-”

“And lest we forget his filthy whore courtesan, Ms. Constance Renou and her pornographic stage acts!”

“Ah, there it is,” she grinned. “Perhaps you’d like to join me when I make an act out of emasculating you.” She switched on the phase unit. A blue bolt of electricity sparked from the emitter and danced in her palm. For a brief moment, the shadows fled to every corner of the room in a brilliant glow of luminescence. Renou dialed it off when a series of short beeps echoed near the open doorway—the holograph transmitter. “Shit!” she clenched her teeth. Of course. Charles always kept the transmitters active in case of an emergency.

The mansion was a structure hidden deep in the northernmost corner of Viktorium’s Carnelle Forest—not the easiest place to access if one was in need of outside help. For the life of her, Constance never understood why DuPont insisted on living so far from civilization. There were plenty of high-rise condominiums in the city devoted to luxury, where one need not deal with the twaddle of the masses below. How much more important could any of his future experiments be?

The discovery of Viktorium as an alternate dimension capable of human habitation by both living and dead souls alike was surely the greatest achievement in the history of modern man. With the aid of Nikola Tesla, they had seen to that together, and had come a long way since the Victoria I disaster in the village of Bezonvaux four years prior. Viktorium was indeed a utopian dream realized—although with Corcini’s men fast on their heels, it didn’t seem poised to last.

“Yes,” the man continued on the radio, amid the sequence of beeps still coming from the holograph transmitter. “We are hunting them down now as I speak. Their heads will be on display in Centre Square of the Metropolies before dawn. How far did you honestly believe you both could run? Under your rule, the ghost anomalies would have destroyed every last one of the living in this dimension anyway. That’s why you created the Dispatchers, wasn’t it? To purge this frequency for human habitation! How pathetic. Did you really think you could stand up to the wrath of the Dalishkova?”

“Damn it, Charles!” Constance fumed. “This really is not the time!” She scrambled out from under her desk and over to the transmitter on the wall. On the outside, it was little more than a thin wood and brass box with a dial on the side to adjust frequency. A glass pane was positioned atop it with an assortment of green lasers connected to power cells beneath, which projected a moving image in real time when holograph calls were received. The technology was still very much in its infancy, being one of the many inventions of Tesla, but it allowed callers on both ends to see whomever they were talking to. Constance took a deep breath and turned the dial until the beeps stopped and the glass pane lit up.

“Constance!” her husband’s voice broke through the static. The signal was weak, so the image kept scrambling between solid lines of light and tiny dots as his message distorted. “What the hell are you…? I told you to get…of there!”

“One moment,” the woman sighed, rushing across the room. Screeches of interference blared from the radio. She was about to turn it off when she noticed flashes of light out in the woods through the break in her curtains. A gasp caught in her throat as Corcini spoke his final words before she shut him off.

“By midnight tonight, we will have your mansion in the Carnelle Forest surrounded. Oh, did you think we’d be stupid enough to run this broadcast live? That we would give you fair warning enough to escape? My dear Charles, you’re always so obsessed with time. We will not afford you the luxury. At quarter after midnight, your precious wife and son will be one of us. You will bow, Charles. You will-”

“Fuck!” Renou snapped, cutting him off.

“Constance, you must leave!” DuPont shouted over the transmitter.

“I KNOW!” she yelled, shuffling back.

“What’s that on your wrist?”

“This would be a phase unit, darling.”

“You cannot fight them, it’s suicide!”

“Why not? I’m already surrounded! Besides, you taught me well,” she smirked. “I’ve got a good arm for it.” She gestured to her right, checking her aim.

“Careful with the recoil. Look, I was trying to warn you-”

“Well it’s a little bloody late for that!”

“I tried calling you an hour ago, what the devil were you doing? Don’t tell me you were cutting off the power…”

“Oops,” Constance sighed. “I thought it was best in case we hadn’t left yet. This place is like a lighthouse in the middle of the woods!”

“You know it resets the transmitters!” Charles shouted. “Whatever…meet us at the rendezvous point.” A loud bang came from downstairs, followed by hurried footsteps and several voices yelling. They had already broken through the door. The young woman’s heart sank to her stomach.

“Little late for that too, I’m afraid. Don’t worry darling, I’ll be sure to watch the recoil.”

“CONSTANCE!”

“Sorry, my love. See you in the next life if they want us there, yeah?” With that, she extended her arm and aimed her phase unit at the transmitter, firing a pulse that shattered the glass pane and fried the circuits. Smoke and sparks poured out from the small wooden box. Charles was no more.

“Mum, what’s happening?” a voice came from the doorway. It was Lucien. Their ten year-old son must have been awoken by the noise. Naturally, Charles for whatever reason hadn’t thought to take him. After all, Constance herself did much of the raising, so the child was always with her or the nanny. Probably slipped her husband’s mind. Still, he was the  future of Viktorium, if any such place would even exist after tonight. Constance dreaded to think of what it would be like to raise her child back on the Earth plane alone if Charles’ plan didn’t work out. Exile was the most terrifying prospect imaginable. All of their funds would be taken from them, their businesses liquidated, titles stripped. They’d be forced to walk the cobblestone streets of Paris as nothing more than beggars, or worse, if the boy were placed in some orphanage…

“Not tonight,” the woman breathed.

“What? Mum-”

“This way darling, quickly!” she grabbed him by the wrist, rushing him out through her private lounge room and over to a secret stairwell aside the fireplace. The spiral steps led down to Charles’ lab next to the Gallery of Machines—a hall devoted to his many inventions, all of which were placed in glass displays for private viewing by partygoers during gala events. If ever there were a greater monument to the man’s narcissism on this side of the afterlife, Constance didn’t know it. That said, however, perhaps such a maze did afford the perfect opportunity to distract Corcini’s men just long enough to make their escape. Renou had the perfect idea in mind.

“What’s going on? Mum!” the boy demanded.

“We’re going on a little vacation, sweetheart.”

“I’m not bloody five years old-”

“Marco’s squads are here!” she clenched her teeth. “Now shut up while I try to remember the code to your father’s lab.” The two hopped down to the wooden floor. All the while, Constance could hear muffled thumps and conversation vibrating through the walls above. The Dispatchers had made their way into her bedroom already. She swore she could pick out the particular voice timbre of a young boy she had recruited into her personal bodyguard squad just a month ago. Of course he knew every inch of the house, save for the secret passageways, thank goodness. None of the people who served the royal family were permitted to have knowledge of them in case a coup—like this one—should ever occur.

With so many thoughts flooding her mind, Constance struggled to remember the combination on the keypad. The indicator light remained red, flashing every time the numbers were wrong as if to taunt her. Meanwhile, Lucien had since broken free from her grasp and gazed upward along the wall, nervously pacing about.

“Mum…please hurry,” he urged.

“I know, darling. Why did your father have to make it ten bloody digits…any chance he ever taught you the code?”

“He never teaches me anything. I’m with you most of the time.”

“Thanks,” the young woman rolled her eyes. “But he’s brought you to his lab plenty of times late at night before when you couldn’t sleep, yeah?”

“That was over a year ago, before he had the keypad.”

“Lovely…3,3,2,9,7…” The door continued buzzing its denial. “Bloody hell!”

“Maybe it’s the same as the code for the gates on the Cavarice city walls.”

“Now that’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard!” Constance scoffed. “Fine, we’ll do it your way. Come to think of it, your father’s not one to use separate pass codes when he can help it…4,8,1,5,1,6,2,3,4,2…” The light flashed green and the thick red steel door to the lab slid open in front of them. “Aha! We’re in!”

“Every Dispatcher knows that code,” the boy pointed out as they stepped over the threshold. “Not very safe.”

“Being that they’re already inside the house, we’re well past any safety measures. It’s time for a bit of offense.”

“Mum, there’s nothing in here that could help. What’s your plan? The phase unit? The recoil on that thing could break your little arm-”

“I’ll break your little arm if you don’t shut it!” Constance snapped. “They’ll be blocking the Gallery entrance. We need a diversion to lead them to a dead end so we can sneak past. Now where did he put that organic matter duplicator…”

She flipped the switch for the lights and gazed over the long, narrow room. One of the bulbs about halfway along the ceiling shorted out and broke. He must not have been here in some time. The place was a mess, full of crumpled papers tossed on the work tables, various metal pieces and wiring strewn about, frayed bits on the floor, screws and nails here or there. Brass tubing and clock parts took up an entire table. Charles’ lab was located at the back end of the Gallery, much smaller than his main workspace at the other end of the house. It was used mainly for storing simpler inventions and cleaning pieces for display, though there were some items he’d move here if he needed to have a closer look at them with a specialized microscope. The organic duplicator was one such piece.

DuPont had acquired a vial of the mysterious liquid from a street market in Helias several years earlier. The merchant insisted it was infused with some sort of mystical healing powers, a statement the scientist remained unconvinced of until the man took a knife to his own palm and poured a bit of the pearl white substance over the wound. Within seconds, the cut had vanished.

Later on, Tesla began tinkering with the liquid, zapping it with varying degrees of high voltage and infrasound. To both of their surprise, the organic matter soon began responding as if it were alive, absorbing skin cells and reconfiguring itself in the Petri dish. With the proper voltage, Tesla discovered it could form a full genetic copy of a living person—essentially, a clone. Of course more research needed to be done as far as stability, but for now, it was good enough for what Constance had in mind.

“Ah, here we are,” the woman grinned, stepping over to an assortment of corked glass vials in the far corner. “Now wait, which one is it?” At least six of the tubes were all labeled ‘Helias Flesh’, though it seemed some had been affected in various ways. One was slightly pink, the scribbled text followed by a plus sign. Another had a touch of gray, labeled with a minus. Two of the vials contained what appeared to be the original white formula, yet one was labeled with an X, the other with a Y. The others were solid green, and she thought the last was slightly yellow, but it was impossible to know for sure under the dim lighting.

All the while, the loud thumping of footsteps and murmurs on the floorboards above had grown louder. A sudden bang reverberated, followed by shouting. Constance jumped. The Dispatchers were tearing apart her room.

“WHERE THE HELL IS SHE?!” a voice yelled. “Check downstairs in the gallery!”

“Yes sir,” another answered sharply. There was that voice again. It was Karl, second-in-command of her personal squad.

“I knew I shouldn’t have trusted that snake, he probably sold us out,” the woman muttered, snatching the two vials of white matter and leaving the rest. “Do you know if your father keeps a vortex in here?”

“Seriously Mum,” Lucien sighed, taking the tubes from her hand, “I think you mean a centrifuge. You’ve lived together ten years, how do you not know the most basic instruments? It’s the spinner machine right here.” The boy uncovered a device on the work table about the size of a small radio with a hand crank on the side. An angled wheel on the top could fit up to six test vials. Below, it led to a spout and a tiny platform for beakers, and directly behind the spout at the back was a pulse emitter, similar to the ones used in phase units.

“That’s not like any centrifuge I’ve seen before.”

“Tesla built it for testing the white matter.”

“Great,” Constance sighed. “Any other helpful information you’d like to volunteer before they start breaking down the gallery walls?”

“That’s all I know, I swear.”

“Let’s see which one of these tubes is it.” She dragged over a nearby stool and placed the vials in the appropriate slots atop the centrifuge, giving them a few spins to note if the colors changed at all. Meanwhile, Lucien leaned his head over the work table to get a closer look.

“What does the organic matter do, anyway?”

“Well, according to your father, it heals wounds. Tesla discovered it does something more,” she squinted. “Back in the early days, Viktorium had a problem with stability due to matter density ratio. The souls of the dead were brought here because of a beacon they placed on top of the Eiffel Tower, but their mass wasn’t enough to keep the frequency stable. They needed something heavier to balance things out. Supposedly, they injected some people with organic matter disguised as a vaccine to ward off anomalies while Dispatchers hunted the rest. But that wasn’t quite enough either. That’s why-”

“CONSTANCE RENOU!” a voice shouted from behind the walls.

“Well what do you know…it’s formula X,” the woman smiled, noting that the vial labeled Y was now showing a purple substance bubbling up to the top. “Hand me a beaker from over there, will you?” She pointed to a shelf on the opposite wall. Lucien found the smallest one and placed it on the platform below the spout as his mother removed Y and turned the tube with X upside down in the slot. She then powered on the phase emitter. A light blue glow engulfed the dim darkness of the room.

“So what happens now?” her son asked.

“Now, get me the sharpest and cleanest nail you can find on this table. Unless you can find a needle, that would actually be better…”

“Dad wouldn’t keep needles in here. Mum,” the boy shuddered, picking a screw from out of a toolbox, “what are you planning?”

“Perfect.” The woman plucked it from his fingers and took her son by the wrist with an iron grip, forcing his hand down on the table with his palm upward.

“Ow, you’re hurting me!”

“Do you trust me?” She asked.

“Mum, please dont!” Lucien whimpered, clenching his teeth.

“You want to get out of this house alive, yeah?”

“Yes, but-”

“It’s just a drop of blood, hold still.” She jabbed him in the index finger with the sharp end of the screw.

“Ouch!”

“All done,” she assured him, tapping the metal on the side of the beaker to release the blood. She reached up with her other hand and slowly began to open the spout above, allowing the white substance to pour into the beaker. As it passed through the pulse of the emitter, it sparked slightly, and the white stream began to vibrate in tiny angles from left to right. Once the vial was empty, the pulse cut off by itself. Constance and her son exchanged bewildered glances in the dark before gazing with curiosity back at the liquid now pooling motionless in the beaker, turning itself pink throughout as it merged with the drop of Lucien’s blood. It gave off a faint bit of steam, but otherwise nothing.

“Is something supposed to happen?” the boy asked. A sudden crash sounded just outside the gallery walls.

“We know you’re in here!” Karl shouted.

Constance giggled nervously and stepped down from the stool, checking that the phase unit was still affixed tight enough to her fragile wrist. “Perhaps this was a stupid plan after all-”

There was a loud pop and they both jumped. The beaker had just exploded into a million glass pieces, sending the hot white liquid splattering all over the table, floor, and walls. Then the most curious thing began to happen. The steaming droplets slowly merged together whilst they dripped down the walls and glided back over the table in patterns approaching that of veins. As mother and son looked on in shock, they discovered that veins were exactly what the liquid was forming.

The puddle had since thickened and spread out wide over the wooden work table, and now it was bubbling up again. Droplets changed color from pink to purple, then seemed to jump through the air, as if weaving themselves into a physical body. Veins sprouted, and beneath them, bones. Cartilage. Muscle. It was then that Constance realized that the other five vials must have separated the forms; the yellow-white consisted of bones, the pink was blood, the purple, veins. Lord knew what the others were. This was definitely something else. For a moment, she had to wonder who the person in the other vials consisted of, but there was no time. More crashes and shouted threats could be heard out in the gallery as displays were knocked over, machines probably ruined. Constance only hoped the organic matter would finish itself soon enough. Poor Lucien seemed to be in more shock than she was.

“Mum…I don’t like it,” the boy swallowed, looking up at his mother as the organic matter began to take on his appearance. “What if it tries to kill us?”

“It’s not going to kill us, darling. And if it does, we’ll be long gone from here.” Another crash sounded beyond the wall. Renou closed her eyes. She’d always known Karl had anger issues. That was why she’d chosen him after all, though she never expected it would backfire in this way. He was completely unhinged. And with Corcini’s Dispatchers probably using cloaking devices—cloaker coats, they called them—it would not be easy to escape the maze of the gallery. She only hoped that Lucien’s clone could be more of an asset than a hindrance in that regard.

“What if you f-forget which one of us is me?” Lucien trembled.

“Oh darling, I could never!” Constance knelt to hug her son tight, kissing his forehead. “Now listen, all three of us are going through the secret passage there and into the closet,” she gestured to a bookcase at the end of the room. “Once there, I want you to run out as fast as you can across the end aisle while the clone takes the middle. I’ll fire pulses to distract the Dispatchers from you both and make my way toward the gallery entrance. You and I stay on opposite sides until we’ve reached-”

“No, I’m not leaving you!”

“Let me finish,” she insisted. “Halfway up to the entrance near the Liberté sculpture, both of you will switch places from across the room and I’ll move to the middle aisle. They’ll be looking for me first. While I’ve got the Dispatchers on my end preoccupied, it should give you enough time to sneak out the side of the gallery and through the dining room. You can hide in the pantry closet in the kitchen. By the time the Dispatchers catch the clone, you’ll be in the clear.”

“What about you?”

“Don’t worry about me, I’ll think of something to divert them. You and I will run off into the woods and meet your father at the rendezvous, understood?”

“Yeah,” the boy gulped. “But…are you sure he didn’t hear you?” He gestured over to his clone, who now lay fully-formed and naked on the work table before them. What little remained of the white liquid that had birthed him had congealed into solid chunks before melting to cover his smooth form in a sheen that looked like sweat. The boy—or creature—appeared pale as death for several moments until a faint color of pink washed over his body. Slowly but surely, the thing opened its eyes.

Constance moved to stand in front of her new identical twin son to make certain she was the first living being he saw. She wondered if it would have Lucien’s memories at all. She certainly hoped so; he would make a poor decoy if he didn’t know everything her own son knew. And bad as it might turn out, she actually hoped he’d heard a bit of their conversation as well so she didn’t have to explain the plan to him twice.

A smile spread across the boy’s face when he saw her. Constance smiled back. It was the strangest thing. For deep down, she knew that this clone was not her son, and yet every bit of him that she so loved was still there. And for a moment she thought to herself that if there were to be a twin brother to Lucien, perhaps it was something she could live with. That’s what was odd, too. The motherly instinct to protect him was still there, and suddenly this clone was no longer so much an expendable decoy…he was her child. No, stop it, that makes no sense! she scolded herself. But it was too late. From the moment that child opened his eyes, she was taken all over again, just like the warm summer day ten years ago on which Lucien had been born.

“Mum?” the clone boy spoke softly. “What happened? I was standing right next to…” He trailed off, clearly in shock at the sight of the one from whom he had sprung. The original Lucien frowned and backed away. For several moments, the two eyed one another with suspicion and scorn. Constance, ever the peacemaker, struggled to find words.

“Now now,” she said after much hesitation, “both of you are-”

“Shut up,” her son cut her off.

“Mum?” The clone whimpered, seeming afraid. “Please tell him that-”

“She’s not your mother, so don’t you dare ever call her that!” Lucien snapped.

“I’m sorry…”

“And cover yourself up for god’s sake, you’re naked!” the child fumed, tearing off his pajama top and throwing it at his clone’s crotch. “It’s embarrassing.”

“Lucien,” Constance pleaded, but her son wouldn’t have it.

“Stay away from me, Mum. I’ll escape on my own.”

“You want to be angry at me, that’s fine!” the woman snapped. “But right now, there are only two ways out of this house. One is under my protection. The other is in Corcini’s custody, and I can’t guarantee that the latter option will leave you alive!”

Lucien stopped and glanced back at the clone, still skeptical. The noise out in the gallery had long since silenced, as had the footsteps and thumping from the ceiling above. There was no way to tell now whether the Dispatchers had given up, or if they would be waiting for them just outside the closet. A shudder swept over Constance at the thought. She shook her head and took the clone’s hand as her stomach twisted in knots. It was an involuntary reaction, and one that drew instant disdain from Lucien, but her pleading eyes seemed to do the trick. Her son sighed and gave her a curt nod.

“All right,” the woman acknowledged. “One last thing. You wouldn’t happen to have any other clothing lying around, would you? He could do with some pants.”

“Oh, I forgot! I slept here sometimes when Father was doing renovations upstairs last year because it was quieter,” Lucien said, shuffling over to a work table on the opposite side. He opened one of the lower drawers and produced an identical pair of blue-striped pajamas, throwing on the top for himself and handing the pants to his clone. Watching the second child hop off the table and stand next to his identical twin was at first an eerie sight. The two began to poke at each other’s faces out of curiosity until Constance knelt down and grasped their shoulders.

“Boys,” she whispered. “Are you both ready?”

“Yes Mum,” they replied in unison.

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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 23

The young elder cautiously led what remained of his group out across the end of the Barreau block, mirroring the path he had taken roughly nine hours prior on his way to the old courthouse. It was difficult to fathom how much seemed to have changed since that morning. He had woken up to the familiar green sunrise around six o’clock as always, somewhat dreading the day ahead with the Outlanders, and yet he’d been confident. Confident because he knew his friends were looking out for him. Confident because he trusted them to always be there, that no matter what challenges the boys of Barreau Orphanage happened to face, they would emerge victorious because they were a family. Every piece mattered. And now that family was fracturing. Max prayed he had the necessary resolve to keep his group together.

They scurried through the thickening fog into the next alley, where an angled passage veered sharply to the right and ended at Rue de Charmont—the back way to the orphanage. Upon second thought, Max realized it was a bad idea. There was no way to tell if anyone was lurking just around the bend. A firefight there would mean suicide, as the path was far too narrow to accommodate more than one person at a time. They’d all be dead before any of them had the chance to turn around. It was the perfect place to spring a trap, if the Dispatchers thought that far ahead. Too late to turn back now. Walls of fog were beginning to rise around them, bringing with it the heated stench of garbage strewn throughout the alley that had been thrown from the flats above. Any light from distant streetlamps was snuffed out by the shadows as well. This place was a dead man’s walk.

“It stinks,” Bernard coughed. Several of the other boys groaned along with him.

“Hold your breath and stay back with the others a moment,” Max whispered. “I’ll check the corner up ahead to be sure the coast is clear. Don’t let anyone make a sound.”

“Mon Capitaine,” his friend nodded.

The elder’s heart began to pound as he tiptoed his way alone through the haze ahead, hyperaware of each step in the dark. Broken glass and rotten food lined much of the path. He was certain that worse things lurked in the shadows. Occasional squeaks could be heard echoing upward off the walls, and streaks of some kind of greenish residue had built up on the stone architecture in vein-like patterns traveling down from the rooftops. Feeling a gag reflex coming on from the stench, Max raised an arm to cough into his sleeve and nearly lost his footing.

“Shit!” he gasped, catching himself on the walls. They alley was next to impossible to navigate without light. At least the moon shining intermittently through the clouds provided a forgiving enough glow. He considered firing up a pulse on the phase unit, but thought better of it. If anyone is hiding around that corner, we’re done for. Then he noticed a range of subtle crawling movements beneath the fog and knelt down to get a closer look. The stream extended clear around the corner, as if the cobblestone path were slowly coming alive.

Rats. Hundreds of them.

“Oh…god,” the boy cringed. By now, his gagging had become uncontrollable, giving way to an intense nausea which tore through his stomach. There was no being quiet anymore. Max vomited and fell to his knees. He consulted the path ahead one more time to be certain he wasn’t hallucinating. Sure, he had seen rats around these parts before, but never so many in one particular alley. Where had they all come from? Not like it mattered anymore. A blinding blue light descended into the alley from directly above him, closing in fast.

“MAX, LOOK OUT!” Bernard screamed.

The elder immediately flipped the switch on the phase unit and flipped onto his back, crushing several rats beneath him as he caught the pulse in his palm. Impossible! He extinguished the bolt and gazed up to the rooftops. His eyes darted from one corner to the next as he lay there on the ground with a flood of questions consuming his young mind. Rats gnawed at his clothes and fingertips. Tiny claws scratched at his face. Max didn’t budge.  Then a light breeze blew down the narrow path from around the corner where the army of rats seemed to have been amassing. Little by little, the darkness fled as more blue pulses burned steady, illuminating the stone walls. A second breeze, too, drafted up from Barreau Street down the way. Strange. The elder could make out pulses, but no bodies attached to them…

“Cloaker coats!” he exclaimed. Bernard stepped over and helped him to his feet. Two special ops units of Dispatchers in gas masks surrounded them from both ends of the alley, flickering into visibility as they powered down their cloaking devices. “We’re not looking for any trouble, we’re just trying to get home!”

“It’s true,” Bernard said. “We live just up the block at Barreau-”

“We know,” one of the young men cut him off, removing his mask. “I’m Lieutenant Antoine. Apologies for the rat trap. It wasn’t meant for you. Although I do find it rather curious…if you boys aren’t looking for trouble, what’s the meaning of that?” He gestured to the phase unit on Max’s wrist. Shit.

“We found it.”

“Found it, eh? Where?”

“Uh, we-”

“Ten phase units had gone missing from our munitions storage down at the precinct hours before the wall was breached. You wouldn’t happen to know anything about that, now would you?”

“How could we!” Bernard snapped. “We’ve been holed up at the orphanage all day, you even came to visit if I recall!”

“And none of us has a Level One pass!” Max added.

“Well I’m sure you must know something, given that one of your associates is none other than Lucien Riviere, a boy who caused quite a lot of trouble for us this morning. I must say that his fascinating hostage story involving the Outlanders had more holes than the leaky roof I live under.”

“I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about!” Max coughed, still trying to shake off the unbearable stench from the alley. A rage was building inside him now. “Lucien and I are no longer associates. And maybe if your boys Jacques and Alfred bothered to do a proper interrogation instead of going out with him for drinks at the pub, you’d still have your bloody phase units!”

Antoine sighed. “Unfortunately, we had no probable cause for detaining Lucien. You, however, are clearly in unauthorized possession of a stolen device reserved for Dispatcher use.” He grabbed Max by the arm and turned his wrist to get a look at the serial number. “Ah yes, unit 006374. Number eight on the list of the missing ten.”

“WHAT?!” Max exclaimed. “That’s not possible!”

“And that’s what they all say. I do apologize. We’ve had quite a long day, you understand. I simply can’t afford to take chances.” The lieutenant unstrapped the stolen unit, tearing it free from his arm, and signaled three of his men to begin apprehending the boys. A series of metal clicks echoed throughout the alley. Max winced in pain as the cuffs clamped down tight over his bony wrists. “Apparently I was wrong about the lot of you. Perhaps I didn’t misjudge when I set the trap. Perfect location, really.” The young man coughed and pulled the gas mask back over his head.

Max was aghast, but did as he was told. He leaned back against the stone wall in silence while the remainder of his Barreau boys were cuffed, dreading the inevitable march out of the alley to god-knows-where. None of it made sense. Sure, the unit was stolen, but if it was the same one Tomas always tinkered with, it was most certainly over a year old—not one of those Antoine claimed as missing. Still, it occurred to him to do another headcount. And of course, it seemed another from the group had gone missing. Florian, that bastard. Always loyal to Lucien.

The boys were led at a brisk pace back onto Barreau street and up the block toward the orphanage. For a few moments, Max remained hopeful that perhaps they were being escorted home and let off with a warning, though he wasn’t foolish enough to believe it. No. Antoine was next in the chain of command below the second lieutenant, which was Edmond Fache. And since Edmond was now the de facto squad leader in place of Captain Georges, Antoine was required to report back to him before pursuing any further course of action.

“I believe they’re taking us to the west gate,” Max whispered, quickening his stride to catch up with Bernard. Deeper questions, too, were beginning to take root in his mind.

“I gathered as much,” Bernard answered. “Any brilliant plan for getting us out of this?”

“They’ve got our phase unit, so no. Clever move by Lucien, leaving Florian behind to sabotage us.”

“You really think he had something to do with the ten stolen ones?”

“I wouldn’t put it past him. How else do you explain the matching serial number? Lord only knows what Lucien was up to, getting drunk with that squad earlier. Besides, I thought you were keeping an eye on Florian!”

“Quiet!” one of the Dispatchers shoved Max along.

“I’d think you’d appreciate some of my insights when it may involve the men in your precinct!” the elder snapped.

“If you’re wise, you’ll save your banter for Commander Pontius,” Antoine said. “He enjoys a good story now and then. Especially of the fictional sort.”

Max grunted in frustration and turned back to Bernard. An idea had sprung to mind. He wasn’t so sure it was a good one, and there was no guarantee they would escape. Still, it provided a means of distraction until he could figure out their next move. Start a fight. Why not? It was all he had left. Besides, it seemed to have worked in the few movies he had seen.

“You know, of all the nights I’ve needed you to watch my back, this is probably the one time where I’ve needed it most.”

“I beg your pardon?” His second-in-command appeared genuinely insulted. “You saw how thick the fog was in that alley and how dark it was! You’d have lost Florian too. Don’t you dare pin this on me, Max!”

“Excuse me if I’m beginning to question everyone’s loyalties around here.” The young elder made eye contact with Bernard and winked.

“Well you’re certainly one to talk of loyalty, aren’t you?” the African nodded. “You’ve been driving this divide for weeks all by yourself.”

“Yeah? How you figure?”

“You hardly let Lucien lead when he’s proven himself more than capable. Shut down every decision he’s ever made, even when you know it’s better than yours. Like you said before, good leaders are willing to compromise. So what compromises have you made, Max Ferrier?”

“I’ve made more than my share!” The elder shoved him as far as he could, considering the cuffs. He hated to admit that although this was a bit of staged improv, the notion of compromise was still a mental trigger for him. He’d always been sensitive as to whether or not he did enough to take care of the boys, and if there were perhaps better alternatives he hadn’t considered. But that was where he and Lucien always traded off—the partnership worked because they each had different ways of leading. And who was he to say that his former friend was entirely wrong? Supposing the new arrangement worked out for the better, it was something he would have to grow to accept. Max didn’t like it.

“So have the rest of us!” Bernard shoved back. The group had just turned right into an alley a block away from the old DuPont Steamworks building. Max and his newest fellow elder exchanged a series of light punches, each taking care not to hurt the other while doing their best to disrupt Antoine’s team enough for the other boys to escape. Of course it was of little use; the so-called cloaker coat Dispatchers were well trained in riot containment. In seconds, the Barreau boys found themselves surrounded in a circle of pulsating blue light.

“I think that’s quite enough,” Antoine sneered. “Let me make myself perfectly clear. None of you are being let off easy tonight, and certainly not with Outlanders on the loose. Now if you’d be so kind as to save your shit for Pontius before I-”

“Why Pontius?” Max cut him off. If his immediate superior were not available, he would have understood why, but it made no sense. Edmond was acting captain of their precinct now. Pontius was a glorified figurehead. “Edmond is the one you answer to, correct?”

Antoine smiled in a way that made the young elder uncomfortable. “Let us just say that sneaky things have been afoot in our ranks for quite some time now. Nothing personal, of course. But someone must ensure that the order is preserved. Edmond has been corrupted, as have many others. Not to worry. They will be taught the error of their ways soon enough.”

“SIR!” a voice shouted from the other end of the alley, followed by hurried footsteps plodding their way up to the group. “Sir,” a lone Dispatcher panted. He hunched over a moment to catch his breath, appearing stunned at the display of phase units before him. “Whoa…bad timing?”

“What is it, Gabriel?”

“Pontius is down, and we could use your assistance clearing the other alleys.”

Antoine’s eyes narrowed. “What happened to Pontius?”

“We’re not sure, sir. He said something about heading for the subway. Claude’s squad found him passed out on the sidewalk near the church.”

“Let me guess. He’s been drinking again, hasn’t he?”

“It appears so, though not quite enough to be inebriated. His eyes were rolled into the back of his head, blood coming out his ears. We don’t know what to make of it.”

“Wonderful.”

“Also, Lieutenant Edmond has requested that should you run into the Barreau boys, you’re to escort them safely to the west-”

“FINE!” Antoine snapped. “I’ve had enough of babysitting this lot anyway. Solomon,” he ordered one of his men, “would you please see to it that the Barreau boys are escorted over to our acting captain.” The scorn with which he emphasized those last words cut like a knife. He clearly couldn’t bear to speak the name of his superior. “Oh, and be sure to show him this,” he said, tossing over the confiscated phase unit.

“Yes sir,” the masked man saluted.

“Good luck with them. You’ll need it.” Antoine stormed off with Gabriel out the far end of the alley. Solomon kept the ranks well in formation around the Barreau boys, muttering something about keeping them protected. Of course Max knew it was all a ruse to be sure none of them attempted escape again. Still, it comforted him to know that they were at last being led back to Edmond. And while he did have a few choice words himself to share with the Dispatcher who’d been responsible for Quentin’s abuse, he did hope to at last get some answers about what happened that morning following Lucien’s reentry into the city.

As the boys came out onto the street and wound their way through the next alley, an odd sensation of static clung to the air. Far above them, damaged power lines strung across rooftops sparked and crackled in the rain, and with it, the streetlamps on the other side appeared to flicker ever so slightly. Max smirked. It was fast becoming more difficult to trust his own gut about things in this strange world. Things he thought he’d heard, things he saw, lies he was so sure could be uncovered—it was enough to drive one mad. Still, he liked to believe that perhaps there was a god left somewhere in this place, or that some benevolent being was watching over them. It was easier than trusting his friends, anyway.

The group passed a spiked iron fence on their right upon emerging from the alley. The jagged, narrow structure of the Catholic church loomed above more like a menacing dagger than a sanctuary of hope, and yet the diocese had offered many of the Barreau boys shelter upon their arrival. It was an odd sight to see on this side of the afterlife; priests taking confessions, nuns offering their services to the poor, Mass held as usual. This particular church had been boarded up some time ago for fear of vandalism before the Outlanders were exiled, though several more still left their doors open on the surrounding blocks.

Max glanced down the sidewalk as they passed the front yard and caught sight of Antoine and Gabriel knelt over a body. A team of Dispatchers further down appeared to be zipping several more into black cloth bags. The elder immediately grabbed Bernard’s shoulder and pointed at the spectacle.

“Hey, check it out! Holy shit, this is intense!” he exclaimed.

“And too close to home. Think that one’s Pontius?”

“Yeah, but he’s two blocks over. Why would he just run off and abandon the wall? He’s supposed to be there for defense until the gala, regardless of what happens.”

“Good question.”

“Keep moving, you’re not at the theatre!” Solomon commanded, prompting the other Dispatchers to shove them along across the street.

“And this one’s got a missing fuse,” Max muttered. “Sorry for getting us into all this.”

“You were leading us home, how were you supposed to know there were cloaker coats? Besides, the whole fight with Lucien and then Florian’s sabotage…perhaps it’s too early to say this, but what if Antoine could be our ally?”

“What!” Max laughed. “I hardly think so.”

“If the Dispatchers are being bribed, who do you suppose is behind it?”

“We’ve already been over this. It can’t be Lucien. He doesn’t have the resources-”

“Then we ought to find out who does, and figure out why they’re so desperate to pay off the Dispatchers. It’s obvious at this point that Lucien is involved somehow. Antoine said he wants to keep the order preserved. The more of them who are against Lucien, the better it is for us.”

“I’m sorry, do you want a war, Bernard? Because that’s how you start a war! Although Lucien seems to know which side he wants to be on, whatever that means.”

“I fear it’s already begun, my friend.”

Max smirked as they exited the final alley onto Rue D’Or, the street which ended at the west gate. “Come on, how much damage do you really think the Outlanders could have done with…oh…my god…”

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House of Rats – Part 22

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are we all good here?” Bernard asked.

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

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

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

“I’m sorry, I didn’t-”

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

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

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

“This isn’t what I wanted.”

“Perhaps it was inevitable after this morning.”

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

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

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

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

“Wrong is a matter of perception.”

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

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

“Lucien-”

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

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

“Shit,” Max closed his eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Holy shit!”

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

“Max…it’s a body.”

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

“Careful.”

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

“You recognize the boy?”

“No. Wait. That’s Ephram!”

“Outlander?”

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

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

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

“Not the Dispatchers.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What did I tell you!” Bernard hissed.

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

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House of Rats – Part 20

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

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

“IGOR!” the man roared.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It doesn’t even matter now…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sir?”

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

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

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

“Of course.”

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

“Yes sir?”

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

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

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

“Not that we’re aware of, sir.”

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

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

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

“I’m sure we will,” Gabriel muttered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Severo!” the man shouted. “Sev!”

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

“Get your hands off of me!”

“Sir, please listen-”

“That’s my son, you hear me? Sev!”

“The Outlanders are getting away!”

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

“Sir-”

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

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

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

Then everything went black.

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House of Rats – Part 19

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

“Pascal! Found the fire warm!”

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

“Pascal, the silent yard!”

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

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

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

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

“The one for the alarm.”

“I said to hit the silent alarm…”

“Oh…oops…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Igor.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Pascal, don’t!” Pontius warned.

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

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

“Cluck cluck!”

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

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

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

_______________________

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

“Everybody all right?” Severo called.

“Help!” a young boy screamed.

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

“Is it bad?” he cried.

“I don’t see anything broken.”

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

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

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

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

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

“How did you all know those verses?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?!”

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

“But-”

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

“Sure, whatever,” the girl huffed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Look, this really isn’t the time!”

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

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

“I won’t ask again.”

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

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

“On what charges?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It is good to see you, old friend.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Godspeed.”

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

“Steady everyone,” he whispered.

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

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House of Rats – Part 18

Pascal knew, despite Pontius’ constant remarks, that he was not the most inept member of the Dispatchers force. But the fact he ended up being singled out by the man each year during the weeks of the welcome gala wasn’t what bothered him most. It was that the other Dispatchers saw no shame in joining in on it. And so he would often become the primary target of their practical jokes, even though the gala weeks were the most crucial security time of the entire year, which meant they all had to be at their sharpest.

“I just don’t get it,” he sighed as he took his nightly stroll over the west gate with Serge, one of his few friends on the force. “I take my job seriously. The rest of them just want to laugh and screw around at my expense. The gala is coming up, I thought that’s the whole reason they put Pontius back in charge. But he doesn’t seem to take his responsibilities seriously either.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean,” Serge agreed. “The man drinks so much, he might as well be swimming in it.”

“Hey,” Pascal whispered, grabbing his arm. “There he is now.”

The two stopped over the center of the gate and knelt down at a crenel just out of sight to watch the courtyard. The streets below were bathed in shadow due to failing electricity on this end of the city, though the Dispatchers had placed several gas lamps along the sidewalks to compensate. Almost everyone at this time of night was off doing patrols elsewhere, whether on the wall or throughout the city’s various districts.

Pontius stumbled into view from the left building where they’d constructed a temporary headquarters. A glass bottle of whisky swung loosely in his hand. He downed several sips as he shuffled along, stopping to survey the empty streets now and then, perhaps deep in thought. Not quite stinking drunk as usual, though certainly enough to affect his work. Pascal’s heart skipped a beat when he tripped over one of the gas lamps and it broke, sending a fireball of glass shards into the street.

“Aw shit!” the man slurred, throwing his bottle aside and kicking sand at the fire until it died. Meanwhile, the whisky landed on its side, pouring out all over the sidewalk.

“Jesus, he’s a mess,” Serge closed his eyes, sitting back against the merlon.

“What ever happened to him?”

“His son got kidnapped by the Dalishkova Knights a few years back.”

“I thought they didn’t have as big a presence in Cavarice.”

“They don’t, but Pontius is from Helias. It’s become the state religion over there.”

“But why kidnap his son?”

Serge peered out over the corner again. Pontius had resumed shuffling about the courtyard, holding his head and blinking his eyes in a vain effort to focus.

“No one is really sure. I’ve heard he was part of a group that led demonstrations against the Dalishkova in the early days, so maybe they did it for revenge. He’s not the only one it happened to.”

“So what do they do with the kids they kidnap? Hold them for ransom?”

“Worse,” Serge replied. “They turn the children into one of them. You forget who your real parents are. But the parents…”

“They never forget,” Pascal whispered, looking sadly back at their district commander, still lumbering aimlessly about the courtyard.

“Well hey,” Serge stepped to his feet, “we ought to get back to our patrol, yeah?”

“Right.”

The two boys continued on down their section of the wall, taking care that all the usual safeguards were in place around the gate. Pascal leaned against one of the merlons and gazed out over the landscape once their run was complete. This was the young Dispatcher’s favorite part of the job. Civilians never got a view quite like it. Light pollution obscured many of the natural nightly phenomena present throughout Viktorium, and they were not permitted access to the wall. But from up there, one could see it all.

A gentle breeze had begun to blow out across the blackened desert up from the southern Sea of Helene, carrying with it the pleasant scent of salt. Clouds of dust, green as the Northern Lights, whisked about the dunes beneath the glow of a full moon. The stars too, hooked in their places for countless millennia, shone down like an ocean of ancient gems.

Then the young Dispatcher caught sight of something far in the distance that did not belong there. Pascal immediately reached down to his utility belt and unhooked a spyglass to observe it more closely. Approximately six hundred yards away, he could make out a series of blue flickering lights emerging from the right of a large rock outcropping. They abruptly went dark, then fired up again for several more seconds.

“Serge, get over here!”

“Mmm, what?” His friend had been munching on a sandwich.

“Now!”

“All right all right, calm your nuts,” he said through the last mouthful, tossing his food over the wall for their German Shepherd, Milton, to finish. The dog eagerly bounded over to lap it up. “What do you see?”

“Have a look over there. To the right of that dune.”

Serge took the spyglass and did as instructed. “Looks like a bloody distress call. But who would be calling for help? It’s not like we’re missing…holy son of a bitch, it’s Captain Georges!”

“Give me that, you’re bluffing!” Pascal snatched it back. “Oh my god,” the boy’s heart pounded. “Serge, what do we do?”

“I’m not sure…can you see anyone else with him?”

“I don’t think so. The only lights are coming from his jacket…shit!” the boy cried.

“He’ll be at the gate soon enough,” Serge said. “Get Pontius.”

“He’s probably passed out by now!”

“You have a phase unit, yeah? Zap him sober.”

“Does that even work?”

“Damn it, just go, GO!” Serge shouted.

Pascal turned and bolted back across the top of the gate and down the stone steps aside the door, heading for their makeshift headquarters. He quickly fired a pulse to break the glass of the lobby door and leaped through. Always wanted to do that. Half of a bombed-out office just up another flight of stairs served as the district commander’s quarters. There he found Pontius, stone drunk and passed out over his desk with a picture of his son illuminated by a single candle in the corner. It was almost burnt all the way down.

“Pontius?” Pascal shook him. “Pontius, you’ve got to wake up right now!” The man stirred briefly over his desk in a pool of saliva, but went back to snoring. “Commander! Wake UP!” the boy shouted. He did everything else he could. Slammed his fist down on the table, beat on the man’s back, slapped his face. Nothing. “I’m very sorry to do this,” the boy sighed, charging up his phase unit, “but you need to lay off the drinks.”

He placed his hand over the man’s stomach and turned the power up to almost halfway—enough to stun a small animal—and shocked him. Pontius immediately awoke, vomiting all over the desk and knocking over the candle in the process. It sizzled out. The district commander turned his head and glared at Pascal. The young dispatcher backed away, clinching his nose as the puke stench took hold of his own stomach.

“I drank too much again, didn’t I?” the man groaned. Pascal nodded. “Thanks…hit me with it one more time, will ya? Little above halfway. Point 513 should do it.” The boy obliged and zapped him again. “Whew, holy shit!” the man exclaimed, holding his head. “All right. Now what were you yelling about?”

“Captain Georges is heading for the gate.”

The man’s eyes went wide. “What?!”

“I saw him in the distance, six hundred yards!”

“You sure this ain’t some mirage?” the man rubbed his face. “We get a lot of those at night.”

“Serge saw it too.”

Pontius sighed. “All right, gather the others, I’ll be along.”

The district commander looked wistfully at the half-empty bottle of scotch on his desk and reached for the portrait of his son in the corner. The boy looked maybe seven or eight, around half Pascal’s age, with straight black hair and large, dark eyes like coal. He was standing in shallow water near a dock holding up a rather large fish, trousers pulled up over his knees. But the boy wasn’t smiling. He looked rather serious. Even angry, almost as if he hadn’t wanted his picture taken in the first place. Pontius carefully wiped the vomit off the bottom of the frame with his sleeve and stared at it a moment, then laid it face down on the corner of the desk. He took one last sip of scotch.

Pascal was still standing back, watching the man, unsure of what to say.

“I’m sorry-”

“Didn’t I tell you to get the others?” Pontius cut him off. “God, you’re stupid.”

“Right…”

“Pascal! Get out here!” Serge called.

As the boy turned to leave, he noticed the commander’s cane resting in the corner next to the door and tossed it over to him. The man gave a slight nod of approval and stepped to his feet. Pascal rolled his eyes, continuing out through the door. He wasn’t about to help Pontius outside after what he said. Besides, considering the angry expression on his son’s face, he got the feeling there were deeper reasons as to why the boy had been taken by the Dalishkova.

Pascal emerged to see Serge had turned on the floodlights above the gate with the help of Conrad and Abel’s squads, who had arrived back from their patrols just in time. He hurriedly bounded up the steps to join them. A bright white glow shone over the gate in the cool night air to illuminate the path of the approaching figure. Trails of sand followed behind Georges as he limped along, visibly exhausted, barely forming full footprints before they were swept away. Beneath his Dispatcher’s trench coat, the captain was clad only in a grimy undershirt and briefs with numerous light blood stains. Scrapes and cuts covered his body from head to toe. As he drew closer, Pascal noticed an assortment of belts wrapped around the boy’s torso with phase unit parts and blinking blue lights. Dried blood was scabbed over the lower half of his face.

“Jesus, what have they done to him?!”

“Fucking savages, I’d like to rip them limb from limb!” Serge snapped. “We should open the gate.”

“Wait a second, boys,” Abel trembled. “I don’t like the looks of this. How do we know nobody’s followed him? And what the hell could be under that coat? That’s more than one phase unit’s worth of parts, damn sure.”

“No, he’s got to be alone, I didn’t see any other lights out there,” Pascal assured him.

“Still…best to be cautious. It’s protocol.”

“Screw being cautious, we know who it is! Hey Georges, are you all right?” the boy called down. He’d barely uttered the last word when Serge cupped a tight hand over his mouth and dragged him back from the merlon.

“Would you shut up until we know what to do!” he rasped.

“Let me go, it’s Captain Georges!”

“I don’t care if it’s the bloody Queen of England, we follow proper protocol, got it?” Pascal was still struggling beneath his grasp. “Hey!”

“Yeah, I got it!” the boy tore away from him.

“He’s right, you know,” Pontius muttered, straining his way to the top of the stairs with his cane. “And if any of you over-excited shitheads try to open that gate, I’ll have the lot of you court-martialed, is that clear?”

“Are you serious?” Pascal balked. “This is how you’re going to treat our captain?” He glanced around at the rest of his fellow Dispatchers, but none of them seemed willing to budge in front of their district commander. “So you’ve all turned into cowards. I don’t believe this!”

Pontius shook his head, his face glowing pale as a ghost under the bright light. “You’re clearly forgetting the events of this morning. The Outlanders took a few Barreau kids hostage and traded them for a more valuable one who could get them inside the gate. This is a diversion. They’re counting on us to open it.”

“But I don’t see anyone,” Pascal said, leaning over the merlon. “No one is out there.”

“All the same,” Pontius warned, “nobody’s opening that gate on my watch.” The man scowled as he stepped toward the boy, the cracks in his face reminding Pascal of A Trip To The Moon, a silent film he’d seen some weeks ago while on leave in the Metropoliès.

Meanwhile far below them on the outside, Georges had reached the entrance. His legs looked like they would give way before he got to the door, but once he did, he began to moan and cry incessantly. A rhythmic tapping began from the disgraced officer, then before long, an intense banging of desperation. The other Dispatchers were leaning over the crenels now trying to get a glimpse of him, but the gate was laid far enough into the wall that they couldn’t see.

Pascal remained steadfast as he and the district commander continued to stare one another down.  His heart thudded in his chest so hard, he feared it might rattle his bones apart. Both of them knew how this would end, that was a given. He wasn’t about to leave his captain outside the wall to suffer just because of some stupid protocol that insisted they martyr themselves whenever they got captured. Georges had managed to escape. The way Pascal saw it, his death would be on Pontius’ hands if anything happened, which meant he would be the one getting court-martialed.

Uncertain if his fellow Dispatchers would side with him about opening the gate to save their beloved captain, the young boy decided to attack his district commander in the only way he knew they could all agree with.

“You’re unfit to lead us,” Pascal narrowed his eyes.

“Excuse me?”

“You heard me. You all heard me!” Even Georges must have heard him, since the banging on the gate became ever more intense as he spoke. Don’t worry, I’m coming for you, he thought. The rest of the Dispatchers backed away from the crenels now to stand behind Pascal, exchanging worried glances. Let’s see them make fun of me now.

“Pask, what are you doing?” Serge asked.

“He’s a fucking drunk!”

Georges was banging against the gate harder now.

“He is our district commander,” Conrad swallowed.

“And he’s been drinking. Which makes him unfit to lead, or make crucial decisions.”

“You have to step down, Pontius,” Abel said. “It’s the rules.”

“But he’s not going to step down. Are you?”

Pontius chuckled to himself. The captain sounded as if he were slamming his entire body into the door now.

“You kids can’t be serious. You really think there’s any kind of respect, recognition, or honor for you in doing this job anymore? For you? A bunch of fucking teenagers? Newsflash morons, I’m the one who kept this city safe during the Workers’ Rebellion and government coup, I’m the one who worked for Charles-fucking-DuPont, I’m the one who wrote the goddamn book on Dispatcher procedures! Now you want to criticize me for having a drink once in a while because I’m old and retired? And yeah, my son is missing, so sue me! I’ve still seen more action than you babies could ever hope to get from your own hand!”

“Stand down, Commander Pontius.” Serge charged his face unit and fired up a blue spark. Another slam impacted against the door.

“You don’t want to do this, kid.”

“Oh, I think I do. Pascal,” he nodded, “go ahead and open the gate.”

“With pleasure,” the boy smiled, whipping past Pontius to man the controls.

“So you want a court-martial then. Fine,” the district commander smirked, turning to stop him. “But the only time that gate opens is over my dead-”

BOOM.

A sudden explosion tore through the west gate and shook the entire length of the wall, knocking Serge and Conrad over the edge to the ground just inside the courtyard. Pascal found himself sprawled halfway down the stone staircase with the weight of what felt like a body crushing his back. His ears rang with a tone that threatened deafness. His eyes too had gone blurry, though he could just make out an array of flickering shadows between the scattered flames now dotting the street below the wall. Far in the distance, people were shouting unintelligible things. But something deep in the young Dispatcher’s gut told him not to try moving just yet. Still, he tried to sort through in his mind what exactly had happened.

Georges. I was about to open the gate. Oh no…

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House of Rats – Part 17

Quentin Vaugrenard took a deep breath and descended the crumbling stairwell that led down to the tunnel entrance where, just hours before, the Barreau boys had reentered the city. The black sack he’d slung over his shoulder felt heavier with each step as the breath drawn from his lungs grew painfully thin. Perhaps it was the weight on his conscience. Or how fast he had run from East Central. He wasn’t quite sure, but his muscles ached. Everything in his gut screamed for him to turn back. Sure, he scared the piss out of Lucien earlier just to regain a sense of power, but there was no such freedom when it came to the Outlanders. It was too late to back out now. He’d already made his stop at the orphanage.

He had wanted to pull Max aside throughout the day to tell him everything—how Igor had placed him in the city as a mole to gather information on how to return, and that Lucien was far more dangerous than any of them were willing to see. But he’d given up once he realized that his orphanage elder could no longer protect him anyway. Not from the Dispatchers, not from Lucien’s demands, certainly not the Outlanders. And what troubled him most of all was the fact that not even Severo could shield him from his fate now, wherever it lie.

The young Dalishkova Knight had approached him some months ago to pry for information about Igor. During that time, Quentin kept his secret well from the rest of the gang, though he often grew frustrated with the boy’s constant reminders to trust him. Just be patient, I can get you your freedom. Yet those promises had turned out to be as empty as the state of belief induced by that prayer amulet the knight carried—probably because the object turned out to have no effect on Igor whatsoever. Quentin was thankful Severo trusted him enough not to use it on him, though in some respects it certainly would have dulled the pain of being torn in so many directions with no place left to call home.

But this was it. The final door.

Quentin threw down the bag of phase units and opened a small control panel on the wall. Leaned his head against the cool concrete, just for a moment. Come on, Quent. Just go back and it will all be fine. Yeah right. Not a chance. Lucien would sooner have him kidnapped and tortured. Igor would do worse.

He nervously punched in the six-digit entry code to open the lock, followed by a specific sequence of knocks the Outlanders previously established; if he’d tried turning the wheel to open the door outright, they would assume it was a squad of Dispatchers and open fire. His heart fluttered in his chest when the heavy thing swung inward. As he stepped over the threshold, he hoped he didn’t have to deal with Igor for once, that maybe his former leader was off satisfying his ego elsewhere, perhaps torturing a small desert animal. No such luck.

“About time you got here, chicken,” the dirty little rat rasped. He’d brought three of his subordinates with him; Deirdre, Will, and a newer boy they called Joran. “What took you so long?” Igor wasted no time invading his personal space, forcing Quentin to back away until he nearly tripped over the steel threshold.

“Just got back from the metro.”

Igor snatched the black bag from his hands. “You stink like shit.”

“Likewise.”

“They’d better all be here.” The leader tossed the bag over to Will, who proceeded to do a count to be sure. All the while, Quentin did his best to avoid Igor’s iron gaze, but every time he looked up again, the boy was staring him down like a lion would its prey. He didn’t quit, even after Will confirmed that there were ten phase units. An eternity of silence passed before the former Outlander worked up the courage to speak.

“What more do you want?”

“Why the hell did you leave us?” Igor sneered.

“Obviously I haven’t if I’m still here.”

“The fuck you are!” The leader struck him across the face. “Tell me, how is your nice cushy life inside the wall, eh?”

“Not as cushy as you’d think,” Quentin trembled, rubbing his cheek. He nodded toward the bag of phase units. “So why all this? You could all just come through the tunnel right now. You’ve known about it for months. I’ll even let you in, get you into some abandoned place. Plenty of them on the Barreau block. You don’t have to do this, you know-”

“Oh, it’s not that I have to. I want to! Or did you forget what those Dispatcher scum did to us?!” Igor charged forward, pinning him to the wall and tearing his shirt down the middle to reveal the branding scar on his chest. “Don’t tell me that you FORGET!”

Quentin swallowed hard, trying to ignore the flecks of spit on his face. “So what’s your side of the plan?”

“We’re going to have us some fun!” Igor grinned. “And you’re going to join us.”

“And if I don’t?” He had to choke back bits of vomit as he spoke. Igor’s halitosis was unbearable.

“Then who’s to say what will happen next time you come around with Max and the gang?” the leader challenged, backing away to join his subordinates. “We might not be so nice to you. That’s if we even need your services after tonight. We’ll be city dwellers again, after all. Who knows…I might just come by the orphanage one night and cut all your pretty little chicken throats while you’re fast asleep.”

Quentin shuddered as the scrappy child grinned in that menacing way of his, knowing full well that he could do it if he really wanted. The former Outlander had witnessed Igor do far worse during those first initial months in the desert villa. Things like smashing the skull of the weakest boy, Ewan, then gutting him and cutting off pieces of his body to cook for food. Of course Quentin had lied to Lucien about that part. But the thought of it happening to any of the Barreau boys…

“Look, why don’t you just come through now?” he whimpered. “There’s plenty of room for you at Barreau, I’ll talk to Max. You can join us. You can have a family, a real family! It’s not much, but-”

“SHUT UP for Christ’s sake!” Igor struck him again. “I didn’t plant you in the city so you could find a family and live happily ever after! The Outlanders ARE your family! So either you can die a hero, or you can die a coward. But if I were you, I’d choose wisely, ‘cause there’s only one way out of this, mate.”

“No…” Quentin backed against the wall, his heart hammering away in his chest. During his short life, he’d been ready for a lot of things, but nothing could prepare him for the prospect of death. The very thought hit him harder than any other.

“What’ll it be, then?” Igor asked. “Front lines, or a big bloody chicken coop?”

“I c-can’t just stay in the villa?” the boy choked up.

“What?” his leader gasped, grabbing him by the shirt and dragging him close. “And miss my fireworks, eh? I don’t think so. Nobody stays behind. Not even the girls. Shit, even Deirdre here is going, with her fine pair of tits,” he grinned back at her. “I’ll be right by your side, too.”

“You will?” Quentin was taken aback.

“Unlike Lucien or Max, I’m a hero who does my fighting on the ground with my family. Joran’s going too, and he’s the newest of us.” The boy proudly saluted Igor. “See how committed he is already? More than I can say for you,” Igor turned away.

“He’s indoctrinated.”

The leader chuckled. “I see the city’s turned you soft. What ever happened to you? You were my right hand man, Quent. You used to kill for me. Surely you haven’t forgotten that.”

“No, but I do my damnedest to try,” the boy trembled.

“And if your Barreau boys knew, you really think they’d take you back?”

Quentin felt his heart drop to his stomach. The burgeoning lump in his throat had finally burst, giving way to sobs of defeat. Igor was right all along. Freedom was nothing more than an illusion. He could fight it with words and citizenship documents as much as he wanted. He still had no other choice. In fact, he never did. The moment he joined the Outlanders, he belonged to Igor. None of the Dispatchers would come to his rescue if he were a Barreau boy, either. He’d been branded as one of the hunted long ago. I don’t belong anywhere. As if to seal that fate, he took notice of Will in his peripheral vision proceeding to shut and lock the tunnel door behind them. Nowhere to run. He already felt the tight strap of a phase unit going around his wrist. He didn’t bother fighting it.

“Fine.”

“Welcome back to the family,” Igor smiled. “You’re going on the front lines, chicken. Don’t worry. If you die, we’ll name a bridge after you.” He gave the unit one last tug to be sure it was secure and handed him off to Joran and Will. “Take him to join the others by the hatch.”

A sudden electric crackle echoed down the tunnel as Will sparked a blue pulse to light their path.  Quentin plodded quietly into the dark ahead of Igor and Deirdre, the prior warmth from his tears now plastered cold as stone onto his face. His thoughts drifted back to home. Not his home with the Outlanders, or even his home in the Barreau District…Paris. The sound of the phase unit must have triggered a memory lost from within. The last thing he recalled about life on Earth was slipping into an alleyway, curious about some electrical disturbance. Perhaps it was a downed live wire. He had heard his mother’s voice calling behind him clear as day until it abruptly disappeared.

The more he focused on this memory, the more Quentin found himself beginning to feel almost blissfully resolute concerning his probable fate. Family, he thought. Someone out there had loved him. Even in his darkest hour, that seemed enough. Besides, if his mother was not still looking for him on this side of the afterlife, he took solace in the fact that Max definitely was. Perhaps there would still be a chance to escape after all. And when he got back, he would try to find his parents.

I just have to make it through the gate.

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House of Rats – Part 16

Edmond yawned and ran a hand through his dark, crewcut hair, perusing various reports from the prior week that had been dropped onto his desk. It was always the last order of business he attended to after filing away his other obligations for the day. He was exhausted, and yet he couldn’t shake the feeling that something seemed off. A minor detail he had overlooked. He hoped it was just a stamp or two in the stack of papers, which didn’t trouble him much. He made sure to triple-check his work before the fatigue caught up with him. Still, it was odd. Like someone or something demanded his attention.

Captain Georges. What if he were alive somewhere? But of course, that was a ridiculous notion. They’d all watched him bleed profusely from the groin, and even Igor himself said he was dragging the boy off to kill him and have him cooked over a fire. It was difficult to believe the events had only happened that morning. Filing that report had taken Edmond nearly three hours, and he’d sacrificed his lunch break to do it. No stone was left unturned. Anything Pontius might have wanted to hear was in it.

Of course, he could never tell his district commander what he really wanted to; that in fact, Lucien Riviere had completely foiled him, bribed several high-ranking members of the Dispatchers force to look the other way, and in short, made a total mockery of the entire precinct. Not that Pontius could do anything about it even if he wanted to. Constance Renou was Lucien’s mother after all—the only fact which made him untouchable by the Cavarice justice system. One day, Edmond thought with a sigh. One day I’ll get you.

The young lieutenant was torn out of his thoughts a moment later by a stampede of footsteps out in the station hall. A hurried exchange of voices followed, and he swore he could make out phrases like “we’re in the shitter now” and “Edmond is not going to like this.”

“Sir!” Isaac at last turned the corner with Antoine in tow. “Sir, we’ve got a major security breach!”

Edmond jumped to his feet, feigning surprise. “Where?”

“Munitions storage, sir. Several phase units are missing!”

“WHAT!” The lieutenant’s heart began to pound. “That’s impossible, I checked the inventory myself! And that was long after Lucien left!”

“You may want to take a second look.”

A lump was building in his throat as they led him back through the corridor and down the long stairwell to Munitions. All the while, he kept thinking of how right they were, how his career was now on the line for multiple reasons, how yes, they were most definitely all in the shitter for this. How could it have happened? It’s impossible. That boy was barely out of my sight all afternoon. Then a more chilling realization began to hit him. What if it was one of their own? A Dispatcher under his watch, in their own precinct, at this very station. I would hang them up by their testicles.

“This can’t be,” Edmond said in disbelief. He hoped it was some sort of prank. At the very least, it would serve to wake him up so he could finish the rest of his reports in confidence and head home to get some well-deserved sleep.

“I didn’t think it was possible either,” Antoine explained. “Then the power flickered.”

“The power?”

“Yes sir,” Isaac sighed, unlocking the door and swinging it open.

The munitions storage room was a converted storm cellar about thirty feet long and twenty wide with a gray floor and walls all around. Two rows of three concrete columns supported the ceiling. On the walls, footed by work tables, were silver racks of various equipment; everything from knives to utility belts, climbing gear, handcuffs, and more. Over on the left far wall were the phase units. Edmond counted again up and down the rack with his eyes to be sure. There appeared to be twenty. But just as he was waiting for one of them to yell gotcha, Isaac handed him a flashlight.

“Cut the lights,” the boy told Antoine. The entire room went dark, and Edmond shone the flashlight over the rack.

“One, two, three, four…what the hell?” Ten. Ten units were missing. “What’s going on!”

“I’ll show you,” Isaac said. “Lights up.”

Once again, there appeared to be twenty phase units.

“Here.” Antoine stepped over and pointed to a small black triangular-shaped device in the top right corner of the equipment rack.

“What the hell is that?” Edmond asked.

He handed the flashlight back to Isaac and climbed up on the silver work table. Given a closer look, he could now make out a small beam of light projecting outward from the base of the triangle. He placed a hand on one of the phase units, only to watch his fingers slip through it as if it were air.

“No…no, no, no!” he cried. Then he set his hand down over the triangle itself. Ten phase units immediately disappeared. A hologram. Edmond ripped the tiny black device off the equipment rack and jumped down to the ground, stomping it beneath his foot into a thousand pieces. So that’s what was in the black bag he gave to Quentin.

“LUCIEN!” he screamed.

_______________

A cool breeze could be felt in the night air as the Barreau boys arrived back at the mess hall for supper, out of breath and an hour behind schedule. They’d had to take a subway train out of the Metropoliès District, which by then was gridlocked with crowds of people heading home from their daily jobs. The underground was marginally more forgiving to travelers. Upon exiting West Central Station, they split into separate cable cars, finally reuniting two blocks down from their destination. All of it could have been avoided of course if Mayor La Cour had chosen an earlier meeting time. Still, Max was grateful. Given all the rushing around he had done from place to place since midday, it seemed a wonder he had any time to breathe.

Yet in the midst of all the surrounding chaos—the flickering lights, the streaks of shattered stars far below the Morcourt balcony, the sea of endless, chattering voices he now found himself swept up in—a trail of lingering questions continued to follow the young elder wherever he went. The heaviest of these was now the mayor’s proposal.

He had told the other boys of it while on the subway to avoid flying into a rage.  He’d even come up with a white lie, assuring them his decision stood firm—that he did not intend to accept such an offer. And though he told the same to La Cour himself, the truth of was far more complicated than he was willing to admit. What if I make the wrong choice? he thought. There was far too much at stake.

Deep down, Max knew he deserved better. What’s more, he wanted to escape and be embraced by a family who would love and take care of him—to go to school, to have the chance at a future, perhaps even a wife and kids of his own someday. But of course that’s what the rest of the Barreau boys wanted, too. And Max wanted it more for them than he did for himself. Besides, what kind of leader would he be if he abandoned the flock? He certainly felt no better about leaving Lucien in charge. In fact, he shuddered at the very thought.

He eyed the boy to his right, who towered nearly an entire foot above him. Those big blue eyes, the narrow nose, those dimples and that self-assured smirk, all generating an aesthetically pleasing face topped by a blond, curly mop. The kind of boy who had no trouble getting what he wanted. In an odd way, even his appearance was quite suspicious. Max wasn’t sure if he had always looked that way or if his perception of his fellow elder had simply changed since that morning, but something didn’t seem right about him. He felt less like a friend and more like…maybe that was just it. The reason La Cour’s proposal bothered him so much.

Max’s memories of his prior life were fuzzy at best, so he tended not to dwell on them if he could help it. But he could recall—or at least he thought—that he may have had a brother at some point long before his arrival in Viktorium. This ‘brother’, he was reasonably sure, looked nothing at all like Lucien, yet they would quarrel just as much. Max would always get into trouble because of things his older brother did; if he broke or stole something, little Maxy would get the blame.

And it always seemed to happen like that as they shuffled around from home to home during the months they weren’t on the streets selling newspapers. The moment they were taken in to a place he liked, his brother would do something stupid again that got them kicked out. Except for the last time, when they got separated. There was a fire, then a bright blue electric flash. Then Max didn’t have a brother anymore. If he ever had one at all, it probably wasn’t a blood relation, just another orphan he traveled with. Still. That was who Lucien reminded him of.

“Filthy rats to the core,” he muttered, turning to Bernard. “That’s what we are.”

“I still can’t believe he actually filled out adoption papers for you,” the boy laughed.

“Yeah. Stupid,” Max smirked. “I reckon I’d get bored pretty fast in a family like that anyhow. What do they even do all day? Sip tea and watch the world go slipping through their fingers?”

“I can’t believe you were dumb enough to turn it down,” Lucien snapped. “Here’s a man who drops a life of wealth and privilege right into your hands, not to mention the chance to live with a hot piece of ass like Cecile, and you actually said no? Idiot!” he smacked Max across the head.

“And you’re going to lead the whole orphanage yourself, are you?”

“I could,” Lucien said with confidence. “Probably do a better job of it than you.”

“Yeah, well unlike you, I think about more than just myself. We’re supposed to do this together.”

“Supposed to. Not required to, and besides, I don’t have to agree with all of your decisions about how things are done.”

“Nor do I, you, but good leadership is about knowing when to compromise. And communicate, for god’s sake!” Max shoved him. “None of us knew what was going on this morning until after your little stunt.”

“Sorry, Mum,” Lucien rolled his eyes. “I was too busy trying not to get us all killed by those little cannibal shits in the desert. But that’s why we have our own groups to look after, isn’t it? You do things your way, I do things mine. Although I happen to think that my way is better.”

“You would,” Max let out a nervous laugh. “It ensures you don’t have to think about how your actions impact the rest of us, or our living situation. I had to close the deal myself. Not like you give a shit about our reputation with the Outlanders.”

“Why should I? They were exiled for a reason. Don’t think they wouldn’t double-cross us the first chance they get. Besides, it’s about time we found some more reliable prospects that don’t involve us parading around like idiots in desert garb every time we need to cash in. Another reason you’re an idiot for turning down La Cour’s offer.”

Max ignored the last comment. “So all that radio talk about them reintegrating into society, that was just a means to an end? Not all of them are bad people. Some are even on our side, in case you forgot.”

“So you’d rather run back to a den of wolves and risk being eaten alive just to save one pup because he’s good? Jesus, you and La Cour have martyr syndrome! What are you so afraid of, anyway? That people will hate you if you fly the coup?”

“No, I just-”

“Then stop feeling guilty! No one here would blame you. Everyone uses each other in this world Max, for better or worse. If you didn’t know that by now, you’re either incredibly naive or flat out stupid. I’m beginning to think the latter. You’ll agree to steal his phase unit when he’s handing you the whole bloody house? It’s not a difficult decision.”

“It is if you’ve got a conscience.”

“Conscience is what has held our mayor back, and it will hold you back too!” Lucien retorted. “You’ve got to accept that we can’t help everyone who comes banging on our front door. This world was fucked long before we got here. Take what you can and survive. That’s the only game I care about.”

Max took a deep breath and swallowed the burgeoning lump in his throat. It couldn’t really be coming to this. And yet the more he considered the events of the past several months, all the signs were there. His friend was no longer the easygoing, optimistic idealist he once knew. On those occasions he was, it seemed to be more of a front. Otherwise, Lucien had grown oddly secretive, demanding, and sometimes mistrustful. It was hard to know when he was even telling the truth anymore. No use in keeping the pup who eats the whole litter, either.

“Well Lucien, it seems we’ve both made our choice,” the elder sighed, steeling himself even as he broke a sweat. “Once we divvy up the funds from the mayor’s phase unit, there is a vacant building across the canal. You could open your own orphanage and over the next month, we’ll see who does better. Loser gets exiled.”

“Challenge accepted,” Lucien smirked.

“It’s not funny.”

“No, but what is funny is that I’m already several steps ahead, and you’re completely oblivious.” The tall boy then turned to whisper in his ear. “Just between us, you may want to do a proper head count, yeah? Looks like you’re missing someone,” he smiled, patting Max on the back.

The young elder’s mouth dropped open as the line crept into the narrow hall. He had forgotten to do a count of his boys before they left the subway station platform. They’d split off into groups of two or three several times while maneuvering through the throngs of people to make their way back to the surface. He had done a rough estimate with his eyes, but they needed to be absolutely sure no one was left behind, lest they get caught alone by the Dispatchers; not all of the boys’ citizenship documents were finalized yet. That was what he’d wanted to discuss with Cecile before being held up by the mayor, but of course by then it was too late. He proceeded to count in his head now as they neared the food court. Marcus, Hugo, Tomas, Louis, Marcel…

Lucien was right.

“Hey Bernard…” Max gasped. “Have you seen Quentin?”

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