House of Rats – Part 4

ONE HOUR AGO . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, right. Sorry!”

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

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

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

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

The Dispatcher swallowed hard.

“This District Commander is…recently retired.”

“Pontius?”

Edmond nodded.

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

“Let me do the talking,” Edmond insisted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“N-nothing,” Edmond stammered.

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

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

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

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

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

“Good to know,” the elder smiled.

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

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

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

“Sir-”

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

He nodded.

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

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

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

“Take what out?” the boy grinned.

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

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

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

Lucien smirked as Edmond shoved him along.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m sorry sir, I-”

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

“Yes sir.”

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

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

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

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House of Rats – Part 3

The tunnel ahead was dark as the caves behind them, though a lot more time seemed to have been spent on its construction. Where the previous segment had been a strange, meandering path through a series of stalactite caves with only railings to guide them, the next half was a very wide red brick hallway nearly as big as a subway tunnel. There were no tracks, stairs, or exits to be seen anywhere aside from at the very end, however. Max’s best guess was that it had been one of the many abandoned projects cut by the Cavarice Construction Committee following DuPont’s exile.

As they continued on through the dark with the blue beam of light still illuminating their way, he couldn’t help but feel a deep sense of unease radiating through his bones. He wasn’t quite sure if it was just the phase unit or not, but a troubling realization began to dawn on Max the more he dwelled. Perhaps that’s why everyone else isn’t afraid to die, he thought. Because they died before. Even the Dispatchers themselves age. They all age. That’s why Georges looked so terrified. He never stared into the face of death. Now Igor wants my blood too.

“We’re home,” he breathed as they at last reached the exit. He made sure to take one last whiff of the cool, dank, earthen smell he so adored in the underground before twisting the wheel and pushing open the door. Bernard stepped ahead of him to make sure the coast was clear in the stairwell which led to the surface before calling up the rest of the boys.

“Clear!” he said.

Max switched off the phase unit and removed it, shoving it away in an old coal sack with the rest of the stolen Dispatcher parts. The team of boys made their way up two flights of stairs to the surface and through a hallway of rubble and scattered papers, checking to be sure the street level was also clear for them to scurry across Barreau Boulevard and back to the orphanage with their loot.

The ten of them breathed a collective sigh of relief as they trudged up the stairs to the front entrance. Max eagerly dug the key out of his trouser pocket and twisted it into the lock, kicking open the stubborn oversized piece of wood. Bernard closed it behind them since he hadn’t the strength left to move it anymore.

“Here,” Max said, tossing the heavy bag of parts to Stephen. “Put them away. I need a shower before lunch.” He found himself crinkling his nose again upon realizing they all stunk.

“What about Lucien?” a boy named Tomas asked.

“After lunch. Take an hour to get cleaned up, everyone. I’ll meet you down at the mess hall.”

The young orphanage elder said nothing more and labored his way up the stairs to his own flat as the other boys excitedly ran off to their room. He did miss the orphanage he was raised in himself. Barreau was a renovated office building, and the main hall which housed the other boys had been nothing more than a giant room full of desks and filing cabinets. After setting up their beds, some of the boys had placed the cabinets between them for privacy in addition to storing clothes, though most didn’t seem to care.

Still, Max wanted so much more for them. Despite the fact that a few could often get on his nerves, they were all good boys. There was Bernard of course, whom he had come to view as an elder of equal standing and helped him keep the rest in line when Lucien wasn’t around. Were the Dispatchers Training Programme still in effect, Max could easily see Bernard becoming captain. There was Tomas, a boy just a year younger with whom he would consistently butt heads. Louis, who needed protecting from Marcel’s roughhousing. Hugo, whose practical jokes were famous. The rest were a lively bunch who never failed to keep him on his toes either.

After stripping down, Max turned on the radio, deciding he needed a good bit of distraction to keep his thoughts from wandering into dark territory concerning the day. Perhaps he could catch up on Andre Cazinov’s show. It had been a rough five hours in the desert. Fortunately, they seemed to have acquired enough to keep them from having to go on another run for quite some time. Which meant that his skin—and fingers, and toes, and ears, and nose, and eyeballs…and cock—were safe from Igor’s rage for the foreseeable future. Feeling secure in that knowledge, he proceeded to set the shower to cold, though switched to hot at the last moment as he felt sufficiently cool already.

Static poured out of the old radio before the program came on the air. The water ran almost black with dirt down the drain as he shampooed his long brown hair, then took to scrubbing his face. He had just gotten to soaping up the rest of himself when Cazinov’s smooth voice hit the airwaves following a lengthy musical intro. Ever the showman, that one.

“Greetings, fine citizens of Cavarice!” the man said in a tone so grandiose, it was almost nauseating. “I hope you all are enjoying your lunch hour. As you all know, Mondays are when we interview those whom we recognize here on the show as heroes. And not just any heroes folks, but those certain people who go above and beyond the call of duty on especially rare occasions. And boy, do we have one hell of a tale for you today! My first guest so happens to be a Dispatcher. Now I know you all must be thinking, ‘Oh Andre, these men go above and beyond every day, what is so unique about this particular character?’ But I can assure you folks, this gentleman is the real deal after what he experienced earlier today just three hours ago. Sir Mr. Dispatcher please, would you kindly state your name?”

“This is Edmond Fasche, Second Lieutenant rank.”

“WHAT?!” Max was so startled, he nearly fell. “No way!”

“Ah yes sir, Mr. Fasche, thank you for coming on the show. Would you like to give a nice hello to everyone out there in Viktorium?”

“Hello everyone.”

“Thank you again. Now I understand that you are here because you yourself are not a hero, but you’ve brought someone with you who you say has earned it, is that correct?”

“Yes sir. This young man has shown outstanding bravery in the face of certain death.”

“I see. Why don’t you give me the general background of your story here, for our listeners.”

Still covered in soap suds, Max abruptly shut off the water to listen more closely.

“We were trailing a young orphan boy outside the city whom we later identified as Quentin Vaugrenard. We ended up following him three kilometers across the desert after he informed us some Outlanders had slipped past one of our checkpoints and kidnapped a few boys from Barreau Orphanage. We found them holed up in an abandoned villa.”

“The Outlanders gang? My god, you saw them?! Now is it true that they are cannibals?”

“We do not have confirmation. It seems to be a myth as far as we know. Anyway, they ambushed us, and one of them leapt out and attacked our captain with a knife.”

“Oh my god! Horrible, just horrible! I am so sorry you had to experience that ordeal at the hands of those savages! And to watch it no less. Where exactly is he now, did he get out?”

“Regrettably, they took him. We don’t know for sure. He thought the hostage situation was just a diversion to steal our equipment. But then I heard a young man shouting for help from the second floor of the building. And as per our Code of Service, well…our captain would have wanted us out alive to save these boys. I only wish he could be here with us today.”

“What an idiot, your captain hates you!” Max laughed.

“Ah, I see. Well I wish he was here today too, he sounds like a great man.”

“The Outlanders would have killed the Barreau boys after they stopped being useful to them in taking our gear, but this man had the courage to speak out and alert us that the hostage situation was indeed real.”

“Now I just have to ask, is it of any concern to you that the Outlanders now possess your phase units?”

“They would only be a minor threat to us. We are issued new equipment from Tesla every six months, so we’re due for an upgrade.”

“Ah. Well I have to say, this is an absolutely amazing tale of courage. Okay ladies and gentleman, we have our hero in the studio with us right now. Sir kind sir, would you please state your name for everyone listening at home?”

“Hello Andre, it’s a pleasure to meet you! I’m a regular fan of your show and listen in myself all the time during my lunch hour. To be honored by you, it’s…well it’s frankly a privilege for me to be here right now.”

“Thank you very much sir! But uh, you forgot to tell us your name.”

“Oh, of course, sorry. My name is Lucien. Lucien Riviere. And just for the record Edmond, that’s not quite how the story goes. You see, for starters, Quentin Vaugrenard is actually one of the exiled Outlanders whom my associate Max snuck back into the orphanage some time ago…”

Max tore open the shower curtain, boiling with a rage he had never felt before.

“You have got to be FUCKING kidding!”

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House of Rats – Part 2

Lucien put his hands behind his back as Max tied them in haste, trying in vain to compose himself. The two glanced at the rest of their team on the floor, who gave them subtle nods of approval. Some removed their desert garb and rubbed dirt on their faces to assume their role as hostages. Even a few of the Outlander boys who had sworn allegiance to Igor—probably more so out of fear than adoration—seemed to think it was a good idea. One of them, a boy named Severo, handed Max a black sack to throw over his friend’s head to complete the charade.

“Will this work?”

“It should.”

“What happens to Georges?”

“You mean if he doesn’t bleed out first? Hard to say,” Severo frowned. “Igor lives on a whim.”

“The city folk have never heard of a death in Viktorium. Neither have I, for that matter.”

“And that scares you any more than living here? Most of us recall what death was like.”

“Most of us. I wouldn’t know,” Max muttered, leading Lucien over to the stairs.

“Old courthouse, Floor B3, Suite 7, Cabinet 5, File 3601. Bottom drawer.”

Max stopped. “I’m sorry?”

“Worth a read when you’ve got time. The Dispatchers are not as innocent as you think,” Severo explained. “You may want to learn how to pick locks too if you don’t already know. For what it’s worth…good luck Ferrier.”

“Thanks.”

The two elders and several other boys made their way down the stairwell past an assortment of guards, some of whom appeared far less threatening than others. Max tried to remain mindful of the fact that it didn’t necessarily mean they were friendly, though many acted so. The alliance between the Barreau boys and the Outlanders was nothing more than a business transaction. Each took away a certain percentage of the loot upon baiting the Dispatchers—another conversation with Igor he was not looking forward to, as the numbers were always subject to change.

Still, Max felt a certain empathy toward those exiled. He had been reborn into a life of privilege by comparison. From the age of twelve following his own arrival in Viktorium, he was placed into a boys’ home converted from an old mansion. Every need was met and taken care of for the first four months. His only duty at the time was to keep his younger peers in line. If he did a good enough job of it, he would be offered his own flat—of course that was back when the Dispatchers Training Programme was still open to new arrivals. A year after the exile of Charles DuPont, it was scrapped, along with any chance he had of ever making the squad. At least they gave him the flat.

In the same way, these boys were all promised something too. Viktorium was supposed to be the land of new beginnings. A place where every misdeed and crime back in the real world no longer mattered. Income equality had long been envisioned as a solution to the economic problems of the Earth plane, but it had become a dismal failure following the arrival of the Parisian upper-class, who still valued their status no matter what lengths they had to go to maintain it.

With too many orphaned children to care for and many more forming gangs, it wasn’t long before a significant number of them were exiled into the wilderness. Some died of heatstroke or starvation. The Barreau boys had been lucky; theirs was the only orphanage in the city left open. Were it in his power, Max would secure proper citizenship in Cavarice for all of them and grant them a better life. But that seemed an impossibility even for the Barreau boys. Much as he loathed the Dispatchers, he had come to envy them too. If only I had made it, things might be easier, he thought. But then I would be the one getting robbed.

A shudder came over the young orphanage elder as he quietly led his faux prisoner out the front door of the villa and over to Igor. He hoped his face was covered enough to avoid detection by the remaining Dispatchers, though it would do little good if he vomited. The sight of Georges still writhing around in the hot desert sand was even more ghastly up close. Igor had severely punctured his scrotum, and one of his testicles had slipped out to cook in the midday sun. His voice was hoarse from yelling so much, and what noise came out of him now had dwindled to a series of low, rhythmic groans.

Max kept his gaze trained on the ground as Igor stepped over the bleeding boy and dragged Lucien from his grasp, hurling him to the ground in front of their prisoners.

“Fair trade for ‘roaching on our territory,” the leader spat. “Thanks for the gear, and the pretty little chicken. I’ll pluck out the rest of his feathers and cook him for supper. Yummy, yummy! I’ve been starving all week. Take Georgie here to the pit and cut the rest of them loose!” he ordered. The Outlanders holstered their weapons as the guards who had been holding the Dispatchers cut their ropes and allowed them to go free. One of them took the liberty of removing Lucien’s hood and loosening the rest of his binds.

Max breathed a sigh of relief as he watched his friend’s team and the remaining Dispatchers round the corner and flee across the desert toward the city in the distance. He was eager to get home himself and take a cold shower. They had been holed up in the heat of that dusty old villa for the past five hours. Still, it was far from over. He had to negotiate their percentage of the loot with Igor, which would be the hardest part. Most of the Outlanders made haste for the pit whilst the others retreated back into the cool shadows of the house. The Barreau boys emerged behind Max to stand guard as he spoke with Igor in the courtyard.

“You can take that shit off your head now,” the leader said, tearing the cloth from his face.

“You’re sick, you know that?”

“Of course. And I enjoy it.”

“What will you do with Georges?”

“Why do you care, Chicken? I could easily pluck your feathers out too,” he grinned, grabbing Max’s hair. Max slapped him away.

“Vulture!”

“That’s exactly what I am. It must be nice to have a refrigerator back in that fine city of yours,” the leader said, kicking the Dispatcher parts into a loose pile. “But a pity you will never know the taste of human flesh. After it’s been cooked a while in the sun and roasted over a fire just so? It gets nice and tender. Tender and juicy, just like a chicken.”

“So the rumors are true, then,” Max gulped, his voice cracking. “You are cannibals.”

“How else would we survive? Snakes? They only last so long. Feed maybe two of us. Scorpions? Baby food. But a whole human, slow roasted all day? My, my, if only you just once tried a human liver,” he smiled.

“Stop!”

“I’ll bet yours tastes just dandy, Maxwell chicken…the fear in your sweat! Such flavor in you,” he sniffed. “I can smell it now.” One of the Barreau boys drew his gun, and Igor backed away. “Really? In my own courtyard? I thought we were all friends here. You’ll all have to return our weapons, by the way.” Several Outlanders appeared from behind the rock piles, ready to fire on them if necessary.

“I am no friend of yours,” Max snapped. “Now let’s talk business.”

“Ah yes. Your cut. You get forty percent. We get sixty.”

“If I recall correctly, our previous terms were for you to get forty.”

“Previous terms are a rough estimate. We want the sixty now. Your boy was late.”

“That was not the deal.”

“No? You come into our territory, you use my people, and you want to take the bigger cut? I don’t think so. We did most of the work.”

“Fine. Forty-five.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t quite hear you,” Igor said, whipping out his knife. It still had Georges’s blood on it. “Run that number by me again, Chicken?”

“Give us a minute,” Max sighed, turning back to his group to deliberate. “There’s no way he gets sixty.”

“Screw that!” said Bernard, an older African boy. “You want to walk out of here without your cock, that’s fine, but I like mine still attached thank you very much!”

“If he gets so much as fifty, he gets a phase unit. We need to get him down to forty-five. Those units fetch thousands.”

“You know he won’t agree to that!

“Then we make a run for it.”

“Through the desert? The Outlanders outnumber us and are packing firepower, and we can’t risk them finding the tunnel! He’s our only connection for doing business out here. If we lose him, we lose the orphanage.”

“Fine. Then he gets sixty.”

“Okay.”

Max turned back to face the gang of Outlanders. “How do you feel about forty-seven?”

“MAX!” Bernard hissed, but he waved a hand to silence him.

“You test me, Chicken,” the boy sneered, sauntering around them. Max crinkled his nose in disgust. He stunk. “I don’t like being tested. Especially not before I’ve had my lunch. It makes me look bad to my merry band of gents here. I suppose I could kill you, but then I’d have to wait for you to get all juicy and ripe. What do you say, boys? Shall I take a piece now, or have his cock for dessert?” The rest of the Outlanders laughed as Max cringed. “No…not yet, anyway. We’ve got our food for the night. Very well. I’ll take it,” he nodded.

“Good, it’s settled,” Max breathed, moving to grab his share of the equipment.

“Ah ah, not so fast.” Igor moved in to stop him. “Next time, we get eighty. And don’t go thinking you can trick us into taking useless equipment. We watch all the shipments in and out of this valley to the next province over when they’re scheduled. Keep in mind that what we allow you to take is only a courtesy.”

“Understood.”

“And Ferrier…if you ever fuck me again, I’ll be eating every last one of your appendages. One after the other. First your fingers…then your toes…then your ears. Then your nose. I’ll save your cock for last, right before your eyeballs. I’ll do it all while you’re still alive. They’ll hear you screaming all the way at the north end of the city, from the Metropoliès all the way to your little Barreau block,” he grinned. “And no one will come to save you. Proper payment is expected next time. Now get the hell out of my yard.”

Max silently steadied his breath as he and the Barreau boys divvied up the loot and made haste for Grand Rock, a pile of inconspicuous stones beneath which an underground tunnel led five kilometers back into the city. They had discovered the entrance in the basement of the old Steamworks building across from the orphanage some months ago, and it turned out to be perfect for bypassing critical Dispatcher checkpoints on the surface during their dealings with the Outlanders. Max made certain he was the last to take the ladder down and properly sealed the trapdoor above them before sliding the rest of the way to the cavern floor.

“Congratulations, you’ve marked yourself,” Bernard said, shaking his head. “Better hope they never find this tunnel now.”

“They won’t. I’m sure they have passed the marker stones enough times without noticing.”

“You think Lucien and the others made it home all right?”

“I hope so,” Max said, digging out one of the phase units. He strapped it securely on his wrist to light the way back. A sudden spark of blue fired up, illuminating the cold darkness of the cave. “Say, Bernard…you ever been to floor B3 in the courthouse?”

“I didn’t know there was a B3. Then again, we haven’t had time to properly survey that building,” he said, ducking beneath a large outcropping of rock. “Why do you ask?”

“One of the Outlanders, Severo, mentioned something as I was tying up Lucien. Floor B3, Suite 6…or maybe it was seven. Cabinet 5, File 3601. Bottom drawer.”

“And you’re sure it’s not a trap?”

“That is a valid point. But how would they set one? They haven’t lived in the city in years. He said it’s worth a read when we have time. Something about how the Dispatchers aren’t as innocent as we think.”

“Yeah, sure,” Bernard laughed, echoing down the tunnel. “They’re glorified orphans, same as you and me. You see how easily they got rid of Georges.”

“Don’t remind me. But it wasn’t always so, right? I mean in the beginning. Pontius, for instance. He was the greatest captain they ever had.”

“True. But what would they be guilty of?”

“Who knows. He said it just after I mentioned that I can’t remember dying.”

“You’re far from the only one. It’s probably just an anomaly, like waking up from a dream you can’t quite remember. Some recall and some don’t.”

“Some of us age, and some don’t. I do.”

“And?”

“Don’t you think it a coincidence that those who age in Viktorium also can’t remember their own deaths?”

“That doesn’t prove anything. And you don’t know for sure that every last person who ages doesn’t remember.”

“All the ones I’ve met.”

“So you’re a rare creature. Take pride in it, Max. It just means some part of you is still alive,” he smiled, moving ahead of him to crank open the tunnel’s halfway door.

“Yeah…maybe that’s just it,” he whispered to himself. “Why would some of us still be alive?”

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House of Rats – Part 1

Maxwell Ferrier took a deep breath and steadied himself by the third floor window of the abandoned villa, taking care that his face was still covered. He abhorred sneaking out of the city. Not that he feared getting himself into trouble; as an elder of the Barreau Orphanage boys, he was no stranger to that. But forming a temporary alliance with the most feared gang west of Cavarice seemed to be the only way to get their hands on Dispatcher technology. Such devices could fetch thousands on the black market. Since the orphanage received little funding from the government to keep its doors open year-round anymore, it was a necessary evil.

Outside, the sun shone hot across the deserted golden wasteland. Harsh gusts of wind kicked up dust and debris now and again. The villa itself provided little shelter from the elements as most of the doors were ripped off their hinges, the windows smashed. Max wondered how it was that the Outlanders gang had survived out here for this long after being driven out of the city. There was no air conditioning, no electricity, no running water to be found. It seemed a cruel punishment, yet somehow just. They were the most feared organization among Cavarice city folk after all, well known for their sadistic brutality and sociopathic violence. But the only reason they existed was because their leader Igor had been thrown out of the orphanage years ago. In a way, one had to pity him, though of course the scared little boy he once was no longer existed.

Max watched the fearsome child as he sauntered his way through the ranks below appearing authoritative, yet anxious. Hungry for blood, the elder thought. His clothes were tattered and torn as if he’d survived an attack by a wild animal. The oversized trousers he wore hung off his slight frame like the flag of a conquered nation, held in place only by a thread of twine. His complexion was sun-drenched and dirty, his head shaved. The bugger stunk to high heaven. And somehow, that little thirteen year-old rat was their only hope.

“What the hell is taking him so long?!” Igor barked, kicking up dust. Quentin, their bait boy, was fifteen minutes late.

“Give him time!” Max called down.

“I’ll give him time when I’m cutting out his stomach, Ferrier. Then I’ll start with your pretty little eyes!”

“No need to be rash,” he swallowed. “I’m sure he’ll be along.”

“He had better be, or I’m taking an extra ten percent out of your ass!”

Max let out a bitter sigh as Lucien, another of the orphanage elders, stepped up next to him. He could feel the lecture coming again.

“What do you want?”

“Nothing.”

“You don’t have to remind me that this is a bad idea. I’m well aware.”

“As long as you stick to the plan for getting out of here alive. You know how psychologically unhinged that boy is.”

“That much is obvious,” he replied, watching Igor shove one of his subordinates over a rock and proceed to playfully thrust his crotch into the boy’s backside while holding a knife to his throat. “Although I do have to wonder what he’s going to pull when the Dispatchers arrive.”

“Eh…they’re self-righteous braggarts, most of them. They need a good beating every once in a while to keep them fresh.”

“Maybe so, but Igor has done far worse from what I’ve heard.”

Max leaned back against the window frame and listened for any signs of approaching footsteps outside. The old villa was partially built into a natural alcove of rock, which made it perfect for leading unsuspecting victims into a trap such as theirs. The acoustics were beneficial when it was quiet enough; one could hear a pinprick from a kilometer away. But on this particular day, what with the wind howling in the distance and Igor’s frustrated mannerisms below, he began to worry. Then at last it came.

Olivier, Igor’s second-in-command, popped his head over the cliff above to warn them.

“They’re coming!” he called.

“Everyone stay sharp!” Max urged, giving various hand signals for his boys to move in.

“Hugo, Marcus, take point,” Lucien instructed his own crew on the second floor. Those who had fallen back against the wall to stay out of sight now approached the windows with rifles in hand. The entire process was more of a defensive act in case things went south. The plan was to intimidate the Dispatchers into handing over their technology with minimal force involved.

Of course the boys of Barreau Orphanage knew full well that they couldn’t trust the Outlanders, so it helped to have a few weapons trained on them in the mean time. But Igor was no fool either, and much as the villa provided an advantage for this operation, Max knew it could just as easily become their tomb if they weren’t careful.

“Steady everyone,” he said in a hushed voice as the sound of running footsteps drew closer to them. The boys on the ground level below pulled back the hammers on their pistols as Igor stepped out in front of them all. Much as Max couldn’t stand the boy, he had to admit he was quite courageous.

After a few more seconds, Quentin finally rounded the corner rock with a group of three Dispatchers in hot pursuit. Any moment now, they would be able to snag their equipment. So far, so good, Max thought. Now let’s hope Igor doesn’t cock it all up by killing one of them, or us. His heartbeat quickened at the thought, flooding his mind with thoughts of every negative scenario one could imagine. But he shook it off and bit his tongue to stay grounded. Keep calm. You’re all going to get out of here. It will be fine.

“Well, if it isn’t the glorified ghost hunters!” Igor exclaimed, snapping Max out of his trance. Quentin ran back to take cover behind a pile of rocks as everyone surrounded the four Dispatchers on all sides, boxing them in. “I was wondering when you gents would arrive.”

“What do you want, Short Stop?” one of them smirked. Max recognized him as the second lieutenant.

“Idiot!” the first snapped. “They obviously want our phase units.”

“You boys are both morons, I told you this was a trap!” the captain shouted, breaking through the two of them. “They don’t have any hostages.”

“Not ones that matter,” Igor grinned, flashing his yellowed, decaying teeth. “Now,” he added, grabbing the captain and swirling him around to hold a knife to his throat, “why don’t the rest of you be good lads and lay down your weapons before I gut this pretty chicken, yeah?” The other three backed away in fear.

“Son of a bitch!” Max fumed through clenched teeth. “I told him not to do that!”

“You really thought he’d listen to you? We’re on their turf, they’ll do as they like until they get their cut,” Lucien said. “Maybe even then-”

“I don’t want to think about that,” Max cut him off. “Just…stay sharp, please.”

“Like I’m not. We’re all scared here. Keep your wits.”

“I’m doing my best.”

“Good boys,” Igor nodded. “You too Captain Georges, while I’ve got my claws on you. Ah ah, don’t struggle or I’ll paint the sand red with your neck! Now now, that’s a good chicken.”

Captain Georges. Max recognized him as the newest de facto leader of the Dispatchers. Georges was still a boy of about nineteen and very much a coward, unlike his predecessor Pontius who had recently retired from the force. Why the department had allowed him to take charge was anybody’s guess. Pontius had been the one to drive the Outlanders out of the city. Georges would likely be the one to allow them back in, if it ever came to that. Max shuddered at the thought.

“Look, we’re already dead in Viktorium here, what does it matter!” Georges cried.

“You want to test that theory?!” Igor yelled. “Go on, speak another word of shit, I’ll slit your pretty throat!”

Lucien glanced at Max, and they rolled their eyes in unison. The young leader of the Outlanders was clearly determined to drag the operation out for as long as possible to satisfy his ego—an ego that was much too large to be contained by his tiny body.

“Would you just get on with it,” Max muttered.

“Please let me go, you can have our phase units!”

“Very well,” Igor relented, letting go of the captain. The boy unhooked his wrist-mounted apparatus and utility belt, tossing them to the ground in a pile with the rest.

“There you are. Now are we free to go?”

“Not quite yet. Surrender your trench coats. Nights are awfully cold out here.” The older boys obeyed. “And your trousers. Mine are falling off, you see. That’s it. Shirts. Now your shoes. And then your socks.”

“Oh for god’s sake,” Lucien whispered.

“And lastly you, Captain. Your underpants as well.”

“You all have undergarments I’m sure!” he protested.

“Perhaps I don’t,” Igor smiled. “Now how about it. You see all these weapons we’ve got trained on you, yeah?” More hammers clicked below as the Outlanders descended upon him like a pack of ravenous wolves. Georges bit his lip in a whimper, and still Igor urged him on, enjoying every sadistic second.

“What the hell is he doing now?” Max’s heart was pounding fast. A lump had begun to form in his throat.

The young captain below quivered in fear, a mixture of sweat and tears pouring down his softened face. He looked back at his team members with pleading eyes, then again to the boys closing around him. There was nowhere left to run. To Max, he appeared as a helpless animal about to be slaughtered until finally he gave in.

“All…all right!” Georges cracked in a hoarse voice, pulling down his drawers in shameful surrender. He stood stark naked before them, save for the two hands he used to cup himself. Of course Igor would not even allow that much.

“Hands away from the goods. No need to be bashful, right fellas? We’ve all got one!” The rest of the gang laughed as the young Dispatcher obeyed and bore all, weeping in humiliation. “Oh my. Impressive for a chicken,” the leader said. “Such a pretty thing. It’s a shame you had to raise such a fit. Your interest rate just went up.”

With that, Igor drew his knife and lunged forth in a wild rage, ramming it hard into the dejected young captain’s genitals. Max felt his stomach churn as all of the Barreau boys and Outlanders alike let out a collective gasp. A hush fell over the group, followed by a primal cry like none other they had heard before. Blood squirted out from between the captain’s fingers as he cradled his wounded crotch and fell to his knees in agony, screaming into a void of echoes that reverberated all across the valley.

“Holy Christ!” Lucien cringed.

Igor licked his lips and laughed at the spectacle, turning to his band of Outlanders who then joined him like a bunch of howling primates. The other three Dispatchers exchanged horrified glances, uncertain of what to do. Max stood up in fury and headed for the stairs.

“Where are you going?” Lucien stopped him.

“This operation is over, we’ve got to take him out. He’s stark raving mad and so are the rest of them!”

“Careful!” Lucien hissed, noting the Outlander guards posted at both ends of the room. “You want to get us all killed?”

The two of them were interrupted by Igor’s voice below.

“Well then, I think we’ve played with our food long enough, Monsieur Georges. Or shall I call you Georgette now?” The gang roared in raucous laughter.

“This has got to end!” Max snapped. “I told him the rules, not a hair was to be harmed on their heads!”

“If we fire on the Outlanders, we’re dead!” Lucien grabbed his arm. “And if you protest, you can say goodbye to any further operations with them. If the orphanage closes, more gangs form in the city, Cavarice is finished. And the Dispatchers will catch on to us. I don’t like it any more than you do, but our hands are tied. Now stop being a bloody fool and stay up here!”

Max shook his head. “This is wrong.”

“You’re telling me,” Lucien said, turning back to survey the scene in the courtyard below. The captain had fallen into a fetal position with a small pool of dark crimson painting the sand beneath him. The other three were shoved to their knees as several gang members tied their hands behind their backs and gagged them. It was absolute madness. Max could only assume his friend was trying to rationalize it with the Dispatchers Code of Service; they were to sacrifice themselves to Cavarice at all costs, even if it meant losing their lives in the line of duty. Not that there was any honor in this.

“It’s two minutes to noon,” Max said, checking his pocket watch. “If he doesn’t cut them loose before twelve, I’m blowing his head off.”

“He’s not going to do that,” Lucien sighed. “Igor!” he called down. Startled, the young leader dropped his bloody knife and swung around in a rage.

“What the hell do you want, Barreau scum?!” he shouted. Max threw down his rifle and fell back against the wall.

“We’re compromised. Great.”

“Barreau?” the second lieutenant asked. “So you DO have one of the Barreau Orphanage boys hostage up there?! What more do you want, we’ll do anything!”

“Perhaps not,” Lucien thought aloud. “At least that one took the bait. Max, there might be a way we can get Igor to let the Dispatchers leave.”

“In exchange for what?”

His friend pondered a few moments.

“Hmmm…trade me and my boys with them. We’ll go, you can lead the rest of our people out of here once you give the Outlanders their cut.”

“What? No, I can’t do this without you!”

“It’s the only way you’ll keep a leash on Igor, the boy clearly wants blood and he’s not stopping for us! It’ll send them off our trail. The Dispatchers can never find out about this. Pretend I’m your prisoner and hand us over to them in trade for Georges. Igor can do whatever sick, sadistic things he wants to that boy. He’s already taken his cock, there’s not much else to strip him of. Trust me Max, we can do this.”

“Why would Igor agree?”

“We’re his only meal ticket. He knows he can’t demand entry back into the city, they would imprison him right away. He’s playing hard because there’s too many of us up here. Some of us have to go before he fucks us all.”

“All right,” Max relented. “You’ll take the long way home then?”

“Of course, I’m not stupid.”

“Right now, that’s debatable.”

“Yes,” Igor answered the lieutenant below. “We’ve got several of your Barreau boys. And their leader will be the next to lose his cock if you don’t shut that hole in your face!”

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