The kitchen staff at the mess hall on Rue de Charlet found themselves in an overworked frenzy as they struggled to keep up with lines that extended longer than usual. The public cafeteria three blocks up had shut down in recent days due to a rat infestation, which meant all their usual patrons needed somewhere else to eat. No restaurants in the Mendrés District remained open, so of course the closest place was the mess hall on Charlet, a building typically reserved for the Dispatchers.
Because of the obvious tension between the two groups, the Barreau boys always made sure to arrive an hour later than they had at their previous cafeteria. Any earlier, and they risked running into the Dispatchers during shift changes. It was bad enough to be eyed with suspicion all the time. But this particular day was not one in which they wanted to chance any further encounters. The schedule took some time to work out; Tomas had left ahead of the others to scope it out before the walk down, as he had done for the past week. When the coast was clear and the line just short enough for them to wait inside the building, they scurried in.
But splitting meal times with the Dispatchers was not what worried Max most of all. What concerned him as he stood just inside the door, barely enough for it to close, was the possibility of running into Lucien in public. His fellow elder had yet to show his face, and the time was going on three o’clock. Max was not even so sure he wanted to speak to the boy. What would he even say?
Lucien had outed Quentin on a radio show broadcast to millions of people in Cavarice and the next province over. The Dispatchers had come banging on their door, and while Max was grateful they hadn’t taken Quentin into custody, it didn’t exactly make him want to forgive Lucien either. Edmond and his gang had still done a number on the boy. I’ll have words for that scummy rat, he thought to himself. I’m not sure what those words are yet, but I’ll know when I see him.
The line inched forward at a glacial pace. The rest of the orphans were growing impatient. Shift changes occurred every two hours, barring an emergency. It wasn’t likely a squad of Dispatchers would come barging in for a meal anytime soon, though it was a possibility Max remained wary of. They had to be ready to scatter at any moment. To that end, Bernard seemed to be working out a plan of escape with three of the boys ahead. His eyes darted around the hall every few seconds to keep a constant lookout. Max had been doing the same up until now, though his gaze was beginning to linger as thoughts consumed him.
“Hey,” Bernard snapped him out of it, “you all right?”
“Yeah, just thinking,” the elder sighed.
Max nodded. “Doesn’t help that we’re in enemy territory, either.”
“It’s a public place, so at least it’s easier to run,” Bernard reminded him.
“But you can’t hide. Not really.”
The electricity buzzed and flickered throughout the narrow corridor from front to back. Though it was already quite dim in the hall, the sudden flash of pitch black reminded everyone just how dark it was.
“Good god,” Bernard breathed. “These phases are getting worse.”
“Everything is getting worse. There are more Dispatchers on every corner now. Have you noticed that? It’s like every time we walk out the door, we’re being watched.”
“I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if somebody figured out our little operation somehow. But they haven’t made a move before today, which is strange. Even when Edmond showed up, there was something…”
“What is it?”
“He seemed really high-strung,” Bernard explained. “Like somebody was on his case about something. And they didn’t bother taking Quentin into custody, even though we didn’t have his citizenship papers. They even saw Tomas with one of their old phase units and brushed it off like it was nothing.”
“It’s not what they were after,” Max pondered. His mind searched for answers that seemed just out of reach. He considered everything that had occurred so far that day. What Severo had told him of the Dispatchers not being trustworthy, of all the ways in which Lucien had drawn a wedge between them with his actions, as if he had to get away for some reason. Then it dawned on him. “Shit!” he exclaimed. “If I wanted to talk to Quentin in private, how might I go about doing that?”
“You’d close the door, obviously,” Bernard said with a condescending smirk.
“Outside of the orphanage. Far enough away from anyone who might try to eavesdrop.”
“Out on the street? Perhaps in an alley. But that’s farfetched Max, you don’t honestly think that-”
“Oh, I do think,” Max cut him off. “Why else would he go to the radio station and say all that shit to put us on edge?”
“He can’t be working with the Dispatchers!”
“And why not?”
“First off, what motive would he have for doing something so stupid?” Bernard reasoned. “And where would he get the money to pay them off? It would be a losing game. He’s in the same boat as the rest of us.”
“I suppose you’re right,” Max sighed. Dead end. “He could be stealing extra parts and pocketing the money.”
“Would that really be worth the trouble? He’s an orphan. There’s no buying your way out of that. He would need to secure a Level Three pass at the very least to even set foot in another district before the gala celebrations. Those aren’t cheap, even on the black market.”
“True. But what if Cécile-”
Max found himself cut off by the slamming of a door against the back wall halfway down the hall behind him. Boisterous laughter filled the corridor as two squads of Dispatchers rushed their way in, shoving through the line and pushing people aside to get to the front. Their arrival was met with a sea of angry glares from the civilian public, but of course no one dared say anything. It was their mess hall after all, and they got priority. Most of the Barreau boys turned their faces toward the wall as they passed by for fear of being recognized by someone. Bernard looked to Max, ready to scatter if necessary, but the elder shook his head. They would wait until the second squad had gone by.
This presented a problem. Much to their surprise, the other three Dispatchers did not seem to be in any hurry to eat. Instead, they cut in line right behind Max and kept jabbering away. The young elder’s heart began to thud in his chest. The power flickered again through the hallway as their chuckles filled his ears, and he felt a rush of panic when he recognized two of their voices. Jacques and Alfred. The officers from the courthouse. But who was that third voice giggling with them? He swore it sounded even more familiar.
“Remind me to buy us all another round next time, yeah?” the boy laughed. “That wasn’t a bad game!”
“I’ll drink you to the floor next time, Riviere,” Jacques assured him.
“I think Alfred here’s got a better chance of that. You should bring along that other chap next time, what’s his name?”
“Yeah, good ole’ Phil, that’s the one!”
“I’d prefer not to,” Jacques insisted. “He’s a bloody drag.”
“So are some of my boys, but they’re good kids.”
“You don’t know Phillipe like we do,” Alfred sighed.
“Aw, give the kid a chance, he can’t be that stupid.”
“Good day, Lucien,” Jacques rolled his eyes. “It’s been grand and all, but I’m half-smashed and starving. Come on Alfred, let’s skip the line.” The two stepped around the group of Barreau boys and pushed their way up.
“Suit yourselves, gentlemen,” Lucien muttered. “Some of us can’t have all the luck in the world.”
Max had been biding his time listening to the exchange. He could hardly believe his ears. Gallivanting with Dispatchers? How stupid and reckless could you possibly be! The cold sweat and panic that had gripped his heart in the moments before was now replaced by a fury like none other. A hot rush of adrenaline coursed through his veins, saturating his muscles. Soon there would be no choice but to act. The line inched forward. Still, he waited for what seemed an eternity in those last seconds. Did Lucien even realize where he was standing? What excuse would he have?
The power flickered again. Time to move.
Max whipped around and threw his old friend against the wall, pinning his chest. Knocked the wind clear out of him. Though the young elder was considerably shorter than his taller, lankier counterpart, his strength and speed were much greater. The people who had gathered in line behind them immediately backed away. Shock and embarrassment flooded Lucien’s face when he realized who had plastered him against the wall with all the force of a locomotive.
“You’ve got some explaining to do!” Max shouted. The crowd fell quiet. Bernard and the rest of the boys jerked around in fright, prepared to run if they had to. The elder glanced over his shoulder apologetically. He knew it was best not to cause a scene for their sake, and yet he wanted to. He wanted everyone to know just how much of a filthy rat this boy was. A minor scuffle in the mess hall was a grain of sand compared to the floodgates Lucien had opened with his radio appearance.
“Look, I’m happy to do that,” the lanky teen said, in between jumbles of nervous laughter. Max gripped his throat.
“I’d love to hear it! Tell everyone here what a rat you are!”
“You really think it’s wise to discuss this in the Dispatchers’ mess hall?” Lucien choked.
“Why not? It’s not like they don’t already know, now that you had to go off and run your fucking mouth on Casanov’s show for all of Viktorium to hear-”
“Max!” Bernard urged, grabbing his shoulder from behind. “I share your anger my friend, but you don’t want to do this. Not here. Let him go.”
The elder looked around him at the sea of staring faces in the line. Some appeared to be waiting for the mayhem to commence, others rolled their eyes or stood with arms crossed in disapproval. The corridor had grown quiet as a grave. Lights buzzed and flickered again, briefly shattering the silence that hung in the air. Max hated to admit it, but Bernard was right this time. He let go of Lucien and stepped back.
“Fine,” he breathed. Lucien peeled away from the wall and straightened himself. The two boys took back their places in line as the crowd resumed their conversations.
“You have no idea what kind of day I’ve had because of you!” Max snapped through clenched teeth.
“Hey wait a second, I know you,” a middle-aged man said, peering out from halfway down the line as they neared the doorway. “You, the tall blond kid.”
Lucien’s eyes went wide and he glanced back.
“Yeah, you! I heard you on the radio. That’s the guy that said something about the Outlanders being reformed. One of those scumbags killed my little brother and cooked him in pieces! They can’t be reformed! And if one of you Barreau boys is hiding them, you sure as hell ain’t eating here with the rest of us!”
Max shot Lucien a confused look. “Reformed?”
“Apparently you missed the rest of the broadcast.”
“Get over here, I’ll rip your measly throat out!” The man went wild, shoving everyone who tried to hold him back as he tore out of line and charged toward them. The woman controlling the line at the door rushed in to block him, inadvertently allowing in more people than she had intended. Lucien dragged Max through the door just in time before an off duty Dispatcher rushed over to assist.
“Sir! Sir, you need to get back!” the woman shouted.
“They’re harboring an Outlander right here in our city!”
“Thank you, but it’s been taken care of,” the Dispatcher explained. “Now either you need to get back in line and behave sir, or we’ll have to ask you to leave.”
“I’m not leaving, I’ve come this far and I’ll kill those rats!” the man shouted, struggling against the boy’s hold.
Max and Lucien laughed as they grabbed their trays and joined the food line, observing him from afar. Lucien gave the man a wave, which only made him more livid. The Dispatcher at that point charged up his phase unit and fired a pulse which knocked him out. Alfred and Jacques left their meals at the table and ran over to assist in dragging the unruly patron out to the curb. Max turned back, grateful the man wouldn’t cause any more trouble for them and began filling his tray with an assortment of clean silverware, plates, and a bowl.
The Dispatchers’ mess hall afforded far more options than the cafeteria the Barreau boys had previously attended. The food was up to date and of much higher quality, whereas before, they would wait in line for half-stale items. Max felt good that his group of orphans were better taken care of here, and yet he knew it would only be a matter of time before the other hall opened again. Then it was back to green muck that posed as beans, rock hard bread, and other amorphous or congealed choices that sat too long under heat lamps.
As the rest of the boys took a seat at a corner table far across the room from where the Dispatchers were eating, Max coaxed Lucien to the end nearest the wall for privacy. His anger had faded since the incident in the line. Knowing he had missed a crucial segment on the radio show earlier made him realize that perhaps he was jumping to conclusions about his friend. It was quite possible he’d been detained at the gate, or forced into some strange position of public admission about their actions concerning the Outlanders. Maybe he was simply covering the best he could.
“So what happened?” Max asked. They had to speak over the din of the crowd, but he tried not to be too loud.
“Well,” Lucien sighed, “I can see how you might have misunderstood what I said. Especially that whole bit about Quentin.”
Max glanced over at the boy at the other end of the table, his face still swollen and bruised from the Dispatchers’ abuse. At least he was eating well and socializing with the others. Still, a visit to the doctor was probably in order to assess the damage.
“Yeah, you got him beat up pretty good,” the elder frowned.
“I didn’t intend for that.”
“I’m sure you didn’t intend for a lot of things. You still owe him an apology. Igor wants my balls for taking more than our fair share of the parts, by the way.”
“You wouldn’t be the first,” Lucien chuckled. “Anyway…we got detained at the gate by Pontius. He buried me with questions. Kept asking about Quentin, where he went, why he wasn’t with us.”
“What did you tell him?”
“That he was recaptured by the Outlanders.”
“And why go to the radio station and tell all of Viktorium that I was hiding him?”
“The Dispatchers wouldn’t get off my back otherwise. Pontius was convinced we were working with the Outlanders for whatever reason, despite his lack of any evidence-”
“So you proved his theory?” Max cut him off.
“I had to validate the hostage angle somehow! I figured if I told them something about how the Outlanders could be reintegrated into society with the proper care, it would get them off our backs and make us look good at the same time. And that maybe Quentin would be the martyr who saved us or whatever. Then I joined them for a round of drinks in solidarity. I messed up, okay?”
“I had to go to the old courthouse to retrieve his documents and nearly got caught myself! Then when I returned, I found out the Dispatchers paid us a visit. But oddly enough, they didn’t take Quentin into custody. Now why was that, Lucien?”
“How the hell should I know, I wasn’t there!”
“Maybe you were. You would have had enough time after the radio show.”
“Would you listen to yourself? This is insane.”
“Is it?” Max observed a slight quiver in his voice, as if he’d just broken out in a sweat. “You also seemed eager to leave our morning operation early. So I’m sorry if I really don’t know what to think anymore,” the elder sighed, slumping into his palm. “I just want the truth.”
“That is the truth, honest to God!”
“God doesn’t mean shit in Viktorium.”
“So you don’t trust me? Fine friend you are,” Lucien retorted.
“You’re on very thin ice,” Max stood, grabbing up his tray to go sit with the other boys. “But the welcome gala is in a few days, and we’re helping with security again. Should give you an ample chance to prove yourself.”
“Oh come on!” Lucien pleaded.
“Put it this way,” the elder answered, backing away, “If you screw me again, I’ll be handing you over to Igor on our next run. I’ll let him have his choice of which body part he wants to eat.”
Max left him to join Bernard and the others. He hadn’t believed a word that came out of Lucien’s mouth, though he certainly wanted to. There was just no way to give him the benefit of the doubt when all the cards were stacked against him. He shuddered to think about working security at Mayor La Cour’s annual welcome gala, where any manner of things could go wrong. Of course up to two squads of Dispatchers would be deployed with them, but Severo’s warning remained clear in the young elder’s mind. So if I can’t trust the Dispatchers and I can’t trust one of my own, then who is left?
Max shook off the feeling and finished his lunch, listening to the mindless chatter of the Barreau boys. It provided him a sense of calm and belonging in the chaos of the world. Yet deep down, he knew nothing was static. That thought frightened him most of all.
Then Quentin looked over at him and smiled in the way that friends with secrets often do.
Perhaps I can trust the Outlanders.
The power flickered again.