House of Rats – Part 11

The kitchen staff at the mess hall on Rue de Charlet found themselves in an overworked frenzy as they struggled to keep up with lines that extended longer than usual. The public cafeteria three blocks up had shut down in recent days due to a rat infestation, which meant all their usual patrons needed somewhere else to eat. No restaurants in the Mendrés District remained open, so of course the closest place was the mess hall on Charlet, a building typically reserved for the Dispatchers.

Because of the obvious tension between the two groups, the Barreau boys always made sure to arrive an hour later than they had at their previous cafeteria. Any earlier, and they risked running into the Dispatchers during shift changes. It was bad enough to be eyed with suspicion all the time. But this particular day was not one in which they wanted to chance any further encounters. The schedule took some time to work out; Tomas had left ahead of the others to scope it out before the walk down, as he had done for the past week. When the coast was clear and the line just short enough for them to wait inside the building, they scurried in.

But splitting meal times with the Dispatchers was not what worried Max most of all. What concerned him as he stood just inside the door, barely enough for it to close, was the possibility of running into Lucien in public. His fellow elder had yet to show his face, and the time was going on three o’clock. Max was not even so sure he wanted to speak to the boy. What would he even say?

Lucien had outed Quentin on a radio show broadcast to millions of people in Cavarice and the next province over. The Dispatchers had come banging on their door, and while Max was grateful they hadn’t taken Quentin into custody, it didn’t exactly make him want to forgive Lucien either. Edmond and his gang had still done a number on the boy. I’ll have words for that scummy rat, he thought to himself. I’m not sure what those words are yet, but I’ll know when I see him.

The line inched forward at a glacial pace. The rest of the orphans were growing impatient. Shift changes occurred every two hours, barring an emergency. It wasn’t likely a squad of Dispatchers would come barging in for a meal anytime soon, though it was a possibility Max remained wary of. They had to be ready to scatter at any moment. To that end, Bernard seemed to be working out a plan of escape with three of the boys ahead. His eyes darted around the hall every few seconds to keep a constant lookout. Max had been doing the same up until now, though his gaze was beginning to linger as thoughts consumed him.

“Hey,” Bernard snapped him out of it, “you all right?”

“Yeah, just thinking,” the elder sighed.

“Lucien?”

Max nodded. “Doesn’t help that we’re in enemy territory, either.”

“It’s a public place, so at least it’s easier to run,” Bernard reminded him.

“But you can’t hide. Not really.”

The electricity buzzed and flickered throughout the narrow corridor from front to back. Though it was already quite dim in the hall, the sudden flash of pitch black reminded everyone just how dark it was.

“Good god,” Bernard breathed. “These phases are getting worse.”

“Everything is getting worse. There are more Dispatchers on every corner now. Have you noticed that? It’s like every time we walk out the door, we’re being watched.”

“I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if somebody figured out our little operation somehow. But they haven’t made a move before today, which is strange. Even when Edmond showed up, there was something…”

“What is it?”

“He seemed really high-strung,” Bernard explained. “Like somebody was on his case about something. And they didn’t bother taking Quentin into custody, even though we didn’t have his citizenship papers. They even saw Tomas with one of their old phase units and brushed it off like it was nothing.”

“It’s not what they were after,” Max pondered. His mind searched for answers that seemed just out of reach. He considered everything that had occurred so far that day. What Severo had told him of the Dispatchers not being trustworthy, of all the ways in which Lucien had drawn a wedge between them with his actions, as if he had to get away for some reason. Then it dawned on him. “Shit!” he exclaimed. “If I wanted to talk to Quentin in private, how might I go about doing that?”

“You’d close the door, obviously,” Bernard said with a condescending smirk.

“Outside of the orphanage. Far enough away from anyone who might try to eavesdrop.”

“Out on the street? Perhaps in an alley. But that’s farfetched Max, you don’t honestly think that-”

“Oh, I do think,” Max cut him off. “Why else would he go to the radio station and say all that shit to put us on edge?”

“He can’t be working with the Dispatchers!”

“And why not?”

“First off, what motive would he have for doing something so stupid?” Bernard reasoned. “And where would he get the money to pay them off? It would be a losing game. He’s in the same boat as the rest of us.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Max sighed. Dead end. “He could be stealing extra parts and pocketing the money.”

“Would that really be worth the trouble? He’s an orphan. There’s no buying your way out of that. He would need to secure a Level Three pass at the very least to even set foot in another district before the gala celebrations. Those aren’t cheap, even on the black market.”

“True. But what if Cécile-”

Max found himself cut off by the slamming of a door against the back wall halfway down the hall behind him. Boisterous laughter filled the corridor as two squads of Dispatchers rushed their way in, shoving through the line and pushing people aside to get to the front. Their arrival was met with a sea of angry glares from the civilian public, but of course no one dared say anything. It was their mess hall after all, and they got priority. Most of the Barreau boys turned their faces toward the wall as they passed by for fear of being recognized by someone. Bernard looked to Max, ready to scatter if necessary, but the elder shook his head. They would wait until the second squad had gone by.

This presented a problem. Much to their surprise, the other three Dispatchers did not seem to be in any hurry to eat. Instead, they cut in line right behind Max and kept jabbering away. The young elder’s heart began to thud in his chest. The power flickered again through the hallway as their chuckles filled his ears, and he felt a rush of panic when he recognized two of their voices. Jacques and Alfred. The officers from the courthouse. But who was that third voice giggling with them? He swore it sounded even more familiar.

“Remind me to buy us all another round next time, yeah?” the boy laughed. “That wasn’t a bad game!”

Lucien.

“I’ll drink you to the floor next time, Riviere,” Jacques assured him.

“I think Alfred here’s got a better chance of that. You should bring along that other chap  next time, what’s his name?”

“Phillipe.”

“Yeah, good ole’ Phil, that’s the one!”

“I’d prefer not to,” Jacques insisted. “He’s a bloody drag.”

“So are some of my boys, but they’re good kids.”

“You don’t know Phillipe like we do,” Alfred sighed.

“Aw, give the kid a chance, he can’t be that stupid.”

“Good day, Lucien,” Jacques rolled his eyes. “It’s been grand and all, but I’m half-smashed and starving. Come on Alfred, let’s skip the line.” The two stepped around the group of Barreau boys and pushed their way up.

“Suit yourselves, gentlemen,” Lucien muttered. “Some of us can’t have all the luck in the world.”

Max had been biding his time listening to the exchange. He could hardly believe his ears. Gallivanting with Dispatchers? How stupid and reckless could you possibly be! The cold sweat and panic that had gripped his heart in the moments before was now replaced by a fury like none other. A hot rush of adrenaline coursed through his veins, saturating his muscles. Soon there would be no choice but to act. The line inched forward. Still, he waited for what seemed an eternity in those last seconds. Did Lucien even realize where he was standing? What excuse would he have?

The power flickered again. Time to move.

Max whipped around and threw his old friend against the wall, pinning his chest. Knocked the wind clear out of him. Though the young elder was considerably shorter than his taller, lankier counterpart, his strength and speed were much greater. The people who had gathered in line behind them immediately backed away. Shock and embarrassment flooded Lucien’s face when he realized who had plastered him against the wall with all the force of a locomotive.

“You’ve got some explaining to do!” Max shouted. The crowd fell quiet. Bernard and the rest of the boys jerked around in fright, prepared to run if they had to. The elder glanced over his shoulder apologetically. He knew it was best not to cause a scene for their sake, and yet he wanted to. He wanted everyone to know just how much of a filthy rat this boy was. A minor scuffle in the mess hall was a grain of sand compared to the floodgates Lucien had opened with his radio appearance.

“Look, I’m happy to do that,” the lanky teen said, in between jumbles of nervous laughter. Max gripped his throat.

“I’d love to hear it! Tell everyone here what a rat you are!”

“You really think it’s wise to discuss this in the Dispatchers’ mess hall?” Lucien choked.

“Why not? It’s not like they don’t already know, now that you had to go off and run your fucking mouth on Casanov’s show for all of Viktorium to hear-”

“Max!” Bernard urged, grabbing his shoulder from behind. “I share your anger my friend, but you don’t want to do this. Not here. Let him go.”

The elder looked around him at the sea of staring faces in the line. Some appeared to be waiting for the mayhem to commence, others rolled their eyes or stood with arms crossed in disapproval. The corridor had grown quiet as a grave. Lights buzzed and flickered again, briefly shattering the silence that hung in the air. Max hated to admit it, but Bernard was right this time. He let go of Lucien and stepped back.

“Fine,” he breathed. Lucien peeled away from the wall and straightened himself. The two boys took back their places in line as the crowd resumed their conversations.

“Somebody’s tense.”

“You have no idea what kind of day I’ve had because of you!” Max snapped through clenched teeth.

“Hey wait a second, I know you,” a middle-aged man said, peering out from halfway down the line as they neared the doorway. “You, the tall blond kid.”

Lucien’s eyes went wide and he glanced back.

“Yeah, you! I heard you on the radio. That’s the guy that said something about the Outlanders being reformed. One of those scumbags killed my little brother and cooked him in pieces! They can’t be reformed! And if one of you Barreau boys is hiding them, you sure as hell ain’t eating here with the rest of us!”

Max shot Lucien a confused look. “Reformed?”

“Apparently you missed the rest of the broadcast.”

“Get over here, I’ll rip your measly throat out!” The man went wild, shoving everyone who tried to hold him back as he tore out of line and charged toward them. The woman controlling the line at the door rushed in to block him, inadvertently allowing in more people than she had intended. Lucien dragged Max through the door just in time before an off duty Dispatcher rushed over to assist.

“Sir! Sir, you need to get back!” the woman shouted.

“They’re harboring an Outlander right here in our city!”

“Thank you, but it’s been taken care of,” the Dispatcher explained. “Now either you need to get back in line and behave sir, or we’ll have to ask you to leave.”

“I’m not leaving, I’ve come this far and I’ll kill those rats!” the man shouted, struggling against the boy’s hold.

Max and Lucien laughed as they grabbed their trays and joined the food line, observing him from afar. Lucien gave the man a wave, which only made him more livid. The Dispatcher at that point charged up his phase unit and fired a pulse which knocked him out. Alfred and Jacques left their meals at the table and ran over to assist in dragging the unruly patron out to the curb. Max turned back, grateful the man wouldn’t cause any more trouble for them and began filling his tray with an assortment of clean silverware, plates, and a bowl.

The Dispatchers’ mess hall afforded far more options than the cafeteria the Barreau boys had previously attended. The food was up to date and of much higher quality, whereas before, they would wait in line for half-stale items. Max felt good that his group of orphans were better taken care of here, and yet he knew it would only be a matter of time before the other hall opened again. Then it was back to green muck that posed as beans, rock hard bread, and other amorphous or congealed choices that sat too long under heat lamps.

As the rest of the boys took a seat at a corner table far across the room from where the Dispatchers were eating, Max coaxed Lucien to the end nearest the wall for privacy. His anger had faded since the incident in the line. Knowing he had missed a crucial segment on the radio show earlier made him realize that perhaps he was jumping to conclusions about his friend. It was quite possible he’d been detained at the gate, or forced into some strange position of public admission about their actions concerning the Outlanders. Maybe he was simply covering the best he could.

“So what happened?” Max asked. They had to speak over the din of the crowd, but he tried not to be too loud.

“Well,” Lucien sighed, “I can see how you might have misunderstood what I said. Especially that whole bit about Quentin.”

Max glanced over at the boy at the other end of the table, his face still swollen and bruised from the Dispatchers’ abuse. At least he was eating well and socializing with the others. Still, a visit to the doctor was probably in order to assess the damage.

“Yeah, you got him beat up pretty good,” the elder frowned.

“I didn’t intend for that.”

“I’m sure you didn’t intend for a lot of things. You still owe him an apology. Igor wants my balls for taking more than our fair share of the parts, by the way.”

“You wouldn’t be the first,” Lucien chuckled. “Anyway…we got detained at the gate by Pontius. He buried me with questions. Kept asking about Quentin, where he went, why he wasn’t with us.”

“What did you tell him?”

“That he was recaptured by the Outlanders.”

“And why go to the radio station and tell all of Viktorium that I was hiding him?”

“The Dispatchers wouldn’t get off my back otherwise. Pontius was convinced we were working with the Outlanders for whatever reason, despite his lack of any evidence-”

“So you proved his theory?” Max cut him off.

“I had to validate the hostage angle somehow! I figured if I told them something about how the Outlanders could be reintegrated into society with the proper care, it would get them off our backs and make us look good at the same time. And that maybe Quentin would be the martyr who saved us or whatever. Then I joined them for a round of drinks in solidarity. I messed up, okay?”

“I had to go to the old courthouse to retrieve his documents and nearly got caught myself! Then when I returned, I found out the Dispatchers paid us a visit. But oddly enough, they didn’t take Quentin into custody. Now why was that, Lucien?”

“How the hell should I know, I wasn’t there!”

“Maybe you were. You would have had enough time after the radio show.”

“Would you listen to yourself? This is insane.”

“Is it?” Max observed a slight quiver in his voice, as if he’d just broken out in a sweat. “You also seemed eager to leave our morning operation early. So I’m sorry if I really don’t know what to think anymore,” the elder sighed, slumping into his palm. “I just want the truth.”

“That is the truth, honest to God!”

“God doesn’t mean shit in Viktorium.”

“So you don’t trust me? Fine friend you are,” Lucien retorted.

“You’re on very thin ice,” Max stood, grabbing up his tray to go sit with the other boys. “But the welcome gala is in a few days, and we’re helping with security again. Should give you an ample chance to prove yourself.”

“Oh come on!” Lucien pleaded.

“Put it this way,” the elder answered, backing away, “If you screw me again, I’ll be handing you over to Igor on our next run. I’ll let him have his choice of which body part he wants to eat.”

Max left him to join Bernard and the others. He hadn’t believed a word that came out of Lucien’s mouth, though he certainly wanted to. There was just no way to give him the benefit of the doubt when all the cards were stacked against him. He shuddered to think about working security at Mayor La Cour’s annual welcome gala, where any manner of things could go wrong. Of course up to two squads of Dispatchers would be deployed with them, but Severo’s warning remained clear in the young elder’s mind. So if I can’t trust the Dispatchers and I can’t trust one of my own, then who is left?

Max shook off the feeling and finished his lunch, listening to the mindless chatter of the Barreau boys. It provided him a sense of calm and belonging in the chaos of the world. Yet deep down, he knew nothing was static. That thought frightened him most of all.

Then Quentin looked over at him and smiled in the way that friends with secrets often do.

Perhaps I can trust the Outlanders.

The power flickered again.

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House of Rats – Part 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Max made his move.

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

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

“Yeah, so what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you see the anomaly?” Alfred asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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House of Rats – Part 6

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

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

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

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

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

“All right Quent, calm down.”

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

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

“Where are you going?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Quentin-”

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

“Quent!”

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

Max slapped him across the face.

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

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

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

Quentin nodded.

“Thank you.”

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

“You’re going through the alley?”

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

“Yes sir!”

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

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

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

“Sorry.”

“You know I hate this ladder!”

“Why the courthouse?”

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

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

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

“What if the Dispatchers take Quentin for questioning?”

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

“Of course not!”

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

“Careful out there, mon Capitaine.”

Max saluted him and went on his way.

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House of Rats – Part 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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