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 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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