Night Of The Wolf – Part 6

Pontius struggled to stay awake. He and the remaining squads of Dispatchers in charge of the west gate had been called into the office of General Rodin at midday for a firm bureaucratic reprimanding. They stood in line formation alongside the right of his desk now, arms tucked behind them and feet at the edge of an overly ornate tapestry rug whilst his sputtering screams of rage echoed off the chamber walls. He’d been at it for twenty minutes now.

The aging district commander closed his eyes with a sigh and tried in vain to pretend he was somewhere else. A pulsing migraine had set in around the ten minute mark. Still, it was nice to fantasize about the good old days of vacationing on the Sea of Helene; the plesiosaurs extending their long necks out from under the waves, the statue of the Salt God on bent knee over his sword, the naked courtesans bathing in the shallows with foam covering their tender breasts…

“PONTIUS!” the general shouted in his face, ripping him from his thoughts. “Pay attention.”

“Yes sir.” He waited for the man to step away before resuming the daydream.

It hadn’t been the easiest morning. He awoke in a cold sweat shortly before dawn with the worst hangover of his life. All throughout the night, he had tossed and turned, visited by an array of dark terrors both familiar and foreign. Flashbacks of Pascal, the battle, Igor, and other memories of things long past came to haunt him even in the daylight. To make matters worse, Gabriel and Antoine brought him to the hospital after he’d blacked out two blocks over from his assigned post. That meant the entire Dispatchers force was now aware that he wasn’t following orders, if they weren’t also aware of his drinking problem. Not that he cared. His stint as district commander would only last for the next couple weeks. After the mayor’s annual farce of a welcome gala, he could slip back into comfortable obscurity and leave this mess behind him to focus on what really mattered—finding Severo and bringing him home.

“How could you be so goddamn irresponsible?! Each and every one of you is an utter disgrace!” General Rodin continued. The man paced back and forth among the ranks, seething with authoritarian fury. Pontius rolled his eyes at the subterfuge. Archibald Rodin was in fact a leading corporate head who bought out the remaining Dispatcher precincts following DuPont’s exile. In the process, Governor Saunier quietly sent Pontius into retirement. It was his way of saving face and putting an end to a regime which held a very bad reputation in the minds of the Cavarice public; however, it also left someone wildly unqualified in charge of the most important security force in all of Viktorium. Of course none of the boys present in the room were aware of this fact. Probably why most of them were shaking in their boots.

“Now that the Outlanders have managed to reenter the city, I certainly hope you all know what’s at stake with LaCour’s welcome gala preparations in full swing. I think it goes without saying what happens next. An immediate full-scale investigation will be conducted over the course of the coming week, pending results of an internal inquiry.” The four squad leaders in attendance groaned. “Shut up!” Rodin yelled. “At this point, you ought to consider yourselves lucky you’re still on the job! If I could spare the manpower, I would suspend all of you without pay. But being that we lost no less than four squads in the senseless bloodshed that occurred last night, we’ll need all the boys we can get for gala security.” The man stopped pacing at the middle of the lineup. “Officers Simon and Perceval, you’re on recruiter duty in the Metropoliès tonight.”

“But sir-”

“The press will be having a field day at Morcourt, it’s the perfect opportunity for you to shine!”

“All due respect,” Pontius interjected, “that’s a horrible idea. Unless you’d like these two baby-faced jokers to be spokesmen for the entire Dispatchers force in front of the media. We have a reputation to uphold. At least two squads will need to provide additional security at Morcourt for the press conference to be sure no one assassinates La Cour. Now I can spare two extra teams at the expense of-”

“That won’t be necessary,” Rodin cut him off. “The mayor has his own private squads, and the last thing I need is for you to abandon your post at the wall following a critical attack. But that is something you did last night, wasn’t it?” The man narrowed his gaze and stepped over to Pontius, stopping inches from his face. He sniffed the air. Shit. “Why don’t you tell us, in your own words, Commander Pontius, why that was?”

He hesitated. Not because General Rodin was intimidating; quite the opposite was true. The chubby man stood a full foot shorter than him and possessed considerably less fighting skills, though he did manage to intimidate the rest of the captains in attendance. But it was difficult to recall the full details of everything that had happened between the actual event and his nightmares. He wished Pascal were here. The scrawny boy, though stupid, had proven himself a godsend in his final moments. In fact, he was the very reason Pontius was still alive right now. The district commander took a deep breath and resolved to do his best in memory of the fallen officer.

“The bomb went off a little after eight,” he explained. “Myself and two other squads were gathered on the wall above the west gate at that time. Pascal, Serge, Conrad, Abel, couple others. Pascal was arguing with me about opening the door because Captain Georges was knocking below. I expressly forbade him to do it, but he moved for the switch anyway. Then the blast came…Igor and his cohorts showed up. Killed three squads, easy.” Pontius winced a moment at his migraine before continuing. “I stumbled…down the stairs with my bum leg, grabbed a phase unit from one of the fallen kids. Took out as many Outlanders as I could. After that, Gabriel and his team arrived from the south end a couple minutes late. I saw Igor escape down an alley and tried to go after him. Got ambushed, that’s the last I remember before I was knocked out.”

“I see,” the general said, crinkling his nose and backing away. Pontius imagined he still reeked of alcohol. Rodin said nothing of it. “And you didn’t think to send Gabriel and the other arriving units after him? After all, you’ve a bum leg. And approximately how many Outlanders did you say you did away with on your own?”

The squad leaders in the room glared expectantly at him. Flashes of color and clanging metal filled the district commander’s mind as he struggled to remember the missing details of that fateful hour. He could recall a myriad of traveling blue sparks, but he wasn’t sure if that was phase unit fire or something else. Red was also a color that seemed rather prominent, and perhaps it was blood, but then came the slicing of metal, then white, then an ever-enveloping blackness…

“Pontius?”

“Yeah, sorry,” the man sighed. “Doc says I probably have a concussion after my fall on the sidewalk. Things are a little foggy right now.” The hangover migraine certainly wasn’t helping matters. The narrow space behind his eyeballs ached, his stomach was doing back flips, and his skull felt like a cement mixer. Still, there seemed one elusive detail between all those nightmarish flashes that presented itself again and again, as if the traveling blue spark were slowly reconnecting old synapses in his mind. He kept going back to the last figure he’d seen before blacking out, yet every time he tried to think clearly, the back of his head hit the pavement again. But he was almost certain it had been Severo. He was certain it was his son…

“I will of course expect a written report from you on this matter within three days time, no exceptions,” the general stated.

“Understood, sir.”

“As for the rest of you, your personal accounts are due on my desk by tomorrow morning. Rest assured gentlemen, no stone will be left unturned in this investigation. Every eye, every ear, every lingering touch, taste, and stench will spare no vantage point! I want to know exactly how those peasants managed to construct a bomb, and how in the bloody hell they got a hold of your phase units to do so! And I swear on my life, if it’s discovered in the course of your duties that any one of you aided these rats in any manner whatsoever, expulsion will be the very least of your worries! Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes sir!” the squads shouted in broken unison.

“Now get the hell out of my office.” The four squads quickly made a beeline for the door, more than eager to leave. Pontius leaned off his cane and prepared to stumble out with the rest of them, but the general blocked his path. “Not you,” Rodin sneered. “If I might have a few words.”

“Almost a half-hour speech and you still didn’t rattle off enough, eh?” the commander sighed. Far behind him, the office door clicked shut, leaving them trapped in that stuffy old room that smelled of so much mahogany and leather-bound books. His aging superior circled around the desk and dug a bottle of brandy out from the bottom drawer with a single glass. “Well I guess that means I’m in trouble.”

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House of Rats – Part 23

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

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

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

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

“Mon Capitaine,” his friend nodded.

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

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

Rats. Hundreds of them.

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

“MAX, LOOK OUT!” Bernard screamed.

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

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

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

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

“We found it.”

“Found it, eh? Where?”

“Uh, we-”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah? How you figure?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is it, Gabriel?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Wonderful.”

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

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

“Yes sir,” the masked man saluted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good question.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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House of Rats – Part 18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What ever happened to him?”

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

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

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

“But why kidnap his son?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Right.”

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

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

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

“Serge, get over here!”

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

“Now!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He’s probably passed out by now!”

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

“Does that even work?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Captain Georges is heading for the gate.”

The man’s eyes went wide. “What?!”

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

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

“Serge saw it too.”

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

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

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

“I’m sorry-”

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

“Right…”

“Pascal! Get out here!” Serge called.

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

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

“Jesus, what have they done to him?!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let me go, it’s Captain Georges!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Excuse me?”

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

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

“He’s a fucking drunk!”

Georges was banging against the gate harder now.

“He is our district commander,” Conrad swallowed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You don’t want to do this, kid.”

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

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

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

BOOM.

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

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

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House of Rats – Part 14

Cecile La Cour quite enjoyed being a flirtatious girl, though she knew she wasn’t quite as flirtatious as Lucien Riviere hoped. His gaze barely wavered an inch from her rear end the entire way up the grand staircase. Even when she couldn’t see him, she felt those piercing blue eyes of his burning something fierce into her being. This would not have bothered her so much had she not grown romantically conflicted over the past month.

As it happened, it was not a boy, but a young girl who had recently zapped into her life and stolen her heart. She was not yet sure what to make of it. Marceau was a bit of an enigma in her own right, but Cecile had never before been attracted to a woman. Anyway, she hated to regard her love in such trivial terms as gender. All she knew was that for some reason which defied all logic, she had fallen quite madly for the tech-savvy traveler.

This presented a major problem. Marceau existed on a separate frequency altogether. Things were…complicated, to say the least. While it did work out well for hiding from the disapproval of Cecile’s father, it also made having a relationship that much more difficult—talking to an empty room was like talking to a ghost. To make matters worse, the Dispatchers had caught on to Marceau’s signal two weeks prior and promptly increased security for the welcome gala as a precaution. They thought she was an anomaly. Two units had thus been assigned to monitor the La Cour family at all times, which should have made her father sleep easier. Of course the man still insisted on commissioning Tesla for a phase unit. It all seemed poised for disaster.

From a practical standpoint, Cecile knew she should be with a young man like Lucien, if only he were born of wealth and privilege. Most of the finer points were there—charisma, passable intelligence, leadership qualities, pride, loyalty, and dashing good looks. Even better, he was a close friend of the family. Money, however, was a luxury he did not have. Not that she cared. So long as she was happy, Cecile was the kind of girl who could date someone with holes in their pockets. But all of her friends were courted by wealthy men. She had her reputation to consider. Besides, Lucien always managed to make her feel more than a bit uncomfortable.

“I’m going to do the talking here, yeah?” she heard him whisper to Bernard. “So you’d better linger far enough behind.”

“Sure, whatever.”

Cecile sighed as she heard the boy’s footsteps coming up fast to match her pace. The other orphans trailed along seven feet behind. She wondered if Marceau was watching them, though the lights hadn’t flickered for some time now. Perhaps her lover was leading the Dispatchers on a chase to the opposite end of the building. The petit traveler enjoyed toying with them. Cecile thought it reckless of course, only because she worried. But Marceau seemed like the type who could handle herself.

“How have you been since we last spoke?” Lucien inquired.

“Not bad. Stressed more than anything. You know my father and his silly welcome galas. Everything always has to be perfect.”

“He does a beautiful job. You ought to be proud,” he smiled.

“Nonsense! His advisors do most of the work. He lifts a finger for the table order, that’s about it. And how about you, Mr. Riviere? I heard you caused quite the scuffle this afternoon.”

“You heard about that, eh?”

“Casanov’s show is a guilty pleasure of mine. So you’re a hero. Congratulations!”

“Yeah,” Lucien cleared his throat, “but let’s just say that not everyone on the Dispatchers force made things easy. There’s a certain friend of yours who shouldn’t be working the wall.”

“Pontius?” Cecile chuckled. “He’s a bit rough around the edges, but he’s the friendliest man I know! We’ve been acquainted since I was a little girl. He’s very loyal to us.”

“Loyal as a dog. Although that’s probably an insult since dogs could do better.”

“Watch it!” she pushed him. “I could have you thrown off the premises like a common criminal.”

“You wouldn’t do that.”

“No?”

“You like me too much,” Lucien grinned.

“I don’t quite think you know what I like.”

“Of course I do. The same things all girls like.”

“And that would be?”

“Power and prestige. Neither of which I have…yet,” he sighed. “But someday.”

“I wouldn’t be too sure. What do you call your band of Merry Men trailing close behind us?”

“At least you think I’m funny.”

“That wasn’t a joke,” Cecile insisted. “People respect you, and that’s something. Still, I wish humor was all it took. Not my choice, you understand. Father can be so demanding.”

“Perhaps he’s just demanding with you because he can’t force his will elsewhere.”

“Well, I am his daughter. And that’s not entirely accurate. Daddy’s been working on pushing through a few reforms that could improve this city for the better,” she explained as they rounded the corner of the balcony. The lights were beginning to dim ever so slightly.

“Such as?”

“The reinstitution of the Dispatchers Training Programme, for one. There aren’t as many volunteers anymore, and it’s not something the wealthy want their sons taking part in. They’ve got their universities to attend, their girls to court.”

“I wouldn’t know. Us poor sods in the Barreau block aren’t good enough for that.”

“Of course you are. Daddy’s been trying to revitalize the canal properties for years and get everyone into proper schools, but he keeps getting shut down by that insatiable bitch Constance Renou. She’s always arguing about extending the lines for business transit. Pretty soon, we won’t have any business left. No wonder the city of Helias refused to sign our last trade agreement. They know as well as my father that those properties are a gold mine, but she won’t have it.”

Lucien frowned. “Anyone else pulling his strings?”

“Not that I could name off the top of my head. I’d have to look at the gala list.”

Cecile had elected to show the boys a small exhibit of artwork set up in the Green Room which had been carefully selected from the finest painters and photographers in all of Cavarice. But the farther they walked, the more the lights overhead began to flicker, and the more nervous she became. Any moment now, a unit of Dispatchers would be rushing their way to insist she return to her bedroom at once and lock the door. Never mind the fact that anomalies—and Marceau—could travel through walls.

She was getting annoyed, too, by Lucien’s presence. He joked quite a bit and possessed a very charismatic attitude, but it was obvious the boy had ulterior motives which her father was too blind to see. What those motives were was anybody’s guess. She didn’t care for the way he treated Bernard or the rest of the orphans either. Like they were his personal slaves, or some sort of burden he sought release from.

Cecile longed to be in the arms of Marceau again, if only to escape and be assured her girlfriend was safe. Of course, she had planned this particular tour route around the location of her bedroom just in case the Dispatchers came along. Sure enough, hurried footsteps could be heard echoing down the hallway adjacent to them just as she pulled the golden key from around her neck to open the gallery doors. But of course it wasn’t the key to the gallery at all—it was the key to her bedroom. The timing was too perfect.

“Miss La Cour! Miss La Cour!” the shouts came as the three men rounded the corner. Everyone except Cecile turned to address the commotion. The mayor’s daughter simply leaned back against the wall, swinging the chain with the golden key around her finger.

“Let me guess,” she rolled her eyes. “ ‘Get back to your room, Cecile.’ ”

“We reckon that’d be safest, Miss,” the captain huffed.

“And you boys do realize that anomalies can travel wherever they please? My door is not going to stop them.”

“That’s why we post guards at the end of the hall. Until the flickerin’ stops.”

“Until the flickering stops,” Cecile laughed. “I’ll be sure to let you all know when my love life needs rescuing.”

“Miss?”

“Forget it. It’s over your heads,” she sighed, turning to Lucien. “I’ve got to go.” Several of the orphan boys began to whine.

“Please, can’t we see the Green Room just once?” Tomas asked.

“I’m sorry,” Cecile stepped over, tousling his hair. “Maybe I can sneak you up during the welcome gala. For now, I’ve got to abide by the good captain’s orders.” She eyed the man with contempt. “And there’s this dreadful dinner I have to get ready for soon.”

“Are we invited?” Lucien asked.

“You wouldn’t want to be. Some ridiculous fundraiser affair, but it’s how Daddy gets his money to fight off Renou in the coming elections, so…”

“I understand,” the boy frowned.

“You all can find your way back down? There’s another stairwell just up this hall.”

“We’ve got it, m’lady,” Bernard smiled and kissed her hand. Though his skin appeared darker beneath the flickering lights, Cecile swore she could detect a rosy blush in the African boy’s face. It was certainly more flattering than Lucien’s approach.

“See you at the gala, Bernard,” she hugged him.

As the last of the Barreau boys exited the hallway, Cecile rushed over to her room and locked the door behind her, leaning back against it. Her bedroom at Morcourt was inexplicably cold no matter what the outside temperature was. Goosebumps radiated over her soft skin in the dark, shapeless shadows. All was quiet now, save for the Dispatchers jabbering on down the hall about anomaly charts. She lit a candle on her bookshelf to carry over to the nightstand, where she plopped down in bed. A slight buzz sounded in the air to her right, almost like a fly, but quieter.

“I know you’re here,” she whispered. The buzzing noise encircled her on the bed, causing her skin to tingle. A mischievous grin spread across her face. “Feels nice.” Suddenly, it stopped. A hushed voice emerged from the darkness and seemed to echo from across the room, though Cecile couldn’t pinpoint exactly where. Whenever she spoke with Marceau, she always questioned whether or not she was going crazy. Did the voice come from within her own head or from outside? It could very well have been both.

“Why do you entertain that boy?” the traveler asked.

“It’s just gala business,” the girl sighed. “And Daddy thinks highly of him.”

“Lucien is dangerous.”

“He’s just a boy.” The lights flickered on and off. “Marceau!” Cecile protested, sitting up. “Really now, I wish you would stop this. It makes it so hard to talk when I can’t see you.”

“I can’t dial down for extended periods of time, I’ve told you. That’s the risk you take when you date someone who lives on a separate frequency. Why don’t you join me? The air is nice and crisp here.”

“Come on, you know I can’t do that,” she smiled.

“Why not?”

“You know why, Marcy.”

“So you would still choose Lucien over me-”

“No, definitely not Lucien!” She could follow the voice now as it traveled in distinct directions, first above her, past her face to the right, then the left. Wherever Marceau was, she had taken to pacing back and forth.

“But anyone else. Someone you can feel and see with your own eyes.”

“Maybe if you chose to live in the real world with the rest of us, things would be easier.”

“How?” Cecile felt the girl’s breath hot in her face. “We would still have to hide because your father wouldn’t approve of you being with a girl anyway.”

“That’s not his decision to make.”

“Then whose is it, Cecile? You’re seventeen. You’re a big girl. You don’t have to stay here.”

“I wish it were that simple.”

“Isn’t it?” The girl finally appeared visible in front of her and knelt down at the side of the bed to hold her hands. Cecile leaned in to kiss her softly.

“Not quite. You sure you can’t dial down for longer? I just want to be with you,” she said, stroking her girlfriend’s face and brushing over the stubble on her shaved head. She thought it a most peculiar thing that a young girl would want to be free of all her hair, but Cecile didn’t mind. Being with Marceau felt almost the same as being with a boy—or at least it seemed less confusing to think of it that way.

“I know, baby,” the traveler kissed her hand. “But I have to conserve power. Plus it’s dangerous for me, I risk scrambling my frequency and getting lost. Now if I could get my hands on that phase unit your father ordered from Tesla, it might be a different story.”

“But he doesn’t even have it yet,” Cecile sighed, laying back and pulling the girl on top of her. They kissed again.

“I don’t need the actual unit. Just the blueprints.”

“The blueprints won’t arrive for another week. Anyway, Daddy keeps things like that locked in his safe. Even if I knew the combination, I have no clue where the safe even is in this building.”

“Could you find out?” Marceau asked, planting kisses down her neck.

“I guess I could ask, but…god, would you stop?” the mayor’s daughter giggled. “I can’t say no when you do this!”

“I know,” the traveler grinned. “So is that a yes?”

“Fine. Yes.”

“That’s my girl,” Marceau whispered. “Sweet girl.” She pressed her warm lips to Cecile’s one last time before zapping away without a trace. All the lights in the room immediately flashed on. The bulb overhead broke, sending glass raining down on the bed. Cecile shrieked and scrambled to the closet, then froze. She listened to the air for a moment. There was no more buzzing noise, no more flickering. No more echoing voices and no more temperature shifts. Dead silence. Her girlfriend was gone.

“Goddamn it, Marceau!”

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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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The Socialist Decay: A Brief History of Viktorium (Part II of V)

by Benoît Laurent

EQUALITY WAS AN INEVITABLE CONSEQUENCE of the Viktorium afterlife, whether one agreed with the initial concept or not. Problems which plagued the land of the living such as racism, classism, sexism, and beyond were no longer to be of any concern to us in this New World. After all, we had learned with great difficulty during our time on Earth’s frequency that exclusion only breeds failure. Thus, we took it upon ourselves as an evolved French society to extend that same liberty to all people, regardless of background or immutable nature. In short, we had said our goodbyes to the Old World. Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the New!

Of course the only problem with this philosophy would be in its implementation. Given a model of the world as we previously knew it, Viktorium differs in marked contrast to its concept of death; simply put, we have none. No one has ever died here, and birth is impossible for reasons as yet unknown, though new arrivals continue to flood our streets every minute. By 1907, a system was devised whereby every new arrival—a death in the land of the living—was classified in Viktorium as a ‘birth’.

This was but a fanciful process to ensure that all debts of a citizen’s previous life were forgiven, whilst the most vital parts could be carried over. The only thing which could not be transferred was one’s finances. For this reason, income equality was also viewed as a necessity; of course this idea quickly morphed into a colossal failure once members of the elite Parisian upper-class began to arrive. One could feasibly argue that this is the event which led to Charles DuPont’s exile, though even if that is not the case, it is undeniably certain that at the very least it led to the breakdown of Viktorium’s utopian socialist ideals, thus reinstituting a bitter convention of classism which had taken centuries to defeat.

To add to this dilemma, the question of what was to be done about orphaned children also came to light. After all, there were many instances back on the Earth plane in which it was quite possible for children to die long before their parents. Finding themselves alone in Viktorium and understandably mistrustful of most adults, these orphans would often begin to seek out one another and form gangs for protection. Five buildings in the now-impoverished Mendrés district were renovated for the purpose of housing to combat this problem, as well as the institution of a Dispatchers Training Programme meant to encourage youth to take on leadership roles in service to the community. Both of these projects were later scrapped in a massive reallocation of federal tax funds following Charles DuPont’s exile. Of course in the wake of this madness, the children were left with no other choice but to form gangs anyway. Many of them were promptly expelled to the Outlands by the ever-so-compassionate Dispatchers.

But the first orphanage—and the only one still standing today—is located on the west end of the Barreau block, a sector which has largely been condemned by the Cavarice City Zoning Commission. Following the closure of the remaining four orphanages in 1916, significant funds were poured back into the dilapidated Barreau Estate for further renovations and housing space. A miracle seemed just within reach—the plan allowed for the reopening of two other buildings on the block, as well as higher-class accommodations, plenty of food and clothing, and even educational services.

Oddly enough, these significant (and essential) changes have still not taken place to this day, the 4th of January 1920! One has to wonder where exactly those funds are being siphoned to. Has the Barreau Orphanage become another front organization of some sort, and tax-free, no less? That would hardly be shocking; there are plenty of those in Cavarice now! Just to list but a few of them I have uncovered in previous exposés:

  • Courges Print & Press
  • LaFout Taylors
  • Zuviban Clockworks (a subsidiary of DuPont Steamworks Co.)
  • Montcherie’s Clothing & Textiles (owned by Agnés Brochard, a cousin of Constance Renou)

I’m sure I could go on. But it is a sad irony that in all the rich snobbery of Viktorium’s elite ruling class, they do not seem to be above the finance of organized crime, so long as it benefits their own pocketbooks. What I find even more shocking and reprehensible is that they are destroying the lives of young children in the process. They are not above using them for their twisted ends, either—it should come as no surprise that no child raised in any of the five orphanages was ever recorded as having completed the Dispatchers Training Programme. In effect, it was a directive which only seems to have ever existed on paper. And yet these children to this day can often be seen shuffled around the city with the Dispatchers themselves, carrying heavy equipment and aiding in various security functions for little to no pay.

What, then, is the solution?

An orphanage lies in shambles along with any dreams those kids might have for a better life, a true and forgotten testament to just how much greed exists above the clouds in the Metropoliès downtown. A fearsome gang in the Outlands led by a psychologically disturbed young boy named Igor (barely thirteen years of age, I might add) is holed up in an abandoned villa just outside the city, waiting for the first opportunity to break in and wreak havoc. Constance Renou, the director of Viktorium-France Transit, seems content to run her business under DuPont’s old regulations. The Dalishkova Knights, a mafia organization shrouded in mysticism, keep dissenting voices in check whilst operating various front companies to keep the money rolling on up to the wealthiest of Viktorium’s citizens. And all the while, DuPont’s old ghost machines have been mysteriously disappearing, even as rumors persist of strange activity occurring in the valley of 501 kHz to the east of Cavarice–activity that the Dispatchers have yet to investigate.

For those of you unaware, Viktorium’s 501 also happens to be located at the same parallel coordinates as Bezonvaux on the Earth plane!

It is a gross understatement to say that in our upcoming elections, the newest presidential candidates have their work cut out for them–if it is even work that they are willing to do.

But perhaps I mistaken about all of this. Perhaps it is simply the natural order of things, and the abandonment of classism was nothing more than a brief social experiment in our early history. After all, we were expecting to do away with a system that has existed in Europe for centuries in the span of just a few short years. And yet apart from the other institutions we were successful in dismantling–mainly racism and sexism–no one here is willing to think outside the box or implement long-term solutions, barring of course what is beneficial to them alone. Why did we ever do away with such attitudes of hope following our president’s exile? Certainly it was a primary staple of why many wanted him gone in the first place! ‘Narcissism has no place in the allocation of federal funds,’ they argued. Equality and reform were the talk of the town during his trials. So why are we still lying to ourselves?

One has to admit that despite the narcissistic behavior of Charles DuPont and the manner in which he, too, dodged responsibility and sacrificed precious lives to meet his own nefarious ends, his actions did give us all a much better understanding of this world than the decadent elitists currently in charge. This was a man who at the very least encouraged us to be shameless and to dream, even if his own vision was far overreaching and out of touch with sociopolitical (or even financial) reality. And that is what made him simultaneously the best—and worst—leader we will ever know. I like to believe that perhaps he did come to understand something shortly before his inevitable exile that we have all lost sight of, and that is that Viktorium itself is a grand, constantly-evolving scientific experiment.

It only stands to reason that if DuPont’s term as president taught us nothing else, it is that reverting to the old ways we once knew on Earth will inevitably lead to our destruction not just as a society, but in this particular dimension of existence. Nikola Tesla himself has warned us of it on numerous occasions, though few in the political arena here will take him seriously.

So I must implore you all to ask yourselves: Are you ready for the true afterlife? Because if not, there are clear changes that must be made following the coming elections which we would all be patently stupid to ignore.

 

I thank you all once again for reading, and we apologize for the brief hiatus in the publication of our news. Our printing machines here underwent a malfunction and took a week to repair, but The Viktorium Free Press is back! Please be sure to keep up with me here, as well as the scandalous developments with Constance Renou, who I will interview in a future segment–if she is willing, of course!

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Prelude: A Brief History of Viktorium (Part I of V)

by Benoît Laurent

IT BEGAN WITH THE DREAM of a young boy, as all things must. An innocent childhood fancy imbued with the spark of imagination. Throughout the course of his life, this spark would be heavily nurtured. His parents indulged him, this boy, as most born to affluence would—with immediate response to every demand and a condescending attitude toward his peers. This of course would leave him unprepared for the devastation that was to follow in his personal life as he dealt with its natural lessons such as death, betrayal, and above all, failure. ‘But what if one did not have to learn such things?’ he thought. This question, more than any other, became the primary driving force behind his life pursuits as he reached the age of adulthood.

Thus, the unchecked spark of indulgence was permitted to grow unto its logical conclusion; a dream so grandiose and decadent, its creator would soon realize there was no room left for it in the real world. And once he discovered Viktorium, that was it. The only reason this man ever needed, as it provided an excuse for everything from his narcissistic behavior to his mad scientist tendencies. The fact that it was a literal escape from the real world was perhaps the icing on the cake. ‘Ah, so one does not have to die after all! How might I exploit this?’

Have you all eaten your fill yet?

The man I am referring to of course is Charles DuPont, ‘First King of Viktorium’ as he no doubt likes to be known. By no coincidence, today so happens to be his birthday. I for one certainly hope he is enjoying it where he belongs—in exile!

Unfortunately for Viktorium—and in particular, our fine capital of Cavarice as it stands today—exile was not quite enough to repair the damage that was already done from fifteen long years of his leadership. We still have our share of problems to clean up, and that’s exactly where we lack guidance. Who is responsible enough to lead us into the next era as a Futuristic society? Mayor La Cour and the Republican Council certainly aren’t cutting it. The fact that everyone on both sides of the political sphere fancies themselves the next supreme is not the least of such concerns; they ousted DuPont with no clear backup plan in mind, yet they refuse to take responsibility for the ensuing mess unless it furthers their own agenda.

And that is the very crux of the issue. Our current politicians in power were among the first to arrive here. No one in their rational, living, thinking intelligent minds could ever have conceived of the idea of having major responsibilities in the afterlife. Indeed how could they, when the very man who founded this place was just as irresponsible and naïve as they, so much so to have marketed it as a vacation destination? After all, death is the great respite. If you wish to escape death, you must take responsibility for the technological power that permits you to do so. But as is death, so is life! In Viktorium, you must work to earn your fill.

And to that end, I feel I must issue a sincere apology to all new arrivals. Many of you were duped into believing this to be a vacation destination, whilst those of you who came long after perhaps thought you were entering Heaven. Even the criminals recently executed that arrive here are those whom you must now consider your brothers, a rather Marxist law which has been upheld with disastrous results. Article IV of the Constitution of Cavarice which states “No arriving citizens shall be judged for Earth crimes” was the worst of DuPont’s edicts left over as a relic of his former cabinet. But not to worry, you’ve got our fine upstanding Dispatcher force for that, another organization that is not without its share of problems, and certainly not free of corruption either. So where did this all start, you ask?

The Man, The Machine, & The Movie Star

FIRST CROSSOVER, 1906. A man enters a poor rural village claiming he has recently developed a very special vacation destination which has yet to be used. All he needs are enough willing families of the general public to test it out for a couple weeks, which he will allow them to do for free. He uses all sorts of scientific words to describe the location, which you wouldn’t listen to anyway because he keeps pointing at his scantily-dressed assistant. All of your attention is focused on her. You trust him not because he smiles, but because the girl smiles. He goes at the men first.

“If you gentleman bring your wives to Viktorium for some much deserved relaxation, I can promise you they won’t soon forget it!” The girl captures your attention with all sorts of flashy poses as he displays a map of the area. “This is the most sophisticated restaurant in town, just off the waterfront. They serve only the best aged wines, delectable dishes of seafood including the finest caviar, and the best chocolate cakes for the lady here, if it so happens to be your wife’s birthday.” He smiles and pats her behind as she caresses her neck and coos in submissive adoration.

Now any intelligent man from the city could see through such a ridiculous act, but the town of Bezonvaux unfortunately had little experience with carnival marketing tactics. They were simply happy to escape their troubled lives through any means necessary. Then again, that is precisely why Charles DuPont had chosen them to test his machine. Also chosen as part of his marketing act was a then twenty-five year old model and actress by the name of Constance Renou, now the Director of Viktorium-France Transit. Charles’ relationship with her, as well as her role in the deception, remains unclear to this day.

What is most clear, however, is what occurred one month later at a date now known as First Crossover. The very mention of it in Viktorium is enough to make one shudder in abject terror, and rightly so. The Viktoria I machine was the biggest technological disaster of our age. Not that Charles cared. He got what he needed most out of the deal in the end—test subjects. Because for all of his credit as a scientist and innovator, DuPont was still the same ruthless, conniving human being he had been as a child. He had to have his way no matter what, and he would go to any means necessary to get it.

On the night of First Crossover, two hundred and thirteen people entered the Viktoria I never to be seen again, either in Viktorium or anywhere else for that matter. According to Charles himself as he stood trial, the crowd formed an orderly line and talked of their excitement. One by one they stepped into the chamber, each accompanied by a green flash that grew ever brighter. The last lit up the entire sky even ten kilometers away. And just like that, the peaceful village of Bezonvaux was gone forever. The following is from DuPont’s court statement before he was exiled:

I tried to stop it. I had noticed earlier that the matter density array was misaligned to a variance of a few degrees. At first, I thought it was within acceptable limits. When they began entering, everything seemed fine. But the flashes got brighter as time went on, and I realized the phase emitter was failing to compensate as it should have. There was a critical overload and I couldn’t be sure the rest would materialize on the other side.

After the first fifty people, I told them we had to stop. But they kept pressuring me to continue firing the switch. ‘You promised us!’ they said. I had never seen a crowd of farmers so upset and angry. Some of them were carrying pistols, others rifles. I was certain more were carrying knives. Despite the fact I had my own pistol, I was outnumbered.

Viktorium was no assurance for me either. I knew if I died, I would come here and the ones who had crossed might make further attempts on my life. We’re still not yet certain what happens if you are killed in Viktorium. Where would I go? But I thought they might have gotten through. How is this all my fault again? Surely they must be alive somewhere! We just have to keep looking.

But of course nobody wanted to look, and they won’t bother. There is far too much power at stake. The fact that Charles’ machine was an eventual success is all that matters to Viktorium’s current politicians now. They just needed the right scapegoat to exile him, because even that was difficult enough. He is a most intelligent man, but I digress. The machine must keep running at all costs, even if it should send us to the Reapers!

That was Charles DuPont’s philosophy, and it is that of our current Parliament. So does it not seem strange to you that the parts are still defective, even if the body has changed? Are we truly expecting a different outcome in this world, and will we also expect one in the next, so long as the same tired cranks are still in power? Of course not! These little power plays they make every damned election year are blatant misdirection, folks! The corporate wheels are still turning, and this is the very essence of The Man, The Machine, and The Movie Star.

Because while The Man hides in a magic box somewhere no doubt holding the secret to his miraculous return in his bloody hands, The Movie Star is still here to draw our attention, operating The Machine to the horrid detriment of our society.

God Save Viktorium! God Save Us All!

Thank you all for reading and please stay tuned for Part II in my series of Viktorium’s history in two weeks! Also be sure to follow my Twitter account here, as well as the Director of Viktorium-France Transit.

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