The Workers’ Rebellion and The Great Facade: A Brief History of Viktorium (Part IV of V)

by Benoît Laurent

IT BEGAN IN MUCH THE SAME way as it ended—as Shakespeare would say, ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’. New arrivals to our Viktorium will quickly come to find that this view of the Workers’ Rebellion is rarely contested, even amongst the most liberal of our citizens. Was it a good thing? A bad thing? No one quite knows the correct answer. But what we can be sure of is that it was most certainly a disorganized event.

The sentiments were all there—anger at a sudden drop in wages, DuPont’s unexpected nomination of the controversial Marco Corcini as Minister of Defense (who quickly set up armed checkpoints to keep the working class at bay as Parisian upper-class arrivals were given preferential housing in the Metropoliès), the gentrification of inner city blocks which once housed an array of successful small business—but the labor revolts largely lacked organization from anyone who might serve as a competent leader. The exact reasons for this are unclear, though considering the radically opposing views among the two strongest voices of the working class, it is suspected that a corporate shill was planted from the outset to dissuade a revolution.

In essence, the war was over long before it began. And DuPont’s carefree ideals, it seemed, had already been corrupted. But of course that was not enough for the Parisian ruling class. They had invested their money from the moment of their arrival in all the best markets, biding their time until they could seize control of the capital. The Workers’ Rebellion provided just the right momentum to that end, culminating in the overthrow of DuPont. With him gone, they could then blame the most radical changes—their changes—on his leadership and install a new president, one who promised the people greater progressive change and a more competitive edge against the rising province of Sereinnes in the east.

Not everyone under the thumb of the bourgeoisie cooperated as expected, however. At least five Dispatcher units during that time went rogue to help those in the Mendrés District find shelter in a series of underground tunnels during the worst of the labor riots on the streets above. Several leading Republican Council members even supplied them a layout stolen from a top secret archive. If the battle were to move underground, there were certain safe areas and exits rumored to exist outside the city walls. In addition to this, they were also supplied a new form of camouflage—naturally, courtesy of Tesla—which mimicked the frequency of anomalies and rendered civilians invisible to detection by Corcini’s soldiers. All of this worked out well for many civilians who sought refuge below; that is, for everyone who didn’t find themselves trapped in the southeast junction.

A man by the name of Pontius Proulx—then a General of the Dispatchers and loyal to Corcini—had gotten his hands on the blueprints for the underground subway system at the last moment. Knowing he would not have enough time to break in and round up escaping rioters on his own, he made the decision to rupture a main water line using phase units and flood the tunnels in the southeast corridor to flush them out. This worked quite well to his advantage as those who fled made their way back out onto the streets above and straight into a blockade where his men waited to take them into custody.

In the end, the workers and any other civilians who joined in the fight barely made it up to the Charleville District just outside the Metropoliès. Buildings were bombed out from the north gate up to the edge of the Barreau block, more for scare tactics than anything else. Many were wounded or lost limbs in the fight; reckless as Pontius and his loyal squads were, they still followed the ‘no kill’ decree laid down by DuPont. Nevertheless, their photos were printed in every major news publication in Viktorium, including right here at the Free Press. The stage of revolution had been set. The dissenters were captured and branded as political terrorists, their industries bankrupted and forced under to be replaced by the new. The families of those who marched soon found themselves forced into a life of squalor and constant surveillance. There was no turning back. The bourgeoisie had to make a show of power however they could, a ruse which many argue still persists to this day.

Governor Saunier’s election to public office following the exile of Charles DuPont was a much celebrated affair by Cavarice citizens. His rhetoric on the campaign trail was as progressive as they come. Having won the Radical Party’s nomination, and later the general election by an unexpected landslide against his weaker conservative opponent Louis Roche, it seemed nothing could stand in the way of returning Viktorium to its former glory. Nothing, that is, aside from the Republican Council, who—with paid delegates under the financial influence of the bourgeoisie—successfully had their term limits extended from five years to ten. Governor terms are still five. This meant they could easily subvert the will of any governor in office until 1925, thus rendering neutral any progressive changes proposed by either Saunier or Mayor LaCour, or even their next successors—to say nothing of checks and balances. Goodbye, socialism!

The Facade

Of course you know the old adage, ‘be careful what you wish for’. DuPont wanted a utopian society, and it backfired. But as far as keeping up a show? It appears to have worked remarkably well. Indeed, the supreme irony of it all is that the vast majority of the general public still blindly accepts and believes in Cavarice, even the whole of Viktorium at large, as a place that can be saved with the proper leadership.

Perhaps it is because no one is afforded a choice otherwise of whether or not they wish to come here; DuPont saw to that himself from the very beginning. Making Viktorium into a tourist destination and painting it with the brush of glamour would only work for so long, and he knew this.

The plan was first laid out in 1900 when he first met Nikola Tesla at the Paris Exposition Universelle. The two spoke of innovation. Charles had just proven the existence of an alternate accessible dimension with his latest equations, and he sold his ideas well. Over the next seven years, they corresponded frequently regarding the construction of a compact radio frequency alternator that would automatically scan and collect specific electrical wavelengths—human ‘souls’—and transmit them safely to Viktorium, where they would then be reorganized into their prior form (or at least into a body resembling something close to their original). They did not meet again until DuPont perfected his first ghost machine in 1907 following his test runs in the French countryside.

Together at approximately four in the morning on the 8th of April, they ascended the stairs to the top of the Eiffel Tower, where they climbed out onto the rafters and placed the beacon well out of sight. Tesla was reportedly hesitant to activate such a device; Gustave Eiffel was known to run various experiments from his tower, and he feared there may be too much interference. Being the ever-persuasive one, DuPont of course insisted. The two then left and parted their respective ways. Monitoring the device or changing batteries was not necessary; the tower itself functioned as a lightning rod, and as such would continue to power the alternator indefinitely.

The next night, DuPont paid a visit to Viktorium and discovered a new population of nine thousand waiting just outside the walls of Cavarice. The beacon had worked. This was not quite the perfect number he had hoped for, though certainly close enough to raise the population of his capital city quickly. In his journals, he noted that a wave of confusion had come over the crowd as he began to address them from the wall:

It was as if they were seeing God for the first time in all of his glory. Bewildered expressions befell the sea of unknown faces before me. There were whispers of heaven amongst the Christians, atheists whose legs threatened to give way at any moment, Muslims who bowed in surrender. They could not believe this grand spectacle. Neither, for that matter, could I. As a scientist, I have seen many an occurrence which I could not explain. The arrival of that first crowd was by far the most humbling experience of my life. And I hadn’t a clue what to tell them.

Did they believe me to be God? Was this golden wall in the middle of the desert some equivalent to their idea of what stood at the entrance to heaven? What would happen if I allowed them into my city? These were things I should have considered at the beginning. Back then, there was no Office of Immigration Affairs. There was no railway system. All I had with me at that moment were my loyal squad of Dispatchers, Karl Richter, and Constance Renou. The city, of course, behind me. But I couldn’t open the door just yet. Something inside was stopping me. I had to address them.

“Welcome, friends,” I said, clearing my throat. “Welcome to Viktorium. This…is your city!” And to my surprise, a small group of them answered.

“To Viktorium!” They said. “Viktorium, Viktorium!”

The rest of the crowd joined in the chant until I waved my hand to silence them.

“I know this is not quite what you were expecting after leaving your families. But if we work hard here, we’ve all got a chance to build something. Every man gets his share! And so I welcome you, friends and fellow countrymen, to the afterlife! Viktorium! To victory!”

One of my Dispatchers handed me a small flask as they began to chant again, and I raised it high. It was a gesture most of them seemed to recognize. And as I downed that first stale shot of whiskey while they cheered and jumped about in adoration and excitement, it was then that I realized what I had done.

As I stepped down from the precipice and told Richter to open the gate, Constance took my arm and led me south along the length of the wall. She was supportive as always of course, pretending to understand what she did not. I think she noticed that I must have looked disturbed, though she knew better than to say anything.

What troubled me in that moment was the realization that these people expected the afterlife. They expected me to lead them, to serve their needs. They expected never to hurt again, to never deal with the pain of loss, to never endure another moment of the miserable existence they had just left. The first of those to arrive (by accident) and assist us with the building of Cavarice had been discovered on the outskirts, so I could only assume the entire crowd of 9,000 had trekked north across the desert. To the Promised Land, perhaps. To the Shining City on a Hill. To whatever conception their minds had of heaven, Cavarice would have to be it.

And so I had to follow through on the promise I had made in 1906. If nothing else, perhaps I owed it to the lives lost during First Crossover. But I had to dress it up. I had to make Viktorium a place worth believing in. I had to make sure there was no such thing as death anymore, so long as I remained in charge. And if it turned out that there was indeed a death in this place, well…I had to be sure the city would never learn of it. I myself did not wish to hear such a thing.

Is there a “heaven”? I do not know anymore, nor do I care to.                                            

Viktorium shall be the only life I live from now on. There will be no going home anymore. Not while I have someone loyal by my side to share a new love with, and an expectant country to lead. My wife and children are enough of a regret, but at least they will be well taken care of on Earth. Let me say now that I have died, that I may live. A most noble cause.

Such childish ‘realizations’, as he calls them, were of course the hallmark of DuPont’s egotism. In truth, he cared not who he abandoned or what he left behind. The whole of Viktorium was but a dreamer’s utopian paradise to him. It also seems to be a tradition which, oddly enough, his successors have followed, be they Radical or Republican.

And that is precisely why it is so vital for everyone in Cavarice to be aware that this “dream worth believing in” is in fact nothing more than a lie meant to deceive us and every new arrival that comes after! And for what? Bodies to ensure the continued stability of this frequency? Viktorium is hardly worth saving, at least in my eyes. It is so far beyond, in fact, that our entire city and indeed, our entire world here is just as deluded—if not more so—than DuPont himself!

Consider how many people he roped into this scheme. Ever since First Crossover, we have been tricked and lied to. After the placement of the beacon, many of us were forced here against our greater will and against our religious beliefs. And what lies beyond this frequency? Don’t you want to know? Or are you content to remain blind, as Charles was?

Please do not think I ask these questions purely out of anger. Indeed, I am angry. But I am also much like you, the strong-willed everyday citizens of Cavarice who read my articles and feel so impassioned as to act. Every day, I get letters from many of you and I am truly thankful to find I am not the only one who believes we can do better as a city and as a world. Because just like you, I want to believe in this dream too. But I also want that dream to be genuine and pure of intention. I want political change in Cavarice. I want to see our old downtown districts revitalized, for the money and public services to flow freely to all, and most importantly, for our leaders to be passionate, strong people who care about all the lives under their watch, big and small.

But I must confess that if things do not change here soon, if they continue to remain as they are, and if the good people cannot stand up and make their voices heard out of fear of the bourgeoisie class or any other intimidating force…then I must resolve to find a way out. And I would encourage you all to do this same.

We were named ‘Viktorium’ for a reason; so if you must, please do all that you can to get out and embrace your own ‘victory over death’, whatever that dream may look like to you.

For if you do not, I assure you, you will die a second time.

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House of Rats – Part 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Max made his move.

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

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

“Yeah, so what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you see the anomaly?” Alfred asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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House of Rats – Part 5

“Proof?” Lucien repeated.

The veteran whipped his empty flask aside in unbridled rage and charged toward him, or at least as much as the cane would allow. When he closed within five feet, he raised it up just enough so that his fall forward rammed the end of it hard into the elder’s stomach. The young boy lurched over and fell to the ground in a fetal position, vomiting onto the broken roadway. A collective gasp rose in the air from both the Dispatchers and the orphans as they watched him writhe in pain. Once he regained his bearings, Lucien decided to remain where he was while Pontius exhausted every possible lead.

“He’s right, you know,” Edmond sighed. “And we’ll have to file an incident report for that.”

“I don’t give a shit. Felt damn good. You sure there’s nothing?”

“Not on the orphans. We checked. The Outlanders have our phase units-”

“Suddenly you seem so eager to talk,” Pontius cut him off. “Why is that? And don’t try to tell me it’s because this clever piece of shit scares you,” he said, poking at Lucien with his cane. The boy groaned. “Well?”

“What he was about to tell you is the truth,” Edmond said. “Quentin approached the gate after escaping from the Outlanders and alerted us to the hostage situation. Said they wanted to make a deal with us for their release. Georges made the call to go out with Isaac and myself to check it out after we convinced him. The three of us followed the boy up to the old abandoned villa. Georges suspected it was a trap, so we took a moment to coordinate our approach-”

“That’s not what happened, nothing was coordinated!” Isaac interjected. “We walked straight into a trap and you know it!”

Pontius’s eyes narrowed. “Is that true?”

From his place on the ground, Lucien saw Edmond gulp.

“He…probably doesn’t remember clearly. I’m not so sure I do. It all happened so fast, and with what they did to Georges-”

“What did they do to Georges?” The commander was growing impatient.

“They…cut his cock off.”

“Jesus, they’ll eat anything, won’t they?” Pontius stifled a laugh, but fell serious again as he turned back to Isaac. “Your judgment. Can I trust it? Or do you feel that you were irreparably traumatized by witnessing a man bleeding from the stump of his amputated prick?”

“I was not traumatized, sir. My judgment is crystal clear,” Isaac said.

“I see,” the old man huffed, pacing in front of the group of orphans. “So if I asked you to pick out Quentin from this little family of rats here…is that something you could do?”

Shit.

“Well, I think this has gone on long enough,” Lucien sighed, stepping to his feet and dusting himself off. “Just thought I’d indulge your ego awhile. Admit it Pontius,” he shrugged. “You’ve got nothing. Quentin was recaptured by the Outlanders, I saw it myself. All of my boys here can verify that with their own individual accounts if you’d like. We were hostages, yet you want to treat us like criminals at the gate. And subjecting my poor boys to any more of these baseless accusations after the terrifying ordeal they’ve all been through,” he continued, stepping over to pat their backs in reassurance, “without so much as a search warrant or probable cause, to say nothing of the absence of a lawyer? I’m afraid that you, sir, can eat shit.”

Pontius broke out in a fit of hysterical laughter.

“I have to give you credit. You’ve got chops, kid. But I’m curious as to just what the hell makes you think you’re in charge here,” he said, leaning in close to the obstinate boy. “I mean, the arrogance of you is just…mind-boggling.” His face again returned to that cold, sturdy rock that seemed to be his default expression. Lucien crossed his arms, remaining steadfast. The old codger wasn’t making this easy.

“You are aware who my mother is, yes?” He spoke quietly so the orphans wouldn’t overhear.

“Constance Renou, yes, I am aware,” the man obliged. “But you’re still a Riviere on paper, meaning you’re not legally her son without her signature. And being that your pass is two months expired, well…you’re shit outta luck, kid.

“I could give her a ring.”

The veteran backed away, rolling his eyes. “Now why the hell would I let you do that?”

“You know the extent of her power,” Lucien spoke louder now. “She would find out what you’ve done eventually. She’s the director of Viktorium-France Transit. Any traffic in or out of this city is her business, which means that she governs the very wall you gentlemen guard, along with funding a good portion of your operations. I could easily get you thrown in prison for the abuse of innocent civilians. All of you.”

“I don’t think she cares about some no-name,” Pontius grinned smugly. “Let’s ask your orphans then how much they know.” As the man turned his back to address the boys in his group, Lucien reached up inside his sleeve and discreetly slipped Edmond a handful of bills.

“Isaac’s silence,” he whispered. The young Dispatcher glanced at what he’d been given, then leaned up to his ear.

“It will take a bit more than that.”

“Fine,” Lucien sighed, reaching in again and handing over a few gold coins.

Edmond smiled. “This should get me out of that crummy flat. Thanks!”

A breath caught up in the elder’s throat as he felt his heart sink to his stomach. He glanced nervously over to Isaac, hoping Edmond was joking. Of course he was; he had just been waiting for Pontius to pace another semicircle around the orphans so his back would be turned to them again. Edmond snuck over and shoved the money into his colleague’s hand, whispering something in his ear as he did so. Isaac’s mouth dropped open, and an angry expression befell his face for a moment until he actually gazed down at the amount. Then his eyes went wide and he raised an eyebrow at Lucien. The orphanage elder gave him a simple nod and a wink. The Dispatcher blushed. What?

Edmond stifled a giggle as he returned. “I told him you want to buy a night with him.” The elder stomped on his foot. “Ow!”

“I’m not into men!” he snapped through clenched teeth.

“Don’t worry, he won’t talk.”

“Good.”

“Especially not with your cock in his mouth,” Edmond laughed.

Lucien elbowed him. “Enough. I pay for your silence, not your friendship.”

Across the way, Pontius appeared to be deeply invested in the account of Florian, a ten year-old. He had knelt down on one knee, hanging onto his cane as the boy spoke tearfully about the alleged ordeal. No one was certain whether or not the veteran had any children of his own, but judging by the look on his face as those piercing eyes began to crack, Lucien assumed he did. That’s it, Flo! Break him for me. After some time, the man finally got up and paced back over. The elder’s heart pounded in his chest as he awaited the verdict. They didn’t have much time left before Andre Casanov went on the air. Pontius eyed him with scorn.

“Isaac,” he called. “See to it the boys are escorted back to Barreau Orphanage.”

“Aye, sir.”

Lucien smiled and began to step away, but the veteran stopped him.

“Not you,” he insisted. “You get to stay with me.” He headed across to an abandoned, bombed-out building to the left that served as their base of operations.

“Pontius, I swear to God-”

“Relax!” the man snapped. “I’m putting in a call to Constance. After she verifies your ID number, I’ll write you a temporary permit and you can skulk off to wherever you’re so desperate to go. Try not to get kidnapped again. Hero.”

“Hero?” Lucien called.

“Your boy told quite the sob story,” Pontius sighed. “Reminded me of my kid.”

“I didn’t know you have a kid.”

“I did once…”

“What happened?”

The man hesitated. “Dalishkova took him.”

“Dalishkova Knights? Shit. I’m sorry.”

“It is what it is.”

The elder waited for him to enter the building before turning back to Edmond. “Listen, after he verifies my ID, I’ll require your assistance with one more thing.”

“For god’s sake Lucien, what is it now? I have to check the weapons inventory and get back to guard duty!”

“Won’t take more than an hour at most, I promise. Just need to make a quick appearance on Casanov’s show.”

“Andre Casanov? That idiot with the green hair and frilly getup? What ever for?!”

“Max listens to it and I need to talk to Quentin.”

“So talk to him at the bloody orphanage!”

“It’s not that simple. Word gets around in there faster than a case of lice. Everything would blow open wider than Isaac’s arse.”

Edmond laughed. “How would you know how wide his arse is?”

“Please,” Lucien rolled his eyes. “If you saw the way he looks at Tomas every time he pops in for a visit, you’d see it in his face. He turns all soft. Tomas is dominant as can be. Not sure why I even bothered to buy his silence, all I have to do is get Tomas to…what the devil am I even on about, are you going to help me or what?!”

“Of course!” Edmond assured him. “What’s the plan after the show?”

“Take me to the station, write up your statement of what happened at the villa, I’ll sign it and you can check your weapons. Then we drive back to Barreau, you intimidate the boys, bring Quentin out to the alley where we’ll talk business.”

The Dispatcher groaned.

“What’s your problem now?”

“Can I ask what you are planning to do with our phase units?”

“You’re not paid quite enough to know that,” Lucien smiled, patting him on the shoulder.

“Those serial numbers are tracked and I have to list them on inventory every night, you can’t do this you know!”

“Oh, I can do whatever I like Edmond and you’ll still be my obedient little servant, that’s the beauty of our relationship,” he grinned before leaning in close to whisper in his ear. “Just be glad you haven’t been the one to lose your cock yet, because I could make that happen too.”

Edmond shoved him away as Pontius emerged from the building, handing Lucien a temporary permit. The young elder looked carefully over the crumpled paper in case the man was trying to pull a fast one on him in the way of restrictions such as curfews, checkpoints, or limited access to places he was previously allowed. Everything seemed to be in order. He had to smile at the signature on the bottom; the ink had pooled in a couple places, as if the veteran had been deeply reluctant to sign.

“Thank you,” Lucien said.

“Now piss off.”

As the elder trekked on with Edmond shuffling behind, he gazed up at the bombed out skyline and the broken streets below, still full of debris from the Workers’ Rebellion five years prior. It was a miracle that the city had avoided any loss of life back then. The Dispatchers had handled the situation with the utmost care and precision, shielding civilians with the use of a new camouflage which mimicked the frequency of anomalies. Still, it was a bloody affair that ultimately culminated in the exile of Charles DuPont and several of his cabinet members—the only way to avoid an all-out revolution.

Too bad it’s about to start again, Lucien smiled.

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House of Rats – Part 4

ONE HOUR AGO . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, right. Sorry!”

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

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

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

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

The Dispatcher swallowed hard.

“This District Commander is…recently retired.”

“Pontius?”

Edmond nodded.

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

“Let me do the talking,” Edmond insisted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“N-nothing,” Edmond stammered.

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

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

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

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

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

“Good to know,” the elder smiled.

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

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

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

“Sir-”

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

He nodded.

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

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

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

“Take what out?” the boy grinned.

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

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

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

Lucien smirked as Edmond shoved him along.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m sorry sir, I-”

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

“Yes sir.”

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

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

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

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House of Rats – Part 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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