The tunnel ahead was dark as the caves behind them, though a lot more time seemed to have been spent on its construction. Where the previous segment had been a strange, meandering path through a series of stalactite caves with only railings to guide them, the next half was a very wide red brick hallway nearly as big as a subway tunnel. There were no tracks, stairs, or exits to be seen anywhere aside from at the very end, however. Max’s best guess was that it had been one of the many abandoned projects cut by the Cavarice Construction Committee following DuPont’s exile.
As they continued on through the dark with the blue beam of light still illuminating their way, he couldn’t help but feel a deep sense of unease radiating through his bones. He wasn’t quite sure if it was just the phase unit or not, but a troubling realization began to dawn on Max the more he dwelled. Perhaps that’s why everyone else isn’t afraid to die, he thought. Because they died before. Even the Dispatchers themselves age. They all age. That’s why Georges looked so terrified. He never stared into the face of death. Now Igor wants my blood too.
“We’re home,” he breathed as they at last reached the exit. He made sure to take one last whiff of the cool, dank, earthen smell he so adored in the underground before twisting the wheel and pushing open the door. Bernard stepped ahead of him to make sure the coast was clear in the stairwell which led to the surface before calling up the rest of the boys.
“Clear!” he said.
Max switched off the phase unit and removed it, shoving it away in an old coal sack with the rest of the stolen Dispatcher parts. The team of boys made their way up two flights of stairs to the surface and through a hallway of rubble and scattered papers, checking to be sure the street level was also clear for them to scurry across Barreau Boulevard and back to the orphanage with their loot.
The ten of them breathed a collective sigh of relief as they trudged up the stairs to the front entrance. Max eagerly dug the key out of his trouser pocket and twisted it into the lock, kicking open the stubborn oversized piece of wood. Bernard closed it behind them since he hadn’t the strength left to move it anymore.
“Here,” Max said, tossing the heavy bag of parts to Stephen. “Put them away. I need a shower before lunch.” He found himself crinkling his nose again upon realizing they all stunk.
“What about Lucien?” a boy named Tomas asked.
“After lunch. Take an hour to get cleaned up, everyone. I’ll meet you down at the mess hall.”
The young orphanage elder said nothing more and labored his way up the stairs to his own flat as the other boys excitedly ran off to their room. He did miss the orphanage he was raised in himself. Barreau was a renovated office building, and the main hall which housed the other boys had been nothing more than a giant room full of desks and filing cabinets. After setting up their beds, some of the boys had placed the cabinets between them for privacy in addition to storing clothes, though most didn’t seem to care.
Still, Max wanted so much more for them. Despite the fact that a few could often get on his nerves, they were all good boys. There was Bernard of course, whom he had come to view as an elder of equal standing and helped him keep the rest in line when Lucien wasn’t around. Were the Dispatchers Training Programme still in effect, Max could easily see Bernard becoming captain. There was Tomas, a boy just a year younger with whom he would consistently butt heads. Louis, who needed protecting from Marcel’s roughhousing. Hugo, whose practical jokes were famous. The rest were a lively bunch who never failed to keep him on his toes either.
After stripping down, Max turned on the radio, deciding he needed a good bit of distraction to keep his thoughts from wandering into dark territory concerning the day. Perhaps he could catch up on Andre Cazinov’s show. It had been a rough five hours in the desert. Fortunately, they seemed to have acquired enough to keep them from having to go on another run for quite some time. Which meant that his skin—and fingers, and toes, and ears, and nose, and eyeballs…and cock—were safe from Igor’s rage for the foreseeable future. Feeling secure in that knowledge, he proceeded to set the shower to cold, though switched to hot at the last moment as he felt sufficiently cool already.
Static poured out of the old radio before the program came on the air. The water ran almost black with dirt down the drain as he shampooed his long brown hair, then took to scrubbing his face. He had just gotten to soaping up the rest of himself when Cazinov’s smooth voice hit the airwaves following a lengthy musical intro. Ever the showman, that one.
“Greetings, fine citizens of Cavarice!” the man said in a tone so grandiose, it was almost nauseating. “I hope you all are enjoying your lunch hour. As you all know, Mondays are when we interview those whom we recognize here on the show as heroes. And not just any heroes folks, but those certain people who go above and beyond the call of duty on especially rare occasions. And boy, do we have one hell of a tale for you today! My first guest so happens to be a Dispatcher. Now I know you all must be thinking, ‘Oh Andre, these men go above and beyond every day, what is so unique about this particular character?’ But I can assure you folks, this gentleman is the real deal after what he experienced earlier today just three hours ago. Sir Mr. Dispatcher please, would you kindly state your name?”
“This is Edmond Fasche, Second Lieutenant rank.”
“WHAT?!” Max was so startled, he nearly fell. “No way!”
“Ah yes sir, Mr. Fasche, thank you for coming on the show. Would you like to give a nice hello to everyone out there in Viktorium?”
“Thank you again. Now I understand that you are here because you yourself are not a hero, but you’ve brought someone with you who you say has earned it, is that correct?”
“Yes sir. This young man has shown outstanding bravery in the face of certain death.”
“I see. Why don’t you give me the general background of your story here, for our listeners.”
Still covered in soap suds, Max abruptly shut off the water to listen more closely.
“We were trailing a young orphan boy outside the city whom we later identified as Quentin Vaugrenard. We ended up following him three kilometers across the desert after he informed us some Outlanders had slipped past one of our checkpoints and kidnapped a few boys from Barreau Orphanage. We found them holed up in an abandoned villa.”
“The Outlanders gang? My god, you saw them?! Now is it true that they are cannibals?”
“We do not have confirmation. It seems to be a myth as far as we know. Anyway, they ambushed us, and one of them leapt out and attacked our captain with a knife.”
“Oh my god! Horrible, just horrible! I am so sorry you had to experience that ordeal at the hands of those savages! And to watch it no less. Where exactly is he now, did he get out?”
“Regrettably, they took him. We don’t know for sure. He thought the hostage situation was just a diversion to steal our equipment. But then I heard a young man shouting for help from the second floor of the building. And as per our Code of Service, well…our captain would have wanted us out alive to save these boys. I only wish he could be here with us today.”
“What an idiot, your captain hates you!” Max laughed.
“Ah, I see. Well I wish he was here today too, he sounds like a great man.”
“The Outlanders would have killed the Barreau boys after they stopped being useful to them in taking our gear, but this man had the courage to speak out and alert us that the hostage situation was indeed real.”
“Now I just have to ask, is it of any concern to you that the Outlanders now possess your phase units?”
“They would only be a minor threat to us. We are issued new equipment from Tesla every six months, so we’re due for an upgrade.”
“Ah. Well I have to say, this is an absolutely amazing tale of courage. Okay ladies and gentleman, we have our hero in the studio with us right now. Sir kind sir, would you please state your name for everyone listening at home?”
“Hello Andre, it’s a pleasure to meet you! I’m a regular fan of your show and listen in myself all the time during my lunch hour. To be honored by you, it’s…well it’s frankly a privilege for me to be here right now.”
“Thank you very much sir! But uh, you forgot to tell us your name.”
“Oh, of course, sorry. My name is Lucien. Lucien Riviere. And just for the record Edmond, that’s not quite how the story goes. You see, for starters, Quentin Vaugrenard is actually one of the exiled Outlanders whom my associate Max snuck back into the orphanage some time ago…”
Max tore open the shower curtain, boiling with a rage he had never felt before.
“You have got to be FUCKING kidding!”