Night Of The Wolf – Part 16

It had rained late the previous night, leaving a humid mist in the air that reached from the western districts to as far up as the Metropolies. In some ways, Severo preferred the raging sandstorms of the desert villa over the fog. There was a sense of calm in isolation, and the sand banks, while not easily navigable, did not harbor any potential enemies. Now that the Outlanders had made their triumphant return to the city, there were far fewer places to hide. One’s business could be exposed at any moment for all to see. To that end, discretion in Cavarice was a bit of a lost art. At least the Barreau District was not heavily patrolled by Dispatchers.

To that end, the young knight had taken the liberty of setting up a meeting with Bishop Archibald of the local Catholic Diocese on his outing the previous day. The Church had once played a rather prominent role in the rehoming of all orphans who arrived in Cavarice prior to 1915, so if any records of Igor existed from that time, perhaps it would help shed some light on his current predicament. Of course, there was also the matter of returning to Helias to attend to, though that would have to wait. The sooner he uncovered the truth about the troubled leader of the Outlanders, the sooner he could return home with dignity and resume his training in the Seven Trials.

The courtyard of St. Benedict’s Orthodox Sanctuary stood overgrown with weeds and an array of thorny rose bushes that protruded over the iron fence of the walkway like prostrate skeletons. The sidewalk was cracked in various places, the stone walls of the church quickly surrendering to reclamation by a layer of thick vines. With all the miracles in Christendom, perhaps the biggest was that this particular building had managed to remain open all these years. Severo ascended the front steps to a large set of oak double doors and rang the brass bell on the side as instructed. Within seconds, the heavy wooden door unlatched and swung inward. Bishop Archibald’s smiling face greeted him.

“Ah, Severo, good to see you,” the aging man said.

“Thank you.”

“Please, do come inside.”

The knight hesitated and gazed back at the path behind him. He sensed a strange sense of power in this place, unkempt as it was, which railed against his Dalishkova faith. It was odd he had not noticed it before in his travels. Without his prayer amulet—which served as a tool both to protect him, as well as influence belief in others—these energies appeared much more detectable now. So, it seems we’ve been blinded…interesting…

“Are you ready?” the bishop said.

“Yes. Forgive me.”

“As they say, it is not the path which lies behind, but that which leads forward that brings one out of the dark.”

“Of course.” Severo smiled and stepped through the door into a massive foyer that afforded a view of the sanctuary. On the archway above was carved an inscription in Latin: ‘Victoriam In Christo, Solatium In Matrem’—Victory In Christ, Solace In The Mother. The strain of Catholicism that continued in Viktorium was an odd departure from that which was practiced on the Earth plane, mainly because most of its followers viewed this dimension as a sort of Purgatory from which to escape. They often referred to it by name.

The symbols used were much the same, though most of their crosses were designed as broken crucifixes with obtuse angles and a ray of light emanating from the top, while lacking the quintessential figure of the suffering Christ. The reasoning behind this was supposedly because they wanted to encourage their followers to imagine a world without Christ and thus frighten them away from a darker path, though not all churches agreed with the change, favoring a more traditional approach. In recent days however, the second most common image was that of Mary clutching the bruised and battered body of Jesus, signifying a sort of hope for the downtrodden. But no matter the symbology, it was all the same to Severo. Belief, he’d been taught, was the most important aspect. And today, the young knight believed he would find something.

He followed Archibald up to the front of the dim sanctuary, gazing above at the iron chandeliers constructed in a gothic revivalist fashion. Some of them creaked to and fro from their chains, creating an eerie atmosphere as their candles cast shadows on the painted images of saints portrayed on the ceiling above. As they neared the altar, a few uneven portions of carpet drew his attention downward. Between the worn holes in the ornate fabric, he could make out the face of an occasional demon staring up at him. It seemed the floor had been painted at one point to resemble the fires of Hell. Perhaps enough followers had disagreed with it for the church leaders to cover it up.

“Creepy,” Severo muttered.

“I’m sorry? Oh…of course.” The bishop looked back and cringed in acknowledgment, but kept walking. “That floor has always been a subject of contention, I’m afraid. It was meant to better illustrate where this sanctuary stands…to serve as a reminder that this is Purgatory. Above us is Heaven, below us, the pits of Hell. Needless to say, most of our congregation did not take it well, so we covered it until such time it can be repainted. Sadly, our donations in recent days have been rather scant.”

“I would imagine so,” the knight replied. “The Barreau District has fallen on hard times.”

“That’s putting it mildly. Over two hundred people once populated our pews here. Now, fewer than fifty remain, and of those, only about twenty are regular attendees. Of course, closing our doors is never an option. Too many souls left to save.”

“Of course.”

Archibald led him over to a corner office and unlocked the door with a skeleton key. The scent of rich mahogany wafted out from the room as he swung it open and turned on the lights. It was a marked improvement from the dim atmosphere of the sanctuary, brighter and far more inviting. Hanging plants had been arranged near the windows, lending the room a touch of green that was amplified by the stained glass windows.

“I like to keep my office fresh. The rest of this place reminds me of a haunted house!” the old man chuckled. “But the designs were not my choice, you understand. I simply go where I’m called.”

“As do we all.”

“Yes, so,” the man took a seat behind his desk. “What is it that I can do for you today?”

“I’m looking for any information you might have on young boys who were rehomed in Cavarice prior to 1915. It’s my understanding that the Catholic Diocese up to that point worked closely with orphanages to foster transfers and adoptions of children who had arrived here without their parents.”

“Ah, yes,” the man nodded. He rose from his chair and stepped over to a file cabinet in the corner, kneeling down at the bottom drawer. “We should still have some information here in our archives, though much of it was sent to the old courthouse for processing back before it was closed. Do you have a name in particular that you’re searching for?”

“Igor,” Severo breathed. A twinge of anxiety always seemed to hit him every time he had to say that name. Even as a Dalishkova Knight, he could not deny that the boy struck a certain amount of fear in him. And though the scrappy child was blocks away holed up at the safe house, he still felt as though he were being watched by a wolf in the shadows. A wolf he could conquer, and yet a wolf all the same, one that both stalked and eluded him at once.

“And the surname?” the bishop inquired. “We’ve got several boys on file.”

“He doesn’t have a surname that I know of, but he’d be about twelve or thirteen years old.”

“That narrows it down to two. One went to Barreau Orphanage, the other was sent to Rothreau in the northern districts because Barreau was too full at the time. Although it does seem rather strange,” Archibald stood up. He put on his glasses to gaze from one page in the folder to the next, shaking his head. “Their arrival dates were identical, as are their filed dates of birth-”

“Let me see,” Severo said, snatching the folder out of the man’s frail hands and read the second boy’s file aloud. “Born August 23rd, 1902, arrived in Cavarice approximately April 3rd, 1914. No room at Barreau, suggest move to Rothreau by April 14th as several children are being adopted.” He looked back to the first. “Igor has been successfully transferred to Barreau…”

“Perhaps it was misfiled?”

“I don’t think so…this has got to be a cover of some sort. Yes…here it is,” Severo breathed, flipping over the page. “He had to have stayed somewhere else in the interim waiting period before being transferred to Rothreau, and since there was no room at Barreau, they couldn’t have kept him there…oh no!” the boy gasped.

“What is it?”

“The shelter he stayed at…do you mind if I take this?”

“I don’t see why not, it’s not as if many people come looking for old-”

“Thank you!” Severo cut him off and rushed out of the office.

“Wait, where are you going?” Archibald called.

But the young Dalishkova Knight was already halfway through the sanctuary. Why the hell didn’t I think of that before? It was all beginning to make perfect sense now as his earliest childhood memories came to him in fragmented pieces. Ever since he’d rid himself of the prayer amulet during the events of the previous night, the flashbacks were occurring with greater frequency. For years, he had wondered why his father fought so hard to protect him against the Dalishkova, why he hated them so. Severo’s mother was a High Priestess, which he knew had led to some conflict between them. Not like he ever got much of a chance to talk to her.

After his father’s return to Cavarice on that fateful day, he’d been quickly shuffled away into the depths of the temple and given a prayer amulet. For several days, he was provided no food—only water and a book of prayers. By the time the door to the room where he was held prisoner opened, he emerged as a fully-fledged convert and began his training in the Order of Knights. He placed utmost faith in his peers, as well as his ability to protect and serve according to the holy tenants. And yet the further away from the truth of the Order he got, the more he realized it was just manipulation; a smokescreen which deceived everyone in Helias the same as La Cour had managed to do in Cavarice, so that everyone, no matter where they came from, would all be pitted against one another…for what?

Severo rushed for the set of double doors as the bishop trailed behind him. With a single breath, the boy exhaled all the emotion which had bottled up in his chest and concentrated on his obstacle. The doors immediately flung open and smashed against the inside walls of the foyer, sending rippling cracks that extended up to the ceiling. Archibald stopped dead in his tracks and backed away in fear. The knight did not bother to check on him. After all, as the man had said, it was never about the path he would leave behind, but that which led forward that would lead him out of the darkness. It was time to pay a visit to an old Dalishkova property called ‘The Shelter of Motherly Light’.

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Night Of The Wolf – Part 15

The underground chambers of the Dalishkova temple in Helias were dark and cold as death. Hewn from limestone and dolomite rock that had formed a cave system centuries ago, the early followers of the Salt God had built their first temple of refuge here. In more recent years, it served as a training ground for the initiation of Knights. And while most initiates were given a map of the area for mock combat exercises, other chambers were either off limits or not listed. The Resurrection Pool was one such chamber. Sealed off since the First Revival movement over two millennia ago, it had recently come back into use by the rogue sect of Dalishkova known as the Cult of Archaides.

Blind Ricard knelt by the pool, swaying his hand to and fro through the white organic matter his trusted helpers had poured from an assortment of ceramic jugs earlier that morning. Still a bit shallow and not quite lukewarm enough for his preference, though it would certainly do. When frigid, the substance created a chemical reaction with limestone, causing a heating effect that took an entire day to dissipate to proper levels for the task to which he was entrusted. Known to authorities as The Sculptor, Ricard had been broken out of his solitary prison on Alabaster Bay and hired by Marco Corcini for his ability to resurrect the dead across frequencies. With the rise of Archaides, it seemed that he, too, was given a second lease on life.

But Ricard was old, eighty years by Earth standards, and he knew his time would come soon enough. The order he descended from was all but wiped out during the purity purge of the Second Revival, and their secrets had gone with them. He was the last of his kind, blinded by intention once it was discovered that he possessed the gift of visualization as a child. It had been fifty years since he’d knelt at this very pool. To feel the healing power of the substance cascading through his arthritic hands again was nothing short of a miracle, and not one he took for granted—he’d been lucky enough to be imprisoned before the law required the hands of all remaining Sculptors to be broken or amputated. Still, he hated being out of practice for so long. This would take some work.

“Has it all come back to you?” a deep voice echoed from the chamber entrance. Marco.

“The voices of the dead do not speak with much clarity, I’m afraid,” Ricard replied. “But I can hear them beginning to whisper from the cracks of time in which they dwell,” he shivered. “Yes…the stream is getting louder as the flesh cools. So many souls, crying out for release.” His heart began to pound with an excitement he’d not felt in decades as the liquid swelled at his touch.

“I imagine this must be quite a treat for you.”

“Indeed. If I were to be granted a dying wish, this would have been it. I never thought I would live to see the rise of so similar a power again on this island. But knowing that I may serve you is quite enough of an honor.”

“And you know the one whom I seek.”

Ricard hesitated. “It will come with some difficulty, but I believe it can be done, as with all things in time. It is no fair irony that those who have been departed for much longer hold a more solid place on their respective frequency. Younger souls are difficult, their nature more erratic, prone to scattering. But one way or another, people find themselves.”

“Enverniam is not a difficult place to reach.”

“For a trained Dalishkova Knight speaking to other departed Dalishkova, of course not,” Ricard explained. “Making contact is fairly easy, provided you know what you are doing. Bringing a non-anointed soul back, however…that is another matter entirely.”

Another pair of footsteps entered the chamber from the entrance, lighter than those of Corcini. Ricard drew his blind gaze away from the pool. From the presence of warmth in the air, he detected it was a female, dark-skinned and desperate. Ermina. The level of salt excreted from her pores signified she had rushed to arrive here. Her breath, which she attempted to disguise, also gave off an aura of intense worry, perhaps rightly so; Marco did not tolerate tardiness.

“You were supposed to meet me an hour ago,” the man said, his tone cold.

“The subways in Cavarice were backed up, and traffic-”

“No excuses, plan better,” he cut her off. “You said you met with the German girl.”

“I did…what are you doing down here, anyway?”

“None of your concern.”

“Of course…I know it is not my place to question.”

“You gave her the amulet?” Marco ignored her.

“Yes.”

“And yet we’ve detected no incoming reception from it. Why is that?”

Ermina sighed. “I observed her a while before we spoke. In those few minutes, I managed to pick up a variant shift in the electrical pulses coursing through her body, like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Humans here generate an energy signature comparable to those on the Earth plane, but…this was different. Stronger. A lot stronger…” she paused.

“Go on.”

“As if it could power several city blocks alone. She could easily have destroyed the amulet the moment it touched her palm.”

“And knowing this, you still allowed her to take it.”

“It was just a theory-”

“And you returned to Helias. Had you informed me of this prior, I would have kept you in Cavarice for reconnaissance. She’s the only one who can lead us to Tesla.”

“Not the only—ack!” The woman struggled as Marco began to choke her. “Please…”

“I do not intend to move on Constance yet. This is sensitive information for which I will not tolerate carelessness. You are well aware of the protocol we all must follow. Helias will not fall to the dogs again!” he spat, turning to Ricard. “Are you picking up anything yet? The life waning from her pathetic body, perhaps? After all, we can always sculpt her a new one!”

Ricard sighed. “All due respect sir, I’m beginning to lose focus.” It wasn’t true, of course. Ermina was not even half dead, and Marco had only done this to get a rise out of the man. It was his way of telling him to work faster. But the aging sculptor was not about to reveal the true extent of his perceptive powers in case this regime, too, were to one day meet its demise. Marco huffed and let go of the woman, who coughed and slumped to the floor gasping for breath. Ricard turned his attention back to the pool, where the organic matter now formed more favorable clumps between his fingers. So much more to work with, he smiled.

“You will return to Cavarice at once and await my instructions,” Corcini spoke to the woman.

“Yes sir.” Ermina continued coughing as she exited the chamber, her footsteps fading up the stone stairwell and back to the surface. There, she would emerge from a secret passageway that ended several blocks east beneath the ruins of an ancient guard tower. Ricard’s ancestors were once stationed there. And while this seemed a random thought at first, the old man knew everything was connected throughout the realms to serve a purpose. If he began by calling forth the most ancient souls first, it was inevitable that they would lead him to the more recently departed.

“Forgive me for that display of cruelty,” Marco said. “I imagine you’ve suffered enough in your lifetime.”

“Silence please, if you may,” Ricard replied. “A face is forming.”

The old man dipped both hands into the pool now, carefully tracing an assortment of shapes as they came into focus in his mind’s eye. If he did not take his time, it was possible to ruin the sculpture and lose the more important details. The organic matter would form itself into a body without a face. Then, that soulless entity would escape and wreak havoc across the frequencies. Lord knew the Dalishkova didn’t need another Flesh War on their hands.

The molding was a struggle to keep up with for a man of Ricard’s age. The images often passed through his mind much quicker than his frail hands could keep up with, though he quietly recited the Twelve Pillars, which allowed him to stay focused. The entire history of Helias came rushing through his fingertips and coursed through his veins now—the earliest Greek settlers who’d gotten lost at sea and stumbled upon the isle after kidnapping the Oracle Helene, their defeat of the Reapers with her help, the founding of the Dalishkova religion under her name and the gracious Salt God who had saved them. The First Revival, in which older Greek gods came back into favor among the youth, prompting a major reformation of the Dalishkova religion, and then the Second, which purged such ideas. The return of the Reapers and subsequent arrival of Charles DuPont, who proved a nuisance until he made a deal to rid Viktorium of the creatures in exchange for his permission to remain. The building of the Cavarice wall, his departure, and then the recent attacks…all told through the eyes of the false flesh. You fool.

“Ah, there you are,” the man smiled. “Yes…you’ve been through quite a bit of pain, haven’t you, my boy? So much pain and anger. But not to worry,” he whispered, stroking the outline of a child’s face that had formed in his tender hands. “You will return soon enough from Enverniam and have a new home here in Helias. We will take great care of you…Quentin Vaugrenard.”

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Night Of The Wolf – Part 13

“This is much better,” Lucien quipped, gazing around the lobby they had toured just the previous day.

“Yes, well enjoy it while you can,” Pierre said, adjusting his vest and suit jacket. “At the rate things are going, the press will have us all lynched before dawn. This way, please.” He gestured for them to follow and led them up through the main foyer all the way past the pillars, this time to the left. On the previous day, they had taken a right into the main hall, where Mayor La Cour had bored the Barreau boys half to death with his meticulous seating arrangements for the welcome gala. So much had changed since then, and yet it remained the same. But to Max, Morcourt Hall seemed to have taken on a much darker tone in light of recent events. He could feel it permeating the air like the hot desert sun back in the Outlanders’ villa that had forced the sweat from his pores and left his clothes clinging to him like static soon afterward.  It was a feeling of disgust, of something in the air left unresolved, and the shadow of what was yet to follow.

The young elder did his best to stay one step ahead of Lucien on the way to wherever Pierre was leading them so the boy didn’t cross into his peripherals. He hated being reminded of the fact that it was him—not Bernard—who had accompanied him to this meeting. And yet still, perhaps it would afford him the unique opportunity to read his old friend and plot his next move. Lucien had thus far remained one step ahead of Max, and god only knew how far those slender hooks of his extended. The lanky boy sprung up beside him soon enough. Max rolled his eyes but said nothing.

Pierre took a right around the next corner, leading them both up a side stairwell and through another corridor past the Green Room and around the rotunda balcony to a set of double doors on the right lined in gold, art deco-styled trim. He produced a skeleton key from inside his jacket and unlocked one side, gesturing for them both to move through as he opened it. Max and Lucien walked through to find themselves in a rather lavishly decorated office study. Mayor La Cour sat behind a desk at the far end surrounded by six of his cabinet officials. All of them wore grim expressions on their faces, the likes of which belied an even darker tone than the mahogany shades present in their surroundings. None of them acknowledged the two boys, save for La Cour himself, who at least made an effort to feign enthusiasm.

“Ah, gentlemen!” he exclaimed, forcing a smile. “Glad you both could make it. Please, have a seat.”

Lucien shoved his way ahead of Max and plopped down in one of the two remaining vacant chairs in the semicircle, but the young elder moved for the large circular window behind the desk to keep watch over the roaring crowds below. The office was positioned above the main entrance of Morcourt, so one could see everything from up here. None of it looked pretty. As it was, much of the glass had already been clouded by a smattering of rotten vegetables hurled from below that slid down, obstructing a good portion of the view. Mayor LaCour squeaked backward in his rickety chair.

“Maxwell, would you like to sit?”

“I’m fine with standing,” the elder crossed his arms.

“Please,” the man glared at him. A large tomato suddenly splattered against the window in front of Max’s face, and that was all the encouragement he needed.

“Right.”

“Pierre, can we close the curtains, please?!” La Cour huffed, running a hand through his silvery hair.

“Of course sir!” The butler rushed over, pulling the large crimson drapes shut. More vegetables came flying as he did. Max felt his heart skip a beat with every thump against the glass, though in surveying the circle of faces he and Lucien now found themselves a part of, no one else seemed particularly on edge. Even the mayor himself seemed more content to pore over a newspaper than to address the crippling silence taking hold of the room. For several moments, the only sounds one could hear were the old grandfather clock ticking in the far left corner and the din of the angry crowd below. La Cour rustled through his newspaper, though he at last broke the silence after throwing it down on his desk in annoyance. Max glanced over at the headline:

OUTLANDERS ATTACK WEST GATE, INVADE CITY; MULTIPLE CASUALTIES, SEVERAL DEATHS SUSPECTED

“These crowds get their first whiff of blood in the afterlife and suddenly it’s anarchy. But of course we all know this is not the afterlife,” he sighed. “I want to know who leaked this.”

“Probably that hack journalist, what’s-his-name,” Vice Mayor Beatrice Castile thought aloud.

“Benoit Laurent,” grumbled one of the other old councilmen.

“That’s the one,” La Cour nodded. “I’d love to hang his body upside down from the roof!”

“Does it really matter?” Louis, his aging, timid-voiced accountant sighed. “There’s no coming back from this. We’re finished. Might as well start swallowing the cyanide pills.”

“I prefer arson. Easier to hide,” Beatrice added.

“Now stop it, all of you!” the mayor snapped, rising from his chair. “I called you here to help me formulate a plan, not sit around like a bunch of corpses waiting to desiccate! Christ, you all look as if you might croak at any moment, save of course for these two young gentlemen from the Barreau District. What we need right now are answers, because those savages decided to attack the city wall on the week before my welcome gala! You cannot tell me that doesn’t reek of suspicion.”

“All due respect,” Louis shrugged, “but holing yourself up in Morcourt doesn’t exactly bode well for your public appearance, either. The crowds are already screaming for blood, and even if you do choose to address them now, you’ll face assassination. Also, this is not the most secure location and we all know it. There are no underground tunnels or secret passageways leading in or out. Captain Gerard and his teams can only hold back the mob for so long before they break down the bloody doors, and when that happens-”

“Oh just go and kill yourself now if you’re that faithless!” La Cour cut him off. “Don’t you think I’ve already accounted for that?  We’ve got tight security and armored cars waiting out back. I pray we don’t have to use them, but there’s a clear path for the Serreines province should it become necessary. I plan to address the crowds.”

“That’s suicide,” Beatrice muttered.

“And just what are we to tell the new arrivals as everyone starts to riot here, then? Someone’s got to speak to them sooner or later! I’d prefer not to cancel an event with weeks worth of planning. We must encourage ongoing positive morale in the capital city. Besides, General Rodin assured me that investigative reports concerning the attack on the wall are forthcoming.”

“In that case, sir,” his publicist chimed in, “perhaps it is best we postpone the celebrations until a definitive conclusion is reached. They’ll be more apt to trust you.”

“I’m not calling it off!”

“Sir, I didn’t say-”

“What’s the point of postponing? Either our own citizens riot in the streets, or we have a bunch of rats running around causing all manner of mischief because they haven’t a clue what to do with themselves! I want this contained, and quickly. God forbid anyone else dies!”

“Sir, if you’ll allow me to finish,” his publicist sighed. “Might I suggest the possibility of moving the gala to your summer villa at the Verdevale Province Air Field? It’s not too far from the city. There is more space and it’s an open atmosphere, not as congested. People will feel safer, perhaps more welcome there. The trains will arrive on site as well. We could plan for fireworks.”

“What about the market right next door? Security will be more dispersed than I’m comfortable with, especially after the loss of several Dispatcher squads. And that still doesn’t solve the problem of what to tell these goddamn reporters!” La Cour grumbled, wiping the sweat from his brow. “Anyone else want to offer some bright ideas? Max?”

“Sorry, what?” The elder had caught himself zoning out as he rested his chin on his knuckles. Now that all eyes were trained on him with the expectation of an answer, everything went blank. The political climate in the Metropolies was of little concern to him compared with the loss of Quentin the previous night and the survival of his boys. He had his suspicions of course regarding Lucien’s possible role in the attack, but that’s all they were. If he was going to prove his old friend was in fact a traitor, he would need evidence, and that would take time. At least he knew the La Cour family might be on his side, given that the mayor favored him enough to show him adoption papers the previous night—an offer he’d refused, though still struggled with. That’s when he came up with a plan. Stand your ground. Don’t let Lucien know you were thinking twice. “Why are you asking me for answers? That’s what your advisors are for.”

“I thought I might use the two of you as field consultants to gauge public opinion,” the mayor admitted, pacing around his desk. “Both of you have lived here since before I was elected. You remember what Cavarice used to be, what it stands for, and what it should be. When I started my campaign, I built it on the premise of change. A return to the glory days, if you will-”

“First off, cut the shit!” Max snapped. “I can tell you right now that nobody wants to hear it after last night’s attack, least of all me! The people are angry because you’ve lost control. Any idiot could see that. It’s time to stop lamenting the good old days and focus on calming them down before your approval rating sinks any lower. You said reports from General Rodin are coming, yeah?”

“Yes, but-”

The mayor was suddenly cut off by a loud bang from across the room as a squad of Dispatchers in black leather trench coats stormed through the ornate double doors with such force that the top hinge on one of them broke off. Everyone jumped out of their skin while Max and Lucien bolted out of their chairs and stood at the ready, exchanging worried glances. The elder grit his teeth. He hadn’t thought to bring a phase unit, and considering his brief encounter with Antoine the previous night, there was no telling what this squad’s motives were.

But rather than apprehend anyone, the young men in black quickly stepped aside to make way for a pale blonde woman in a green miniskirt and matching business jacket. A small hat with a fishnet veil sat atop her bob of wavy, golden locks. She was beautiful, and yet exuded a presence much like a destructive force of nature. Her large, blue eyes seethed with hurricane fury, her pouty lips twisted in a bright red lipstick snarl that looked like a rose about to explode. And explode she did.

“Would you mind telling me just what the HELL is going on?!” the woman roared, charging up to the desk.

“Constance!” La Cour choked nervously. “Good of you to join us.”

“Not so good for you, I’m afraid!” she spat. “I was gone for a mere two days securing business deals in the Falvarre province and I come home to rioting in the streets! Apparently, I can’t leave you alone for five minutes without holding your hand like a bloody child.”

“Please, if you’ll allow me to-”

“News travels fast, by the way,” she snapped her fingers, prompting one of her Dispatchers to step over and toss a newspaper on the man’s desk with yet another distressing headline from the Falvarre Daily:

TERROR IN CAVARICE; OUTLANDERS RETURN, WEST WALL BREACHED

“As I recall, I’ve told you to have more security stationed at the west gate. This should have been addressed immediately, before you had a crowd of angry people ready to break down your doors!” she huffed. “By the way, what is this riffraff doing here?” She gestured back to Max and Lucien. The young elder’s heart was thudding in his chest at the sheer power of her presence. So this is why La Cour backs out of confrontation.

“I invited them as advisors on public opinion, as they have experience-”

“Ha!” Constance chuckled. “Unless you’re bloody blind, you already know how the public perceives you. Take a long, lovely gander,” she stomped around the back of his desk and flung the crimson curtain wide open again, “at THAT! Ah, the sweet smell of dissension. So many angry citizens, fed up with the stale rhetoric of their tired old leader. As it so happens, the timing could not be more perfect.”

La Cour balked. “What are you talking about?”

“My candidacy for mayor, of course,” she turned back with a grin. “The people are crying out for justice. They need a proper leader to ensure their protection against terrorists both foreign and domestic. And with election season right around the corner, what better time than now to announce my campaign?”

“You wouldn’t dare!” the man bellowed. “Not with your conflicts of interest.”

“Oh, I have my ways, darling,” Constance assured him. “The beauty of it is that it would hardly matter. You’ve managed to create one blunder after another, to the point your approval rating has gone down the shitter. Meanwhile, my stocks continue to rise, and you…well, without my help and your current title, you’re one step away from bankruptcy, aren’t you? Now, if you’re quite done sitting in your office sulking with the rest of these crusty old heaps, we’ve got damage control to address. And not to worry. I’ll be speaking ahead of you. And lest you make any more of a mockery of our administration, my Dispatchers are here to keep things tidy. Any questions?”

“You’re a real bitch,” La Cour muttered.

“Proud of it. Shall we?” Constance hooked her arm around his and gestured to her private squad. “And show our little ‘public advisors’ to the door, will you? They’re stinking up the hall.”

“Of course, ma’am,” the captain answered. “Let’s go, you two.”

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Night Of The Wolf – Part 12

The last rays of the sun were fading from the sky in greenish hues mixed with streaks of yellow as it broke through dissipating rain clouds. Here or there, a slight hint of orange could be seen left over from the afternoon hours during which the Viktorium sky would have been indistinguishable from that of Earth. In some ways, Max hated that he knew better. There was a certain satisfaction that came with remaining ignorant and ‘fresh off the train’, so to speak. Corruption didn’t exist within the minds of new arrivals to this world. Everything they saw during their first impression was exactly what the Parisian elite wanted them to see—another reason Max loathed Mayor La Cour’s annual welcome galas. It was psychological manipulation. And considering the events of the previous night, there was no doubt plenty of damage control to be done.

The young elder took a seat out on the crumbling front steps of the orphanage and lit a rolled cigarette he’d managed to snag from beneath Florian’s bunk. The air had warmed a bit since early that morning, giving way to a gentle breeze. But while the temperature throughout the Barreau block was nice for comfort, it also made the arid stench of raw sewage and algae from the canal more apparent. Max held his nose as he inhaled the tobacco flavor and promptly fell into a coughing fit. He never smoked often and certainly wasn’t about to start now, however he felt this particular situation called for it—the telegram concerning a private meeting with La Cour had been directly addressed to the orphanage elders. This meant that until he could get the official paperwork amended to include Bernard, he was still stuck with Lucien. This ought to be interesting.

“Where is that prick, anyway,” he whispered to himself, checking his pocket watch. They were set to meet at six o’clock on the dot. It was nearly six twenty. Of course, he should have expected this. The ever-so-stubborn traitor he once considered a friend had insisted on moving down the block right away. And without proper furnishings or accommodation, he didn’t expect Lucien—or the boys under his watch—had gotten much sleep. A childish move. But much as Max remained angry, he still had to pity them. They were running blind after all, following a young man they didn’t know under the promise of a better future. It was no better than what La Cour was doing.

Max stood up and leaned over the left balustrade to spit, catching sight of several red spots on the sidewalk which had stained the pavement the day before. His heart sank. Quentin’s blood. A crazy thought then struck him. Rumors had persisted around the Metropoliès in recent days following the publication of journalist Benoit Laurent’s articles on the history of Viktorium. Supposedly at one time before the exile of DuPont, there existed cloning machines. All one had to do, the story went, was provide a blood or hair sample on a glass collection plate. Within seconds, a perfect identical clone would be generated out of thin air. It all sounded laughably farfetched. What would be the purpose of it all? Still, Max couldn’t help but wonder if some part of it were true. And in that case, it would hurt no one if he perhaps decided to collect a small sample of-

“Evening, rat!” Lucien called from up the block, snapping the young elder out of his daydream.

“You’re late!” Max called. He inhaled one last drag of the cigarette and tossed it over the balustrade into a tangle of unkempt bushes. “I told you to be here at six o’ clock sharp.”

“Have you really turned to smoking?” Lucien chuckled, ignoring him. “Filthy habit, Maximiliens.”

“It’s Maxwell!” the boy seethed.

“Oh, right. I forgot one of your parents was English. Aren’t you just the paragon of virtue and propriety. What’s wrong? Haven’t had your tea and crumpets this morning?”

The elder rolled his eyes and stepped down to the sidewalk to meet him. “Are you finished?”

“On the contrary. I’m just getting started,” Lucien grinned.

“Let’s get this over with.”

“First off,” the lanky boy stopped him to reach into his inner jacket pocket, “I believe a peace offering is in order.” He produced a small flask engraved with a coat of arms topped by a nude woman, a crest which looked strangely familiar to Max. The bottle was oval in shape and made of green-stained glass. The elder took it without hesitation.

“Is that Lady Adelaide’s brand of absinthe?!”

“It is,” Lucien smiled.

“I’ve scoured every shop on Rue d’Auseil looking for this! Where did you find it?”

“Not telling. Trade secrets. Although I can tell you that there’s plenty more where it came from.”

Max narrowed his eyes and unscrewed the cap from the flask, giving it a sniff to be sure Lucien wasn’t bluffing. After all, he’d spent the previous day lying through his crooked teeth about a great many things. Who knew if this was any different? The elder wasn’t about to chance the first sip, and there was only one way to be sure it wasn’t poisoned.

“Take a swig,” he said, shoving it back in Lucien’s hand.

“Seriously? You know I play dirty Max, but I’m not that level of scum.”

“Then you should have no problem with the first swallow. You said it’s a peace offering, yeah? A gift, essentially. So if that bottle is now mine, you’d better fucking oblige.”

“Very well. Since you insist on being rude.” With that, Lucien proceeded to tip the bottle and chug the entire contents until it was empty. He then hurled it at the crumbling orphanage steps, where it shattered into a million, green, fairy-like pieces. “Satisfied?!” he snapped, storming off down the block. Max charged after him.

“You son of a bitch, my boys could cut their feet on that!”

“Really?” Lucien whirled around. “Is that all you’ve got to say?”

“Other than you showing up to Morcourt as a stinking drunk, though I doubt that was really absinthe if you can chug it like that.”

“At least you know it wasn’t poison. We had to dilute it, by the way. I lied. Only one more bottle left. I was going to share it with you, but you can never be happy over anything Max, now can you? Don’t worry, I’ll save the rest for celebration when you get adopted.”

“Funny.”

“You ought to join me in my new revolution, you know. A fresh start would do you good.”

“You’re out of your mind.”

“Not any more than anyone else in this toxic shithole.”

“I’m sure that sort of attitude will persuade a lot of people to join your cause,” Max rolled his eyes. They continued down the block at a brisk pace. “How well did you sleep last night, by the way? Couldn’t have been all that comfortable.”

“I slept like a free man. So did the rest of them.”

“It’s been my observation that the homeless don’t sleep so well.”

“Ah, that’s where you underestimate me. Do you honestly believe I haven’t been planning my exodus for weeks? You should stop in sometime. We’re set up just fine at the old library with all the furnishings and provisions we need.”

“I think I’ll pass.”

“Are you sure about that? Plenty of books you might be interested in checking out.”

“I do hope you have a permit for setting up a new orphanage before city inspection throws you out on the street. What the hell is your game, anyway?”

“Sorry. You forfeited your right to that knowledge when you held a knife to my eye. At this point, you’re the one being uncivil. I’m giving you every opportunity to join me in the new world I’m constructing-”

“Oh shut the hell up!” The elder cut him off and shoved him against the wall. They had reached the end of the block, just outside the narrow alleyway where Max’s group had been arrested the previous night. It still stunk of garbage and excrement. “Stop pretending you did me any favors, you certainly never did Quentin any! You hated him since the day he arrived on our doorstep. I still have my doubts as to whether or not you were somehow involved in the attack on the west gate, so mark my words Lucien, and mark them well. If I ever, and I mean EVER find out you had ANYTHING to do with Quentin’s death, I will cut your wretched throat, do you understand me?!”

“Is that a threat?” Lucien choked beneath his iron grasp, but Max held him firm and didn’t budge.

“That’s a promise!”

“You won’t do it,” the traitor sputtered. “You haven’t the heart to kill me.”

“We’ll see.” Max drove his knee hard into the boy’s crotch. As Lucien doubled over in pain, the elder ducked fast to pummel him in the stomach several times, then clocked him across the jaw for good measure. There was an audible crack, and the would-be revolutionary hero fell to the ground writhing in agony. Served him right. “At least I have a heart. Now let’s get to Morcourt. We’re already late, so I don’t want to hear another peep out of your mouth until we’re through the front door.”

Max turned and continued on, but he only made it about three feet before Lucien dragged him backward and body slammed him sideways into a broken mass of twisted metal that lay strewn across the path—the fire escape that had formerly clung to the adjacent building. A sharp sting of pain immediately shot through the young elder’s left cheekbone, and he could feel sizable cuts across his stomach, his chest, and the back of his right forearm. Oh hell no.

Hitting back, the dark-haired boy charged low for Lucien’s waist, driving them both through the fragile concrete wall, where they plunged hard onto a basement floor several feet down and proceeded to pound the living daylights out of one another. There, each of the boys grabbed whatever they could find to continue their spat. Lucien hit Max over the head with a wrench, and Max picked up a small wooden crate and smashed it over his body. Lucien responded by throwing him into a pile of barrels and leaped onto him. From there, the fight devolved into a series of punches, kicks, biting, scratching, and every other primitive form of attack until the two at last exhausted themselves. When it was over, they lay panting side by side.

“All right,” Max panted, “we should…probably…get to Morcourt now.”

“Felt pretty good, yeah?” Lucien smirked.

“Like old times,” Max chuckled.

“We make a good tag team.”

“True,” the elder smiled, turning onto his side to face his nemesis. “But don’t think this lets you off the hook.”

Lucien sighed and extended a hand over to him. “Truce?”

“For today,” Max nodded, shaking on it as the two rose to their feet ad dusted themselves off. “I don’t expect the mayor’s company will be too impressed when they see us.”

“What’s to impress?” Lucien laughed. “We’re Barreau boys.”

Max frowned and turned away. “You’re no Barreau boy.”

After climbing out of the crumbling basement and back into the alley, the two continued on the same path they typically took through the winding alleyways, past Rue d’Auseil, Rue La Monte, and the old courthouse until they reached the end of the streetcar line. Several minutes passed until another arrived, which they rode up to the western district checkpoint and boarded a series of subway trains that led into the downtown area of the Metropolies. By the time they exited the station platform and lumbered up the stairwell into Center City directly across from Morcourt Hall, the skies had grown dark. It was already 7:15.

The streets were awash in an ocean of press coverage; journalists, photographers, radio personalities, and newsboys all lined the steps of the front entrance hoping for a piece of the action. And above them all, guarding the doors valiantly behind an array of floodlights, stood three squads of Dispatchers with phase units at ready in case anyone should be stupid enough to attempt to storm the building. Max and Lucien exchanged worried glances.

“This is madness,” the young elder sighed. “How are we supposed to get through?”

Lucien surveyed the throng a moment, peering around for an opening in the crowd. Once it seemed he found it, he pulled Max along with him.

“Come on this way, I’ve got an idea.” The lanky boy led his former friend over to the left side of the mindless sea of faces, where the congestion was considerably less dense and there was more breathing room. Mayor La Cour’s butler, Pierre, had been speaking with one of the Dispatcher squad captains off to the side, which offered them the perfect opportunity to get in to their scheduled meeting. “Hey Pierre. Pierre, you dimwit!” Lucien called, waving at him in a futile attempt to flag the man down. “Over here!” Max tore away from the boy’s grasp and dragged his arm down to stop him.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?!” the elder hissed.

“Getting his attention!”

“By calling him a dimwit? Looks like you’ve gotten us attention all right!”

Upon catching sight of them, the captain of La Cour’s private Dispatcher squad quickly shoved Pierre behind him and charged to the edge of the steps, activating his phase unit. The bright blue flash that sparked in his palm drew a series of gasps from the crowd of frightened onlookers as their gaze fell to the two troublemakers standing at the far left side of the stairs.

“Get back!” the man roared.

“Smart,” Max scoffed.

“Wait, wait Gustav!” Pierre protested, rushing to the rescue. “These two were invited to the meeting, you must let them through!” Gustav looked back at the man as if he were insane. Pierre set a hand on the man’s wrist to encourage him to lower his guard, which he finally did. “You’ll have to excuse him,” the butler sighed. “Tensions are running high since the attack on the gate last night, as I’m sure you understand.”

“Of course we understand,” Max breathed, scowling at his former partner. “Don’t we, Lucien?”

“Not to worry,” the lanky boy smiled.

“They stink,” Gustav spat, reluctantly calling over the rest of his squad to maintain order through the break in the line while the second squad escorted the boys the rest of the way up to the front entrance. Pierre clinched his nose until they got to the door, at which point the third Dispatcher squad, facing too much tension from the impassioned crowd, lost control of the situation. An avalanche of reporters and journalists broke straight through the barricades and came barreling up the steps toward them. Gustav and his squad did their best to stop it, but it was too late. Pierre, visibly horrified, tore the skeleton key off the gold chain around his neck and unlocked the doors, shoving Max and Lucien inside.

“No, no, no, NO STOP!” he shouted at the crowd as the trio ducked through and he slammed the door shut behind them, twisting all six locks from top to bottom as a loud thump against the door made every heart in the lobby skip a beat. Phase unit fire could be heard from outside, followed by shrieks of protest as the Dispatcher squads forced the crowd backward. Before long, their voices grew pleasantly distant. There was no doubt that plenty of arrests would be made tonight. All the same, the people of Cavarice were screaming for answers, and for what it was worth, Max did not think that sitting around biding their time in Morcourt while everyone else rioted in the streets was the best course of action. Mayor La Cour should have addressed the city immediately following the attack, rather than allowing their rage to steep unchecked for an entire day. Not that it made any difference now.

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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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Night of the Wolf – Part 2

With the trio now complete, the group continued on across the room, making their way toward a secret door that stood behind a bookcase full of fake textbooks and glued-on beakers. The young woman pulled on a green title which read ‘Electrical Engineering’, and the shelving unit slid aside to the left. Once inside the closet, she palmed a button on the wall. The door behind them abruptly closed. It produced a bit more noise than she would have hoped.

“Shit,” she cringed. “No doubt they heard that.” She felt a slight tug at her right arm just above the phase unit and looked down. Lucien’s clone was cowering at her side in the dark.

“Mum, I’m scared!” the boy whimpered.

“Don’t be such a baby,” her first son elbowed him. “It’s hard to believe you actually share DNA with me.”

“You’re scared too.”

“Am not.”

“Are too.”

“Am not!”

“Yes you are!”

“Boys, stop it!” their mother scolded.

“He’s just better at hiding it,” the clone said. “Fine. Not hard to understand why you wouldn’t be afraid. At least I wasn’t born several minutes ago. Fear makes me human. Why don’t you go running into the crossfire so the Dispatchers could get rid of you?”

Constance gasped. She had assured her only son that she could tell them apart, and yet just now, she swore that the one grasping for dear life at her arm was the clone. Then again, it wasn’t as if they were true identical twins. She’d been taught that in the childhood of twins, there was always an alpha and a beta. If there were to be a beta, she was certain the clone would be it. He should have been petrified of everything. Yet that’s when she realized the two were likely now afraid of two very different things—the clone of not belonging, and her son, that the clone would take his place. Neither of these fears would aid them in their escape. Even worse, it had the potential to hinder them. Why did I ever think this was a good idea?

But it was too late to turn back now. Constance said nothing, instead adjusting the phase unit on her wrist and straightening her dress. She was glad to have chosen something black with a shorter cut just above the knee that facilitated running. Unfortunately, the heels had to go. She stooped down to remove them next, surveying her twin sons along the way. After this, she powered on the phase unit a moment and paced around the boys, hoping to uncover any small detail in the dark which might give the clone away. Nothing.

“Mum…what are you doing?”

“Which one of you is the clone?” the woman asked bluntly. “Your places in the escape plan matter-”

“Why?” the boy cried. “If we’re both your identical sons, what does it matter who goes in the box and who comes out?”

Constance smirked. “I guess that settles it. You’re the clone, then.”

“How can you say that?!” the child snapped. “You said you’d be able to tell us apart, so since you can’t, what does it matter if I’m dead!”

“Darling, please-”

“You don’t care, don’t act like you ever did!”

“Lucien!”

But the boy had already shoved open the closet door and run off into the darkness of the gallery. His mother’s heart sunk to her stomach, giving way to instinct. No time to think now. The sound of Dispatcher boots rushing across the room drowned out all else. Constance steeled herself and shoved her remaining son behind her as she tore through the open doorway and fired off three pulses to distract the approaching squads. The last shot shattered the glass of a nearby display and caught Captain Karl square in the side. He went down screaming. The rest of the squad rushed to his aid, and Constance ducked low behind a golden suit of prototype armor with Lucien at her side.

“Now, remember what we planned,” she whispered. “You take the middle aisle up to the Liberté sculpture and switch places with your brother-”

“Mum, I’m not the clone, it’s suicide for me if we switch!” he cut her off.

“Are you bloody KIDDING ME right now?!” the woman snapped. “There’s no way this is going to work, you and I will not make it out alive if we stay together, that was the whole point of involving a clone!”

“Constance Renou!” a deep voice bellowed from the front of the gallery. Marco Corcini. “Oh yes. We know you are in here. I have waited a long time for this day. Five Earth years, to be exact, and yet it feels so much longer,” he chuckled, sauntering up the far aisle. Constance crept out from behind the armor suit, staying low against a row of glass tabletop display cases. She gestured for her son to move opposite her along the side of the aisle up until he reached the first gap, which led to the middle.

“Go!” she whispered, but Lucien wasn’t having it. He had knelt down with his back glued to a display, visibly shaking as a squad of Dispatchers crept along the middle aisle two meters away. Shit. Constance hadn’t seen or heard them over Corcini, so it was fortunate he had. The Defense Minister’s voice did have a way of worming itself into the brains of the vulnerable, a fact she’d almost forgotten, given his Dalishkova background.

“You can’t hide forever,” Marco sneered from across the way. Meanwhile, a series of quickened footsteps plodded along the opposite side of the gallery wall, prompting Dispatchers to fire pulses in their direction. When the noise of breaking glass and electricity stopped, Constance heard a snap of fingers farther down the middle aisle. The second squad appeared from around the corner and marched in their direction, kneeling to take aim.

“RUN!” Renou shrieked, shoving Lucien toward the center aisle and firing off several pulses. She managed to blast through the chest of one man, then the head of another. The blue glow of her phase unit illuminated blood splatter along the way as she charged on toward the entrance, stopping just short of the Liberté sculpture. She then ducked out of sight around a nearby display case and inched her way toward the bronze centerpiece. More Dispatchers were flooding the aisle from where she’d come, and the clone had since drawn another squad to the far side of the gallery. This had not been part of her original plan, but Constance soon realized the center aisle was now perhaps the safest place to be. She doubted this for a brief second until she saw Corcini’s staunch frame round the corner. Definitely the safest, she thought.

“Come now, Constance. You don’t honestly believe you can escape us, do you?” the man called out. “If you and your child would come quietly, I can ensure you will both live out the rest of your lives in peace on the Alabaster Coast.”

The woman bit her lip and drew her knees up to her chest, turning up the settings on her phase unit to the highest level. No way in hell. The ‘Alabaster Coast’ was nothing more than a fancy name for the Bay Asylum, where everyone with minor mental issues and other undesirables, to political enemies, to traitors, terrorists and assassins, all the way up to schizophrenic barbarians were kept under lock and key. And it most certainly was not a place of peace or safety, nor was it any place for a child. Sociopaths like Corcini, however, seemed to be permitted free reign in Viktorium.

Constance took a deep breath, her heart pounding, and peered around the corner of the display. She did not catch sight of any Dispatchers, however that didn’t mean they weren’t there. Marco often employed cloaker coats—elite teams of  special ops soldiers with cloaking devices—to flush out his enemies. In addition, she couldn’t make out much beyond the Liberté sculpture up ahead as it blocked the path, and even worse, she had yet to see Lucien…either of the Luciens. What if they’ve both been caught? she panicked. Somehow, she wondered if it even mattered anymore. Without her child, there was little left to fight for, and it seemed unlikely they would make it out of here alive. But I don’t know that for sure. Corcini would have announced it. Rising to her feet, Constance steeled herself again and stepped out into the center aisle. This was a stupid idea, but she figured as long as she could draw the soldiers her way, there’d be less of them to chase her sons.

“MARCO!” she shouted. Two cloaker coats immediately flashed into view on either side of the Liberté sculpture, prompting the angered mother to fire. Blinding blue bolts and static flew through the air, leaving trails in their wake. She blasted through the arm of the left one, but missed twice on the right due to recoil. The man returned fire. In the light of that pulse, the entire gallery seemed to come alive. Constance saw her life flash before her eyes. His shot would have taken her head clean off, had a pair of tiny arms not grabbed waist and shoved her to the floor behind a row of square cases. A loud sonic boom sounded as the spark extinguished further up the aisle, causing glass to explode everywhere. Of course. The phase units cloaker coats wore tended to have a shorter range for assassination purposes. Fortunately, the shock had only managed to crack the glass above Renou and her son. They were safe for now.

“Are you all right?” she whispered.

“Yeah…had to switch places with the clone-”

“LOOK OUT!”

A Dispatcher marched toward them from the far wall and fired. Constance caught the bolt in her palm and rose to her feet, firing it back at his leg. There was a bright splash of blood as the man’s kneecap exploded and he went down screaming. Keeping Lucien behind her, the angered mother ducked left around the corner, and again behind yet another row of display cases parallel with the Liberté sculpture. She lurched forward a moment to glance over the tabletop ahead of them. Another stupid idea, but it was best to reassess their chances of escape. The entrance was in sight, though guarded by a single squad of three, yet that hardly seemed protocol. And who knew how many cloaker coats there were skulking around the gallery.

Constance leaned back to check the settings on her phase unit again. She considered using the infrasound, but that was dangerous on one’s eardrums, and using the flame in the gallery was nothing short of suicide. Various banners and flags hung from the ceiling above, not to mention the curtains along the walls. Aside from that, if they were ever to return, she hoped to leave the house intact so they could live out the rest of their lives undisturbed. Yeah right. That might as well have been a fantasy. She wrapped a loving arm around Lucien a moment and listened. The room had grown eerily quiet. Then she heard the crunch of glass beneath a boot around the display case behind them.

“Shit!” she clenched her teeth, turning to whisper in her son’s ear. “You go left and run as fast as you can down the center aisle, I’ll stay close to the wall and cover you as we make a break for the entrance-”

“But Mum-”

“I love you, go, GO!”

The boy scrambled away, slipping over glass and rubble as Constance charged her phase unit and whirled around to fire at the Dispatcher behind her. She missed again, still not used to the recoil. He returned fire. She tried to dodge it by stepping aside, but the pulse caught her square in the left shoulder. She shrieked in pain and aimed at the only place she knew she couldn’t miss—the display table. A bright blast of electricity and static shattered the glass, sending shards flying up in the air. It gave her a chance to get away, at least.

Renou hopped over the next row of tables and ducked down, hearing a flurry of footsteps heading in her direction. Her entire body ached now, and she was certain the soles of her feet were cut up from plodding over broken glass. She poked her head out briefly to fire pulses again, trying to focus more on the Dispatchers guarding the entrance. If only her son could get away, that was all that mattered anymore. He was the future of Viktorium, after all. But she couldn’t see him in the center aisle anymore, and wondered if perhaps he’d taken a roundabout way. Staying low, Constance ducked back out over to the left and around another row of cases. That’s when Marco’s voice came again, stopping her dead in her tracks.

“Oh Constance!” the man shouted. “We have your son! You’d best give up now.”

The mother’s heart thudded deep in her chest.

“You’re bluffing!” she replied, remaining hidden. A lump was forming in her throat.

“Am I?” Corcini snarled. The crunch of broken glass and shuffling footsteps combined with the desperate gasps of a child had never been a louder sound in the cold dark of that gallery. Constance panicked. Either they had the clone or they had her real son, and all she could do was hope her plan would work, that they in fact had captured the clone and her real son was hiding somewhere safe in the shadows. But there was no way to know for sure. Not really, and being that she had also bonded with the clone, the loss of either one would prove devastating in so many ways. The only thought which lent her any comfort now was that they’d only managed to apprehend one of the two. We still have a chance. And still, she had to pretend as if this were her only son. That cut their chances of escape in half. Unless the clone had already been destroyed. The Helias Flesh was not known for being particularly stable, and she still could not be sure if they’d chosen the correct vial. Shit.

“You leave him alone!” she shrieked, rising into the open and tearing the phase unit off her bony wrist. The heavy thing fell to the floor with a thud. Two Dispatchers were holding tight to Lucien, who struggled and squirmed under their grasp until one of them held a knife up to his throat. The other switched on his phase unit to illuminate the boy’s face as they dragged him out into the center aisle near the sculpture. Constance rushed over the join them, but soon found herself in the custody of cloaker coats as they flashed into visibility ahead of her and took her by the arms. Suddenly, her movements weren’t her own anymore, and she struggled to escape.

“Unhand me, you fools! I’ll have you all demoted, no, worse! I’ll have you dispatched and deported, that’s a promise-”

“Do shut up,” Marco Corcini cut her off. They shoved her to her knees in front of him. All the mother could do now was look upon the terrified face of her child as he stood beneath the blue glow of phase units, powerless to save either one of them. She should have listened to Charles from the very beginning, but still, Charles should have listened to her before appointing this madman as minister of defense. A madman who belonged in the Alabaster Bay Asylum himself.

“What the bloody hell do you want from us?!” Constance yelled. The menacing man grinned, and the scars that covered his dark, aging face turned to daggers. His lower lip was turned downward in a permanent snarl reminiscent of a rabid dog. One had to wonder if he was just as insane.

“You know what I want,” he replied. “I’m looking for your husband. You and your son are no doubt a catch in the same web, however Charles was first on my list. If you would be good enough to give yourselves up now and reveal his location, I will-”

“Fuck off!” the woman spat.

“I believe I’m being more than generous in my offer,” Corcini bellowed, brushing a hand over her son’s hair.

“Don’t you dare touch-”

“Ah ah,” the man snapped his fingers. One of the Dispatchers holding onto Constance charged his phase unit and zapped her. The sudden shock jolted through her nervous system and caused her to vomit. Marco smirked and knelt down to look her in the eye, removing a small handkerchief from his pocket. She struggled to turn away as he proceeded to wipe her chin, though she gave in. “You know…royal families have been executed in coup d’états for centuries. You and your son could live out a decent life.”

“I’d rather choose exile than the asylum!”

“You would be living in the warden’s quarters, naturally,” the man sighed. “Admittedly not as luxurious a place as this, but,” he glanced around at the tapestries on the walls, “I would allow you to keep your lovely drapes.”

“You son of a bitch!”

“Ah, strike two,” the man snapped his fingers again, and a stronger jolt shot through Renou’s body. She dry heaved as a feeling of extreme dizziness and nausea overcame her. The outline of Marco’s figure began to grow blurry in the dark, and her nose started running. She looked down a moment at the illuminated marble floor beneath the glow of the phase units and her heart jumped. It was blood.

“Let my mother go, you can have me!” Lucien cried. “Please, please just take me!”

“No,” Constance whimpered in defeat.

“No? Ah, but I do think the boy has a rather splendid idea,” Marco sneered. “I have no children, after all. I have often wondered, if I were to have an heir of my own in this broken world which you are so adamant on saving-”

“Not over my dead BODY!” the woman shouted.

“Fine, it’s not as if you respect death anyway. Strike three.” Corcini snapped his fingers again, and the Dispatcher holding the knife to Lucien’s throat slashed his jugular. The boy’s blue eyes immediately went wide with horror, paling as he looked on his mother for the last time in shock. Blood squirted out like a fountain from his tiny neck, drenching the black and white floor and staining the crunched glass beneath the boots of the cloaker coats. His body convulsed in the throes of death like a wild animal, and still the Dispatchers held him steady so Constance was forced to stare at the entire spectacle until it had ended.

She felt like vomiting again. A series of audible gasps escaped her throat as she fought her captors to release her arm so she could cover her mouth, but they wouldn’t have it. The lump in her throat from earlier suddenly burst forth in raw emotion, and she cried. Sobbed. Wailed. She cried so hard, she feared the sound of her own voice might turn her deaf. And she prayed Corcini would silence her. Her stomach wretched, her heart sunk. If she could have exploded in a blast of electric light into sheer nothingness like those people who had entered the Viktoria I machine, she would have. Who was a clone, who wasn’t, none of it mattered anymore. They had just murdered her son, and that feeling was real.

Finally, Marco grabbed her by the neck and squeezed tight. Yes, do it. I have nothing left to live for now anyway, and I was foolish to believe I could escape. Give me the sweet embrace of death, that I might join my son.

“Now that I have your full attention…I’m not going to ask again,” the man said coldly.

“You bastard, are you insane?!” Constance chuckled in disbelief. “You’ve just lost your only leverage, and me, my only son. Why don’t you go ahead and snap my neck?”

“I’m sure I could,” the man reasoned. “But then I would be depriving you of the most beautiful feeling you could ever have. Indeed, it may very well be the only thing you can feel after tonight.”

“And what’s that?”

“Revenge, Miss Renou. Because I know Charles has slighted you, as he has done to us all. The way I see things, you and your child are just as much a victim as everyone else who has crossed over to this world, placing their misguided faith in the idea of a better future under DuPont. But I know you are smarter than that, which is why I am willing to allow you to stay here in Viktorium, provided you meet certain requirements.”

“Funny,” Constance rolled her eyes, “I thought you were speaking of revenge against you.”

“Don’t insult my intelligence.” Corcini narrowed his gaze. “You have acquired stock in various companies as a result of your association with Charles, yes? Zuviban Clockworks, LaFout Taylors, Courges Print & Press, Montcherie’s Clothing & Textiles…even access to DuPont Airships & Co. At least three of these are front organizations funneling funds into certain secret accounts in Helias. Accounts which, oddly enough, belong to several leading Radical Party members based in Cavarice who do substantial amounts of work on election campaigns. Need I go on, Madam President? If that is indeed the title you prefer.”

“I haven’t the faintest clue what you’re talking about.”

“You want your husband gone, and so do we,” Marco explained. “And the world we both come from is not so kind to the prospect of women gaining power. Here in Viktorium, however, anything is possible. That is why I would actually prefer you to remain here.”

“So why murder my son?”

“Because without an heir, you have no legitimate claim to this world, and neither does DuPont. Really, I am allowing you to live out the rest of your life as you wish, albeit as a glorified figurehead. It’s the best you can hope for, really, before your departure to the Reapers. As I said, I believe I’m being rather gracious. Still, I could kill you right now and there would be no happiness for you before you ultimately walk the Dark Realm. No before, and no ever after. No revenge against Charles-”

“Fine,” Constance cut him off. “He’s on the Dantua Road heading east for the Aussonne Mountains. There is an underground enclosure high in the hilltops close to the summit of Mount Verlaine. That’s as much as I know. I assume you can find him there.”

“Thank you for your cooperation, Miss Renou,” Marco said. “Although I believe it may be wiser to wait a few years…perhaps to restore faith in the people.” Corcini paced over to a large green and black flag, sewn by Constance herself, and held it out. The bottom, being solid green, represented the Earth plane, and the black above, the night sky. Crossed with diagonal green stripes and yellow stars, it was the first created to represent the frequency of Viktorium. “This was once our dream, was it not? A dream that would sooner break without Charles’ influence.”

“What are you suggesting?”

“Revolution, of course,” Corcini smiled. “The same manner in which the greatest empires of the world have been built. We can let them have their day. Let them believe it’s their doing, not ours. We founded this place, after all.”

“Charles founded this place,” Constance reminded him.

“Don’t tell me you feel sympathy for the old man already. Besides, you and I both know that’s not true.”

“So say we wait until 1915,” she continued. “Then what? You’re going to kill me?”

“You’ll have to stand trial, of course. Proclaim your hard-fought innocence. Then you’ll have your reign of power as president. I can’t promise I won’t cut it short. I do answer to the Dalishkova Council, after all, and they have their own ideas for governance. What I can promise you is that Charles will be gone, and the people will be inspired by your example. Again…it’s the best you can hope for.”

“You’re so gracious!” Constance mocked him. “Now if you are finished, get the fuck out of my house.”

“As you wish. Men!” he called to the remaining squads, “I think our work is done finished here. Bring the injured out to the forest and we’ll commence treatment. Goodnight, Miss Renou. Oh, and I’ll be in touch regarding which blocks are to be shut down first by the Zoning Commission. I will extend your stay as much as possible, however there are those in our organization who would much rather see Viktorium eradicated altogether, so I think it best to keep up appearances for now…make them believe we are complying while keeping the new arrivals satiated.”

“I see. And will you comply with the Dalishkova Council, then?”

“I have no intention of doing any such thing.”

“I didn’t think you would. Goodnight, Minister.”

The man said nothing more as he rounded up the remaining squads. They marched out without a word, leaving Constance Renou broken and alone in the darkness of the gallery. The ambient light from the gas lamps out in the hallway provided little illumination with which to see, so she scrambled over to grab the phase unit she’d previously discarded. Kneeling back at the sculpture over the body of her deceased son, she switched it on and set it on the floor. For the longest time, she sat there thinking on her sins, and all the many lies and cons which had brought her to this point. She looked around her at the shattered room, at the flags she had sewn, the many destroyed inventions of Charles put on display. And she looked too at Lucien, her only son, a pure, sweet, and innocent child born from the very worst of her transgressions.

The room was quiet now, too quiet, save for the flickering electric hum of the phase unit. But unlike a fire, it didn’t provide any warmth. Nothing did anymore. There was no one to comfort her, and no one to protect. Marco would be coming for Charles now, probably to enslave him until such time a public spectacle could be made over his exile. They were completely finished as a royal family in Viktorium. For better or worse, it seemed the Dalishkova had already won.

Constance began to cry. And yet for what specific reason, she did not know. Was it loss? And if so, loss of what? Pride? Sanity? Her child? After all, she was getting exactly what she wanted; guaranteed reign of power in Viktorium for a time, during which she could extend her influence as much as possible and hopefully turn the people against the Dalishkova. And yet not even that much was guaranteed. Who knew when her reign as president would end, after all? She still had to provide for her son, and…my son…

She stroked the dead child’s golden hair, the same color as her own, and sobbed quietly. Sobbed so hard, she felt her chest tighten and her stomach contract. Her heart was breaking. He was everything she had ever wanted, and up until now, everything she had done was for him. The money from Zuviban Clockworks was being siphoned into a private offshore account for him, so that when he came of age, he could attend a school or start his own business, whatever his fancy desired. Charles provided for both of them of course, but the truth was that she had never wanted to rely on the man. DuPont was nothing more than a greedy narcissist, and she had to get away from him.

Becoming the first female president, or hell, even mayor would have left her with more than enough to provide for Lucien on her own. Yet the sad truth was that she needed DuPont out of the picture. She needed men like Marco Corcini to help, at least for now. If that was the only way to safely remain in Viktorium, so be it. She may not win against the Dalishkova in the end, but she certainly was not about to go down without a fight. But now that he had taken her only son, what did she have left to fight for? She could feel the power, the well-bred strength and resolve of her mother’s genes draining away with every flicker of the phase unit.

And she cried because she felt so powerless here, alone, in the dark, with only the sounds of electricity and her own sobs, and the crunch of glass as footsteps approached from behind…

Constance didn’t think. She had nothing left to protect, and yet she’d be damned if one of those Dispatchers or even Corcini was about to disturb her peace by barging in on her as she mourned the death of her only son. In one swift movement, she snatched the phase unit in front of her and whirled around on her back to take aim at the intruder.

“Mum?” a golden-haired, blue-eyed boy asked. “Why are you crying? I’m right here.”

“Oh my god!” the mother exclaimed, dropping the phase unit and scrambling on her knees to embrace him. Broken glass scraped across her legs creating fresh cuts and wounds, leaving glittering shards in their wake, but she didn’t care. Her son was all that mattered. All that ever mattered. “Lucien, you’re alive!” she cried. “You’re alive, my sweet boy, I never doubted you for a second! It must have been the clone, my plan worked, they only killed the clone! Oh darling, it was the clone!”

Her spirit was renewed. An intense joy had welled up inside her again, and with it, an even better plan. Now, she knew she could win against the Dalishkova. Marco would never see it coming. As long as Lucien was alive, there was hope. But something began to seem off as Constance knelt in the rubble of the gallery, holding fast onto him. His body seemed to turn cold as a clam under her touch, and he shook with what seemed like fear. As Renou pulled back and took his hands, it looked as if he were sweating profusely.

“Mum…where did the rest of me go?”

“The rest of you?” the mother worried, holding a hand to his forehead to see if it was a fever. He was ice cold. “Darling, you’re here…you’re right here, and I’m so glad you are.” She stroked his face and went to wipe away his tears, only to discover they’d frozen onto his cheek. Curious, she chipped off the end of it with her fingernail. It broke off into her palm. “Lucien,” she panicked, “what’s the last thing you remember?”

“I closed my eyes and he wasn’t there anymore…I wonder if that’s why I’m sad.”

“Who? Who wasn’t there?”

“My brother,” the boy whimpered.

“Forget it darling, you don’t have a brother, it was probably just a bad dream,” Constance deflected. “I’m here for you now, all right? I promise. Mama’s here for you now.”

It was at this point that she realized she had been holding the clone in her arms all this time. Tears certainly didn’t freeze on a normal human face. She worried, though, if he would turn out to be okay, or if he would self-destruct at any point. It was a possibility. His skin was so cold, but after a long time of holding him, his temperature seemed to come up just fine on its own. Still, no one knew as much about the Helias Flesh as Charles, and yet after tonight, there was no way she could ask; Marco would no doubt inform DuPont of the boy’s death.

Constance would have to be vigilant. She would have to hide him somewhere, before the whole of Viktorium found out. Because for better or worse now, this clone was her son, or at least what was left of him. And if anything happened to her or Charles, the future of the afterlife would be in his hands.

Those ice cold, false-fleshed hands…

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House of Rats – Part 15

Mayor La Cour had led Max up to an observation deck on the roof via a private lift. The balcony afforded a view such that the young elder had never before seen in his short life. Far out in the distance, the last rays of the sun shone out over the golden desert, painting the sky in a series of hues that ranged from deep violet to pink, red to orange. Just before it set, there would be a flash of green over the horizon—one of the few natural indicators that Viktorium existed in an alternate realm from that of the real world. It was a beautiful sight, though a trifle bittersweet. For many citizens of Cavarice, it reminded them of a home they could never return to and the relatives they had left behind.

Max felt he knew what was coming as they paced the ring of the balcony, looking out over the city below with its many streaks and dots of light shining like a field of fallen stars. Shattered wishes cast by a child somewhere in the real world, that’s what they were. And that is what the mayor would want to discuss, as he did every year in the weeks leading up to the welcome gala. Always the same meaningless drivel. What can I do for you boys? But of course year after year, nothing changed. Max might as well have cast a wish on one of those fallen stars.

“So what did you want to talk about?” the elder asked, leaning over the railing. He let out a puff of smoke from the cigarette he’d inhaled. The mayor had offered him one on the way up, and though he typically didn’t smoke, the gala was always one such occasion during which he made an exception. “The rat-infested cafeteria? The shit-covered canal? Or I know…how about the failure of the Dispatchers Training Programme, or the renovations we need at the orphanage?”

“Actually, I was thinking of school.” The man lit up a cigarette of his own.

“School?” Max raised an eyebrow. “We can’t afford that. How would you even build one-”

“Just for you,” Nicolas cut him off.

“Me? I don’t understand.”

“Max,” the man sighed, joining him at the railing, “I see enormous potential in you. That isn’t something I would say lightly. Over the past four years I’ve kept an eye on you, I have watched you grow from a scrappy little devil into a respectable young man. There’s no reason for a boy like you to be stuck in that rotting Barreau District, heading an orphanage of children who are none the wiser about how the system fails them for life.”

“You would be surprised how smart they are,” Max said, inhaling another puff.

“All the same…if there were more I could do, I would. But I’d feel much better just getting even one of you out of that place.”

“But why me? Why not Lucien, or Bernard? They deserve it more.”

“Because you’re the leader. And Cavarice is in desperate need of young men like you.”

“I’m not a politician.”

“No,” the mayor said, “but someday, perhaps you will be.”

“I doubt it.” Max tossed his cigarette over the edge and watched it disappear into the void of fallen stars below.

“May I ask why you believe your stubbornness to be a virtue?”

“Because it’s not a choice,” the elder backed away from the railing, “I don’t have the luxury not to be. My place is at the orphanage. My boys need me. That’s all.”

“Bullshit!” La Cour spat. “You’re afraid of something. Tell me.”

“Who says I’m afraid?” Max smirked. “I’d just rather stay out of it.”

“Stay out of what?”

“Everything! All of it! This entire city is just a smokescreen, and you know it! All the way from the governor down to the very last piece of the puzzle, and even some of the pieces that lay outside. Every new arrival who comes here is treated with all this nonsense about a better life waiting for them. Houses in the Metropoliès, vacations in Verdevale, a cruise around Helias. Yet some of them will still end up in the Barreau District after their lovely stay at Morcourt is done, and their voices too will be silenced forever with the rest of the lower class! So why Nicolas, why the hell do we keep lying to everyone? Please answer me that!”

Tears were beginning to flood the elder’s eyes. Tears of sadness, but also anger. He could never stop thinking about the first year in which he arrived. Back when the Barreau District was thriving with business of all sorts. The jazz players, the dancers, the musicians, the connoisseurs of fine French cuisine. The promise of a better life, of a future. And here the mayor was, finally offering it to him, the chance of a lifetime. But Max knew it was only out of pity, and it would become just as much a lie. Sure, he could take it. But how would the other boys feel?

“I wasn’t going to show you this until after the gala,” the mayor sighed, producing a small brown envelope out of his jacket pocket and placing it in the boy’s trembling hand. “But I want you to see how well you’ll be taken care of.”

Max tore open the top of the parcel and carefully looked over the yellow legal documents inside. It can’t be, he thought. This isn’t real. There’s no way in bloody hell. His mouth dropped open as he skimmed them through and realized what they were. His vision began to blur even more, and for a moment, he hoped he was dying for real. But it was just tears.

“Adoption papers?” he gasped. “You’re joking, right?”

“I haven’t filed them yet,” the mayor explained. “But if it’s something you’d like to think about-”

“Forget it!” Max yelled, tearing the collection of papers to shreds and tossing them over the edge of the building. “So you bring me up here alone to talk about sending me off to school while the rest of the boys are left to suffer in the Barreau District? And what then after I’m your son, huh? It doesn’t matter because you’ve already lost control of this city!”

“Max-”

“No! This is just another one of your foolish empty promises, just like the rest!” the boy shouted. “Why don’t you just admit that you can’t do shit for any of us?”

“Would you let me explain?” the man pleaded. He set a hand on Max’s shoulder, but the elder smacked it away.

“Don’t touch me! God, look at you,” he laughed. “You’re pathetic, Nicolas. Truly and honestly pathetic. I’ll work your stupid welcome gala, but after that, I’m finished with you.” Max turned back toward the lift. La Cour stopped him.

“Fine,” the mayor said. “Forget about the adoption, that was stupid of me. I’m sorry. I should not have done that. But you should know that the reason I host these welcome galas is not to deceive anyone, or to secure votes in the coming election. It’s because I believe in something, Max. I believe in this city and all that Viktorium has to offer, which is why I’m going to take a lot of risks in my upcoming campaign to invest in our youth. I’m holding a fundraiser event tonight to con some of the bigwigs into forking over their cash under the guise of supporting a major military project they’ve wanted to invest in. Instead, that money will be exchanged through a network of trusted hands who want to make the Dispatchers Training Programme a reality again. With a little luck, it could be revived and running within the next several months.”

Max turned around, his eyes wide. “Really?” He couldn’t believe it. I could have the chance to be a Dispatcher! That meant unprecedented access to phase units and other equipment, a first look at every new invention Tesla had in the works, the thrill of hunting anomalies, and best of all, a Level One security pass that offered unlimited access to every district in the city, exclusive parties, and travel outside Cavarice walls. Not only could this become a reality for him, but to all the rest of the Barreau boys as well. They could have a legitimate chance again.

“Well, what do you say? I could send you to school, and in time, the other boys will be able to join you.”

“I don’t know,” Max said, leaning back against the lift door.

He had nearly forgotten about Lucien’s plan to steal the phase unit. The plan he had agreed to not even fifteen minutes ago. The plan that meant betrayal of everything Mayor La Cour had just offered him. Just say yes! his instincts were screaming inside. But he couldn’t. At least not yet. Not until he knew full well that the Dispatchers Programme would be a solid reality again, and even that, he didn’t trust. Either way, he could go to school. He could build a life. No.

“My place for now is with the Barreau boys,” he finally said.

“Fair enough. Of course if you change your mind…”

“Thank you, Mayor,” Max breathed. “I’ll give it some thought.”

But a nauseating feeling had begun to build in his gut, and it only grew progressively worse as they stepped back into the lift and descended down to the ground floor. Stealing the phase unit came with a fair degree of certainty, whilst the mayor’s offer did not. Yet he knew if he and Lucien attempted to steal from La Cour and got caught during the gala, they faced imprisonment or worse. And the man would never trust Max with anything ever again. He could say goodbye to any possibility of ever being a Dispatcher, to say nothing about the offer of school.

The rest of the Barreau boys were waiting at the end of the hallway, eager to head back to the mess hall for supper. The mayor thanked them all for coming and mumbled something about  getting ready for his fundraiser that evening as a Dispatcher squad escorted them to the door.

Max felt sick. He was still trying to process the weight of the conversation with La Cour on the roof. Adoption papers, school, the Training Programme…it was far too much, and the tears were starting to come again. He tried his best to trudge ahead of the group, but of course Lucien had to rush his way over and start jabbering on.

“So what do you think about stealing that phase unit?” he whispered. “Max…Max!”

“What?”

“Do you want take the unit from La Cour or not?”

“I don’t know anymore.”

“Come on, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime, we could get filthy rich!”

“Lucien…please just leave me alone.”

“Are you crying?” he smirked. “What’s wrong? Max!”

“Shut up!” the elder shoved him.

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House of Rats – Part 13

Later that evening, the Barreau boys had gathered at Morcourt Hall to plan for the annual welcome gala with Mayor La Cour. Max always found it to be a boring affair, though the boys under his watch were more than happy to be involved in something that made them feel important for once. The mayor rambled on as he led them about the sprawling, lavishly adorned grand ballroom with one of his advisors, who took notes as they walked. Everything concerning the layout was much the same as it had been in the past year. Decor was recycled. Security checkpoints were identical. The same Dispatchers—minus Captain Georges, of course—would be attending the event. Little more than the table order of the wealthiest figures in Viktorium had been switched.

“And Miss Constance Renou will be seated here, with her longtime film director friend Giovanni Abbascia on the opposite side…let’s see…Fritz Lang will go over here. No wait, that’s not right…”

Lucien let out a long sigh beside Max. “Can’t you just feel the life slowly draining out of you with every word this man speaks?”

“I’m not sure,” the elder replied. “There’s a running tally in my mind between his words and yours. I can’t quite decide who is worse.”

“You’re seriously going to continue this nonsense?”

“You still owe Quentin an apology.”

Lucien leaned forward and tapped the boy on the shoulder as the group continued on, cupping his hand over his ear to whisper something. Quentin rolled his eyes and stomped on the elder’s foot, sending him hobbling backward into a table. As he fell, Lucien managed twist around and drag the entire cloth off, sending the vase of flowers crashing to the floor where it shattered in a million pieces. The entire group glowered with scorn.

“Good lord boy, watch your step!” the mayor snapped.

“Sorry,” the elder sighed, stepping to his feet.

La Cour turned to his advisor. “Get clean-up in here right away.”

“Yes sir.”

“Can’t blame him, but at least you tried,” Max smirked, brushing bits of glass off him.

“Yeah…still doesn’t earn me any points.”

The two caught back up with the group, lingering a few steps behind so they could speak privately whilst observing their younger subjects. It wasn’t difficult to keep an eye on everyone now since they seemed far more enthralled than their elders just to be touring the Metropoliès District. The opportunity didn’t come often for them. Still, Max resented the fact it was simply a pity move on the part of the mayor. Not like he sensed the man could do much to improve their situation; he always seemed to have his hands tied. It was nice camouflage, anyway.

“So how were those drinks with the Dispatchers?” Max asked.

“Can’t stop taunting me, eh?”

“Actually, I was wondering how close you got with them.”

“Not as close as I wanted to.”

“Munitions storage?” Max felt like a hypocrite. What Lucien had done bordered on the unforgiveable, and yet here he was, wondering if it might in fact be a good idea to continue fostering such a connection. But it seemed too late to be angry anymore. The welcome gala was coming up fast, and there were far more important things to worry about following the celebration. Rooms at the orphanage still had to be renovated so the boys could pair into their own flats. They needed their own kitchen and dining hall, and a staff to maintain it. All of it required precious funds, none of which the mayor could provide on his own.

“Suddenly we’re curious!” Lucien grinned.

“We need money. I don’t quite care where it comes from.”

“Now we’re talking. I never got around to the armory, unfortunately. But I did come across something better.”

“Better? Nothing they carry is more valuable than the phase units.”

“It is a phase unit. Or at least the plans of one.”

“I don’t follow.”

“You know how sometimes the Dispatchers make private deliveries to ensure nothing gets lost or stolen at the post office? The majority of those directives are issued by Tesla.”

“Yeah, so?”

Lucien stopped and pulled Max back behind a nearby column.

“So I noticed blueprints on the lieutenant’s desk. A phase unit prototype, special-ordered by Mayor Nicolas.”

Max’s eyes went wide. “Mayor Nic-”

“Keep your voice down!” Lucien covered his mouth. “The blueprints are scheduled to arrive here just before the opening gala begins.”

“Blueprints are useless without parts.”

“I checked the list. It might take some scavenging, but we have most of the necessary inventory. The bulk of it is in the wiring.”

Max peered around the corner to be sure the mayor was still distracted. The group was getting a little ahead of them, though not too far. The old man was still rambling about who sat at which table.

“How is this different from the other units we’ve seen?”

“It’s meant to dispatch living tissue.”

“We already know that phase units would likely kill a person-”

“Not kill. Dispatch.”

“For the mayor?” Max gasped. “I thought those were outlawed after DuPont was exiled! What the bloody hell is he so afraid of?”

“I don’t know, but there are rumors security has been tighter around his residence. No doubt it will be increased on the upper floors here for the welcome gala.” Lucien glanced above them at the second floor balcony. The La Cour family always took vacation leave at Morcourt during the two-week period of the gala run. “Jacques told me they’ve been detecting anomaly readings around Nicolas for the past month.”

“Strange.”

“Yeah…”

The power flickered, causing an array of hushed gasps from the orphans. Max looked around them for a moment, his gaze drifting up high to the balconies and rafters, then back down to every exit in the ballroom. He wasn’t sure if he expected to see something—or someone—dashing out in a flash of electric light, though he found himself snapping to attention much quicker ever since his experience in the courthouse. He wondered if more people like that strange boy might exist. What if there were an entire collective of them who traveled up and down the frequencies, if indeed any higher dimensions existed than Viktorium? Would such people be friendly, or were they biding their time until they arrived to destroy the frequency? Of course there was still the possibility that Bernard was right after all, that it had been a figment of his imagination brought on by the strobe effect of the flashing lights combined with the unit of Dispatchers in the courthouse basement. But I know what I saw.

“Ah, Cecile!” the mayor exclaimed.

Max snapped out of his thoughts. He and Lucien both turned their heads to look at the glorious angel of a girl approaching from across the ballroom. Her rich, golden hair was cut shorter from the last time they had seen her, styled in a wavy bob of curls that bounced freely about her face. Her dress was Paris green with black lace running down the sides, tailored in a cut that bore a hint of cleavage and a tad too much thigh. No other woman in Viktorium would dare wear such a thing. Mayor Nicolas cleared his throat in unvoiced disapproval as she took his hand and swirled into his arms with a smile.

“What do you think, Daddy?”

“I think it’s lovely, my dear,” the man kissed her cheek. “But you’re not wearing that to the gala.”

“Daddy, please!” she pouted.

“Certainly not!”

“Well our guests from the Barreau block like it. Don’t you, boys?” she cooed with a curtsy. The young orphans murmured approval amongst each other and nodded, gazing up and down her curvy figure.

“I think it’s lovely,” Lucien grinned. Max elbowed him in the ribs.

“Exactly my point,” the mayor sneered.

“But I’ve just turned seventeen! I can’t be your baby forever, you know? I promise I’ll only dance with you if it makes you happy.”

Her father let out a weary sigh. “I’ll consider it.”

“Oh, thank you so much Daddy, I love you!” she smiled, wrapping her arms around him.

“Yes yes,” he patted her on the back. “Now would you mind running along for now? There’s so much preparation work to be done for our welcome gala-”

“Oh don’t be silly Father,” Cecile cut him off, “you know the setup is exactly the same as last year and you’re boring these poor boys half to death! How would you gents like the upstairs tour of Morcourt Hall?”

“Now wait just a minute!” the mayor protested, but the boys were already surrounding his daughter in excitement. Nicolas threw up his hands and turned to his advisor. “I give up. Just leave it the same as last year aside from the front tables. No one will know.”

“Yes sir,” his aide nodded.

Max rushed to join Lucien and Cecile at the front of the group as they all headed up the grand staircase to the second floor, but a voice beckoned him back.

“Hey Maxwell!” the mayor called from the bottom.

“Yes sir?”

“Not to tear you off my daughter’s tour, but I was wondering if I might have a word. Would you mind walking with me? I’ll show you the view from the roof,” the man smiled.

Max considered it a moment. He still didn’t feel comfortable letting Lucien out of his sight, especially not with Cecile. Then again, Bernard would keep watch and it wasn’t as if he’d have the chance to pull anything stupid while the rest of the group was in tow anyway. The young elder also felt a certain weight of guilt beginning to wear on his chest. Knowing the mayor’s private concerns regarding anomalies, and that he was having a special phase unit constructed—a unit he and Lucien intended to steal at the first available opportunity—it didn’t make him feeling like feigning honesty.

Max and the other boys had become good friends with the mayor and Cecile in the last couple years they’d worked the welcome gala together. It was a pity to have to lie to his face. It felt wrong. Then again, Max had witnessed Viktorium devolving into a house of rats ever since his arrival. No one could fully be trusted, but in some ways, that was okay. It was easier to justify when the mayor had done little to help them. Still, he hated knowing that even under his watch, the Barreau boys were becoming as corrupt as the rest of the city. He couldn’t live with that forever.

The elder breathed a deep sigh and trudged back down. This was going to suck.

“All right.”

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House of Rats – Part 11

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, just thinking,” the elder sighed.

“Lucien?”

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

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

“But you can’t hide. Not really.”

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

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

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

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

“What is it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And why not?”

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

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

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

“True. But what if Cécile-”

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

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

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

Lucien.

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

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

“Phillipe.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The power flickered again. Time to move.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Somebody’s tense.”

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

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

Lucien’s eyes went wide and he glanced back.

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

Max shot Lucien a confused look. “Reformed?”

“Apparently you missed the rest of the broadcast.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I didn’t intend for that.”

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

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

“What did you tell him?”

“That he was recaptured by the Outlanders.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That is the truth, honest to God!”

“God doesn’t mean shit in Viktorium.”

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

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

“Oh come on!” Lucien pleaded.

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

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

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

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

Perhaps I can trust the Outlanders.

The power flickered again.

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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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