Night of the Wolf – Part 4

Mordechai’s chosen meeting place was an abandoned three-story warehouse approximately five blocks south of Barreau Orphanage. Under normal circumstances, Max would have been reluctant to be seen carrying several potato sacks worth of parts down the vacant streets. Fortunately, another laundromat was still in operation not far from the building, so if they ran into any Dispatchers along the way, no one would be any the wiser as to their contents.

He had brought what was left of the eldest boys with him; Matthieu, Aaron, and Camilo, ranging in age from thirteen to fifteen. Each had witnessed their fair share of blood and carnage over the past several months, but the young leader was now much more concerned that their pitiful group only amounted to four in total. The rest of those worth their salt had left with Lucien the previous night. Those who hadn’t were with Bernard, as they were all under twelve. Considering that this was also the first black market deal which Max was carrying out himself, it only further hammered home the point that Lucien was, in fact, a valuable asset without whom Barreau Orphanage might not survive.

“Lousy prick,” the elder muttered, feeling the weight of the parts dig into his back as they rounded the last corner.

“I know, I can’t stand Mordechai either,” Aaron sighed.

Max smirked. “I wasn’t talking about him. This would have been so much easier with Lucien. But no, he had to go and fuck everything up,” the elder panted. “Now there’s four of us, and god knows how many boys Mordechai has polishing his shoes. I just hope we get out alive. And with our genitals intact.”

“Aren’t most of them younger than us?” Camilo pointed out.

“Yeah, but they’re also as dangerous as the Outlanders if you let them get too close, so try to stay a few steps behind me.”

“Yes sir.”

The warehouse lay just ahead on the next block to their right, a crumbling red brick structure surrounded by a ten-foot wall with an iron gate at the entrance. The signage overhead, half-destroyed but still legible, was the only indicator of the business that once existed on this dilapidated lot: ZUVIBAN CLOCKWORKS. In its heyday, it had been a subsidiary of DuPont Steamworks & Co., manufacturing the internal clocks which kept Cavarice running, from the trains and automated streetcars to the subways and buses, as well as such things as streetlamps and traffic lights. But like every other business in the western districts following DuPont’s exile, it had been scrapped in favor of more profitable ventures closer to the Metropoliès.

Max surveyed the street to be sure no one was watching them before slipping through the gate with his group. It had been secured with a chain, but there was enough slack for anyone to maneuver their way in. The complex looked much worse from the inside. Crumbling stone, glass, and rusted metal scraps of clock parts lined the entire length of the overgrown courtyard from end to end. Weeds were reclaiming the sidewalk. Burnt rags that were once company uniforms lay half-buried in the mud, along with broken pocket watches and the occasional name tag. The irony of it was certainly not lost on the Barreau boys. Time had stopped here long ago.

As the group proceeded up the front steps of the stone walkway, Max could already hear raucous shouting and laughter coming from inside the building. A shudder went down his spine. He immediately backed against the wall and gestured for the others to stay out of sight behind him until the cacophony died down. All went quiet for a short time. For several seconds, the elder gazed back over the empty courtyard, solemn and desolate. He watched. He waited. Then came a series of audible gasps and groans, followed by a horrible wet cracking sound. Max broke into a cold sweat.

“He’s making them fight,” the boy trembled. He reached in his pocket and flipped open his watch. “Four minutes to eight. What do you guys think, should we break them up with a few warning shots?”

“I thought you said they outnumber us,” Matthieu said. “You really want to piss off Mordechai?”

“It’s not like he ever risks his neck for Dispatcher parts. The man’s a bloody coward of a middleman who hides behind an army of helpless children that don’t know any better. They have every reason to leave. Maybe if they see us refusing to take his shit for once, it’ll give them the proper push,” the elder said, rummaging through his sack to dig out a phase unit. “Besides, I’m tired of walking in to see children knocked unconscious.”

“You’re the one in charge,” Aaron shrugged. “You don’t answer to us.”

“Maybe so, but I feel I should. After all, who does Mordechai answer to?” Max finished strapping on the phase unit, only to hear the door suddenly creak open behind him. A scrappy, familiar-looking boy of about twelve poked his head out.

“I don’t know,” the child grinned, “who does Mordechai answer to?”

“Olivier!” Igor’s second-in-command. The young elder didn’t stop to think. He lunged forward and seized the boy, covering his mouth so he couldn’t scream, and whirled him back against the wall for questioning. “What the hell are you doing? Is Igor here?! Answer me, you shit!”

“That’s probably hard to do while you’re covering his mouth,” Camilo pointed out.

Max sighed and took a deep breath. “If I let go, you promise you’re not going to squeal?” Olivier nodded. The elder obliged, though kept him pinned against the wall of the alcove. “All right. Talk.”

“Maybe Igor is here, maybe he isn’t. Either way, do you honestly think you’d make it out of here alive with either of our gangs against you? Our combined numbers are about fifty to four. You don’t stand a chance, Max Ferrier.”

“Perhaps not. Doesn’t mean I’m scared to take a few of you with me,” the elder smirked, sparking a blue pulse in his palm aside the boy’s face. Olivier’s expression immediately shifted to one of pants-shitting terror. “As it so happens, I doubt I’ll piss off Mordechai when he sees I’ve got a lovely hostage for him.”

“Wait!” the boy protested. “I swear I know nothing, I came here on my own.”

“Bullshit!”

“Not all of us want to stay with the Outlanders, okay? Especially not after what Igor has done to some of us.”

“Well good luck with that. You’re inside city walls now, so if the Dispatchers catch you, you’re finished. And don’t expect me to take pity on you either. Quentin is dead. I have nothing to say to the Outlanders.”

“He’s dead?!” Olivier gasped.

“That’s news to you?”

“Everything h-happened so fast last night,” the boy sniffed, starting to cry. “I walked through the hole in the gate after everyone else had gone. Most of my friends were killed, I don’t r-really talk to the older boys,” he sobbed. “I’m all alone, I’m just looking for someone to stay with, I swear!”

A slight pain fluttered in Max’s chest as he gazed at the tearful boy. If Olivier’s story was indeed true, he couldn’t help but feel empathy. At the same time, the elder had come across his share of liars, and he knew younger children were particularly adept at turning on the waterworks to get what they wanted. It was a survival tactic they used well in rundown districts. But whether or not the boy was being honest with him didn’t matter. There was no time to deal with it now.

Max decided his initial course of action was best; taking Olivier hostage as a spy might impress Mordechai enough to end the gladiator match between his newest initiates. Perhaps he’d even give the Barreau boys a bigger cut of money for turning the boy over. At least Olivier would then have a home. He might get abused like the others of course, there was little doubt about that. But he was an Outlander. Max was fairly confident he would rise in the ranks on his own. Then again, that’s if Igor isn’t hiding just behind the door.

“Goddamn it, you are a genuine piece of shit,” the elder sighed, powering off the phase unit. “I have an idea, but you’re going to have to trust me and keep quiet. Don’t struggle or I’ll knock you out, understood?” Olivier nodded. Max reached down to his undershirt and proceeded to tear a long strip of fabric from off the bottom. He split it into two, rolling one into a ball which he then shoved in the boy’s mouth. He tied the other around his face in a makeshift gag and handed him over to Matthieu and Aaron.

“Think this will help?” Aaron asked.

“If Mordechai is as dumb as the former owners of the parts he’s buying. Matthieu, follow close behind me with Olivier. Aaron and Camilo, you’ll be the lookout behind us in case he’s planning an ambush. Let’s go.”

Max heaved the sack of parts back over his shoulder and powered the phase unit back on. He cautiously crept to the open door and peered inside. He looked to the right, then the left, and up the staircase. No one seemed to be hiding, so he gestured for the others to slip in with him. A sudden bang came from behind. Startled, the elder threw out his arm and almost fired a pulse straight at Camilo. The boy had leaned back to close the door, but did so a bit more forcefully than he’d intended. Max shot him a death glare instead before continuing on to the main floor of the abandoned structure.

Sounds of the fight could still be heard, closer now, along with the occasional cheer when a loud thump or crack kicked up dust from the aging floorboards. The old warehouse had a distinctive metallic smell to it which wasn’t entirely unpleasant, though it reminded Max of the taste of blood mixed with paint fumes and sawdust. He was sure that the latter two were leftover from the factory itself, though the former seemed to be a more recent addition. The elder plugged his nose and crouched low near an assortment of overturned tables and smashed wooden crates. He gestured for the others to follow him around a short maze of debris across the room. There, another scent greeted his nostrils. Sweat.

“Can you see anything?” Matthieu whispered.

“I think so.” Max poked his head over a table that was flipped on its side. Out on the center of the floor, a semicircle of young boys stood with excitement to watch the two newest initiates trade punches. The younger of the pair looked to be about ten, and was considerably more reluctant to be fighting than the toned teenager pummeling him. Cuts and abrasions covered his face and chest. His nose and mouth were bleeding, and he was missing several front teeth. One of his eyes was black and blue. Two of the fingers on his left hand were clearly broken. Yet no matter how much he cried and sobbed and shouted “please stop!” the relentless teen continued to beat him into a goddamn puree.

And looking on from the head of the semicircle audience was seated the dark-featured Mordechai, aged twenty-four, a sly grin plastered on his face. In one hand rested an open bottle of gin and in the other, a lion tamer’s whip. The teen fighting in the circle glanced back at him every few seconds, but each time, the man would crack his whip across the boy’s back as if he were a circus animal and shout in a drunken rage.

“Finish him Tiger, before I give you more stripes! What are you waiting for?! NOW!”

Max accidentally dialed his phase unit up to the highest setting as he scrambled to fire a pulse into the rafters. He wanted nothing more than to end this maniacal sadist right where he sat, but he knew the orphanage was at stake. If he had the chance later, he would surely come back to free these boys from the clutches of that vile snake. In fact he vowed it, but that also meant keeping the doors of the orphanage open, and unfortunately that venture would not be possible right now without Mordechai. What kind of name is that, anyhow?

The elder took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and fired a pulse at one of the large lights overhead. A loud blast of electricity shattered the glass into a million pieces. It rained down like diamonds on the gathering of boys and their smug leader, sending all but the pureed ten year-old scrambling for cover.

“WHO THE FUCK FIRED THAT?!” Mordechai raged.

“Sorry!” Max snapped, poking his head out from behind the table. “Just thought I should test this thing out before selling it to you. Make sure it’s in working order and all.” He and the rest of the group stepped over the debris to cover the poor young child still writhing half-naked on the floor. “I also wanted to remind you that we have a meeting right now, in case you forgot.”

“Oh, you’re funny, Ferrier!” the leader snarled. “Who’s the cute little koala you brought with you?”

“You mean…this adorable little present we’ve bound and gagged just for you?” Max smiled, even as he felt his skin crawl. He had long suspected the man was some sort of sexual deviant, though he’d seen no evidence as of yet. Mordechai licked his lips at the statement, and that was all he needed to know. “I’m surprised you didn’t notice him. He was lurking just outside-”

“How much do you want?” the man cut him off.

“Nothing extra. Provided we can trade him for your, uh…pureed little fellow on the floor here.”

“Forget it! These kids are my family. We take care of each other.”

“Yes I can see that, they’re all terrified of you. But see, this little one here, his name is Olivier,” Max grinned, grabbing the boy from Matthieu and shoving him forward. “And Olivier needs to be taught some manners. Do you know why?” The child wasn’t one to struggle much, but he did now, and Max only hoped it was because he was acting. He hoped, too, that he had a brand scar to show off for proof. To that end, the elder slipped a hand under the boy’s shirt to check. Sure enough, he felt it on the left side of his chest. “Olivier is an Outlander.”

“Really now,” Mordechai smirked, setting down his bottle of gin as the anxious children behind him looked on from the shadows. It was difficult to tell whether they were afraid of Max or whether they were afraid of any repercussions at the hands of their leader once the Barreau boys were out of sight. But much as the orphanage elder wished to save them all, his mind was only set on helping one—Olivier. He wasn’t about to leave this boy in that man’s clutches now. Not after what he’d seen today. A new plan had come to mind. Take this evil snake for all he’s worth.

“It’s true,” Max said. “See for yourself.” He reluctantly raised the child’s grimy undershirt to show off the brand scar.

“Yeah yeah, get your filthy hands off him-”

“Ah ah,” Max shoved him back to Matthieu, “not until you pay us for the parts.”

“How much you want me to pay for the parts of him?” Mordechai licked his lips again and wound the tamer’s whip tightly around each hand until his fingers turned purple. “I’d give you extra. Gladly. It wouldn’t be a problem. Wouldn’t be a problem at all,” the man grinned, pulling the whip taut. “Hell, for him, I might even give you an advance. Always wanted to teach an Outlander some manners.” A cacophony of scared whispers came from the shadows.

Inside, Max was seething with a rage he’d never felt before. Even Lucien hadn’t managed to strike such a nerve. This was new. It was an odd, unfamiliar, unsettling sensation deep in his bones that bordered on homicidal, and only one thought existed now that might calm him if he turned to it. Never still, he repeated to himself like a mantra. Never still. Never still. Breathe in, breathe out. Never kill. It wasn’t working. The rage remained.

“Dispatcher parts first!” the elder managed to spit. “We have plenty of them.” Matthieu, Aaron, and Camilo stepped forward to dump out their wares on the wooden floor, making sure to keep Olivier out of sight behind them. Max hoped that wasn’t a grave mistake, though it seemed to redirect Mordechai’s attention. Among the parts were two phase units (the third was on Max’s wrist), three utility belts, three watches, four spare batteries, three pairs of goggles, a canteen, two stun rods, two spare emitters, one trench coat, and a specialized custom compass for detecting anomalies outside of the normal frequency range.

“Oh, this is good,” Mordechai said, fiddling with the compass. “This is very good. I have to say, you continue to impress me, Ferrier. I don’t know how you do it.”

“I have my ways,” the elder said with a contemptuous smile.

“Oh ho ho, Maxy boy!” the snake sucked his teeth. “There may be time to teach you some manners yet. Here.” Reaching deep into the pockets of his black leather trench coat, Mordechai dug out a substantial assortment of large bills and placed them into Max’s hand. Some were Cavarice currency, others were Sereinnes Province. He also handed out some coins from Helias and Falvarre, even a few Francs. Naturally, this meant that Max would have to take the trouble of going all the way to the east end of the Metropoliès just to get the currency exchanged.

“What the hell is this?!” the elder frowned.

“Your payment,” Mordechai grinned. “Unless of course you take that phase unit off your wrist and give me your boy Olivier over there. I know you had no intention of doing it. But it’d make things a lot easier for you, really. Make up for your naughty little attitude.” The man released the whip from his tight grip, allowing the length of it to drag on the floor. “And for the record, I’m not stupid. I know how bad you need the money. I’m willing to take a loss on the Dispatcher parts for him.”

Max’s heart thundered in his chest as he glanced back at Olivier, who was visibly shaking and crying. Shaking, but also nodding, almost as if he could sense there was no other way out of this. If he didn’t give himself up, it was very likely that Mordechai would not let any of them go. Sure, they could grab up the phase units, but none of the boys with him now knew how to use them. They would be eating the leather of that whip before they so much as strapped the devices onto their fragile wrists. Damn it, I haven’t planned this far ahead yet!

“Come on, now. You’re not going to get a better deal,” Mordechai said.

The elder hesitated, despite the urgings of his group.

“Just let him go, Max,” Matthieu sighed. “He’s an Outlander. We can’t trust-”

“SHUT UP!” the elder roared. He was getting sick of hearing it. Quentin was dead, but apparently that meant nothing to them.

“Oh, I see,” Mordechai said. “You have a soft spot for him, eh? I’ll tell you what, Ferrier.” The young man dug even more large bills out of his pocket, this time all in Cavarice currency, and kicked a phase unit over to the young elder. “I’ll let you keep the one on your wrist, too. Two phase units, plus every bill I have.” He proceeded to count the denominations out in Max’s face as if he were a banker. “For one…little…Outlander. No?” Mordechai dropped it all to the floor in front of him and lit up a cigarette before backing away. “I’ll give you second to think it over.”

Why am I so conflicted now? the elder thought. In the beginning, he would have handed over a known Outlander to Mordechai with no problem. They were the ones who had attacked the wall, after all. None of them deserved sympathy or fair treatment for what they had done. Trust was not a luxury, either. And yet all the same, Max felt his pity getting the best of him whenever he glanced back at Olivier, despite knowing that his gang consisted of little more than thieves and murderers. For if he trusted Quentin with his life and the boy had still died protecting his family of Outlanders, perhaps many of them were not that bad. Maybe it was just Igor. Maybe they were all brainwashed, same as the rest of Cavarice. Maybe…

Conscience will only hold you back. That’s what Lucien had said last night. Take what you can and survive. That’s the only game I care about. But that’s not who Maxwell Ferrier was. He was a leader who took chances, who compromised for his brethren, who knew to trust his gut when something felt right. And giving up Olivier was not what was right. Still, it seemed the Outlander was now willing to sacrifice himself for the Barreau boys. Everyone else told him not to trust these people. They were thieves, murderers, rapists, cannibals. But were they liars?

Max noticed that a mischievous smile was spreading across Olivier’s face now, though he’d been gagged with scraps of undershirt. Tears had soaked the thin fabric, but the boy did not seem to be crying anymore. If anything, he looked elated about something. He nodded and pointed down at the floor, down at where that glorious pile of Viktorium money lay. He mumbled something to the elder and jerked his head to the right, as if to say ‘scram’.

“What are you trying to say?” Max asked, desperate for answers about this curious turn of behavior. “Quentin wanted to tell me something before it was too late. What is it? Tell me! Here, let me help you.” The elder reached to loosen the knot on the gag, but Olivier shook his head. “Don’t take it off?” The boy nodded.

“Time’s up, Ferrier!” Mordechai interrupted, grabbing up his bottle of gin and charging over. “Have you made your final decision?”

“I believe I have,” Max hung his head and swallowed hard. That’s when he noticed a curious movement in the reflection of one of the Dispatcher watches. Olivier wasn’t pointing at the money, the elder realized. He was pointing at the time. There were ten seconds until 8:10. “We accept your offer.” With that, Max and the others pushed the young Outlander forward.

“Wise choice,” Mordechai smiled, lunging forward to grab the boy.

But before he could lay so much as a finger on the child, a sudden glint of metal cut through the air from the right. Max couldn’t tell what it was until he noticed the blade of a knife buried deep in Mordechai’s forearm. The man cried out in pain as a gush of blood spurted all over the stolen Dispatcher parts.

Outlanders leaped down from the rafters with pistols and knives in hand and began dragging Mordechai’s followers out into the light. Shouts of protest and bloodcurdling screams filled the air while the younger boys kicked and struggled to get away. But the gang took them by their hair, their ankles, their arms or ears, any body part they could. Meanwhile, Max dove to the floor with Olivier and the rest of his group, staying close to the wall behind a pile of debris until the mayhem was over.

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House of Rats – Part 19

Pontius had been right all along. All that banging the captain was doing must have been to set off the bomb. Either way, Georges was dead for real now. And Pascal, the would-be hero, was not a hero at all. For all he knew, the Outlanders were already making their way into the city. Cavarice would fall because of him. Pascal, the stupid little boy from Courgent who was foolish enough to think he could ever make a difference by taking up the uniform of a Dispatcher. What the hell was I thinking? But then he began to hear a voice through the blackened haze calling out to him. An old, determined voice. One that made him believe that maybe he still had a chance to make things right.

“Pascal! Found the fire warm!”

“Huh…” Everything sounded like gibberish. His entire body ached. He feared he had broken or fractured several bones. And yet something about that voice set off a fire in him that caused him to want to try moving anyway. He tried popping his ears to listen more closely.

“Pascal, the silent yard!”

“I can’t…” The boy struggled to get up, feeling around him as he did so. His fingers, still too delicate for this job, brushed against the rough concrete. He reached up to the side of his head and was surprised to find another pressed right against it. Officer Bertrand. Dead. He slowly grabbed the edge of a step and shifted his weight toward the crumbling remnants of the stone railing, pulling himself closer to it so the body would slide off. His eyes were beginning to focus again now, and he saw the corpse go sliding down the rest of the staircase as he flipped himself onto his back. “I’m so sorry, Bert,” he whispered, pausing to choke back the tears before addressing the person shouting above him. “Say again?” he called out in a frail voice.

“Pascal, the alarm!” Pontius yelled from the top of the stairs. “Sound the alarm!”

“Aye, sir!” he called. With renewed strength, the young Dispatcher gathered himself as best he could and scrambled to his feet. He thanked whatever gods there were that nothing appeared to be broken, though a sharp pain shot through his left ankle with ever step. After limping to the top with some difficulty, he fell to his side and assessed the controls. Everything was still intact. He slid open a small cover on the keypad and punched in the emergency code: 4-8-1-5-1-6-2-3-4-2. A loud siren began to blare from atop the west gate of the wall along with flashing red lights that lit in a pulsing sequence over the merlons. Similar alarms would soon sound throughout the city, sending every Dispatcher on the wall to their location. Even those off-duty would be alerted from various pylons set up on street corners.

“Pascal,” Pontius leaned back, “just out of curiosity, which code did you enter?”

“The one for the alarm.”

“I said to hit the silent alarm…”

“Oh…oops…”

“Now that the Outlanders know we’re still alive,” the man smirked, struggling to pull himself up. “We better get the hell out of here. Quick.”

“I am so, so sorry!” Pascal whimpered.

“Save it. I’ll get you a clean discharge after the gala. You belong in school.”

“Thank you, sir. Which way should we go? Across the top of the wall?”

“Yeah, there’s a guard tower not far. We’ll need all the phase units we can snag.”

The boy wrapped Pontius’ arm around his shoulder to help the aging veteran to his feet, surveying the damage below in the courtyard. He had to admit it was far worse destruction than what his formerly drunk district commander was capable of. Most of the gas lamps had exploded with the bomb. Small fires lined the darkened street below, illuminating heaps of crushed concrete, shattered glass, and twisted rubble in their wake. Pascal recognized several pieces from the gate itself, being an off-beige color different from the wall.

He also stole a glance from behind him, back at the desert with its many greenish-colored drifts, which still appeared as calm as it had moments before the blast. The stars were still hooked, unchanged in their places, and the moon shone just as bright. But the air didn’t smell like the Sea of Helene anymore. It smelled like sulfur and twisted iron.

“Hey Pascal!” a voice called from the street below.

“Serge!” the boy shouted happily, dragging Pontius with him down the stairs. “Oh my god, you’re alive!”

“In the flesh, my friend!” Serge laughed. “Other squads are on their way.”

“Yeah, this isn’t a bad idea,” the district commander rolled his eyes.

Pascal let go of the man and bounded down the steps to embrace his friend, but something in his peripheral vision stopped him short. A dark object with a silvery glint came flying out of the shadows from the left and planted itself deep in the side of Serge’s neck. As Pascal slid to his knees, the expression on his friend’s face immediately changed from one of joy and relief to one of pure horror. He choked. A sudden flood of deep crimson squirted out of from the boy’s jugular as he fell, spitting up a spray as he went.

“NO!” Pascal screamed. He kept screaming until he was out of breath. By this time, a swarm of scrappy-looking boys and girls had descended upon them and the remaining Dispatchers with knives in hand. Some of them wore stolen phase units, and a crowd had begun to block the west gate—the only remaining exit that wouldn’t have required them to fight their way through.

“Aww, tsk, tsk,” a crackly voice echoed from the shadows where the knife had been thrown. Pascal was surprised to see a young boy with a shaved head emerge. The kid was shorter than himself with a sun-drenched complexion, clad in an oversized coat and trousers. He stunk horribly, sauntering about his ranks in such a way that no one knew what he was about to do next. Though Pascal had never before seen the boy with his own eyes, he certainly knew his name.

“Igor.”

“In the flesh!” the boy mocked, kneeling down to tear his knife from Serge’s throat. “How did you like our little stuffed chicken trick?”

“Amateur at best,” Pontius remarked, plopping down on the crumbling staircase to light up a cigarette he’d found in his trench coat pocket.

“Well if it isn’t General Pontius Proulx! Nice to meet you again. I look forward to slashing your heels and sending you crawling off into the desert sun.”

“You realize you can’t win, right? Every Dispatcher in the city is going to be here in about ten minutes. So as adorable as your whole human piñata was, you’re straight up fucked. Plus Pascal here…he’s the best on the entire force.”

“Best on the force, eh? Pretty child,” he said, kneeling down with Pascal. “Ah, yes. If you could only see the look in your eyes when I took your friend’s life. Ha! I swear, the color changed from light blue to this very deep, almost like an ocean…”

“So you want to see blue?” Pascal smiled, sparking up a pulse from his phase unit in Igor’s face. “Because it’ll be the last color you ever see, you piece of shit!” The young Dispatcher grabbed the scrappy child by the coat and jumped to his feet to drag Igor with him in the center of the circle of Outlanders that had formed inside the gate. Many of them were now holding the surviving Dispatchers at knifepoint—Conrad, Dominic, Abel, and a few others.

“Pascal, don’t!” Pontius warned.

“Why not? Look at him,” the boy laughed. “Who’s the scared chicken now?”

But to his surprise, Igor only grinned. A wide, mostly-toothless grin.

“Cluck cluck!”

A series of screams, quickly silenced, rang throughout the darkened street. Pascal raised his eyes and looked around him in horror at the circle of Outlanders as they proceeded to slit the throats of every single Dispatcher they’d brought to their knees. Streams of blood gushed and splattered everywhere onto the concrete, forming pools in the golden glow of the flames that now lit Pascal’s eyes ablaze with the vengeance of a thousand suns.

But he knew it wouldn’t come, because he already felt the knife blade tight against his own throat. And at the same time, that was okay. He had made a believer out of Pontius, a man who never believed in him to begin with. Not only that, but he had finally earned the full admiration and respect of the entire Dispatchers force. Maybe being a martyr wasn’t so bad after all. It was time.

“Pontius!” he yelled, unfastening his phase unit as he felt the sharp stab of pain slice across his neck, “find your son!” And with one final motion, he hurled the device over to his district commander, surrendering the fight forever.

_______________________

Severo’s team had just begun to enter the midpoint of the tunnel from the northwest corridor when a muffled boom came from above, shaking the entire structure and loosening sand from the cracks in the walls. The young knight stopped in his tracks to halt the line. Far behind them, stalactites and rocks could be heard breaking off from the cavern ceiling and smashing to the floor. A chorus of voices cried out beyond the bend as shuffling footsteps raced to keep up with the rest of the group.

“Everybody all right?” Severo called.

“Help!” a young boy screamed.

The knight rushed back through the man-made corridor and turned the bend into the cave. He found Arturo, a child of twelve years, his legs crushed beneath an avalanche of rocks. The biggest had pinned the back of his right thigh above the knee. A small patch of blood was quickly pooling around the site, a broken white bone jutting out through the skin. No way the boy was getting out of here.

“Is it bad?” he cried.

“I don’t see anything broken.”

“Don’t you dare lie to me Severo!” he grabbed the knight’s cloak. “Oh god, it hurts!”

“Help, back here!” Trapped voices called out from behind the pile of rocks, which had cut off access to the adjoining cavern. A half-circle of Outlanders gathered behind the young knight, ready to assist if they could. Severo wasn’t yet used to it, but he was their leader down here. Whichever choices he made in the next few seconds were crucial. Steeling himself, he gazed back apologetically at the crowd, all of whom looked as if they expected the worst. He felt another tug at his cloak.

“It’s okay,” the boy assured him. “I’m ready to go home.”

Severo removed the silver amulet from around his neck and pressed it between Arturo’s palms as he took the boy’s head and began to recite the Pinnacle, the most sacred of Dalishkova prayers. To his amazement, the group of boys and girls behind him began to join in the recitation of verses, even those trapped in the next cavern over. It was a strange thing to hear. He had never revealed himself to any of the Outlanders aside from Quentin, and whenever he did pray, he always made sure it was whispered. Yet they joined in with him all the same, as if they had been doing so for years. By the end of the prayer, Arturo had sunk his tiny head with a smile and died.

The young Dalishkova opened his eyes and gazed back upon the group with confusion.

“How did you all know those verses?”

“Olivier stole your prayer book and copied down some so we’d all have something to read,” Emilie admitted. “We shared it with each other over the past couple months and started having meetings in the east junction where we read it aloud. The Dalishkova faith comforts us…will you teach us more?”

Severo felt his blood start to boil as he rose to his feet. “You shouldn’t be reciting things you don’t understand!” he snapped.

“Please?” the girl pleaded. “We want to know about the Salt God.”

“Why? You went rummaging through my room. This was an undercover job! None of you were supposed to know I was Dalishkova!” the knight yelled. “Do you have any idea what will happen if they discover I’ve been found out?”

“It’s not like we mind,” the girl shrugged. “As long as your personal mission doesn’t endanger any of us. We just want to know there’s hope. Igor’s robbed us of most of it these days.” Several of the boys around her muttered words of agreement. “About time we had a competent leader with us. That is why you’re here, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, Severo should lead!” one of the boys in the back said loudly. “Yeah!” others chimed in.

“Look,” the knight said, “I cannot discuss any particulars of my mission with you. If you want to know the Dalishkova religion, fine. But that’s all I can offer. I am in no position to serve as your leader.”

“Just tell us one thing,” the girl demanded. “Can you help us get rid of Igor?”

Severo shot her an annoyed glance. “There’s work to be done!” he insisted. “I’ll need some of you to stay behind. Emilie, you’re in charge of the group going back to the villa.”

“What?!”

“Just do as I say! You, you, and you two,” he pointed to several boys and girls. “Start pulling the rocks from the top of the pile and work your way down to free the others from the cavern and head home. Igor’s going to get half of us killed and I’m not letting him sacrifice anybody on my side. Some of you will have to survive in the catacombs below. Don’t worry, I’ll send rations of food.”

“But-”

“Don’t argue with me Emilie, just do it!”

“Sure, whatever,” the girl huffed.

Severo left her behind and turned back for the tunnel, listening with pride as she began barking out orders to the boys under her watch. He always had faith that she would make a great leader someday, though it took a bit longer than he expected for her to take up the mantle. Then again, the girls in the Outlanders gang were outnumbered by the boys four-to-one, and there were comparatively few boys comfortable with the idea of a girl taking charge. Still, Severo saw this as a sign of hope. If he could work to unite the Outlanders behind the scenes even after having revealed himself as a stranger to them, it would make it far easier when it came time to appoint Max as their new leader.

Severo’s group, now thirteen in all, advanced through the tunnel in relative silence. Thoughts of dread consumed the young knight as to what might be happening on the wall above. No doubt every Dispatcher in the city had been summoned to secure the site. Igor would only have a small window of time in which to storm through the gate before the chances of his team making it to the safe house dropped significantly. That was assuming of course that the bomb even made a single dent in the concrete and steel-reinforced door.

It had taken two extra phase units to construct the device than they previously thought, which only left a total of six to be used for the ensuing firefight. In addition to that, the Outlanders were untrained on Dispatcher equipment and thus less accurate and more prone to the effects of recoil. All of it seemed a fool’s errand from the outset. And despite Severo’s best attempts to dissuade their young leader from following through with the plan, he had charged into it headfirst anyway.

The knight also worried about the success of his own group in getting out of the Barreau District. Security would not be of major concern upon exiting the tunnel, but the safe house was located mere blocks from Rue D’Or, the main street which ended at the west gate. That meant they still risked running into Dispatcher squads making their way to the site. Of course Igor hadn’t thought any of this through because he was so hell-bent on exacting his revenge. How many Dispatchers were dead, and how many Outlanders? Had any civilians been caught on the crossfire? Would either group make it to safety? Severo grabbed hold of his prayer amulet and repeated the Oath to will away any thoughts of failure. I am a Knight of the Dalishkova Order, he reminded himself.   

Finally, they neared the end of the tunnel. The knight halted his group ten feet from the door and stepped forward to check the lock. The indicator light above the wheel was still red, which meant no one had yet opened it from the other side. He withdrew a moment to set the gas lamp on the floor before turning the wheel. That was when he realized he’d forgotten one crucial thing. The knock sequence.

Severo and his group of Outlanders swung open the door, only to be greeted by the sound of charging phase units pointed directly in their faces. The young knight’s heart sunk to his stomach.

“Hello, boys!” the leader smirked. Edmond. “We’ve been expecting you.”

“Look, this really isn’t the time!”

“Oh no, I think this is long overdue. Be a good lad and get down on your knees.”

“No,” Severo held his ground, even as the second lieutenant fired up a blue pulse in his palm.

“I won’t ask again.”

“In case you boys hadn’t noticed, there are bigger things to worry about. Igor strapped a bomb to Captain Georges and marched him into the west gate-”

“Oh, we know,” Antoine cut him off. “The private channels are all screaming about it. Don’t worry. Your friends will be dealt with soon enough. As for the lot of you, you’re coming down to the station with us to spend the night in a nice cozy, brand new cell. Compliments of Mayor La Cour.”

“On what charges?”

“Theft of Dispatcher equipment, conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism, aiding and abetting a known criminal…talking back to an officer, to name a few,” Isaac pointed out. “We’ll let the judge decide the rest.”

“We haven’t a single phase unit amongst us, nor did anyone in this group conspire to build the bomb,” the knight explained. “Listen to me gentlemen, you will have your day of glory soon enough, that I can promise you. But right now, you must let us pass!”

Edmond eyed him as if he’d lost his mind. “And why should I do that?”

“Because I’m your only hope to take down Lucien.” Severo tore off his prayer amulet and tossed it to the second lieutenant, who caught it overhead and glanced down at the engravings. The boy’s eyes narrowed as he turned to consult the others in his squad, a skeptical look overcoming each of their faces. The knight held his breath. Come on, have faith.

“Can we really trust a Dalishkova?” Edmond finally asked, throwing back the amulet.

“You can trust this one,” Severo said. “Besides…I think you already know him.”

The second lieutenant immediately lowered his phase unit as the boy smiled, recognizing him now that he’d dropped the veil. Many years had passed since the days of their early childhood, and the knight feared his old friend would no longer remember him without the influence of the prayer amulet. But as the two now stood facing each other, Edmond’s eyes wide enough to pop out of his skull, Severo relished the moment. His powers had increased after all.

“Fuck me, you’re still alive!” the leader cried, pulling him into a tight embrace as Isaac and Antoine exchanged confused glances.

“It is good to see you, old friend.”

“And you! What the bloody hell happened? Last I remember, our families had boarded the ship together to head home, but when we docked, you were gone-”

“A story for another time, I’m afraid,” the knight cut him off. “What have you boys done with Quentin? He was supposed to be here to open the door.”

“Haven’t seen him,” Edmond said. He turned to his squad. “Either of you boys?” They both shook their heads. One of the Outlanders stepped forward and tugged at Severo’s sleeve.

“Sir, when we were gathering in the south junction, I overheard Igor say something about putting him on the front lines.”

“Shit!” the knight snapped. “All of you follow me, quickly!” He stepped over the threshold to lead the group up the stairwell, but Antoine and Isaac blocked his path, raising their phase units again. Severo briefly considered occupying their minds to force them aside, but thought better of it. There was no more time to waste on getting to the safe house. Either they broke through now, or they would be caught by another squad.

“Just where the hell do you think you’re off to?” Antoine asked.

“Both of you let him go, he’s on our side!” Edmond insisted. “Unless you want trouble with the district commander.”

Isaac looked incredulous. “What are you going to do, report us?”

“Are you defying an order?” The second lieutenant powered up his phased unit. “Trust me. Let them pass.”

“Yes, sir,” Antoine replied through clenched teeth and stood aside with Isaac.

“Thank you.” Severo nodded and removed the amulet, placing it in Edmond’s hands as his group bounded up the crumbling stairwell ahead of him. “Here…for luck.”

“Most Dispatchers don’t take kindly to the Dalishkova,” the boy sighed. “I probably shouldn’t be seen with this.”

“Then don’t. But I want you to hold onto it awhile.”

“I’ll keep it somewhere safe,” Edmond assured him. “Whatever you’re doing, Sev…be careful.”

“I will. Godspeed, old friend,” the knight squeezed his shoulder.

“Godspeed.”

Severo turned and rushed up the stairs as quickly as he could. By the time his group made it onto the street, they could already hear the sound of discharging phase units coupled with screams far off in the distance. Some of the younger children became frightened. The knight halted them at the corner and surveyed the rest of the block to be sure no one had seen them. Directly across the way stood a dark, crumbling office building with a broken fire escape ladder to the side which led down to a fenced-in alleyway. Barreau Orphanage. Much as he wished he could drop off the most vulnerable of his group now, it would raise far too many questions. But at least now he knew where to send the letter to Max.

“Steady everyone,” he whispered.

They rounded the next alley to the left and made haste for the safe house.

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House of Rats – Part 16

Edmond yawned and ran a hand through his dark, crewcut hair, perusing various reports from the prior week that had been dropped onto his desk. It was always the last order of business he attended to after filing away his other obligations for the day. He was exhausted, and yet he couldn’t shake the feeling that something seemed off. A minor detail he had overlooked. He hoped it was just a stamp or two in the stack of papers, which didn’t trouble him much. He made sure to triple-check his work before the fatigue caught up with him. Still, it was odd. Like someone or something demanded his attention.

Captain Georges. What if he were alive somewhere? But of course, that was a ridiculous notion. They’d all watched him bleed profusely from the groin, and even Igor himself said he was dragging the boy off to kill him and have him cooked over a fire. It was difficult to believe the events had only happened that morning. Filing that report had taken Edmond nearly three hours, and he’d sacrificed his lunch break to do it. No stone was left unturned. Anything Pontius might have wanted to hear was in it.

Of course, he could never tell his district commander what he really wanted to; that in fact, Lucien Riviere had completely foiled him, bribed several high-ranking members of the Dispatchers force to look the other way, and in short, made a total mockery of the entire precinct. Not that Pontius could do anything about it even if he wanted to. Constance Renou was Lucien’s mother after all—the only fact which made him untouchable by the Cavarice justice system. One day, Edmond thought with a sigh. One day I’ll get you.

The young lieutenant was torn out of his thoughts a moment later by a stampede of footsteps out in the station hall. A hurried exchange of voices followed, and he swore he could make out phrases like “we’re in the shitter now” and “Edmond is not going to like this.”

“Sir!” Isaac at last turned the corner with Antoine in tow. “Sir, we’ve got a major security breach!”

Edmond jumped to his feet, feigning surprise. “Where?”

“Munitions storage, sir. Several phase units are missing!”

“WHAT!” The lieutenant’s heart began to pound. “That’s impossible, I checked the inventory myself! And that was long after Lucien left!”

“You may want to take a second look.”

A lump was building in his throat as they led him back through the corridor and down the long stairwell to Munitions. All the while, he kept thinking of how right they were, how his career was now on the line for multiple reasons, how yes, they were most definitely all in the shitter for this. How could it have happened? It’s impossible. That boy was barely out of my sight all afternoon. Then a more chilling realization began to hit him. What if it was one of their own? A Dispatcher under his watch, in their own precinct, at this very station. I would hang them up by their testicles.

“This can’t be,” Edmond said in disbelief. He hoped it was some sort of prank. At the very least, it would serve to wake him up so he could finish the rest of his reports in confidence and head home to get some well-deserved sleep.

“I didn’t think it was possible either,” Antoine explained. “Then the power flickered.”

“The power?”

“Yes sir,” Isaac sighed, unlocking the door and swinging it open.

The munitions storage room was a converted storm cellar about thirty feet long and twenty wide with a gray floor and walls all around. Two rows of three concrete columns supported the ceiling. On the walls, footed by work tables, were silver racks of various equipment; everything from knives to utility belts, climbing gear, handcuffs, and more. Over on the left far wall were the phase units. Edmond counted again up and down the rack with his eyes to be sure. There appeared to be twenty. But just as he was waiting for one of them to yell gotcha, Isaac handed him a flashlight.

“Cut the lights,” the boy told Antoine. The entire room went dark, and Edmond shone the flashlight over the rack.

“One, two, three, four…what the hell?” Ten. Ten units were missing. “What’s going on!”

“I’ll show you,” Isaac said. “Lights up.”

Once again, there appeared to be twenty phase units.

“Here.” Antoine stepped over and pointed to a small black triangular-shaped device in the top right corner of the equipment rack.

“What the hell is that?” Edmond asked.

He handed the flashlight back to Isaac and climbed up on the silver work table. Given a closer look, he could now make out a small beam of light projecting outward from the base of the triangle. He placed a hand on one of the phase units, only to watch his fingers slip through it as if it were air.

“No…no, no, no!” he cried. Then he set his hand down over the triangle itself. Ten phase units immediately disappeared. A hologram. Edmond ripped the tiny black device off the equipment rack and jumped down to the ground, stomping it beneath his foot into a thousand pieces. So that’s what was in the black bag he gave to Quentin.

“LUCIEN!” he screamed.

_______________

A cool breeze could be felt in the night air as the Barreau boys arrived back at the mess hall for supper, out of breath and an hour behind schedule. They’d had to take a subway train out of the Metropoliès District, which by then was gridlocked with crowds of people heading home from their daily jobs. The underground was marginally more forgiving to travelers. Upon exiting West Central Station, they split into separate cable cars, finally reuniting two blocks down from their destination. All of it could have been avoided of course if Mayor La Cour had chosen an earlier meeting time. Still, Max was grateful. Given all the rushing around he had done from place to place since midday, it seemed a wonder he had any time to breathe.

Yet in the midst of all the surrounding chaos—the flickering lights, the streaks of shattered stars far below the Morcourt balcony, the sea of endless, chattering voices he now found himself swept up in—a trail of lingering questions continued to follow the young elder wherever he went. The heaviest of these was now the mayor’s proposal.

He had told the other boys of it while on the subway to avoid flying into a rage.  He’d even come up with a white lie, assuring them his decision stood firm—that he did not intend to accept such an offer. And though he told the same to La Cour himself, the truth of was far more complicated than he was willing to admit. What if I make the wrong choice? he thought. There was far too much at stake.

Deep down, Max knew he deserved better. What’s more, he wanted to escape and be embraced by a family who would love and take care of him—to go to school, to have the chance at a future, perhaps even a wife and kids of his own someday. But of course that’s what the rest of the Barreau boys wanted, too. And Max wanted it more for them than he did for himself. Besides, what kind of leader would he be if he abandoned the flock? He certainly felt no better about leaving Lucien in charge. In fact, he shuddered at the very thought.

He eyed the boy to his right, who towered nearly an entire foot above him. Those big blue eyes, the narrow nose, those dimples and that self-assured smirk, all generating an aesthetically pleasing face topped by a blond, curly mop. The kind of boy who had no trouble getting what he wanted. In an odd way, even his appearance was quite suspicious. Max wasn’t sure if he had always looked that way or if his perception of his fellow elder had simply changed since that morning, but something didn’t seem right about him. He felt less like a friend and more like…maybe that was just it. The reason La Cour’s proposal bothered him so much.

Max’s memories of his prior life were fuzzy at best, so he tended not to dwell on them if he could help it. But he could recall—or at least he thought—that he may have had a brother at some point long before his arrival in Viktorium. This ‘brother’, he was reasonably sure, looked nothing at all like Lucien, yet they would quarrel just as much. Max would always get into trouble because of things his older brother did; if he broke or stole something, little Maxy would get the blame.

And it always seemed to happen like that as they shuffled around from home to home during the months they weren’t on the streets selling newspapers. The moment they were taken in to a place he liked, his brother would do something stupid again that got them kicked out. Except for the last time, when they got separated. There was a fire, then a bright blue electric flash. Then Max didn’t have a brother anymore. If he ever had one at all, it probably wasn’t a blood relation, just another orphan he traveled with. Still. That was who Lucien reminded him of.

“Filthy rats to the core,” he muttered, turning to Bernard. “That’s what we are.”

“I still can’t believe he actually filled out adoption papers for you,” the boy laughed.

“Yeah. Stupid,” Max smirked. “I reckon I’d get bored pretty fast in a family like that anyhow. What do they even do all day? Sip tea and watch the world go slipping through their fingers?”

“I can’t believe you were dumb enough to turn it down,” Lucien snapped. “Here’s a man who drops a life of wealth and privilege right into your hands, not to mention the chance to live with a hot piece of ass like Cecile, and you actually said no? Idiot!” he smacked Max across the head.

“And you’re going to lead the whole orphanage yourself, are you?”

“I could,” Lucien said with confidence. “Probably do a better job of it than you.”

“Yeah, well unlike you, I think about more than just myself. We’re supposed to do this together.”

“Supposed to. Not required to, and besides, I don’t have to agree with all of your decisions about how things are done.”

“Nor do I, you, but good leadership is about knowing when to compromise. And communicate, for god’s sake!” Max shoved him. “None of us knew what was going on this morning until after your little stunt.”

“Sorry, Mum,” Lucien rolled his eyes. “I was too busy trying not to get us all killed by those little cannibal shits in the desert. But that’s why we have our own groups to look after, isn’t it? You do things your way, I do things mine. Although I happen to think that my way is better.”

“You would,” Max let out a nervous laugh. “It ensures you don’t have to think about how your actions impact the rest of us, or our living situation. I had to close the deal myself. Not like you give a shit about our reputation with the Outlanders.”

“Why should I? They were exiled for a reason. Don’t think they wouldn’t double-cross us the first chance they get. Besides, it’s about time we found some more reliable prospects that don’t involve us parading around like idiots in desert garb every time we need to cash in. Another reason you’re an idiot for turning down La Cour’s offer.”

Max ignored the last comment. “So all that radio talk about them reintegrating into society, that was just a means to an end? Not all of them are bad people. Some are even on our side, in case you forgot.”

“So you’d rather run back to a den of wolves and risk being eaten alive just to save one pup because he’s good? Jesus, you and La Cour have martyr syndrome! What are you so afraid of, anyway? That people will hate you if you fly the coup?”

“No, I just-”

“Then stop feeling guilty! No one here would blame you. Everyone uses each other in this world Max, for better or worse. If you didn’t know that by now, you’re either incredibly naive or flat out stupid. I’m beginning to think the latter. You’ll agree to steal his phase unit when he’s handing you the whole bloody house? It’s not a difficult decision.”

“It is if you’ve got a conscience.”

“Conscience is what has held our mayor back, and it will hold you back too!” Lucien retorted. “You’ve got to accept that we can’t help everyone who comes banging on our front door. This world was fucked long before we got here. Take what you can and survive. That’s the only game I care about.”

Max took a deep breath and swallowed the burgeoning lump in his throat. It couldn’t really be coming to this. And yet the more he considered the events of the past several months, all the signs were there. His friend was no longer the easygoing, optimistic idealist he once knew. On those occasions he was, it seemed to be more of a front. Otherwise, Lucien had grown oddly secretive, demanding, and sometimes mistrustful. It was hard to know when he was even telling the truth anymore. No use in keeping the pup who eats the whole litter, either.

“Well Lucien, it seems we’ve both made our choice,” the elder sighed, steeling himself even as he broke a sweat. “Once we divvy up the funds from the mayor’s phase unit, there is a vacant building across the canal. You could open your own orphanage and over the next month, we’ll see who does better. Loser gets exiled.”

“Challenge accepted,” Lucien smirked.

“It’s not funny.”

“No, but what is funny is that I’m already several steps ahead, and you’re completely oblivious.” The tall boy then turned to whisper in his ear. “Just between us, you may want to do a proper head count, yeah? Looks like you’re missing someone,” he smiled, patting Max on the back.

The young elder’s mouth dropped open as the line crept into the narrow hall. He had forgotten to do a count of his boys before they left the subway station platform. They’d split off into groups of two or three several times while maneuvering through the throngs of people to make their way back to the surface. He had done a rough estimate with his eyes, but they needed to be absolutely sure no one was left behind, lest they get caught alone by the Dispatchers; not all of the boys’ citizenship documents were finalized yet. That was what he’d wanted to discuss with Cecile before being held up by the mayor, but of course by then it was too late. He proceeded to count in his head now as they neared the food court. Marcus, Hugo, Tomas, Louis, Marcel…

Lucien was right.

“Hey Bernard…” Max gasped. “Have you seen Quentin?”

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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 6

Following the initial shock of hearing Lucien’s voice on the radio along with the outrageous accusations which followed, Max leaped out of the tub to change the station. He turned on the shower again, extra hot this time, and resumed furiously scrubbing himself down. Scrubbed so much, his skin turned red. His heart was on the verge of exploding. What the hell is Lucien on about? The young elder was aghast. As he looked back on every experience they shared together, he started to analyze every detail that didn’t fit. His actions made no sense.

Why had Lucien been so eager to leave during their operation, and even more puzzling, how could he know Igor would go along with it? The leader of the Outlanders had little incentive for keeping them alive in the first place, even if the Dispatchers had walked right into their trap and dropped their equipment. It wasn’t as if they could survive in the city. Besides, they had proven they certainly didn’t require the help of the Barreau boys either. Something more was amiss here and Max was determined to figure it out.

He grabbed a towel from an end table and quickly dried himself off, waiting for the music to finish before switching off the radio. He was about to start gathering a fresh set of clothes from his corner dresser when there came a frantic knock at the door.

“Just a moment!” he called, adjusting the towel around his waist. The incessant banging continued until he turned the locks. When he opened the door, Quentin barged in, consumed by a fit of hysterics.

“Max, you’ve got to help me!” he cried. The young elder was stunned. Fourteen year-old Quentin was never one to be the emotional type, not even in the face of extreme danger or potential loss of life, yet he appeared horribly distraught.

“All right Quent, calm down.”

“You don’t understand! On the radio, the Second Lieutenant Dispatcher, he named me, and then Lucien-”

“I heard,” Max assured him, slamming the door shut and locking it. “Okay, listen. Here’s what we’re going to do. You obviously can’t meet us in the mess hall. I’m not so sure I should go either because they’ll be looking for me too. In the meantime, don’t go outside until I can grab documentation proving you’re a legitimate citizen.”

“Where are you going?”

“I’ve got to sneak over to the old courthouse,” he said, throwing off his towel and snatching a pair of trousers from his dresser. “Stay up here. There’s food in the ice box if you want to make yourself something.”

“What if they come while you’re away? You’ve got to hide me somewhere!” he panicked, tearing open the cabinets for any empty space he could fit.

Max sighed. “They already think I’m hiding you anyway. Not that it will do much good, but there is a trap door under my bed with a crawl space. Look, Quentin-”

“Ah perfect, thanks!” the boy smiled, diving to the floor to yank up the rug.

“Quentin, I’m proper angry too, but we’ve got to keep our heads. So what if they know your name? They could find out all of ours if they wanted. Nothing will come of this once I get your documents to save them the trouble. Anyway, I’m sure they were far too traumatized by what happened in the desert to come here and start messing with you.”

“Lucien just tied us directly to the gang, and I’m the one who led them into that trap! We’re finished, Max!”

“Of course if they do figure out the details of all we’ve done, perhaps they’ll stop messing with us.”

“Or they’ll cut what little funding we do have and exile us and we’ll be forced to turn into cannibals too! I really don’t think you’re getting it. We’re proper fucked! Completely, totally fucked!”

“Quentin-”

“They’ll tie us all to the gang and, and they’ll exile us and then Igor will chop off our balls and eat us all alive while they f-force you to watch, or maybe the Dispatchers will find me and hang me from a telephone wire, they’ve done it before you know with that old Brady man, what’s his name!

“Quent!”

“And then maybe Lucien will take the opportunity to chop off my cock too and, and feed it to Igor, just blood and guts reigning down on that psycho child as he smiles and laughs and the Dispatchers will rape us all up the arse-”

Max slapped him across the face.

“SHUT UP! Just get your fucking head on, will you?”

“I’m sorry,” Quentin said, rubbing his cheek. “I’m just so scared, I didn’t know where else to turn.”

“Look,” Max said, grabbing his shoulders. “I’m scared too. But you’ll be fine up here for a while. I promise I won’t let anything happen to you. Use the crawl space if you need to, yeah?”

Quentin nodded.

“Thank you.”

“Bernard’s downstairs, I’ll let him know what’s going on.” Max looked in the mirror next to his dresser, pulling on the rest of his clothes. “Something missing…aha!” He had nearly forgotten his head covering. If he were recognized on the street, it would only make things worse. Quentin briefly poked his head out from examining the crawl space when the elder opened the corner window.

“You’re going through the alley?”

“Through the next building over, then the alley. I’m sure as hell not walking out the front door,” Max said. “I’ll see you when I get back. Lock the window.”

“Yes sir!”

Max stepped out onto the fire escape ledge and made his way down the crooked ladder against the brick wall, the wind taunting him with every step. It hung at such an angle that he always feared it might fall. He closed his eyes and shook off the vertigo. It’s only from the second floor, he reminded himself. The drop to the ground wasn’t so bad once he got to the bottom. But just as he hit the last rung, the first floor window opened in front of him.

“Where are you sneaking off to?” It was Bernard.

“The old courthouse, and holy shit!” Max exclaimed.

“Sorry.”

“You know I hate this ladder!”

“Why the courthouse?”

“I guess you didn’t catch Andre Casanov’s show,” Max caught his breath. “For whatever stupid reason, Lucien went on and got himself branded a hero, then outed Quentin. I need to break in and get his documents before the Dispatchers come. He’s holed up in my room.”

“Need me to stall them if they show up?”

“Please.” He took out his pocket watch to check the time. “The radio show just ended a few minutes ago, so we at least have a small window. If I’m not back before lunch, you can lead our boys down to the mess hall without me.”

“What if the Dispatchers take Quentin for questioning?”

“Would you like to spend the night with our cannibal friends outside the wall?”

“Of course not!”

“Then don’t let it happen. I’ll see you in thirty.” Max dropped down the ten feet from the ladder, a sharp pain reverberating through his legs as his feet hit the ground hard. He hopped it off and turned back when he caught wind of Bernard chuckling quietly at him. “Shut up!” he smirked.

“Careful out there, mon Capitaine.”

Max saluted him and went on his way.

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House of Rats – Part 2

Lucien put his hands behind his back as Max tied them in haste, trying in vain to compose himself. The two glanced at the rest of their team on the floor, who gave them subtle nods of approval. Some removed their desert garb and rubbed dirt on their faces to assume their role as hostages. Even a few of the Outlander boys who had sworn allegiance to Igor—probably more so out of fear than adoration—seemed to think it was a good idea. One of them, a boy named Severo, handed Max a black sack to throw over his friend’s head to complete the charade.

“Will this work?”

“It should.”

“What happens to Georges?”

“You mean if he doesn’t bleed out first? Hard to say,” Severo frowned. “Igor lives on a whim.”

“The city folk have never heard of a death in Viktorium. Neither have I, for that matter.”

“And that scares you any more than living here? Most of us recall what death was like.”

“Most of us. I wouldn’t know,” Max muttered, leading Lucien over to the stairs.

“Old courthouse, Floor B3, Suite 7, Cabinet 5, File 3601. Bottom drawer.”

Max stopped. “I’m sorry?”

“Worth a read when you’ve got time. The Dispatchers are not as innocent as you think,” Severo explained. “You may want to learn how to pick locks too if you don’t already know. For what it’s worth…good luck Ferrier.”

“Thanks.”

The two elders and several other boys made their way down the stairwell past an assortment of guards, some of whom appeared far less threatening than others. Max tried to remain mindful of the fact that it didn’t necessarily mean they were friendly, though many acted so. The alliance between the Barreau boys and the Outlanders was nothing more than a business transaction. Each took away a certain percentage of the loot upon baiting the Dispatchers—another conversation with Igor he was not looking forward to, as the numbers were always subject to change.

Still, Max felt a certain empathy toward those exiled. He had been reborn into a life of privilege by comparison. From the age of twelve following his own arrival in Viktorium, he was placed into a boys’ home converted from an old mansion. Every need was met and taken care of for the first four months. His only duty at the time was to keep his younger peers in line. If he did a good enough job of it, he would be offered his own flat—of course that was back when the Dispatchers Training Programme was still open to new arrivals. A year after the exile of Charles DuPont, it was scrapped, along with any chance he had of ever making the squad. At least they gave him the flat.

In the same way, these boys were all promised something too. Viktorium was supposed to be the land of new beginnings. A place where every misdeed and crime back in the real world no longer mattered. Income equality had long been envisioned as a solution to the economic problems of the Earth plane, but it had become a dismal failure following the arrival of the Parisian upper-class, who still valued their status no matter what lengths they had to go to maintain it.

With too many orphaned children to care for and many more forming gangs, it wasn’t long before a significant number of them were exiled into the wilderness. Some died of heatstroke or starvation. The Barreau boys had been lucky; theirs was the only orphanage in the city left open. Were it in his power, Max would secure proper citizenship in Cavarice for all of them and grant them a better life. But that seemed an impossibility even for the Barreau boys. Much as he loathed the Dispatchers, he had come to envy them too. If only I had made it, things might be easier, he thought. But then I would be the one getting robbed.

A shudder came over the young orphanage elder as he quietly led his faux prisoner out the front door of the villa and over to Igor. He hoped his face was covered enough to avoid detection by the remaining Dispatchers, though it would do little good if he vomited. The sight of Georges still writhing around in the hot desert sand was even more ghastly up close. Igor had severely punctured his scrotum, and one of his testicles had slipped out to cook in the midday sun. His voice was hoarse from yelling so much, and what noise came out of him now had dwindled to a series of low, rhythmic groans.

Max kept his gaze trained on the ground as Igor stepped over the bleeding boy and dragged Lucien from his grasp, hurling him to the ground in front of their prisoners.

“Fair trade for ‘roaching on our territory,” the leader spat. “Thanks for the gear, and the pretty little chicken. I’ll pluck out the rest of his feathers and cook him for supper. Yummy, yummy! I’ve been starving all week. Take Georgie here to the pit and cut the rest of them loose!” he ordered. The Outlanders holstered their weapons as the guards who had been holding the Dispatchers cut their ropes and allowed them to go free. One of them took the liberty of removing Lucien’s hood and loosening the rest of his binds.

Max breathed a sigh of relief as he watched his friend’s team and the remaining Dispatchers round the corner and flee across the desert toward the city in the distance. He was eager to get home himself and take a cold shower. They had been holed up in the heat of that dusty old villa for the past five hours. Still, it was far from over. He had to negotiate their percentage of the loot with Igor, which would be the hardest part. Most of the Outlanders made haste for the pit whilst the others retreated back into the cool shadows of the house. The Barreau boys emerged behind Max to stand guard as he spoke with Igor in the courtyard.

“You can take that shit off your head now,” the leader said, tearing the cloth from his face.

“You’re sick, you know that?”

“Of course. And I enjoy it.”

“What will you do with Georges?”

“Why do you care, Chicken? I could easily pluck your feathers out too,” he grinned, grabbing Max’s hair. Max slapped him away.

“Vulture!”

“That’s exactly what I am. It must be nice to have a refrigerator back in that fine city of yours,” the leader said, kicking the Dispatcher parts into a loose pile. “But a pity you will never know the taste of human flesh. After it’s been cooked a while in the sun and roasted over a fire just so? It gets nice and tender. Tender and juicy, just like a chicken.”

“So the rumors are true, then,” Max gulped, his voice cracking. “You are cannibals.”

“How else would we survive? Snakes? They only last so long. Feed maybe two of us. Scorpions? Baby food. But a whole human, slow roasted all day? My, my, if only you just once tried a human liver,” he smiled.

“Stop!”

“I’ll bet yours tastes just dandy, Maxwell chicken…the fear in your sweat! Such flavor in you,” he sniffed. “I can smell it now.” One of the Barreau boys drew his gun, and Igor backed away. “Really? In my own courtyard? I thought we were all friends here. You’ll all have to return our weapons, by the way.” Several Outlanders appeared from behind the rock piles, ready to fire on them if necessary.

“I am no friend of yours,” Max snapped. “Now let’s talk business.”

“Ah yes. Your cut. You get forty percent. We get sixty.”

“If I recall correctly, our previous terms were for you to get forty.”

“Previous terms are a rough estimate. We want the sixty now. Your boy was late.”

“That was not the deal.”

“No? You come into our territory, you use my people, and you want to take the bigger cut? I don’t think so. We did most of the work.”

“Fine. Forty-five.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t quite hear you,” Igor said, whipping out his knife. It still had Georges’s blood on it. “Run that number by me again, Chicken?”

“Give us a minute,” Max sighed, turning back to his group to deliberate. “There’s no way he gets sixty.”

“Screw that!” said Bernard, an older African boy. “You want to walk out of here without your cock, that’s fine, but I like mine still attached thank you very much!”

“If he gets so much as fifty, he gets a phase unit. We need to get him down to forty-five. Those units fetch thousands.”

“You know he won’t agree to that!

“Then we make a run for it.”

“Through the desert? The Outlanders outnumber us and are packing firepower, and we can’t risk them finding the tunnel! He’s our only connection for doing business out here. If we lose him, we lose the orphanage.”

“Fine. Then he gets sixty.”

“Okay.”

Max turned back to face the gang of Outlanders. “How do you feel about forty-seven?”

“MAX!” Bernard hissed, but he waved a hand to silence him.

“You test me, Chicken,” the boy sneered, sauntering around them. Max crinkled his nose in disgust. He stunk. “I don’t like being tested. Especially not before I’ve had my lunch. It makes me look bad to my merry band of gents here. I suppose I could kill you, but then I’d have to wait for you to get all juicy and ripe. What do you say, boys? Shall I take a piece now, or have his cock for dessert?” The rest of the Outlanders laughed as Max cringed. “No…not yet, anyway. We’ve got our food for the night. Very well. I’ll take it,” he nodded.

“Good, it’s settled,” Max breathed, moving to grab his share of the equipment.

“Ah ah, not so fast.” Igor moved in to stop him. “Next time, we get eighty. And don’t go thinking you can trick us into taking useless equipment. We watch all the shipments in and out of this valley to the next province over when they’re scheduled. Keep in mind that what we allow you to take is only a courtesy.”

“Understood.”

“And Ferrier…if you ever fuck me again, I’ll be eating every last one of your appendages. One after the other. First your fingers…then your toes…then your ears. Then your nose. I’ll save your cock for last, right before your eyeballs. I’ll do it all while you’re still alive. They’ll hear you screaming all the way at the north end of the city, from the Metropoliès all the way to your little Barreau block,” he grinned. “And no one will come to save you. Proper payment is expected next time. Now get the hell out of my yard.”

Max silently steadied his breath as he and the Barreau boys divvied up the loot and made haste for Grand Rock, a pile of inconspicuous stones beneath which an underground tunnel led five kilometers back into the city. They had discovered the entrance in the basement of the old Steamworks building across from the orphanage some months ago, and it turned out to be perfect for bypassing critical Dispatcher checkpoints on the surface during their dealings with the Outlanders. Max made certain he was the last to take the ladder down and properly sealed the trapdoor above them before sliding the rest of the way to the cavern floor.

“Congratulations, you’ve marked yourself,” Bernard said, shaking his head. “Better hope they never find this tunnel now.”

“They won’t. I’m sure they have passed the marker stones enough times without noticing.”

“You think Lucien and the others made it home all right?”

“I hope so,” Max said, digging out one of the phase units. He strapped it securely on his wrist to light the way back. A sudden spark of blue fired up, illuminating the cold darkness of the cave. “Say, Bernard…you ever been to floor B3 in the courthouse?”

“I didn’t know there was a B3. Then again, we haven’t had time to properly survey that building,” he said, ducking beneath a large outcropping of rock. “Why do you ask?”

“One of the Outlanders, Severo, mentioned something as I was tying up Lucien. Floor B3, Suite 6…or maybe it was seven. Cabinet 5, File 3601. Bottom drawer.”

“And you’re sure it’s not a trap?”

“That is a valid point. But how would they set one? They haven’t lived in the city in years. He said it’s worth a read when we have time. Something about how the Dispatchers aren’t as innocent as we think.”

“Yeah, sure,” Bernard laughed, echoing down the tunnel. “They’re glorified orphans, same as you and me. You see how easily they got rid of Georges.”

“Don’t remind me. But it wasn’t always so, right? I mean in the beginning. Pontius, for instance. He was the greatest captain they ever had.”

“True. But what would they be guilty of?”

“Who knows. He said it just after I mentioned that I can’t remember dying.”

“You’re far from the only one. It’s probably just an anomaly, like waking up from a dream you can’t quite remember. Some recall and some don’t.”

“Some of us age, and some don’t. I do.”

“And?”

“Don’t you think it a coincidence that those who age in Viktorium also can’t remember their own deaths?”

“That doesn’t prove anything. And you don’t know for sure that every last person who ages doesn’t remember.”

“All the ones I’ve met.”

“So you’re a rare creature. Take pride in it, Max. It just means some part of you is still alive,” he smiled, moving ahead of him to crank open the tunnel’s halfway door.

“Yeah…maybe that’s just it,” he whispered to himself. “Why would some of us still be alive?”

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