House of Rats – Part 17

Quentin Vaugrenard took a deep breath and descended the crumbling stairwell that led down to the tunnel entrance where, just hours before, the Barreau boys had reentered the city. The black sack he’d slung over his shoulder felt heavier with each step as the breath drawn from his lungs grew painfully thin. Perhaps it was the weight on his conscience. Or how fast he had run from East Central. He wasn’t quite sure, but his muscles ached. Everything in his gut screamed for him to turn back. Sure, he scared the piss out of Lucien earlier just to regain a sense of power, but there was no such freedom when it came to the Outlanders. It was too late to back out now. He’d already made his stop at the orphanage.

He had wanted to pull Max aside throughout the day to tell him everything—how Igor had placed him in the city as a mole to gather information on how to return, and that Lucien was far more dangerous than any of them were willing to see. But he’d given up once he realized that his orphanage elder could no longer protect him anyway. Not from the Dispatchers, not from Lucien’s demands, certainly not the Outlanders. And what troubled him most of all was the fact that not even Severo could shield him from his fate now, wherever it lie.

The young Dalishkova Knight had approached him some months ago to pry for information about Igor. During that time, Quentin kept his secret well from the rest of the gang, though he often grew frustrated with the boy’s constant reminders to trust him. Just be patient, I can get you your freedom. Yet those promises had turned out to be as empty as the state of belief induced by that prayer amulet the knight carried—probably because the object turned out to have no effect on Igor whatsoever. Quentin was thankful Severo trusted him enough not to use it on him, though in some respects it certainly would have dulled the pain of being torn in so many directions with no place left to call home.

But this was it. The final door.

Quentin threw down the bag of phase units and opened a small control panel on the wall. Leaned his head against the cool concrete, just for a moment. Come on, Quent. Just go back and it will all be fine. Yeah right. Not a chance. Lucien would sooner have him kidnapped and tortured. Igor would do worse.

He nervously punched in the six-digit entry code to open the lock, followed by a specific sequence of knocks the Outlanders previously established; if he’d tried turning the wheel to open the door outright, they would assume it was a squad of Dispatchers and open fire. His heart fluttered in his chest when the heavy thing swung inward. As he stepped over the threshold, he hoped he didn’t have to deal with Igor for once, that maybe his former leader was off satisfying his ego elsewhere, perhaps torturing a small desert animal. No such luck.

“About time you got here, chicken,” the dirty little rat rasped. He’d brought three of his subordinates with him; Deirdre, Will, and a newer boy they called Joran. “What took you so long?” Igor wasted no time invading his personal space, forcing Quentin to back away until he nearly tripped over the steel threshold.

“Just got back from the metro.”

Igor snatched the black bag from his hands. “You stink like shit.”

“Likewise.”

“They’d better all be here.” The leader tossed the bag over to Will, who proceeded to do a count to be sure. All the while, Quentin did his best to avoid Igor’s iron gaze, but every time he looked up again, the boy was staring him down like a lion would its prey. He didn’t quit, even after Will confirmed that there were ten phase units. An eternity of silence passed before the former Outlander worked up the courage to speak.

“What more do you want?”

“Why the hell did you leave us?” Igor sneered.

“Obviously I haven’t if I’m still here.”

“The fuck you are!” The leader struck him across the face. “Tell me, how is your nice cushy life inside the wall, eh?”

“Not as cushy as you’d think,” Quentin trembled, rubbing his cheek. He nodded toward the bag of phase units. “So why all this? You could all just come through the tunnel right now. You’ve known about it for months. I’ll even let you in, get you into some abandoned place. Plenty of them on the Barreau block. You don’t have to do this, you know-”

“Oh, it’s not that I have to. I want to! Or did you forget what those Dispatcher scum did to us?!” Igor charged forward, pinning him to the wall and tearing his shirt down the middle to reveal the branding scar on his chest. “Don’t tell me that you FORGET!”

Quentin swallowed hard, trying to ignore the flecks of spit on his face. “So what’s your side of the plan?”

“We’re going to have us some fun!” Igor grinned. “And you’re going to join us.”

“And if I don’t?” He had to choke back bits of vomit as he spoke. Igor’s halitosis was unbearable.

“Then who’s to say what will happen next time you come around with Max and the gang?” the leader challenged, backing away to join his subordinates. “We might not be so nice to you. That’s if we even need your services after tonight. We’ll be city dwellers again, after all. Who knows…I might just come by the orphanage one night and cut all your pretty little chicken throats while you’re fast asleep.”

Quentin shuddered as the scrappy child grinned in that menacing way of his, knowing full well that he could do it if he really wanted. The former Outlander had witnessed Igor do far worse during those first initial months in the desert villa. Things like smashing the skull of the weakest boy, Ewan, then gutting him and cutting off pieces of his body to cook for food. Of course Quentin had lied to Lucien about that part. But the thought of it happening to any of the Barreau boys…

“Look, why don’t you just come through now?” he whimpered. “There’s plenty of room for you at Barreau, I’ll talk to Max. You can join us. You can have a family, a real family! It’s not much, but-”

“SHUT UP for Christ’s sake!” Igor struck him again. “I didn’t plant you in the city so you could find a family and live happily ever after! The Outlanders ARE your family! So either you can die a hero, or you can die a coward. But if I were you, I’d choose wisely, ‘cause there’s only one way out of this, mate.”

“No…” Quentin backed against the wall, his heart hammering away in his chest. During his short life, he’d been ready for a lot of things, but nothing could prepare him for the prospect of death. The very thought hit him harder than any other.

“What’ll it be, then?” Igor asked. “Front lines, or a big bloody chicken coop?”

“I c-can’t just stay in the villa?” the boy choked up.

“What?” his leader gasped, grabbing him by the shirt and dragging him close. “And miss my fireworks, eh? I don’t think so. Nobody stays behind. Not even the girls. Shit, even Deirdre here is going, with her fine pair of tits,” he grinned back at her. “I’ll be right by your side, too.”

“You will?” Quentin was taken aback.

“Unlike Lucien or Max, I’m a hero who does my fighting on the ground with my family. Joran’s going too, and he’s the newest of us.” The boy proudly saluted Igor. “See how committed he is already? More than I can say for you,” Igor turned away.

“He’s indoctrinated.”

The leader chuckled. “I see the city’s turned you soft. What ever happened to you? You were my right hand man, Quent. You used to kill for me. Surely you haven’t forgotten that.”

“No, but I do my damnedest to try,” the boy trembled.

“And if your Barreau boys knew, you really think they’d take you back?”

Quentin felt his heart drop to his stomach. The burgeoning lump in his throat had finally burst, giving way to sobs of defeat. Igor was right all along. Freedom was nothing more than an illusion. He could fight it with words and citizenship documents as much as he wanted. He still had no other choice. In fact, he never did. The moment he joined the Outlanders, he belonged to Igor. None of the Dispatchers would come to his rescue if he were a Barreau boy, either. He’d been branded as one of the hunted long ago. I don’t belong anywhere. As if to seal that fate, he took notice of Will in his peripheral vision proceeding to shut and lock the tunnel door behind them. Nowhere to run. He already felt the tight strap of a phase unit going around his wrist. He didn’t bother fighting it.

“Fine.”

“Welcome back to the family,” Igor smiled. “You’re going on the front lines, chicken. Don’t worry. If you die, we’ll name a bridge after you.” He gave the unit one last tug to be sure it was secure and handed him off to Joran and Will. “Take him to join the others by the hatch.”

A sudden electric crackle echoed down the tunnel as Will sparked a blue pulse to light their path.  Quentin plodded quietly into the dark ahead of Igor and Deirdre, the prior warmth from his tears now plastered cold as stone onto his face. His thoughts drifted back to home. Not his home with the Outlanders, or even his home in the Barreau District…Paris. The sound of the phase unit must have triggered a memory lost from within. The last thing he recalled about life on Earth was slipping into an alleyway, curious about some electrical disturbance. Perhaps it was a downed live wire. He had heard his mother’s voice calling behind him clear as day until it abruptly disappeared.

The more he focused on this memory, the more Quentin found himself beginning to feel almost blissfully resolute concerning his probable fate. Family, he thought. Someone out there had loved him. Even in his darkest hour, that seemed enough. Besides, if his mother was not still looking for him on this side of the afterlife, he took solace in the fact that Max definitely was. Perhaps there would still be a chance to escape after all. And when he got back, he would try to find his parents.

I just have to make it through the gate.

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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 14

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

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

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

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

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

“Sure, whatever.”

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

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

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

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

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

“You heard about that, eh?”

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

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

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

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

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

“You wouldn’t do that.”

“No?”

“You like me too much,” Lucien grinned.

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

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

“And that would be?”

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

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

“At least you think I’m funny.”

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

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

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

“Such as?”

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

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

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

Lucien frowned. “Anyone else pulling his strings?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Miss?”

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

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

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

“Are we invited?” Lucien asked.

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

“I understand,” the boy frowned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lucien is dangerous.”

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

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

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

“Why not?”

“You know why, Marcy.”

“So you would still choose Lucien over me-”

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

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

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

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

“That’s not his decision to make.”

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

“I wish it were that simple.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fine. Yes.”

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

“Goddamn it, Marceau!”

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House of Rats – Part 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 12

In the center of the city just outside the Metropoliès, there stood a lab with a glass ceiling bathed in darkness. And in the center of that lab sat a pale, shirtless thin man of forty-three years with smoke emanating from his skin. He took a deep breath and repositioned himself upright in the chair, allowing his heart to slow before exhaling calmly in the cold silence. He opened his eyes.

The familiar form of his young German assistant scattered the shadows around them as she stepped out from behind the control panel of his electric coil. Gretel was not the prettiest girl, though she was certainly not the ugliest, either. Her braided blonde hair sat rigid like a doll’s on her head, ending into two unremarkable pigtails draped over her shoulders. Her dress was hideously plain in appearance, her gaze intense.

But underneath it all, she possessed a certain power never seen before by the likes of any man on Earth. This power—the manipulation and production of electricity—had frightened her entire village so much to the point she was ridiculed by fellow classmates and neighbors, and later shunned by her own family. And that was precisely what had drawn the aging inventor named Nikola Tesla to the girl known as Gretel. Where the townsfolk had seen a witch, he envisioned a prodigy. Something akin to a daughter to whom he could pass on his legacy, for the inventor had no children of his own.

Still, he couldn’t help feeling a twinge of fear in her presence. It was one of the few instances in his life that he felt such profound humility and reverence for another living creature; if she truly wished, she could destroy the entire city with a mere flick of the wrist. But Tesla knew for a fact that Gretel did not want these things. The only reason she had harmed people in her village was because they’d frightened her.

It was for this reason that the inventor did his best to keep her safely tucked away in his lab, though he knew it was far from a permanent solution. On several nights over the past month, he had awoken to discover she had ventured out on her own. He expected it would happen at some point—Gretel was a growing girl of sixteen, after all. But he feared what the Cavaricians might do if they discovered her power.

“Why did you stop?” the man asked, grabbing the towel he’d draped over the back of his chair to dry himself off.

“Coils were overloading again. I didn’t want you to get hurt.”

Nikola sighed. “When will you learn to trust me?”

“All due respect,” the girl answered, “but unlike you, I can feel when there’s a problem.”

“I think I know my own coils just fine.”

“And I can feel the voltage surging through my own bones just fine. We have worked together on these things. Why can’t you trust me as well?”

“My dearest Gretel,” the inventor stood, sliding an arm into his shirt and buttoning it back up, “you know that I do. I notice you’ve been going out lately, and I don’t try to stop you. But this is still my lab. I’ll have the final say in my own experiments.”

“You have all the answers at your disposal, yet you refuse my knowledge,” she said, sparking a bolt of electricity that bounced between her fingertips. “Why?”

“Because that would be far too easy,” he smiled, grasping her shoulders and planting a kiss on her forehead. She was right, of course. But what was a mere mortal in the face of a goddess? Gretel knew such things instinctively, whereas Tesla was determined to learn through experiences encompassing trial and error. Aside from that, his mind experiments had become his most trusted method. What worked for them both were two different things. But he didn’t dare call himself the ‘Master of Lightning’ anymore.

“Now there was one other test I wanted to run,” he snapped his fingers in thought. A loud banging noise came from the thick steel door on the balcony above. They both turned their heads. “Ah, great,” Nikola sighed. “The woman of the hour herself. It’s open!” he shouted.

The wheel in the center of the steel door squeaked over to the left and slowly creaked open. One silky white leg stepped through, then another. Tesla could hear a series of audible grunts and curses echoing in the silence of the lab as the heavy door continued to drift outward at a staggering crawl. The hem of an emerald green dress also appeared out of the void beyond.

“Can I help you?”

“No, not at all, thank you much!” the woman snapped as she struggled the rest of the way inside. Only one person in all of Viktorium spoke with such a grating tone that made him want to stab out his eardrums whenever he heard it. “I see you’ve improved your coils,” she huffed, grabbing hold of the railing. “Spectacular piece of machinery. Edison would be proud.”

“What can I do for you, Constance?”

“You can build a proper door, for starters.” She flipped her golden hair aside with a gloved hand and readjusted the small black hat on her head. Her pale blue eyes gleamed bright, even in the dim lighting of the lab as she descended the grated stairs. “I was just wondering if you’ll be attending the mayor’s welcome gala this year, or if you have more pressing matters to attend to.”

“Regrettably, I don’t believe I can make it this time,” Nikola sighed, turning back to his work table to calibrate a phase unit prototype he had been working on for the mayor. It was a commissioned project he wasn’t particularly ecstatic to build. The unit was to be a measure of protection, and so came with a lethal setting—the only one of its kind, and the only one he vowed to ever build. Being responsible for a death in Viktorium was not something he wanted on his conscience, but he understood the mayor’s fear of another coup, and that was the only reason he had agreed to it.

“Everybody who’s anybody will be there,” Renou continued, testing his patience.

“And since when have I cared about who anybody is?”

“That’s what I don’t understand about you. You’re one of the most eligible bachelors in all of Viktorium, yet here you are holed up in your lab, which I pay for by the way, tinkering away with all of your silly inventions-”

“Are you here for a reason, Miss Renou?”

“I’m sure that little slave girl of yours doesn’t appreciate being treated like your lowly servant either,” she ignored him.

“Careful,” Gretel snapped, firing up a blue bolt in her hand.

“Oh come off it, dearie,” the woman smirked. “Your theatrics don’t frighten me. You ought to be in a school, you know.” She leaned against the work table, tossing her hat down. “With other children your age? Not cooped up in some dark corner like a lab rat with a man old enough to be your grandfather.”

“Harsh,” Tesla raised an eyebrow, tightening a gear. “I am sixty-three by Earth standards, but I hardly look it thanks to my electro treatments. Forty-three is my age in Viktorium. Or doesn’t she recognize that?” he asked Gretel. The girl shrugged. “You want to go to school?”

“No.”

“There, you see?” the inventor grinned. “She doesn’t want to go to school. It’s settled.”

“And what might she hope to learn from a man like you?” Constance challenged. “That obsession is the road to genius? Ha! I already wasted my years with a man who once thought as much, and I can assure you that will not end well.”

“Perhaps not, but without electricity, this city would not function. Neither would the whole of Viktorium, or the world beyond it. Neither would your trains, for that matter.”

“Oh I’m sorry, is that a threat, dearie? Remember who pays your rent!”

“Again, I could cut you off just as easy. And again, are you even here for a valid reason?”

“As a matter of fact, I am,” the woman huffed, stepping back from the table to wander about the lab. “Your Machine Men. They’ve been causing problems for me.”

“Really? What sort of problems?” Tesla had set the phase unit under a magnifying glass to rearrange the wiring. The output wasn’t yet functioning at the level outlined in the mayor’s letter.

“We’re building a southeast extension on the rail to cut around other throughways.  Part of the line extends into your junkyard.”

“I’m curious as to why you have to cut into my junkyard in the first place,” the man sighed. “I thought we established these boundaries long ago.”

“And they still remain. The line itself will not drift into your yard, but it still travels above it. That means steel girders must be placed on the ground level to support a bridge. Your Machine Men have already put four of my best workers in the hospital, nine others have been taken. God only knows what they’ve done with them!”

“My Machine Men have a will of their own, but they defend my junkyard from scrappers regardless,” Nikola said, tightening the last screw and strapping the phase unit on his wrist. “Of course…you could always have asked me to instruct my Machine Men to do the building for you, rather than going behind my back, thus ensuring the untimely disposal of your workers. They can get pretty grisly,” he cringed.

“Ugh!” Constance fumed, snatching her hat off the table. “I am finished with you! You both can expect a visit from my personal Dispatchers. I think you might find they like to get a tad grisly as well,” she smirked. “Cheerio, darling.” She shook Tesla’s hand mockingly. “It’s been quite a pleasure.”

“Indeed it has,” the man smiled and activated the phase unit.

“What the hell is this?! What have you-”

A flash of blue electric light sparked up, and Constance Renou exploded into a hot heap of translucent white goop. Globs of sticky, burning organic matter clung like egg whites all over the inventor, the remains of what had been her hand still stuck to his arm in the form of a melting gelatinous substance. The woman’s face continued to dissolve away in the multicolored puddle of soup, eyes coagulating with her nose and lips in a waning expression of bubbling terror.

“Ah, yuck!” Tesla exclaimed, shaking the goop off his arm. He frantically tore out of his shirt to wipe down the rest of himself. “That one went really bad!”

“Sorry,” Gretel sunk her head.

“Not your fault,” the man grumbled, tiptoeing over the steaming puddle. “The organic matter ratio must be off, so when the highest charge of electric particles hit, it just…does whatever the hell that just did! The mayor wants a phase unit that will dispatch living tissue, but without Charles’ original plans, there’s just too much guesswork involved.  Of course, why make it easy for us when you can complicate the shit out of everything!” The man threw up his arms in frustration. “This hardly teaches us anything about how it would react to a real person. And now this damn thing needs to be cleaned,” he sighed, unstrapping the phase unit and tossing it on the table. “Yet again.”

“Nikola?”

“Hmm?”

“Look.”

The puddle of white goop on the floor was beginning to coagulate further, bubbling up just enough for a slight form to emerge. Tesla’s mouth dropped open. A dome shape was rematerializing out of the hot liquid, soon taking the form of a human skull. As the eye sockets drained, its bright blue eyeballs reemerged. The inventor immediately scrambled back to grab a revolver from his work table and pulled back the hammer to take aim. But he and Gretel stood frozen in curiosity for several moments exchanging glances, too intrigued to look away or attempt to destroy it. Neither of them had seen anything like this in the previous tests.

Once the skull had formed, further layers continued to carve themselves out atop the framework. Muscles, cartilage, ears, a nose, a mouth, hair. But it was not the Constance Renou either of them had programmed. This was more of a botched mess devoid of any element of perfection—maybe what Constance would look like if she had been born with massive facial deformities. Still, that face looked up at them, eyes wide with terror. Then it began to shriek the most horrible sound.

“Fuck!” Tesla wasted no time firing two shots into the head, but it was no use; the bullets just absorbed into the gel. He reached for the phase unit to try dispatching it again. No luck. Gretel tried as well with her own powers. After that failed, the inventor finally fired up his blowtorch and blasted it further until it melted into a hot, sticky, tar-like mess. They finished off with fire extinguishers. No movement persisted from the remains.

“Sorry,” Gretel said again.

“About what she was saying,” the man slumped back against the wall, wiping his face with a handkerchief. “You really think you’re my slave?”

“No. I programmed her a couple months ago before I started sneaking out. Old feelings die hard, I suppose.”

“All’s well that ends well,” he smiled. “But you’d better stick around now, my dear,” Tesla huffed. “We’re back to square one.”

“You think the unit will be ready for La Cour’s gala?”

“I sent the blueprints to the Dispatchers earlier so they’ll deliver them to him personally. Hoping the excitement will hold him over in the meantime while we figure out this mess. Let’s get back to work, shall we?”

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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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House of Rats – Part 10

A harsh sandstorm had kicked up on the outskirts of the city by late afternoon, blasting grains of dust into every crack and crevice. Rocks and manmade structures were reduced to ghostly shadows of their former appearance in the swirling winds. The golden aura had quickly consumed everything within a two- mile radius, sending those who dwelled outside the protection of the city walls scrambling for cover through the haze. But not everyone had far to travel.

A system of underground tunnels and catacombs hidden beneath the dilapidated old desert villa—where, just three hours ago, the Outlanders and Barreau boys had staged an operation against the Dispatchers—served as a refuge for the exiled gang. Much of their daily life was in fact lived down here, away from the harsh heat of the desert sun. The deeper caves worked well for food storage, fires could be built for cooking, and the system was large enough for everyone to have their own space.

That is not to say that life below the surface was particularly comfortable; nevertheless, it was how they survived. Every two weeks, Quentin would travel back through an adjoining tunnel with food and supplies from the city. There was not always enough for everyone, which often led to fights and petty squabbling. The ‘first come, first served’ rule seemed to work until someone bashed another in the head with a rock, or until Igor forced his way to the front of the line with threats about cooking one of them for dinner.

But not even he could win this time. They had run out of food a week prior, and everyone was on edge. A fire crackled bright in the corner room of the underground cave, illuminating the walls around them. One of the girls had placed a cast iron pot over it earlier with what she claimed was bone broth.

“This shit tastes like piss!” Igor yelled, hurling his metal cup at the stone wall with a loud clang that echoed throughout the caverns. The dark, reddish-brown contents splattered everywhere, demolishing a series of intricate paintings Olivier had been working on for weeks. Emilie’s attempt to make soup had clearly failed.

Severo sighed and closed his eyes. As a young Dalishkova Knight living undercover with the Outlanders, he was beginning to lose patience. These boys were primal, unhinged. Much like the wolves he once fought off his father’s farm in a previous life. But fighting was no option here. He could not risk being drawn into their animalistic hierarchy, much as he wished to interfere at certain moments. It was becoming ever more difficult to remain steadfast. The boy took a deep breath and glanced over his letter, remembering the assignment. Everything would fall into place soon. I am a Knight of the Order of Dalishkova, he prayed. My sword is my oath.

“The fuck are you writing?” Igor demanded, kicking sand at him.

Severo tightened his grip on the prayer amulet in his hand until its sharp edges dug into his palm. He could not abide this boy.

“Nothing important.”

“No? Let’s have a look then,” the leader insisted, making a grab for the paper. Severo shifted away. “It’s not good to keep secrets from us, Chicken.”

“I told you it’s not important. Just writing my thoughts.”

“Ah, you’re some artist like Olivier, eh? Writing poetry or some shit!” The scrappy boy’s voice broke as he giggled. “Thoughts don’t do you chickens good down here. That much I know.” He picked up a nearby bottle of whisky by the fire, biting the cork off and spitting it out to down a shot’s worth. Severo scribbled a brief note on it and returned to his letter, concentrating again on the flickering fire and the howling winds above.

He had kept a meticulous diary on every single boy and girl in the gang. It ranged from everything to what their interests were and what drew them together as a group, to the extent of their loyalties, personal motives, and what compromises they were willing to make. Most importantly, he had learned of their greatest fears and weaknesses—what kept them up at night, what put them into high-stakes competition with one another. He could recite every name, every fact they were willing to divulge about themselves and even some they were not; telepathy was permitted by the Dalishkova for reconnaissance. And yet of all the people he was able to catalogue during his time spent among them, there remained one final enigma. Igor.

The boy’s mind was solid as the stone walls around them. Severo had no idea how it was possible. Part of his initiation into the higher ranks of the Dalishkova was to overthrow the young leader of the Outlanders gang. But the mental brick wall he faced with every telepathic attempt to drill into the boy’s mind made it especially difficult. Such an element of access for this task was crucial—there was nothing to be gained from a conversation with someone like Igor. He had learned that much on the first day.

Over the next month, Severo began to wonder if something could be gleaned from Igor’s methods. There had to be a kind of pattern to his decision-making process. But at every turn, the boy proved to be the most unpredictable person he had ever encountered in his life. For example, the Outlanders had a reputation as cannibals, which kept a great many citizens of Cavarice in perpetual fear during their downtown reign. Severo quickly learned that it wasn’t true, or if it was, it was only true some of the time.

That’s why the rest of the gang feared him. The boy lived his life on a whim. Whatever he decided was law, and that law was subject to change on a daily basis. Sometimes he did his own dirty work, sometimes he had others do it. He could be merciful, but also ruthless. Most of the time he lacked any sign of fear, and other times, he seemed terrified—terrified of what, nobody knew.

And so Severo was beginning to suspect the Dalishkova had done something to him. No one’s mind was shattered enough to be blocked from psychic influence, even among patients in the Alabaster Bay Asylum. In order for Igor to have reached such a point, an extraction rite had to have been performed. And therein lay the problem—extraction rites were forbidden. To forcibly separate a soul from any physical incarnation went against the very laws of nature, and they were precisely what had gotten Archaides and his cult of followers banished from the Order months ago.

But if the Dalishkova were now engaging in such dark rituals themselves, could that mean they had been infected by the same corruption as the rest Cavarice? Severo shuddered to think so. They were among the first to arrive in Viktorium, and thus held a responsibility to maintain balance. If they abandoned that sacred duty, the future of the Order was at stake.

But first thing was first. Severo had to figure out how best to usurp Igor in the most indirect manner. To that end, Maxwell Ferrier seemed to be his only shot. He had observed the boy on several missions, and had taken quite a liking to him. Sure, there were moments the elder could be quite gullible; Lucien’s deception stood out like a sore thumb to the young knight. But Max was a good leader who consistently demonstrated the utmost resolve, even when faced with Igor’s intimidation tactics. If there were any chance at disposing of the Outlanders’ leader, Severo was convinced he would be the one.

His letter was urgent. After the evening operation with the Outlanders went down, the Barreau boys would no longer trust them. But if he could at least keep faith with Max, the Dalishkova might finally have the leverage they needed to take out Lucien Riviere before he became a very real threat to the city of Cavarice.

“You son of a bitch!” Olivier shouted, interrupting Severo’s thoughts. The tray of paints he’d carried in to finish his mural splattered to the floor the moment he caught sight of Igor’s handiwork. Splotches of multiple colors formed tiny pools in the sand. Some ran off into the fire, sparking up new flames.

“Your zebra looked a bit sick,” Igor remarked. “Just thought the soup might help, but he upchucked it all over. Sorry.”

“I’ve been working on this for over a month!” Olivier cried, visibly fighting back tears.

“Waste of time, chicken. Just like everything else down here. Fuck do you care, no one’s ever going to see it.”

“I’ll kill you!” His young second-in-command drew a shank he’d fashioned from an animal bone out of his waistband.

“Oh, now that’s bloody smart.”

“I will! I’ll do it!”

“Go ahead, chicken!” Igor spat, tossing down the bottle of whisky. “Come on! See what you got.” He tore off his undershirt and whipped it in the fire. Flames surged and engulfed the material, illuminating the boy’s face. The rage in his eyes was that of a lion whose authority had been challenged. A light sheen of sweat was forming on his skin, accentuating a tiny washboard of abdominal muscles that would not have been visible if the boy had eaten properly.

But despite the fact Igor was stronger, Severo detected an immediate disturbance in the air as Olivier’s anger cut through his meditation. Those paintings on the wall meant everything to him. In a gang of children where none had much left to live for, each had created their own unique sense of meaning and purpose through escapism. For Olivier, it was the paintings. Emilie crafted tiny dolls, and Camillo wrote stories. Regardless of the medium, these things were literally what kept them going. And Olivier was prepared to kill for it.

“Don’t think I won’t!” the boy shouted.

Severo’s heart hammered in his chest. Just as he felt himself on the verge of interfering in the fight and breaking a cardinal rule of the Dalishkova, a low guttural groan sounded from across the room. Georges was waking up.

“Shit. Now look what you’ve done, chicken!” Igor relaxed his fighting stance and stepped past the boy to knock the Dispatcher unconscious again. Big mistake. That’s when Olivier made his move. The young leader had brushed past his left. In a single fluid motion, the distraught young boy jabbed out hard with his bone shank, driving it hard into his superior’s stomach. Igor stopped with a hard gasp as the breath was forced from his lungs.

His skin flushed. Pupils dilated. The hard expression on his face immediately fell soft as his gaze shot downward. Blood squirted out around the white bone knife Olivier had plunged into him just above the belly button. He choked briefly, those lion’s eyes of rage still focused far across the room at Georges. Captain Georges, his last victim, and now witness to the boy’s demise. One awoke while the other fell asleep. Such irony. Poetic justice. Fitting in every symbolic sense.

Or at least that’s what Severo foresaw before making the decision to interfere. It became clear in Olivier’s eyes from the moment Igor abandoned his guard. There was no question. He was going to make his move, and there was no stopping him—at least not physically, which put the young knight into quite a difficult position. He did admire Olivier’s determination. But the boy was not Max, and it was not Igor’s time to die. There would be no time to get up and shove anyone aside. No getting around it. Fuck.

Severo closed his eyes and reached forth with his mind. In the calm of the flickering darkness, he saw the young Outlander across the fire with the bone shank in hand, ready for the kill. A quiet rage stirred deep in his gut. The boy’s breathing was ragged, his arm tense. Spine rigid. Stance staggered. Severo felt all of these things as his own, from the shoulder down to the elbow, to the hand which held the weapon in its merciless grasp.

The air changed when Igor passed by. Severo snapped open his eyes—pupils pure white with power—and took control of Olivier at the last second, forcing the arc of the boy’s arm wider to the right. His fated jab missed Igor by quite a wide margin. The young knight immediately cut his psychic hold on the boy as he recoiled in shock. Of course Olivier was aware what had happened on a surface level; he missed. But the manner in which his arm was redirected went completely against the instruction of his own mind, and that was a realization the Dalishkova had been warned never to stick around for when seizing control.

Olivier’s arm lingered in the air a moment. Igor took advantage of this and grabbed the boy’s wrist, hurling him around against the wall. Drove a knee into his crotch. Uppercut his nose. Took his neck and slammed his head back into the rock. The leader’s grip was like iron on his subordinate’s throat. With his left hand, he squeezed Olivier’s wrist until he at last dropped the shank. Georges groaned something unintelligible across the room through the gag over his mouth.

“Shut him up, will you!” Igor snapped at Severo.

Dear God, what have I done? the young knight thought. But it was better to tend to Georges and keep his head down. He had already risked drawing too much attention to himself.

“You,” Igor spat, crushing Olivier’s neck beneath his grasp as the boy squirmed and choked for air, “have been a naughty little chicken!”

“Please!” Olivier cried. “Please don’t, I didn’t mean to-”

“Shut up!” He rammed his knee into the boy’s crotch again and bent down to pick up the bone shank, resuming his grip on his throat. “What’s this, eh chicken? Fuck do you call this!”

“It’s nothing, I swear!”

“Oh, you hear that Sev?” Igor giggled. “Nothing. Just like your poetry! And this rat’s paintings. This is a lovely knife, by the way. Perfect for gutting bad chickens.”

“Don’t kill me, please!”

“Now why would I do that? You’re more good to us alive, chicken. Just like Georges over there. But I’ll cut you a little deal, yeah. I’ll only take one of your balls now,” the leader said, running the shank up the boy’s inner thigh, “and I’ll save the other for desert. How about it, chicken?” He made a slurping noise. “Bad chickens make good soup.”

Severo sighed. “Igor, let him go.”

“Excuse me?”

For a moment, the young Dalishkova drew a blank. He had hoped not to get involved. But seeing as how interference was forbidden and he had already chosen to cross that line by saving Igor’s life—passive though the involvement was—this hardly qualified. So why did it bother him so much?

“You need every man you can get when we take the wall tonight,” he said. “Leave him with me. I’ll watch him.” What the hell are you doing, Sev? Stop it before you’re in over your head.

“And why should I do that?”

The knight hesitated. “I know why you always go for the cocks…why you call everyone ‘chicken’.”

It was a wild guess. But he had suspected it for some time. There was a rage in Igor that seemed very much sexually driven. Every time he spoke of torturing someone, it always had to do with mutilating their genitals. He called everyone ‘chicken’, a term which seemed to insinuate they were afraid, equally as much as he used it in place of the word ‘cock’. He seemed self-assured, confident when he could display such power to everyone else. Why not? It certainly kept them in line.

But denying him that pleasure was an enormous risk that had the potential to rip a gigantic hole in the boy’s fragile ego, and Severo knew this. It was also something he was hoping for. If he could make enough of a psychic dent in the boy’s mind—no matter how small—there was a far greater chance his mission would succeed. There was no convincing him through conversation. Or maybe…

Igor’s expression softened as he loosened his grip on Olivier. Then he reared back and brutally pummeled the boy in the stomach and chest six times, uppercut his face again, then landed one final blow to his jaw. There was an audible crack as the boy cried and spit up blood everywhere. Igor huffed with a smirk and stood back, appearing satisfied at his work.

“Now that’s a pretty painting, chickens.” He dragged his former second-in-command over to Severo and threw him down in the sand at his feet. “He’s all yours. Get your team ready for the tunnels. We march at eight o’clock sharp. Congratulations, Sev. You’re my new deputy. Means you’re not a chicken anymore.”

The young leader bent down and grabbed up his bottle of whisky from beside the fire and downed another swig. Paused a moment as if in thought, then hurled it into the flames where it crashed and exploded in a satisfying fireball. He grinned contentedly to himself and stormed out.

Severo felt guilty. It had been a cheap shot on his part, and it got Olivier beaten up in the process. The depth of shame Igor must have felt at such an attack on his manhood—and, more importantly, his authority—was not something the young knight could even begin to imagine. Still, even without reading the boy’s mind, it taught him one thing: Igor had buttons that could be pressed. And the more he became aware of what those buttons were, the easier it would be to uncover exactly what the Dalishkova had done to him.

But all things would come in time.

The young knight ran a hand through his straight black hair and knelt down over Olivier, who was sobbing quietly. It was difficult to clear his mind of all that had occurred. Worse still were the dangers and trials yet to come. None of it weighed easy on the mind. But he continued to take refuge in The Oath, and that was all he could do for now.

Severo kissed the boy’s head and clasped his hands together with the amulet to pray blessings of healing on him. The verses also had a pacifying effect on the mind, in case he should ever begin questioning why he had lost control of his own body earlier. Whatever the knight said would make sense. Even if Olivier had no faith, the amulet would ensure his belief. That was, after all, the Dalishkova way; belief was but a tool to manipulate and exercise power over lesser beings.

Given enough time and training, a Dalishkova Knight could make anyone see and believe in whatever their mind had the ability to conjure up. Severo had at first found it a terrifying prospect. Within him existed the potential to cause endless horror, suffering, and agony. But during his time with the Outlanders, he had come to find that so much good could be done with his gift as well.

Olivier was beginning to calm down.

“Severo, is that you? I don’t understand…my pain is gone.”

The knight smiled. “Rest, my friend.”

The boy unclasped his hands and twirled the amulet necklace above his face.

“Are there really gods in Viktorium?” he asked. “Somehow, I think I can feel them watching over me.”

“They watch over us all.”

Severo didn’t believe it himself, but he hoped so. He really hoped so.

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House of Rats – Part 9

Max returned twenty minutes later to the safety of Barreau Orphanage, cradling the cat he had named Marie Antoinette in his arms. It had taken a few moments to track her down; she was startled by some lunatic yelling in a nearby alleyway, and Max thought it best not to approach the building for the time being anyway in case the Dispatchers got to Quentin. His heart sunk when he peered around the corner and saw the patrol car speed by. But he hadn’t heard any sirens on the way back, which he took as a good sign.

“Bernard, you better have gotten rid of them,” the elder sighed. He was about to proceed up the front steps when he noticed several red blotches of blood and mucus drying on the sidewalk. “Shit!” Max rushed the rest of the way up and banged furiously on the front door. Please don’t tell me they took him, he thought, squeezing the cat tight to his chest. After several more bangs, Bernard finally answered the door.

“Welcome back! You just missed them,” he said, backing up as Max rushed in and slammed the door behind them.

“They took him?” the elder asked, tearing off his head covering.

“Surprisingly, no. He’s back in your room, said something about them receiving a more important call about an anomaly in the courthouse. I was afraid they’d get to you.”

“Not a chance.”

“I see you’ve brought a friend.”

“Oh, yeah,” Max smiled. “Thought we could use a pet around here. I found her wandering around in the old factory next door. Her name is Marie Antoinette.”

“Marie Antoinette?”

“I was lost in thought, she jumped out at me and almost took off my head, so…”

“Good one,” Bernard laughed. “You’re sure she doesn’t have fleas?”

“Ah,” Max smiled. “Get me a phase unit.”

“For what?”

“You’ll see.”

Bernard stepped into the hall and found Tomas toying with one of the units again, as he always liked to do. The interim elder tore it off his wrist. Max assumed something must have gone down while he was away that had him so frustrated at the boy. He tossed it over, and Max strapped it on.

“What are you doing? You’ll kill the poor cat!”

“No I won’t. Here, you just turn it down to the lowest possible setting. Put the knob just above the power switch, and…” The phase unit suddenly sparked up, and the cat let out a screech. “Shit, hold her still!” Bernard managed to keep hold of the animal as she struggled to break free. Max carefully passed his hand over the cat, letting the blue bolts make contact with her black fur. She immediately appeared to calm down and began purring after several passes.

“I think she likes it,” Bernard smiled.

Et voila! No more fleas.” Max switched the unit off and gave it back to Tomas, who was standing in the doorway waiting to tinker with it again. “Put it away. It’s almost lunch time.”

“Aw, man!”

“Awww,” he mocked. “Do it! Children,” the elder rolled his eyes, turning back to Bernard. “What did the Dispatchers say?”

“It was Edmond. He took a look around the hall-”

“All the equipment was put away?”

“Not exactly,” Bernard sighed. The cat leapt out of his arms and scampered under a nearby bed. “Edmond came at me with his phase unit, Tomas raised his to defend me.”

“Goddamn it, Tomas!” Max yelled.

“It’s all right,” Bernard assured him. “They didn’t seem worried about that. They just wanted to talk to Quentin.”

“What did they say to him?”

“I don’t know. They dragged him outside.”

“Dragged him?”

“Threw him.”

“Yeesh. Well that explains the blood on the sidewalk.”

“Yeah,” Bernard cringed. “They busted his mouth pretty good.”

“So he just ran back to my room…why?”

“You had better talk to him. He seemed really upset, and I know Quentin’s not the type to break that easy.”

“All right…” Max trailed off. For a moment, he thought back to what happened down in the old courthouse, and that Bernard mentioned something about the Dispatchers leaving due to some emergency with an anomaly. He hoped that wherever his guardian angel had zapped off to, it was somewhere safe. Don’t lose your head, the voice had said.

“You okay Max?”

“Yeah, no…just something I thought I saw at the courthouse. This thing…this boy…or at least I think it was a boy, I can’t be sure. A squad of Dispatchers showed up there chasing it. They thought it was an anomaly, but it was way off their charts from anything they’d encountered before. The lights were flickering a lot. Far more than usual. And in between each one, this thing would appear and knocked them all out until I could get to the records room. A kid with a shaved head…”

“Man, you sure you’re not seeing an Igor mirage from being in that desert all morning?” Bernard laughed.

“I swore I saw something though. Like maybe a Dalishkova gauntlet, or-”

“A Dalishkova gauntlet? No one’s ever got their hands on one of those!”

“I know what I saw.”

“Whatever you say,” Bernard feigned a yawn.

“Bastard!” Max chuckled, shoving him. “Well, I suppose I’ll talk to Quentin. Make sure the boys are ready for lunch, I’m starved.”

“Already done.”

“Be right back.”

The young elder lumbered up the stairwell to his flat. His feet ached with every step and he needed another shower. It seemed that he had come home to far more questions than answers, and it wasn’t even lunchtime. Of course he had yet to encounter Lucien down at the mess hall, which was another conversation he wasn’t looking forward to. Still, Max braced himself for whatever came next, though he reckoned there wasn’t much left that could surprise him after a day like this.

He knocked on the door to be sure Quentin was ready to talk first. He had no idea how the Dispatchers would have found him if he’d used the crawl space he had been so adamant about, though some of the officers were known to tear up the walls and floorboards if they were desperate enough. Max didn’t sense that was the case here. It was quite possible he had gone quietly.

“Quent?” Max called. He could hear muffled cries coming from the far wall close to the window. “Are you all right?” The elder’s heart was pounding. He hated seeing any of the boys so upset. A painful lump began to form in his throat as he became aware of the contrast between the boys laughing and playing downstairs, and Quentin crying on the other side of his door. They must have been rough with him, the elder thought.

“I’ll be fine!” he called.

“Mind if I come in?”

There was a long pause.

“It’s your room,” the boy whimpered.

Max opened the door and peered around the edge. Quentin was sitting up on the radiator with his knees drawn up to his chest, gazing absently out the window. He seemed to be tracing random patterns in the condensation on the glass with his fingertips. Every now and then, a shiver tore through his fragile body as he struggled not to cry. The elder shut the door and stepped over to join him. Quentin shifted his feet over to the sill so Max could sit. Both were hesitant to speak further.

The young elder placed a finger on the left end of the glass, tracing a curved line upwards and swirling a small design. The orphan beside him formed one going down on the opposite side. Keeping his finger pressed, Max drew an angled line over to the right. Quentin curved his up to the left. Max looked over at him and decided to try writing a word.

Hello.

The boy managed a thin smile and replied.

Hey.

Want to talk?

Not really. I just hurt. A lot.

Max felt his lower lip start to tremble and wiped away the emerging tears.

You’re my brother. I’m sorry I wasn’t here. I want you to be okay.

Thanks. I will be. Don’t be sorry.

You know I love you all…right?

Quentin nodded, and the two pulled one another into an embrace. Max cared about his orphans more than most of them knew. They were his only family, after all; of course it was rare he ever acknowledged it. He tried to be a leader more than a father figure to them, though sometimes the latter got the better of him. Once they let go, Quentin leaned onto Max’s shoulder and looked out the window as the elder draped an arm around him.

“Hey Max?” the boy asked.

“What is it?”

“You know how Lucien said you were hiding an Outlander?”

“Yeah,” the elder replied curiously. “I mean, that’s what you were before we got your documents forged. But you’re here now. You’re a legitimate Cavarice citizen.”

“But I am an Outlander.” He shifted toward Max, pulling up his shirt to reveal a large branding scar of the letter ‘O’ in the middle of his chest. “This is what the Dispatchers did to my kind when they exiled us. And they warned us if we ever came back…they would do far worse.” He took the elder’s hand and held it over his heart.

Max swallowed hard. “I promise I would never let that happen again. Not to you or anyone else. You’re one of us.”

Quentin still appeared troubled.

“There’s something I have to tell you…not right now. But soon,” the boy sighed. “When the time is right.”

He looked as if he might cry again. He didn’t. But something else bothered Max about this particular expression, and how the boy’s grasp on his hand suddenly tightened. There was a deep fear in his eyes. He recalled seeing the same in the face of Captain Georges just before Igor stabbed him. Igor. The elder trusted Quentin to speak of it when he was ready of course, though it was not easy to watch him being torn up inside. As Max lay his palm flat over the boy’s chest, he felt his heart pounding away like a locomotive. The most he could do was reassure him everything would be all right. He shuddered to think even that might not be enough.

“There’s nothing I can do, is there?”

“No. But I’ll be fine.”

“Okay…”

“So we should get to lunch, eh?” Quentin deflected, pulling away and heading for the door.

“Yeah. I just need another shower. I’ll be down in a bit.”

“Thank you…for always being there.”

“Anytime.”

The boy left. Max walked over and shut the door, listening to him skip down the stairs back to his bed in the hall. He turned around and leaned back against it. Slid to the floor, held his head in his hands. More questions plagued his mind, even as he opened his eyes again to stare absently at the messages still scrawled on the window pane. What the bloody hell is happening in this orphanage? But he didn’t want to dwell on it anymore. He got up, stripped down again, and took another shower.

And this time, he didn’t turn on the radio.

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House of Rats – Part 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Max made his move.

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

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

“Yeah, so what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you see the anomaly?” Alfred asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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House of Rats – Part 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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