Sitting in the driver’s seat, Jarasax clicked through something on his phone. “I think that went pretty well, don’t you?”
I raised an eyebrow from the passenger seat right next to him. “Over a hundred people screaming and who knows how many dead, and you think it went well?”
From behind me, in the back of the van, George grunted. “I think he meant the Paladins held themselves together, all things considered.” He checked his minigun briefly, then threw a blanket over it and pushed it into a corner. “And I have to agree. It could have gone much worse.”
Kat’s fingers flashed, and I nodded.
“See, that’s what I meant. The kids did great, but there were some stupid mistakes. Medina should have stayed with us, for one thing. The strategist shouldn’t be on the front lines.”
The fel’s fingers twitched.
Jarasax rolled his eyes. “Don’t encourage her, Kat.” He waved away our complaints as he pocketed his phone. “Medina knew what she was doing, and it all worked out in the end.”
“And we got some interesting intelligence out of it,” Alex noted as he pared his fingernails with one of his mirrored dayknives. “That changeling boy might be able to help us win this thing before it even really starts.”
George rubbed his forehead. “Someone needs to explain that to me. I keep hearing about this kid, but no one has had time to tell me why he’s so damn important.”
“He was a screamer,” the angel explained. “Then Medina killed the singer that turned him, and suddenly he wasn’t.”
The ogre pursed his lips. “Ah,” he said quietly.
“Yeah,” Alex said with a grin. “’Ah.’ Quite important indeed.”
I pulled my ratburger out of the lunch box at my feet and handed Jarasax his sandwich. “I heard some interesting rumors about that. One of Doctor Henry’s aides mentioned that the changeling had fire powers now.”
Kat’s fingers twitched briefly.
“Right,” I apologized around a bite of my burger. “Sorry, I forgot.” I swallowed. “Belman Henry is one of Clarke’s aides. He was put in charge of the changeling.”
George grinned. “That’s amazing. And useful. Another Paladin will help a lot.”
“If its true,” Alex noted. His knife disappeared with a flick of his wrist as he finished his nails, and it took me a second to spot it in its sheath on his hip. “This friend of a friend rumor is hardly trustworthy.”
“We’ll find out soon enough,” I put in. I noticed Jarasax glaring at my burger in something like disgust. “Something wrong?”
The dark-skinned changeling turned away and shook his head. “Sorry. Those seaweed buns just make my stomach churn.”
I snorted, almost choking on the bite. I made sure to swallow before speaking. “My salary isn’t good enough to splurge. I can afford my fixer, or wheat bread. Not both.”
Kat signed something again.
Sax cocked his head to the side, frowning. “Was that sarcasm? I can’t tell.”
A few more finger flashes.
He grunted and turned back to the wheel, as if he actually had to pay attention to it while we were parked. “No need to be rude.”
“I really need to learn sign language,” George muttered from the back. “I keep missing out on Kat’s jokes.”
I resisted the urge to laugh; I didn’t want to choke again. “You’re not missing out on much, trust me.”
The fel growled a little under her throat and opened the van door to leave.
“Hey, don’t be like that! I was just joking.”
She rolled her eyes—its hard to notice with all-black nighteyes, but still—and signed something.
“Oh. Sorry, I forgot.” I turned to my angelic friend. “Alex, you want to go with her to pick up that new game?”
He shrugged. “I’d be happy to, but I don’t speak sign language. Wouldn’t one of you two be better?”
“She just needs someone to ask the guy to get it from the back. And we’re eating.”
The angel leaped deftly out of the van. “Fine by me. Let’s go, Kat.”
Once they were out of sight around the corner, George raised an eyebrow. “What was that about?”
I frowned as I finished my burger. “What do you mean?”
“I meant, what was that about?”
“I know. What are you asking about?”
“I’m asking about Kat. Why’d she leave all of a sudden?”
I was beginning to get annoyed. “She’s gonna buy a video game. Weren’t you listening?”
The ogre rubbed his forehead. “Yes, I…why did she choose right now to go get it?”
Ah. That was a question I understood. “Some of the more popular vampire games come out at noon. You know, a midnight release kind of thing.” I glanced at my watch. “She’s a couple hours early, but the line is probably long.”
He nodded and settled back. “Right, that makes sense. I just lost track of time. Still having trouble getting used to the Insomniac gland.”
Jarasax perked up. “When did you get yours? Before you got this assignment, right?”
“A couple weeks ago,” the giant confirmed. “Still not quite used to not sleeping.” He frowned. “Which reminds me…I’ve been meaning to ask—”
“I don’t have the gland,” Jarasax interrupted in a blunt tone. “I’m not going to break my oath over eight hours of sleep.”
“Hey now,” George said apologetically. “No need to get worked up. I know you guys don’t use toys. Just curious how you’ve managed to stay up with us, that’s all.”
The changeling pulled an empty drink bottle out of the recycling bin situated in the center of the floor. “Insomniac energy drink,” he explained. “Pretty much does the same thing as the gland, just as a drink.” He shrugged. “Less effective, and more expensive in the long run, but it works well enough.”
“It also melts your brain if you stop taking it,” I noted, scratching the fixer on my arm.
Sax grinned a little weakly. “Well, yeah. They’re not having much success marketing it to non-changelings.”
“Seems a weird way to do it,” George said, taking the bottle from Sax’s hands and looking at it a little closer. “Wouldn’t pills be easier?”
“Doesn’t work like that,” I explained. “Right now, if you want to take it as a pill, you have to take one every hour. They can do it as a shot, though, but they were trying to market it to a wide base, and most people don’t like needles.”
“I hear they’re gonna start selling the shots,” Jarasax cut in. “Alongside the drinks, I mean. See which one sells better. Apparently some kid drank some of his dad’s or whatever, so there’s been a bit of backlash.”
George shivered. “Chems freak me out. Why do you people do that to yourselves?”
I glared daggers at him. “Hey. Some of us are reformed.”
He winced. “Sorry, ma’am. It’s just, I can’t understand doing anything that would screw with my brain chemistry.”
I sighed and decided he deserved a real answer. “Well, the side effects are minimal at first. Even when full-addiction sets in and everything starts going sideways, the benefits can still outweigh the costs.”
The giant waved his hand. “I know, I know. I just can’t imagine ever wanting to…” he shrugged. “It’s a preferences thing, I guess.”
I bit my tongue to keep from snapping at him. Preferences? He thinks people get addicted to every chem on the market because they like it?
Thankfully, before I could lose my head, Jarasax noticed my consternation. “George, why don’t you go take a walk? Check in on Kat and stuff?”
The giant glanced between us and looked like he was going to say something, but then just shrugged and crawled to the van door. He grabbed his claymore and belted it to his back before walking away; it was useless against screamers for obvious reasons, but it was a great deterrent against more mundane muggers who might think he was an easy mark otherwise.
The Middle-Eastern changeling finished up the last of his sandwich and eyed me warily. “You gonna be all right there, boss?”
I frowned. “Yes, of course. Why do you ask?”
He nodded to my hand. “I was afraid you might do something…unwise.”
I slowly managed to release my death-grip on my pistol. “Don’t be ridiculous. I was just holding it for…comfort.”
“Comfort,” he deadpanned.
“Yeah, it makes me feel better.”
He rolled his eyes. “Look, I know George has been pushing your buttons for the last few days, but don’t let it get to you. He means well, and he’s a good soldier.”
I sighed. “I know, I know. I read his file and everything I’m just…” I waved my hand weakly, at a loss for words.
“…not used to command?” he finished politely.
I nodded. “Yeah. We’re specialists. Grunt commandos. You’re in your element, but I’m not supposed to be in charge. My officer credentials consist solely of surviving the biter attack and saluting Huntsman when he shouted at me.”
He shrugged. “You’re the best we’ve got, though. Alex isn’t exactly leadership material, and the bosses still remember that time I tried to shoot my lieutenant. Kat’s a sniper, not to mention mute, and George doesn’t have a head for tactics. Who else would it be?”
“I don’t know—anyone else?” I fished around in the lunch box and managed to find my water. “C’mon, Sax, I know Necessarius has a reputation for letting in any ragtag bunch of misfits and putting them to use, but there are better options out there than me.” I shook my head and took a swig of my drink. “At least a freakin’ corporal.”
The changeling didn’t say anything, and I glanced over at him, frowning. What was wrong?
After a moment’s silent contemplation, he looked me straight in the eye. “Kelly. Do you even know what is going on with the rest of the city right now?”
I raised an eyebrow. “…no? I mean, I’m assuming you’re not talking about the screamers.”
His gaze didn’t waver, but a frustrated look did pass over his face. “Gods of men and darkness, you need to start paying attention to the news.”
I took another drink from my water bottle, using it as an excuse to break eye contact and get away from that piercing gaze. “Fine, I’ll get on that. Just tell me what you’re talking about.”
He brushed his hair out of his eyes. “Kel, we’re all that’s left.”
“What?” I shook my head. “No, don’t be ridiculous. Necessarius is stronger than ever.”
“In pure numbers, yes,” he admitted. “But that’s not what I’m talking about. We’ve taken some heavy hits recently, lost a lot of our officers. Putting down the old gangs was costly, and we still have to deal with the cultures.”
“Yes, I know,” I said as patiently as I could. “But recruitment is way up.”
“That’s the exact problem. Everyone we have is completely green.”
Then it clicked, and I put down my water. “Oh.”
“Yeah,” he deadpanned. “Oh. Right now, the five of us are some of the most experienced soldiers the Big Boss has, period.” He sighed. “Alex snooped around, and said that if we hadn’t been put on this job, we’d all have been bumped up to sergeant at least.”
“Put the veterans in charge of the greenies,” I muttered. “Definitely a better idea than promoting a couple of snot-nosed kids a few ranks up the ladder.”
The changeling nodded. “Exactly. But then the whole thing with the screamers started, and everyone was scrambling to figure out a solution.” He shrugged. “We’re most useful here. If they sent anyone else, they’d just get killed.”
“And we wouldn’t react well to being commanded by a completely green corporal or whatever.”
He tilted his head in assent. “Exactly. So don’t be so hard on yourself; we need you to stay strong.” He shrugged. “If it makes you feel better, remember that technically we’re under the command of the Paladins. You’re not actually in charge.”
“That—” I paused before I could finished my retort. “…actually, that does make me feel better. Thanks.”
“What makes you feel better?” George grunted as he slid open the door to the van using the side of his body, his arms filled with candy and chocolate.
“Never you mind,” I assured him. “And what’s with the snacks?”
The giant grinned. “The nearest 24-7 store had a sale. I figured we may as well have something better than protein bars and ratburgers.”
Jarasax snorted. “You might have the buffs to eat a couple pounds of chocolate at once, but the rest of us will get sick.”
“I didn’t mean for us to eat it all at once. Besides, we need sugar because of the Insomniac buffs, right?”
I shrugged. “He’s got a point, Sax.”
“I also got a job at the board. A quick delivery a few blocks away.”
The changeling raised an eyebrow at me. “Still think he’s got a point?”
“Just because he’s wrong about one thing doesn’t mean he’s wrong about everything,” I insisted a little angrily. I turned to the giant. “We’re supposed to be keeping an eye on the Paladins in case of an attack, not taking on side-quests.”
“Ten minutes,” he promised. “No more. Maybe a little less if we drive.”
He certainly looked eager. And a nice, easy delivery mission might be just the thing to get morale up after the burner attack…
Finally, I sighed and flipped out my phone to text Alex and Kat. “Fine. But this is it. If you have an idea like this again, make sure to ask first.”
The ogre grinned and buckled himself in. “Yes, ma’am.”
Behind the Scenes (scene 20)
The Insomniac gland is pretty much exactly what it sounds like, and is extremely common among doctors, law enforcement, and anyone else expected to be on call at all hours. It completely removes the need to sleep, with only two side effects: First, the modder loses the ability to sleep at all (unfortunate, but everyone saw that coming), and second, they require about ten percent more calories, mostly in sugar. All in all, a pretty good deal.
Unless you’re one of the six percent of the population that are psychologically addicted to dreams beyond what is biologically necessary, in which case a lack of REM sleep will result in a psychotic break (“dreamsick”), in which case you’ll probably end up being put down like a mad dog. But they’re getting better at weeding those out before installing the buff.