In the past, it would have been impossible to convince the Street Rat that Neyrk could ever be better, but the catastrophe assailing the planet had turned it into a real heaven.
The Street Rat had never felt better than on those crowded streets, with noise that never ended.
“Hi! Hello! Excuse me!” “Some bread, sir? Please, spare some?” “Water…I’m so thirsty…” “Anybody got a pack o’ cards r sumethin’? I’m way too bored!” “Are we gunna be okay, daddy?” “What is that smell?” “What’s that poking me in the—?!”
Neyrk was beyond crowded, from shore to shore and with more people yet to arrive. It was hard to find a solid pair of square feet of free space in-between anyone. Many of the residents had opened their homes to strangers fleeing the Beasts, by force of arms at times, and meanwhile, of course, many of the Light’s priestesses and priests were around and about, yelling to the masses about supernatural hope. After all, there was short supply of any other kind.
There was nowhere Jamie didn’t feel at home, or safe. The only places still left with enough room to lie down properly, outside of some buildings, were hidden corners that were kept that way by the Scavengers, now the only organization left standing in the entire world.
As it was always going to be.
The people didn’t know, but soon, they would start being herded back into some makeshift docks which were yet being completed, but not so much that they couldn’t harbor some ships. They would get cramped and compressed, like sardines, so that the last strength of humanity could fight in what was essentially its last territory: the island mega city of Neyrk.
They were not only finishing construction on the last of the ships, but also had to stock up in the eventuality of not being able to return to land.
Thinking back to priests promising a supernatural hope, Jamie thought it was funny how right they were while being completely wrong, which was usually the case of people who spoke vaguely enough. None among the masses knew just how real that supernatural hope was, albeit from a different and very real source, because they did not know of the outcome at the House of Magni.
The Street Rat knew, however.
In mere hours, the Mad Genius’s flying contraption would reach them and the Shadow Conclave would have its last meeting before the fight that would, in turn, take place a couple of days afterwards, if not sooner.
Like a pebble in a flowing river full of whirlpools, Jamie walked skillfully, as if born to do it. The Street Rat was hardly even slowed down by the lack of room and the excess of strangers in the way. While moving, Jamie gave thought to what had happened, and what would happen next.
What had happened had been crazy, but well in plan. It was not reasonable that some organization was working against the Shadow Conclave without the knowledge of any of the others. Without a single hint from anyone, that was impossible, which meant that someone within the Shadow Conclave had to be hiding them, collaborating with them or, indeed, was them.
The founding organizations, House of Magni and the Shadow Conclave, had personal ties to it, so they couldn’t be it. The Wild Felids didn’t have any flair for espionage, their only well-kept secret had been their location, and the LBA wasn’t a real organization until the Beasts attacked. Only the Scavengers had the resources, and capacity, to actually pull it off…and they weren’t doing it, Jamie knew.
That only left the Tech Guild.
So it wasn’t much of a shock when the Mad Genius revealed Griff. It wasn’t much of a worry to be imprisoned, either, because the Street Rat would escape, no matter the circumstances.
Jamie caught sight of Cameron, they were meeting to party together before going back to the days of hard work ahead, which could very well prove to be their last.
“Hey, cam, howzit goin’?” Jamie said.
“Cam?” She asked, giving her a little giggle, “going fine, Jam, and you?”
“Hey, at least use Jaym, don’t just—”
“No, I think Jam’s perfect,” Cameron interrupted, half-giggling. “Come on, I think they’re about to start.”
They walked along, keeping conversation to a minimum because, even in those circumstances, one never knew who was listening. Falk had reported the end of the LBA, but not five minutes later, apparently, they’d been attacked by those LBA fighter pilots that had struck a heavy blow against the Scavengers.
It was nice knowing they, in particular, were dead.
Thinking of that, Jamie thought back to Igtahlia and the realization that, out of everyone, the Shadow really was the harder one to predict.
At the time, at least, she was the easiest now that her facade had unraveled. It was simply that the girl had never shown signs of wanting to be a hero, or of having any sort of passion or concern for other people’s lives. Turning out she did have all that made the whole mission on Igathlia a mess and it almost forced the Street Rat to leave her behind.
People were easier to figure out, and manipulate, when they were simply selfish. That was why heroism and compassion complicated things, even if they were still selfish and thus not that much harder to figure out and predict. The Shadow, however, had indeed presented the greatest deviation to the Street Rat’s expectation, by turning out to have rescued a bunch of survivors of a Beast attack.
We had a hero in our midst all along and nobody suspected, Jamie thought, a bit spitefully. It could’ve cost us dearly.
It likely still would.
Jamie’s thoughts were interrupted by Cameron crouching under a broken door. It looked terrible and had spider webs all around it, but they just went under it and into the building. They climbed down stairs to an underground basement where a fireplace was already lit. Five kids were standing around it, each holding a half-empty bottle. Four bottles were laid to the side empty while dozens filled the counter of the decrepit bar, still full.
“Lookitisssss!!!!” Max announced, holding up a bottle to the Street Trash.
“Hey boys,” Jamie greeted.
“ZYUUUUUUUP!” Peyton celebrated, seemingly a little too joyful already.
Jamie laughed and passed by the row of bottles, grabbing hold of one.
“You’re all a bunch o’ impolite potatoes,” Jamie said, “you already went through like five ova ‘em.”
“Ay, no need to wait on slowpokes, ain’t that the rule?” Max asked.
“It don’t matter if I’m slow-poking, I’m the Street Rat,” Jamie sat down, boasting. “You’re supposed to wait fer me.”
“Besides, rule? Since when d’we follow rules?” Jamie tilted the bottle and downed a few heavy gulps, snarling as it burned down the throat the way only alcoholic beverages can.
“Ahhhh, man…” Jamie sighed heavily in pleasure. “Where’d you find this haul, anyway?”
“Not tellin’ ya,” Jordan said, a bit too proud of himself, showing the Street Rat a bit of a smirk, “savin’ what’s left of it for a special occasion.”
“Pff,” Jamie gulped down a few more while Cameron took a turn at the banter.
“World might end,” Cameron said, “you oughta share it with your friends ‘ere.”
“Kiddin’ me? With great and mighty over there?” Peyton asked, gesturing at Jamie.
“G’xactly,” Jordan followed up, seemingly unaffected by the alcohol outside of a couple of rosy cheeks, “savin’ it for when the world doesn’t end. Anyways, go on, tell us of your conquests!”
“Heard ya were in Igtahlia,” Peyton said.
“And Brithan besides,” Max put in, excited. “The House of Magni? Ain’t nobody ever seen it, how is it?”
“Eh,” the Street Rat shrugged, “s’aright. Warlock’s a beast, though.”
“Yeah??” Max asked, excited.
“You met the Warlock?” Alex questioned.
“Did I meet the Warlock?” Jamie asked with a chuckle. “I played ‘im. Made him think I was a scared little boy.”
They laughed and drank.
“Did he do magic tricks to cheer you up?” Max asked, mockingly.
“Nah,” Jamie said with a shrug, “he’s a rotten tomato, he doesn’t like kids. Or anythin’, really.”
Cameron, Jordan, Peyton, Alex and Max, and Jamie. They were all relatively close, as close as Scavengers can be since they’re competing with each other all the time, and they scheduled one last get-together before things got started on ending.
Jamie realized then, while drinking up the second bottle and cracking jokes, that all of them had decided on playing up to their gender full time. Cameron and Alex being girls, the others being boys.
The Street Rat wondered if they’d also grown old enough to be forced into making such a decision.
Burping, Jamie sighed and lied back down, part of the mind listening to what was being said, the jokes and their hidden meanings, and the other part still going over all that had happened and all that would still take place.
The failure point of any plan always boiled down to people. Not in terms of their decisions, that’s what the Street Rat excelled at predicting, but in terms of their actual ability to follow through with their decisions. The plane pilots had once gone farther than Jamie had predicted but, in a way, so had all the members of the Shadow Conclave.
The Don actually getting kills? And holding the Beasts at bay for so long? Falk figuring everything out like he did and, of course, the Shadow, whose very own intentions had defied expectations. They wouldn’t anymore, however.
Knowing Falk, he’s gonna try to figure out how to turn his knowledge into a bomb, Jamie considered, and will then convince someone else to go after the Beasts with it. He’ll undersell the danger while he’s at it. How else to convince someone to risk their lives?
“Oh, yer just jealous that I’m totally gonna be a Teen,” Jamie said in response to an insult that had just been hurled at her.
“You wish,” Alex said, “I bet the great School Boy’s the one to geddit.”
Nobody could actually take that seriously, they just laughed at the concept.
“Just you wait ‘till all this mess is over, boys and girls,” Jamie gestured a bit loosely, “bein’ mah friend’s gonna come in real handy.”
“Pff, whatever, Jamie.”
And when the real danger presents itself, the Shadow’ll be the one jumping to the rescue, Jamie thought, seeing how probable that was. What happens then should be irrelevant, the bomb should work either way, and the Shadow will die to make it work, pro’bly.
The Street Rat gave the head a good, disappointed shake.
That’s the kinda stupid crap heroes pull, in the end, Jamie thought.
The timing of it all would probably not be too convenient however. Neyrk still faced a very hard fight, which…the Circus Freak should avoid. He’d probably just go annoy the people escaping, judging by how he was handling having feelings for the Shadow. Or rather, judging by how he wasn’t handling it.
That had been a really short eavesdropping the Street Rat had performed, it simply got too boring too fast. The loneliest man ever falling for the mysterious young girl with the lean curves who talks to him like a friend?
Sho-cker, Jamie thought, patronizingly.
Eliza was a good leader, and more powerful than she led others to believe, she would probably pull through anything that happened. Falk would probably die at some point, gloating his way into suicide since he knows he will never top any of what he’s doing now, so he’ll rationalize his way into taking some stupid risk and end up dead, probably at the hand of some Beast tech that they’re not showing because why would they?
“Y’all should piss away that alcohol, it’s makin’ you stupider than I’m used to,” Jamie commented, since the statement that Jamie was, basically, just lucky, could not stand unopposed. “And I’m used to pretty stupid.”
“Whatever, Jamie,” Max jested, “how could you ever really predict—”
They were interrupted by someone else coming into their secret den. Jamie turned slightly to look at the incoming uninvited guest, finding a cute little poor-looking girl sporting blond curls.
“Nergui?!” Max was surprised to see her, which betrayed the fact she hadn’t been invited. Jamie was about to complain.
“Oh lookit ‘ere,” Nergui said, smirking, “hidin’ such treasures from your fellows.”
“How’d you find us?” Peyton asked.
Jordan laughed and followed up on it.
“Didja smell it all the way from across the street, ya freakin’ alcoholic?” Jordan teased.
Jamie had not said anything yet.
“I followed you, if ya must know,” Nergui said. She was younger than all of them, having even barely hit the double digits. Still, she grabbed a bottle and walked to join them. “Ya’ll let me join or I’m tellin’ everybody ‘bout this.”
“Do whatever ya want,” Peyton said, shrugging, “but can you really handle it, eh? Cutesy little girl.”
“Humpf,” she gulped massively, then coughed and spat half of it out, making everyone burst out in laughter. “Shut up! I just gotta get used to it!”
“Oh yer gonna get used to it, aright,” Alex teased.
“Wouldn’t surprise me if ya did. Such a stupid thing, gettin’ used to it,” Jamie finally stated.
“Bah, don’t mind Jamie, everything’s stupid to her when she’s tipsy,” Cameron said in jest.
“Not me,” Jamie lied back down, half-disgruntled at something she didn’t really identify, not with a somewhat foggy mind, muddying her web of ideas and thoughts.
It was all blurry, now that Jamie looked at it, at the inside of her mind. Really, it was the only way for her to find anything resembling a break. A pause.
“’m the Street Rat,” mumbled the Street Rat, halfheartedly.