It was a moonless night and, except for the light cast down from the occasional star, the shanty town was nearly pitch black. Fatima and I clung to Mila’s barely visible shadow like we were shadows ourselves, trusting in her superior nightvision to keep us from bumping into any of the ramshackle buildings. When she stopped, we stopped and held our breaths in nervous anticipation. When she moved, we moved with her.
Nothing attacked when we passed by dark alcoves and no spotlight switched on in the guard towers. No one spoke, whispered, mouthed, or even thought a word. It was easier to switch my brain off and rely entirely on Mila’s superior skills than to consciously think about what we were doing or where we were headed, so that’s what I did. I reduced my entire world to the short silhouette ahead of me and allowed the greater part of my mind to drift away.
The shanty town had looked different from the hilltop overlooking it. Now that we were actually in the middle of the building, slinking through the streets, what had seemed dilapidated now loomed at us. The structures weren’t very large, but they were big enough that an ill-timed collapse would either cripple or bury the three of us. I was close enough now to understand exactly how rotted the wooden beams were. Even the metal patches, which should have been the strongest parts on the buildings which sported them, were made of more rust than actual metal. It would only take a stiff wind to dash some of these walls to pieces.
In my civilian life, I’d raised money to combat the rise of child soldiers, so I’d also done a fair bit of research into that world. Even at the best of times, children were plucked from poverty and destitution, so that they could be pressganged into an army for one tinpot dictator or another. What they lost in safety, they made up for with semi-reliable meals and structure. Even a life under constant fire was often preferable to a life of uncertainty, where any day could be your last, depending on the kindness or attentiveness of strangers.
I glanced beside me and caught a glimpse of Fatima’s face as the clouds parted perfectly, allowing the stars to illuminate a previously shadowed area. The little girl’s expression could have been carved from stone and possessed more warmth. She stayed as low to the ground as she could, mimicking Mila’s diminished stance, and stalked forward with powerful strides. Something glinted and I realized, for the first time, that she was carrying a straight razor, tied to one of her ankles with a thin bit of string. It probably would’ve cut into her skin if not for the thick patchwork of scar tissue and calluses.
The little girl must have felt my eyes on her, because she turned slightly and raised an eyebrow. I looked away. There was nothing to be embarassed about, but that didn’t stop me from feeling embarassed anyway, as if I’d been peeking at the girl in a private moment. With that movement, however, my mind came back into my body and I stumbled over a pile of lumber-related refuse that Mila had adroitly hopped over.
I don’t know how she knew but Mila immediately spun around, skipping backward so that she could catch me before I actually hit the ground. My mouth dropped open to complain about the rescue – it was only a few inches to the ground and I’d had plenty of time to get my hands under me – but I stopped myself when I saw the rusted nails, the color of old blood, poking out of the lumber.
“Thanks,” I managed to croak out, whispering as forcefully as I could.
Mila nodded, helped me back to my feet, and then dropped down to her knees beside the pile of lumber. “Connect me with Devlin?”
Activating the relevant lines and linking them up took more work using the tablet, instead of a dedicated desktop, but it still wasn’t exactly difficult. It only took me a few more seconds on both ends to set things up so that Mila could speak with Devlin. As was customary, I stayed on the line as well, in case they discussed something the rest of us would need to know.
Mila started up without preamble or greeting. “Devlin. Have you actually seen any guards?”
It took a moment before Devlin responded. If it had been me on his end of the connection, I would probably have needed the second or two to collect my thoughts. A voice speaking to me, as if from the thin air, would send my heartrate skyrocketing into the high triple digits. For Devlin, though, he’d probably just been in the middle of something else.
“Plenty of towers,” he said over the line. “Not so many guards, though.”
“There’s too much space to protect if they aren’t actually going to protect it,” Mila said.
“Maybe their realty eyes are bigger than their realty stomachs?”
Mila shook her head. I appreciated the gesture: it meant that I wasn’t the only one with tangible difficulty controlling any nonverbal communication. “If that was the case,” she said, “they would have moved to somewhere smaller and more defensible a while ago.”
“Are we sure they didn’t do that?”
Mila paused momentarily so that she could think that over. She angled her head slightly toward Fatima, directing her question without speaking a word to accomplish that. “Do you think there’s a chance that’s what happened?”
Fatima shook her head fiercely. “This is where they take the children. I have heard this from the people who live nearby.”
“How long ago?”
“A week? Two?” Fatima shrugged and I wondered how someone could possibly forget the details of something like that. A few heartbeats passed before I understood. For someone whose life was constantly on the verge of starvation, death by exposure, or child-instigated bullying, the specific passage of time probably didn’t matter all that much. One day would be much the same as any other, so why bother keeping up with their names?
Mila seemed to understand. If she didn’t, at least she chose to allow the vagueness to pass without comment. “Devlin, the girl says that isn’t the case. As far as she knows, they were dragging kids in here as recently as last week.”
He was quiet for a few moments. I checked the comms, just to make absolutely certain they were still functioning, and happened to notice the time: a little after three in the morning. Sunrise was only a few hours away. By then, we needed to be finished at the barracks. Two days spent unraveling the juevenile politics was ostensibly for the greater good, but it was also two days I didn’t have to spare. The Community’s deadline loomed like Damocles’ sword over my neck. Time was a commodity that I simply didn’t have to spare.
“We’ll keep moving toward the command center,” Devlin said finally. “Keep an eye out for anything that looks out of the ordinary. If we can’t figure out where everyone’s at, oh well, but I don’t want to trigger any sort of trap because we get sloppy.”
“Got it,” Mila said.
Devlin breathed out a single, dry laugh. It sounded like two sheets of brittle paper sliding against each other. “I would say something about us earning a lucky break, but..”
“…but we both know that isn’t true,” Mila finished. “I’ll keep in touch.”
I waited for Devlin to say something to me, but no further conversation came. Reluctantly, I severed the connection between his line and Mila’s.
“Stay here for a second,” Mila said, focusing on Fatima and me. “I’m going to scout ahead a bit. We’re getting closer to the command center. If there are going to be guards anywhere, that’s where they’ll be.”
She seemed unsure of something. Anything that could rattle Mila, even a little bit, was something that I wasn’t sure I wanted to know about. Still, I stepped a little closer to her, lowered my voice, and asked about it anyway. “What’s bothering you?”
“Just brings back bad memories. Wouldn’t have been the exact same, but I almost ended up in a place a lot like this.” She visibly shook herself, as if she could throw off the weight of her own emotions with physical exertion. “Don’t worry; it’s nothing that’ll get in the way of the job.”
Mila shrugged. “As I’m ever going to be. If I leave you two here, are you going to run off and get in trouble?”
“I can’t promise you that I won’t do that,” I said. It was my little at a joke, Devlin-style, but Mila either missed it or took it entirely too seriously.
“Here.” She unholstered one of her handguns – something smaller than her usual sidearm, but still huge as far as I was concerned – and handed it over to me. “In case things get bad.”
I hesitated. Just because I took the gun from her didn’t mean that I’d have to use it. And we’d long since passed the point where it would be insane to maintain a position of complete pacifism. Giving Mila the order to break bones or, if absolutely necessary, to take a life didn’t absolve me of guilt. But there was just something about the gun itself that I balked at. I didn’t want to have a weapon like that, on the off chance that possessing it made me more likely to use it as a solution to a problem, instead of thinking my way out of it.
At the same time, we were deep within enemy territory and the few seconds I might need to think of a way past an obstacle could be the difference between literal life and death. Could I really afford to be picky about solutions?
Ultimately, I deferred to Mila’s judgment. Protection was her specialty and, if she believed that I needed a gun, I was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. I took the weapon from hand, checked the safety, and stashed it into my bag.
Mila nodded approval. “Be right back,” she said before she disappeared around a corner.
Fatima and I crouched in the darkness, silently contemplating our position. Without action to distract me, I felt the mood of the shanty town begin to settle in around me. As much as the misery of the place made me nervous, it also made me angry. The feeling made no logical sense, but feelings didn’t have to.
“Is everything alright?” Fatima asked softly.
“It’s as good as it’s going to get,” I said. “Something’s wrong, of course, but something’s always wrong.”
“You’ve done things like this before?”
“Like this?” No, we hadn’t snuck into the Fisher Price “Baby’s First War Camp” before, but there wasn’t any reason I had to point that out. Besides, I doubted that I could keep my snark in check long enough to make even the thinnest joke out loud without coming off as insensitive. “No, not exactly. But that’s not what’s bothering me.”
“We haven’t seen anyone,” I said. “We haven’t heard anyone. It’s too dark for us to see up into the guard towers, but…you know how it feels when someone’s watching you? Like there’s a spot just between your shoulder blades and it’s sort of tingling?”
“Have you felt that?”
She considered the question for a few seconds. “No,” she said. “I have not.”
No sooner had she spoken the words than I felt a frisson of nerves run up the entire length of my spine. It wasn’t unusual for my instincts to kick in at awkward moments. Devlin hadn’t consciously trained me to be more aware of my surroundings, but it was impossible to work with him without picking up a version of his sixth sense. Mine wasn’t as finely tuned as his or Mila’s, obviously, but it was still far better than what the average civilian would be capable of. I stiffened, straining my ears to hear something through the oppressive silence of the shanty town, without actively thinking about it.
She wasn’t a thief, but Fatima was a survivor. Pure prey instinct – the ability to feel tension in others and react appropriately – took over and she mirrored my posture, ready to hide or flee. I only had a moment to think. Mila’s handgun seemed impossibly heavy in my bag. I blinked, made a decision, and pulled Fatima behind me into the nearest half-finished building. The back wall was rotted through to the point of transparency but, thankfully, the wall in front of us mostly intact. We were able to, through careful positioning, see through some holes without exposing ourselves entirely.
Thirty seconds later, I got my first glimpse of what had originally triggered my instincts. A bedraggled line of children, led by a boy who couldn’t have been more old enough to legally drink, wound its way through the streets of the shanty town. At first glance, I thought that all of the children were maybe a year shy of puberty, but that wasn’t quite right. The longer I looked at them, the more I realized that a relatively small number of the kids were actually in the double digits, age-wise. Some were only eight or nine. A few appeared even younger than that.
The twenty year old young man – I couldn’t think of him as a boy when there were practically toddlers trundling along behind him – carried a semi-automatic rifle in shaky hands. A beret atop his head served to keep a mess of black curls from spilling down into his eyes. Despite his age, he walked with the uncertainty of an unfed orphan or a foster child. This was not someone in charge of things, no matter how it looked.
He paused and the line of children piled up behind him. They waited for him to do something; Fatima and I waited with them, safe in our impromptu hiding spot.
“What are you doing?” The male voice came from somewhere out of sight, speaking clear and unaccented English. There was a certain familiar lack of affectation that meant someone was a non-native speaker; whoever the voice belonged to, they weren’t American, even if they were trying very hard to pretend to be.
“I do not like this,” the boy replied. He also spoke English, although it was a little slower and came out with a bit of a slur. “We could just let them go, couldn’t we?”
“We received the same set of orders,” the first voice said. “As long as there are people who can tie us to the failed experiment, we’ll be in danger. They’ll be in danger.”
“But they aren’t even here,” the boy said. “This is just…I don’t like this.”
“You said that already. Did you have another idea about how we can deal with all of these kids, then?”
The boy shook his head. He reached into his pants pocket and removed a silver flask. From this, he took a long drink. That explained the slur. “We can’t save any of them?”
“We’re saving the girls,” the first voice said. “And think about it like this: if we don’t find a way to salvage the investment they made, we’ll be the next ones sold into slavery. So, in a way, we’re saving ourselves and offloading bad product.”
My blood went cold. I didn’t know who these specific people were, but I knew who they were referring to. The arms dealers had been connected to the Magi and this shanty town was connected to the arms dealers. It only stood to reason that the Magi would be affected by whatever happened here. I just hadn’t thought they’d care enough to get personally involved.
I’d been badly wrong, however. After losing untold millions in London, Macau, South America, and the Sierra Leone, the Magi had decided it was time to recoup some of their losses. To that end, they’d elected to capitalize on the most vulnerable assets they could find: the indigent, impoverished orphan population of a port city. No one would miss them when they were sold overseas as sex slaves and cheap labor.
Fatima asked me a question, but I didn’t hear it. I could hear blood pounding in my ears. My team and I had been hurting the Magi a lot, maybe even more than we could have known. And, in response, they’d turned to the most reprehensible form of crime to maintain their profits. It wasn’t our fault that they’d gone to this length – I knew that, logically – but I couldn’t help but feel as though I could have done more to stop it.
That opportunity was in the past, though. The anger I’d felt earlier sharpened and coalesced into fury. I didn’t want to hurt the Magi, the arms dealers, and the slavers who were snatching children off of the streets. I wanted to destroy them.
Somehow, my fingers managed to find my tablet and to connect my comms line with Devlin and Mila. “They’re selling them,” I said, through gritted teeth. “These sons of bitches are selling the children. That’s why there’s no one here.”
“Are you sure?” Devlin asked.
“I just heard them talking about it.”
Devlin was quiet for a time. It was probably only a second or two, but it felt like hours. When he spoke again, I heard the same frost in his voice that I felt creeping over my own thoughts. “What do you want to do?”
“Mila?” I asked. “How much damage do you think can cause?”
“Enough,” she answered. Her voice sounded empty, drained entirely of emotion. She got like that before violence. It was the calm before the storm, the eye of the hurricane; it would only be a matter of time before she unleashed that rage on someone.
Lucky that I was also in the mood to unleash some rage.