Devlin temporarily muted his earbud so that he could better explain the situation to Michel. While he did that, I turned my attention back in the direction of the line of children, the twenty year old, and the still-unseen owner of the mysterious voice. I assumed the unseen speaker was in charge of this operation or, if nothing else, at least in a position of authority over the twenty year old. In order to save the children, we’d have to deal with both of them. What was the point of taking out one slaver, only to be shot in the back by the other?
I moved back from the window and crouched even lower. No one had noticed me yet, but it wouldn’t hurt to be careful. “Mila,” I said, “how far away are you?”
“Did you move from where I left you?”
“Into one of the buildings,” I said. “Rotted clear through one one side, but we’ve got cover from the slavers.”
Mila grunted. “Can’t assume anything about guard rotations or patrol routes now. I can come straight to you but there’s no telling where the slavers are going to be.”
It went unspoken that, if she went with the direct route, Mila would make an awful lot of noise. Sure, we could these children. Between the three of us, I didn’t doubt our ability to incapacitate one shot caller and a somewhat more reluctant monster. But we didn’t know how much such groups were operating within the boundaries of the shanty town. We could save the dozen or so children in front of us and, in the process, condemn an unknown number of similar groups to unspeakable fates.
There was a time to play it safe, but that time had passed as soon as I’d seen the children. It had passed months ago.
“Take your time,” I said. “Don’t raise an alarm, if you don’t have to.”
“What if I run into someone anyway?”
I didn’t hesitate for an instant. “Take them down. Make sure they don’t get the chance to spread the word.”
“Roger that,” Mila said, with a note of approval in her voice.
I pushed that out of my mind when Fatima tugged on my arm. I’d momentarily forgotten about her presence in the glorious fire of my anger, but now I pulled myself back from the brink and looked at her. Her dark eyes were wide and quivering. Two tears, one on each cheek, caught the barest sliver of light. She’d understood what was going on, even before I’d put it together. That must have been why she’d gone still. But I hadn’t connected her comm line to the rest of ours, so she had no idea what, if anything, we planned to do.
“We’re going to free them,” I said. “That just became the number one priority.”
“You do not owe them anything,” she replied. “You do not even know them. Why would you put yourself in danger for us?”
The answer came easily. It was exactly the sort of thing that Devlin and I agreed on. “Because I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I got what I was after, at the cost of innocent kids. Are you going to help us?”
Fatima nodded, eagerly and without a hint of reservation. “How?”
The same issue that kept Mila from speeding to my side would keep Devlin from providing me any physical assistance. He might be able to provide some insight into the current situation, but I didn’t want to give him anything else to worry about. Eventually, chaos was going to break out. When that happened, he’d need all of his mental prowess, his oft-irritating ability to navigate through bedlam, and a mind clear of concern for my well-being. I wasn’t going to distract him with something as minor as this.
“I’m going to need more information,” I said, after a few moments of fervent thought. “If these two aren’t the only ones, then we’re looking at an entire operation. I need to know the scale, so I can figure out what we’re dealing with.”
“How can I help you with that?”
I swallowed nervously before answering the question. I had an idea, but it was a lot to ask of anyone, let alone a child. “I can track these earbuds,” I said finally. “I don’t think either one of us are good enough to tail this group without raising an alarm but, as long as you’ve got that earbud on you, I can pinpoint your location to a few yards. And those two look and sound like the type that might let something important slip when they don’t think anyone’s listening.”
Fatima blinked, opened her mouth to ask a clarifying question, and then understood what I had in mind. Her eyes narrowed to thin slits for an instant, as if she could look through me by doing so, and then they eased back into the expressionless mask she’d worn while standing beside the Rubbish Throne.
“You can save them?”
I nodded. “We can try to save them. If things go bad, I can promise you that we’ll e right in the thick of it. If anyone can save your brothers and sisters, it’s going to be us.”
“And this is the only way?”
“It’s the only way I can think of, on short notice.”
She thought carefully about her next question. “No one has ever tried to help us,” she said in a soft, barely audible voice. “Why should I trust you to do this? Maybe this is one of Mamoud’s traps, so that I will put myself into the enemy’s hands without a fight?”
A shaft of light pierced straight through the barely-there rotted wood at the back of the building. Behind it, barely visible in the sudden explosion of light, I could make a muscular silhouette, a little taller than me. A man, presumably. Probably a member of the same group that was working to sell these children into a life of slavery.
Conscious thought never entered into the equation. I saw the light and, in almost the same instant, I shot through the darkness like a thrown javelin. My bag fell from my shoulder as I flew and landed on the ground with a thud. Mila’s handgun was still in the bag, along with my tablets and laptop.
Oh well. I wouldn’t need either of those.
Mila had tried, at great length and without any notable success, to drill me on the basics of combat. She’d told me that my relative height and weight were liabilities in a straight up fight. If I ever found myself confronted by someone who meant to hurt me, my best best would be immediate flight. Barring that, there were a few judo throws I could use in a pinch, but even those were only useful for stalling an opponent until someone – Mila, most likely – could arrive and deal with the problem.
In the heat of the moment, I forgot every lesson she’d given me. Instead of planting my feet and focusing on my center of balance, I lashed out like a hellcat, nails slashing at exposed skin and drawing blood in a burst of ferocity that I hadn’t thought myself capable of. The man, taken aback by my impersonation of an angry crossbow bolt, staggered back and raised both of his hands to defend his face. Which was, in a way, exactly what I’d needed him to do.
Still moving at top speed, I reached around to the small of my back and removed a black plastic rectangle, a little larger than a pack of cigarettes. I drove it into the man’s solar plexus and pressed a tiny red button the side of the case. It had taken some work to acquire this particular toy, and I hadn’t had the opportunity to try it out, so I was pleased to discover that all forty-six million volts of electricity worked exactly as advertised. The man convulsed as waves of electric current ran through his body. I shoved the stun gun as far into the man’s solar plexus as I could manage until he lost his balance and we went down together.
I kept the stun gun pressed into his flesh until the angry buzzing sound died and was replaced by a weak clicking. The man, whoever he’d been, lay in a hollow. His eyes stared, unfocused, up at the ceiling and a thin trail of drool began leaking from one corner of his mouth. I waited, prepared to use the stun gun as a bludgeon if necessary, for what felt like an eternity.
Eventually, I allowed myself to marginally relax. Whatever I’d done to him had been enough to put him down for the foreseeable future. That was good, at least. If he’d been able to raise an alarm, everything would have fallen apart before I’d even have a chance to get it properly together in the first place. Thankfully, the entire exchange had only taken about fifteen seconds and it had happened in almost total silence.
A relieved sigh built itself up in my chest but, just as I was about to let out the air, I noticed the man’s dropped flashlight. It had fallen to the ground during my attack and it was still switched on, pointing directly at the pockmarked and shabby wall that served as mine and Fatima’s only concealment.
I easily recognized the boy with the machine gun when he spoke. “Who’s that?”
Fatima and I exchanged a single panicked look and then dove, face down, to the floor of the rotted building. The wood was filthy and smelled like bad milk and old eggs, but I buried my face into the ground as though my life depended on it. Which, in a very real way, it actually did.
“Go check it out,” said the ownerless voice. “Might be someone or something we can use.”
“Why don’t you check it out?”
“Because,” said the ownerless voice, “I’m not the one drinking on the job. Unless you want me to report that our superiors…”
The boy spat out a few curses. “Fine, fine. No reason to play it that way. Could’ve just asked nicely.”
Without looking up, there was no way to know how far away the boy was. The flashlight wasn’t quite in reach, but I could’ve made it there with a little effort. But would any motion tip him off to something amiss? Would he see the flashlight switch off and realize that someone else must be wandering through the ruins of the shanty town?
I felt a light touch on my hand and nearly jumped out of my skin. “I believe you,” Fatima whispered. “If you cannot save all of us, save them. Do you understand? Save them.”
I opened my mouth to say something, anything, but there wasn’t time. Before I could even draw in a breath around the mouthful of rotted, foul wood, Fatima was up and running. She grabbed the flashlight from where it lay and dashed into the street outside of the building. I couldn’t help but raise my head enough to see what she was doing.
Judging from her angle, she intended to make it past the boy with the machine, relying on the possibility that he’d be too surprised by her sudden appearance to react. Despite the alcohol I’d seen him imbibe – no doubt that he’d been consuming far more, if his reluctance was any indication of how he felt about this line of work – the boy snatched out with one hand and managed to catch hold of Fatima by the back of her dress.
The boy lifted Fatima from the ground easily so that he could look her in the eyes. “Now, who are you?”
Fatima struggled mightily against him, but it was a waste of effort. She had no leverage or footing. Even if she’d had both of those, there simply wasn’t any way for a girl her size to do beat a grown man who’d seen her coming.
“Found this one,” the boy called back to his faceless superior. “Probably hiding out in the buildings, hoping we wouldn’t look.”
“Boy or girl?”
“Girl,” the boy said. He extended his arm so that he could give Fatima a cursory visual examination. “Pretty, too, but she’s a little young.”
“Bring her anyway,” the ownerless voice said. “Even if we can’t make money off of her, we can’t leave witnesses behind.”
The boy threw Fatima over his shoulder like a sack of grain and started walking back toward
the line of children and the ownerless voice. In that position, with the boy facing away from while her face was still illuminated by the flashlight in her hand, I saw Fatima shoot a wink directly at me.
Having already taken one risk, I decided to take another. I crawled over to my bag, retrieved my tablet, and activated Fatima’s comm line. “Don’t talk,” I said, “and don’t let on that you can hear me. As long as this line is active, I’ll be able to hear everything you say to them and everything they say to you. If you think you give some additional information without tipping off, do it, but be careful. Don’t risk anything you don’t have to.”
The girl didn’t say anything but, after a few seconds, she did grunt in a way that I took as vaguely affirmative.
“We’re coming to get you,” I said. “All of you. I promise.”
She grunted again.
It was going to be difficult to parse multiple lines of conversation at the same time, but there were larger issues to deal with. I connected the remaining comm lines, except for Hisein’s, so that I could speak with the rest of the team.
“Fatima got herself captured,” I said quickly. “On purpose, so that we can follow the slavers back to wherever they’re stashing the kids.”
Fierce whispers came from three different people, all at once. I could pick out Michel’s sharp intake of breath, Mila’s quiet swears, and Devlin’s eerily calm and insistent tone. I focused on Devlin, picking his words out of the tumult.
“They’re probably not going to hurt her,” Devlin said. “Not unless she makes a fuss out of things. Even then, I don’t think they’d do anything permanent.”
“Because slavers are such moral people?” Mila asked.
“No,” he said, “because they aren’t moral at all. If they see her as merchandise or even just as potential profit, they’ll want her in good shape for as long as possible.”
“She is also on this line,” I said. “I kept her line open so that we could hear if there’s anything we can use against the slavers.”
“I can think of a few things I’d like to use against them.” Mila’s word came out in a harsh growl. A moment later, she skidded into view at the blown out back of my hiding spot. She looked down at the man, still drooling and twitching on the floor, then back up at me with something appreciation on er face. “Looks like you already did that, though.”
I held up the stun gun. “I’m not overly concerned with his well-being.”
She nodded, considered the fallen man for a few moments, then kicked him savagely in the ribs. From my position, the sound of snapping bone was unmistakable.
“What are our priorities?” Devlin asked.
“Save the kids,” I said. “Deal with the slavers. In that order.”
“And the command center? Do we just abandon that?”
I reminded myself that he wasn’t necessarily suggesting that we put the data over the children’s lives; it was just his mind, working along multiple tracks at once, seeking the path that might give us a chance at surviving this situation. Besides that, he was raising a good point. Rescuing these children took priority in this immediate moment, but the information at the command center would allow the Lady to step into the power vacuum and make things better for the Urchins, on a long-term basis. It could potentially give me a window into discovering who was attacking the Community and for what nefarious purposes. And it could help me find the Mouse, so that I could stop the rest of the Community from throwing away their lives.
“I need to find the servers and the hard drives,” I said after a long stretch of silence. “Even if these slavers managed to kick out of any of the pseudo-military squatters, the system is still going to have remote protection and I don’t have the equipment to crack it without being physically in front of the computers.”
“Send me the information for Fatima’s earbud,” Devlin said. “The three of us will find a way to her. In the meantime, you get to the command center and strip it of everything you could possibly use. Just steal the damn hard drives, if you think it’ll help.”
Now that we knew that the guard towers had been emptied, it was a short path to the command center and even the strongest network security wouldn’t last long once I had access to USB and Ethernet ports. Going with this plan left the fate of the children in Devlin’s hands, though. I trusted him to do the right thing in almost all circumstances, if the right thing often differed from the safe thing, but something held me back. He was operating without the safety net my digital skills usually offered him. He’d be running blind and a mistake would only make itself known with a well-timed bullet.
If anyone could pull it off, Devlin could. I reminded myself of that fact three times, repeating it in my head like a prayer mantra, before I spoke. “Mila, you’ll have to be my eyes,” I said, “and my muscle. I can’t use this stun gun until I recharge it.”
“Happily,” she said.
I checked the time: a little under three hours until sunrise. Whatever we were going to do, we had to do it now.
“Let’s go,” I said.
This time, when we set off, Mila followed after me.