We no longer had to avoid the towers, which should have made our journey inward easier. But, in exchange for those static points of overlook, Mila and I now had to contend with the possibility of roving groups of slavers and enslaved. Those groups could be composed of any number of people, armed in a variety of ways, and they wouldn’t follow any sort of fixed patrol route. Men of differing ages, experience levels, and “professionalism” – if the word even applied to people who made their money trading in human lives – could appear at a moment’s notice. It wouldn’t matter how skilled Mila was or how much strength I drew from panicked desperation; if someone got the drop on me, the odds of our survival would drop like the blade on a guillotine.
So, in effect, I replaced one type of anxiety with another. This new anxiety sustained itself on a steady diet of adrenaline, in place of dread. I could feel the energy pumping in my veins, hot and potent, practically demanding that I act, that I move. I hated the sensation of raw nerves and the jitters that sent intermittent waves of tension through my body; I loved that raw power, the vitality, that propelled me forward through the ruined roads and side streets of the shanty town.
Was this how Devlin felt on the job? Every time he went into the lion’s den, armed only with his wits and whatever advantages he could cobble together out of thin air, did he rely on the same electric current of adrenaline to keep him at the top of his game? Just a few minutes of high voltage energy was a rush like none I’d ever felt. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to have this feeling on a regular basis.
Mila caught up with and then passed me, sliding to a halt at the very edge of a building. Her knife appeared, as if by magic, and she held it in front of herself in a reverse grip. Her free hand came up and formed a tight fist. I’d seen enough military movies to understand her intent. I stopped and crouched just behind her, wrestling down the adrenaline that called for me to keep moving.
Carefully, Mila leaned an inch out of cover so that she could see around the corner. She returned to concealment a moment later.
This time, I couldn’t keep the question from my lips. “What is it?”
“We’re here,” she said. “Command center’s right around the corner.”
“There’s a problem.” It wasn’t a question and I didn’t bother inflecting it as such. Of course there would a problem. Nothing in our lives came without difficulties.
Mila nodded, like she’d heard my thoughts and agreed with them. “The power’s on. They’ve got floodlights covering the front, maybe some in the back.”
“None that I could see, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t men inside the command center. Why else keep the lights on?”
I closed my eyes for a second, thinking about possible answers so that. I couldn’t think of a dozen different actions and their immediate outcomes like Devlin could, but I was considerably better at following a single line of thought to its conclusion. All I had to do now was perform that same basic action in reverse.
What did I know? What had already been accomplished?
These slavers had, without alerting the local constabulary, pushed out the warlords and arms dealers. In order to purchase the weaponry for that kind of business required considerable cash resources and connections. If there were a powerful backer hiding in the shadows somewhere, maybe they were playing at the same game as my team: taking over the business during a vacant period, without having to trigger a turf war in the process.
But, no, that didn’t work. Local slavers wouldn’t speak English when no one was listening and foreign slavers couldn’t have gotten word about the power vacuum so quickly. Only two days ago, Devlin and I had both checked the news and heard nothing about her manufactured conflict. Rumors traveled quickly in the Underworld, to be certain, but not that fast. For these people to be here now, collecting children and selling them off like this, didn’t necessarily mean that they had connections. It meant that they were directly connected to this specific organization. There was no other way they could’ve known where to be and when.
If the slavers and the previous residents of the shanty town had been connected in any way, there’d be no reason to hit up the command center at all. All of the requisite information would already exist in a room, somewhere: codes, headcounts, weapon stashes, and so on. The lights might still be on, then, for no reason other than laziness. It’s not like they had an electric bill to worry about.
But…again, no, that wasn’t right either. The twenty year old boy with the machine gun had accepted Fatima into their group and she couldn’t possibly have been on any of their lists. Come to think of it, I hadn’t seen the boy even carrying a list to begin with. They seemed like nothing so much about opportunists, grabbing anything they could get their hands on before…before, what, exactly?
I was going about this the wrong way. Looking at what they’d accomplished would take me hours and I’d spent half of it changing my own mind. If I was going to figure this out, I’d have to change my thinking pattern. Chronological, order of events. What happened, when, and what happened as a result of that. I could extrapolate, potentially, from those facts.
We’d crippled the warlords. As a result, they’d reached out to Mamoud. He wanted more power and authority so, in exchange for their support, he agreed to create a crisis for Farrad to deal with. First, the warlords and now these slavers used the shanty town as a sort of pipeline for fresh children. Any child found within the boundaries of the shanty town was acceptable product and there didn’t seem to be any sort of accounting process to make sure that the same child wasn’t promised to two separate groups, for instance. It didn’t matter either way to these slavers.
But why didn’t it matter? Why wouldn’t it have mattered to me, in that situation?
With that thought, posed a hypothetical exercise in response to a fairly innocuous question, understanding struck me like a bolt from the heavens.
“We have to get in there,” I said. “Now.”
“We can wait a minute or two,” Mila said, “just to see if anyone comes out. You’ve still got an eye on Fatima and the boys need to get in position, so -”
“Mila.” The tone of my voice caught her attention. She turned away from the command center and faced me. “They aren’t just taking the children, or making sure that no one knows they took the children. They’re here to erase everything. The Magi are going to wipe this place off of the face of the earth and pretend that it never existed at all.”
Mila didn’t need to understand the technical side of things to guess how badly things would go if the slavers were allowed to pull off a single step of their plan. Even if we managed to save the children in the moment, the Lady’s intervention would be stymied by local efforts without access to the full cache of information. That would lead to civil war in the Underworld and the primary victims of that war would be Fatima, Hisein, and the rest of the Urchins. Depending on the number of interested parties and the level of their respective interests in this territory, that could lead to deaths on a truly staggering scale.
If the command center held intelligence regarding the hunting season that the Community currently found itself enduring, that would be lost too. Caelum, or whatever agent the Magi were employing against my compatriots, would eventually root out the other four elites. After they fell, the full weight of their attention would fall on me and my team. More deaths, more loss.
And there was almost certainly a connection between the people inside the command center and the ones marching little boys and girls off to be sold at market. I’d made a little girl a promise, after she’d thrown herself into service as a mobile GPS. I intended to keep that promise.
So much at stake. So little time to make a plan.
“What do you want to do?” Mila asked. “I can handle a three to one disadvantage in a straight fight, maybe more if they aren’t trained, but there’s enough room in there that someone could easily get a shot off.”
“Are you wearing a vest?”
She arched an eyebrow. With her free hand, she pulled aside a little bit of fabric at her sternum, revealing a black Kevlar vest under her clothing. “Even if they hit me where the vest is toughest, I’m still going down. A few seconds to catch my breath is all it’d really take for them to swarm me. Besides…”
“Besides,” I said, picking up the thread of her thoughts, “as soon as someone fires a gun, the game’s up. Everyone in earshot goes on high alert and everything gets that much more difficult.”
“Shit,” Mila said.
For the second time, I considered opening a line to Devlin. He might have some equally brilliant and half-assed idea that would turn the tables. He’d start a fire, or uncover some secret passageway into the command center, or steal a train, if it allowed him to create a way when no way previously existed. Some thought would pop into his head, something simple and retroactively obvious, and he’d find a way to bring that thought to life. He’d know what to do.
I blinked. The train of my thoughts had bumped, out of nowhere, into a possible solution. I didn’t need to ask Devlin for advice; I knew what to do.
I dropped the bag and dug around until I located the requisite USB cables to connect to a tower. Those, I slipped into my pocket. The tablet responsible for coordinating the communications channels went under one arm. A third item – something small and unobtrusive enough that I virtually always carried it with me – I clenched in a tight fist.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ve got an idea.”
“Am I going to like it?”
“Ask me after we pull it off?” A fierce grin, propelled more by adrenaline than actual amusement, flashed across my face. “I’m going to cut the power to the building.”
“Don’t you need the computers to be on, so that you can do your thing?”
“Electricity’s bad in this area, remember? If they’ve got a server in place, I’d be willing to bet they’ve installed some kind of generator as a back-up.”
“Then what are you going to do?”
I opened my fist. There, in my palm, was a small, sharp pair of scissors with thick rubber handles. “I’m going to literally cut the power.”
She blinked. “And you think that could actually work?” Mila seemed both amazed and uncertain. Even my weak ability to read micro-expressions was more than enough to catch those two thoughts flash across her face and to understand why. This was exactly the sort of thing she’d expect from Devlin; from me, she’d probably been hoping for something a little more thought out.
“If it doesn’t,” I said, “we’ll have to come up with something else awfully fast. Right now, though, get in position by that front door. As soon as the lights go out, get in there and start clearing the room. Keep it as quiet as possible.”
Mila rummaged in her own bag and, eventually, drew out a slender black rod, almost six inches long. She experimentally pressed a button one end of the red with her thumb and it telescoped out to a length of tow, maybe two and a half feet. She grunted approvingly and pressed another hidden button. The brief crackle of electricity sparked at one end and the sharp smell of ozone filled the immediate vicinity.
“I’ve been looking for an excuse to use this,” she said to me in a conspiratorial tone.
Then, using what little darkness remained in the face of the command center’s floodlights, Mila hurried over to a position just to the right of the main entrance. I watched her carefully. If someone were lurking in wait to ambush us, or if a group of slavers picked this particular moment to wander near the command center, she’d have to improvise in order to save both of our lives. When with her handgun secured in my bag, I wouldn’t be much to use to her at this distance. Without an opportunity to recharge my stun gun, I wouldn’t really be much use to her up close, either, except that I’d at least be able to confuse any assailants.
Nothing happened. After a few tense seconds, Mila waved for me to make my own approach. I didn’t move as smoothly as she did, or with anywhere near as much confidence, but there weren’t any unexpected surprises as I covered the few yards. Instead of heading for the door, I crept around the side of the command center. I didn’t see what I was looking for at first but, when I turned the next corner and reached the back of the building, I spotted two generators chugging away.
One of the generators was larger, with a cord that connected directly to the transfer switch at the back of the building. The other, smaller and newer, sported several sockets. Each of those sockets was occupied by a power cord that ran up the wall and into the building proper, through a high window.
“They’ve got two generators,” I whispered into the comms.
“Two?” Mila replied.
“Big one’s probably for the lights.” Probably.
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m cutting the bigger generator off. Stay on your toes.”
At the larger of the two generators, one propane tank was already in its proper place, providing the generator with the fuel necessary for it to function. Another tank, of roughly equivalent size, was nestled underneath the generator itself, in a little alcove that had presumably been constructed for that purpose. I followed the thick red cord from the back of the generator all the way up to the transfer switch with a finger. With time and tools, I could have easily disconnected everything and shut down power to the command center without raising an alarm. I had neither time nor tools, however.
“Mila,” I whispered into the comms. The window was a good distance away from me, but I couldn’t squelch the foolish concern that someone was listening specifically for my voice. “Get ready.”
Then, gripping the rubber handles of my scissors with both hands, I began to stab violently at the cord connecting the generator to the command center.
In my line of work, I often find it necessary to splice wires or clip certain cords. Smaller scissors are best for those jobs, as a lack of precision is often the thin line between success and failure. A misfiring circuit in one of the earbuds, for instance, could leave someone in the wind for a few crucial seconds and end up costing someone their life. A badly wired network cable could drop my connection when I needed it most. But, with smaller scissors like the ones I routinely kept on, it was easy to target specific wires and sever them with no collateral damage.
This was not delicate work. The process of cutting power to the command center without researching the grid, understanding what equipment might be in the room, and honestly not even recognizing the type of generator in use was simple brute work, made more difficult by the need to stay as quiet as possible.
If not for the rubber handles, I probably would have shocked or electrocuted myself. Even then, while I worked, I wasn’t sure if this haphazard plan would turn out to be anything more than an elaborate suicide attempt. But, options being as limited as they were, I wasn’t going to let ‘perfection’ be the enemy of ‘good enough,’ or even the enemy of ‘why the hell not.’
From my position at the back of the command center, away from the floodlights and too far beneath the window to actually hear much, there weren’t any real signs of progress to keep track of. The generator kept on humming, going through its propane supply as quickly as it could. The smell was beginning to get uncomfortable, but I soldiered through, stabbing at the thick red cord with wild abandon. Not every downward blow struck the cord, but enough did. After I made it through the outer protective layer, revealing the bundled wires inside, I shifted my grip and began cutting through everything my scissor blades could reach. At this job, slender blades were a better fit. I was able to get in through the widening gap and cut through the many-colored wires.
A man’s voice yelled something in a language I didn’t understand or even recognize and I went instantly still. A moment later, several more voices cried out of fearful alarm. These cries were punctuated by groans, gurgles, cracking wood, and a persistent – albeit infrequent – crackling.
It took less than two minutes before the sounds stopped. I didn’t move a muscle – didn’t want to move a muscle – but I wasn’t sure how long I’d be able to be a statue before my muscles gave out or adrenaline forced me into action.
Mila saved me from discovering my own limits by leaning out of the window. Her hair had come out of its tight pony tail. Some strands were plastered to her forehead and cheeks by sweat, while others hung in her eyes.
She smiled. “If you like that stun gun of yours,” she said, “you have got to try this.”
I stared up at her.
“Did you want to hang around out there?” Mila asked. “Or are you going to come inside and do your job?”
After a few beats of silence, I gathered my tools and headed around to do exactly that.