The interior of the command center was illuminated mostly by the lights of four separate monitors, with a little bit of assistance from Mila’s flashlight. Immediately upon entering the room, my foot caught on the body, lying prone on the floor. At that brief instant of contact, the body let out a nearly silent groan, shifted slightly, and then returned to a state of noiseless agony. I looked at Mila and raised an eyebrow.
“I wasn’t about to leave them in any shape to run and tell…well, whoever,” she said, a touch defensively. Her collapsible baton rested on one shoulder. I couldn’t actually see the flecks of fresh blood on its too-black surface, but I had no doubt of their existence.
“Not complaining,” I said quickly. “Just impressed.”
“Oh,” Mila said. “Well, uh, thanks.”
She swept her flashlight across the room and, in the beam of illumination, showed me a clear path to the computers. On either side of that path, seven additional bodies were strewn in heaps and piles. None of the figures seemed fully aware of their surroundings anymore; a few didn’t even appear to be conscious in any appreciable fashion. I delicately picked my way through the human wreckage, careful not to disturb any more of the groaning men, and reached the computers before too long.
The array of hardware resembled the sort of setup that I preferred, though not identical. In my case, two or three screens gave me the opportunity to monitor camera feeds, lines of communication, and security systems while drawing processing power from a single, often over-clocked tower. In the case of the command center, however, there were two separate towers to choose from.
I picked the tower on the left after a quick internal game of ‘Eeny Meeny Miney Mo’ and plugged my tablet into the relevant USB ports. A program that had taken a day or two of collaboration between several senior members in the Community came to life and began rifling through every surface file it could get its digital hands on. With physical access to the computer, I was only contending with the local password generator instead of any particularly robust firewalls or network-level defenses. There were only so many possible passwords that a person could remember and something told me that the former administrators weren’t the type of people who cared about password strength.
While the tablet did its work, I turned back around. Mila was dragging people across the floor and stacking them in a dogpile in one corner of the command center. Occasionally, one of the forms would manage to voice a complaint or grunt in displeasure. Mila responded to these expressions of displeasure with swift kicks and punches to the soft parts of their bodies.
“How long until you’ve got what you need?” She didn’t look up from her work, just asked the question as casually as if we’d been sunbathing.
Even though I had no love for these slavers, the sight of them being treated like sacks of rice was a trifle unsettling. I had to force myself to answer the question without deliberately averting my gaze. “There are a lot of things the previous residents – should we be calling them something? – could have done to secure whatever data they had,” I said. “A second level of password protection on certain folders, encryption protocols, maybe even some sort of dead man’s switch.”
“Dead man’s switch?”
“A trap, only designed to open if some trigger is met. It would attempt to wipe out every piece of information from the computer in single burst, rather than allow someone unauthorized to gain access.”
“Someone unauthorized,” Mila mused, “like you?”
“Exactly like me.” I checked the tablet and saw that it was nearly forty percent of the way through its task. Easier passwords, like simple strings of consecutive numbers or letters, were easy to sort through. Now, it began to crunch through the more complicated alphanumeric constructions. The progress would be slower, but not by much.
“You aren’t worried about triggering something like that?”
I shrugged, feigning a level of comfort I didn’t quite feel. “If they managed to set something like that up, then we’d be screwed either way. I’d either get shut down while I’m here or shut down when we’re back at the bed and breakfast. Worrying about the possibility of a trap that I can’t do anything but trigger would just be a waste of time.”
She nodded once. I thought she was going to say or ask something else, but Mila kept her mouth shut and continued hauling unconscious and broken forms across the room.
It occurred to me that I’d unconsciously been parroting Devlin in that last exchange. The point was an accurate one – it really wouldn’t help anyone if I found myself paralyzed with indecision, waffling between two equally untenable choices – but the phrasing hadn’t been my own. It was the sort of thing he’d say while leaping between speeding train cars or sticking his hand into the literal lion’s maw. I wasn’t sure if I felt good about my ability to channel him or if that was an omen of something terrible coming down the pipe. After all, it was a well known fact that Devlin had atrocious luck.
That sneaking suspicion was proven correct when, a moment later, the tablet beeped to inform me of its success. Both of the screens connected to the second tower switched from the login screen to the desktop. Not a single file or folder was visible on that desktop. I clicked the start button and found no programs there, either.
“Shit,” I hissed through my teeth.
From her position by the mound of bodies, Mila looked up sharply. “What’s wrong? Was there a trap?”
“No,” I said, “we were just too late to stop them from wiping this computer clean. I would’ve noticed a trap like that going off.”
I wasn’t actually sure that was true. One of the Community’s elite could probably have created a dead man’s switch that didn’t alert me to its activation. If that was true, Caelum absolutely could have pulled it off. But the odds of Caelum being involved in this particular shanty town, in this particular city, at this particular town were vanishingly low. There was bad luck and then there was fate. One I believed in; the other, I elected to create for myself.
Either way, there wasn’t anything to be found on the first tower. The slavers would have needed military grade software to erase the hard drive so thoroughly that even my specialized device couldn’t catch so much as a trail. I added that observation to my mental file on the inconsistencies and complications of the current job – at some point, I’d need to commit all of those thoughts to an actual file before they faded from memory – and moved onto the second tower. I allowed myself to hope, just for an instant, that the original kidnappers had been stupid enough to use the same password on both machines, but I didn’t have any such luck.
While one tablet worked, I used the other to open a line to Devlin. Immediately, the sounds of heavy breathing came through the earbud. Distantly, I could hear men’s voices calling out in Arabic, Spanish, French, and English. Something loud and impossibly vast sounded off in the background.
“Devlin!” My voice squeaked slightly on the second syllable. I noticed it but couldn’t seem to care. “Devlin, what’s going on?”
It took him a few seconds to reply, and I was forced to spend that time waiting with held breath. Mila was looking at me, the muscles of her body taut beneath her clothing.
Finally, Devlin responded. “Uh, I’ve got good news and bad news.”
“What? What are you talking about?”
Another handful of seconds ticked away. My tablet was still hard at work, crunching through nearly endless permutations, and I was only barely aware of it. “Good news,” Devlin said again, and I noticed that he was gasping for air. Cardio wasn’t his strong suit. “Good news or bad news?”
“What’s going on?” Mila asked. “Are they in trouble?”
Interesting that her finely tuned sense of danger extended through the airwaves. Without hearing a single breath of Devlin’s voice, she was able to tell from my body language that something must have gone wrong with the boys’ team.
“If he doesn’t tell me what the hell is going on,” I said, “he’ll damn well be in trouble.”
“Good news first, then?”
Devlin almost sounded chipper. If I didn’t know him better – if, for instance, I’d been someone who allowed myself to be deceived by the tenor of his voice – I wouldn’t have caught the deep undercurrent of fear in his words. He was masking his anxiety and fear in sarcasm and insouciance. Classic Devlin.
“We found the kids,” he continued. “Or some of them, at least.”
“Haven’t really had an opportunity to count them,” he said. “It’s been a little bit touch and go.”
“Did you find Fatima? You didn’t forget that she was with them, did you?”
“No, Sarah, I did not find Fatima. And I don’t intend to abandon the rest of the Urchin boys or Urchin-ette girls, either. But I can’t do anything if I’m running around being followed by an entire battalion of pissed off slavers, now can I?” He paused. “That was the bad news, by the way.”
“You…and now they’re…but how did you…” The ability to string individual words into coherent sentences appeared to have left me. I settled for gaping, fish-mouthed, and struggling to put this bomb into its proper place within my mind.
“Connect me with him,” Mila said. Dumbly, I did exactly that. Mila’s body language and tone changed slightly. “Tell me what happened.”
I was still listening to the conversation, even if I couldn’t quite regain the ability to contribute to it. “We were following the GPS signal, like we talked about,” he said. “Stayed out of sight, even managed to started to get an idea of how many people we were actually dealing with.”
“I don’t know what happened then,” Devlin said, as frustration began to work its way into the cracks of his facade. “But the people we were following started paying a lot more attention to their trail. I heard someone start talking about getting rid of the dead weight and just getting out of this place.”
Someone else – Michel, most likely, unless Hisein had developed the self-confidence to interject in someone else’s conversation – cleared their throat.
“Alright,” Devlin said, “Michel over heard someone saying it. But I would’ve known what they were talking about, even without speaking the language.”
Mila scowled. It took me less than an instant to find the appropriate conclusion. The slavers’ first plan had been to kidnap the stolen Urchins in the process of wiping out all evidence of the shanty town’s true purpose. Their second plan, still in pursuit of the ultimate objective, was far simpler: kill literally everyone and leave a mess for someone else to sort out later. It didn’t matter to the slavers that their targets were children.
A second realization followed on the heels of the first. Devlin had said things had changed minutes prior, that the slavers had only changed their minds about what to do with the children a fairly short period of time ago. I would’ve bet anything that the moment their priorities changed coincided closely with the moment I’d cut the power to the command center.
“It was a trap,” I said, mostly to myself. “It was a trap and I triggered it.”
“What?” Devlin asked. I’d temporarily forgotten that the line was still open. “What are you talking about?”
“The slavers knew that someone or something had taken out the warlords, so they came prepared. But the equipment we’ve seen, the personnel count? It doesn’t make sense if they only came here to kidnap some unarmed children and get away, especially if no one even knew to expect them.”
It was so obvious now. I could hardly believe that I’d allowed myself to overlook so many critical pieces of information. The slavers were hirelings, disposable cogs in someone else’s greater plan. All evidence thus far pointed to the Magi as the most likely suspects. And the Magi had proven, on a scale that boggled the mind, that their skill at baiting traps was superlative. So they’d sent the slavers out to accomplish one goal – protecting or eradicating any evidence of their involvement in this region – and hoped that they might be able to deal with one of the irritations they’d been facing over the past six months at the same time. And I had been so focused on the possibility of finding information, on protecting the Urchins and discovering whatever scant scraps of knowledge there were to find on the Mouse, that I’d walked directly into the trap with my eyes shut and my arms wide open. Mila’s wholesale destruction of their forces had probably been the trigger that set all of the slavers on high alert.
The only thing that could even be considered vaguely positive about the entire affair was that the Magi weren’t looking for us specifically. So they hadn’t known who to expect, how many forces to bring, what defenses and countermeasures to prepare. The slavers were an exploratory step. If they were given an opportunity, the next move the Magi made would be considerably more decisive.
“So why are they chasing you?” Mila asked. I heard the words, distantly, but it was tough to stop the self-pity train from rolling on down its tracks.
“They were chasing us,” Devlin corrected. “We lost them. I think. It’s hard to hide two people; I don’t even know where to start with trying to hide two dozen.”
“Two dozen? What are you even – “ Mila cut herself off and snapped her jaw shut. In a less stressful moment, I would have found the gesture comical, maybe even hysterical. “You took the kids from them?”
“We, uh…enticed the children with a better offer,” Michel said smoothly. “The slavers were not as amenable to the suggestions, it seems.”
Despite her obvious reluctance, the tiniest fraction of a smile appeared at the corners of Mila’s lips. “How?”
“I distracted them,” Devlin said, “and when they were busy chasing after their own shadows, Michel moved in to get them away. It didn’t take long before they realized something was going on. They turned around and started coming after us.”
In my mind, I formed a question. Something about their numbers, or if he considered them to be trained professionals, or maybe even just if Michel and Devlin were doing alright. Whatever question tried to form itself was crushed, however, and the first words out of my mouth came from a place of self-righteous, irrational irritation.
“Why didn’t you let us know?” I asked.
“I was a little busy,” Devlin replied. “As I’m sure I mentioned.”
“You couldn’t find a second to tap your comms, give us some warning that the slavers were willing to promote themselves from kidnapping up to murder?”
“The very fact that they were willing to take that step,” Devlin countered, “is exactly the reason I decided to use every one of my breaths to run. Are you really that upset that I didn’t call you immediately? It’s only been a few minutes, for God’s sake.”
I took a deep breath. When that didn’t immediately calm me down, I took another. Still no luck. I was being ridiculous, that much was clear. Devlin had done the right thing, as he seemed pathologically incapable of not doing, and I wasn’t really going to get mad at him for saving the children. Sure, he’d made our jobs much more difficult by actively inciting the ire of the slavers, but he could hardly be blamed for that. If anything, I’d been going out of my way to complicate the matter, adding more and more complications to our time in Tangiers virtually every time I spoke with one of the Urchins.
We still had a job to do. I needed to focus on that, instead of dwelling on mistakes already made.
“You’re right,” I said. “You’re right. Sorry, I’m just…trying to wrap my head around all of this.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Devlin said, “but if you could wrap your head around this a little faster, I wouldn’t complain about it.”
Mila shifted her weight from one foot to the other as she drew a handgun from some concealed holster and began checking it over. “Well, we won’t have time to make a plan anymore, that’s for sure. At least, not the way the two of you are used to doing things.”
“What are you suggesting?” I asked.
“Think about everything we don’t know,” Mila said. She finished inspecting the weapon, returned it to its hiding place, and began counting off points with her fingers. “We don’t know how many people are here, how heavily armed they are, how committed they are to actually, uh…getting rid of evidence. We don’t know if reinforcements are coming and, if they are, how many men will be arriving, when, and what weapons they’re going to have. We don’t know how many children need to be saved or where they’re getting shipped off to. We don’t know who’s actually giving the orders – although, we can take a pretty safe guess at that – and we don’t know what other orders, if any, these slavers were given.”
She ran out of fingers. I waited for her to continue, but she said nothing. Years spent with Devlin had taught me to read a few specific tricks of body language and Mila was broadcasting one of those with the force of a radio tower: she wanted me to ask an obvious question, so that she’d be able to hit back with a one liner. Once more, I internally complained about Devlin’s bad habits and their infectious nature.
“What do we know?” I asked.
Exactly as I’d expected, Mila flashed one of her feral, animal grins. “We know what we have to do.”
“And that is?”
“Attack,” she said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.
I opened my mouth to shoot down that idea, but Devlin spoke before I could. “She’s got a point,” he said over the comms. “We can’t play defense without finding ourselves boxed in by superior numbers. Stealth wasn’t ever going to work indefinitely. If we were going to save the kids, that was going to make a lot of noise.”
My tablet, still connected to the lone remaining computer tower, beeped three ties in a very particular sequence. I glanced down at its screen. While the first computer had been stripped bare, it appeared that the second system hadn’t received the cleansing process yet. Having cracked the password, my various programs began the process of downloading, archiving, and storing every single image, document, and spreadsheet.
It only took a minute or two to finish transferring the computer’s contents to my tablet. When we were safely back at the bed and breakfast, I’d be able to spend time poring over the details and connecting dots where possible. At that moment, however, my team and I had more pressing issues to contend with.
We’d come, originally, to get our hands on upgraded equipment. In only a day or two, that had spiraled violently out of control. Now, we found ourselves faced with a group of slavers, an unknown quantity of children in need of assistance, and a little girl who was willing to do the brave thing, even if it put her in the most dire peril imaginable.
I swallowed the nervous lump threatening to lodge itself in my throat and forced myself to smile back at Mila.
“You want to attack?” I asked, faking confidence for her benefit and for Devlin’s, via the comms. “Let’s go attack, then.”