It didn’t take me very long to decide that I would not, in fact, be listening to Devlin’s approach and theft of a bus through the comms. I couldn’t quite see him from my position and I knew that, if I were able, I’d be focused so intently on the noises coming through the earbud that I’d be paying less attention to my own immediate surroundings. That was the kind of thing that worked just fine when I had distance to contemplate. As a strategy, it was less viable when I was in the actual field.
I also made sure that Mila couldn’t overhear things, either. Her ability to multi-task wasn’t as great as Devlin’s – although it was almost certainly better than mine – but I still didn’t want to put too much on her plate. Besides that, there was the odd relationship developing between her and Michel. I wasn’t sure how well she’d handle him being in direct danger, if she weren’t in a position to step in and help, should things go badly awry.
Which, of course, they would. There was a wealth of evidence that pointed towards ever increasing levels of entropy, where these things were concerned.
So, the two of us crept closer to the lines of children, taking care to make as little noise as possible. Mila moved like a shadow, flowing easily from cover to cover, so light on her feet that she may as well have been floating. I was less stealthy, but much more anxious about my aural footprint than she was. That, mercifully, was enough. We reached a spot maybe a yard or two away from the children, trusting that their murmuring voices would be sufficiently loud to mask our own footsteps, and practically knelt there. The shadows weren’t deep enough to hide us, if any of the slavers decided to look in our direction.
“Fatima,” I whispered through the comms. The tiny dot on my tablet gave us her general location, to within a few feet, and I doubted that we were close enough that she could have heard my voice unassisted. “Can you tell me what you see?”
Silence, for a few beats. The throng of Urchins shifted and swayed like a single organism, responding to subtle changes in the wind and in the temperaments of their captors. When Fatima did answer, her voice was so low that I was tempted to raise the volume on her line. “The man are trying to decide what to do with us. Some think that it would be easier to…” She trailed, murmured something in Arabic, and then fell silent again.
I didn’t have to understand the language to decipher the thought she’d left unfinished. “We know. The slavers are on edge now. They know that someone’s here, but they don’t know who or why. Until they figure that out, most of them won’t know what to do.”
Mila tapped me on one shoulder and mouthed a question: Is that true?
I gave her a helpless look in response and shrugged. By all rights, what I’d told Fatima should be true. By setting off some kind of alarm, I’d tipped off the slavers to our presence, but that didn’t necessarily mean they’d immediately shift from ‘kidnap’ to ‘murder.’ They didn’t know how many of us were in the shanty town , for one thing, or for what purpose. We could have been an entire army, systematically working our way through their forces with cruel professionalism. As far as they knew, we could have been duly appointed emissaries of the local law enforcement or even federal police – assuming, of course, that this country even hadfederal police. Either way, opening fire on the children could quickly bring down the wrath of potentially superior forces when a deal might still be struck between us and them.
Unless the Magi had already given them strict orders to the opposite effect. I didn’t think that was true, though. If those unseen criminal overlords had told the slavers to execute the Urchins at the first sign of trouble, the Urchins would already be executed. The fact that the slavers had, for all intents and purposes, gone into a holding pattern was encouraging. It just wasn’t encouraging enough.
“How are you going to help us?” Fatima’s whispery voice asked, barely audible through in the earbud.
“Can you see a bus anywhere near you?”
“Yes,” she said, a moment or two later. “These men forced some of us to get on board, but then they stopped.”
“I don’t know what’s going to happen in the next few minutes,” I said, “but there’s going to be a very loud distraction. Most of the slavers will probably head over to see what’s going on and some of them are even going to leave you alone entirely. When that happens, I need you to get as many of your brothers and sisters onto that bus, okay?”
Fatima didn’t respond immediately. I could imagine the thoughts and questions that must be flashing through her mind. The slavers had been trying to get the Urchins onboard the buses, so that it would be easier to transport them out of the shanty town and off to some dock where they could be sold into slavery abroad. And here I was, still a complete stranger, asking Fatima to lead the children into the one place where they definitely did not want to go.
But Fatima didn’t voice any doubts. She didn’t even hesitate for very long; just long enough, perhaps, for her to swallow down some of her fear and put on a brave face for the other Urchins around her. “Yes,” she said. “Yes, okay. I will get them to go.”
A man’s voice, audible through her end of the line, snapped out a few words in a language I recognized, but didn’t quite understand. Greek, maybe? Or Turkish? Whatever language it was, someone else responded in the same tongue.
I didn’t say anything further to Fatima, out of a paranoid fear that one of the slavers might notice something wrong with a little girl speaking to herself. If they already had noticed her, maybe they would just chalk it up to a little girl praying for salvation. It would be an entirely believable excuse. And, in an odd way, wasn’t Fatima doing exactly that?
Before I had a chance to say anything else, a sound like a penny ricocheting around in an empty oil drum reached me. It was too loud to be a penny, obviously, and I hadn’t seen any oil drums in the vicinity. From our position, I could just barely see the heads of a few slavers turn in the general direction of the sound. It came a second time. Not a penny, no, but…was it a bee? Some oversized bee? That didn’t make sense. But it was something making that odd noise, loud enough that I could distinctly hear it, even over the noise from the Urchins.
The third time the noise came, it was followed in short order by a massive woosh, like a giant sized vacuum. A plume of fire blossomed in the sky, stretching up a dozen feet. The sound was immense. Even from this distance, it seemed to suck the air out of my lungs. In my peripheral vision, I saw Mila reel back slightly, gasping in surprise or awe. The Urchins, already wired and jittery to begin with, fell into a nervous huddle of bodies, clinging to each other for safety and protection.
And the slavers – at least, the slavers whose heads I could make out – turned as one toward the sudden pillar of flame, yelling at each other in a mishmash of languages too dense for me to even begin deciphering.
Ask Devlin for a distraction and one could safely expect enough chaos to serve as a three ring circus’ main event. Ask him for a show and…well, he’d give you a show.
Now that I’d seen the fruits of his labors, it wasn’t hard to figure out what Devlin had done. There must have been another one of those generators located somewhere nearby or, perhaps, a supply of gasoline. The slavers would have needed some way of fueling the buses. With a little bit of luck, it wouldn’t be too difficult to rig a sort of impromptu bomb. Explosions weren’t my area of expertise, but Devlin had spent a decent amount of time with Anton during the London affair. Before that, he’d been in prison for nearly three years and that was more than enough time to pick up a few tricks.
I wasn’t surprised when, moments later, a bus engine roared to life. It was the same sound I’d heard before, only much closer now. As soon as the roar of the bus sounded, nearly all of the slavers took off at a dead run. Only two stayed behind with the Urchins and they only remained in place because other voices, sterner and with the weight of authority, commanded them to do so. It took those two men some effort to corral the Urchins into some semblance of order, as well as gratuitous gestures with their semi-automatic rifles, but they got the point across.
Or they would have conveyed their message if Mila hadn’t chosen that moment to attack. She moved without waiting for me to give the order and crashed into the guards like a cannonball. Her abrupt appearance set off another cascade of outcries from the terrified children. Thankfully, the slavers who were already in hot pursuit of Devlin and his rolling distraction didn’t stop to consider that they might be under attack on two fronts.
Before I had enough time to fully comprehend what was happening, Mila had dealt with both of the slavers. The scuffle must’ve particularly brutal. Few people that I’d ever seen were capable of going toe to toe with Mila for very long, even if she wasn’t entirely serious about the conflict. But even I’d been able to pick up on the undercurrent of emotion Mila carried, whenever children were involved. Something in the Urchins reminded her of herself; by attacking the slavers, then, she was able to work out some of her own issues in the process.
Dr. Bridges would have been so proud of my ability to psychoanalyze friends and allies.
Mila delivered a vicious kick to one of the groaning slavers where he writhed before flicking her eyes in my direction. “We’ve got to go,” she said. “Devlin won’t be able to distract them for long before these slavers decide to take a risk.”
“What kind of risk are we talking about?”
“They’ve got guns,” Mila said, in a tone like a kindergarten teacher. “He doesn’t. Even if he does, he won’t use them. If they can’t kill him outright, they’ll shoot out the tires and kill him when he tries to run.”
My blood, still filled to the brim with adrenaline, ran cold at that thought. We had an exact strategy for myself, for Mila, for Michel, and for the Urchins. No such plan existed for Devlin. If he stopped for any reason, Mila was perfectly right: the slavers would do their level best to kill him. And he couldn’t keep driving indefinitely. Presumably, his distraction had destroyed their stockpiles of gasoline, but there was no way of knowing how much fuel was actually in the bus he’d stolen.
Time was a factor. It was always a factor and I was beginning to hate the clock’s inexorable ticking.
“Fatima!” I raised my voice, not caring who heard me. We had the safest position now and Mila would be able to shoot at anyone who tried to attack, without putting the children’s lives at risk. “Fatima, where are you?”
The reply came from a thick knot of children, all male and about sixteen years old, who didn’t scatter at the sound of my voice so much as they fanned out. “Here,” Fatima said. “I am here.”
She gestured at two of the young men around her. Without hesitating, they bent down to pick her up and raised her over their heads. The rest of the Urchins stared at her for a second before they also raised their arms and half-carried, half-passed the tiny girl across the surface of the crowd until she could step down in front of us. In less stressful circumstances, the effect would have been impressive. As it was, I was just glad that we wouldn’t have to wait for her to push her way through the crowd.
“We need to get these kids on board the closest bus,” I said, “and we need to do it right now.”
“Where is Hisein?” Fatima asked.
I pointed in the general direction of Devlin’s commandeered vehicle. “Over there. Somewhere. I’m not really sure, but that’s not the point. The longer it takes us to get these kids settled in and ready to go, the more likely it is that Hisein and Devlin are going to be in a lot of trouble.”
Fatima took that pronouncement with more grace than many full grown adults I’d met over the years. She didn’t waste any time asking for more details or rocking back in stunned confusion. She turned back around so that she faced the rest of the Orphans and began speaking to them in rapid fire Arabic. At first, her small voice wasn’t audible over the din of voices, horns, and shuffling feet. But, as she continued, the children grew quieter and began to listen.
“She’s good at this,” Mila murmured in my ear. Of course, I hadn’t noticed her sneaking up on me, but that wasn’t anything new.
“Better than most,” I agreed. “Wish I knew what she was saying, though.”
Fatima finished her speech and allowed a moment of silence to fall. No more than ten seconds later a voice, even smaller and younger than hers, whispered a word.
Other children repeated the whispered word and, before long, it seemed like the entire gang of Urchins was murmuring the word in a single voice. It was the same word Hisein had used earlier, when referring to Fatima. Now that I thought about it, it might have been the same word that the Urchins at the warehouse had been whispering, when Fatima’s rival had maneuvered her into setting off on an impossible quest.
It meant something to the children, obviously, even if I had no idea what that meaning might be. Whatever it was, it was enough that the children consented to her rule. With a few sharp words and gestures, she pointed out several of the largest Urchins in the throng. Those boys stepped forward and organized the Urchins back into lines in short order. They all started moving to the remaining bus – the one that the slavers had been stripping bare, in order to accommodate more children – and began to pile in.
I would have stared at the procession if Mila hadn’t tapped me on the shoulder. I turned to face her and saw another line of children approaching from a different direction. Michel was at the head of the line, his face smeared with dirt, mud, and other detritus that I didn’t care to identify. When he noticed us noticing him, he smiled and the bright white of his teeth dragged a smile out of me, as well.
“What did I miss?” Michel asked, when he was close enough for us to hear.
“Not much,” Mila replied easily. “An explosion, some grand theft auto. Maybe some kind of messiah situation, if this girl’s as good as it seems.”
She tilted her head in the direction of Fatima’s neatly lined up Urchins. Already, the children who had come with Michel were picking up the chant from the others and falling into place.
“Ah,” Michel said. “That is…uh…”
“Ignore her,” I said. “Can you drive a bus?”
Michel blinked. “I drove a train, Sarah,” he said, after a few beats. “Yes, I can drive a bus.”
A little bit of heat rose into my cheeks, which I blithely ignored. A gunshot rang out in the distance. There was no accompanying cry of pain or squeal of tires, but the sound was still more than enough to galvanize me into action.
“Devlin’s out there,” I said, stabbing at the air with a finger. “And I don’t think he has any idea how the hell he’s supposed to get out of here.”
Michel took in the situation – the Urchins, Fatima, the torn out bus seats scattered across the emptying street – and nodded. “What do you want us to do?”
“I don’t know how, but we’re going to have to rescue him,” I said. Then, after a slightly more dramatic pause than strictly necessary, “Again.”