Fatima’s control over the other Urchins was impressive to behold. She rarely had to speak, preferring instead to communicate her wishes with the occasional gestures. When she pointed, one of the boys – I couldn’t help but think of them as some sort of juvenile honor guard – stepped in to enforce her will on the milling children, like humanoid sheep dogs. They kept the group hemmed in on all sides, provided enough comforting muscle mass to keep a mass panic from breaking out, and herded the Urchins off of the street and in through the back of the remaining bus.
It didn’t take long for the Urchins to pile themselves into the rear of the bus. The slavers had brought two vehicles, most likely intending to split the children evenly between both, but they managed – with a great deal of pushing, shoving, grunting, and other sounds of discomfort – to squeeze into the available space. Somehow, they even managed to leave enough room for Michel, Mila, and I to settle in without elbows or knees bumping into us every few seconds. They’d also pushed Fatima to the front of the crowd, so that she could speak directly to us without having to raise her voice. Her position wasn’t as roomy as those of my team, but it was a premium space. I wondered if she’d requested it or if they’d specifically forced it on her. The truth, I suspected, probably lay somewhere in the middle.
There wasn’t time to marvel over the industriousness of the Urchins. It took maybe four minutes to everyone in place and, in those scant four minutes, the situation with Devlin, Hisein, and their borrowed bus had descended into brand new levels of madness. The slavers, as it turned out, hadn’t only arrived with oversized vehicles, perfect to stuff kidnapped children into. They’d brought ATVs, as well. Through the front window, I counted at least four – no, five – different ATVs skidding out into the streets from places of concealment off of the main pathway. Two men rode on each squat vehicles: one handled the steering while the other stood straight up on the back wheel coverings and looked out over his partner. They were all carrying short, boxy guns, either in their hands or on their hips.
Mila squinted, leaned forward, and then cursed under her breath. “Submachine guns,” she said, in answer to the question I hadn’t quite been able to finish forming. “There’s no reason why they should have even brought anything like those to this.”
“No kill,” I said, “like overkill. If we’re right, and these slavers were sent here to erase the Magi’s presence and deal with any possible intrusions from our friendly neighborhood group of thieves, then it makes sense they’d come absolutely loaded for bear. Remember, as far as they know, there could be forty of us, just waiting in the shadows to spring an ambush.”
“I wish there were forty of us,” Mila said.
Without planning it, both of us turned and angled our heads down slightly. Fatima’s upper body extended out from the mass of Urchins. “What are you going to do?”
Admitting that I had absolutely no idea what my next move should be wouldn’t be good for morale. Mila was generally fatalistic enough that it wouldn’t bother her and Michel maintained a seemingly unbreakable positive attitude. Fatima, though, was an unknown factor. She’d dealt well with things so far, which was admirable, but it was hardly the same as a proven iron will. I knew, with absolute certainty, that a loss of composure on her part would be the first domino in a general riot. She’d start to grow nervous, followed by the muscular boys who served as her honor guard, and that mood would spread to the Urchins at large.
I had enough problems without deliberately drumming up new issues to deal with.
“Devlin and Hisein have a head start,” I said, speaking words at the very instant they appeared in my mind. “And the ATVs will deal with this road decently well, but they’re sacrificing speed to do it. If he can stay ahead of them, then that gives us a few seconds to think.”
“Can he stay ahead of them?” Fatima asked.
In the surge of activity, I’d forgotten that most obvious step. The communications tablet was on the floor at my feet. I retrieved it, pressed the relevant buttons to connect my earbud with Devlin’s and waited. I heard nothing…although, ‘nothing’ wasn’t quite an accurate description. There was a faint, distant sound of static coming from Devlin’s end of the connection.
“Shit,” I said, cutting the line and returning my attention to my immediate surroundings.
“What’s wrong?” Mila asked immediately.
“His earbud’s…broken, I guess? Or he lost it somehow? I’m not sure, but the punchline is that I can’t even talk to him.”
“That means,” Michel said, “that we have to go and rescue him right now, doesn’t it?”
I nodded. “We won’t know if they’re having bus trouble, or if, or even when. Michel?”
He returned the nod and began to work at the nest of cords beneath the bus’ steering column. While he did that, I focused on Fatima. “We’re going to do something very dangerous,” I said. “And I need you to make sure that your brothers and sisters don’t distract us while we’re doing it. Can you do that?”
Fatima pursed her lips in thought. “Yes. I think I can.”
“I know you just got them back,” I said, still talking without taking the time to consider my words. “And I know you’d rather get them away from here, instead of chasing these slavers down, but – “
She held up a hand with such self-possessed authority that I actually topped, mid-sentence, and blinked silently at her. “You helped them,” she said, indicating the rest of the Urchins with a slow sweep from one side of the bus to the other. “You did, and so did Hisein and your friend. I can keep my brothers and sisters calm.”
I closed my mouth before any more words could spill out. Fatima couldn’t possibly be as calm as her bearing indicated, but that wasn’t really important at the moment. All that mattered was that she managed to stop the Urchins from panicking. As long as she could manage that, there was at least a chance of success.
Success at what, though? I still didn’t have the vaguest idea of how to rescue Devlin. Mila wasn’t going to be any help at the conceptualization stage and I doubted she’d be much use in the actual rescue, either. We were outnumbered too badly for a pitched battle and, besides, not even Fatima’s self-possession was going to be enough to control all of the Urchins if things dissolved into general mayhem. Mila had talents, absolutely; it was just that those talents, at this very instant, just weren’t suited for the current task.
Michel was a similar problem. He was capable of maintaining morale and positive thinking under the most dire circumstances and he was good enough at filling in minor roles whenever the job called for it. Whatever I came up with wouldn’t be a minor role. Devlin was already neck-deep in serious trouble; adding a relative novice into the mix would only muddy the waters.
No, this was on my head. I needed time to focus but, every time I tried to focus, a thousand errant worries broke in and interrupted my train of thought. It wasn’t the first time I’d found myself wishing for Devlin’s ability to simply block things out.
I blinked, mentally rewound my thoughts, and sorted through them. Obstacles…blocking things out…there might be something I could use in those two ideas.
“Michel,” I said, “how easy is it to flip one of these things?”
“I have driven buses before,” he said. “It will not flip unless I do something very wrong.”
“Right. Yes. I get that.” I searched my memory for a few moments, trying to remember the specific layout of the shanty town. We’d taken a roundabout path through the streets in order to avoid the presumed guard towers, but I was fairly certain of a few details. “I need you to follow those ATVs, Michel, as quick as this bus can move. Got it?”
He nodded, without question, and set to work hotwiring the bus.
“And me?” Mila asked.
“We’re going to be making a lot of noise,” I said, “and I don’t think the slavers are going to be so focused on Devlin that they can’t spare a few people to deal with us. I need you to make sure that they don’t slow us down.”
“High speed shootout?” Mila mused. She flashed her teeth for an instant. “I wish I’d had a chance to get my hands on some heavier gear. I’ve only got one or two clips on me. Wasn’t planning on a running battle.”
“Would this help?” Fatima asked. Mila and I both turned to look at the little girl. She was pointing at a heavy black duffle bag, nestled under one of the remaining seats. “The slavers made sure to load bags like this into the bus before you came.”
Mila knelt, unzipped the bag, and rummaged around inside for a few moments. When she emerged, she was practically beaming. “Weapons,” she said. “Much more than we’ve seen from the slavers, so far.”
“What are we looking at?”
In response, Mila opened the bag wider, so that I could lean over and peek at its contents. There were weapons in the bag, alright: two long barreled rifles that looked like something a sniper might use, three or four assault rifles with elongated clips shaped like bananas, grenades of varying sizes and shapes, and at least five different handguns that only barely resembled each other. In addition to that arsenal, there was a healthy smattering of random bullets, clips, and magazines at the bottom of the bag.
I let out a low, involuntary whistle, even as Fatima and the rest of the Urchins drew as far back as they were able in the confines. “They can’t have brought all of this to deal with us,” I said.
“They probably didn’t,” Mila said. “If I had to guess, this is probably equipment that the previous occupants left behind. The slavers must have thought they could make a little more profit offloading these supplies. Explains why they aren’t actually using these guns.”
It seemed almost too good to be true, but I figured that I couldn’t always roll metaphorical snake eyes. “Is this going to be enough to handle any pursuers?” I asked.
Mila nodded and began removing guns, laying them out neatly on the seat itself and cataloging the individual pieces. “Yeah,” she said. She didn’t look up from the weapons as she spoke. “Yeah, this’ll do just fine.”
I turned away, leaving her to to her work, and looked out through the front window. Some of the ATVs were still in view as they attempted to navigate through the ruined street without damaging something vital. Further ahead of them, at the end of a long stretch of debris and detritus, the sky was growing lighter. We’d been in the shanty town longer than expected. So long, in fact, that it was nearly dawn.
I could use that too, actually.
Michel crossed the appropriate wires and the bus sputtered, kicked, then came to life. He took up position behind the wheel and looked at me for confirmation. I gave him a quick, terse nod. He shifted gears and began his pursuit of the ATVs and, presumably, Devlin and Hisein.
Behind me, Mila was speaking to Fatima in a low voice. “It’s going to be tight,” she said, “but I’ll need a clear path to the back of this bus if someone gets behind us. They probably won’t, but still.”
“I can try,” Fatima said.
“Try hard,” Mila said. “A few seconds in either direction…”
“She understands how serious it is,” I interrupted. Devlin, Michel, and I had grown used to Mila’s characteristic blunt manner. A child taking on responsibility for a massive number of scared orphans wouldn’t necessarily have that same talent.
Mila opened her mouth to respond, but whatever sentence she’d been planning to say never made it past her lips. We’d only just started down the street and, already, two ATVs rumbled out from a side street in our wake. Two vehicles equaled four men and God only knew what weapons.
“Mila!” I snapped.
She was already in motion. Mila began pushing her way through the Urchins, using a token amount of effort to avoid hurting them, but there were too many and the space was too small. That’s when Fatima barked out a single word in Arabic to her honor guard. The muscular boys repeated the word and backed it up with action. Where Mila had been less delicate than strictly necessary, Fatima’s honor guard was downright brutal. They only needed to shove a few of the Urchins aside before the rest got the message and split down the middle, crowding themselves to the sides of the bus as quickly as they could.
While Fatima began talking to the Urchins, her voice smooth and level, Mila got into position at the rear of the bus. She popped open the emergency exit before she dropped the black duffle bag to the floor beside her. A few moments of furtive searching yielded one of the assault rifles, already loaded. Mila ran her hands over the weapon, checking for details I knew nothing about, and then went down on one knee. She braced the rifle against her shoulder and waited.
I watched her actions in stunned silence. Adrenaline was still pounding through my bloodstream. It demanded that I act, that I move, but my arms and legs refused to follow my orders. Each second stretched out to five times its natural length and the only thing I could do was think. There were too many factors to consider: things I didn’t know, things I couldn’t know, the fact that the bus was moving too fast over uneven ground, whether or not the two ATVs following us were only the vanguard for a larger force in the wings. It wasn’t that I began second-guessing myself, so much as those confidence-sapping insecurities wormed their way past my defenses and took up permanent residence at the forefront of my thoughts.
What if I was wrong? What if I’d made a mistake or overestimated the abilities of any one member of our team? If we were stopped or even slowed down, it would likely mean the deaths of everyone I’d grown to consider as family over the past six months. And it would all be because I’d needed better equipment.
Mila, blessedly, didn’t share my hesitation. She knelt there, patient and calm, eyeing the approaching ATVs with the eyes of a born hunter. If she harbored any secret doubt, it didn’t affect her aim or her focus. Fatima was standing next to me. She’d stopped speaking to the assembled Urchins. Whatever she’d said had succeeded into calming the children down. They weren’t silent – God, I couldn’t even imagine how terrified they must be – but they kept their whispers to a dull roar. The little girl reached up and took my hand in hers, then squeezed. I returned the pressure without thinking about it. She and I both needed a little bit of reassurance.
The two men riding on the back of the two ATVs pulled out rectangular guns and pointed them in our direction. With the bus’ emergency exit open, they had clear shots into the vehicle. Mila never gave them a chance to take advantage of that opportunity. The assault rifle in her hand rattled off several shots, paused, then rattled off several more. Splinters of wood chipped off of the buildings and from the ground, where discarded lumber covered most of the surface.
The front tires on one of the ATVs exploded in a rush of air and sound. Its driver struggled to bring the vehicle back under his control, but there wasn’t any possibility of that. The ATV jerked, tossing the gunman from its back, and then flipped over. The driver managed to extricate himself before the machine fell on him, and his face collided with the ground as a reward for his efforts. The second ATV swerved away from the sudden obstacle and drew even closer. The smell of gasoline, similar to the propane from the generator, filled the air.
“Mila?” The question came out at a higher pitch than I’d intended.
“I’ve got this.”
She aimed and squeezed the trigger again. Another burst of machine gun fire came from the rifle and I noticed something this time. I couldn’t keep count of the bullets, but there was a pattern to the sound and the accompanying bloom of light. Mila corrected her aim and fired a third time. A few of the bullets were visible, like streaks of bright light, in the pre-dawn light. Some of those bullets passed by the ATV, which was drawing close enough for its gunman to take a shot at us, and buried themselves in the ground behind it.
When the fire started, tracing its way back like a snake from where the bullets had landed, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Neither, apparently, could the ATV’s driver. The gunman riding on the back yelled something to the driver, who turned to respond. When he saw the winding trail of fire, he did the only reasonable thing in the situation: he leaped off of the vehicle without the slightest hesitation. At his speed, the impact knocked him senseless immediately upon impact. The gunman followed suit, just a split second before the winding flame reached the ATV itself. Fire traveled from the ground, climbed up a nearly invisible stream of trickling gasoline, and found its way into the tank.
The explosion wasn’t impressively sized, but that didn’t make it any less impressive for its effect. A sudden burst of heat and pressure, accompanied by a light too bright for me to look at directly, erupted out of the gas tank and sent the ATV itself leaping off at an angle until it crashed into and through one of the rotted buildings. When the explosion died down to a few small blazes, I couldn’t see any sign of the four slavers and there wasn’t any indication that another group of riders were following in their wake.
A hushed awe fell over the Urchins and, in all honesty, over my own thoughts, as well. Michel didn’t turn from the road ahead of us, but I suspected he’d at least heard the brief rattle of gunfire.
“Sarah?” Michel asked. There was a slight quaver in his voice.
I forced myself to look away from Mila’s handwork. When I saw what Michel was looking at, every ounce of moisture in my mouth turned to dust.
Devlin’s stolen bus rampaged through the wrecked and ill-repaired structures in the shanty-town, using its greater bulk to force its way through whatever obstacles got in its way. I’d been wondering when he’d learned how to drive a vehicle of that size and now, looking at him from a distance, I got my answer: he hadn’t learned, in any meaningful way. There was no skill to his handling of the bus. He was simply standing on the accelerator and hoping for the best.
Circling him like a pack of hungry sharks, I counted at least seven ATVs, each one manned by a driver and a gunman. The smaller vehicles were careful not to get close enough that a lucky swerve could take them out, but they had guns and the will to use them. They wouldn’t need to get within striking distance to shoot out the tires.
Mila joined us back at the front of the bus, breathing a little harder. “I hope you know what you’re doing,” she said.
Internally, I hoped that I did, too.