It didn’t take long for her to make her decision. Less time than she was comfortable with, really, but the truth was that she owed the eagle more loyalty than the human. “Take me to the bird. Take me to Xipilli.”
“C’mon,” the young man said, graciously placing her hand on his arm, so she could more easily traverse the unfamiliar terrain, “let’s go find your companion—what did you call him? Xipilli?—before Rachel does.” Miranda felt a small pang of doubt and shame. Was she selfish for saving her feathered friend over another human being when there were so few humans left? Stupid for trusting someone she had first encountered working for the enemy?
The boy led her up the mountain in silence, purposefully striding across the ground, occasionally pulling Miranda behind man-sized boulders, presumably to avoid detection.
“It shouldn’t be much farther now.” He stated.
Miranda raised the whistle to her lips, to let Xipilli know they were coming, but the boy covered it with his hand, silencing it before it started.
“Rachel isn’t going to be far, and she isn’t really after your bird.” He hissed out the words as if speaking them burned his tongue. “It’s you she blames for Sally’s death—you she wants to kill. I’d rather not make it easy for her.”
The anger in his voice and his hot breath against her ear frightened her; made her question her earlier judgment. Why was she trusting this stranger? Miranda pulled her arm away and almost overbalanced on the moss under her feet. “Who are you? Why are you helping me and how did you find us?”
He stopped abruptly and stood motionless for a few moments before addressing the question. “My name is Jacob. Sally and Rachel took my little brother. I’m trying to get him back. I think you can help me. We need to go.” He placed her hand back on his arm and they continued in silence. Miranda was so focused on listening for sounds of either her bird or of Rachel and her entourage that Jacob’s voice made her jump. “Blitz landed some somewhere near here.”
“Who?” Miranda’s lips curled into a grimace.
“Sorry…Xipilli,” Jacob corrected himself. ”Sally called him Blitz.”
The stupid woman had treated her feathered prince like a common falcon. No wonder he’d been so eager to attack. Rachel, on the other hand, wasn’t so stupid. She’d simply use him as a pawn Miranda didn’t want him to fall into her hands. Where was he? They’d been walking for twenty minutes at least. How bad were his injuries? Would he even be strong enough to call out?
Jacob stopped suddenly, placing his hand against Miranda’s shoulder. She held her breath as she strained to listen. There! She turned her head to the left. The grass rustled as Xipilli ran out from the treeline. He rubbed his beak against her leg, making chattering, clacking noises of joy with his beak. She bent down offering her gloved arm to the bird as a perch. He climbed up without hesitation.
Miranda began examining his wings with her other hand, completely forgetting about anyone or anything else in the process. There was no blood, no wound. They hadn’t hit him after all, but he’d damaged his wing somehow. He flinched once when her hand was near the top of his wing, but it wasn’t an exaggerated flinch. Probably bruised rather than broken. She’d have to splint it to keep him from trying to fly for a week or two.
“C’mon,” Jacob hissed, “we should get back to the vehicle. Reassess the situation there.” He was right. They needed to move.
Miranda stood up and placed her right hand on Jacob’s arm, with the eagle still perched on her left arm. “Let’s go.”
It took them less time to find the vehicle again than it had taken them to find the wayward bird, but the sun was already starting to descend towards the horizon.
“The woman that you were with didn’t die at least,” Jacob reported, once they were back at the vantage point Caleb had set up. “She’s in the truck with the others.”
Fantastic. People got so damn stupid when family was involved. She had too—when she had been younger and had more family to get stupid about. It was fortunate that Jacob had shown up, or Miranda would have had a difficult time getting off the unfamiliar mountain, even with Xipilli’s help.
“We should go back to the farmstead,” she suggested. “We can get help there, weapons, tools, more people.”
“You can go back if you want,” Jacob replied. “I’m not taking my eyes off that truck, and I’m keeping the vehicle.”
Miranda tried to ignore the flash of anger she felt at his youthful arrogance. “And why is that exactly?”
“We don’t have time to get to anywhere that I can’t walk to in ten minutes or less.” He replied. “Look down there. See, Rachel’s almost back to camp.”
“Well, I can’t see that, but I’ll take your word for it.” She dug in her pocket for the strip of cloth she had used to cover Xipilli’s eyes on the ride up the mountain. “You think she’ll leave right away?”
“The kids and troublemakers are all on the truck already.” The ATV door opened, and she heard him rummaging around. “I don’t see anyone in town but the guards, so anyone who isn’t in the truck is tied up somewhere, probably the barn. Same as my town. Do you know where the keys are?” Rachel had already returned to Salvation. Miranda could hear her shouting at her lieutenants, her normally velveteen voice pinched and shrill. Her anger was motivating her and everyone around her.
Jacob was right, if they wanted to know where the truck was going they didn’t have time to go back to the homestead. Fern and Charlie would be worried, might even think the worst, but that couldn’t be helped.
She missed cell phones.
“Did you check the ignition?” Miranda tied the scrap of cloth gently over the eagle’s eyes. She didn’t want to get left behind because of Jacob’s youthful impulsivity. He fumbled around in the car for another ten minutes or so before Miranda heard the tinkle of keys.
“Got’em!” he crowed, jingling the found keys. It was just in time. The huge semi that the village children were loaded in growled itself awake as the traffickers prepared to leave. “Get in! Hurry!” Miranda scooted into the passenger side. ‘Pilli, blindfolded, perched calmly on Miranda’s glove.
“How are you going to get down there before they leave?” Miranda asked.
“I’ve got my ways,” he replied as he started the engine. “You might want to hold on.” Was he planning on going straight down? It wouldn’t help for them to get caught too. Miranda pulled Xipilli a little closer to her body, grabbed the rollbar with her other hand, and hoped she hadn’t made a colossal mistake. Whichever way they were going, she was along for the ride now.
She braced herself for a drop but instead was rocked side to side as the little vehicle careened around several hairpin turns, kicking up dirt and gravel behind them. Jacob knew a shortcut. Miranda still wasn’t sure he was fully trustworthy, but she didn’t see a lot of options. How had she gotten into this mess?
The bumps and jumps were nerve-wracking. She could feel Xipilli’s feathers starting to ruffle under her fingers. He had been tolerant about having to be in vehicles so far, but the jostling he was getting from this ride was trying his patience. The jostling was trying her patience too. The leather glove protected her hands from the scratches and punctures of his huge talons but did very little to eliminate the crushing sensation as he gripped her arm tighter around each turn, and her other hand was starting to cramp from holding on to the roll bar.
The vehicle slid to an abrupt halt, nearly yanking Miranda’s arm out of its socket. Xipilli let out a loud squawk, flapping his wings to keep his balance and walloping Miranda across her cheek in the process. “Goddammit! Did you have to-“
Jacob’s hand covered her mouth, “Shh! Both of you! We’re close.” The kid was lucky ‘Pilli still had his blindfold on. “They’re going to hear you if you keep shouting.”
Miranda jerked her head away from his hand, but she kept her voice down. “Where are we, and what the hell kind of ride are you taking us on?” she hissed, placing her hand on ‘Pilli’s back to calm him. He hadn’t trembled like this since he was a juvenile, first learning to fly.
Jacob’s reply was a tense whisper. “If you want to save your friends, we’ve got to get them at the next stop. They only want kids. When they stop to refuel, they’ll kill anyone older than 16.”
“Speaking of fueling,” Miranda whispered, still stroking her nervous bird’s back, “how are they fueling that monster?”
“They’ve got ethanol factories every 1000 miles or so along the route. This town will be a new one in a few weeks.”
“How?” Miranda was perplexed.
“They offer the parents occasional pictures of the kids, proof of life,” Jacob said, his voice grim and low. “That’s how I know that Danny’s still alive, or he was before winter. Crops went to fuel instead of food, and the trucks don’t run in the cold. My mother starved with half the village over the winter. When the snow melted, I joined up.” The ground rumbled under the ATV as the semi approached.
“How did they not see us getting down here?”
“I told you, I have my ways.” He said, starting the engine, “Are you coming along, or would you rather wait here?”
Miranda rolled her eyes, Fern had been much better company. Fern’s entire family was on that truck, though. The thought of explaining what happened to Fern, hearing her sob once again, was incomprehensible. She could always try and find home again. ‘Pilli had led her home in the past, though never from so far away, and not with a bruised wing.
Miranda’s hand brushed the leather pouch that Fern had given her and felt the weight of her mother-in-law’s tarot deck, still hanging from her neck. As far as she could tell, there wasn’t a rational option available. Her mother-in-law had always been a wise woman, perhaps she could help.She lifted Xipilli to the roll bar, opened the pouch, and took out the deck, smiling at the way the cards felt in her hands, cool and smooth. Miranda quickly shuffled the deck and pulled a single card, then tapped Jacob on the shoulder. “Which card is this?”
“What?” Jacob sounded appalled. “This is no time for a game of cards!”
Tarot wasn’t exactly the same as a game of poker, but she didn’t have time to argue the matter right now. “Just tell me which card it is and I’ll put them away.”
“Fine, whatever! It’s,” he pulled her hand closer to his face. “The Chariot.”
The Chariot. Well then, according to the cards, full steam ahead. Miranda slipped the Chariot back into her deck then tucked the deck back into the pouch. She held her arm up, tapping it gently on Xipilli’s feet. His weight was ponderous on her arm, but also comforting. She stroked the feathers on his chest with her other hand. Miranda had no idea where she was anymore, no idea where she was going, and she was preparing to take on some nasty individuals with an unfamiliar young man and an injured bird. Yup. Seemed like a solid plan.
The ATV rocked sideways as the semi blew past, then it lurched forward as Jacob pressed his foot to the gas. Xipilli let out an angry squawk and bit blindly at the air as the vehicle once again began bouncing along whatever path or trail they were using as a road. Branches whipped against their arms and faces as they drove, like gaunt hands trying to hold them back. Miranda brought Xipilli as close to her body as she could, letting her gloved arm rest in her lap and wrapping her free arm around his body to shield him from the flying dirt and gravel.
The rumbling of the semi as it drove near them prevented any conversation, and Jacob seemed to have his hands full just keeping the ATV on the ground. Miranda guessed they driving on an unused trail that ran alongside the road, probably behind tree cover. How else were they remaining undetected? The warmth of the sun was at her back as it set, so they were moving east. Through to Texas maybe? She clung to her bird as they drove, her face buried in his feathers. Xipilli held as still as he could through the chaotic ride. Miranda was impressed with his control. He may have appeared calm to the casual observer, but she could still feel him trembling.
Miranda became so accustomed to the constant bouncing and jostling after a few hours that she eventually drifted off, cuddling the huge bird of prey like a child embracing their favorite blankie. She woke to the swift bonk of Xipilli’s beak on the top of her head as they went over yet another bump. It felt like she’d been tapped on the head by a ball-peen hammer. Something warm dribbled down from the top of her head, and her hand came away sticky and wet when she touched her forehead or cheek. The bird shifted on her arm, making small sounds of concern while continuing to anxiously rearrange her hair.
She was so proud of how well he’d done on this trip, despite her bleeding scalp. She didn’t mind not having children of her own, really, but the fact that Xipilli’s genetics would die with him saddened her. He’d never really understand the difference—he’d likely never even meet another of his kind. Ironically, that was in large part why it saddened her. Not so much because she thought her poor harpy eagle was lonely, but because she knew he was a healthy member of a very endangered species.
The semi’s air-brakes went off, startling her out of her musings. Jacob drove for just a few minutes longer, eased the ATV into a spot Miranda assumed was out of view of the truck, then turned off the engine. The truck door slammed shut as the driver exited the vehicle. She could hear the low rumble of two men talking, but couldn’t exactly make out what they were saying.
“They’ll wait until after they eat to kill them,” Jacob announced. “The food’s drugged. Makes everyone more manageable. What the hell happened to your face?” He must have finally noticed the blood.
“Xipilli was nervous,” she replied, irritably waving the question away. ”I’m fine. It’s barely a scratch. What was the plan?”
“Um… yeah,” Miranda could practically hear the boy staring at her. “Right. The plan.” He cleared his throat. “So, I’m going to go over there, pretend I’ve been there all along, and tell our friends not to eat the soup. Then when the guards take them out of the truck, we’re going to cause a distraction, using that big bird of yours, then get the adults away from the camp. Tomorrow, we’ll follow the truck to its destination, and get all the kids back, including my brother.” That all sounded a little too pat for Miranda’s taste but avoiding the soup sounded like a good first step. “You’re going to wait here for me, just for a few minutes. After I keep them from eating the soup, we’ll sort out the distraction.”
“How much cover do I have?” Miranda asked. It had been a long ride. She had a full bladder and didn’t want to inadvertently give their hiding spot away.
“About three feet in any direction but forward,” he hissed back impatiently “don’t go past the front of the vehicle.” Then, with barely a rustle of the leaves, he was gone. How had he gotten so good at that?
Miranda lifted her companion up to the roll bar so she could relieve herself, but she didn’t take his blindfold off. He was quieter with it on and his screech could alert the traffickers to their presence. She didn’t usually carry Xipilli for this long at a time. Her arm had passed the point of pain and had progressed to numbness. It was so weak that the support of her other arm was needed to lift the bird to the top of the vehicle. She had no desire to explore her environment at this point, it was far too risky and she was exhausted, despite her nap. Xipilli resumed his place on her gloved arm. The arm had rested just long enough for the numbness to dissipate. Her shoulder and upper arm felt like they were on fire. She sat sideways in the passenger seat, her feet resting on the ground and her gloved hand resting along the back of the seat.
She shut her eyes, taking her attention off her sore arm and directing it to the gentle caress of the evening breeze on her face. It wasn’t long before the smell of rabbit stew was drifting on the breeze. Jacob would be back soon. She wondered what kind of distraction the kid had in mind. If he was hoping to use Xipilli to distract from above he was out of luck. It would be at least a week before he’d be able to fly again.
The crunching of the gravel told Miranda that Jacob had returned from issuing his warning to the people. She hoped they had gotten the message; they would be much easier to rescue conscious. “How did it go?”
“It went swimmingly,” the velveteen voice replied. “Without a single hitch.”
They hadn’t been quite as well hidden as Jacob had thought. Miranda grasped at the whistle around her neck and brought it up to her lips. Two short whistles, two long, and then she woke up with her face plastered to the hard metal floor of a semi-trailer.
The vibrations that rippled across her face told her that the truck was in motion. The deafening screech echoing off the walls told her that Xipilli was in the trailer as well. “ ’Pilli?” Her head felt like it was filled with cotton. The sniffling and quiet sobs of children surrounded her. She swallowed the lump forming in her throat. She couldn’t break down while she was surrounded by frightened children. “Come here, my prince.” How had they gotten in here? Her voice came out slurred and mushy, but someone recognized it.
“Aunt Randy?” A teenage boy’s voice rose over the sound of the truck’s engine. “Are you awake?” Aunt Randy? Only Liana’s kids called her Aunt Randy. Could it possibly be? “Dylan?”
“No, not Dylan,” the boy replied. “He and Mom died the first year. It’s me, Matty. Well, Matt now.” Of course. Dylan would be a young man, not a boy. Matty had been barely more than a toddler, so he’d be about sixteen now.
Equal parts of joy and terror welled up in her soul. Here was her nephew, whole and healthy, but he was not safe and neither was she. Another screech echoed throughout the metal trailer, interrupting the tears that were forming in her eyes. Xipilli still hadn’t come to her and he was obviously in distress.
“Where’s my bird?” She tried to pinpoint where his cry was originating from but the sound ricocheted off of every surface. “Why isn’t he coming to me?”
“He’s at the other end of the truck,” Matt said. “They put him in a cage. He keeps screaming and biting at anyone who gets near.”
“We need to get to him. Rachel hates him. She’ll kill him if she can!” Miranda started to rise, but the cuffs around her own wrists held her back.
“You can see him right there,” Matty said, attempting to reassure his aunt. “He’s mad, but he’s not hurt.” Matty’s handcuffs clanked together when he reached down to help his aunt up off the floor.
“I can’t see him, actually. I lost my sight. I can’t see anything but light and shadows.” Miranda admitted.
“Oh, I’m sorry.” Matty helped Miranda to the metal bench that had been welded to the side of the truck. “He’s alright. I mean, someone’s going to lose a finger here soon, but they were talking about bartering with some scientists in Florida for pharmaceuticals. He’s worth more to them alive.”
Miranda nodded, probing the handcuffs with her fingers. They were attached to the floor of the truck with a heavy metal chain. She wasn’t confident that Xipilli was all that safe, but he was alive. There wasn’t much she could do about his situation right now. She wasn’t entirely sure why she was still alive.
“It was the medicine, right? That made you blind?” Matty asked, “I heard it was the medicine that caused so much blindness all over.” A smile formed at the corner of her lips. He’d always been an inquisitive child; she was glad to hear that hadn’t changed.
“Nobody went blind from the bacteria until they started distributing the new antibiotics, so probably, but there’s no real way to know.” Xipilli screeched again. Miranda wiped away a tear that rolled down her cheek. She wasn’t sure if it was because she was angry for Xipilli or if it was because she was so happy to hear her nephew’s voice. Maybe a bit of both. “You were barely four last time we visited you! How did you even remember me?” she asked.
“‘Pilli stands out in a crowd,” he replied, “and you haven’t changed much. Is Uncle Jorge with you?”
“No.” Miranda’s voice was steeped in sadness. “Uncle Jorge is with your mother and grandmother now. Xipilli and I were alone for a long time—until recently.”
“A lot of people are alone now…” Matt’s voice drifted off, but he didn’t sound finished. Miranda waited for him to regain his voice. “My sister and I were alone for a long time too, and then we weren’t, and things were better. I couldn’t stop them from taking me, and I don’t know if I can stop them from taking me from you and Xipilli, too.”
Miranda reached over on the bench and took his hand in hers. It was bigger than she had expected. “It’s going to be okay. We found each other. We’ll find each other again if we have to. We’ll figure this out.” She could hear his breathing get ragged for just a few moments before he regained his composure.
“Yeah. You’re right,” he said his voice brightening a bit. We’ve found each other now, and we didn’t even know we were looking!”
“That’s right.” She squeezed his hand reassuringly. “And we can do it again if we have to.”
Miranda felt Matt “How did you get Grandma’s card bag?”
“Grandma’s card bag?” Miranda reached up to touch the leather bag that Fern had given her. The ones that her mother-in-law’s cards had fit in so perfectly. This couldn’t be her mother-in-law’s card bag, unless… “Do you know a little girl named Fern?”
“Fern? Yeah. Fern is my little sister. I mean, Lu and I call her our sister. Aiden and Maria found us when we were on our own in Odessa. Is she okay?” So Lu was Luisa after all! But where was she now? What had happened while Miranda had been waiting for Jacob? The truck screamed to a stop, jerking the unwilling passengers against their cuffs. Miranda heard a sickening snap, a scream of sheer pain, followed by belly-deep sobbing. One of the little ones had broken an arm.
The guards slid up the back door of the truck, allowing sunlight to stream in. Even Miranda had to shut her eyes against the intrusion of light.
“Knock it off!” The guard’s booming voice echoed throughout the truck, prompting silence from most of the children, and another scream from the eagle. The little one with the broken arm continued to sob in the corner. The guard’s boots rattled the trailer as he stomped over to the child. “Knock it off!”
“Wait!” Miranda spoke up instinctively. She couldn’t let that child be hurt any further. “I think the child broke their wrist when the truck stopped. They don’t need discipline, they need medical attention!”
“Broke their arm, you say?” The man’s voice was rough and dispassionate. The child screamed as he grabbed their arm. “Yeah, that does look broken. Don’t have any use for broken stock.” The gun clicked as he cocked it. Miranda could feel the acid from her stomach creeping up her throat.
“Stop!” The booming voice was commanding enough that the guard dropped his gun entirely before rounding on the intruder. “Who the scrawny hell are you!” he bellowed back.
Miranda squeezed Matt’s hand again, tried to shut out the sound of the child crying, and slid as close to the wall of the truck as she could manage, praying that nobody would start shooting.
“I’m your buyer, for the bird.” The man stated Get him, now—before I tell your employer that you almost shot a child in front of a customer.”
“You don’t know who I am,” the guard said defiantly, “can’t prove anything.”
“There’s a truck full of witnesses.” the buyer countered.
“I’m not interested in your thoughts,” the buyer replied. The cold edge to his voice made Miranda shiver. “I have the payment. Hand over the bird and the trainer. Right now.”
“Whatever.” Xipilli let out another shriek as someone slid or dragged the cage to the end of the truck, then the guard grabbed her hands and roughly unlocked the chain from the handcuffs. He pushed her to the end of the trailer, causing her hip to glance off the corner of the huge metal cage. She added hip to the long list of body parts that were going to hurt in the morning.
“I want the child too.”
“What?” the guard sounded astonished.
“I want the child. The “broken” stock,” he clarified. “You were going to kill her. Give her to me instead.”
“And how am I going to explain that to my boss?” the guard sneered. “If I kill her, I have a body to prove my story. If I give her to you, I have nothing.”
“You give her to me and we finish this transaction. You kill her and we don’t. How are you going to explain that to your boss?”
The guard grumbled under his breath as he unlocked the girl from the cuffs and pushed her into Miranda, prompting a fresh burst of wailing. Miranda whispered soothingly to her caged eagle and put her arm comfortingly around the girl as they descended from the trailer. She wished she felt soothed and comforted.
She whispered in her benefactor’s ear when she reached him. “The boy I was sitting with. His name is Matt. He’s my nephew. Can you get him too?”
“Not right now,” the man whispered back. “I’m pushing my luck with the girl. Come along with us for now. They won’t kill healthy stock, but they might kill you. Heck, they might still kill me if given half a reason.” Miranda looked back towards the truck and nodded in a reassuring way. She hoped she was looking towards Matt when she did. The buyer guided her and the still sobbing little girl to the cab of his pickup truck and loaded the cage with the bird into the back. Except for the sound of the suffering child, they drove away in silence.
The pickup kept going for another 15-20 minutes before the man pulled over. “Welcome to the Ponce-Kennedy Science Center. We do great things here.” The pride in his voice was clear and genuine. Footsteps approached the truck and someone opened the passenger door that the little girl sat next to. “Her arm’s broken. She needs to go to the infirmary.”
A young woman responded. “Yes, professor. We’ll get her there right away.” The crying child and the woman headed off to get the girl’s arm fixed.
The man addressed Miranda again, “There’s a group of people following that truck, traded with us for weapons. They’ll be here in fifteen minutes. They plan on taking back the kids.” He paused for a moment before continuing, “It’s risky, even with weapons. You can go with them to get your nephew, but the bird stays here for now. We need to extract his DNA. His wing is too damaged to fly right now anyway.”