The morning was growing brighter by the minute as the sun climbed higher into the sky. All was quiet and still; only the sounds of Naomi’s own footsteps reached her ears as she crossed the gravel driveway and stepped into the garage. The calm was oppressive, unnerving somehow, after the noise and chaos she had just emerged from. It was more than a lack of gunshots or dying screams. Something felt off, unusual, wrong…
There was a whisper of wind, and some tree branches rustled. Then, again, there was that off-putting silence.
There aren’t any birds, Naomi thought, and now that she’d realized it, the complete absence of tweets, chirps, and caws stood out as clearly as a blaring alarm. They were practically in the middle of a forest, and there had been plenty of wildlife sounds before, hadn’t there?
“We’re clear,” said Sky, joining Naomi in the garage.
“Do you hear that?” said Naomi.
“Nothing. Not a single bird or, or… anything.”
Sky cocked her head to the side, listening for a moment, then shrugged. “Gunfire must’ve scared them off. They’ll be back before too long, probably. Animals are stupid.” She took a peek down the hatch into the basement, then began descending the ladder.
Naomi didn’t think animals really were that stupid. More likely it would be a long time before any of them would come back around this place. And maybe they had the right idea. “What do we do now?” Naomi asked.
“Hang on a sec,” Sky called up from the basement. She was gone for a minute or two before her head emerged up the ladder again. “Okay, let’s get a move on. We’ve got some ground to cover.”
“Is Innis coming to pick us up?”
“Not likely. He’s busy elsewhere, I think. But I hid my bike not too far from here. It’s far enough that it was outside of the Sentry’s range, so it’ll take us 20 minutes or so to walk to it.”
“Your bike?” Naomi wrinkled her forehead. “Our ‘escape vehicle’ is a bicycle?”
Sky laughed, a short, sharp, derisive bark. “Kid, do you really think I’m the kind of chick who pedals around like a loser?” She laughed again. “I have a Harley.”
“So let’s get walking.” She led the way back to the dirt road.
Naomi followed, quiet, thinking to herself, listening to the stillness around her. A few minutes passed before she got up the courage to restart the conversation: “I don’t get it.”
“What don’t you get?”
“Well, just about everything,” said Naomi. “I can accept that there was more to this plan than I knew about. I know there wasn’t a ton of time to fill me in on all the details. But we came here to rescue Candace, right? And now she’s gone again; we failed. You don’t really seem to care, though. Why don’t you care that they got away from us?”
Sky flashed her half-smile and winked. “Sure, they got away from us, but like you said, there’s been more to this plan than we could tell you about.”
“So… we haven’t failed?”
“We haven’t. Whether the others can do their jobs remains to be seen. It’s out of our hands now.”
“Oh.” Naomi walked for another thirty seconds. A soft wind twisted her hair around her ears. “Wait. What ‘others’?”
The lead ERT van rumbled purposefully down the highway, rattling the floor under its inhabitants’ feet like they were riding in an earthquake on wheels. Griff gripped the edge of the bench he was sitting on with one hand and clutched a strap on the wall with the other. His eyes were fixed on the mesh-laced window set into the door that separated the back section of the van from the driver’s area. At this angle, he could just see a small wedge of the roadside rolling past. That wedge was the only thing holding back the vomit that was threatening to rise a few inches further up his throat.
There were others sitting here in the back with him. One was Francis, sitting on his left, legs crossed neatly, seemingly unbothered by the bumpy ride. Two were heavily armed police officers, dressed in full ERT gear, fingers resting lightly near the triggers of their assault rifles, eyes ready, actively assessing Griff, Francis, and the other two passengers, each in turn.
One of these others was the van driver who Griff had seen tied up in the basement, the one who had delivered the two women before their attack. His eyes were still covered with a blindfold, and he sat quiet and motionless on the bench across from Griff. The other prisoner was fidgeting beside him, hands cuffed together in his lap, lips and tongue working over his teeth in agitation. His eyes were constantly moving, looking at his feet, then the ERT trooper across from him, then his shackled wrists, then the polished metal barrel of the trooper’s gun, then his feet again, then Griff…
From the corner of his eye, Griff felt the intensity of the man’s expression, but he didn’t dare acknowledge it. He kept his gaze fixed on that wedge of passing scenery and swallowed back the churning in his stomach.
The prisoner’s burning stare moved away from Griff, and he breathed more freely. He was almost settling into this ride, overcoming the fussing of his stomach. He could spare some brain power now to pay attention to his other senses, and when he did, something piqued his interest—and then captured it entirely. He could feel a high concentration of something up ahead, the bodies packed so close together that he wasn’t entirely certain what they were. The way they moved, parts of the periphery swirling off in indistinct bunches and rejoining the greater mass, it could almost be a massive flock of…
“Francis,” he said, just loud enough to be heard over the din of the van’s groaning and rattling.
She looked up, eyebrows raised. “Hmm?”
“I think there are a lot of, um… A lot of birds.”
“Following us? Probably. We already know they’ve got a bird psychic, but it doesn’t matter. They can’t do much to us now.”
“They aren’t following us,” said Griff. “They’re just up ahead.”
Francis frowned. “In front of us? How many birds are we talking about?”
“More than I can count.”
“Huh. Okay…” Francis stood and looked through the mesh window. The van was rounding a long corner. “Driver?”
“There’s a possibility that… Holy crap.” Francis exhaled a long breath, then threw herself back down on the bench and squeezed her eyes tight shut.
Griff knew that look: she was channeling her own ability, and fiercely, at that. He didn’t have to ask what she was reacting to. Craning his neck to get a better view through the front window, he’d already seen the immense, roiling cloud stretched across both lanes of the highway, thousands of wings beating furiously to win breathing space, jostling and jousting, fluidly expanding and contracting like a vast, feathered lung.
It didn’t matter how invisible Francis made them. The birds knew where they were, and where they were going. There were simply too many. They were unavoidable.
But what did they intend to do?