Seb found out later that day about my field trip with Eva and Iglu outside the lodge. He wasn’t happy about it.
“What part of ‘I don’t want her involved’ is too difficult for you to understand?”
He was yelling at Eva in her room, but the walls were so thin that Genevieve and I could hear the entire conversation like it was happening a foot away.
“I don’t see what the big deal is,” she countered, every bit as loudly. “She already knows what we do here, so what’s the point of treating her like a child?”
“The point is that you are not responsible for her! I am!”
Genevieve suddenly got up from the bottom bunk and went over to her laptop. A few seconds later, a mellow indie song floated out of the laptop speakers, muffling the sound of Seb and Eva’s argument to a tolerable level. She caught my eye as she sank into her desk chair and raised an eyebrow.
“You didn’t want to listen to the rest of that, did you?”
I shook my head.
It continued like that for the next day. Aside from Genevieve’s near-constant presence and Joel’s occasional text messages, I didn’t have a single thing to distract me from my boredom. By the afternoon of my second day at Zara Preserve, Genevieve’s growing resentment over being trapped in her room with me was almost suffocating.
We weren’t even allowed to leave to eat meals with the others. Instead, Tayo brought them to us, usually pulling Genevieve out into the hall to have a whispered conversation on the other side of the door before dumping her inside with me again. It was infuriating.
By the time dinner rolled around, I’d had it.
Waiting until Genevieve left to go to the bathroom again, I slipped out of the room and and marched out the back doors of the lodge to give Seb my two cents.
The sun was already low in the sky and the clearing was empty. The fading light illuminated a line of footprints leading past the wooden hutches and down a worn gravel path that descended shallowly from the lodge down into a lower part of the valley. I could see Tayo’s truck parked at the very bottom next to a cluster of even larger pens.
I took a deep breath and steeled myself for the eventual confrontation. The gravel crunched ominously under my feet with every step down the path leading to where Seb and the others were surely waiting.
I didn’t make it there.
Only three-quarters of the way down the hill, and already winded, I suddenly found myself flat on my back as a strong gust of wind knocked me off my feet. Ears ringing from the impact as the back of my skull struck the packed earth, I blinked up at the black sky above me. And then I realized it wasn’t the sky, but the inky black feathers of an enormous bird hovering in the air over me, talons outstretched and ready to strike.
I didn’t have time to react before something else collided with me, sending me rolling off of the path and into the sparse sprinkling of snow on the ground. When I picked myself up and climbed onto my hands and knees, I could see Genevieve panting hard as she lay in the dirt next to me, her dark hair blowing wildly in the wind.
Eva and Tayo ran over to the thunderbird, which shrieked frantically and flapped its wings in apparent panic. I watched in awe as the two of them approached the creature, which was almost as tall as a two-story house, and carefully corralled it back to the circle of pens at the end of the path.
Now that I was close I could see that they were more like massive cages than the hutches near the lodge, each large enough to contain a small plane. Together, the two of them carefully ushered the thunderbird into the closest of the cages, Eva following it inside and reaching up to stroke the brighter-colored reddish feathers at its breast as it leaned down to meet her hand.
Then for the third time, an unexpected force startled me, this time grabbing me by the collar and yanking me to me feet.
It was Seb.
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” he roared. His once angelic features were contorted into an expression of rage better suited to a demon. I was terrified. He seemed to realize this immediately, releasing me without demanding an answer and taking a huge step back.
I glanced over at Genevieve, who was scowling at me and doing her best to dust off the snow from her jacket and pants.
It was the first time I could recall Seb ever using my real name, and that opened the floodgates.
“Fuck you!” I said, taking a step forward and shoving Seb as hard as I could. He stumbled, but caught himself before he could fall. “You don’t get to drag me into this shit and then pretend I’m not even fucking here, you asshole!”
He looked stunned, as if he hadn’t even considered how his behavior might have affected me, and that was less of a shock than it should have been.
“I’ve been trying to keep you safe,” he scrambled to explain. “Obviously for a good reason, because look what almost happened! And you,” he said, turning to point the finger at Genevieve now, “why the hell weren’t you keeping an eye on her?”
Genevieve had obviously reached her limit as well when it came to dealing with Seb’s bullshit. “It’s not my damn job to watch some kid because you can’t stand to be around her,” she shot back. “Deal with her your-fucking-self.”
“I don’t need anybody to watch me!” I could feel my cheeks warming, and I could see Eva and Tayo approaching from my left, but I’d come out here to lay all this on the table for Seb, and I’d be damned if I let anything stop me. “I was doing fine before you all decided to quarantine me.”
“To be fair to the others,” Seb said quietly, “they didn’t really have a choice.”
“Well that just makes it worse,” I replied, letting the full force of my anger seep into my voice. I wanted Seb to know just how upset I really was. “Because I thought you were someone who actually thought I was important, who wanted to be my friend. I thought you wanted us to be partners, isn’t that what you told me? So why the one-eighty?”
He flinched as if I’d physically struck him, but just continued to stand there, speechless.
“I can’t put up with this shit anymore,” I told him, wishing desperately that I didn’t have an audience for this. “I already lost my best friend, I feel like I’m going to lose my brother no matter what happens. I don’t want to feel like I’m your unwanted baggage on top of everything else that’s going on right now. Please don’t be like this,” I pleaded, lowering my voice now that I’d said what I’d needed to say. “I really thought we were friends.”
Seb’s response came swift and without hesitation. “You thought wrong.”
I hadn’t expected him to say that, and I had to pause for a second to recover from the cold shock of his words. “It doesn’t matter,” I told him.
“It doesn’t matter if we’re friends,” I said slowly. “You involved me in all this shit with NIMA. I don’t owe you a fucking thing and I’m tired of being manipulated into thinking I do.”
Seb laughed hollowly. The others looked like they’d give anything not to be there, but didn’t want to risk drawing more attention by trying to extricate themselves from the situation.
“That’s rich, Peaches. You’d be dead meat if I hadn’t stepped in to help you. Why can’t you accept that I know what’s good for you—what’s good for both of us—and just stay out of the way?”
I shook my head, swallowing back the furious tears threatening to emerge. “No,” I said firmly. “No, you know what, I’m tired of this. If you didn’t want me here, then you should have put me on a fucking plane with Joel. Either you include me, or you can send me home.”
For a moment, Seb looked like he was sincerely considering the latter option. Then he let out a deep breath and let the tension bleed out of his shoulders. “Okay,” he said finally. “Okay. You’re right. Let me walk you through it then.”
I’d won the argument, it seemed, but it didn’t feel like much of a victory.
Leaving the others standing there in the snow, I followed Seb to Tayo’s truck and climbed in after him without saying a word. There was an uneasy truce between us now that we’d made our feelings clear, but I was already beginning to regret every word I’d said.
Seb didn’t speak until we’d driven for some time in no real discernable direction, following partially obscured tire tracks through the mud and frost on the ground until we reached the mountains behind the compound. After twenty or so minutes we finally reached a small log cabin that looked like it had seen far better days. Seb stopped the truck and climbed out, and I followed suit.
“So here’s the deal,” he said, leaning against the hood of the car, and looking off into the distance. The sun was still setting off in the distance. “I’ll tell you what you want to know about this case. You can help, or not, whatever. But our relationship—” He gestured between us, eyes wide and earnest. “This stays strictly professional from now on. I know I planted the seed, told you we could become partners at NIMA if you did well, but…. Looking at things now, I realize it was a mistake. I can only hope you figure that out for yourself before it’s too late.”
I stared at him helplessly. “Who hurt you?” I wanted to ask. “Why are you being like this?” I know if I asked either question it’d just make things worse, so I said nothing at all.
“Okay,” Seb said, clearing his throat. “So one of the thunderbirds, Charlie, went missing a few weeks ago. There weren’t any signs of foul play, so initially they thought someone forgot to lock her in the pen at night and she escaped.”
“But they don’t think that now,” I ventured, hoping he wouldn’t go ballistic over the interruption. I’d made it clear I wanted to participate, not be bossed around like a little kid.
“No,” he replied. “They found tire tracks from other vehicles going between the highway and the trail, and the treads don’t match any of the trucks up at the compound. They’re deep too. It looks like they were towing a heavy trailer of some kind.”
“But they managed to get the thunderbird into the truck without any signs of a struggle?” I questioned. I couldn’t imagine anyone trying to kidnap something that big and powerful and coming out unscathed.
“That’s what doesn’t add up,” Seb said with a sigh. “Come on, let’s get inside. I’ll start a fire and explain the rest. I don’t want you to freeze out here.”
It was noticeably colder now that we were at a much higher elevation and I pulled my jacket tighter around myself. I glanced over at Seb, who was fiddling with the rusted-over latch on the door and kept misting up his glasses every time he tried to blow the hair out of his face. I suspected if his complaints the previous day were to be believed, it was Seb that was in danger of freezing to death.
Still, I wasn’t complaining by the time he had the fire going, and instead sat eagerly in front of the crackling flames with my palms outstretched. Seb lounged in a wooden chair to my right, straddling it backwards in a way that didn’t look remotely comfortable.
“So what’s the rest?” I asked.
“There’s a few different things to consider first,” Seb said, ticking each point off on his fingers as he spoke. “First is that the tracks leading out of the compound branch away from the highway and into the mountains. That’s why Barnes and the others were up here in the first place when the storm hit. For whatever reason, the kidnappers haven’t left. At least so far as we can tell. Second is that a thunderbird on its own is valuable in terms of being a rarity, but it’s not a long term investment. Tayo thinks, and I agree, that they’ll probably be back to try and take Dex, since he and Charlie are already a mated pair.”
“And third?” I asked, sensing that wasn’t all there was to it.
“I think they have avian hybrids in their crew,” Seb said, gazing vacantly into the fire. “I’m not one-hundred percent sure if it’s a smuggling ring, like with the mermaids, but if it is, that is one hell of a coincidence. But there’s not much market in selling or harvesting parts from something as endangered as a thunderbird, mostly because NIMA would catch on in a heartbeat.”
“Uh, hang on,” I said, scrunching my eyebrows together in confusion. “What’s a hybrid?”
“Oh.” Seb looked taken aback by the question. “It’s a slang term for inhumans with prevalent animal characteristics.”
“What, like werewolves?”
He scoffed. “No, not like werewolves. Hybrids can’t change form. They’re stuck somewhere between a human and animal shape.”
“Like furries?” My eyebrows climbed higher in disbelief.
Seb’s expression turned stern. “One of them catches you saying something like that, and you’ll be lucky if you can ever say anything again. Don’t even joke about it, seriously. And speaking of which, I should probably tell you now that you need to cut it out with the ‘monster’ shit. It’s not exactly…politically correct.”
“You say it,” I pointed out.
Seb waved a hand dismissively. “Look, that’s not important, okay. The point is that it’s very likely these people have someone who can control the thunderbird, which means that unless we find them, there’s almost no chance Charlie will try to free herself and return to the preserve.”
“Okay,” I agreed. “So how do we find her?”
“We don’t,” he countered. “At least, not yet,” he added before I could protest. “We need to focus on finding Brother Barnes first.”
“Well what happened to him?”
“Tayo said he went missing in the storm while they were out searching for Charlie. So it’s possible that he did find her and was captured himself, or he was killed, or worst case scenario, got injured out in the wilderness somewhere and couldn’t make it back.”
I frowned. “Couldn’t all of this be avoided if they had like GPS tags or something?”
“Haven’t you been paying attention?” Seb replied. “They don’t have the same resources here that we do back home. The preserve program’s always hung by a thread thanks to the way NIMA’s budget works.”
“Sounds…complicated,” I decided.
Seb laughed a little at that. “Yeah, that about sums it up. But in any case, this is the last station Brother Barnes checked in from. After that, nobody heard from him at all, and he didn’t show up back the lodge.”
“So he disappeared somewhere between here and wherever he was supposed to go next?”
“Basically.” Seb turned to look out the window, where the last vestiges of sunlight were just barely visible. “But that could be anywhere out there. And we don’t know where to start looking.”
“But you think these people took him,” I concluded.
“Positive. Brother Barnes knows these mountains better than anyone. There’s no way he would’ve gotten lost.”
I mulled that over for a moment. “Okay, but if they did kidnap him, or whatever, what would even be the point? I mean, how does having him around help them if they can already kidnap the thunderbirds whenever they want.”
“That’s really the elephant in the room every time we try to discuss strategy,” Seb admitted. “No one wants to admit that it’s much more likely he’s already dead.”
“Oh.” I immediately regretted asking. “It doesn’t seem like there’s anything we can do then.”
Seb shrugged. “I’m submitting a report to Sara tonight with all the information I just gave you. Tayo and I set up an electromagnetic field around the main compound that should notify both us and HQ if anything crosses it.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Didn’t we just cross it?”
Seb rummaged around in his pocket for a minute before pulling out a smooth silver disk with a pulsing blue light. “Anyone carrying one of these won’t trip the alarm.”
“But I don’t have one,” I pointed out. Seb gave me a critical look. “Right,” I said. “Got it.” So I wasn’t trapped in Genevieve’s room anymore, but I certainly didn’t have free run of the place.
“In any case,” he continued, “our only real advantage is the fact that they haven’t come back yet for the second thunderbird. Which means we’ll be ready when they do.” He stretched himself out like a cat as he stood up from the chair and walked over to the fireplace, smothering the already dwindling flames with his boot. “Ready to head back?” he asked. “It’s starting to get pretty late.”
I followed him out of the cabin and back into the truck. I stared in the side mirror back at the cabin nestled amongst the dark mountain peaks reaching up like jagged teeth against the twilight sky and tried to pretend I was anywhere else but here.