“They’ve never done this before,” Sasha frowned, biting at the skin on her bottom lip. “We’ve never tracked more than four at one time, never mind in one place. What are they doing?!”
The tech looked around to see a mixture of confusion, panic and fear across the rest of the faces hurriedly assembled in the Command Centre of the building.
On the screens, a group of 18 dots were shown, clustered in the centre of Routt Court, the park situated almost exactly in the centre of the city.
An older woman, olive-skinned with steel-grey hair bound into a messy bun, shook her head.
“Whatever it is, I can’t think it’s any good. Get everyone in and ready to roll. We’ll brief on the go, update as needed, every team goes out as soon as they arrive.”
There was a short chorus of yesses, before everyone in the room—including the giver of the orders—reached for their phones. The phone tree was always kept up to date in case of an emergency, and never had anyone been so glad of that fact.
One by one, affirmatives came in from handlers and field agents, flashing up on the boards with estimated ETAs, updated in real time as everyone switched on their tracking apps and found the fastest way to get there.
It was under 20 minutes before the first team was on the streets, with 3 other partial teams awaiting their final members. Even the reserves, those agents who had retired from field work, showed up kitted out, each having been pre-assigned to a full team, the same way the phone tree was kept up.
In other parts of the country, there was confusion. Nowhere else had reports of any of these beings at all. It was a rare night when there weren’t at least a couple, solo or together, spotted. But there was nothing. Operatives were getting ready to be scrambled to assist if needed, but everything else was quiet.
It was 2am when Dylan’s phone began to chirp and vibrate. Not her normal phone, the other one. The ‘do not ignore if you value your skin and everyone else’s’ one. Dylan groaned, rolled out of bed, and padded out of the room to answer the call, hoping it hadn’t woke Becca.
She was surprised to hear the woman in charge on the other end. Lisa Decker. Dylan had met her once, briefly—just a handshake really—but the woman’s rough, low alto, slightly lilting voice was difficult to miss.
The situation was explained, precisely, in as few words as possible, and Dylan confirmed she would be on her way.
These days, Dylan had a go-bag in her car, Becca’s car, and the downstairs closet. It had been almost a year since that initial patrol, and her team—Wyn, Izak and Alexis—had put both their Skills, and their natural talents, to work. They were a solid team, working well together.
But before she did anything else, Dylan returned to the bedroom and gently awoke Becca, who opened one eye and mumbled sleepily.
“Sorry to wake you Bec, I’ve been called in—everyone’s been called in.”
Becca was suddenly very awake, “What? Why? It’s the middle of the night!”
“I know. Seems like they’re tracking a whole squad of the shadow assholes in the middle of the city. It’s all-hands, even the reserve.”
Dylan watched her silently. In her face was all of the concern and all of the fear for Dylan and the new friends they’d both made: but also all of the anger at the shadow figures who had done this—who were causing this moment, right now.
But it wasn’t the time to rehash that territory, and Becca’s face soon cleared into a tender but determined expression as she cupped Dylan’s cheeks in both hands, brought her closer, and kissed her gently but firmly on the mouth.
“Come back to me. Come back, and tell me how much you kicked their asses this time.”
Dylan gave her a smile and nodded, “I’ll be keeping score just for you.”
“I love you, Dyl.”
“Love you, Bec. I’ll be in touch as soon as I can, I promise.”
Becca released her, and Dylan brushed a lock of Becca’s hair back behind her ear, keeping her gaze for a moment longer before tearing herself away.
Arriving at the headquarters, Dylan was amazed to see it so busy. Logically she knew it would be, but it was a very different thing to actually see the normally subdued building full and bustling.
She made her way to the ready room, finding Izak there already. A few minutes later Alexis arrived, followed quickly by Wyn.
Signalling their readiness to Sasha, who had taken over the duty of assigning patrol sections, they were surprised to find Janice waiting for them.
“Looks like I got myself on your team,” she said with a smile.
Ten minutes later they were being whisked away by one of the innocuous-looking but heavily modded hatchbacks that were used when speed was needed. Their driver gave them only a brief nod before setting off at something definitely above the speed limit.
The first few times Dylan had experienced these cars she had been white-knuckle terrified. But it was getting easier now she understood more of what was happening: the drivers all had Skills that helped them react faster than lightning, and the cars were souped up to react with them. They were safer in this car than any other on the road. Even if they crashed, the car would basically bounce off and keep going.
As they drove, the four of them—Wyn with Dylan in the car, Izak and Alexis back at the headquarters—examined a 3d holo of the patrol area, mapping out routes, marking potential ambush points, hiding places, usefully located roofs, and anything else that might be useful. Each type had a colour code attached to it, so it could be called up quickly by any of them as needed.
They’d been here plenty of times, but marking things anew was a good refresher before going out there, and a habit that allowed each of them to sink back into their roles.
Their night began as quietly as they usually did, though it was strange to see other Skilled trios on patrol. Normally one duo would take each sector. Tonight, as the teams moved in threes, the handlers were creating as much overlap as possible, and they nodded discreetly at each other as they passed.
It was an hour or so before the report came that the shadow figures were on the move. They had left in pairs, spreading out to different parts of the city, and the handlers were extrapolating positions in order to tag each pair for specific teams to cover, pulling most of the patrols out to follow them, the rest continuing their routes, ready to detach when needed.
It was here that the neatly laid plans perforce broke down. Each set of trios and their handlers were connected to each other, and the minute-to-minute decisions were now in their hands.
Dylan, Wyn and Janice were tasked to perform a long, arcing approach to get ahead of the pair in their sector, and they set off at a jog, aiming to be atop a convenient building long before the shadow duo got there.
Following the same duo were two more teams, one tracking them via parallel streets and alleys, one following on behind. Dylan, now atop a club with hanging pride banners and bass-heavy music vibrating the roof, looked at Wyn and Janice, and they all stifled a laugh as each knew the others were also trying not to give in to the urge to dance and karaoke, instead cloaking themselves in the shadows left by the city lights and signalling that they were in place.
The trio tracking through the parallel streets then sped up, racing towards the club, preparing to intercept the shadow figures as they approached.
Seeing the other team move into position, they all readied their weapons. Dylan tapped her damper, switching on combat mode. Wyn stretched as subtly as possible. Janice set up her 3-round sniper rifle and lay herself flat after setting up grenades on the roof next to her right hand. All three listened to the quiet tactical murmurings from Alexis and Izak.
When the shadow figures grew close enough, the intercepting trio stepped out into the street. In the centre, one stepped forwards and held out a hand, palm out.
“You can stop right there,” came a calm, mellow voice with a French Canadian accent, that Dylan recognised as Sebastien. His Skill was the ability to project emotion onto others, and even atop the building she could feel the calm circle enclosing her, and had to shake herself out of it.
The shadow figures took a few more steps and then stopped, just as Dylan saw the last trio turn the corner, weapons held ready.
The figures looked the same as always. A sheaf of constantly shifting shadow, as deep and obscuring as vantablack, covered them, turning their silhouettes into dark holes in the universe. Even their voices, on the rare occasions they had been heard, seemed muted, like they spoke through thick cloth.
One of the two figures spoke now.
“How nice. A welcome wagon. Did you bring cookies? Casserole? Perhaps a cup of sugar?”
Sebastien shook his head, his manelike hair and beard exaggerating the movement, “Call us your farewell party. All of you. This is not your home, no matter how often you trespass here.”
The shadowy duo laughed in unison, “And you think you can stop us from doing as we wish? You three? Your friends behind us?” They looked behind at the approaching trio. “Or perhaps your friends on the roof?” The duo looked directly at Dylan, Wyn and Janice.
Sebastien began to speak again, but his voice cut off as everyone’s comms sprang to life at once, a voice none of them had heard before now speaking to them.
At headquarters, every handler speaking to their charges were also cut off as each open comms device—from the team links to the monitoring channels in the command room—stopped transmitting and began to receive the same message.
A deep voice, smooth and pleasant, spoke to them all.
“Hello there, young ones. I’m so glad to be finally speaking to you. I believe my people have chosen well, and I am positively excited to be bringing you all with us to the next stage.
“Now don’t fret, none of you will be harmed. Your Skills, as you call them, were given to you for a reason, and it’s time you knew what that reason was, before you begin your new lives as our enforcers and assistants.”
Every single person hearing this stayed so quiet they hardly breathed, waiting.
“We’re coming to your city. First, anyway. The sixteen out tonight act as our vanguard, and will prepare the city for the second wave.
“As of this moment, you work for us. Thank you, in advance, for your aid.”
The voice went away and the entire headquarters erupted.
Lisa opened the intercom, speaking herself now to every comms device.
“Quiet down, everyone, now. Handlers, you still have people to take care of. Hold all positions, self-defense only. Everyone else in this building, asses in here now, we need to work this problem not panic at it.”
After a moment everyone obeyed, and Janice quietly keyed her comms device to speak directly to Dylan’s team, and the two trios nearby.
“Everyone else, be still. Janice, see if you can take one out. I’m watching. The rest of you, be ready to move on my command.”
Janice set her cheek against the stock of her rifle, angling carefully. She took two deep breaths, let them out, held in the third…and couldn’t move. Instead of squeezing the trigger, she was frozen in place, unable to even speak.
“Rude,” came an unknown voice over the comms of everyone in the street. “Don’t worry, I forgive you. Come on over all of you, we have things to do.”
The 9 agents, suddenly unable to exert control over their own bodies, made their way to the figures and stood, heads bowed.
Dylan found herself pushed violently into the back of her own head, the command from the figure taking up all of the space in her mind. There was no possibility of resistance.
As Dylan found herself able to raise her head, the shadows flickered as they began to change.
As one, their silhouettes grew up and out, a set of extra arms erupted from each torso, and slowly the shadows flickered away.
They shone with inner light, their bodies seemingly coated in shimmering copper, shot through with gold and silver, a constantly flowing and melting mass of rich colour.
“Now then,” said the figure to Dylan’s right. “Let’s talk about what’s going to happen next.”
Becca slept late that morning, rising to an odd silence over the city, and light which seemed thunderstorm-dark. She frowned.
No birds. No traffic. No…anything.
“Dyl?” she called, checking the rest of the house, to find it empty.
She stepped outside. Still no sound. But covering the entire city was a shroud of greyish light. Not clouds, though the sky was also grey, but the very air itself.
Looking around, Becca saw that colour was all but stripped away. The grass, the red trike in the garden a few doors down, the cars parked in driveways or on the street: everything was dull.
Calling Dylan and getting no answer, she hurried next door and knocked until someone opened.
“Hey, Diana right? I’m Becca from next door.”
Diana opened the door fully and ushered her in, casting a frightened glance outside before closing it behind them.
“This might be a stupid question, but…”
*It’s not,” Diana shook her head, bringing Becca into the living room and showing her to a seat. “They took the city. I didn’t think they really could. Not so easily. They must have made themselves a bigger army of servants than I’d even guessed. Fuck. Oh, but yes, to your questions: everything is grey and if your Dylan had any of their curses in her, she’s gone.”
“Gone? No, she was-“
“Not dead, just gone. She’s their servant now. They’ll make her kill you if you try to save her.”
“You know a lot about this. You have a…a Skill or curse or whatever from them?”
Diana laughed, “Oh not from them, but I do have one. Call me whatever you like, most people do, but I see the future. Well some futures. Possible futures. I saw this. I tried to see other paths and there were some, but they were so hazy, so remote, so unlikely… I just didn’t know when, or that it would be so fast. Faster than anyone could do anything to stop it, even if they did know for sure.”
Becca felt a sudden blast of understanding and empathy towards her neighbour.
Diana kept her windows covered, never left her house, opened the door only to deliveries. And sometimes she and Dylan could hear her sobbing through their connecting wall.
She tried imagining having the knowledge Diane had and not doing the same. She couldn’t.
“OK so it’s happened. Now what?”
Diana shook her head, “I don’t know yet.”
Across the city, those who had attempted to enter or leave found themselves pushed back, gently but firmly, by some sort of field, only visible as the point beyond which the grey filtered out into normal daylight.
People all over the cityfound themselves rounded up by the bronze figures and their new servants. More than a few were creatively executed for resisting, creating no shortage of examples for others who might try the same. Large, open plan buildings were commandeered to store these humans, as more began to arrive, each team sweeping city sections to get as many as they could. Any stragglers would be dealt with later.
Overnight, the lively, vibrant city had become a muted, monotone mausoleum. Nothing, nowhere, and no-one was safe from whatever was happening.
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