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Printed from https://www.writing.com/main/books/action/view/entry_id/976649
by Zen
Rated: GC · Book · Sci-fi · #2214237
This is the first draft of a story that is complete. (10/26/2020)
#976649 added March 23, 2020 at 10:53am
Restrictions: None
Chapter 2: Shadows
I loaded up in the back of the armoured truck, which was being driven by a girl about my age with olive skin and dark eyes. When Knight and I cleared the Stampede grounds and made it to the southern parking lot close to Erlton/Stampede station, the .50 caliber gun mounted on top of the vehicle started firing, manned by a big guy with blue eyes and pale skin like mine. Dozens of the prisoners who were being held in the camp with us were dashing out of the southern Stampede exit, taking off in the direction of Macleod Trail and from there separating into smaller groups as they sought to flee from the pursuing soldiers who’d imprisoned them.

I thought of the girls I was with in that cage – had they gotten out in this commotion? I hoped with all my heart that they had. As much as I wanted to stay and make sure, I was in no shape to fight. My head felt as light as a balloon while my body felt heavy like lead. I hadn’t had a proper meal in days. Being exposed to the cold certainly didn’t do me any favours, either. Moreover, this team that sprung me from captivity had little chance to fight a force this big directly and indefinitely.

When I was strapped in behind the driver’s seat, Knight went around the rear of the truck and aimed his compact assault rifle in the direction of the gate we had passed through to make it to the truck. He squeezed off several rounds in the direction of a couple of pursuing soldiers who were pushing up from cover toward the truck I was in, managing to down both of them quickly. After that he piled into the front passenger seat. The entire time, the machine gun overhead did not relent, pelting parked cars with destructive rounds. Glancing out my window, I saw enemy after enemy being brought down by a hail of destructive rounds being laid down by our gunner. They were currently being suppressed, but more were on their way from the heart of the grounds and surely from elsewhere in the city as well. How long before one of them came along armed with a rocket launcher or armour-piercing rounds?

Knight fastened his seat belt across his body and banged a fist against the roof of the vehicle. “Hang on!”

“Roger that!” yelled the burly man still sending rounds in the direction of the enemy soldiers who were now mostly taking cover behind abandoned vehicles and returning fire at us when our gunner harmlessly passed over their respective pieces of cover to suppress different targets. Sharp clangs rang out as bullets deflected off the armour of my door and the bulletproof window.

“Let’s go,” Knight said to the girl behind the wheel.

“All right, hang on,” she replied, and with a lurch the truck shot forward and crossed the train tracks, then shot across Macleod Trail.

Our vehicle took off down 24th Avenue at easily over eighty kilometres an hour. It didn’t take long before Knight spoke into his earpiece again.

“Goliath, do we have tails?”

“We’re not out of the woods yet, but negative on vehicles in pursuit,” Goliath spoke loudly over the wind that even without an earpiece, I could hear him well enough.

“Nice work,” Knight said, “Archer, find us a secluded place to stop for a moment. When we do, switch with Goliath and check Angel over.”

“Roger.”

Hearing that we were clear for the moment, I allowed myself to lean heavily against my door, my temple pressing against the cold glass. I shut my eyes and feebly staved off another wave of hunger. My head throbbed dully.

The Heckler & Koch pistol I’d been clutching up until now slid from my hand and onto the seat beside me. I felt so weak, so exhausted, that I began to feel myself losing consciousness again.

I heard a voice somewhere nearby calling me by my callsign, ‘Angel’, but I felt too lethargic to even rattle off a response. My eyes closed once and it was enough to pull me into oblivion.





When I opened my eyes again, I found myself staring up at a white ceiling and an unlit fluorescent light. The surface beneath me was soft and comfortable, and quickly enough I surmised I was laying on my back in a bed. Wherever I was, a dim light illuminated my surroundings in a gentle, yellowish glow.

I propped myself up on my elbows slowly, feeling some weight still dragging down my body although I felt a little better than I did back in the truck. Glancing around, I found myself in a double bed that stood against one side of a decent sized room. To my left was a bedside dresser with a portable lamp which was the source of the light being cast on my surroundings. Beside the dresser was a metal desk neatly supplied with various office stationery. Past the desk was a closet, and opposite my corner of the room was what I presumed to be the door out of this room.

Looking to the foot of my bed, I found someone sitting on a comfortable cushioned chair, their head bowed with their chin touching their chest.

The girl sitting in the chair had olive skin and straight, jet black hair that fell well past her shoulders. I instantly recognized her as the driver of the escape vehicle: ‘Archer’, I believe Knight called her. She didn’t seem much bigger than I was, perhaps only a few inches taller than I was at most. Unlike back during our getaway she wasn’t wearing any combat gear now. Instead she was sporting a black turtleneck sweater and blue jeans. She had her arms crossed over her chest and she appeared to be dozing slightly.

I had a mind to lie back down and rest more, but my stomach grumbled loudly as if on cue to protest the mere thought of me sleeping more without eating something.

Crawling out of the covers, I swung my legs over the side of the bed and placed my feet on the carpet. Slowly easing myself off the bed, I heard the bed creak slightly as my weight left it. The noise was enough to rouse my sentinel, who lifted her head a bit lazily and opened a pair of round, dark brown eyes tinged lightly with drowsiness.

When she saw me standing in front of her, her eyes widened to full attention and she stretched her arms straight above her head.

“You’re up,” she said, standing up and taking a step closer. Now that she was on her feet I could see that there really wasn’t a whole lot of difference in our respective statures. “How are you feeling?”

“A bit better than before,” I replied as casually as I possibly could talking to a person I’d never met before. “Though I am rather hungry.”

Archer smiled crookedly and chuckled, looking somewhat relieved. “Hunger, we can fix. I’m glad you’re all right. So… Angel, right?”

I blinked at her, feeling lost for a moment before my hunger-addled brain caught up with the context.

“Oh. Oh yeah, that’s me,” I smiled sheepishly and gave her a two-fingered salute that I deemed would be appropriate enough given her casual aura. I stuck out my right arm and offered her my hand.

“Christina Valentine. ‘Angel’. Code Zero-Nine-Eight,” I rattled off to Archer.

Archer took my hand readily and gave it a shake. “Pleased to meet you. I’m Genel Martinez. Callsign ‘Archer’. Code Zero-One-Four.”

“So Genel, then?”

“Yeah, just Genel. And… Christina?”

I shrugged. “’Chrissy’ is fine. Better, actually.”

Genel Martinez released my hand. “You got it. So you’ll be taking over as Shadow’s XO, huh?”

I nodded timidly. I requested a transfer to an elite tier Clandestine Operations Sector team operating within this city, and while my request was granted by the higher ups I was still warming up to the reality that I would be second-in-command of arguably the best team the Sector ever put together. I could only hope and do my best to properly fill the shoes of Shadow Team’s last XO.

“Yeah. It’s… still taking time for me to absorb that,” I said, feeling that Genel was amiable enough to admit that much to, “I’ve not led… or ‘co-led’ a team before.”

Genel reached out and patted me on the shoulder. She really did seem to be the friendly, welcoming sort, and that suited me just fine.

“Don’t worry, you’ll do fine,” she said with comforting certainty, “Dark Sky aside, of course.”

My smile gradually slid off my face. For the last year or so I heard snippets from C.O.S. HQ about the so-called ‘Dark Sky Contingency’ – an emergency plan that was put together by intelligence officials and the government as a response to a national level threat. The events concerning the proliferation of private military companies and the increasingly isolationist behaviour of the United States of America over the last few years led to the formulation of this plan.

Nodding a bit grimly, I replied, “Thanks. I hope so. Because as I’m sure you saw, this situation is rapidly turning from bad to worse.”

Genel nodded back, looking more serious too. “It already has. But we can talk about that later. I was given orders to make sure you recover fully from your ordeal.”

“Orders from whom?” I asked, curious to know who gave Genel such an abstract objective.

Genel looked somewhat surprised that I asked such a thing. “From the Shadow leader, of course. We need you at full strength for the mission, after all.”

“Ah, I see.”

“You said you were hungry, so let’s get you something to eat,” Genel began to turn toward the door and beckoned for me to follow. Slipping into a pair of white slippers, I gave another nod.

I followed Genel out the room and out into a brightly lit white hallway that stretched both left and right about fifty or so paces in both directions. To the right, I spotted a branching off corridor that cut right.

Genel led me to the right once we were out of the room, toward the part of the hallway where there was a right turn onto another hallway to the end. I glanced around at my surroundings, noting how rather new the walls and floor looked. This place had to have been constructed easily less than two years ago. The walls were bland and white, making the environment seem brighter than it must be. The floor was polished marble, equal parts white, black, and gray. Overall my surroundings reminded me of a hospital and a hotel hallway put together. The sheer, immaculate look of it reminded me of a hospital but its silence (save for the gentle hum of the ventilation system) made it feel like a hotel corridor at two in the morning.

“Say, where are we? And what time is it?” I asked Genel, who was a few steps ahead of me.

She glanced at me over one shoulder. “It’s almost three in the morning. You weren’t briefed on contingency plans for situations like this?”

“I was,” I replied, gnawing on the ‘Dark Sky’ information I was able to put together in the past, “Do you mean we’re in one of those secret underground bunkers, then?”

Genel nodded. “That’s right. We’re currently in Site DS-3275, otherwise designated ‘Haven’. It’s several dozen acres in size, with three levels. Right now we’re in the bottom level, B3. Most of the facilities on this level are for operatives to sleep, rest, and participate in leisurely activities. In other words, on this level we have the quarters, showers, gym, and common areas. Facilities for ‘business’ are in the middle level, B2. The top level, B1, has CBRN countermeasures, a decontamination chamber, and the hangar for land and air vehicles.”

We took the one right turn onto an elevator landing with four elevators, two on either side of the hall. Instead of hitting one of the buttons to take us up to B2 where the ops were planned out, Genel led me past the elevators and all the way to the end of the hall where a pair of doors swung inward to admit us t a decent sized mess hall that could probably seat thirty or forty people at most. There were barstools, regular booths, and one-and-two person tables scattered throughout the space. At the far end of the room was the kitchen where appliances like the four industrial-class refrigerators, a walk-in freezer, several microwave ovens, flat-top stoves, and a grill were located. To the side of the freezer was another double door that I presumed led to a storeroom for nonperishable goods.

Genel let me take in my surroundings for a moment before speaking up. “What do you think?”

I nodded absently. “It’s… nice.”

“You don’t sound too thrilled,” Genel commented, thankfully keeping a straight face.

“How much food and provisions do we have on-site?”

“Well, I haven’t looked through absolutely everything in great detail myself, but I’d comfortably estimate enough food, water, and other supplies to last us a year at least. Longer if we ration, naturally.”

I thought back to my experience at the detainment camp. There were easily a hundred female prisoners alone, never mind males. Add those numbers up and I could comfortably surmise over two hundred prisoners were held at the Calgary Stampede. Only one of them was fortunate enough to come to a warm shelter and a year’s worth of food and provisions.

I remembered the faces of the girls whom I got to know during my time incarcerated with them. I recalled how they each spared me as much food as they could just to keep me alive. They could have simply looked out for themselves and ignored me when things got dire. I wouldn’t have blamed any of them in the slightest if they had. Yet they suffered hunger and the cold alongside me so no one – not even I – would succumb to them entirely. Did they manage to escape that camp? After I was separated from those girls, I didn’t have a chance to come see them again.

I clenched my hands into fists and stewed in my frustration at the unfairness of it all. My stomach rumbled again, and a part of me wanted to tear it out of my torso. It felt wrong to feel this way, somehow.

I sensed Genel stepping closer to me and peering at my eyes, which I had lowered to train at my feet. Her hand gently perched on my shoulder, and I expected her to say something to console me: “It’s not your fault”, or “There was nothing you could’ve done”, but she merely held my shoulder without saying a word. In that moment, I appreciated even more so that I had a person like her to call my teammate. I was glad I was here in a position where I could do something to fix this, to fight back.

I took a few seconds to calm myself, then lifted my face and smiled while trying to hide my bitterness. “Sorry.”

Genel shook her head, reciprocating with a sad smile of her own. “Don’t be. I won’t try to pretend like I know what you’ve been through is like. I’m glad we found you, Chrissy. We’re not down here to just hide and wait for all this to blow over. We’re here to do what we can to stop it.”

“Yeah,” I mumbled, nodding to myself again. “We’ll make this right.”

Genel nodded back solemnly, squeezed my shoulder gently, and withdrew her hand.

“For now, you should get your strength up. Just tell me what you want for breakfast and I’ll make it for you,” Genel said kindly, “This isn’t a five-star restaurant by any means, but we have enough to last us a while.”

I glanced over behind her at the kitchen across the mess hall, then shook my head a little bashfully. “You don’t have to cook me anything. I can settle for some bread and a can of soup for now.”

Genel appeared to measure my general condition by looking me over. After a moment, she gave me a deferential gesture and waved me toward the kitchen.

“Your choice, then. Mind if I sit with you while you eat, though?”

I started walking past her but spared a backwards glance. “I don’t really mind, no. But why?”

She shrugged and gave me a timid little smile. “Just doesn’t seem right for me to leave you alone, given the circumstances. Besides, maybe we can get to know each other a bit this way. I wasn’t expecting a replacement XO this friendly.”

“Well, I wasn’t expecting my new team to be this welcoming, either,” I gave her a retaliatory smile as we walked over to the kitchen. “I was expecting everyone to be gruff and impersonal from what I heard, since this team is something of a paragon.”

Genel laughed just behind me. “Is that so? I think those are overblown rumours. You certainly wouldn’t think we were frontrunners from chatting with me or Josh during downtime.”

“Who’s Josh?”

“Oh, right. You remember the big guy who was manning the fifty cal on top of the truck? That’s Josh, or ‘Goliath’.”

We finally reached the kitchen. Genel followed me around the counter and hung back a little as I inspected our supplies in the storeroom.

“Oh, I see. Why do you say the rumours are exaggerated?” I asked her, running my fingers down packs of rice and some cans of tuna on a lower shelf.

“We’ve made our fair share of blunders,” Genel answered from behind me, sounding rather meek, “Every team has its rough edges, as you probably know. Shadow at the start was no different.”

I looked back at her, trying not to look too disbelieving. “Hard to believe that’s true, if the rumours hold any water. You guys apparently have the highest logged number of successful ops in the Sector.”

“That’s… probably true, I guess. I mean mind you, I’m no slouch out in the field and neither is Josh, if you’ll allow me to say. But a big part of why Sector higher ups tend to elevate us is because of Ian.”

“Ian? Let me guess… that’s ‘Knight’.”

“Yup.”

I turned back to the shelf, moved down the aisle, and picked out a can of tomato soup from the shelf. I turned around and exited the storeroom, heading for the stove.

“Bit of a silly question?” I glanced at Genel, who was watching me from behind still.

“Yeah, what’s that?” She took a step forward.

“Are there any can openers in this high tech bunker?”

She chuckled, shooting me a thumb-up. “There ought to be one around here. Hold on a sec.”

This time, I watched as Genel walked over to the counter separating the kitchen from the dining area of the mess hall as she pulled open drawers of utensils in search of a can opener for my tomato soup. As she was rummaging in the drawers, I decided to continue our conversation.

“So, what’s up with the Shadow leader?”

“What about him?” Genel made utensils clink against others of its kind as she searched.

Leaning back against the stove, I elaborated. “You said he was the reason why Shadow gets to be treated the way it is.”

“Oh, yeah. Ian is… well, he’s a bit different. Or he used to be.”

Sensing something rather implicit here, I prodded for Genel to explain. “How different?”

Genel stopped her search for my can opener momentarily and looked up at me with a surprisingly somber expression. I didn’t expect Genel to act suddenly this serious in response to a question.

“Do you… Have you heard of a callsign ‘Reaper’?” she asked rather delicately.

For a few seconds, I didn’t answer her. I’d heard of that callsign within the Sector several times since I became an agent. The details surrounding the individual bearing that callsign were muddled at best, but—

“I have,” I admitted, staring curiously at Genel. “Supposedly the ‘Reaper’ was this C.O.S. agent who works solo and basically wiped out a bunch of terrorist cells all by himself a couple years back. Rumour has it the C.O.S used him as a private hitman to remove threats to national security.”

Genel’s eyes seemed to fall, as if she knew all about this agent too but somehow saw something regrettable in the details. The crestfallen look did not linger long; Genel quickly perked up and smiled in affirmation.

“That’s mostly true,” Genel told me. I furrowed my eyebrows skeptically.

“What? No, seriously. I always thought that the Reaper was a Sector legend. Just some story among CSIS employees and Sector agents.”

She shook her head gently, her eyes sliding shut as she did so. “Where there’s smoke, there must be fire, right? I know he doesn’t usually talk about his exploits, but the Reaper is real.”

I pushed myself off the stove. If I could see my face right now, I’m sure it’d be wide-eyed with mouth agape. I temporarily forgot about my immense hunger.

Genel suddenly looked apologetic, bunching her shoulders and looking down slightly. “Technically I’m not supposed to tell you anything about the Reaper. Actually, I’m not even supposed to know of the existence of such an agent. But all of us here are in the know about him, so I figured you ought to know too.”

“Then,” I said gradually, starting to come to some inferences, “the Reaper is—”

Genel nodded, jerking her head toward the ceiling; I assumed she was indicating some area in level B2. “Yeah. You’ve already met him.”

“Holy shit,” I said in awe, unable to help myself. In my mind’s eye, I immediately visualized those cold, emotionless eyes I’d met back in that storage room in the Stampede. Just now, the myth of the Reaper gained a face I could associate it with.

“The Shadow leader is the Reaper?” I said, unable to take my eyes off of Genel, who kept smiling like a girl with a juicy secret, “But his callsign is ‘Knight’. How could that be?”

“Well… some decision took place higher up the chain of command to pull the Reaper off solo work. He’s been assigned as acting leader of Shadow since then. Something about misallocation of resources and being out of touch with what the C.O.S. was about.”

“Wow.” I fell back against the stove and breathed a sigh of wonder. Suddenly the weight of my responsibility as the team’s XO felt heavier. “That totally doesn’t help how nervous I feel about being XO. No wonder Shadow’s got a rep.”

Genel shrugged again, seeming not to think of it as a big deal. “Like I said, you’ll do fine. I’m here if you need a hand. Josh is no trouble, either. I’m sure you’ll like him quickly enough. Guy’s chummy by default.”

“Hmm. Thanks, Genel.”

“Don’t mention it. Whoops, I should be looking for your can opener. My bad.”

As Genel got back to searching for a can opener for my soup, I let my mind wander to thoughts of Knight. When he stormed the building I was being held in, I was already entertaining the possibility that he may have done that solo. Clearing a building with about twenty or so hostiles in it certainly wasn’t impossible a feat, but it typically was wiser and easier to do so with a team close behind. As best as I could tell, Genel and Goliath were on perimeter duty while Knight breached the building I was in. On our way out of it, I stepped over several fallen soldiers, some riddled with bullets that punched through Kevlar vests, others with bead-sized holes on their foreheads from headshots. Still others were clearly sliced at the neck with what I assumed was a knife.

Yeah, I’m not nervous at all. The shoes I need to fill perfectly fit my feet.





After a rather quick meal of soup and a cup of mocha, Genel offered to take me back to my room. I was expecting to be taken to the Shadow leader for introductions at least after I’d eaten, so I voiced a little protestation at the idea of going back to my quarters, as tired as I still felt.

Genel gave me an assuring smile as I followed her back down the hall to the elevator landing. “No need to worry, Chrissy. I was given orders to let you rest up until you’re at one hundred percent. We’ll be counting on you to be our second-in-command from her on, so it makes sense for you to recover fully.”

“I suppose you’re right. Sorry, I guess I’m just antsy. Been through some stuff and nerves from being told I’d be working with you guys.”

“Nah, don’t sweat it. We’ll be up against some serious opposition from here on – if you’re going to worry about anything worry about that.”

Nodding, I followed Genel as she took a left turn at the T-junction at the end of the hall and led me back to my quarters. When we got there, Genel opened the door for me and smiled at me again.

“Here you are,” she said, standing aside to let me in, “This door locks, naturally, if you want privacy for whatever reason. The rest of us are in the habit of knocking before opening, so no worries there. Bathroom and showers are down the hall, if you keep going that way. It’s unisex – the showers, I mean. But there are stalls so no, you don’t have to shower with me.”

I expected these bunkers to be more pragmatic in the hygiene facilities when compared to the YMCA, so I didn’t mind sharing a shower room with the men. We’re all professionals here, after all.

“No problem,” I said with a mock wink, “I’m not too shy about how I look.”

Genel grinned and laughed, shaking her head. “I can respect that. Anyway, I’ll leave you here. Come to B2 whenever you feel you’ve rested enough. Far as I know, Ian plans to hold off on conducting more operations until our fourth member is up to speed.”

“Thanks. I’d best rest up fast, then.”

“Agreed. Hey, it’s good to have you, Chrissy. Welcome to Shadow Team,” Genel patted me on the arm fondly.

“Hope I don’t disappoint. I’ll see you later, Genel.”

She headed back in the direction of the elevators. I closed the door of my quarters and climbed back into bed. Before putting my head under the covers, I checked the time on the digital clock sitting on the bedside dresser.

03:39 AM. Hard to believe only five hours had passed since I was sprung from that detainment camp.

The faces of my cellmates flashed in my mind again. I wish I at least got to see whether they made it out or not.

Maybe I’ll never find out. But I can do something to keep more people from going through what I did.

Drawing the sheets over my head and lying on my side with my back to the door, I closed my eyes and fell mercifully asleep within minutes.





By the time I opened my eyes again, the room was still lit dimly by the desk lamp, evident by the lack of windows down here. The clock read 8:08 AM. Even though I’d caught only a little upwards of four hours of sleep, I felt much more energized than before I got here.

Deciding that it was time to get to work, I got up and stretched my arms up with a groan. I slipped into my slippers and moved toward the door. Leaving my quarters, I took a left turn upon my exit and headed in the direction of the showers that Angel had told me about earlier today. I hadn’t had a proper washing since I was detained days ago, and even I could smell myself at this point. How Genel never mentioned this earlier was beyond me, though perhaps she wanted to take it easy on me after what I’d experienced.

When I entered the showers, the first thing I noticed was the sound of gushing water coming from one of the six stalls. The curtains were also drawn on the furthest stall from the shower room doors; one of the other members of Shadow was surely in there. For some reason, I didn’t think it was Genel – there was a fairly noticeable scent of body wash, the men’s kind, hovering in the slightly foggy air within the room. Either it was Goliath or Knight in there.

The thought of meeting the Shadow leader here of all places made my stomach somersault. It wasn’t that I was afraid to see or show some skin in an appropriate context here, but that I felt more vulnerable in general in the showers and just naturally nervous around a Clandestine Operations Sector legend like Knight – the so-called ‘Reaper’.

After taking one of the white bath towels from a rack beside the door, I made my way over to the small locker room located right before the first shower stall and kicked off my slippers. I quickly shed all my clothing and wrapped the bath towel around my torso. Thanks to my short stature, the towel covered me all the way to my knees.

There was a supply box mounted on the wall of the locker room, just beside the locker room door. After stowing my clothes in one of the middle level lockers, I opened the supply box to find an abundant store of shampoo, conditioner, body wash and lotions, and other toiletries inside. Picking out a bottle of aloe vera shampoo and body wash for women, I tucked my choices under one arm and shut the supply box. At the same time, the sound of gushing water from further down the shower room ceased abruptly.

For whatever reason, I felt myself panicking a little when the noise stopped. I quickly stepped out of the locker room, intending to slip into the nearest shower stall to hide myself from a possible awkward encounter with the Reaper, but in my haste I banged my little toe against the bottom of the locker room door’s frame.

“Goddamnit!” I couldn’t help swearing, and thanks to the acoustics of the shower room my voice sounded even louder than it actually was. On top of this, the two bottles of shampoo and body wash I was carrying slipped from my arm and tumbled to the tiled floor with an obnoxious crash that was every bit as loud as my previous expletive.

I hopped on my one unhurt foot twice, then scrambled to my knees to collect my shampoo and body wash clumsily. Just as I had scooped both bottles up in my arms, I heard the rustle of a shower curtain to my right and out the corner of my eye I caught sight of someone stepping out of the furthest shower stall.

Despite myself, I froze and glanced in that direction to confirm my one current fear: standing about ten metres away, clad in a white bath towel wrapped around the waist was Knight, the Reaper himself. To an outside observer, the scene might well have come across as amusing or even hilarious, but to me it just felt mortifying.

Knight stood still, looking at me from that distance with that same stoic expression I’d seen him wear when he killed Corporal Troy and cut me loose. Whatever he was thinking as he stared down at me was hard to speculate on thanks to his expression betraying none of his thoughts or emotions at all. If anything, he certainly looked bored to me. His skin resembled that of Genel’s, although his skin was considerably darker than hers. It also glistened slightly with water droplets, visible from even this distance. He was quite fit – not burly or large like Goliath but toned and muscular, more on the wiry side than the bodybuilder type.

Meanwhile, I was on my knees comically clutching shampoo and body wash bottles to my chest, staring back at him with what I assumed to be the look of a deer caught in the headlights of an approaching car.

For a few seconds, neither of us moved. When time thawed again, it was Knight who moved first. He leisurely walked over until he was standing practically over me. His neutral expression did not change.

“Miss Valentine,” he said in a voice that was rather quiet but still somehow intimidating. His formal manner of addressing me also caught me off guard.

“Umm, yes sir,” I blurted before I could stop myself, standing up quickly like a jack-in-the-box popping out from hiding, still cradling my toiletries to my chest. The equally stiff response I gave him made me feel even more embarrassed, but to be honest I wasn’t sure how to address him yet.

“How do you feel?” he asked me, sounding almost casual even if he was rather terse.

“Much better now after some rest and food. Thank you for the rescue. Sir.”

I withstood his gaze – the deadeye look of a gangster that might be analyzing you just by taking in your face and expression – instead of looking elsewhere for concern I might look shifty otherwise. Or, god forbid, look like I’m checking him out.

After a moment of silence, he gave me a small nod. “I see. Good. Come up to the Command Room as soon as you’re ready.”

“Yes sir,” I replied with a little more firmness, involuntarily straightening my back.

He fixed me with another incomprehensible gaze for a couple seconds before wordlessly passing me and entering the locker room.

Having been given an order to basically hustle toa briefing as soon as possible, I took the Shadow leader’s disappearance into the locker room as my cue to slip swiftly into the nearest shower stall.

I briskly scrubbed myself down, feeling increasingly refreshed after not being able to keep up on hygiene during my forced incarceration. By the time I stepped out of the stall I was feeling almost too eager to get out and go to work, my morale higher than ever.

After a quick trip to my quarters to change (for some reason the closet in my quarters contained only a brick red shirt, faded jeans, and sneakers which I all put on – Sector agents weren’t military personnel so we could afford to be vastly more flexible when it comes to attire) and to tie my hair back in a simple ponytail, I made my way over to the elevators and pressed the button to take me to floor B2.

The hallway layout of B2 was identical to that of B3’s, with the only difference being the plates marking each of the doors along either side of the corridors. Instead of labels like ‘Quarters A’ or ‘Mess Hall’, there were labels like ‘Generator Room’, ‘Armory’, ‘Shooting Range’, and ‘Med Suite’.

Without knowing where exactly the Command Room was with respect to the elevator landing, I picked going right at the T-junction and eventually found a double door with a plaque on the adjacent wall indicating ‘Command Room’.

I inhaled and exhaled deeply several times before turning the door handle and pushing the door inwards.

The interior of the room reminded me of those darkened CCTV surveillance centres that were mostly illuminated by dozens of screens showing real-time footage captured by the cameras linked to each. The atmosphere inside the Command Room certainly exuded the same general tone, but instead of several dozen small monitors there was only one large screen toward the far end of the room, suspended above a desk with two computers equidistant from the center of the table they sat on. Shown on the screen above the desk was a still image of what appeared to be a portion of Calgary as seen from the perspective of a satellite in orbit. In several places from what the monitor was showing, Calgary had fires and black smoke clouds. In other places, there were red overlays highlighting what I presumed to be areas where significant opposition forces were gathered.

In the middle of the room was a long, clear glass table with several office chairs set up around its four sides – three along its length and one on each end. There were folders and loose pages of documents scattered on the top near the end of the table closest to the large monitor, clearly been pored over already at least once before I arrived here. On the walls parallel to the length of the table stood a pair of compact but high-powered data servers with wires linking to the nearest computers right below the monitor. There was a faint hum of machinery within this room, coming from the servers and the PCs on the far end.

There was also only one other person within the room, a lone figure seated in front of the PC on the left at the other end of the Command Room. Through the illumination provided by the monitor above, I was able to make out the back of a man’s head, his hair cut short in a butch hairstyle. He appeared to be wearing a pine green sweater with a high collar and tan Velcro pants. When he turned his chair slightly so he could glance at me across the room, I was met with the same indecipherable gaze as the one I met back in the showers.

“Miss Valentine. Good, have a seat. We’re just waiting for the other members of the team to arrive,” Knight said plainly, turning fully back to the PC and continuing to type away on the keyboard.

“Yes sir,” I began to pull back one of the office chairs near the end of the table closest to him.

“No need to address me as ‘sir’ constantly,” Knight said to me without turning away from his work, “I’m not a C.O.S. official.”

It was hard to gauge if he was irritated or simply stating a factor preference. His voice was largely monotone with few changes in pitch or volume. His facial expressions were much the same story.

“Yes sir – I mean yes,” I responded with a bit of a hiccup, “In that case, what should I call you?”

The rapid click-clacking of the keyboard did not slow.

“Just ‘Knight’ is fine,” he answered, and after a brief pause, “Or either my first or last name. Doesn’t matter.”

“Got it. Um—"

I realized he’d never introduced himself using his real name before. When I was officially transferred to Shadow Team I was sent a dossier online that had each member’s pertinent information detailed in it, but right now I was having difficulty remembering the full names I read on the files three months ago. So far the only clear name that came to me was ‘Genel Martinez’, and that was only because I personally met Genel hours ago.

Knight seemed to pick up on my dilemma quickly. “Alcantara. Ian Alcantara.”

“Okay. So… Ian?” I said timidly, still warming up to the idea of calling the Reaper by his given name.

The clacking of keys slowed to a halt noticeably for a second before picking up again.

“Yes, that will do,” Knight said, his tone of voice not changing.

With that settled, I settled down in the chair and for a minute I kept quiet. Knight continued to hit the keys, each stroke producing a somewhat distinct noise.

There was a bunch of questions I wanted to ask about Shadow Team and its leader, but I got the feeling that asking Ian Alcantara wouldn’t yield much by way of answers. In my old team both the leader and XO were serious types so it wasn’t as though I wasn’t familiar with those kinds of commanders, but something about Ian just seemed a bit too stiff and unapproachable.

At least, that was how I felt right now. I was new to this team, with some big shoes to fill. Maybe it was too soon to write Knight off as a completely closed book.

Fortunately, it wasn’t five minutes later that the Command Room door swung inward and in came a familiar face. Genel walked in, her hair done in a ponytail similar to mine, with a ball cap perched on top of her head. She wore a gray no-zip hoodie that appeared to be just a little too small even for her modest frame, black jeans, and dark brown hiking shoes. When she took a look around the room and spotted my face, she gave me a warm smile and approached me.

“Good morning,” she chirped when she came close, easily settling down in the seat to my right, “Did you catch enough rest?”

I gave her a thumbs-up. “You bet.”

Genel glanced past me at our team leader, who still had his back to us. “Good morning, Ian.”

“Morning,” Ian replied rather promptly, not looking up from his work.

On cue, the door swung open again and in came the last member of Shadow Team: a man about six and a half feet with a burly physique. His skin was more or less the same shade as mine, albeit a bit less pale. His shockingly vivid aquamarine eyes were easily the man’s most defining features, however. He was sporting a short, blond goatee. While his size and general appearance certainly looked intimidating at first, his first words to us did much to nullify my initial impression of him.

“Howdy, boys and girls,” he gave Genel a rather goofy salute and even met my gaze and nodded at me before taking the seat directly opposite the table from me.

After we were all seated, Knight stood and positioned himself at the end of the table with his arms crossed over his chest.

“Right, now that we’re all here,” he said, getting straight into it, “First things, first: as you know, Josh and Genel, as of today Shadow’s newest member and XO will be joining us.”

The big guy across the table from me, Josh, clapped his hands briefly and gave me a homely smile. This abrupt clapping made me feel a little embarrassed but I didn’t find him or his actions at all unpleasant.

Knight ignored Josh’s theatrics but nonetheless gestured toward him with an open hand. “That’s Goliath, Code Zero-Two-Three. His name’s Joshua Stone, but he goes by Josh. He’s the team’s weapons expert, pilot, and demolitions pro.”

Josh reached across the table, which was wide enough that he had to lean his torso partly over it to reach the middle of the middle of the table where I was able to take – or rather, be taken – by his large hand after leaning forward myself.

“Pleasure to meet you. Christina, right?”

“Yes. Although I usually go by Chrissy.”

“Okay, Chrissy it is. Glad to have you on board,” Josh said amicably, letting go of my hand.

Sitting back down, I turned back to Knight, who now gestured toward the girl sitting beside me.

“I’m sure you’ve already been acquainted with Archer. Genel Martinez, Code Zero-One-Four. She’s Shadow’s tech specialist and marksman.”

Genel simply gave me a little nod.

“Genel and Josh,” Knight then waved his hand toward me, “This is Angel, Christina Valentine. Code Zero-Nine-Eight. She’ll be the team’s new XO going forward, as well as its stealth ops specialist and medic.”

I glanced back and forth between Genel and Josh. “Thanks for the rescue. Being XO is admittedly a first for me, but I’ll do my best for the team. At this point anything less won’t cut it, anyway.”

This garnered some approving nods from the two of them. Knight waited for us to turn our attention back to him.

His eyes landed on mine abruptly. It was a little disconcerting looking into those eyes, which certainly looked like a pair of bottomless, black pits the more you stared at them. It was practically impossible to get a bead on what this man was thinking or feeling.

“As for me, my name’s Ian Alcantara, as I said before. Callsign, ‘Knight’. Code Zero-Five-Seven. I’m Shadow Team’s leader. I hope to be able to count on you from here on out, Miss Valentine.”

Perhaps I was reading into his words too much – what with his expressions being so opaque – but I think I detected a hint of reservation from him about me being the new XO. “I hope to be able to count on you” just wasn’t the same as “I’ll be counting on you”, somehow.

To his credit, he did walk over to me and put out his right hand. I rose from my chair and took it, finding his grip gentler than I’d expected. His skin was a tinge cold to the touch. He shook my hand a little gingerly for a second before releasing it.

“I’d… like to make a request, if I may,” I told him, holding his gaze.

“What is it?”

“If we’re going to be working together, I’d rather you weren’t so formal toward me. You can call me Chrissy, too,” I said, watching him for any notable reactions.

He stood still for a moment but remained stoic. After appearing to ponder the proposition, he spoke to me in a flat tone that I took to mean he didn’t care much for nicknames yet.

“How about I stick to ‘Christina’ for now.”

I wanted to bring up that almost no one called me that, but I held my comment. Clearly Knight was cut from a different cloth than Josh and Genel, but I’d have to work with that. We were a team, after all.

“Fine with me,” I nodded minutely. He nodded back.

I sat back down. Knight took his place back at the end of the table.

“Now that introductions are out of the way, let’s go over what we know so far,” he said in a slightly more carrying volume, “Josh, Genel, and I already discussed this a few days ago, but I want Christina brought up to speed. Josh, run us through what we’re up against.”

Josh reached into his pocket and placed a small, thin object on the table in front of him, turning it so that it was oriented toward me.

I leaned forward to peer at the object he pushed across the table. It was a small emblem or patch that had clearly been cut from either a ballistic vest, or the sleeve of the upper half of an infantryman’s uniform. There was a bit of dried blood staining one side of it, but the details of the patch were no less clear. The overall shape of the item was that of four-sided shield like the kind knights in medieval times carried in their off hand. This shape was filled in with a navy colour and within its core was a gold eagle with talons outstretched to either side. In the eagle’s right talons, it clutched a white bolt of lightning, while in its left it held a deep green olive branch. Sewn in beneath the eagle, its top half visible, was a star filled in with a shade of gold that was less saturated and brighter than that of the eagle. Below the eagle’s shape was a strip of a banner shaped in a rough letter ‘V’ that somewhat followed the bottom contour of the shield. The words in white thread running within this banner read: ‘United States Army’.

I wasn’t too surprised by this piece of intelligence. I’d seen the same patch sewn into the vests and sleeves of the soldiers that guarded the detainment camp I was in. At the time, I didn’t want to believe what I saw. The United States had been growing more and more isolated in the last five years, refusing to align with members of the United Nations, NATO, and G7 on matters ranging from climate change, migration, political and economic unrest in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and trade ‘agreements’ with nations like Canada, Mexico, France, and Britain. What’s even worse was that the current US president over their first term had increasingly and more frequently expressed – admittedly veiled – support for authoritarian regimes like that of North Korea. Even traditionally bitter opponents of the States like Russia had recently started building ties with the States, which to a lot of people was alarming given the hardly rosy history shared between the two countries. Over the last few years, the divide between the US and its Western ‘allies’ only grew wider.

It was largely because of this shift in the balance of power on the global stage that nations like Canada, Britain, France, and Germany attempted to strengthen its ties in terms of military cooperation and sharing of intelligence pertaining to each country’s national security. This however only seemed to convince the Americans that its former allies were mobilizing to alienate the United States and further pushed the country to seek allies in former rivals. Add to the mix the proliferation of many small and large private military companies formed in the wake of the US-West rift, and the recipe for another global conflict became more and more plausible. This was part of the reason why the Canadian Security Intelligence Service formed a branch that would have extensive authority to protect and preserve national security through less overt means than military intervention. This led to the inception and establishment of the Clandestine Operations Sector in the summer of 2017.

Josh tapped on the table to indicate the bloodied patch. “I snagged this off one soldier while we were still practically totally blind as to who exactly we were up against, while we were looking to measure opposition strength and getting intel that might tell us what happened to you.”

He gave me a tiny nod to indicate who he was talking about.

“From what we’ve seen ourselves, all of the ground troops we have crawling over the city are US Army,” Josh continued, looking at me directly since I was the only one who wasn’t in the loop yet, “I haven’t seen any Navy, Marines, or Air Force units so far, but if the Army is here naturally all other branches of the USAF can respond to assist if they’re ever needed.”

I glanced down at the Army emblem on the table, then glanced back up at Josh.

“How large is the opposition here in Calgary?” I asked him.

“That’s a bit up in the air. Comms with the HQ in Ottawa have been spotty at best since Calgary was invaded, no doubt thanks to the enemy either severing our connections or jamming us to keep us from hearing from other cities. Haven’s comms systems are still operational, and our location is still hidden to the enemy, but our last transmission from HQ was four days ago. Apparently, they’ve got the same problems we do so it’s not hard believe our infrequent updates from them may have something to do with the city being under attack. The last we heard from HQ, their opposition forces were larger than ours. We’ve been pinging them for a response the last couple of days, but we’re not getting anyone on the horn.”

Josh paused to let me briefly digest this information, then went on. “In other words, what we know about local opposition is limited to what we ourselves have observed. After the first night of the invasion, more US Army personnel came to reinforce the forward forces. If I had to make a rough estimate, troop strength here numbers close to a thousand. Again, without support from Ottawa, it’s hard to pin down a more accurate number.”

Knight took over the briefing. “We reconned the Stampede for two days before making our move to extract you. Before that we had to attack an outpost in the southwest quadrant of the city to gain intel about what the soldiers are up to, and your name came up on a database for prisoner information. Normally, I’d be hesitant to storm a stronghold holding upwards of a hundred hostiles, but Shadow needs to be at full strength or we’re not going to be much of a resistance. It was a big risk bringing you out, but there was no other way. Time is short and we need the team running at one hundred percent.”

Recalling the brutal living conditions in the camp, I felt a momentary wave of anger at those soldiers for what they subjected me and others to.

“So, what’s our goal here?” I asked, looking straight at Knight.

He inclined his head a bit. “Our last transmission from HQ gave us a vague short-term objective: to liberate the city from foreign power. It’s worth noting that the transmission was sent to other locations besides here. Meaning, there are other C.O.S. teams with their own versions of our problem on their doorstep.”

Leaning back in my seat, I gripped the armrests of my chair, thinking hard. Four agents against hundreds of enemy soldiers? Was that even a fight we could win?

“Will there be any support from HQ, even if they can’t provide it at the moment?” I asked, forcing my defeatism out of my mind.

“Nothing concrete,” Genel answered for me, and met my gaze when I turned to her. “From previous updates, we were told the government was preparing a portion of the Canadian Army to splinter off to support liberating cities alongside stationed C.O.S. operatives, but as things stand even a detachment of one hundred or so troops won’t put a dent in our problem. We need to weaken the enemy’s stranglehold on Calgary enough to make sending in support from the Canadian Army feasible.”

Catching on to her meaning, I said, “You’re talking about guerilla tactics.”

Genel nodded. “Right now, we can’t mount a direct offensive against even just the US Army personnel stationed in the city. What Ian and I discussed was using more hit-and-run tactics to whittle down the enemy’s defenses and morale. It’ll take a lot of work and the more we hit them the more likely the next op they’ll be on their guard but attacking an enemy head on with just the four of us is simply suicidal. Sitting here twiddling our thumbs and waiting for possible support from Ottawa isn’t an option, either. We can, however, be enough of a nuisance to the enemy to make them careless and force them to make mistakes. Wear down enough of their morale and eventually we and some military support can hope to push them back.”

I chewed on this proposition for a moment. Genel and Josh looked at me as if to prod me for my thoughts. Knight stood in silence, keeping so still that he seemed to resemble a statue.

I took a deep breath and turned to Genel again. “It’ll be a tough road. We’re not dealing with criminals or terrorists of the garden variety. These are armed forces personnel we’re taking on. Soldiers. Professionals.”

Genel nodded, looking a bit grim. “Yeah. It’s not going to be easy. But then Shadow missions wouldn’t be Shadow missions if they were ever easy.”

“Yeah,” Josh chimed in agreement, giving me a serious look. “What do you say, XO? You with us?”

This was one question I didn’t hesitate to answer right away.

“Of course. No way can I back down after what I’ve seen.”

“In that case,” Knight spoke up, breaking out of his frozen state and consulting his wrist mounted TACPAD, “we need more intel on enemy strength and what kind of resistance we can expect. We also don’t know anything concrete about why they’re here on Canadian soil. Right now we’re working off of little more than guesswork, and that’s going to burn us eventually. What I suggest is to start off with data acquisition and interrogating an official or two to get a clearer picture of how big the problem is. After we’re more informed, we can think about sabotage ops.”

“Agreed,” I replied, “Anything specific you have in mind?”

“One.”

Knight tapped and swiped at his TACPAD, then relayed information to the large monitor above us. The map zoomed in on a point to the northeast of the downtown core. After the zoom-in, a red square appeared to envelop what looked like a multi-story building with a small outdoor parking lot out front. Since it was an aerial view, I could only make out details of the building’s rooftop. Towards the front of the building was what appeared to be a red ‘H’ surrounded by a red circle – a helipad. Across the street, to the south of this building, was what looked like an expansive outdoor parking lot surrounding a larger structure that resembled a mall complex.

“When we raided the outpost and acquired the prisoner manifest that allowed us to pinpoint your location, we also managed to obtain info on troop and prisoner transport routes,” Knight said to me, looking up at the monitor, “The US Army is transporting patients and other prisoners who were at hospitals to those detainment camps you were at. Besides the Stampede grounds, the enemy repurposed other locations to house detainees. Max Bell Stadium, rec centres, parks. We don’t know how each route looks specifically, but there was a list of places where prisoners are being held. When we sifted through what data we could find, we tried to zero in on a name of an official involved with prisoner transportation. We found this.”

Knight tapped on his TACPAD a few more times, the relayed an image to the monitor for the rest of us to see.

Over the satellite view map a head shot of a man flashed into view. He appeared to be in his mid to late forties, with salt and pepper hair cropped short in a way that resembled the regulation haircut for new recruits in any army. His blue-gray eyes stared back at me with a sort of steely coldness, and I got the impression he might be the kind of soldier who was respected by his peers and subordinates, but not much loved. From what I could see he was wearing a woodland camouflage shirt with some insignia on one of his shoulders, though from the angle the image was taken from I couldn’t make out the meaning.

“Major Bradley Steele,” Knight continued, crossing his arms over his chest again. “His name came up at least twice in the data we procured. We found out he’s in charge of ‘managing’ the prisoners in all the camps within Calgary. He likes to occasionally visit some of the sites to oversee how things are. Maybe you’ve seen him.”

Knight glanced sideways at me a little. I gave the image of Steele a long, hard look.

“Negative,” I shook my head, looking back at the Shadow leader. “Never seen that face before.”

“Hmm. I see. Regardless, someone this high up the chain should have connections to people even further up. If we find out what he knows, we’ll get a significant leg up on the scale of this invasion, not to mention the enemy’s rationale. The problem is that while our data tells us what he does, it doesn’t tell us much else of the important parts: his routines, connections, what makes him tick. If we want information out of him, we need more intel on him.”

Makes sense. If we could find out everything that runs inside this man’s head, we’d be sure to find something useful that we can use to plan out our next moves.

Knight turned fully to face the members of Shadow. “Our current objectives are to acquire more intel on Major Steele, secure him, and have him give up information on who’s running the show here in this city, or even elsewhere. At this point, any intel is good intel with how in the dark we are.”

“You want to capture this guy?” I asked, sounding doubtful as I looked at the major’s picture on the screen. I didn’t want to judge too many books by each of their respective covers, but I had the feeling this was one man with a tight mouth.

The fact that neither Josh nor Genel was asking any questions told me that Knight had discussed this plan with them once before and was simply rehashing it for my benefit.

“Question,” I said tentatively, glancing back at Knight.

He turned his body to fully face me, his arms still folded over his chest and his expression largely unchanged. “Go on.”

“What if he doesn’t cough up any info? I mean, not to jump to conclusions, but… he doesn’t look like he opens up easily. And how are we going to convince him to give us answers?”

“He’ll give us what we want,” Knight told me with that deadpan tone that somehow made it a little hard not to believe him.

“How do you plan on making that happen?”

Knight’s eyes held my gaze for a moment. He paused before answering cryptically: “We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. By some stroke of luck, we might uncover info without having to involve the major at all. In which case, he can enjoy his time in Calgary a bit longer.”

Maybe it was my imagination again, but I thought his last sentence sounded slightly venomous even though his tone and pitch barely changed. I glanced at Genel and Josh, who both looked unperturbed. Either I was hearing things, they didn’t notice, or both were used to Knight’s turns of phrase already.

“In any case, we first need to actually locate the major,” Knight carried on after a little break in the conversation, “For that, we need to infiltrate another outpost. We’ve pinpointed two with a fairly strong enemy presence – nowhere near as back in the Stampede, but a concentrated presence nonetheless.”

Knight pointed up at the screen, indicating the area surrounded by the red square.

“The first location is the Peter Lougheed Centre in the northeast quadrant of the city. The logs in the data we acquired indicates that Major Steele has been to the hospital once in the past week, though it’s not known what his business there was. If they’re using the hospital as an outpost or temporary detention facility, there are bound to be systems we can access or an officer we can glean information from.”

Knight glanced at Genel, then Josh. “Archer and Goliath, I want you two on this assignment. It’d be best to get in there without setting off any alarms and getting out with no one the wiser. Remember, there’s plenty we still don’t know.”

“Copy that,” Genel said crisply.

“Got it, boss,” Josh gave Knight a thumb pointing up.

Knight then turned his eyes to me. “Angel, you and I will take the second location.”

He consulted his TACPAD and brought up a second red square. The map zoomed out a little and panned south until a different building near the southern city limits came into view.

“The second location is the South Health Campus in the southeast quadrant. The data also indicated that Steele had been through this hospital a few days ago. We ought to find something of value there as well.”

I gave the red square indicating the second location a pondering look before nodding at Knight.

“All right.” That familiar sense of eerie unease crept up on me once more when I looked straight at those eyes that saw much and revealed little. I couldn’t say in one definitive word how I felt being directly partnered with the Reaper during my first operation as a team XO.

With the pairs decided, Knight addressed the team. “With so little intel to work with, it would be wiser to give ourselves as much cover as possible. We’ll move out at 1700 hours, take separate vehicles, and drive them as close as we can to our destinations. Most likely we’ll need to leg it part of the way to maintain stealth. Roadblocks and guard posts all over the city will spot us if we come in by trucks. All goes well, we’ll reconvene here at Haven by 0600 tomorrow.”

He paused, then gave each Shadow member a nod, to which we nodded back at him to affirm our favour for the plan. “That’s it for the briefing. Questions?”

I glanced at Genel and Josh. Neither of them brought up any inquiries, only stared back at Knight. Knight’s gaze seemed to linger on me a little longer than it did on the others, but I had no questions or objections for the moment.

“Good. If there are any concerns or questions later, bring them up before we leave. Make sure you’re prepped before 1700. You’re all dismissed until then.”

He gave us all a glance before walking down the side of the table, heading for the exit. I furtively followed him with my eyes until Knight stepped out of the Command Room and closed the door behind him.

I glanced at the other two Shadows. They were both still seated at the table. Genel was consulting her own TACPAD, probably going over some more of the information we currently had. Josh was looking directly at me from across the table. When he saw that I noticed him staring at me, he smiled rather apologetically.

“Ah, sorry,” he said sheepishly.

“Something the matter?” I asked him.

“Not really, it’s just… I’m trying to get over how small you are.”

I could tell that he meant no offense and in fact, a little of my tension deflated when he commented on my size. Being only five feet tall and slim to boot, it wasn’t exactly hard to wonder how I got here.

Chuckling, I replied brightly, “Thanks. I kind of needed that.”

He looked a little confused. “You did?”

“Yeah. To be honest with you, I feel a bit out of place here.”

Josh chuckled softly. “Any particular reason for that?”

“This is a big role I’m filling, no? I sort of had this image of what the current Shadow members would be like, but you and Genel seem a lot nicer than I expected.”

He laughed good-naturedly, seeming to find my remark amusing. “What, did you think we’d have some kind of initiation ritual before we’d accept you?”

I shrugged, this time being the sheepish one. “Maybe not, but the two of you are a lot friendlier than my old team’s members.”

“That so? Were you expecting us to be grumpy, no-nonsense people?”

“Well… I was, actually.”

“Everyone’s different,” Josh said a bit sagely.

“It’s just that you guys are Shadow, you know? I had expectations.”

Josh appeared to puff himself up in mock indignation, “Well, sorry to have disappointed you, princess.”

This made me laugh too, and in turn Josh grinned.

“No, it’s the opposite, actually,” I told him after my laughter had died down. “I’m glad you guys seem understanding. I just want to do things right.”

Genel glanced at me. “You will. Look, you wouldn’t be here in the first place if HQ thought you wouldn’t mesh with the rest of us.”

“I suppose so,” I mumbled, sneaking a glance at the door leading out of the room.

“You don’t look too convinced,” Josh noted aloud, peering at my furtive expression.

I held back a sigh. “Guess it’s just nerves. If I was with either of you, I feel I’d be more relaxed.”

Josh caught on right away. “Ah, you mean you’re nervous about working directly with Ian right off the bat. I can understand that.”

A strange sense of relief bloomed inside me when Josh spelled out my worries.

“Yeah, I think that’s my dilemma. Compared to you guys, he seems—”

“Stiff. Awkward.”

“Yeah!” I couldn’t help agreeing wholeheartedly with the guy, “I just can’t seem to get a read on him.”

Josh waved a hand at me in a carefree way. “Ah, don’t you worry about it, Chrissy. Ian’s always been like that. Just how he is. If he has a problem with you, he’ll let you know. If he hasn’t mentioned any issues he has with you, you’re fine.”

“Issues, huh…”

“Yeah. Pro tip: don’t get clingy. He hates clingy women.”

I blinked. “What?”

Genel put a hand on my forearm, giving Josh a weary shake of her head. “Josh here is joking. But seriously Chrissy, you’ll be okay. Yes, Ian can be… rough, but I assure you he won’t devour you if you mess up. Not that I believe you will.”

“I’ll take your word for it, then.”

Genel nodded gently. “Ian’s a good guy, really. He just… needs some time warming up to people. That’s all.”

Taking a deep breath, I said conclusively, “Okay.”

I suddenly remembered something I needed to sort out before the op kicks off this evening.

“By the way, Genel.”

“Yup?”

“Sorry to spring it this late, but… since I was captured when the alert for Dark Sky went out, I kind of… don’t have much by way of clothes.”

Genel looked me up and down. “Oh, right. I have some you can borrow. They might be, err, a bit big on you, but I’ll try to find some of my smaller things for you.”

Genel was noticeably curvier than I was, so naturally her clothes would be a bit bigger than what I’d generally wear, but I wasn’t going to complain if she was offering to share. In terms of height she was maybe three or four inches taller than I was, so I suppose pants length wouldn’t be an issue.

“There’s also the matter of my TACPAD which I didn’t have on me when I was captured,” I continued timidly.

“Don’t worry about that. Why don’t you come by my quarters later? I have a spare TACPAD and wrist brace I can give you. It’s practically up to date and you need only enter your prints to use it like you would your regular one.”

“Thanks, Genel. You’re a lifesaver.”

She beamed. “Gotcha covered.”

I glanced at the digital clock mounted on the wall behind Josh. It read 09:22. That meant I had quite a bit of time to kill before the start of the operation.

“What are you guys up to between now and 1700?” I asked the two other Shadows.

Genel looked up at me from her looking at her TACPAD. “I was planning to hang a little while here, see if I can’t get through to C.O.S. headquarters. After that maybe I’ll have myself a bit of a nap. Chances are we won’t be sleeping tonight, anyway.”

Josh stood up and stretched his big arms above his head. “I’ll be at the armory, getting everyone’s gear prepped.”

I perked up a bit at Josh’s mention of the armory. “The armory’s attached to the shooting range in this bunker, right?”

“Naturally. Why?”

“Would it be okay if I spend some time there? Might help me relax a bit before the op,” I said, looking at Josh tentatively.

Josh smiled a bit playfully. “Ah, a female whose idea of fun is sending lead downrange. My kind of woman.”

Though I could tell he was just joking around, his comment came on a little thickly so I couldn’t help chuckling awkwardly.

Genel nudged me on the shoulder. I looked at her in time to see her pointing at Josh.

“He’s engaged, so don’t take any crap,” she said seriously, though her eyes twinkled in a way that told me she was simply having a good-natured jab at the weapons specialist, “If he flirts with you, let me know and I’ll have his fiancée over so fast it’ll make his head spin.”

I laughed, then turned back to Josh, who shrugged with mock ruefulness. “Oh, congratulations. But you better be on your best behaviour around me, then.”

He scoffed but flashed me an exaggerated military salute. “Yes ma’am.”

Standing up, I glanced back down at Genel. “I’ll see you in a bit.”

She nodded. “All right, then. I’ll see you later, Chrissy.”

“Yeah, see you.”

I followed Josh out the door to the hallway. After we were out, I walked beside hm as we headed down the hallway to retrace the steps I took to get to the Command Room.

Glancing sideways at Josh was quite an effort since he was nearly a foot and a half taller than I was. Glancing up was a more accurate phrase in this case. I truly felt like I was walking beside a giant.

“So, how long have you been with the C.O.S., Chrissy?” he spoke up genially as we walked.

I did a quick recall. “Three years now, I think.”

“I figured. Zero-Nine-Eight would make you part of the third batch of trainees, right?” he asked, referring to my operative code; each C.O.S. agent has a unique three-digit code.

“That’s right”.

From what I understood, the C.O.S. had a ‘recommendation’ system in place, where any higher-ranking Canadian military or intelligence official could endorse an applicant or candidate for entry to the C.O.S.’s training program, but apart from that the Sector always took only volunteers. There were no drafted personnel. Every existing operative within the Clandestine Operations Sector had their own reasons for joining, but ultimately everyone like me, Josh, or Genel wanted to join. I was part of the non-endorsed bunch, so I had to go digging into job postings and connections within the Canadian Security Intelligence Service – C.O.S.’s parent organization – to get in.

“Which team were you with before joining us?” Josh glanced at me, practically looking down.

I was sure he would have known the answer already if he’d seen my file prior to me joining, but I answered him anyway for conversation’s sake.

“Glacier Team,” I said, “We mostly worked within and around Moncton, New Brunswick.”

“Hmm, can’t say I know any Glaciers. But it’s a standard-tier team, right?”

“Yeah, that’s right,” I said with a nod.

“Making it to elite-tier after being standard-tier, huh?”

“Yeah,” I chuckled, a bit of my nervousness coming back. “You can see why I’m a bit tense. Never mind that the stakes now are higher than ever.”

Glacier Team was the team I was a part of for over two years since I graduated from training. My team members and I weren’t exactly the closest, but we were cohesive regardless. Standard-tier teams like Glacier were comprised of competent agents, same as any other team formed by the Sector. However, only the best were put together in elite-tier teams, which are given more privileges and exercise more freedom than standard-tier teams. That meant that whatever Genel or Josh may have outside of the job, they earned their way into Shadow. I heard there were only half a dozen or so elite-tier teams within the C.O.S., and Shadow was supposedly the best among them.

Josh looked solemn for once. “I know. I might not look it, but I am worried about how we’re going to do in all this. Maybe it hasn’t sunk in yet, to me, that we’re facing a war. Genel told me that her fellow Army peers were pushed back almost too easily in just the last several days. The opposition is just too large for a few reservists to take on without sufficient backup.”

“Genel’s in the Army?”

“Yeah, she’s in the 41 Canadian Brigade Group. Her ‘day’ job, if you get my meaning.”

I did; most C.O.S. agents had relatively ‘normal’ jobs when they weren’t being C.O.S. agents. It could be anything, from being an army or navy soldier, to being a dog walker. The gist of it was that being an operative working for an organization that supposedly doesn’t exist meant we had to keep up ‘appearances’. I may have passed clandestine operatives in coffee shops, grocery stores, movie theatres, or trains and not have known I had. I wasn’t sure how many agents there currently were, but I hadn’t heard of any four-digit codes for any agents, so it was reasonable to expect there were perhaps only a few hundred of us.

“What about you, Josh? What’s your day job?”

Josh smiled fondly, as if he wanted to show he was fond of both his jobs. “I’m currently a staff member at the Calgary Firearms Centre.”

“Any prior combat experience before you were with C.O.S.?”

“RCAF,” he said promptly, “401 Tactical Fighter Squadron.”

“Air Force,” I mused aloud, “Makes sense that you’re our team’s pilot.”

Josh and I finally arrived in front of double doors marked ‘Armory’ on the nearby plaque. He pushed open the doors and led me inside.

The armory itself wasn’t that large but still contained enough weaponry, ammunition, and other equipment to compete with larger armories I’d seen before. There was a small counter immediately to our left as we walked in, and behind this counter was a shelf spanning the room’s length. This shelf contained all manner of firearms, from machine pistols to submachine guns, assault rifles, DMRs, and LMGs. A much shorter shelf mounted to the far wall that served as the rectangular room’s width stored various semiautomatic pistols and revolvers. The last side of the room was divided between storage for various throwable weapons and ammunition for every gun on the opposite wall, and other pieces of gear such as ballistic vests, backpacks, and holsters. To our immediate right where the shelf of vests and backpacks was a single navy blue door with ‘Shooting Range’ marked in bold white letters on the surface of the door itself.

As Josh walked around to the aisle behind the counter like a gun store owner would, he then asked me: “How about you? Any combat experience prior to becoming an agent?”

I eyed the counter which was lightly cluttered with empty pistol magazines. “No, I’m… I’m not ex-military.”

“Nothing wrong with that. Hey, you’re here now after all. You wouldn’t be an agent if you weren’t combat proven.”

I lifted my gaze to meet Josh’s. “Well, I know you said you wanted to check on some gear, so I’ll get out of your hair and go do some target practice next door.”

“No worries. You want to test out your loadout before the op? I’m familiar with the armory, so just tell me what you want to take with you.”

I gave the shelf behind Josh a gaze, my eyes lingering on the segment of the shelf that held the collection of submachine guns.

“Do you have a Vector chambered in .45 ACP?” I asked, glancing back at Josh.

“You got it. Give me a sec.”

He strode a few paces to my right, eyeing the same section of the shelf, and appeared to ponder once he got to the Vectors. After some thought, he pulled one away from its companions: a dark gray and white Vector with an open holographic sight mounted on the top rail. He walked back over to me and placed the gun on its side on top of the counter.

“Here,” he said with a distinct air of a true enthusiast talking to a customer looking to purchase a first firearm. “The KRISS Vector Gen 2, already set for use with .45 ACP cartridges.”

He gestured for me to go ahead and get a feel for the weapon. I took the Vector in my hands and performed a cursory check to make sure there was no loaded magazine in the magwell and that the chamber was empty of cartridges, then lifted the gun up to a firing position, aiming it away from Josh. I had plenty of experience with the Gen 1 Vectors, but the Gen 2 felt better in my hands somehow. This short barrel configuration had a redesigned trigger that felt a pound lighter than normal, with a single-stage trigger and a more distinct break than that of the Gen 1. Despite this being the second iteration of a gun I was familiar with, much of its features remained the same as its previous version: an ambidextrous safety, select fire, and standard folding stock for transition from medium range engagements to CQC and vice versa. One worthwhile addition to this Vector I was holding was the installed vertical foregrip to help with aiming stability and recoil mitigation.

“Feel free to take it out on the range and if you want to try anything else, just let me know,” Josh said as I was fiddling with the attached holographic sight.

“Thanks Josh, but me and the Vector are old friends,” I smiled appreciatively at the armory attendant, lowering the submachine gun back onto the countertop.

“Offer stands, Chrissy. I’ll be working on mine and the others’ gear here for a bit, so give me a shout if you ever need anything. What about a secondary?”

I glanced to the far wall on my right. “Hmm. I’d like something… heavier. Steel frame instead of polymer. In nine millimeter.”

Josh tapped his counter energetically. “Sure thing. Wait just a moment.”

He left the aisle behind the counter and pored over the handgun selection for a minute. Afterward, he turned back to me and approached me with a sleek black pistol with a sky blue grip in his hand. He held it out to me with the grip in my direction.

I took the pistol from him and performed the same safety check as he introduced me to the pistol he recommended. “The CZ Shadow 2. Compatible with 9mm Luger. It’s quite heftier than your usual polymer wonders, but naturally it’ll be a hell of a lot easier to control during sustained fire. You don’t prefer pink for the grip colour, do you? Because I have a couple available.”

Laughing, I ejected the empty steel magazine and disengaged the slide lock by performing the slingshot method – pinching the back part of the slide between my thumb and the side of my index finger, pulling it back a little, and letting it go to bring it back to fire-ready position. “No, no. Blue is fine.”

I pointed the muzzle at the shelf of rifles. The gun was considerably heavier indeed because both its frame and slide were made of steel but I personally valued recoil control than overall mobility when it comes to my sidearms, so the Shadow 2 felt and sounded good to me. The trigger felt nice too – barely noticeable takeup, lightweight, with a smooth pull followed by an easily felt break.

“It’s not bad,” I commented, putting the pistol back down on the counter beside my Vector.

“Cool. Here, eyes and ears.” Josh went around the counter and took out a clear visor and adjustable ear protection from a cabinet below the countertop.

“As for ammo and mags, feel free to take as much as you want from that shelf behind you,” Josh nodded toward the ammunition section behind me, “That’s something we have a lot of, frankly.”

“Thanks,” I replied, glancing over my shoulder and locating some empty Glock 21 magazines that were compatible with the Vector on the shelf underneath some boxes of .45 ACP cartridges.

“Once you’re through at the range, come see me and I’ll get you sorted with your vest, knife, and other gear.”

“Cheers, Josh.” I put on my eye and ear protection.

He nodded and I got to work loading some Glock and CZ mags with the appropriate ammo for ten minutes, then headed out to the range next door.

For the next hour while I sent rounds downrange, swapping mags and reloading them when they ran out, I felt considerably more relaxed and within my element. The feeling of being in control revitalized me greatly after having felt powerless the last few days.

I recalled the faces of my cellmates – Sarah Mason, Bonnie Trevor, Olivia Munn – once more. When I saw their gaunt, dejected faces in my mind, my chest tightened and my stomach seemed to burn.

I ejected another spent magazine from my Shadow 2, slamming a fresh one home and racking the slide with my palm with the speed and precision I’d come to develop over the years I’d spent working around firearms. Despite my anger, I felt quite calm. Now that I felt I could do something worthwhile to fight back, I was much more composed.

I pulled the Shadow 2’s trigger fifteen times, making the pistol bark fifteen times in half as many seconds. The instant the slide locked back to indicate an empty chamber, I reached for the counter in front of me to grab another loaded magazine and simultaneously ejected the next empty mag. I slammed the next fresh mag into the CZ.

I lowered the pistol to view my last mag dump’s results. From twenty metres, I’d managed to punch maybe four or five rounds practically on top of each other, while others created holes distinct from one another through the paper silhouette’s torso. None of the distinct holes strayed outside of the ‘8’ ring.

I racked the slide to chamber another round.

Barbara Brown’s face as she was being taken away for God knows whatever reason flashed before my eyes for a second. That was the last time I ever saw her.

Gritting my teeth, I fired my Shadow 2 again.





After an hour of getting acquainted with the CZ and reacquainting with the Vector, I consulted with Josh regarding getting me a ballistic vest, a knife, and a backpack, all of which he was able to provide for me after some rummaging through a storeroom down the hallway since I was rather too petite for standard body armour to fit my frame properly.

He quickly sold me on choosing a brand new karambit for a blade, and he was able to produce an arctic camo, lightweight one-strap backpack that could hold my medical supplies, backup comms, extra ammo for my weapons, a change of thermal clothes, and a little food and water. As for a ballistic vest, he recommended a special one made of a combination of Kevlar and a special material called shear thickening fluid, which allows the vest (thinner than more traditional ones) to offer respectable protection against small calibre rounds while offering greater flexibility and maintaining more dexterity on the part of the wearer. I had asked Josh specifically for body armour that would allow me to stay as mobile as possible, and he recommended this vest to me right away. He told me that Knight was currently using a highly similar vest as my choice.

He offered to look after my selected weapons and equipment until it was time to move out, and after thanking him for his assistance, I left the armory and descended to level B3 to find Genel’s quarters.

It didn’t take me long to find her room; each level of Haven basically had the same T-shaped hallway layout so it was impossible to get lost somewhere within the bunker. Genel’s quarters door was close to the end of the left end of the T-hallway. Past my door, hers was a mere twenty or so strides toward the end of the hallway.

I stopped in front of the door marked with a plaque bearing ‘G. Martinez’ on the wall beside it and knocked on it three times. The door opened several seconds later.

Genel swung the door inwards, giving me a smile and a gesture to enter. “Come in.”

I started to remove my footwear, but Genel shook her head. “No, you can keep your shoes on. The floor isn’t carpeted, anyway.”

“Okay,” I straightened up and stepped through without removing my shoes.

Genel closed the door once I was inside, and as she walked past me and headed for her work desk, I glanced around her room.

The layout of her room was essentially the same as mine: double bed on the far corner, bedside dresser by the head of the bed, work desk next to the bedside dresser, and a closet at the wall opposite the one the bed was pushed up against. Even the bed sheets, pillowcases, and blankets were the same patterns and colours as those in my quarters. However, unlike my room, Genel’s had a more lived-in feel. Her sheets were slightly unkempt, her bedside table was decorated with a cellphone charging cradle, and her work desk looked busy with plenty of documents, a laptop, and her TACPAD and brace placed on the surface. There were even a few photographs mounted to the shelves above the desk surface by some plain black circular magnets.

“Feel free to have a seat,” Genel gestured toward her bed, “Just give me a minute to get something sorted out here.”

“Sure,” I replied, although I was more interested in having a gander at how personalized Genel’s quarters were. How a person decorates their space says plenty about what they’re like.

Genel sat down at her desk which looked busy but not disheveled or messy. The documents she had were all either stacked together on one side or put away in binders and folders. The shelves above the desk stored a mixture of what appeared to be DIY guides for rudimentary gadgets, coding textbooks, C.O.S.-approved resources pertaining to cybersecurity, and a couple worn books on hacking. In terms of what books Genel read, she certainly seemed fit to be Shadow’s tech specialist.

I turned my attention to the few photographs she had stuck to various edges of the shelves. Nearly all of them were evidently from more recent years, as they all showed her with different faces whose owners all wore the same tiger stripe camouflage fatigues Genel herself in the pictures was wearing. Only one of them was a photo that didn’t showcase a memory from her Canadian Army career.

Mounted close to the base of the shelf, practically at eye level with Genel as she was sitting down, was a comparatively older photograph showing four people – two girls and two boys – standing together in front of what appeared to be a row of red school lockers. Upon closer inspection, I noticed the person standing second to the right of the picture was a younger version of Shadow’s marksman. Genel in this picture was dressed in a brick red one-shoulder dress that reached past her knees. Her hair was done in an elegant bun that laid bare her roughly round face, which held a rather amusing half pouting, half smiling expression. One of her eyes was closed to form a wink. She was posing slightly sideways with her right hip turned toward the camera, and with the hand that wasn’t holding a black purse she was holding up a sideways peace sign over her closed eye.

The boy on the left of the photo was tall, most likely six feet if not close to it, with messy brown hair that looked deliberately styled to look unruly to ironically attractive effect. His skin resembled mine, if not a bit less pale. His eyes were a striking pale gray, reminding me somewhat of the eyes of some Siberian Huskey dogs I’d seen on the web before. He was wearing a navy blue coat and slacks, a white shirt, and a matching navy bow tie visible from above the ‘V’ that the lapels of his coat formed. One of his hands was buried in one pocket of his pants while the thumb and index finger of his other hand cradled his chin in a sort of goofy, suave man pose complete with an exaggerated grin that could be classified as ‘shit-eating’.

The other boy standing most to the right of the picture was holding what looked like his own black coat using his index and middle fingers, with the coat itself draped over his left shoulder. His face looked strangely familiar, like I’d seen it before, but I couldn’t quite place it. His jet black hair was fairly long, with much of it as messy as the brown haired guy’s. A curtain of bangs obscured most of this boy’s forehead and nearly reached to his eyes, which were so dark they looked black. He had a somewhat roguish smirk on and his complexion resembled that of Genel’s but a few shades darker. He wore a white long-sleeved, button-down shirt with a gray vest and a black necktie, and black slacks. He stood with more of a serious air than Genel or the other boy.

The last person, the girl standing with roughly the same height as Genel, had a complexion much brighter than either Genel’s or the black haired boy’s but not more so than the goofy brown haired boy’s. The second I observed her rather innocent smile, I could tell she was part Japanese and part something else. The shape of her eyes certainly had some hint of Asian heritage, though her nose and lips looked like more Western than Asian. Her black hair was done in a rather quaint way: two braids tied and wrapped along either side of her head to meet (presumably, as I couldn’t see from the angle this shot was taken) at the back of her head. Hair along her temples and forehead were left unfettered by accessories, hairspray, or other products I could name as far as I could tell, such that two long locks fell gracefully along each side of her face and reached down to her collarbones, giving her a distinctly Oriental look. She wore an otherwise plain but no less pretty lavender dress that reached nearly to the floor. The girl looked the least mischievous of the group, posing only with her gloved hands clasped together at hip height down her front, but she certainly looked just as happy as the other three people in the photograph.

All of a sudden, Genel spoke up from just beside my elbow. “That’s a picture from my graduation ball in high school.”

I glanced down at Genel, who was looking at me with a faint smile. I pointed at the photograph.

“You look pretty here,” I remarked, chuckling.

“Implying I don’t usually look pretty otherwise,” she said in a tone that feigned hurt, “Thanks, Chrissy.”

I shook my head in amusement. “So, these were your friends?”

Genel gazed at the picture. “They’re my best friends.”

The way she looked at the photograph seemed like she was fond of the memory, but at the same time she looked ambiguously melancholic as well.

Nodding, I looked from the photo back to Genel. “Looks like a fun group.”

“We were.”

“I wasn’t meaning to pry…”

Genel shook her head slightly, her expression brightening. “No, you weren’t. It’s all right. I was just reminiscing about simpler times, you know? Back then we were just normal kids leaving high school behind. I’d bet none of us would have seen this kind of future coming.”

I nodded somberly, gazing at the photograph again. “Even if you saw it coming, you’d probably have wanted to be wrong.”

“You’re probably right. Anyway,” Genel clapped her hands together emphatically and stood up from her desk, “I’ve got some clothes set aside for you to borrow.”

She walked over to her closet, opened it, and lifted up a garbage bag that was sitting underneath some coats and beside a few pairs of boots. Genel turned around and held the bag out to me.

“I’ve put maybe a half dozen shirts in here and just as many bottoms. These are ones I chose because they fit me rather too tightly and, well—”

She gestured toward me, meaning my considerably slimmer frame.

“They’re a mix between regular and thermal shirts, so if you find you need more, let me know and I’ll see what I can do,” Genel continued, handing the bag off to me. “I don’t have an awful lot of clothes here, either, but being the only other lady here I’m your only source of clothing so I’m sharing some with you.”

“No, I appreciate this, really,” I insisted, shaking the bag a little and finding it a little heavy.

“You’re welcome. Unfortunately,” Genel suddenly looked a bit sheepish, “I don’t share your measurements, so I just threw in some of my… least largest underwear in there. I hope they’ll do for now.”

I sighed. True, Genel had considerably wider hips and a larger bust so I had doubts her more intimate donations would work for me. The only pieces of undergarments I had that fit me perfectly were the ones I was wearing when I was captured.

Still, I appreciated Genel’s generosity and thoughtfulness. If nothing else, this experience could be something to build camaraderie between me and her.

“I’ll figure something out,” I told Genel wryly, “If all else fails, going commando for a day or two shouldn’t kill me.”

Genel snorted with genuine laughter, prompting me to grin at her.

“Maybe after this op you can snag some clothes more your size from a store. Hey, with this crisis going on you’ll be able to get clothes 100% off,” Genel said lightly.

“Always a bright side,” I chuckled discreetly.

Genel then slid open the drawer of her desk and took out a familiar black forearm brace. Set in its dock was a brand new TACPAD. She held it out to me and shut her drawer.

“Here you go. Just need the device to confirm your biometrics. Otherwise, it’s ready to go.”

I took the brace and secured it over my left forearm. The brace gave a low hum as it automatically adjusted its diameter to accommodate my arm. After a moment, the noise ceased as the brace settled on a comfortable but firm grip around my forearm.

“Cheers, Genel.”

I pressed and held down the button on one end of the rectangular pad until the screen came to life, showing a plain white screen and a fingerprint icon surrounded by a gray square.

Placing my right thumb on top of the icon, I waited several seconds until the TACPAD vibrated briefly. I removed my thumb and watched the following characters panned into view from the bottom border of the screen: ‘Verified: Valentine, Christina. Code 0-9-8.’

The screen defaulted to a plain white background with four icons concentrated to one side of the screen. The icons resembled that of a satellite dish with radio waves above it, a miniature globe, a clipboard, and a retro skull marked, respectively: ‘COMMS’, ‘GPS’, ‘DATABASE’, and ‘PURGE’.

“All set,” I announced to Genel, lowering my arm.

“Great. What about a jacket or winter shoes? You can take any one you want from my closet.”

“I feel like I’m just taking without giving anything back,” I murmured regretfully.

Genel looked up and gave me a reassuring look. “Don’t think that. We all appreciate you being here, Chrissy. You being here is important.”

“Well… yeah. To you and Josh, anyway, right?”

“Hey, Ian’s no exception. Didn’t I say earlier? He’s more bark than bite to anyone on our side.”

“Yeah, I guess. I guess I’m still just wary around him. He’s nowhere near as approachable as you or Josh, and he’s supposed to be. Since he is the leader and all.”

Genel tilted her head sideways slightly as if she was surprised I’d say that. “He’s on your side, so he’s liable to be more approachable to you than most others. If you have any suggestions regarding our mission, be sure to bring them up with him. You’re team XO, that’s your right. I promise, once you really get to know him, he’s not what he appears to be.”

I took a breath. “Sorry. I don’t mean to drop all my insecurities on you over and over.”

“Don’t apologize. I’m glad we have a new XO who’s grounded, has some doubts, and is willing to open up. We’re going to be working here together for a while, so we have to get along.”

Genel paused, then smiled more to herself than to me. “I’m sure Ian chose to pair off with you on this op because he does want to get to know you a little more.”

“Weird way to ask me out on a date,” I said with mock exasperation, smiling and feeling a bit bemused at her statement.

Genel laughed again, shaking her head. “Hey, whatever gets you through the ordeal. In all seriousness, it’s only natural for a leader to know what his second-in-command is like. Don’t you agree?”

“That’s… not unusual,” I admitted. It did make sense.

I stepped up to Genel’s closet and began rifling through her coats, eventually plucking a dull gray parka that seemed to fit me quite well and didn’t weigh too much. After that, I selected a pair of tan, fur-lined snow boots from Genel’s selection on the floor of the closet.

I turned to her and held up my picks. “You’re not using these currently, are you?”

She glanced at the parka and shoes I was holding. “You’re in luck. I’ve got those in reserve, so feel free to borrow them for as long as you need.”

“Again, really… thanks a lot.”

I draped the parka over one arm and picked up the bag of clothes had donated to me in my free hand.

“Well, I guess I’ll haul these over to my room,” I said, “I’ll take it easy and maybe catch a nap before 1700. We might be up all night like you said, and it won’t do if I start nodding off midway through the op.”

“Yeah, me too.” Genel stretched her arms upward and groaned from the pleasurable feeling.

“I’ll leave you to that, then,” I began to turn toward the door. “See you later.”

I was nearly at the door when Genel called out to me, her tone taking a sharp turn in urgency. “Chrissy, wait.”

Glancing at her over one shoulder, I saw that Genel wore a serious, almost intense expression as she stared after me.

I turned back to face her. “What is it?”

“Can I ask you for a favour?”

Curious, I gave a little nod and said immediately, “Sure. What do you have in mind?”

To my surprise, Genel’s usual vibe of certainty seemed to waver momentarily as she looked down a second. Then she lifted her eyes again, looking a little concerned.

“Could I ask you to watch out for Ian?” she said, her voice sounding rather small compared to usual.

I couldn’t help blinking in astonishment, partly at the request itself and the implication that the Reaper even needed to be watched over.

I was about to ask why someone like Knight would ever need someone like me to watch out for him, but ultimately I willed myself not to ask the question. After all the kindness she’d shown me, the request wasn’t even difficult to grant. In fact, it was a given already that I’d do what she asked.

Giving her a firm nod with a straight face, I replied, “I’ll do my best, Genel.”

She looked subtly relieved, her eyes lighting up a little. “Your best is enough. Thank you.”

I waited momentarily in case there was anything else she wanted to say, but she appeared to have shared all she wanted to for the time being.

Heading back to my quarters, I briefly wondered why Genel asked me such a thing. Of course I’d look out for my team. Just because our leader comes off as gruff and closed off doesn’t mean I’d be eager to throw him to the wolves when things got bumpy. Maybe there was something personal between Genel and Knight that I wasn’t in the know about.

In any case, it was a simple request. I’d honour it.

















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