“Picking anything up yet?”
“Nothing human. Coupla cats.”
“How do you know they’re cats?”
“How do you know they’re cats? If it looks like a cat and meows like a cat, it’s a cat. These guys think like cats.”
“And different from dogs, yeah?”
“Just like the difference between red and blue. Besides, they’re both normally like, uh, I dunno, a soft glow ... until something lights ’em up. But it takes different things to do it. Cats light up when they see some kind of small critter they can chase, but dogs only do it for people. In f.... Oh, wait! What’s that now?”
“I dunno. Squirrel?”
“Nah. Squirrel are flickery. Excited. Besides, who would want to be a squirrel?”
Kai slumped against the brick wall behind her. Stake out was always problematic, and she got the assignment more than the rest of the team because she could read the frickin’ auras. She wasn’t sure how any of her colleagues could figure anyone out without the information in them. Jackson was the strategist, plotting out how the quarry thought. She saw the past and the present. They made a good team.
“Why would they even come here?” Kai asked.
Jackson squatted, poking a stick at a lump of something on the ground. Cloth maybe? Too small to be alive. She hoped.
The rodent scampered off, not human.
“He’ll be okay. They bruised him up good, but nothing broken.”
“Good. If he hadn’t found that warehouse, we’d never have discovered what they were up to. Although, I mean, I’m glad he’s not too bad off for your sake too, and for his…” She trailed off, wishing she was better at that sort of thing. Jackson and Mel had been together for a long time, and her partner’s light patterns had twisted almost out of recognition when he heard the news. But it was more than one person, even a friend getting all broken, or her partner’s grieving. The empty bodies they left behind were the most horrifying thing she had seen, even after years on the squad. She knew Jackson just saw them as mindless, but to see people without their lights, without their… souls, disturbed the foundation of her world. Everything had light. Trees. Even rocks a little.
It had been just as disturbing to see the lightless cats, breathing, walking, but with nothing to give them personality. Whoever was doing this had started small. Not with plants. Whoever was doing this didn’t seem to think of plants as containing life, perhaps. But rodents, then cats and dogs, some strays, then pets, then people started turning up with no self, no personality, no ability to talk, just motor skills to walk, and a blank gaze that gave her the shivers.
They had found one site left behind – the one that Mel had come out from all bloody and bruised – that had scientific equipment set up. Flasks, glowing with life, sat lined on shelves. Some had fallen, and the glow, strong enough to have been in a breathing, thinking being, soaked into the concrete floor. She wondered what would happen to the concrete. She wondered where that life had come from.
She shook her head.
“There!” A stronger light was coming toward them. Jackson looked in the direction she pointed. The light was strange, stronger than it should have been for a person, but strange, fragmented. It was as if it had been stitched together like a quilt. Kai now knew what they were wanting to do with the life they had been stealing. Jackson was right, too, that this was where they would come next. Horrifyingly right.
The arching front door to the boarding school was closed, but the person with the strange lights walked along the wall to a custodial door in the back. The alley they stood in hid them from his view. Kai could see his face by the patchwork light. Except for the damage to his light, he looked unassuming, a plain, genial face that no one would note in a crowd.
After a moment, the door opened from the inside. Someone in the school was helping him!
She tried to see the face of the helper, but only caught a flicker of the light from behind the door. Quickly, Jackson walked to the door, and caught it just as it was about to close, sticking a barrier between the door and the latch, so their quarry would be able to hear the sound of the door closing.
After a few moments, Kai joined him at the door, and Jackson eased it back open. The hallway was clear. They had to catch them, had to see what they did, in order to stop it. It killed Kai to risk even one more being to this damage, especially a child. They would have to catch it in time. There was no other option.
Kai caught a flicker of the light at the end of the hall. She indicated the direction to Jackson, and they followed it. It was a classroom, and a child lay asleep on the teacher’s desk. The helper must have drugged the child, brought him down away from the others. Their quarry had donned a white coat, as if this were science, instead of travesty, and was setting out flasks, tubes, machines. A face mask went over the child’s nose and mouth, to catch the breath. Like the myth about cats, he would steal the breath, Kai thought.
Just when she could take no more, Jackson pulled his stunner, and nodded to her. She already had hers out. They stepped forward, fired. Their bodies slumped.
“Stop,” she said, although the stunners had done more than the word. “Stopped.”