The Dross Woods, four-bloody-something in the morning, hunting for six-armed, two-legged white creatures.
Agent Connor Smith, personal assistant of Chief Security Lieutenant Natalie Tallis of Primrose UK, yawned. Glaring at the lingering mist clinging to his ankles, he tightened the straps of his field gear. He took his tranq out of its holster and flicked his torch on. The dense, tall trees hampered visibility, and the smattering of shrubs didn't help either. The path, at least, was wide enough for two.
"How many were there again?" Agent Simpson, team Alpha's leader, asked. His dark, bald head gleamed in the early dawn as he moved to stand next to Connor and flicked his own torch on.
"Ten, I think." Or eleven. Connor hadn't been awake enough to pick up everything during the interview with the Cleaton brothers, two ageing sheep farmers who had called it in. Connor wondered about the logic of having a sheep farm so close to this vast and dense piece of forest. It was asking for trouble.
"They kept them in the stables, right? So, what happened?"
"Broke out." Connor said as he trailed into the woods after Simpson. Though Connor outranked the stocky but agile team leader, Simpson had at least a decade of field experience on him. Simpson's torch lit up the uneven, knobby-rooted ground in front of them, and Connor used his to search the shrubbery next to the path. He wished he'd brought an extra coffee, because he was not awake enough for this. Hopefully, the pale colour of the creatures would make them easier to spot.
"So, broke out?"
"Have you seen the thing they called stables? It's nothing more than a rickety old shed. Even one-armed creatures would have had no problem breaking out, let alone these... Noren, I think the brothers called them."
"All I got was that we're here to catch us some aliens." Simpson veered left, following the whimsical bend in the path, and looked back. "It was a late night."
"Right, you were chasing another missing artefact. Lieutenant Tallis filled me in. File's probably making its way to my desk as we speak." Connor squinted, aiming his torch at some shrubbery to his left. A mix of red, yellow, and purple flowers brought some colour to the otherwise dreary looking forest. "It's the eighth time this has happened. It's becoming a problem."
"Don't I know it. So, did they say how big these fellas are?"
"Chest height or about. Why? Spot something?" Connor let his light join Simpson's, and they watched the shrubs shudder and shake until Simpson stepped forward and the sound of a twig snapping echoed around them, quickly followed by meowing. A cat. Just a cat. Connor shrugged at Simpson and they moved forward again.
Somewhere far away a shout rang out: a high pitched screech that caused goose bumps.
"One down!" someone called through the comlink—team Bravo's Forente or Briers, Connor guessed. "And there are at least two others here."
"That way," Simpson said, pointing to their right, onto a narrow path overgrown with creepers.
Connor nodded, but Simpson had already turned away.
Step by step, they followed the narrow path, the darkness only broken by the light of their torches. They weren't just hampered by the creepers as they moved along—listening, stopping, and listening again—but also by having to push low branches out of their way every other step.
One by one, more teams called in their catches.
"They seem to like sheep," Forente commented after his first catch. "I heard one bleat, and the next thing we know, one of those Noren is coming right at us."
"Good to know," Simpson said. "Keep up the good work."
"How many is that now?" Connor eyed the shrubbery in front of him, squinting as he pointed the torch at it. Eerie how dark a forest could be at daybreak. Connor preferred the smell of fresh moss to the damp, woodsy smell that hung all around him.
"Seven. I think."
So, three to go, if Connor remembered correctly, and he and Simpson had yet to run into any.
Something rustled behind them, and Connor turned, aiming his tranq. He hoped it wasn't just another cat. More rustling, but no movement in the shrubs. The foliage seemed far denser here—they must have reached the middle of the woods by now.
Connor was about to go after Simpson, who was still following the path, when a sudden crunching of leaves to his right stopped him. Something whitish moved behind a tree, too large to be a rabbit. He wished he'd paid more attention when Lieutenant Tallis had told them what to look for. Not that she'd been more awake than he was. Simpson wasn't the only one who'd been working late. The—
Another crunch, nowhere near the tree, though. If there were two Noren around, Connor needed Simpson. He tapped the comlink. "Simpson?"
"That was me. The path circles back onto itself."
That was a relief. "There's one behind the tree in front of me."
"Right. Want me to move around it?"
"Good idea." Connor could already hear Simpson moving when he remembered the comment about the sheep. "Wait. You don't have to. Just draw it out, bleat if you have to. All I need is a clear shot. I can't do anything as long as it's hiding behind that tree," Connor said, keeping an eye on the tree that hid the Noren.
He saw Simpson's torch from the corner of his eye. He hoped it was just the one, even though they didn't seem particularly violent toward humans.
Simpson's imitation of a sheep sounded nothing like the real thing, yet the Noren apparently thought it genuine enough, since it came out from behind the tree, straight into the dense shrubbery next to it.
"Bugger." Connor tracked the movement, but all he could see were shrubs. "I can't get the shot like this. It fled right into the shrubbery."
Simpson didn't reply. Instead, he made his way around Connor and repeated his sheep imitation.
The shrubs shuddered, and Connor narrowed his eyes, hoping to get a clear shot this time.
Simpson bleated again, and this time the Noren came running out of the shrubbery. Connor aimed and pulled the trigger. The Noren went down hard. Hit in one. He knelt next to the creature, taking the cuffs out.
"Nice shot, Smith," Simpson said when he reached them.
"Thanks." Connor said as he cuffed all three sets of arms. It seemed like overkill, but he knew better than to take any risks. He was about to activate his earpiece to ask how many were still on the loose when a shrill whistle sounded, calling them back.
"Well," Simpson said as he helped Connor pick the Noren up, "I guess that's that."
"All in a day's work, Simpson, all in a day's work." At least, for a personal assistant at Primrose.