The city was beautiful at night. At precisely 7:00, the lights would switch on and shine into the darkness, creating an island of light. They glinted off the calm waters of the bay, they cascaded over the low buildings, and they cast eerie shadows on the hill overlooking the city. One structure in particular, tall and thin, cast a gigantic dark line over the hill and the complex of buildings perched atop it. Because of this, the inhabitants called the whole area “the Stripe.”

And standing on the Stripe, illuminated from ahead by the city lights and behind by the rising moon, stood a lone man, a sentinel. A casual glance would’ve revealed nothing aside from his alert pose, but a more discerning observer could’ve noticed his sharp military tunic and the rifle slung over his shoulder. A cigarette, its tiny glow accentuating the contours of his face, completed the picture.

He’d been on watch for hours, and wasn’t to be relieved for another three. No one in his unit wanted the graveyard shift; it was dull and cold. He always volunteered for it, though: the graveyard shift was quiet, and nothing ever happened. The “sunshine shift,” however, was another story. The guard smiled, thinking of his mates dealing with the crowds that invariably formed around the compound gates. Along with jeers and insults, the malcontents usually threw stones too.

It was odd, he thought. His unit guarded the Stripe, but no one knew what it was they were really protecting. He had his own ideas, of course, but they were of the un-soldierly type: research lab, weapons development, government offices, and so on. That was one odd thing about the job, the guard thought again. No one knew what they were guarding.

A sudden movement to the right caught the sentry’s eye. Unslinging his rifle, he took one last puff on his smoke and crushed it with his bootheel.

“Who’s there?” he demanded.

As if in response, a loud clatter sounded to his rear. Whirling around, he fired blindly into the darkness. Cursing himself for wasting ammunition, the guard fumbled for his flashlight. Its brutal, high-powered beam revealed a metal can, old and rusted, lying on its side with a bullet hole through it.

He’d only been staring at the can for a moment when he heard a soft but distinct “whump” behind him. The guard turned, only to see that a small dart had embedded itself in his forearm. He yelped and ripped it out, trying to illuminate it with the flashlight’s beam. Even as he did so, his eyes began to water, and a feeling of calm passed over him. He struggled to aim as a figure stepped into the beam, but collapsed in a heap as another figure appeared at his back.