1,347 children disappeared in the United States last night.
Director Packard pulls you out of storage down in Unexplained Cases because they didn’t sneak out the back door, hide under their beds, or paint themselves the same color as the walls in their bedrooms. They just disappeared, into thin air.
1,347 missing kids is a lot of interviews. A lot of empty leads. A lot of empty arms and hear people screaming in the background. Pops, like firecrackers, though it isn’t the Fourth of July. The woman, on the phone that day. Oh, God.
This isn’t the time to think about that. Respect what’s just happened. Packard picked you for this because you like this weird shit and also, without a doubt, you’re the most dispassionate agent in the bureau. Nothing moves you. Process. Run the op. Put together a crack team of field agents, analysts and investigators. Make commitments to results you cannot produce in timeframes you know are unreasonable.
Agent La Garza comes to your desk. Fear this is going to be one of those moments where you reiterate the rules of your relationship, but she just stands there.
“What is it?”
Another 1,347 children have just vanished as you were sitting there planning how you were going to find the others. Phones drop. Chairs bang against desks. Doors ricochet in their frames as people race home to their kids. Stay at your desk. Revise your estimates on your deliverables to your superiors.
“We’re going to figure this out,” La Garza says. “Right?”
If you are, turn the page.
If you’re not, because get real, turn to page 21.
Three months have gone by. 200,000 children are missing.
Watch them vanish right off the street in front of you. Off of security camera footage. Right out of the secure bunker you and your agents place them in beneath headquarters as controls in a tactless experiment that fails immediately. Nothing left. No visual marker. No residue. No trace of where they went.
“I want to have a baby,” La Garza says, in the car on the way to investigate another hopeless lead. An anonymous email with an address in Brooklyn and a message:
Don’t follow the rules.
La Garza just blurts out things. No filter. The day she was transferred to your unit, she sat down at your desk and said, without prompt, I’m a recovering addict. I’ve been clean two years. That’s how it started. Back and forth. Almost every conversation a jab, an elbow. One day she brought in a raincoat, sun shining, and handed it to you.
“What’s this for?”
“It’s for when I put my service weapon in my mouth and pull the trigger,” she said, and you turned away at the sound of pops in the background. Screams. Oh, God. “I swear, if my computer doesn’t work today, I’m throwing it out the window.”
“There’s people on the sidewalk.”
“They made a decision, just like I make decisions. I don’t just let shit fester, FYI. What are you doing, later?”
Pull up outside an old brownstone in Williamsburg. The address is linked to an agent who left the bureau back in 1991 Knock on the door, frustrated. What else can you do, but follow every lead at this point? The best minds in the world have yet to put forward any theory about the missing children. No one answers. The building seems abandoned.
Check the mailbox. Weeks of bills and ads. A note.
The answers you seek are in the Elsewhere Dossier.
The Elsewhere Dossier has been the white whale in Unexplained Cases for decades. The answer to all the great mysteries of the 20th century: Flight 19. Roswell. D.B. Cooper. Asking for it will get you laughed out right of your job.
If you ask for the file, turn the page.
If you don’t, turn to page 9.
Director Packard laughs so hard he cries.
His laughter becomes sobs. Sit silent and uncomfortable before his desk and decide the most hopeless sound in the world is the sound of grown men crying. Finally, he just stops, as if fear and hopelessness are a finite resource. Exhaustible.
You know better.
“You just lost me a round of golf,” he says. “I figured it would take you a bit longer than three months to come to me with this. One of you Unexplained Cases types always floats the dossier when something like this happens. Something like this… I have a daughter. Eighteen. Vassar. How old is too old? What’s the cut off? Do we know? I keep asking for updated statistics.”
“We need more resources,” you say.
“This stays between you and me. The investigation will go on, but we’re not going to throw any more money at it.”
“But… we have to do something.”
“You are doing something.”
“I want to expand the PRISM program. I want real time surveillance on everyone, all day, every day.”
“Our freedoms are more important than – “
“There are very powerful people with very deep pockets that believe this is the will of God. A sign. A warning. Some kind of test, or retribution. Who knows? Who cares? They’re stonewalling funding. They’re stonewalling action. This is how it is.”
“If we’re not protecting our children… what are we doing?”
He laughs again. “Who left this note?”
“No prints. No matches on handwriting. The apartment belonged to a former agent… Molitor. Who was he?”
Packard taps his fingers against the glass of his desk. “You don’t have kids, right?”
“I don’t see how that’s relevant, Director.”
“What do you care, about any of this? I know we train every agent to be clinical. Objective. Focused. But you… do you know what they call you? ‘The Prototype.’ Do you know why?”
Stand up. “I’ll file a formal request for the dossier.”
“No,” he says. “No requests. No paperwork. No trail.”
Packard picks up a framed photo of his daughter. Let eighteen be enough. Think he might cry again, or laugh, but then he sets the picture down. He types something into his keyboard, clicks around with his mouse and then stands. He picks his jacket up off the back of his chair and heads for the door.
“I’m going to the restroom,” he says. “I’ll be back in five minutes. Help yourself to anything you like while you wait.”
The door clicks shut behind him. Walk around his desk. Sit down in his chair. Click on a folder named 54-40. Countless other folders contained within. The titles tantalize you: PRIME WATCH LIST v3 2.0. BREAK POINTE INCIDENT. PROJECT: ELSEWHERE
Double click on the Elsewhere folder. One file inside. Word doc. Old. The mouse rattles in your hand as you click on it.
DO NOT READ THIS FILE ALL THE WAY THROUGH.
THESE PAGES CONTAIN ELEMENTS THAT MUST BE CONSIDERED INDEPENDENTLY OR ELSE YOU RISK PERSONAL HARM.
BEGIN ON PAGE TWELVE.
What properties could an outdated Word file contain to cause someone harm? You’re running out of time. There’s no way you can get through the entire file in the time you have left.
If you attempt to read the file all the way through start to finish, turn to page 18.
If you follow the instructions, turn the page.
Begin with page twelve of the dossier.
CLASSIFICATION: EYES ONLY
SUMMARY: SUBJECT 8 unrecoverable. SITE compromised. Recommend total LIQUIDATION of remaining INVENTORY.
What subject? Unrecoverable why? What did they liquidate? The only instruction on the bottom of the page is:
READ NO FURTHER.
You’re running out of time. Search the document for the word ‘Inventory.’ Two matches come back.
If you click on the next match, turn to page 14.
If you don’t, turn to page 21.
Two years. 13,470,000 children are missing.
No leads. No prospects. No promise of any breakthrough in understanding. Think about bringing up the dossier, but no one wants to talk about the investigation. The new director, appointed by the new President, says answers can only be found in God. Say on a conference call that God doesn’t work for the bureau. Get demoted. Remain on the task force, but you’re just a token to the optics of a situation you know will never improve. Consider resigning. Realize there’s nothing else you could do.
Three years. 27,651,340 children are missing.
The task force is nicknamed the ‘Goose Chasers.’ Go after any lead, no matter how outlandish. Entertain any tip. Exhaust hours listening to drunken theories just to justify your budget. Bring up the dossier to the new, new director. Get reassigned.
La Garza stops asking for a baby. See less of her. Years vanish like children. Sometimes, you get a phone call. A text.
U still up?
Somewhere in the middle of the night, she rolls on top of you. Smooth the cotton of her shirt down her back, over her bottom. She never takes off her shirt.
Her head rests on your heart. “I’m using again.”
“I’m being honest. I want us to be honest.”
“I’m honest,” you say.
She almost laughs. “Can a robot tell a lie?”
The train thunders past the apartment. She hates it, she can’t sleep and always asks you to come to her place but you can’t do without the noise. Tell her the truth. Tell her why you think you’re like this. Tell her that you hear them, screaming, every time something terrible happens, in every gap of silence between the N and the W trains, the blah songs on the radio, the breath going in and out of La Garza’s lungs.
She rubs your cheek. “Hear who?”
Sit in front of the TV, and watch the news during dinner. You are six years old. It is 1991. The news begins with a story about a shooting in a post office in Michigan. They play a tape of a 911 call from inside the post office. A woman is on the phone with the operator. Gunshots in the background. Screaming.
The woman says, “Oh God, I think I’m going to die.”
Her words caption out on the screen, white against a blue background. The call ends. The anchor, stone faced, says the woman was later killed by the gunman. He turns the page of his script but you’re stuck. You can’t move on from this.
“I close my eyes and I see her. I hear her. This loop. Every time something happens… like a plane crash… I hear them. I see them, in their seats. I can’t stop it.”
“But you don’t know any of these people,” she says, and shrivel in embarrassment. Why did you tell her.
“Forget about it.”
“No… listen. Listen. I’m just saying… I think about stuff, too. All the time. Crazy shit. You wouldn’t… you don’t think about yourself, ever. You don’t think about us. Do you?”
Think about the woman. Think about her asking for help, and in that moment, that one miniscule moment between her anguished plea and the anchor announcing her death, as if it was inevitable, as if it were stupid for a six year-old already accustomed to the crisis and resolution of TV shows to expect this woman would survive, think you could have helped her.
“I thought you were like this machine,” La Garza says.
This is the first time she’s seen you cry. This is the first time she’s really seen you at all and before going into work, the two of you go get some ice cream for breakfast. No one gets ice cream anymore, she says, as people pick through the piling trash. The pockets of last night’s suicides. Order Vanilla. Think about saying, I love you, or We’ll figure it out. Words aren’t necessary. Sense her quiet strength, that magnetic confidence of the trains charging through Queens on their way into Manhattan, sending shudders through the emptying city.
You didn’t do anything.
The children keep disappearing, and what can you do? You can’t go back. Start over. All you can do is play by the rules. The years go by. Five. Ten. The remaining children age into anger. Mass protests spark unrest, and calls for action. The grandchild of a former agent named Molitor files a Freedom of Information request for the Elsewhere Dossier. She disappears before it’s released. You retire, before it’s released, but when it finally is, read it as instructed in your lonely apartment.
CLASSIFICATION: EYES ONLY
SUMMARY: SITE scrubbed. INVENTORY liquidated, except for SUBJECT 5 (Child, Female). Per Agent Molitor, SUBJECT 5 escaped. Search in progress. Family under surveillance. Will update.
Go to Hamelin, Florida.
St. Eligius Elementary has collapsed into a mammoth sinkhole. Slink back to Queens, sore. Take another stroll through the dossier. Hamelin was the Alpha site; was there a Beta? Search the document for ‘beta’ and find it – an old post office in Carpenter, Iowa. Search the building, alone, with nothing but your instincts and old service weapon. Go down into the basement. Clear every room. Go to the closet.
Fear no information. Open the door. Enter the closet, but you can’t bring the weapon with you. Leave it behind. You don’t need it. Start to say, FBI, but you’re not with the bureau anymore. You’re just another child, stretched and pulled toward responsibility. Go forward into darkness, toward innumerable voices, alone and afraid, but you’re not giving up.
Never give up.
CLASSIFICATION: EYES ONLY
SUMMARY: PROJECT INVENTORY (all REQS fulfilled):
8 SUBJECTS (4 ADULTS, 4 CHILDREN)
2 PARAPSYCHOLOGICAL ADVISORS (Agents Smith, Molitor)
EQUIPMENT: MISC. ELECTRONICS, ABDICATOR
ALPHA SITE: St. Eligius Elementary School, Hamelin, FL
BETA SITE: U.S. Post Office, Carpenter, Iowa
Thumb the details of the report into your phone as fast as you can. The director’s voice startles you. Outside the office. Talking to his secretary. Commit as much of the inventory to memory as you can. No time. Leave the chair. Walk past Packard out of the office before he can say a word. Text La Garza.
Hamelin, FL. Immediate departure.
Drive down to Florida. Exhaust everything there is to say to La Garza about the dossier before you’ve left the city. Say nothing for hours. Stop at a gas station outside D.C. In the bathroom, go over the facts again. Hundreds of thousands of kids have gone missing. No trace. No scientific explanation. Consider the possibilities. Elaborate prank coordinated on social media? Alien abduction? An alarmingly narrow Rapture? Secret government experiment? Do you really think whatever the bureau did in some high school in 1991 has anything to do with the missing kids? Aren’t you grasping at straws? Aren’t you just looking for something to fill your time? Something to fill your head?
Hear the woman on the news. Oh, God.
Get back in the car. La Garza doesn’t pull her seatbelt on. She taps her thumb against the steering wheel.
“You’re from Florida, aren’t you?”
“My birth family,” you say, and she nods, because you’ve discussed this before. This much, at least. “Why?”
“You ever look them up, or…”
“Can we focus on the case?”
“I meant what I said,” La Garza says. “I want a baby.”
“Why would you ever bring a baby into this?”
She leans against the wheel. “What are we doing?”
Shake your head. “We’re going to Hamelin.”
“Nothing is ever going to change,” she says, a whisper but without the trains thundering past, everything is so loud.
She speeds out to the interstate. More silent hours. The sun melts in the Florida humidity as you finally arrive in Hamelin. Follow the GPS to the address of the school. The road ends in a massive sinkhole. Black birds smother the ground at the edge, crawling all over each other like ants on a melting hill of dropped ice cream. Trees teeter on the rim. Halves of houses. An entire neighborhood, gone into the ground. A thread of inexplicable sidewalk spans the sinkhole like a bridge to the boxy shape of a building, on an island of earth.
Step out on the sidewalk. “Grab a flashlight.”
“We’re not going in there,” she says.
Blocks of pavement teeter beneath your feet. La Garza’s heart beats so hard you can hear it. Cross the bridge to St. Eligius. Pry the graffitied plywood off a window. Rats scurry down stairs into a deeper dark than you’ve ever known. Think better about this. Go inside anyway. What are you looking for? The site would have been scrubbed over twenty-five years ago.
What are you doing?
Draw your service weapon. Clear the upper floors. Go back to the basement stairs. Hold out in front of you, parallel to your flashlight and inch down the steps. Years of rat shit crunches beneath your shoes. Turtle eggs. Alligators slither out of the light. La Garza stays on the stairs.
“This is FUBAR,” she says.
Keep going. Always keep going. The basement is mostly a copper forest of dripping pipes. The boiler. A few utility rooms. Scorch marks on the floor. Concrete blackened around four square, clean spots. Legs of a chair. Shadows of people burnt on the walls. The door of a closet. Open the closet. The dark inside eats your light. Take a step in. The nose of your service weapon presses against something. You can’t see it. Reach out with your other hand. No resistance. Lower your weapon.
The service weapon yanks out of your hand. Drops to the floor. Reach down to pick it up. No matter how hard you pull, it won’t cross the threshold of the door.
La Garza tries to hand it to you. She can’t. “What the… get out of there. Get out of there right now.”
Shine your light into the closet. See nothing. Even though you can’t see, you know the closet is deeper than it should be. Your voice carries. “Hello?”
Hear them. Screaming. Pops, like the Fourth of July. Get down on your ass, put your foot against the frame of the door and pull with all your might. The weapon doesn’t budge.
The building does.
The floor gives out beneath you and you’re falling. Mostly it feels like falling out of a dream, except this time, you don’t wake up. Something lands on you and this pressure squeezes you to a merciless sleep that you never wake up from.
Ignore the warnings and read through the entire dossier, beginning with the first page.
CLASSIFICATION: EYES ONLY
SUMMARY: ABDICATION successful with dedicated PROMPTING. SUBJECT 8 (Child, Female) exhibits high capacity for dimensional phasing to ‘SANCTUARY’ plane and complete repatriation.
CLASSIFICATION: EYES ONLY
SUMMARY: SUBJECT 8 ABDICATES at will. SUBJECT 8 also able to remote ABDICATE secondary individuals by employing PROMPTS herself. MEASURES to groom SUBJECT 8 behavior ineffective.
DO NOT CONTINUE READING.
CLASSIFICATION: EYES ONLY
SUMMARY: SUBJECT 8 remote ABDICATED some juvenile SUBJECTS and withdrew to SANCTUARY. Preliminary indications are that other children reported missing in local area, off-site, may have been targets of SUBJECT 8. When SUBJECT 8 returned, advised would return abductees if ‘there were no more guns.’ Ordered site security to replace firearms with non-lethal weapons. SUBJECT 8 has yet to return any of the other children.
On the next page, find a glossary of redacted terms. The only word not blacked out on the page is PROMPTS. Everything is blacked out on the next page, except:
FEAR NO INFORMATION.
That’s all. The same again on the following page:
What door? The director’s voice startles you. Outside the office. Hurry up. It’s time. Read as much as you can. Skim over words. Phrases. SUBJECT. TEST. SANCTUARY.
The Director’s voice falls away. The sounds of the city outside. The hum of the computer, a decade too old. The screen flickers. Strain your eyes to see better.
The chair you’re sitting on is no longer soft and supportive, but hard. Metal. Indifferent. You’re not in the director’s office. Bright, fluorescent room. White walls. Mirrors hover over you, like the mirrors they use in the dentist’s office. See your reflection, but back in the office.
Scramble out of the chair. Hear voices, but you don’t know from where. Reach for your sidearm. It’s missing. The holster. Your clothes. The only thing on you is a number. 5. Written in black marker. Hear voices. Give half a thought to just getting out of wherever the hell you are, but you never get out of anything, so move forward. The voices compound into this rumble.
“FBI,” you say. “I’m here to – “
You’ve abdicated, they say. You’re one of them and you run, to the rectangular dark just beyond the chair. The darkness forces you out, back into a light paler than it was before. Crawl out of what you realize is a basement. A school. Somewhere in Florida. The director fires you for hacking his personal computer. Go to the press with your story. By the time any news outlets get to Hamelin, the school has fallen into the sinkhole.
Never figure it out.
Children continue disappearing in units of 1,347. Not every day, not every week, but it happens enough that within five years there are half as many kids as there were before. Scientists, physicists, the Pope, Kim Kardashian, everyone has an idea but no one has an explanation. No one has a solution, except to make more babies. Newborns vanish from maternity wards. People leave the country, as if getting pregnant and delivering the baby somewhere else will protect it in the way foreign children seem to be protected. People adopt foreign kids, but as soon as the ink dries, they disappear, too.
Shit starts to break down.
Crime rates spike. Suicides. Kidnappings. Spend most of your time busting up child trafficking rings in the United States to recover kids that then vanish into thin air. This lull takes over, a tide of grief and helplessness that casts everyone adrift in the same glib sea. Funding evaporates. Hope. Fear. Everyone is numb. Remain committed. You’re going to figure this out. Ask for more money. More help. A succession of directors and administrations hollow out the investigation.
La Garza wants to leave the bureau. She wants to have a family. That was never going to happen, anyway. Years go by before she figures it out. She’s not the best investigator, at least when it comes to her personal life.
She leaves you.
Hear the woman, every time another disappearance happens. Oh, God. Hear them screaming, begging, pleading and turn up the volume on your TV. Go down into the subway and sit there for hours as the trains pass, until you have to go in. The trains dwindle. The people. The engine of the city. Go in to the office, any time of day or night, and blast music from your laptop because there’s no one else on your floor now.
Never give up on the case, even after you take an early retirement because the bureau is shuttered, even after it seems there’s no point. See a painted window in Woodside: It is thirteen years since our children left. Think about La Garza sometimes. Find out she moved to Mexico, and had a baby boy. Edward. Go down to Battery Park some nights, around sunset, when it’s just you and the gulls and gray squirrels and the hulls of the Staten Island ferries, ebbing from their moors, unused.
Darby Harn is a writer whose novel EVER THE HERO, is available now. His fiction appears in Strange Horizons, Interzone, Shimmer and other venues. He can be found on Twitter @Darbyharn.