Interference — S. A. Rao

January 4, 2021

Volume 1, Issue 5


Pushing open one of the ceiling panels, Ray pulled out a box of Camel Lights, which from the heft felt incredibly light. He looked inside to see that it was nearly empty and took one of the last three remaining cigarettes before tucking the box into his jacket pocket. They technically weren't allowed to smoke inside the office, but he knew nobody was going to say shit to him. In the last twelve years as a detective with Missing Persons Unit of the New Mexico Special Investigations Division in Roswell, he hadn't missed a beat. Nobody found every last person, but he had about as good of a track record as he could've ever hoped for. He was the best in the unit by a long shot. The FBI had even tried to recruit him, but he'd declined. He didn't want to have to leave this place. He didn't like people and new people most of all. Life in small towns suited him best.

All the same, he locked his door and cracked open a window. It wouldn't completely get rid of the tobacco smell that would cling to the fabric curtains and the chair backs, but with his plug-in air freshener, he figured he could at least keep the place from smelling like an ashtray.

The office he was in hadn't been renovated since the seventies. A renovation was always in the works, but whether their budgets were cut or raised in a given year, it seemed like the last thing anybody wanted to pay for was a better building. He found it relaxing to look at the strange patterned fabric that had been popular a half century ago. It helped him think about his cases.

This case in particular had been a pain: four missing kids in the last three weeks, with the fourth officially missing as of yesterday. In most cases he'd worked a little good police work turned up leads. It was never laid out like a breadcrumb trail the way it was in all the television shows, but good police work, knowing the community, and having a good informant or two were all things that helped bring it home. But with this particular string of cases, nothing seemed to be working. Even his partner Frank seemed to be coming up short. It was as if these kids had just disappeared off the face of the earth. With any missing person, the longer time dragged on, the lower the chance of success. At that point, the odds go from bad to worse in a hurry.

When a case ran long enough to be part of the local news cycle on a nightly basis, as had this one, it caused Ray's surly disposition to sour further. Coverage helped and he'd received his share of tips from it in the past, but a lot of the time, it offered little more than spectacle. It hadn't been picked up nationally. National news gave these kidnappings a pass to cover more important things like politicians yelling at each other. In most cases when things went national, it didn't do much good, in Ray's opinion, other than to provide a bigger stage for the spectacle.

But the local stations didn't have much else to talk about. He couldn't bring himself to watch anymore, especially when they interviewed the nut jobs that went on and on with the alien conspiracy theories. That kind of nonsense wasn't unusual in this area, but usually cases resolved themselves quickly enough to put away that noise. This time, it seemed like they didn't have a thing. He put out the cigarette with a resolute and harsh finality, tossing the butt out of the window into an empty coffee can that he had conveniently placed just there and closed the window. He missed the good old days when he could've just smoked at his desk and put it out in an ashtray like a civilized human being. He didn't miss how that probably would've smelled. The phone rang, and he picked it up.

"Garrett," he answered.

"Ray, it's me, Frank," came the voice out of the receiver.

"I know who it fuckin' is. Who else calls me at three o'clock in the fuckin' mornin'?" he asked. Every once in a while Ray thought that maybe he should swear less, but it seemed to be a notion that he forgot just after coming up with it. He liked Frank, as far as partners went. Tough, with an even disposition. Frank was new. Not new at the job, but a new partner, and new to town. He'd moved to Roswell from Baltimore of all places, and had worked some big cases out there. Before that, Frank had served in the Marines and worked in military intelligence. Frank quickly fell into a natural rhythm with Ray. At times Ray felt like they had been partners for years.

"Yeah, yeah whatever. It's not like you're at home sleeping," replied Frank. A fair point. Ray had been burning the midnight oil on this one on a regular basis. "Anyway, I got somethin' on the kids. School records."

"I already canvassed the school. Kids were all smart, no problems, no gang involvement, history of fighting, none of that shit...What did you find?" asked Ray.

"Academic records. See, in the previous reporting period and before going back a few years, these kids were pretty evenly distributed by performance. One did well, a couple did alright, and the other didn't do so well. In the most recent period, these kids shot up to the top somehow — while everyone else stayed about the same. Then came the standardized test the state makes 'em take every year — and our missing kids, they were off the charts. I mean it, Ray. Smarter than straight-A student smart. Off the fuckin' charts."

"Shit," said Ray. Unlike Ray, Frank hardly swore. Not even when he stubbed his toe. Not unless it was really important. When he swore, you knew it was serious business. "Tell me more."

"All four of these kids were way out of the normal range of performance for all students — even the best, the ones that nail it every year. They blew the median scores out of the water. They blew the top 5% of scores out of the water. In fact, they all represent four of the highest data points in the history of the State administering this test."

"You said 'four of the highest.' That means there's more. How many?"

You could almost hear Frank grinning through his receiver. There hadn't been much to smile about in the last month. "One more test score in that range. In the same neighborhood as the rest of the kids, of course — out in Arabela."

Ray hated Arabela. A couple years ago, there hadn't been much there, but there had been a lot of hype recently and it had started to become one of, in Ray's opinion, the worst tourist traps in the area. The town had capitalized on the scenic beauty of the nearby Capitan Mountains as well as the conspiracy theories about alien crash landings in the area propagated by the people Ray charitably referred to as 'yahoos.'

"Well, let's get back out there whenever normal folks are awake."

The Woodland Grove subdivision was nestled near the foothills of the Capitan Mountains, tucked away against a stretch of old forest that grew increasingly dense as the land sloped up towards the mountains themselves. The houses were nice, as would be expected in a gated community, but set against the contrast of the forests and the mountains, they seemed almost crude. This land had once been the home of the Mescalero Apache before they had been pushed onto a reservation. That was long before roads and highways penetrated this wilderness, when the largest settlements were probably a sparse collection of tipis that might have shared the same ground. Ray imagined that before even the Apache had come to the area, the place had been old and quiet, but never silent.

Now, it was anything but. Artists and craftspeople had set up shop in town nearby, inspired by the magnificent vistas. There was a craft brewery down the road. Tourists fell in love with the place and bought homes they never lived in but rented out to other tourists. He figured about a quarter of the homes in this particular neighborhood were of that variety. Outside the community a police car was parked. Ray exchanged a wave with the officer; he had forgotten the local policeman’s name, but knew him by sight. This was the only gate for automobiles; the other one was a foot gate that lead to the wilderness area abutting the subdivision, leading directly onto public lands.

They arrived at the house, this time hoping to talk to the parents of one of the kids. Unlike the other visits of the like they'd made, this particular kid hadn't yet been reported missing. They hoped to keep it that way. He was going to let Frank do most of the talking. It usually worked out better that way.

"So, what's this about, officers?" the father asked as they were seated. He sat nervously on the black leather sofa, awaiting his wife who brought them all waters despite their polite demurrals. "I hope Robbie's not in any trouble." They hadn't had much interaction with the kid other than watching him trudge up the stairs after looking down to see what this was all about. Robbie was tall and lanky and looked like he could play basketball if he spent more time at the gym and less on computer games.

"Well, we hope the same thing. We found a pattern with the other four kids that have gone missing from the neighborhood and are concerned that Robbie might fit that pattern. Have you noticed anything about a sudden improvement in his academic performance?" The couple exchanged glances, then nodded in response to Frank's question.

"He's been studying more," said the mother. She wasn't lying, near as Ray could tell, but she didn't sound confident about it either. "Or at least that's what our guess is. We've been getting on his case for years about underachieving, and we figured that something finally clicked with him."

"So, no tutoring then? No special services? Test prep?" Frank continued.

"No, nothing like that. We tried it in the past, but he's generally been pretty indifferent, so we gave it up," said the father. "This time it's all natural. He's become responsible."

"Any hobbies? New friends?" asked Frank.

"Nothing bad," answered the father. "He's just a regular teenager. Sometimes the kids go out to the woods out back by the foot gate, but that's it. They're not smoking weed or anything. I'd be able to smell it. Besides, he's doing well."

"Well, just make sure to keep the alarm system armed. We're going to have someone posted here to keep an eye on things."

They exited with a cordial farewell, making their way on foot to the security gate out front to see if they could get another look at what the subdivision's security cameras may have captured. There were cameras at the the main entry and exit gates out front where residents and visitors alike came through, as well as cameras near the foot gates of the property. These last couple of visits, the neighborhood association's security office seemed to have a lot of trouble with the footage.

"Hey Carl," Frank said. "We're back, and you know what we're gonna ask you already."

"You wanna see the footage. I got good news and bad news," responded Carl. He was the head of security and had access to all the cameras. Initially, Carl had been a person of interest in the investigation because whenever they examined the tapes from the nights kids had gone missing, a lot of noise had shown up in the video recordings. But Carl lived in the neighborhood as well, was a deacon at his church, and had a stellar reputation in the community. He had fully cooperated with the investigation and had been ruled out as a suspect.

"Bad news first," Ray said, with all the candor of someone who'd been waiting in a DMV line for six hours.

"Always. There's the same problems as usual. Noise. You can watch it, I've got it all here for you. You won't get anything out of it, I don't think, but you can watch it all." He handed them a thumb drive.

"The good news?"

"So I did some comparisons of my own on the timestamps, and there's some sporadic noise throughout the day, but it gets strongest at night when it's pitch black out. I bought this little thing on the Internet," he said, fishing out a gadget from a bag. "You can use this thing to track interference. I took it for a spin last night around nine. It led me to the foot gate. I went out, and it got stronger as I got closer to the forest. I started to get a funny feeling about the whole thing so I came back, and it cut off just after that. But here, you can have this." Carl put it back into the bag and handed it to them. Ray promptly took it.

"The source of interference is in the forest, and seems to start up when it's dark. So we gotta be out there with this thing around nine. I think this might be our best lead yet, Carl." Ray couldn't remember, but it was probably the first time he'd used the guard's name. The look on Frank's face confirmed his suspicion. The better a case was going, the more relatively genial Ray's temperament became. He'd been more of an asshole than usual for the last month, but the change in mood was - at least one could hope — a bellwether for better things to come.

When the kids had first disappeared, the wilderness adjacent to the subdivision seemed a promising avenue of pursuit. Local law enforcement in combination with volunteers from the community had formed a search grid that scoured a good amount of territory in the area without producing even a shred of evidence. That had been well before they had called in the state for assistance ­­— after the second disappearance. There hadn't been anything wrong with the search grid; it had been conducted by the book as far as Ray and Frank had been able to discern. Besides, even when they had joined in the process, nothing turned up. This left them both feeling a little skeptical that they would find the kids here, but having one of their first new leads in ages lifted their spirits. Whatever was interfering with the signal at night here could very well be related to the disappearances.

They showed up an hour before Carl had indicated the interference started happening, parking their car inside the subdivision and exiting the foot gate towards the forest. The builders had cleared the trees for some distance from the neighborhood so homes wouldn't be damaged by falling trees and to create a barrier that might help prevent the spread of wildfires into the residential area; this was, after all, only about an hour from where the original Smokey Bear had been found. Ray thought about that as he put out his cigarette, careful to store the butt on his person.

It wasn't until around a quarter to nine that Frank picked something up. The contraption had a harness with a computer strapped to it, angled up at the chest so you could look at it while you walked hands free. As instructed, he pointed the spade-shaped antenna outward to feed the signal back to the computer. They'd been given basic instructions on how to use it, and it wasn't too bad. Before that time, nothing had been picked up in terms of interference, but there was a sudden spike in activity.

"It's this way," Frank said, gesturing into the thicket in front of them. Ray didn't know exactly what they were going to be dealing with, but he followed along wordlessly, sporting a big flashlight. The forest began abruptly, dominated by low bushy evergreen trees that would eventually, if they got far enough up into the mountains, give way to denser timberland vegetation. This far from any city, the night was pitch black, their only sources of light the flashlights they carried and the light glow from the screen on the device strapped to Frank's chest.

People tend to think of forests as peaceful and quiet, as oases far away from the urban hellscapes where workers slaved away at their day jobs. They occupy a glorified place in the popular imagination, advertised as getaways in glossy pictures that showed blue skies, green pines, and sunshine. But when the sun set and the night took over and the dense trees formed a canopy that obscured all but the faintest hints of moonlight, when sounds of unknown provenance emerged from the desolate woodlands, even the stoutest of souls might stop to reflect upon their small place in the infinite darkness. Branches snapped and were broken around them as they passed through places that might not have seen beings of human height in an age or more. As they ventured deeper and the land began to slope upward, Ray was reminded of why it was only the branches at a height that were snapping - of the black bears and the mountain lions that roamed these lands. Surely it was this, he told himself, and not the quiet isolation that prompted him to speak.

"You know, we oughta talk more. Keep the bears away," he said to Frank.

"Are bears nocturnal?" Frank asked.

"Not usually, except where there are people nearby. Like here. They stay up at night to try and avoid us," Ray explained patiently.

"If they try to avoid us, why're you worried?"

"Because they can only avoid us if they know we're there. That's why we talk," Ray said, as if stating the obvious.

"I'll take your word for it, Ray. I grew up with more buildings than trees around," Frank replied.

"Are we getting any closer?" asked Ray.

"You sound like my kids on a road trip," Frank said.

"We've been at this an hour." Ray and Frank were in many ways opposites. Ray was impatient and a subject of his own impulses. Frank was imperturbable and disciplined; he didn't smoke, and Ray hadn't seen him have more than two beers at a sitting. Just thinking about that made Ray want to have a drink. Meanwhile, Frank diligently worked on tracking the signal according to the instructions Carl had given the on using the device.

"Well, if you must know, we're getting hotter, Ray. It should be...right up that way." His flashlight moved first towards an opening under a small overhang pressed up against a steep hill which had arisen before them. Ray's flashlight followed suit, and he exchanged glances with Frank as they contemplated the notion of what might be in an isolated cave that could cause that type of interference back in town.

In the relative silence that ensued, there was a sharp crack of a branch on the ground floor that came from behind them, followed by another, and another, each crack quickly following the last. Flashlights arced back around as they searched the dense woodlands for the source of the sound before alighting on a dark shape moving through the woods. It took a while to discern that it was a person, because something was decidedly off about the gait with which their follower moved, like a child just learning to walk despite being the height of an adult. The figure was hooded, shadow covered its face.

"Police! I'm gonna need you to stop right there and identify yourself," Ray called out. He pressed his back against a tree so that it wasn't aimed at the ominously silent cave either, but smoothly drew his sidearm, though he didn't point the weapon at the figure.

There was no response, simply the crunching of incautious, awkwardly placed footsteps against the ground floor of the forest, as the figure continued its onward march towards them.

"If you keep going, I will have no choice but to respond with force," said Ray.

"Ray, it's the kid. Robbie," Frank said, the figure finally coming close enough to identify. Ray lowered his weapon at the warning. "Robbie, what're you doing out here?"

No more response came to Frank than had come to Ray. Ray holstered his weapon, and approached as Robbie came close enough to see that he was unarmed.

"Look, kid. This is serious business," he said, moving to physically interpose himself between Robbie and his path, and Frank closed in as well. Ray wasn't in the peak of physical conditioning, but he easily had thirty pounds on the kid. That didn't stop Robbie from shoving him out of the way like a rag doll into a nearby tree. Ray cracked his head hard into a thick branch, hard enough to split the branch and have him sprawled on the ground seeing stars. Despite being a fitness fanatic, Frank didn't fare much better, cast aside like so much nothing. He had the luck to simply land on the ground, but was shaken nonetheless.

"The fuck?" asked Ray.

"That was two perfectly executed takedowns," Frank replied, disbelief clear in his tone.

"We gotta go after him. Find out what the hell is going on here," Ray said.

From behind, Robbie's abnormal gait was even more apparent, moving as if a marionette on strings by a puppeteer only vaguely familiar with the art, yet his steps slowly, steadily, inexorably drew him towards the mouth of the cave.

Ray and Frank followed not far behind; keeping a steady distance away from him, and yet close enough to intervene should it become necessary, not that they knew what exactly to do against a kid that could toss them around like rag dolls. Frank snapped off the harness and left it near a tree directly in view of the cave's mouth; it had taken most of the brunt of Robbie's earlier assault on him, and wasn't operational anymore, but fortunately had already served its purpose.

He took out his phone and snapped a picture of Robbie going into the caves, then glanced back down at it for a moment and sighed, putting it away.

"No reception out here," he said simply, falling in beside Ray as they continued, picking up their pace so that they wouldn't lose Robbie, who was about to enter the darkness of the cave. The mouth of the cave was tall enough for the youth to enter without having to bend, but only wide enough for one person to pass through at a time. As they got closer, Ray put himself toward the front; Frank fell in behind him.

Around a bend in the cave that came as they entered, they saw something that defied description. It looked almost like a curtain, but with irregular edges. It had the color of steel, but flickered as it came from a projector, all the while seeming to be made of molten metal that flowed downward but did not drip onto the ground before them. Robbie didn't stop at the sight, but walked towards it, and simply walked into it.

"I'm gonna head to the other side," Frank said, circling to the left. As he did so, he saw that the image didn't have a side profile at all, seeming to vanish when looked at from that angle, but there were two things that were more surprising. First, Robbie was nowhere to be seen. Second, that strange apparition of a curtain, which could be seen again from the back, appeared to come from what he could only describe as a projector, but like none he had ever seen - it was a cube that seemed to be about five feet on a side, and that appeared to be suspended in the air above the ground. Each side of the cube appeared to be made of a glassy black substance and was slightly illuminated like a screen on dark mode, glowing blue symbols in a language he didn't recognize covering each surface. If he had to guess, whatever this was, it was the source of the interference. The faint light emanating from the cube emitted a low glow that illuminated the cave walls, where he saw traces of ancient, primitive cave art.

"Ray, you gotta check this shit out." He waited for Ray to join him.


"Ray?" He moved cautiously back over to the front of the cave to see Ray appearing transfixed as he stared at the apparition into which Robbie had disappeared. "Ray, snap out of it."

Ray wanted to respond, but he found himself captive to a strange sensation: complete powerlessness over his own body. He wanted to do more than respond; he wanted to scream, but all he could do was stare mutely ahead of him. The hand that held the firearm opened not of his volition. The sound of it clattering against the ground dominating the small cave. Involuntarily, his body moved forward in what must have seemed to Frank to be the same halting, jerky movements they had seen Robbie making earlier as the youth walked through the forest before them. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Frank reaching for him, but it was too late. Ray staggered into the shimmering curtain, vanishing within it.

Just to be sure, Frank checked the other side, but as he predicted, there was no sign of Ray. He moved toward the side of the portal, but so that he could see the front if he leaned to the side, and stuck his hand in to see if it would emerge on the other side. It didn't; instead, that hand felt a humid sensation. He quickly yanked it back out, taking a few steps back from the apparition.

He didn't know what to do next precisely. He could go back for help, and hope this thing was still there when he got back. He didn't know how the window of time when it was operational precisely worked or what would happen to Robbie and Ray wherever this thing lead them. He felt a strange compulsion to move towards it, but willed himself not to. If he was going to go in, he would do it by choice.

Picking up Ray's fallen sidearm and holding it with purpose, he stepped in, feeling the heat and humidity of the place almost instantly unbearable, a sharp contrast with the cool, crisp air of the mountains of New Mexico. The foliage here weren't the Douglas firs and juniper pines that he'd just passed through, but instead seemed more akin to that of a tropical jungle, varieties he couldn't name. He didn't know exactly where he was at the moment, but that seemed extraordinarily less pressing than what was before him.

He stood in front of a shimmering curtain, a mirror to the one he had seen in the forest cave, but before him extended a small, flat stone surface that rose unto what he could only describe as a throne, upon which was seated a being like none he had laid eyes on before. A head that seemed almost exaggerated and squid-like in countenance served as the base from which several tentacular limbs emerged, with skin of a mottled gray-green hue that had an almost aquatic or reptilian texture to it. There he saw Robbie, Ray, a few others who he presumed were kids, and what looked like were a couple of hikers, each of their heads wrapped in the end of one of the several tentacles so only their bodies were visible from the shoulders on down, each standing in a rigid pose, motionless.

The sight sent a sliver of ice down his spine, fear gripping him and almost sending him running back through the portal if not for the being's eyes suddenly opening and a tentacle moving towards him with lightning speed. Before he could flee back into the portal, it wrapped itself around his chest, squeezing the air from his lungs. Adrenaline surged through his body, overcoming what would almost certainly otherwise have been a paralytic fear as he placed the gun against the tentacle and squeezed off a round causing that mottled flesh to rip apart, leaving a splatter of black viscera and blood over the stone-like floor beneath it. With a guttural cry that he could only take for pain, it dropped him from almost six feet in the air. As he rolled onto his back, a sense of panic nearly overtook him as another of the tentacles came again for him, this time, going for his head. He rolled away from it, and pulled himself up to a crouch, squeezing off another round this time aiming at one of the gargantuan creature's eyes. It was a near miss, but it seemed to halt attacks at him as its two free tentacles moved towards the gaping wound he'd left in its head.

That gave him enough time to try to free Ray and whoever else he could. Getting Ray first might give him the support he needed to leave. It was easy enough to put a bullet into each of the tentacles grasping Ray and Robbie, which left the both of them on their knees, sputtering, appearing both confused and disoriented. If Ray was going to offer any help or recover, it wasn't apparent. The freed tentacles each caressed the other's wounds.

The nearest two to him were the hikers, and he set to free them next, hoping they'd perform better under the circumstances, but they had no better response. If anything, they looked worse for wear. At a quick glance, the look of their clothing made it seem that they had been in this place for weeks, maybe months. He moved for the four children, when a hand gripped him from behind. He turned, hoping that one of them had recovered, but instead a fist connected with his face, knocking him back down to the ground. As he started to get up, he took another kick, and he dropped the gun he had. Crawling a few feet away, he saw something he hadn't noticed before: both hikers had a skin tone that resembled the mottled, reptilian skin of the thing that had captured them. He reached for his own gun, now that Ray's was out of reach and fired a round into each of them. At close range, it wasn't a problem, and each of them seemed now to bleed the same black viscera that had spilled forth from the nightmare creature. He had hoped to rescue them, but it didn't seem like it would be possible. He ripped free a bowie knife from one of the hiker's belts before kicking him over and moving to free the other four kids. Each slash had the same impacts as his shots before, but he could execute them more quickly and save his bullets for the main threat in the room. Dropping the knife, Frank started shoving each of the kids back through the portal. Just as the last of them was out, he turned to go back for Ray.

Raising his gun, the sudden thrill he felt at the prospect of victory started to fade as the tentacles emerged from its face, the wound of his previous gunshot apparently healed. He looked toward the other tentacles that had been caressing each other after the wounds he had inflicted. Those as well had somehow healed themselves and now moved towards him. Where one had previously proven insufficient to the task, several of them more than managed the job. First, his feet were bound. He grasped for the knife on the ground but was tugged away from it. Another bound his arms, and even with his gun still in his hand, he could only struggle. Yet another wrapped his body, constricting him until he could hardly breathe. Finally, one began to slip over his head, covering it like an envelope as the constriction around his body loosened a bit. He found that he could still breathe despite it all, but everything began to fade away. His ears could only hear muffled sounds, though before he faded, he heard what could only be a gunshot, followed by another, and another.

For what felt like the hundredth time that night, Frank was dropped to the ground. He could see again, though not before wiping a thick, mucosal slime from his face. Ray stood firing repeatedly into the creature's head. From what Frank could tell, Ray had hit it. Rather than stopping, Ray stood there laughing maniacally and continued to fire. But his magazine clicked empty. His eyes rolled back, and he fell to his knees, halted only when Frank seized him.

"Ray, let's go," Frank said, grabbing his partner and dragging him through the now shrinking portal that would lead back to the cave they had come in from. With everything he had, he heaved Ray through the shimmering gateway, until they both crashed against the stone floor of the cave.

The cube was there, but the shimmering gateway was gone. The kids they had set out to find were there, but he had no idea how to explain what had just happened. There was only one person Frank knew he could call for something like this — an old contact from his time working in intelligence for the Corps.

Ray walked through the endless corridors of gargantuan buildings, scaling stairs built for beings much larger than men, and traversed what he took to be the streets and alleys of empty cities which boasted unfamiliar architecture the likes of which he had never seen in person or in picture. The spectrum of colors seemed muted, as everything appeared as if cut from stone, viewed in a night sky illuminated presumably by moonlight. He knew not his destination or the route he followed, and yet inexorably he moved forward. He entered what he knew was a library, where he witnessed tomes both great and small in size, tablets cast in stone, and devices to which he could put no name. His hands took hold of a book, and even though the script was unfamiliar to him, he began to read from its text. His mouth spoke them in a voice that was not his own, and the characters seemed to sear themselves into his mind with a blinding white light.

The light that greeted him as he came awake from that strange dream was white as well, but sterile, as was the room that he was in. Heavy lids fluttered open, and he turned his head to see Frank, who had been lurking in his peripheral vision.

"Where the hell are we?"

"Good old Ray," Frank responded with a smile. "Well, we're in a government facility. You've been out cold for two days."

"Two days? Last thing I remember was shooting at that...whatever the hell it was."

"That was good shooting. I pulled you back through, and we got the kids back to their families, though they were all evaluated at this facility for chemical inhalation. That's what you're in here for too. I didn't know who to call about what we found in there, but I figured my old contacts in the intelligence world would know best. Then we got whisked away here. They got the cube too, under containment. What happened to you back there, when you walked in?"

"Well, I lost all control. Like I was on autopilot and something else was doing the driving. Just like how that kid Robbie was walking - I bet the same thing happened to him. Probably all them other kids too. It brought me in, and then wrapped my head into a suction cup on the end of its tentacle and I couldn't do a damn thing to resist it. I could breathe just fine, though. And I felt some kind of a connection with it, like I could understand what it wanted just a little bit. I think it wanted to change me somehow, to be more like it."

"Yeah, I guess that makes sense. There were a couple hikers in there too. I guess they got picked up the same as you and those kids did. But that creature, it got to them, and they came for me, but they didn't look right, Ray. Their skin was all messed up, and their eyes were vacant. I had to put 'em down so I could rescue the rest of y'all, and to save my own ass."

"What I wanna know," asked Ray, "is how come you didn't get pulled in with the rest of us?"

"Discipline," came a third voice. A man dressed in a dark suit walked into the room, closing the door behind him. "The type of discipline instilled in the Marine Corps creates a certain willpower that enables the mind to resist such attempts at mind control. Children in their adolescent years are particularly vulnerable. Adults are harder to control, but any sort of addictive behavior creates a vulnerability in willpower that makes it a bit easier to pull you in if you're close. If you'll forgive me, I think that's how it got you, Mr. Garrett."

"I'll forgive you if you tell me who you are and what the hell is going on," Ray replied with all of his usual courtesy.

"My name is Lorenzo Vega. This is the third such device we've located. The device is a technology we're utterly unfamiliar with, but our theory is that it operates by harnessing electrical signals in the brain. We have evidence to suppose that in the case of the kids you were after, it can successfully augment the capabilities of individuals impacted by it, and once individuals are sufficiently capable it can lure them towards it whereupon it can create a portal to the other place — presumably a different planet — where it hopes to transform its victims into a state of servitude, as Mr. Garrett discerned. We're really just scratching the surface here, and we could use all the help we could get, especially from people with the type of experience only you two gentlemen have. You will be either resigning your positions or will be terminated from them shortly, and will be hired by our agency."

Ray wanted to protest, but he didn't. He didn't like having his hand forced, but in truth, it really wasn't. He couldn't simply return to his life as before, and living with this knowledge would be more isolating than even he cared for. If he ever tried to speak about it, he'd be dismissed as just another conspiracy theory peddling lunatic. Besides, he knew intimately what it wanted even better than Vega seemed to, and he wasn't too keen on letting these things, wherever they were, groom and capture people. He reached instinctively for the pack of cigarettes in his pocket, pulled them out, and looked at them wistfully for a moment before handing them to Frank.

"Toss them. No more addictions." Whatever the hell those creatures were, he shot one between the eyes and he could do the same for others.

"Let's show these things what it's like when Ray fucking Garrett is on the case."


S. A. Rao grew up in the suburbs of Dallas, Texas. While he has toiled professionally as a digital product manager and an attorney among other things, the reading and weaving of stories has always been his true passion. When he is not at his day job or spending time with family and friends, he's chipping away at a science fiction novel in progress while ideating on a fantasy novel to be written at a later date.

You can follow him in twitter here:

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