"Listeners, there seems to be an abundance of blue helicopters out now and the whirring is only growing stronger. You know what that means. Boy, I know I wouldn't want to be the person the Sheriff's Secret Police are after tonight."
There is a stone box in the center of an intersection.
The intersection straddles the edge of Old Town Night Vale and, by default, New to Relatively Recent Night Vale. Most of the Old Town residents have to pass through this intersection to get to work, or drop off the kids at school, or attend mandatory reeducation sessions or run errands.
The stone box is still.
The grass in the square yard around it is kept trimmed. The city pays a reformed citizen fifty dollars each week it needs cutting, which is most weeks, since the heat encourages the grass to grow all year round. Of course, the lack of rain should really have killed it off by now, but the reformed citizen says he often finds the yellow-green blades damp with dew, so water is coming from somewhere. He suspects it seeps up through the dirt.
Carlos and his scientists said this was not possible. The reformed citizen still needs to mow the grass.
He keeps a few inches worth of border around the stone box to prevent the lawn mower from crashing into it. The grass there is more…yellow than the rest. Shinier, too. It catches the light more easily. Or perhaps the light runs away from it, and only seems to shine. This grass does not grow.
The stone box hums.
No one else visits the stone box. The City Council pays the reformed citizen by check. It posts the check each week when someone, standing on the opposite side of the road, visually confirms that the grass has been mowed. The check is slipped under the reformed citizen's coffee mug where he is sure to find it in the morning.
Sometimes, he sees footprints in the grass that is more yellow than green. He does not mention these to anyone. The checks continue to come.
He never thinks to look underneath the stone box. After all, it must be too heavy to move.
No one in Night Vale actually knows someone who has been to a recruitment session for one of the vague, yet menacing, government agencies. Or the vague, yet menacing, government agency. It's not quite clear whether there's more than one. That's the vague part.
They still hold recruitment drives. It just doesn't happen the way that they announce them. The best agents know how to handle a situation they had no idea was coming, of course.
And they don't flaunt themselves quite the way the Sheriff's Secret Police do. They do not go on the radio. They do not parade in showy black uniforms with trademark capes or signature blow dart chest straps. They have no need for such things. They work best in the shadows.
They know this, because the Secret Police strive to be shadows -- but officers still barely notice agents even half of the time.
It takes a lot of people to run a government agency. There's the agents, the support staff, the clerks, sacrifice, janitors, security, scientists, accountants, translators, spiders, and, of course, lobbyists. It takes a special kind of skill to lobby for a vague organization. Words. More words. Other words, and gestures. It takes a special kind of skill. Special.
Everyone who works for the agency has a special skill, of course. It takes a lot of skills to run a network, wrap it in shadow, and unbox it only by the light of the moon.
Yet no one in Night Vale knows someone who has joined a vague, yet menacing, government agency. No one can name such a person, though each of us has lost -- oh, counting is too much, isn't it? Each of us has lost. The laws of probability suggest that one of these lost is merely in a new location.
Still, no one can name a person who has joined a vague, yet menacing, government agency.
That's the vague part, too.
The stone box is the size of five grown adults standing shoulder-to-shoulder. Or three ladders spaced far enough apart for three grown adults to climb up them with shotguns strapped across their backs. Or the space for eight otherworldly children to swarm up and out of the earth.
Or, or, or.
The stone box is still by daylight.
It's passed by cars hundreds of times. It's passed by buses. It's passed by Secret Police Officers on foot and in helicopter. It's passed over by the City Council, who can't agree what to put in its place, and anyway, they don't know where they would move it. There are already so many stones in the desert. Where would you even put another one?
The lid of the stone box has never moved, to anyone's knowledge. But it's still clearly a box. A box is pretty identifiable. You have the bottom part. You have the lid on top. A top that wasn't a lid would just be a top. And then, well, the box would just be a stone.
The stone box is a box. It is not a stone.
There is no inscription on the stone box. There is no need for one. The only person who comes close to it is the reformed citizen, who has no reason to read an inscription on any kind of box. Cleaning the box itself is not in his contract either. It can be tricky to keep a stone inscription clean.
Straddling the intersection of Old Town and Relatively Recent and New Night Vale is a good location to be, if you had the need to go to other places. Perhaps to read inscriptions on other boxes. Perhaps to find files, or do science, or train spiders.
The stone box hums by daylight.
"We are getting reports that the top of the abandoned missile silo is… missing. It is just a hole, in the ground. A concrete funnel burrowing into the earth. A passage for the silky night to sink down, down, to magma and molten rock. The enormous steel-and-concrete lid of the submerged silo is… gone.
We will update this story if anything emerges from the ground."
The desert has always been the government's preferred place for missiles.
It's big and it's empty. Sure, it's hot, but so is the explosion when a missile hits the ground. Besides, once you dig deep enough into the earth, things start to cool down again. And if you house all of your workers in the shadows of the earth you save a lot on air conditioning bills. That makes things easier.
It also makes it easier to have lots of room to dig an enormous hole in the ground with no one around to notice. As you're digging, too, you have to have room to spread the dirt around, or someone will end up saying, "Hey, what's that giant pile of dirt for?"
The desert has space. It's empty. There are a lot of places to spread extra dirt around.
Night Vale's missile silo was abandoned before there was ever a missile in it. In addition to being a great place to store missiles, enormous holes in the ground also take a long time to dig. By the time Night Vale's was done, well, there were other things going on, and the missile just never made it out there.
Everyone knows about it because it's on the way to the scrub lands. Who hasn't stopped with the kids in the car to point out the huge concrete slab sending blurry waves of heat up in the mid-morning heat? It's a landmark. It's practically a local treasure.
But it's still abandoned. You can't un-abandon a place just because new people have moved in. It was especially hard to sell the silo without the missile inside. Available!! Great location!! Missile silo -- provide own missile! It just doesn't work. But it did make for an absolute steal of a deal when the Sheriff sidled up to it.
There will never be a missile in the missile silo.
That leaves a whole lot of room for other stuff, though.
Working as a living shadow encourages sticking to the dark.
Everyone knows about the Secret Police. They know what the rules were. They know how to spot them.
If they didn't, why would they ever stop for the person in the short black cape chasing them down the street, or responding to the balaclava-clad face peeking out from behind the blinds? The officers certainly wouldn't! You wouldn't catch them dead stopping for a strange person who may or may not be armed to the teeth. (Officers only get projectile mouth weapons when they reached a certain pay grade.)
Yes, the uniform is to be respected. It commands instant obedience. But it's also black, all over. It shrinks the wearer into a dark space and nudges that space into the shadows where it can blend until someone breaks a law and blunders in.
"You need to remain vigilant. You need to remain watchful."
Every shift, before leaving the silo for their assignments, a team of officers is looked over by the duty captain. The captain doles out the Sheriff's orders for the day and reminds the police about their duty to the city of Night Vale.
"Ordinary citizens can't go about their business without reminders on how to do it. They can't walk through a normal day if you're standing in their way, either. Keep to the side."
He or she stops. She or he points out a missing blow dart here, a loose thread on a balaclava there, praises anyone who took the extra step to double-fasten their cape into place.
The captain smiles, and presses a button to open the top of the missile silo so that the smallest sliver of sun or moonlight shines all the way to the shadows gathering at the bottom. "Step in when you're needed."
The Sheriff installs a bloodstone circle on the walls of the abandoned missile silo.
It's halfway up, which means that anything summoned through it won't be able to get the upper hand before falling into whatever conveniently placed net or trap lies below.
Unfortunately that also means that it's a little harder to conduct some rituals. Not everyone can walk around the edge of a circle built into the wall around them. If the weather is bad, they may not venture into the desert to do it from above.
Sometimes that means the secret police intercept things they weren't aiming for.
When the spider, the sacrifice, and the scientist fall to the bottom of the silo with a crack, the Sheriff is called immediately.
The sacrifice is rolled into plastic to keep it from getting everywhere. The spider is given a glass of water to drink. And the scientist is bound to a chair. This all takes a while: the wooden platform meant to catch a baby eldritch horror wasn't exactly built for welcoming three stunned subjects of … well, the scientist is unclear about just who he works for.
"I told you! I don't know who signs the checks! I get my orders delivered by mail, in the garden, like everyone else! All I know is I was supposed to find out what happens when--"
The group in charge of the summoning is restless. They wrap a gag around the scientist's head and knot it into place. They walk in circles around him until they appear to be a blurring shadow stretching from one corner of his vision to another. Their footsteps sound so quickly they become one noise, like the imitation of a breeze. The scientist feels the room begin to spin.
The Sheriff arrives.
The scientist remains … vague.
But when they lift his chair and tip it backwards, he screams about a stone box.
The Sheriff smiles.
"Update to our earlier story. More reports have come in about the unusual number of blue helicopters in the sky tonight. Listeners, I am sure that we are all safe in the hands of the Sheriff's Secret Police, who are -- oh, who are here, right now.
The helicopters have converged on -- no, wait -- the Sheriff's Secret Police tell me that they have two strike forces in operation at this very moment. One above the abandoned missile silo, and one above the stone box that everyone passes when you come in and out of Old Town Night Vale -- but, um, I am being told that the second is not important, except that you should definitely not drive through that intersection tonight.
'Stay. In. Doors,' the Secret Police officer said, when she stepped out from the shadow in the corner of the room. All I could see of her face were pale eyes behind the slits of her balaclava. 'Stay. In. Doors.' Then she walked backwards into the hallway and was gone.
…If you are not currently indoors, citizens, I suggest that you try to be soon."
The lid on the stone box is missing, too. It was shoved aside a few minutes after the blue helicopters invaded the air space above.
The box has space for eight otherworldly children to swarm up and out of the earth. This is not happening. The otherworld needs to recharge every now and then. Children, even mute ones, take time to grow. This is not their night.
The stone box is the size of five grown adults standing shoulder-to-shoulder. Five moving grown adults, though, need some extra room. When they've taken up the space to maneuver, there are only three ways out of the box left. If you stand on the right side of the square of lawn and stand on your toes to peer into the box, you can see three white metal ladders gleaming in the moonlight.
If you keep standing on the right side of the square lawn, you can see waves of three grown adults each emerging from the ground. For a moment it might appear that each has a shotgun strapped to their backs.
But this isn't true. Just one of them has a shotgun. The other two have something that … you cannot identify. One might be a stun gun. The other looks like… well, do you remember ever actually seeing a ground-to-air launcher? It probably looks like that, if you ever did.
It is not a night for otherworldly children. Blue helicopters vie for air space above the stone box. The whirring of blades is so intense that it whips the air in a column all the way to the streets below. It grabs the air right out of the agents' lungs. But they were prepared for this.
They kneel in the moonlight and take aim.
If you continue to stand on the right side of the square lawn, eventually the waves of three grown adults will turn to you. And you will not be standing anymore.
Black ropes unfurl from helicopters hovering above Night Vale.
Black-clad figures slide down.
Black rockets the size of fists peel up into the sky and shudder the ropes, shudder the helicopters, shudder the sounds rioting out from the square between the old and new Night Vale.
More men and women emerge from the stone box. More rocket launchers are brought out. More helicopters fly in to replace those that speed away, down toward the ground in other parts of the city, to landing pads and empty patches of road. The men and women on the ground with no more rockets run toward the black-clad figures descending from the helicopters, and shoot with bullets and stunners.
Some peel off to march toward the abandoned missile silo.
The Sheriff's Secret Police crowd their helicopters in above the stone box. They dangle their best officers above the square entrance. The officers let go of their ropes, aiming as they have practiced above the silo, to let themselves fall straight into their target --
The air shudders and shudders and shudders.
The rest of Night Vale huddles in their homes.
When it is done, the lid is dragged back onto the stone box.
The square lawn is stamped down by footprints too numerous to count.
The whirring helicopters have retreated, for now.
"All at once, the skies above our city are clear again. The Sheriff's Secret Police have withdrawn their helicopters. To where, I know not.
The swarms of armed men and women who clogged the streets around that stone box are still marching into the desert. What they will find, and what they will do when they get there, cannot be said now. I would suggest to stay out of their way, if you spot them, dear listeners.
Let us go to, and rest with… the weather."