“Why only ten year olds?” Sarah Jane wondered out loud. “What is it all about?”
“Something that needs ten year olds…” Luke answered.
“Don’t say someTHING,” Clyde protested. “It’s too weird. Like aliens stealing kids. I’d rather it was just some nutter.”
“I think we should stop talking and DO something,” Maria said.
“We can’t until we have something to go on,” Sarah answered. Mr Smith… Are there ANY patterns to the disappearances? Did they all go from one place or…”
At once a map resolved on the big screen and fifty-three dots appeared on it, indicating the places where witnesses last saw the missing children. They were in all different places, all within two or three miles of each other, but no obvious pattern.
At the same time the witness statements appeared on a smaller screen. Luke read them at super-speed but said he saw nothing unusual. Maria put the file back to the beginning and read it more slowly, Luke could remember things after hearing or reading them once, but he couldn’t always understand what he was reading. Maria allowed herself to piece together the common factors in each of the reports.
“The children just vanished. They were there one moment, the next, gone. This one was holding his brother’s hand and suddenly he wasn’t there. The brother says he just vanished into thin air.”
“Transporter beam,” Clyde suggested. “Aliens zapped them.”
“Don’t be silly, Maria answered. “There are no such things. That’s off Star Trek.”
“Oh, there ARE,” Sarah Jane contradicted her. “Transmats, they’re called, not transporters. But the same thing. I’ve used them. But they were thousands of years in the future, not in 2008.”
“But they DO exist?”
“Aliens,” Clyde insisted.
“I suppose…” Sarah Jane turned back to her super computer. “Mr Smith, are there any alien ships in orbit over Earth tonight?”
Mr Smith scanned the skies.
“No,” he answered.
“Have any alien ships landed tonight?”
“No, Sarah Jane.”
“Ok, then… Ok… let’s think of it another way. Have there been any unusual power surges? Transmats need power. Lots of it. If it’s not aliens in space ships they might be using the National Grid.”
“Yes,” said Mr Smith after a slightly longer pause. “There have been fifty-three power surges in the past two hours at substation 234, located at the Riverside Retail Park. Please wait one minute, Sarah Jane.”
“I apologise,” Mr Smith said eventually. “It has taken 13 seconds longer than one minute to collect the available data.”
“That’s ok,” she answered him. “What have you got?”
“I have an approximate co-relation between the power surges and the disappearances of children. I cannot be completely accurate as some witness reports did not have an exact time of disappearance.” Even so, the map now showed times flashing on and off near some of the dots. The same times flashed on and off by the location of the Riverside Retail Park’s electricity substation.
“Something in that retail park transmatted the children,” Sarah Jane concluded.
“Yes,” Mr Smith replied.
“Tell the police,” Maria urged her. “They told you to call the switchboard if you found out anything.”
“I can’t,” she sighed. “I can’t tell them this. They’ll think I’m cracked. Or wasting their time. Even with U.N.I.T. clearance it would sound barmy. We’ll just have to go there ourselves.”
That idea met with approval. An adventure, a mystery. Only the fact that it involved a search for missing children dampened the enthusiasm a little.
“K9…” Sarah Jane said as they found their coats. “You’d better…. Oh…. Oh, all right, come along. We may need you.”
“Affirmative, mistress,” K9 answered. He headed to the old dumb waiter, now adapted to controls he could push with his nose probe. The Human members of the team headed for the stairs. He was waiting for them in the hallway, his robot tail wagging enthusiastically.
“Not walkies this time though,” Sarah Jane said. “We’ll take the car.”
It was a tight squeeze in the back of Sarah Jane’s emerald green Nissan Figaro. The two boys had to make room for K9 between them. Maria serenely buckled up in the passenger seat and Sarah Jane drove off, noticing that there was still a police car in the street, and wondering if their movements would be recorded. But they were doing nothing wrong. They were heading for a shopping centre which had a multiplex cinema that was open late tonight for a Halloween horror film triple bill and a twenty-four hour Tesco. She parked the car in the supermarket car park.
“Feels like cheating,” Clyde said. “It’s not proper espionage if you park where you’re ALLOWED.”
“It’s good enough for me,” Sarah Jane answered as the boys put K9 down on the tarmac. She looked around and wondered what to do next. Should she look at the substation? But what would she do with THAT?
“Look,” Luke called out. “It’s the witch again.”
The others looked where he was pointing and there was, indeed, a witch shaped balloon tethered to the roof of one of the retail units.
“That’s NOT what we saw by the river before,” Sarah Jane said. “That’s obviously a balloon. It has a funny luminous green face with a hooked nose. What we saw… was much more real.”
“Yes,” Maria agreed. “No I see it, you’re right. It WAS different.”
“So it WAS a real witch?” Luke asked.
“Not necessarily,” Sarah Jane answered. “There could still be a simple explanation.
But she wasn’t sure she believed herself when she said that. She had seen many stranger things than women in black cloaks flying broomsticks. Why wouldn’t it be true?
“A flying SOMETHING that looks like a witch, missing children,” Maria said. “Is it two mysteries or just the one? Are they connected?”
“VERY good question,” Sarah Jane said. “Well done. Let’s assume they ARE. What IS that building?”
“It’s Rosetta Lupo’s novelty store,” Clyde answered. “That’s why the witch is tied up there.”
“Ah.” Sarah Jane looked up at the witch, then her eyes fixed on the store. There was no permenant sign yet, just a big cloth banner across the front. It was dark. Most of the other stores, Comet, Dixons, Hobbycraft, Halfords, even though they were shut, had low-power security lights. The Multiplex and Tesco were lit up brightly. But this unit was silent and dark.
“I think,” she said. “We need to check out this place.”
She looked around carefully. Would there be security cameras? She didn’t want to get arrested for breaking and entering. She certainly didn’t want to get arrested with Maria and the boys and K9 with her. What would THAT look like? She couldn’t see anything and she used one of the more unusual functions of her watch to confirm there WERE no hidden cameras about the building then she walked purposefully towards it. The others followed.
“It seems to be all locked up,” Clyde pointed out as they came to the back entrance of the retail unit. “I don’t think this has anything to do it.”
“Yes, it does,” Sarah Jane answered as she looked at her watch. “I’m picking up residual particles. Something used a transmat inside this building.”
“I wish you would stop saying SOMETHING!” Clyde exclaimed. “Are we going in there, then?”
“How?” Luke asked. “The doors are all locked.
“Really,” Sarah Jane laughed as she held up her sonic lipstick. “How long have you been living with me, now?”
Luke began to tell her in months, days and minutes, but Maria shushed him. She had her ear to the steel shutter over the door.
“This IS the place. I can hear children.”
“Crying?” Clyde asked.
“No, laughing mostly. But it’s still not right. An empty building late at night…”
Sarah Jane extended the sonic device inside the lipstick case and aimed it at the lock before pushing up the shutter. Inside was an ordinary door. It had a safety glass panel with wire mesh through it at the top. There was light inside.
“Behind me,” Sarah Jane said as she applied the sonic lipstick’s lock melting mode to the door. “I don’t know what’s in there. Or how many of them…”
She flung open the door and stepped inside. The others followed despite her warning.
To say that they were all surprised would be an understatement. What they saw stunned them.
For a start there were a lot of children. They didn’t bother to count, but they assumed there were fifty-three, and guessed that they were all aged ten. What were the chances, after all, even on Halloween night, of finding another batch of children locked in a sinister place.
They were all sitting around a big table eating jelly, ice cream and cakes, the sort of food ten year olds enjoy. They were all wearing Halloween masks, except most had pushed them up on the top of their heads in order to eat.
That was all pretty much normal, apart from the fact that it was nearly eleven o’clock at night and they were in a locked building in a retail park miles from their homes and all listed as missing by their frantic parents.
And the fact that they were all glowing.
It was a sort of yellowy-orange light with sparks of red and it surrounded all of the children like an aura and was being ‘syphoned’ off into a huge funnel in the ceiling above them.
“What is that?” Maria asked. “What’s it doing to them?”
“Nothing good,” Sarah Jane answered. “That just CAN’T be good.”
“That’s one of the Shields kids,” Clyde said, looking at one of the boys. He seemed unharmed except that he was glowing. He carried on eating a cream bun even when Clyde waved a hand in front of his face. “Wait a minute…” He pulled the Halloween mask off the boy’s head. At once two things happened. First, the glow disappeared from around him. Second, he stopped eating and looked around, asked where his mum was, and promptly slumped forwards into the plate of cream buns. Maria and Luke carried him from his seat and laid him down on Sarah Jane’s coat. She knelt beside him and examined him quickly with another function of her sonic lipstick.
“He’s alive,” she confirmed. “Just totally worn out, as if something was…. Draining him…” She looked around at the ‘glow.’ Then Clyde began to run around the table, grabbing the masks off the children. As he took them the glow stopped and the children slumped forward. Maria and Luke looked at each other and then ran to join him.
Sarah Jane picked up one of the masks and looked at it. On the outside it was an ordinary mask. But inside there seemed to be a sort of membrane, like a circuit board.
“K9, what do you make of this?” she asked, bending and offering the mask to him. K9 extended his nasal probe and examined the membrane carefully.
“Triple functional circuit,” he answered. “A biometric sensor detects the age of the child and that triggers a signal, which acts as a homing beacon for a transmat device.”
“That’s what I thought,” Sarah Jane lied. “Who has THAT sort of technology on Earth in 2008?”
“Nobody,” K9 replied. “Neither U.N.I.T. nor Torchwood are developing this kind of technology and nor is any known private scientific institution. Composition of membrane suggests non-terrestrial origin.”
“So we’re dealing with an alien that drains the life out of kids?” Sarah Jane stood up slowly, still clutching the mask. She looked around. At least three quarters of the children were free of the ‘drain’ now. She ran to join the others in the effort, snatching off masks as fast as she could. Most of the children now didn’t even wake momentarily. They just collapsed from exhaustion. She dreaded to think what would have happened in a few more minutes.
As the last child was freed and the glow in the funnel dissipated, there was a blood-curdling scream and something crashed through the double door at the far end of the room. It looked like a witch with a broomstick in her hand and she screamed again as she saw what they had done.