There’s a building that nobody questions. It sits in the middle of the city, squat and grey. Nobody ever has cause to go there, so they don’t, and nobody ever asks why it is there. Sometimes people go in and out, very occasionally, but they are always people you don’t know.
The building doesn’t appear on any maps, not even Google Street View. You know this because you were comparing the two, and noticed that discrepancy. Of course, it was only one of many that you found (you were trying to do this art project comparing virtual reality with, well, actual reality) but it’s not like the others. The others can be explained by construction sites, or the blur caused by a camera in motion. This building has been here for longer than the last time the Google cars came by, and there’s no camera glitch that can make such a large building just disappear.
You look up the address and discover it doesn’t exist either. You try to enter the building in as ‘Grey mysterious building’ giving it a name and a number. In an hour the entry has been deleted. You do it on Open Source maps, and it is deleted from there as well.
Your phone vibrates. There’s a message from an unknown number. ‘Some places can’t be mapped.’
You reply. ‘Who is this?’
A reply. ‘You will need a password. It lies in the hidden things. Notice them.’
You send back, ‘Is this a prank?’
There is no reply.
You spend the next few days trying to piece together your photography project, but you find it difficult to concentrate. You want to believe that this is just a prank, but how did they get your number? How did they know what you were doing?
Are you being hacked?
You try calling the number, but get a busy signal. You want to call the police, to tell someone, but some instinct stops you. (Foolishness, you know, but there might just be something.)
Days later, another message: Finish your project.
You reply: Are you hacking me?
Nothing from the other side. But the message is eerily correct; you need to finish the photography project before the end of the month. So you throw yourself back into the work.
It’s then you see odd things in the photographs, your photographs, that aren’t in the the Street View images. You are fairly convinced they weren’t there when you took the photographs, although there is no way to be sure. Grey images of letters and numbers, on the walls, on the concrete path. Some look like they were painted there, others just hang weirdly in midair, like smoke. Most of them are near the borders, easily missed, unless you were looking hard at them.
It lies in the hidden things, you think. Notice them. You will need a password.
You find some spare space in an old notebook and write down each odd letter and number and where you found them. Then you finish your project. You have a deadline.
The exhibition goes well. You stand next to your own project and people talk to you about how the internet is changing the world, but nobody says anything about the grey letters and numbers.
The next morning, you pore over your notebook, trying to find a pattern. There’s nothing there. Then you print out a map of the area you were focusing on. Mark all the places you photographed, where the odd markings were. They can be connected to show a route—the route you took when you photographed the streets. You feel a shiver up your spine. Were these people following you?
The smart thing to do would be the call the police. But they would call you crazy. Maybe you are.
You phone a friend. Tell them you’re going into the city but don’t say why. Call up your parents, ask them how things are going, tell them you are looking forward to Christmas. Tell them you love them.
Just in case.
Then you drive into the city, park at the shops, and walk the path you took on the photography tour. You can’t see any letters or numbers. You end up at the grey building and knock on the door.
Nothing happens. You notice a buzzer on your right and press it. “Hello?”
“42 was never the answer.”
The door opens and you walk in.
“Well done, miss,” says the lady at the counter. “We weren’t sure you were going to make it.”
“What the hell is all this?”
“I’m surprised you haven’t guessed. Wasn’t it your childhood dream to be part of a secret society? You studied them along with photography. Your two great passions.”
“How do you know so much about me?”
“Come with me.”
She leads you into a dark room with a projector. “We call ourselves the Searchers. We find the hidden things, see. There are some things in the world that are out of place. We find them, and we put them back. Simple as that.”
“The hidden things are bad?”
“We don’t know. They seem to be leaking from another world. Odd things, like this building. As time and technology grew, we had to keep hiding them. One time we left things as they were, because like you say, we couldn’t be sure they were bad. But then something terrible happened. Two children disappeared. They are still missing. They disappeared right in that very spot.”
“Right, but that doesn’t explain how you know about me.”
“We are trained to notice things that are out of place. Such as a girl in a library talking to invisible people. I bet you were confused when they weren’t there one day.”
“You remember. We had to send them back. They weren’t part of this world. After that, we followed you. You obviously had a gift for noticing things. And we have a considerable amount of resources. If you notice hard enough, it’s amazing what skills and knowledge you can pick up.”
“And you want to recruit me?”
“Yes. Unfortunately, you don’t get paid, unless you count the amazing skills you learn that you can put to use. And you do have all our resources at your disposal but only to continue the work. You will look for things that are out of place, and report them to us, and if they are otherworldly, we will guide you in sending them back and closing the leak. What do you say?”
You grin. “When do I start?”