James was woken up by a sudden lurching sensation. He tried to get up but was numb, his limbs seemingly a mass of pins and needles. Another lurch came and suddenly a shift in gravity that flipped him off his back and upright. It was pitch black still, but sensation was coming back to him and he could feel that some kind of harness kept him in place, secured to whatever it was he was attached to. He wasn’t sure what was happening or where he was and was about to call for help when the rat-a-tat-tat of machine gun fire burst out in the darkness. Again, he shifted, gravity this time pulling him sideways and he felt himself being shook up and down or more accurately, bobbing, like he was being carried.
He opened his mouth again to speak but quickly shut it again at the sound of an explosion. Suddenly he was falling and his head was whipped sharply against some kind of cushion, the harness not able to fully compensate for that amount of motion. What was happening? He tried to think back to the last thing he remembered. Nothing, it was blank. He knew his name, James Caldwell, but anything else, any other enquiry met with blank resistance. There was a loud knocking, the thumping of something blunt on metal and he realised that it was coming from only a few inches from his face. Was he in a box of some kind? A container? He swallowed nervously - a coffin?
“Hey asshole! If you can hear me in there, you better give us the code to get you out now! We’re dying out here carrying this damn chamber!” Yelled a voice, muffled by whatever container he was in.
It was an American voice, probably military - not exactly a stretch given the gunfire - but what where they doing here, wherever here was? Was he still in London? London! He remembered something, he was from London, but why was he in this box? Was he dead. No, that couldn’t be it, if he was dead, surely there wouldn’t be people outside, dropping him on his head and shooting machine guns. If he was dead, wasn’t there meant to be a light? All he could see was darkness.
“Just drop it Miles! We’ve got us another dud, it ain’t worth losing more lives over.” Another voice called out, this time a woman, but with the same, American accent and military tone of voice.
“No wait! I’m alive!” James yelled. He tried to rise his arms but they were strapped down.
There was a fainter explosion, further off and then the first voice came back.
“You hear that?”
“I’m alive in here! Don’t leave me! What’s happening?”
“We got us a live one! Okay, you in there, give us the ejection code.”
Ejection code? What the hell was he talking about? “What code? I don’t know what you mean!”
“What? Stop playing games son, we’re dying out here for you, just gimme the goddamn code!”
“I don’t know any code!”
There was an eerie silence that lasted for all of three seconds and then James felt himself hurled upwards, spinning around and around, his ears ringing from the crash of a mighty explosion. He lost track of time and orientation, the spinning making him dizzy until he came to a sudden stop, the impact pushing him hard against the soft cushioning that seemed to surround him.
“H-Hello? Are y-you alright? Is anybody out there?”
_SCREEEEEEEEEEEEEECH!_ The sound of sharp metal against metal rang through his head, making his teeth ache as the sound continued. It turned into a hammering sound, not a few inches from where he imagined his legs to be when the sound of gunfire burst back with a vengeance. There were suddenly several loud, rapid taps and James realised that the machine gun was firing at him, but whatever he was inside seemed to be holding. He wet himself, but felt nothing, no dribble of liquid, only shame and fear.
“Please, don’t hurt me! I’m sorry! I’m so soo-ooo-ooo-rrrr-y!” James sobbed as he felt himself lurch up again and then resume the familiar bobbing sensation that he guessed was him being carried.
He felt himself being slid onto something and then the rumbling vibration of an engine. There was another burst of gunfire and then nothing, only the vibrations he could feel through the harness.
“How many did we lose this time?” He heard, muffled through his container.
“Two. Kolanski and Priers. Kolanski was caught underneath the popsicle when the enemy missile hit. Priers lost his arm to a bush then ate a pineapple before it could finish the job. This asshole better be worth it, damn popsicle crushed Karen into paste and it wouldn’ta happened too if this cocksucker could remember his damn code!”
James gulped. There were several bangs above his face.
“You hear that, asshole? You listening? Your goddamn memory cost two soldiers their lives today! You hear me, tin can? You better be the goddamn, motherfucking messiah in there!”
“That’s enough private! Go cool off!”
“I said cool off, private! Command wants to debrief you, the pilot’s got them on the radio now.”
There was silence for a while.
“You hear any of that?” It was the other voice. This one sounded American too, but it was different from the first one, something less… southern, maybe New York? James wasn’t sure, he didn’t really know American accents all that well. He decided to remain silent, already afraid out of his wits.
“Well, even if you didn’t, I’m telling you that it’s all okay, no need to worry, you did the right thing, sir.”
The voice continued, quieter. “The team doesn’t have the clearance to know what it is they’ve reclaimed. I’m authorised to follow your instructions, sir.”
Instructions? Who were these people, and who did this guy think he was?
“Who are you?” James asked tentatively.
“Special Agent Lance Garratt, sir.”
“And who do you think I am?”
“I’m not authorised to know that, sir. All I know is that the mission objective was to acquire the Alpha Charlie Uniform from the given coordinates and to follow the instructions of the occupant that fall within mission parameters, sir.”
“And who gave you your mission?”
“Why, the President of the United States of America, sir.”
Somehow, James did not find the news comforting. Not comforting at all.
The next half hour was spent in total silence. James was dumbfounded, he had no idea why the President would want him - he didn’t even know how he got in this box. He just lay there thinking, wondering what had happened. Had he somehow got put in some kind of time capsule and woken up in the future? Maybe he was cryogenically frozen, like in the movies? He felt too embarrassed to ask. He thought back to the events of the last hour or so, he wasn’t sure how much time had passed, he had no frame of reference.
_“Kolanski was caught underneath the popsicle…”_ The private had been talking about him, he just knew it. ”…damn popsicle crushed Karen into paste…” God, had he done that? Had he killed someone by accident?
No, it wasn’t his fault. He really didn’t remember any code, he didn’t know. And the explosion, he hadn’t caused that, someone else had blown him into the air and he had no way of controlling where he would fall. Still, he felt a terrible sense of guilt. He must know the code, how else would he have gotten in the box in the first place? The freezing must have given him amnesia. Then again, what did he know? He wasn’t a scientist or a doctor… was he?
He closed his eyes tight, not that it made any difference in the pitch black interior of the box, but it helped him push out the horrible images of the woman he’d heard being crushed by an enormous coffin. He’d heard her voice, she wasn’t just some stranger, she’d been trying to save him from the enemy, whoever the enemy was. And he’d crushed her. Even though it wasn’t his fault, that somehow made it worse, knowing that he’d made the instrument of her death without even trying and worse, he hadn’t even _felt_ it, didn’t even notice the crunching of bones or the screams of pain.
Suddenly he just wanted out, desperately. He strained against the harness, pushing the back of his head hard against the cushioning behind it and arching his back, trying to break free or loosen the bonds but nothing worked, if anything he was sure it felt tighter, like it was closing in on him, wrapping him up tighter and tighter and tighter and oh my god, he couldn’t breathe! He couldn’t breathe! He tried to yell out, but his vocal chords were frozen with fear. He could hear his heart thumping in his ears and then a wave of dizziness hit him, a cold feeling spreading out from his neck all the way out to his extremities. Rapidly, he felt himself becoming calmer, more composed, but it felt weird, like it wasn’t him, like there was still a screaming part of him buried deep down underneath. The box, it had sedated him, given him something to stop him panicking. Was that how it was going to be? Him trapped in here forever, calm and collected, never even given a chance to be afraid, to feel anything? Would it feed him too? It must if he’d been in here for any length of time, maybe through some kind of drip. Inside he wanted to cry but on the chemical surface, he felt nothing.
“Hello, is anyone still out there?”
“Agent Garratt, sir.”
“What is this thing? You called it an ACU?”
“Armoured Containment Unit. It’s a powered shell that is designed to keep the occupant alive indefinitely. Virtually indestructible, sir.”
“So there is a chance you might be able to cut me out?”
“Permission to speak frankly, sir.”
“There has been only one successful attempt to open an ACU without the code. The occupant didn’t survive the experience, sir.”
“Are you sure you want to hear this, sir?”
“I’m ordering you to tell me, you have to obey my orders, right?”
“Very well, sir. First attempts were based on cutting torches. Nothing worked, the ACU conducts all heat, electricity away too quickly for it to be any use. We tried diamond saws, lasers, explosives. Nothing. The occupant remained unharmed throughout the experiments. We tried a contained nuclear explosion, nothing. The occupant reported feeling a slight force pushing down on them afterwards. Finally we tried accelerating an object to near-c by railgun and blasting it through the bottom of the unit. The casing was torn off, but the impact converted the contents into super-heated plasma as soon as it was exposed.”
James felt that part of him beneath the drugs scream out again, but he remained numb. So, there was no way out of the box without the code. “So wait, you’re saying you don’t know how these things work? Didn’t you build them?”
“No, sir. The units are beyond our engineering capabilities, sir.”
“Then how would I even know the code? This doesn’t make any sense!”
“The occupant of the second ACU knew the code and released themselves into our custody, sir. It’s been protocol to ask for the code ever since. At first, we didn’t even know there were codes or that the ACUs had occupants, sir.”
“What happened to the other occupants, how many are there? How did they know the codes, how did they get in-” James, asked rapidly before getting interrupted by a thud, “-what was that?”
“Sir, I can’t answer any more questions. The rest of the crew aren’t authorised to hear and there is a situation brewing.”
“What? What kind of situation?”
There was another thud followed by shouts and machine gun fire. There was the sound of yelling, but James couldn’t make it out. The gunfire continued until James felt himself falling again. Almost as soon as he’d felt it, the motion changed suddenly, nudging him up and down as if he was on the end of a whip. Far off, he thought he heard an explosion but he didn’t care.
The cold feeling just spread through his neck again and he waited, indifferent, as inside he screamed and cried and howled.
BZZZZZT! Intercept successful, target acquired. Returning to base.
Those were the first things James heard as he felt himself pulled upwards and then slotted into place, the sensation of sliding and then the noise and vibration of some kind of clamp locking down on him.
“Hello? What’s happening? Garratt, are you there? Garratt!?”
“Please, I thought I heard an explosion, what is happening?”
There remained no answer to his query, just the sound of a distant engine humming. After an hour of waiting he called again only to receive more silence. Another hour passed, or so he guessed, he had no way to tell the time and he felt a jerk and the sensation of fluid movement, swinging him slowly around and with machine precision placing him on something, the vibrations coming down from above, almost as if he’d been hung on something. Another faint humming started and he felt motion.
“Where am I? Hello?”
Another voice called out, then another and another. “Hello?” “Who’s there?” “I’m not alone? Thank God, where am I?” “What’s happening to me?” “I can’t feel my legs!” “Fuck you! You can’t take me prisoner! I’ve done nothing wrong! Release me, you crazy fucks! Let me out!”
The yelling continued unabated for several minutes until he felt himself slowing down and eventually coming to a halt with a click. The drugs were beginning to wear off and he was feeling scared, frightened, but he controlled himself, preferring to feel something, even fear, over the cold numbness the drugs would put him in if he let himself panic.
There was a whine like microphone feedback, and then a loud voice spoke out, echoing.
“Welcome citizens. You no doubt have many questions, so introductions shall be brief before I explain just what is going on. We are the Collectors. We collect and preserve relics such as yourselves sent from the past by the Archivists. We have found you, rescued you or reclaimed you from those that would seek to do you harm or abuse you for their own ends. We have dug you up from the ruins. We exist only to serve you and keep you safe. First of all, you must want to know what is going on. You are all sealed preservation units of Archivist design. The Archivists first came to this world some time in the seventeenth century and began collecting samples of humanity and storing them, for some unknown purpose. You are all Archivist samples and we have taken it upon ourselves to preserve you in the hope that they will one day return and release you. We can not open the pods, they are beyond our ability to do so, but we can make sure you are comfortable. Some of you may have been told other things, that you have been extracted from a war zone by the United States. They are lies.”
James just stared blankly in the dark confines of his pod, unable to process what he was being told. Aliens? Aliens had put him in a box for storage and then forgotten about him? It was ridiculous but why would they make up such a story? Who where these Archivists, these Collectors? And the seventeenth century? Just how long had be been in here?
“The year now is 2246. The world is nothing like any of you remember. Since the discovery of Archivist technology, things have become an eternal arms race, a war over religion, over truth over scientific progress. We Collectors stand against it all and do only what we must to collect, preserve and wait for the Archivists to return. We refuse to war with any faction and bury ourselves away, hidden until the day comes that the Archivist arrive to set you free and bring about a new Utopian age.”
“You are now all in an Archival facility for your continued survival and safety. At the end of this announcement you will be assigned into groups and each group will be assigned a companion to give you a link to the outside world. We wish we could do something to release you, but it is not in our power. Instead remain safe in the knowledge that powers greater than ours saw potential in you, saw worth, and decided to preserve till the time of the new age.”
There was a click, a whirr and then James felt himself in motion again, people clamouring out all around him in presumably similar containers. The voice had done little to calm the majority and James was still too shocked, too stunned to do anything. Was any of this even true? Could he believe any of it? The soldiers had asked him for a code straight away, would they really do that if the whole idea was a lie. And if there were codes and some of them could get out, why didn’t the Collectors or whoever these freaks were want him to know that?
Something wasn’t right and James held onto his suspicions tight. The worst thing though was that he had an ulterior motive for doing so. He had to believe they were all lying. If it was really over two hundred years in the future, everyone he ever knew was dead.