Chapter 1: The Room
A dim amber glow lit the cold room. Tom opened his eyes cautiously. Shivering, he tried to hug himself, his brown eyes straining to make sense of the dark surroundings. Goosebumps dotted his arms as the chill grazed his bare skin. A static crackle—the only sound—emanated from the long, barely glowing ceiling light. He coughed as the cool, yet heavy atmosphere burrowed down his dry throat and into his lungs. The resulting trail of breath snaked through the strange red mist that floated around the room, the two entwining together eerily. His 25-year-old limbs felt ancient, aching as he shifted his broad athletic body backwards against the steel wall; he flinched, hissing through clenched teeth as the coldness took him by surprise. He drew his knees into his chest and held them in a tight embrace.
'God, please help me!' he cried as memories suddenly came flooding back into his confused mind.
He rested his elbows on top of his knees, and gripped fistfuls of his dark wavy hair. His grip tightened as the images of his beautiful wife, Connie, flashed through his shattered brain. He scrunched his eyelids in an attempt to banish the mental pictures, but the pain was too much. Suddenly, his head jerked up as he heard a noise. Panic setting in, he looked around the room, his eyes frantically trying to focus through the bizarre mist. His manicured hands slipped on the greasy steel floor grating. He began to hyperventilate as his heart beat erratically, feeling as though it would burst through his grubby white V-neck t-shirt. He realised that he wasn't alone.
The words rang around the room. He began to slide his crouching frame across the wall, seeking a sanctuary to ease his fragile state. The shuffling sounds continued, becoming gradually louder, forcing him to move faster. He was disoriented; his eyes shot in all directions, like ball bearings fired from a machine gun. Patting the wall gently, he quickly found a corner of the room. He sat and raised his bare knees back to his chest. Squinting in the weak light, he could just about make out a dark mass twisting on the floor several feet in front of him.
'What the… What the hell is going on?' came a deep voice from within the haze.
Tom sat silent, wide-eyed as his body shook with fear and cold. He tried to stem the stuttered rhythm of his breathing, watching as the dark shape morphed into a tall shadowy figure. A cold sweat began to run down his face in thick lines, stinging his eyes into closed submission as they rode his good looks.
'Hello, is anyone there?' the groggy English timbre spoke again. 'Hello, can anyone hear me?'
Tom's left knee slipped out from underneath his arm, jolting and scraping across the floor. He pulled it back in with speed, now trembling even more. He watched the figure freeze, silent, like a petrified animal sniffing the air for danger.
'Hello, who's there?' called the voice. 'Is someone there? My name is Mark, Mark Bennett. I'm a Professor at Stanford University.' The Professor inched gingerly over towards where he had heard the noise; he too tried to focus his dark brown eyes within the solid metal walls. Swatting his way through the mist 'I mean you no harm,' he gently offered.
Tom's fear reached fever pitch as the shadow loomed larger with each nearing step. 'Help me, I don't know what's happening,' he said aloud as the dark mass edged through the haze, sending misty patterns curling away. He thrust his head between his knees, realising that he was trapped either way.
'It's alright, I'm not going to hurt you,' said Mark. His vision cleared as he got closer to Tom's cowering silhouette. He squinted as he crouched down to Tom's eye level; they both came face to face. His desert-booted feet became unsteady as the rubber tread failed to grip the oily floor. He placed his palms in the moist dirt, and stared at the quivering ball of human before him. 'It's okay, I'm not going to hurt you. What is your name?'
'My name is Tom, Tom Valentine,' Tom mumbled as he raised his head slowly, his eyes bulging in terror at the tanned face before him. 'What's happening?'
Mark looked upwards. 'You're English? Thank God.' He ran his fingers through his tousled grey-streaked hair, keeping the centre parting as he stroked it back behind his ears. He placed a comforting hand either side of Tom's wide shoulders, who in turn began sobbing from a heavy heart. 'I don't know what's happening, Tom. But it's okay now, you are not alone anymore.'
Mark could feel the relief flow from Tom's body as he exhaled, deflating the rigid muscular torso like a burst balloon. He squatted next to the younger man who, even though now calmer, refused to avert his wild, tear-stained glare from the Professor's own.
Mark leant back against the wall; he took a moment to adjust to the sensation as the cold wall penetrated his light blue cotton shirt. He extended his soft palm in a friendly manner as he formally introduced himself. 'I'm Professor Mark Bennett, though I imagine that you've gathered that already.'
Tom nodded back quickly as the tears continued to stream from his puffy eyes.
Mark pulled his hand back, and stared deep into the man's glassy eyes. 'What's the last thing that you remember, Tom?'
'My wife, Connie, she—' he sniffled before another noise interrupted them.
They both fell silent as they scanned the area in the direction of the moaning voice. Their eyes locked on to a large black figure that knelt on all fours to the right of the room.
The Professor pulled Tom by the left arm of his damp t-shirt as he moved to get a better view. 'Hello…? Are you okay?' he shouted as he once again staggered through the mist towards the dazed shadow.
As he approached, he noticed the navy blue military uniform and glanced downwards. The colourful square pins caught his eye as they glimmered in the low light. They lined up perfectly in five rows that stretched across the jacket's left breast.
'Who are you?' asked the figure in a gravel-laced American twang, 'and where the hell am I?'
'My name is Mark, and that is Tom over there,' the Professor replied as he pointed towards the wall. 'We don't know what has happened, but we're trying to work it out.' He bent down to help up the man. He gripped him by his thick arms, grimacing as he used what little strength he had to haul the bulky man onto his polished black brogues.
'General James F. Hargreaves, of the United States Air Force,' said the man, unsteady as his full weight tried to balance itself out. His blue eyes glared cautiously at the Professor's close face. 'Don't worry about me, there are others over there.'
Mark and Tom scoured the room before coming across another three people that lay strewn across the flooring. The mist hovered over the stirring bodies, clinging like a ghostly morning fog along the banks of the Yorkshire Moors. They helped them all to their knees, slowly dragging the bewildered forms to the other side of the room. They all sat together, untrusting, frightened.
'I'm Mark, and this is Tom. He was the first to wake, but we have no idea where we are. Can anyone shed any light on proceedings?'
The group sat slumped against the wall as the hour ticked by. They shook their muggy heads, desperate to clear the wooziness that blanketed their minds.
Mark stood up and placed his hands upon the cold, damp and sticky wall to steady himself. He began to pace slowly around the room, counting as he went, '1, 2, 3, 4…' His fingers traced the contours of the steel's composition, attempting to gauge its texture. The grip on his boots squeaked as his feet slid through the grime that seemed to ooze from the grating. 'Well, the perimeter of this room is about 160 feet, I guess…and I can't see any doors or windows.'
He removed his hands from the walls before rubbing his wet fingers together. Frowning at the now smooth and sticky substance that coated them, he raised a hand to his nose. His curious head jolted backwards as his face contorted at the unusual smell.
'This whole room is odd,' he said, glancing up at the light. At five foot 10 inches tall, he could just about scrape the ceiling with his fingers if he stretched. He balanced on the tips of his toes, extending fully towards the dull, inadequate strip lighting that lay buried within the ceiling. Looking closely, he wiped his fingers against the legs of his denim jeans. 'Hmmm, the structure is incredibly well designed. I mean, it's essentially a long deep groove of light.' He waggled his fingers close to the humming. 'Strange, there's no heat being emitted from the light.' His face wrinkled as he painfully pushed his height to its limits. 'It's just light. There's no sign of electrics or batteries, nothing. Whoever designed this is clever, the power must be sourced from a core structure somewhere.'
The others looked at him, instinctively drawn to his intellect. They watched as he pulled his shirt cuff over his hand and pushed it through the light. He smiled as the energy buzzed with a prickling resistance, while the others gasped.
'Look at this,' he enthused, 'it's a forcefield of some type.' He then pushed his little finger into the light. 'Look, it's pushing my finger back like a magnet repelling another magnet!'
The group continued to hang on his every word. His face beamed with excitement as the orange light washed over him.
He relaxed and looked at his sticky fingers. 'Also, I think there could be something organic around here. I believe that this liquid—or moisture—could be emitting some form of gas, causing this red haze.'
A voice spoke up from the shadows. 'Gas?! What do you mean gas?'
Mark turned and focused his eyes on the unnaturally blonde-haired younger man. The dim light glanced off his youthful face, accentuating a stubbled jawline as he approached.
'Sorry, I didn't mean to scare anyone, but I want to know,' he added as he looked nervously around at them. 'I'm James, by the way, James Jones.'
'Well, James, we seem to be in a 160-foot perimeter steel room. I think that this red mist may be the reason why we were all out cold; it might have acted as a form of sleeping gas—it would certainly explain the headaches and disorientation,' said Mark as he waved his slender hand through the reddish air.
Mark glanced at the black roots that lay beneath the 19-year-old's unkempt peroxide blonde hair. He thought how trendy they looked, before searching the small blue eyes that sat within their oval face.
'Okay, Professor, you know more than I do. But is this “gas” harmful?' said James.
Mark shrugged. 'At the moment I would have to say probably not as we were only put to sleep. There doesn't seem to be any damage to any of us, though don't take this as gospel—I can't be 100% certain.'
The General looked at each of them in turn before his authoritative demeanour took charge. 'I'm General Hargreaves, of the United States Air Force,' he said with fervour, 'and I agree with the Professor.' He straightened his uniform as he stood bolt upright. Even in a situation such as this, his strong military values took precedence above all else. He dusted down his navy trousers before proudly fastening the four brass buttons of his jacket. His cropped silver hair appeared white in patches as the low light caressed it. 'We need to find an exit of sorts.'
'I totally agree, General,' said Mark, scratching the back of his head. 'But can you see anything?'
Mark and Hargreaves took a wall each, and proceeded to search the area with their fingers, starting from where the group sat. They ran their hands over every inch of the walls—as far as they could reach—in a desperate hunt for any clues to an opening. Step by step they carefully made their way around, occasionally slipping in the grease and stumbling in the poor light. Their search brought them shoulder to shoulder with a startling bump as they met in the middle of the stretch of wall.
'Got it,' said Hargreaves. 'Look, here, it's almost seamless.'
Mark's eyes followed the General's ageing hands as they settled on a set of parallel eight-feet high vertical lines. With his thick finger tips, Hargreaves traced out the inconspicuous grooves. He dug his nails into the narrow lines, and let his fingers continue their way up the wall.
'This has to be it, don't ask me how it works though,' he said gruffly. 'Looks like a sliding door to me.' He attempted to force the door sideways. He used all of his strength that was packaged into his stocky build, but gave up as the exertion filled his face with bulging veins and turned the colour of his skin claret.
'It's no use, General.' Mark itched his day-old stubble. 'You're right though. If it's a mechanical sliding door then there should be some type of control panel.'
'Like this?' said another male voice.
They both turned and stared as a slim man strode through the mist. His long finger pointed to a small two-inch charcoal triangle fixed next to the right of the “door”, six feet up the wall. The three of them moved their heads closer, staring with tight eyes at the peculiar carved markings that adorned the shape.
'Well done—' Mark paused with an embarrassed grin as he realised that he didn't know the long dark-haired man's name.
'John Chapman. It's okay, Professor, even I wouldn't notice me,' he said lowering his face. 'Do you think that they're buttons, like on an elevator for example?'
Mark looked directly into John's chestnut coloured eyes, the fear all too familiar. 'Could be, John. But whatever language this is carved in, well, I've never seen anything like it before—not that I'm an expert.' He turned to Hargreaves. 'Have you, General?'
Hargreaves remained quiet.