He awoke in a tomb of clear plastic. Wrenched from a dreamless sleep of indeterminable length by a terrifying tightness in his chest and throat sending a panicked signal to his brain, pinging off every single neuron along the way as it shot up his spine and jolted him awake—he couldn’t breathe.
The sheer terror of the moment was compounded by another horrifying revelation which came shortly thereafter; neither could he move. His arms and legs were pinned in place, held rigidly where they met the form-fitting encasement in which he lay trapped—no! In which he stood trapped! He was upright!
With this came an awareness of his own weight and gravity, and his wits began to return, foggy at first—perhaps he’d been asleep too long—but gradually the world as it truly was bloomed into view, becoming clearer and clearer, like the warm air from blowing the frost from a windshield on a cold winter day.
Straining his eyes, he gazed through the walls of his translucent prison and out into the dimly lit world that engulfed him.
It was graduation day, and despite the fact that the ceremony had been ready for days, Henry was exhausted. While most of the recruits had spent their last week in relaxation mode, taking their sweet time with setting up the tents for the graduation ceremony and kicking off the rather rambunctious “festivities” that would surely follow their commencement early, Sarge had ridden Henry as hard as he’d always done—starting from the aptly named “Hell Week” that had initiated Henry and several dozen other scared young recruits to military life the hard way when he’d first arrived at the base, until today, his last day as the lowest possible rung on the proverbial totem pole of the United States military.
The door to Sarge’s office was cracked open and wisps of smoke curled and danced in the cold blue light that leaked through, giving the impression of an entryway to an alien spaceship.
“Come in! Come in! And close the damn door!” Sarge barked in his gruff baritone.
The smoke was from one of his signature cigars, the kind you can’t get in the states unless you happen to be an old warhorse with connections to the top brass of the military—and possibly beyond. Sarge’s history in the service was a thing of legend around the barracks, told like a sort of tall tale with each soldier putting their own unique spin on the stories that’d been passed on from soldier to soldier over the years. It seemed that everybody who knew Sarge—however much one person could claim to know him—had their own story and their own unique telling of it. Henry had heard a good number of them. Like the time Sarge arm wrestled the Supreme Leader of Iran to secure the release of double agent, or the time he jumped between two helicopters flying over an active volcano in order to prevent a nuclear missile from launching, or the time he stopped the Russians from releasing mutated alligators into the New York subway system.
Sarge stubbed the end of his cigar into a lowball glass serving as a makeshift ashtray as if to put it out, but then quickly relit it and continued puffing.
“Close the damn door!”
Henry closed the door and sat down.
Behind his mirrored aviators, Henry almost thought he could detect something like excitement in the old man. He’d seen this before in Sarge once or twice and it had always spelled trouble. Henry shifted nervously.
“Sir, you wanted to see me, sir.”
“Sit down, dammit,” Sarge balked, talking through the damp cigar butt clenched in his teeth. “You’re making a spectacle of yourself.”
Henry sat down and waited for what seemed like hours but was probably only seconds, as Sarge puffed idly at his cigar and studied the boy over.
Finally he spoke, “You know why you’re in here?”
Before Henry could answer, Sarge snapped, “Course you don’t, you green halfwit!”
Henry clenched his teeth as Sarge stood up abruptly, knocking over the lowball glass full of cigar ash, and leaning over his desk confrontationally.
“I hate to admit this kid, but you have promise.”
Henry’s heart skipped a beat. He couldn’t believe his ears. Sarge was a long list of colorful adjectives but “complimentary” sure as heck wasn’t one of them.
“Sir, thank you, sir.”
“Oh, shut the hell up with that!” balked Sarge. He’d begun pacing as he spoke, walking past Henry into a rather threatening position behind him. Normally, being at Sarge’s disadvantage—which one almost always was, regardless of where he stood—would have put Henry on high alert, but he was beginning to suspect that he wasn’t here to be chewed out or otherwise punished. In fact, this seemed like this might be good news.
“May I ask why I’m here, sir?” asked Henry.
Sarge said nothing as he completed his circle around Henry, making his way back behind his desk. He took a long drag of his cigar, letting the moment hang.
“Tell me, Hank. What do you know about F.L.A.G. Corps?”
After several minutes of struggling, Henry managed to wrest his right arm free of the encasement and touch the clear wall in front of him. It was too soft to be glass, possibly made of plastic or some other alien material. It flexed slightly as he pushed it but wouldn’t yield, and so he set about to freeing the rest of his body one limb at a time.
Several minutes earlier, after he’d come to his senses, he’d realized in a wave of what can only be described as both simultaneous horror and relief, that he didn’t need to breathe after all. Something about the pod he was in had prevented it, but it also seemed to be somehow providing him with the oxygen necessary for survival. It was at that moment that he’d first considered alien involvement.
Henry had seen all kinds of strange things during his time with F.L.A.G. Corps. Robotic jungle overlords, laser-toting molemen, even some mutated Russian super-alligators, but never aliens. At least not so far.
Henry had joined up with F.L.A.G. Corps right out of boot camp after Sarge had singled him out as a potential candidate. What the old man saw in him, Henry would never know for sure, but he would be forever grateful. In F.L.A.G. Corps, he found a new family, endless adventure, and a chance to do something meaningful with his life. It was there that he first discovered his passion for computers and code breaking, a passion which earned him the nickname “Codex” from his friends.
Yet even someone as smart as Henry felt defeated by his current predicament.
“Hello?” he yelled moments after he’d managed to pull his head was free. The words echoed dully off the walls of his odd prison and met with no response.
There was a space about a foot and a half wide between the encasement in which he’d previously been trapped and the clear wall in front of him. In that space, he found there was room to stand but not quite turn around.
“Hello!” he called again. “Is anybody out there?”
There was no response.
Beyond his prison, though the walls were clear, it was hard to make out much in the enveloping darkness. There was a red light somewhere out of sight and high up, which cast an ominous, malevolent glow and provided just enough illumination to make out some shapes in the distance. Henry squinted at them.
He believed they were more chambers, like his own. Maybe a hundred yards, possibly further, in the distance. Each one stacked vertically to form a sort of grid pattern. There was no bottom in sight. By his estimate, looking across the chasm between his cell and the others, he knew he must be high up as well. But how far? Hundreds of yards? Thousands?
He thought of harvesting farms, of diabolical alien overlords placing humans in stasis chambers to preserve them, of being stuck in a state somewhere between life and death, patiently awaiting whatever grim fate would greet you once your number was finally called. If it ever was. Staying there forever, unbreathing, unliving and yet somehow alive, seemed to him a fate worse than death. It was purgatory with no promise of release.
Desperation set in and Henry threw his weight against the front of his cell, and to his surprise, it rocked.
His last day in F.L.A.G. Corps, at least the last one he could remember before waking up in the strange alien prison, had begun the same as any other. The nefarious terrorist organization known as S.K.U.L.L.K.I.C.K.E.R.S. had loosed a pack of hyper-intelligent orangutans in downtown New York and a team of elite F.L.A.G. Corps operatives; Mountain Jack, Headlong, Bonesaw, Jade, Tripwire, and of course Henry, now known as Codex, had gone in to get a handle on the situation. It was a relatively routine mission for the F.L.A.G. Corps, or at least it should have been.
It was sometime shortly after they entered Central Park—which the apes had occupied for use as their primary base of operations—that Henry had an interesting thought. Interesting because it seemed so obvious to him at that moment that he was surprised it hadn’t occurred to him sooner. It was as if a flaming arrow had struck his brain and in a brilliant, blazing flash had engulfed months—or had it been years—of cobwebs, leaving the plain, unavoidable truth sitting in front of him as clear as day. None of this made any sense.
Hyper-intelligent orangutans? Robot duplicates? Molemen? Even the existence of F.L.A.G. Corps itself seemed suddenly dubious as it never had before. Who was funding them? Why? And what was the deal with those nicknames? The only thing more ridiculous than their nicknames were their real names! For God’s sake, Bonesaw’s real name was “Marcus Dwayne Doctor” or, to put it another way, “Dr. M.D. Doctor, MD.” You can’t make that stuff up! Or maybe, you’d have to…
His cell swayed forward as he slammed his shoulder into it yet again. With each swaying motion, he struck the wall again just at the apex of the swing, building momentum. Building towards…something. Escape. Death. Either way it felt better than the alternative. With a final, triumphant heave, the cell came loose from its suspension and Henry began to fall.
The world spun around him, a twirling, twisting mess of colors and shapes flashing before his eyes as he fell. He bounced off the walls of his small cell like loose change taking a ride in a laundromat dryer, feeling the impact of each blow but no pain, not yet. The pain would come later, once the adrenaline wore off. He knew that. He caught glimpses as he fell, strange things. Glimpses of his friends; Bonesaw, Mountain Jack, Jade, even Sarge, frozen in place, staring out from private prisons of their own with dead, unblinking faces. Between the rush of space and his head banging off the sides of his cell, he couldn’t be sure what he’d really seen, that is, until he stopped moving.
With a pop, his cage burst open and out he went, bouncing off a metal rail. He grabbed at it in a desperate attempt to arrest his momentum and was grateful when his hands finally found purchase on the smooth steel. It was all he could do to maintain his grip on the cold metal lifeline as his former prison cell flew past, clipping his shoulder and causing his left arm to fly free of the beam. Thankfully, his right held fast and seconds later he heard his cell hit the ground below him with a sickening crunch. He could tell by the delay that he definitely did not want to let go now.
He felt his grip weaken. But when he reached for the rail with his left hand, his stomach turned. If he’d been able to inhale, to breathe at all, he would’ve gasped. His left arm was gone. Taken clean off at the shoulder, and yet, there was no blood.
The confusion of the moment barely had time to sink in before something astonishingly more important than missing limbs had caught his attention out of the corner of his eye. He had turned forward, and now nothing, nothing, nothing for the life of him, could possibly avert his gaze. Not even the clean, bloodless socket where his arm had just been.
It was him. Another him. Trapped in an identical translucent cell. Only now he could see the rest of his prison. It appeared to be made from impossibly thick sheets of cardboard, printed with some sort of garish design that sported a larger than life “F.L.A.G. Corps” emblem, beneath which was scrawled in phosphorescent yellow letters, “Codex.”
The other Henry stared back at him with cold, unblinking eyes. An exact duplicate, mocking him with his own half-cocked smile.
Henry’s forearm strained to support his weight.
The world felt dizzy around him.
Henry thought back to his first day in the F.L.A.G. Corps. He could remember it all, as clear as day. He remembered his first walk through the hangar full of fantastic, futuristic machines; the neon pink septacopters, the metallic flying cars with grinning, shark-toothed decals. He remembered the distinct smell of engine oil as it mingled with the scent of pine from the nearby forests surrounding their hidden base. But what about before that? He had to have a childhood. He must’ve grown up somewhere. He couldn’t remember.
The pain in his arm was getting worse.
The him that wasn’t him stared back as placidly as ever.
Henry held onto a thought. It was the best one that he could still remember. The day that Sarge first called him into his office and told him that he was being promoted to the F.L.A.G. Corps. How proud he’d been. How excited. The feeling when Sarge shook his hand for the first time, welcoming him to a lifetime of adventure. How he’d greeted him then not as a superior, but as an equal, as a friend, as a brother.
He held onto that thought.
And he let go of the bar.
The lights flickered on.
“Aw, crap,” said Jeff as he picked up the broken action figure, “Another one fell!”
And with one casual motion, he picked up the broken toy and dropped it in the trash.