For all that Torchwood was a place that most often dealt with science in one way or another, their knowledge and understanding of the things and beings that fell through the Rift was limited. They were only five people and though each of them was intelligent in his or her own way, their knowledge of even their own planet and its sciences was far from comprehensive, never mind that of alien worlds. Humans, after all, were relatively primitive beings when compared with the older and more scientifically advanced races that peopled the wider universe.
As a result, much of what fell through the Rift, especially when it came to technology, was a mystery to them. All they could do was study each device they found and through guesswork and very careful experimentation, try to figure out what it was and how it worked.
That approach worked well enough on most things, and between them they were generally able to determine whether or not something was dangerous, and if it might be, figure out a method by which it could be made safe, even if that just meant sealing it in an airtight container and locking it away in a reinforced vault far beneath Cardiff.
The fact that their leader was from another planet and two thousand years in the future was sometimes helpful in figuring out the nature of things; Jack had travelled extensively and seen a lot of things the rest of the team could only imagine, as well as a many things beyond the comprehension of twenty-first century human minds, but even he couldn’t know everything. Many of the items that were sucked through the Rift and deposited in Cardiff were from worlds he’d never heard of, or from millennia in the future, far beyond his own time.
Sometimes the tech that fell through the Rift was already switched on, or got accidentally triggered, by a rough landing, or by wildlife, or occasionally though careless handling. Accidents could and did happen, no matter how many precautions were taken, and at one time or another, every member of the team had fallen victim to the often bizarre and unexpected effects of unidentified alien devices. On occasions like that, everyone had to pitch in, studying the technology responsible, researching similar devices, and attempting to discover not only how it worked, but how to reverse its effects, all the while hoping and praying that this wouldn’t be the time their efforts were in vain.
Up to now, they’d been lucky; maybe they had a guardian angel or two watching over them because no matter how bizarrely they were affected by random devices, so far nothing had happened to any of them that they hadn’t been able to undo. That didn’t make them complacent though; if anything, it made them grow increasingly wary, because honestly, how long could they reasonably expect their good luck to hold? Sooner or later, there would come a time when despite all their ingenuity, something would happen that couldn’t be fixed, or undone, some disaster they were powerless to stop.
Perhaps this was it, Ianto thought. The end of the road. He’d been living on borrowed time since the battle of Canary Wharf, had survived countless ridiculous incidents, getting shrunk, or transformed into various kinds of animal, or turned weird colours, or made permanently sticky… Nobody lived forever, except for Jack; Torchwood agents had understandably short life expectancies due to the hazards of their work. He’d hoped he’d come to a more spectacular end though, dying during some heroic rescue, or saving the world. Death by archive mishap would be rather a letdown. Story of his life that was; one indignity after another. You’d think he’d be used to it by now.
The archives were full of dangers though. Many of the items stored in its maze of rooms and tunnels were still unidentified, shoved wherever they would fit and then just ignored. He’d been sorting and cataloguing their contents for more than five years already, making slow but steady progress, but every time he opened a room, or a crate, and started to sort its contents there was a chance he’d be poisoned, or blown up, or disintegrated, or sucked through a miniature black hole… He’d long since learned that around here, anything was possible.
This room was no different from the dozen previous small chambers along this particular corridor whose contents he’d already inventoried and identified, insofar as was possible. There were still a lot of things that had been described, photographed, assigned a catalogue number and a shelf space, then entered into the computer database without anyone knowing exactly what they were, but that was only to be expected. It had been the same in every section of the archives he’d sorted.
Ianto was not a superstitious man; the number thirteen held no fear for him and never had, but room thirteen on corridor C-9 was certainly proving unlucky. After two hours of hard work he’d been making good progress, already halfway up the floor to ceiling shelves along the right-hand wall of the small room, when he’d pulled out the next boxful of artefacts to sort and a small canister, lying loose towards the back of the shelf, had rolled across its slightly sloping surface before falling off the edge. He’d shoved the box back and grabbed for the falling canister, but it had slipped through his fingers and dropped to the rough stone floor, splitting open with a sound like glass breaking, and releasing a thick, pale yellowish vapour. It didn’t take a genius to realise that could be very bad for his health.
He scrambled down from the stepladder, holding his breath, and ran from the room as fast as he could, but before he was halfway along the corridor, alarms started to blare as the Hub’s sensitive systems detected an airborne contaminant loose in the archives, and the affected sections were immediately locked down. The ventilation system shut down too; the contaminated air would be filtered as it was sucked out and replaced by a mixture of gasses that would neutralise any residual pathogens. Ianto would be thoroughly decontaminated, but it wouldn’t do him any good because without access to breathable air, he’d be dead long before the process was completed, and that was always assuming that whatever had been in the canister didn’t kill him first. Trapped with no way out, holding his breath was obviously pointless now, so he let it out in a weary sigh and walked the rest of the way along the corridor breathing as normally as possible under the circumstances. He might as well accept that he was doomed.
The air was already getting thin and by the time he reached the locked, airtight door, he felt light-headed and a little giddy. He leaned his back against the cold metal and slid down until he was sitting on the equally cold stone floor. One little mistake and, barring a miracle, his life was over. For the first time in years, he closed his eyes in prayer, even though he knew there was no realistic hope of rescue. Nobody could get through the door behind him until the lockdown lifted. Forcing it open or overriding the lockdown would only open up more of the base to whatever had been released when the canister broke.
Breathing laboured, Ianto decided he must be hallucinating when he felt something softly touch his hand. He forced his eyes open in the red glow of the emergency lighting and found himself surrounded by a dozen or more strange creatures. They had multiple spindly legs, exactly how many he couldn’t tell since his vision was blurred, and a body vaguely resembling that of a horseshoe crab, from beneath which several tentacles extended. There were feathery antennae too, and what might have been eyes on stalks. He smiled faintly; he’d always wanted to see the archive monsters up close and it seemed he was finally getting his wish. Too bad he’d never get to tell anyone about it.
The creatures moved around him in a flurry of activity, fetching all kinds of unidentifiable things, and he wanted to watch them, try to figure out what they were doing, but it was getting increasingly difficult to breathe and he felt so tired. As tentacles tugged at his arm, he toppled over sideways until he was lying down, his head at last on their level. He lay there semi-conscious, only vaguely aware of movement around him, but when he felt something cover his mouth and nose, for a moment he panicked, struggling and trying to push it away. Then he felt a sharp pain in the side of his neck, and after that… nothing.
“Ianto! Ianto!” A loud voice was shouting his name, a heavy hand shaking him, and he groaned. He had a splitting headache and his mouth felt like he’d been licking dry concrete, arid and dusty with a cloying, metallic aftertaste. Was being dead supposed to be this unpleasant? Despite everything Jack had told him about there being no afterlife, he’d still always hoped for something nicer than this.
“Oi! Come on, Teaboy; wake up!”
That sounded an awful lot like Owen, which was absurd because Owen was alive and therefore it stood to reason he couldn’t be here…
“Ianto!” The rough hand shook him again and this time the voice penetrated the fog filling his throbbing head; it was as familiar to him as his own.
“Jk?” His voice sounded rusty and hoarse; must be where the metallic taste was coming from. Ianto flexed his parched lips, swallowed as best he could, and tried again. “Jack?” He forced his eyes open against painfully bright lights. “Why’m I not dead?”
“I’d like to know that myself. Somehow, while you were busy suffocating, you managed to cobble together some kind of breathing unit from bits of alien tech. Even I couldn’t tell you what half these things are.” Jack prodded at an outlandish contraption near Ianto’s head. “Don’t know how you came up with it, but it saved your life.”
“No.” Ianto shook his head slightly but stopped as he felt his brain sloshing about painfully inside his skull. Everything went dark again.
The next time Ianto opened his eyes he was lying on the bed in the Hub’s small, dimly-lit hospital room. There was a tube in his arm, an oxygen cannula up his nose, and a bulky shape slumped in the chair beside him. As his vision cleared a little, the shape resolved into Jack. He wondered how long his lover had been sitting there.
“Jack?” Ianto’s voice seemed to be working a bit better this time, although speaking was an effort and his throat felt a bit scratchy and sore.
The slouched figure jerked upright in the chair and Jack leant forward. “Ianto! You’re awake!” Jumping up, Jack ran over to the door and leaned out, bellowing, “He’s awake” at the top of his voice. Ianto really wished he hadn’t as the inside of his skull reverberated with the noise. Just like that, his headache was back with a vengeance. “Ianto?” A hand touched his arm lightly.
He didn’t remember closing his eyes again, but he must have. Cautiously he cracked one open to find Jack beside him again. “Um.”
“How are you feeling?”
Stomping footsteps approached and Owen’s voice said, “I’ll give you something for the pain.” Moments later, Ianto felt a tide of coolness spreading through his veins, and the pounding in his head eased back to bearable levels.
“Wh’t happened?” His memory was blurry; he remembered bits and pieces, the canister, and getting shut in the archives, but he wasn’t at all sure how he could be here, alive. Had Jack overridden the lockdown to save him?
“There was a spill of some kind in the archives; Owen’s running some tests on the residue in the broken canister to figure out what it was. You were trapped in the affected section when the automatic decontamination protocols were activated. When the doors opened afterwards…” Jack took Ianto’s hand and squeezed it, his voice shaking a bit. “You were lying just inside the door with this weird contraption wrapped around your head, some sort of life-support machine. Tosh is trying to figure it out, but she’s never come across anything like it. It looks like it’s been cobbled together from random bits of alien tech. What I want to know is how you managed to come up with the idea and build it while suffocating to death.”
Ianto shook his head slightly against the pillows. “Not me; them.”
“What ‘them’ are you talking about?” Owen asked, disbelieving. “You were alone in there, and according to Jack, there’s no other way in or out of that section other than by the door we found you lying against.”
“They must have their own ways we don’t know about. Don’t think there’s anywhere in the archives they can’t go if they want to.”
“Who?” Jack asked, although from the expression on his face, Ianto thought his lover already had some idea who he meant.
“Archive monsters.” Ianto smiled faintly. “I saw them, Jack. Really saw them. There’s more than I thought, a dozen at least, and they’re intelligent, way more advanced than us. They saved me. I prayed for help and they came.” He closed his eyes, abruptly exhausted. “Tired.”
“Let him rest,” Owen said, and then, “Archive monsters? Was he hallucinating?”
“No.” That was Jack’s voice. “The archive monsters are real, it just never crossed my mind that they might be advanced sentient beings.”
“So we’ve got intelligent aliens living in the archives? What d’you think they want?” Owen didn’t sound happy.
“To be left in peace. They’ve been down there as long as I can remember and never done anyone any harm; I think they just want to be left alone to live their lives. They won’t bother us if we don’t bother them.”
“So why’d they save Ianto?”
“They must like him; they obviously have very good taste.”
Ianto smiled to himself, knowing Jack was right; the archives monsters were happy living in their self-imposed seclusion, and they were benevolent. Clearly they knew a lot more about the contents of the archives than he did, and were technologically superior to humans. However, they also knew enough about human physiology to devise and construct a suitable life-support machine on short notice. They must have been studying humans for a long time, and evidently considered him worth saving.
As soon as he recovered, Ianto was going back down there to say thank you. He was pretty sure they Archive Monsters would hear him and understand.