The room was blue.
The walls were pale blue, the carpet was a gray blue and the sheets and pillows on the bed were several different shades of color somewhere between light blue and light green.
The only thing that wasn't blue was the television screen that took up a good portion of the wall across from the bed, and a simple wooden chair.
The chair had a blue cushion on it and the television had an endless stream of boring movies, uninteresting albeit 'educational' documentaries. If he turned it off after a while it would start to play what was probably supposed to be soothing ambient noise unless he made a point of turning it off again. The noise would eventually start up again on its own if he kept it off for too long.
And that was the entirety of the world as far as Captain Robert Cross could tell. There were no windows, no real doors, there wasn't even a bathroom, not that he had needed one since waking up in the room.
At least there was an e-book reader of unknown make that he could turn to when boredom threatened to overwhelm him. Unlike his viewing options, his choices of reading material were near limitless, or nearly so. When he looked at nonfiction or books based on current events that had happened past the late 90s there was a lot of science fiction mixed in, getting worse and worse with each passing year, going so far as to having works of blatant fiction that were supposedly published in 2008 and beyond. None of the supposedly true accounts of what happened in the future mentioned anything about the Manhattan outbreak, which would have been funny if not for the wild conspiracy theories that existed in its place.
So while it was nice to finally get a chance to catch up on his reading and even get a glimpse of what his favorite authors had done in the future, he yearned for a newspaper or something nonfiction written closer to the time of his…death.
The last days of the Manhattan outbreak had left him prepared for death on account of his ending up infected with Blacklight or Redlight or whatever the hell it had mutated into at that point. Hell, by the time it was over he longed for death considering all he'd been put through by that point. He simply wanted to know what had happened after that point.
When he'd initially been infected due to injuries sustained during his fight with Mercer, his first instinct had been to report what had happened immediately, but circumstances seemed to conspire against him in one way or another. At first they had been fairly simple, his superiors not being available long enough to hear his explanation beyond chewing him out for failing to capture Mercer. Later the situation grew increasingly complex as he was pushed into the most unbelievable, most harebrained scheme imaginable to catch Mercer. During all of the chaos it took all his effort to keep track of what he was supposed to be doing, who he was supposed to be lying to and what he was supposed to be telling them as well as constantly being reminded why those orders were good ideas. To put it simply, he was involved in too much and kept too busy to get the chance to mention that he way dieing, but there were other reasons for his silence as well.
Spite had been a big part of it at first. It had been made clear to him that Randall was aware of it and strongly disapproved of the plan he had been ordered to carry out and by that point there was little love lost between the two of them. After the years of working under Randall getting the chance to stick it to the arrogant prick had been too much to pass up. Besides, he kept telling himself that he'd tell the whole truth the moment he started to go symptomatic. In hindsight the whole plan was absurd. Sending Mercer into sabotage the Bloodtox plant as part of some trick to gain his trust was stupidity of the highest order, but he'd gone along with it. It just went to show what happened when you were worked to the point of exhaustion and got caught up in the moment.
After years of trying to avoid the politics that plagued Blackwatch he found himself thrown in the middle of it all during the biggest clusterfuck in the history of the organization. There were times when he felt like he was running around in circles, and just when he had things under control enough that it felt safe to confess, Taggart went insane.
There was no other way of putting it, out of the blue the man went crazy, abandoning all logic and running to nowhere. What had he expected to happen if he managed to get away? The fact that Taggart managed to get his men to go along with him and get a few D-Codes to join in should have been impossible.
Worse, if that was even possible, there were times when he felt like he was autopilot, and not in the 'shoot, kill, reload, repeat' sense. It was like an out of body experience without actually leaving his body, watching the world through his own eyes without actually participating in any of what he was doing. He'd have blamed it on the virus, except he'd seen enough men die of Redlight to know that it didn't make you walk around going through the motions. The virus made you violently crazy and except for the growing despite to punch Randall in his smug face he wasn't experiencing any abnormal violent urges. Hell, at that point not wanting to kick Randall's ass would have been abnormal according to all the guys he knew.
At least Taggart's insanity had allowed him to spring the trap he'd been running himself ragged to set. Days had felt like they lasted for weeks at that point with all the things he'd had to cope with and he was exhausted. The conversation with Mercer on the roof had been a relief, the chance to just stop and rest and listen as someone else tried to make sense of everything for a change.
Mercer's story had been interesting to say the least, but it was nice to know that he wasn't the only one out there feeling like his head was about to explode from all the bullshit he'd been through. Hell, he'd actually felt bad for Mercer, knowing exactly what it felt like to go on one fool's errand after another as the world fell apart around him. If there'd been time he might even have told Mercer his side of the story since, when it was all over, the pair of them would be equally dead.
During the helicopter ride to the carrier he really started slipping, his vision getting blurry, the sounds stretching and snatches of conversation seeming to loop over and over again and it kept getting worse. By the time the helicopter landed he had no clue how he managed to stand up and walk when the deck of the ship kept jumping in and out of perspective, sometimes vanishing altogether. He'd made the mistake of looking out at the water and it had been just about the most horrifying thing he'd ever seen. The waves moving in jarring chunks, often not even going in the same direction. When they met they shook and melded and went in a new direction entirely. Needless to say he didn't dare look up at the sky.
Beneath his feet the ship went from being too still to bucking and shaking like it was going to fall apart. He kept telling himself that it was all in his head, all because he way dying of the virus, but that didn't feel right to him. There was no rage, no madness, just a bone weary exhaustion that went beyond anything he'd ever felt.
He watched too numb to comment about the futility of it when Randall shot the disguised Mercer in the head. Against all logic Mercer dropped to the deck and remained still, blood flowing from the wound just like he was human. It was too perfect to match any of Mercer's previous mimicry, but he remained silent, following Randall across the deck until the General took out his gun and aimed it at him. So Randall knew, that was the end of it then. At least he could die with a clean conscious that he had not been concealing anything by not mentioning that he was infected.
Then everything went to hell, if it hadn't already been there.
Mercer literally appeared out of nowhere behind Randall, still looking like Taggart right down to the gunshot wound clean through his head. It made no sense since they had left him lying on the ground over a dozen meters away and there was no way he could have covered the distance without them noticing. Mercer blurred and warped and reverted to his true form before grabbing Randal and during the whole thing Cross just stood there, watching. There was a good minute where Mercer did nothing but stand still, eyes glazed over and he did nothing, and not for lack of trying. He willed himself to lift his weapons, take a step, do anything, but all he did was stand as though he were locked in place. Then when he finally did something it was all wrong, he had never meant to grab Mercer, spout nonsense and then…
What happened after that didn't bear thinking. It was horrible, wrong and he still felt nauseous when he thought about it. All that mattered was that it way more or less a mercy when Mercer finished him off.
Then, instead of the expected nothingness, he woke up in the blue room, immobile on the bed as the most generic looking female doctor he could imagine explained to him that he had been through a lot and needed time to recover. She reassured him that they, whoever they were, were doing all they could to help him. He tried to ask where he was, find out why he was in a hospital when he was supposed to be dead, but she was gone by the time he was able to mutter a garbled protest.
It was like that for an unknown length of time. He would fade in and out of consciousness, the doctor showing up occasionally to talk to him, ask him questions about how he was feeling and if he was experiencing any discomfort. There was more to what she said, but at the time he was too tired, too out of it to make any sense of it.
By his best estimates it took nearly a month before he was well enough to come to any conclusions about the place where he was being held and when he did the one he reached was simple.
The room was hell.
Neither of his parents had been terribly religious so he only had the stereotypical notions of hell, none of which lined up with the blue, blue room. Looking back, if he'd been asked to imagine his own personalized hell before this he would have figured it to be populated with walkers who looked suspiciously like dead friends of his, assorted runners covered in blood trying to tear him apart or do even more unspeakable things, and maybe that one guy from the high school football team thrown in for good measure. Never had he thought it would be a simple blue room with television, books and a deliberately bland psychiatrist subtly similar to every doctor who'd ever conducted a psych-eval on him.
Said doctor would knock on a door that wasn't even there, announce herself and then appear to tell him nonsense about virtual reality, simulations, New England football teams, global conspiracy theories and things out of science fiction like cyborgs, nanomachines and artificial intelligence. Then she would move on to telling him about wars that had never happened, only to reassure him that he had a remarkably resilient psyche which was probably why he'd been chosen for the Blackwatch project. When he told her that he didn't believe a word she was saying, she told him that experiencing bouts of depersonalization and derealization were perfectly normal after what had been done to him. Of course she never quite explained what had been done to him.
It was the same every time she showed up, more and more nonsense as she told him about a world straight out of a bad science fiction novel as though it were the absolute truth. There was also her insistence that what he knew about Blackwatch wasn't true. She also made up all sorts of things about how Blackwatch was part of a project set up to determine how much stress a person could take before they broke. Once she mentioned that of all the people to have been used in the Blackwatch project he was the only remaining one who could be considered sane, which was why they were working so hard with him.
The first time he bothered to speak to her past the most basic of information about who he was and questions about where he was, was to tell her to stop calling Blackwatch a 'project', stop babbling about shadow organizations controlling the government and world finances, stop talking about Manhattan being fine, stop telling him that the Redlight virus was fake and that things like cyborgs, giant robots and nanomachines were real. He went on to demand that they give him access to real information rather than all the conspiracy theory bullshit they were trying to feed him as news. Previously it had all been too unreal to bother trying to have an actual conversation, but by then he was thoroughly sick of it all. She and whoever she worked for were treating him like he was an idiot and he'd gone along with it for long enough.
She had seemed surprised by his outburst, but other than that nothing went any different than normal. It was only after she vanished back to wherever she came from that he started genuinely thinking about what she'd said for lack of anything better to occupy his mind with. Her claims that everything he'd experienced since joining Blackwatch was part of some virtual reality simulation was absurd and the easiest way to get her to stop would be to come up with a reason why. The problem was, try as he might, he was unable to come up with a satisfactory way to prove it false. Instead the more he thought about it the more plausible it sounded. Coming up with mundane things that wouldn't be included in something that wasn't real should have been easy, yet for every example he thought of he came up with situations where it might not have held true. Some of it might have been simply him forgetting unimportant details, but it was too common a phenomenon to be just that.
Life had gotten strange once he became part of Blackwatch, but over time he'd stopped thinking that any of the peculiarities were unusual as well. Mostly this was because the majority had been utterly forgettable, mundane little things that only seemed troubling in hindsight. Not keeping track of small things and drifting out of touch with family and former friends had been understandable. The times when he'd tried to look into getting in touch with someone he should have been able to find only for things to fail to work out were harder to justify. Reasonable, ordinary things always happened to prevent him, just like the situation in Manhattan had seemed reasonable until the end.
That line of thought got him examining mulling over all the small details about life before and after Blackwatch. Things were missing. There simply hadn't been the opportunity for any of it to sink in at the time. The number of runners he'd helped track down didn't quite feel right compared to the total number he'd heard about, towards the end he'd been there for too many of them. Dates and spans of time didn't line up and very little of what happened hadn't been directly related to active efforts to contain the Redlight virus. Then there were the feelings of deja vu, the seemingly impossible coincidences, the most memorable of them being the close call right before his spectacular success at Two Bluff.
During that one he'd been injured badly during a series of coincidences that contributed to a perfect storm of worst case scenarios. He'd managed to kill the runner, but the building he'd been clearing collapsed as a result of an explosion that he still couldn't figure out the reason for. During that mission he'd sustained some pretty bad injuries. Career ending injuries because you didn't get dragged out of a building that had been full of walkers and expect treatment other than what that happened to any potential infected, military or civilian. He had been a bloody mess, yet instead of being shot right then and there, they took him to safety and waited for help to come. When he passed out from pain and blood loss he didn't anticipate waking up again.
After what had felt like months of delirious nightmares about surgeries straight out of a horror movie, he woke up in a hospital bed with a doctor telling him he'd been out for only a few days and that he was going to make a full recovery. At the time he'd been too shocked and relieved to stop and think about how badly he'd been injured and how unlikely he was to have gotten out of it all with only a few scars on his face and still have full use of his right arm.
There'd been next to no physical therapy needed and he was back to active duty way too fast, no questions asked, and no lingering problems from what he'd gone through. Then Two Bluff came and things went perfectly, except they hadn't really. It had been another series of bad luck and unlikely circumstances, but he'd been ready for them because they were so much like what had happened with the previous runner. Hell, at the end he'd been ordered to go after the runner alone, just like how he'd been the last man alive going after the one before. He'd come out of it a big hero and it was like everything that had happened before had been forgotten.
Now, trapped in the blue room all he could do was think about things, endlessly go over everything he'd experienced, everything that had happened and finding little flaws. There had been a pattern to it all, one that was only apparent now.
His earliest mission with Blackwatch, where he got to encounter infected for the first time had been, for lack of a better way of putting it, an awfully gentle introduction to what amounted to zombies. It had started out as a containment effort, where all they had to do was keep an already isolated community of survivalists from going anywhere. They were told that a runner had been tracked to the town and that it was only a matter of time before Redlight started to spread through the community. Their job was simply keeping it contained until an opportunity came to act.
There was a lot of shooting at first because it was a bunch of survivalists, which made it like pretty much all of the combat scenarios Cross had been in up to that point. It dragged on for days without anything happening that Cross would have considered unusual, making Blackwatch seem very ordinary to him. It was a letdown after what he'd expected when he first got brought into the elite organization.
When the shooting finally stopped it was because the survivalists had turned on their own and shooting each other. Cross had been told that it was because walkers must have started showing up. That was when he and the rest of the Blackwatch troops went in. Only then did he see his first infected, a walker and it had been from a distance. There had been a man covered in blood standing in the middle of the street and making horrible choking noises. Someone shot it before it even got close enough for him to get a good look at it.
He never even got to see the runner during that mission. One of the other teams managed to take it out while the team he was with made their way through the streets looking for human survivors and dealing with them. None of the ones they found even tried to give up, every one of them fighting right to the end, which made eliminating them easy.
The next dozen or so missions were a lot like that, just with more walkers that got increasingly aggressive as time went on. There the one, a kid, that lunged out from what had looked like a pile of dead bodies and ripped out the throat of the guy standing next to him. Up until then Cross had worried about what he'd do if he ever needed to shoot a kid. Seeing the little bastard crouched there crouched over a man he'd fought along side for months and tearing him to pieces made it easier than he would have imagined.
Looking back over everything he'd done as part of a series of events rather than isolated incidents it all lined up like is was part of a process. He'd been eased into the idea of zombies in the aftermath of a firefight with real people. Killing children was introduced with particularly violent infected. He'd never had to shoot someone begging for their life until after meeting his first runner face to face, and even then the begging civilians had been obviously infected, many of them having bitten while he watched. Hunters showed up only after walkers were routine and it escalated and escalated until Manhattan.
Blackwatch had left him thoroughly desensitized to all manner of horrible things, but it had all happened so subtly that the progression had hardly been noticeable.
It was a series of thoughts that he'd been over countless times since finding himself in the blue room and as little as he liked to believe it, some of what the mysterious doctor had told him almost made sense. He'd seen zombies and mutants and watched Manhattan burn, so why couldn't virtual reality and giant combat robots be real? Hell, the two opposing realities even mirrored each other. Just like you didn't say 'zombies' when you were in Blackwatch, the doctor would always say 'Metal Gears' when she obviously meant robots.
A knock on a door that wasn't there sounded above the white noise coming from the television, interrupting his thoughts. The doctor was about to arrive, marking the start of a new day. With no other way to mark the passage of days he'd taken to keeping track of time based on her coming and going. By his count he'd been trapped in the room for nearly two months, not counting the time when he'd been drifting in and out of consciousness.
"Hi Robert, how are you doing today?"
He looked at the spot where she appeared, chair and all. It always happened that way, one moment he was alone, the next she was right there.
"The same," it had gotten to the point where he was past the routine of 'name, rank, date of birth, serial number and the right to remain silent' and had moved on to a different sort of routine, "Why can't you let me out today?"
This time she smiled which did nothing to make her more pleasant or memorable, "A security firm donated one of their spare full-body systems to us. It still needs to be refurbished and prepped for installation but it's progress. There aren't any companies that make full-body, civilian grade cybernetics for adults right now so we're stuck using a stripped down military model, which isn't making things easier. Considering your circumstances we're lucky that we were even able to get the body to begin with."
It had been years since Cross had been through training on how to resist psychological torture, but he was pretty sure that this latest bit of nonsense was some form of it. They had to be trying to further break down his sense of reality, but since none of what he was experiencing could possibly be real there was little harm in responding. Hell, if she was in a talkative mood he might be able to get some actual information out of her, "And what exactly are my circumstances? Let's say that I believe you and this is all fake, that everything that happened to me since I joined Blackwatch was just part of some elaborate illusion. Why can't you just unplug it and let me out and see the real world for myself? Wouldn't that be easier for me to accept than having you tell me unbelievable story after unbelievable story, expecting me to believe it because you've repeated it so many times."
The doctor sighed and rubbed her temples, "You're making this difficult for me, you know?"
He stared at her, biting back the urge to make a comment about knowing the feeling. Instead he motioned for her to continue.
"Alright, alright," she paused to gather her thoughts, "I get that this is a lot worse for you since you don't know anything, that you've got years of time to catch up with and that until you can see it all for yourself none of it will be real to you. The problem is that the condition you're in makes it impossible for us to unplug anything until we have a body ready."
As she'd said once, during one of their previous conversations, progress was progress, and he was going press the issue as much as he could, even if it meant bringing up some unpleasant possibilities. The way she kept throwing the word body around and assuming that the year really was 2018 with technology going in the directions the supposedly nonfiction books he'd read had described, it could be that she was looking at the situation from her perspective rather than his. Maybe she was so used to the idea of even the worst injuries being fixed immediately that she was unable to imagine that he'd rather spend his time stuck in a hospital real, unable to move than be able to walk around freely while trapped in the blue room, "Let's say I'm willing to believe the worst. Are we talking missing limbs? Paralysis? Me lying in a hospital bed hooked up to a ventilator? Things like that happen, I can deal with it until you're ready to do what you have to do to get me back on my feet. You've been telling me from the start that you can fix it, so why not let me out until then?"
"Sort of," she sounded as frustrated as he felt as she gave the two word nonanswer before continuing in her usual calm tones, "Just give me a minute to figure out how to explain it. I've read your files, I think you can cope, but I don't know how to make you believe what I'd say. Even if I did show you given your current situation it probably wouldn't feel real to you."
She shrugged then went completely still, not moving not blinking, not even breathing. The resemblance to the hallucinations he'd experienced onboard the Reagan was uncanny, lending credence to what she had told him. A moment later she became animated again, "I called the technicians and asked them to patch the security feed from the room we've got you in into the VR system. Give them about thirty seconds and it'll come on the TV."
True to her word the television went on on its own, showing a black and white image of a room that wouldn't have been out of place in a science fiction movie.
Half a dozen computer monitors sat to one side of it, their screens displaying what looked like vital signs, brain activity scans and sequences of numbers scrolling by too fast for him to see. One of them even had a half finished game of solitaire on it, the little detail adding a sense of reality to the situation. It made no sense to include a little human touch like that in some elaborate deception. If anything it was proof that even in the year 2018 it seemed that people got bored at work.
Next to the computers was a woman in a heavily overbuilt office chair. The woman had some sort of elaborate headset on and her back to the screen. She raised a hand to wave at the camera without turning around. In her chair in the blue room with him the doctor mirrored the movement, "Sorry I've got my back to the camera right now, the sensors in the chair that match my avatar's movements to what I'm doing are kind of finicky that way. Every time I turn it around a few of them start going funny. You probably saw that earlier when it looked like I sort of froze."
"Oh," what else could he say to that? Technology not working like it was supposed to was such an ordinary thing, the sort of thing that they wouldn't have bothered to include if they were trying to convince him of something. After all, if they wanted to convince him that the science fiction world they'd told him about was real wouldn't they make the technology work perfectly? Of course they had yet to show him where he was, so it wasn't exactly like they'd proved anything other than that the image he was seeing on the screen was probably a real example of whatever it was that it showed, "Nice as it is to finally see you, where am I?"
"Right," the doctor sighed again and both she and the woman in their chair slumped down. When this happened the doctor appeared to, for lack of a better term, waver like a mirage, "You see why I try not to move around too much?"
She laughed nervously and looked at him in a way that made it clear she had been hoping that he would have figured out the answer on his own or not asked at all.
Rather than try and drag the answer out of her, he went back to looking at the screen, paying careful attention to the background, wondering if maybe the view of him was partially obscured by one of the pieces of equipment in the room. None of it resembled anything that he'd expect to see in a hospital, but if she was telling the truth technology was very different from what he was familiar with. The problem was, that apart from the computers, the view was dominated by a cylindrical object which he guessed was about two feet tall and two feet in diameter. It stood on a table that kept it so that the top was slightly above eyelevel, and it was covered in complicated latches and warning signs ranging from the mundane like 'This End Up' and 'Keep Closed At All Times', to the bizarre 'Caution: Live Human Brain'. Wires ran from the cylinder to the row of computers.
Cross stared at her, not sure if the thought that came to him was even possible, "You've got to be joking."
She smiled weakly, her response confirming his worst suspicions "It's not that bad. It's mostly just life support and the tech to keep you connected to the simulation. We've got you in an installation unit so a technician can get you into the body as soon as it's ready. It'll be two weeks more at most."
"Where's…" he started to ask if he could see the body she had been talking, but stopped himself, "Go away."
The doctor looked at though she wanted to say something, then she saw the look on his face and nodded. She vanished along with the chair she was sitting on. On the television screen the woman took off the headset, turned to face him and mouthed 'sorry' before the television turned off.
Two weeks she had said. At least that gave him something resembling a timeframe. Now he had a context for what she meant by him needing a body, if what she had said and what he had seen were real. If they were trying to break him they'd gotten damn close with that, but if Blackwatch had taught him anything it was how to cope when confronted with the most horrible situations imaginable. What had happened in Manhattan hadn't destroyed him and he would get through this in the same way. Besides, he'd spent enough time doing nothing but thinking to have a strategy to get through this latest shock.
In two weeks he'd know the truth one way or another. Either everything he knew was a lie and he was a brain in a vat, waiting to be put into some sort of machine, or the doctor would have more excuses about why he was trapped in the room, proving that he was in a hell where all that existed were the room, its contents and endless, absurd lies to fill him with doubt.
It was hard for him to decide which outcome would be worse, but he would find a way to deal with it when the time came.