The air was suffocating, and the early morning banter usually shared with him and the rest of the guards was reduced to silence, and the floor was stained with blood and his gun was stained with mud and everything was stained, and the air was suffocating.
And yet, he breathed.
“We should report this.”
Ben bit his lip over his tepid coffee across the room. Liz didn’t look up from beside him; she just sat there and shook, with her legs pulled up to her stomach. And the dead on the floor, the dead that they convinced themselves were just sleeping because if they were dead they had failed and if they failed this they failed humanity, did not respond, and the blood around them laid still as a stagnant pond.
He said it again, louder.
“We need to report this. They need to know.”
Words as wasted as the bullets on the floor. He, Simon, formerly Agent Willner, would get meaningful response from his drastically reduced team.
The next one to breathe, to not suffocate, was Liz, and with her breath, she responded. With nothing meaningful.
“…What…what was that?”
“Nothing. It was…nothing. I didn’t see anythin. It didn’t come from us.” That was Ben, staring into the liquid in his cup that was more tap water and dirt than coffee, face smeared with mud and dirt from the collapsed ceiling.
Simon swallowed. How many people on their site? 50? 100? And the whole place, destroyed. They didn’t even get a good look at what did it, and honestly, what was the point? Everything failed. Everything. Not a single thing that they had been trained to do worked, and now the sun was rising and there was a city down the road and they had no guns and no phone and no equipment and no people and it was such a small site in the middle of nowhere and-
And Simon did not stand. He couldn’t, not anymore. Maybe it was the high adrenaline from the night before, maybe the sloppily bandaged gash on his leg, maybe a hundred and ten things it could have been. But there was no reason to.
Because it was Saturday morning.
Everything was in their place.
Nothing was broken. Everyone was alive, there were no bodies on the floor, no blood on his hands. It was a nightmare. He would wake up, would forget last night, would forget the blood and the fire and the screaming and the power outage and the death and the chaos and the suffocation, the utter suffocation of the next morning after, where the remaining three would sit around what used to be the staff break floor and pretend nothing was wrong.
Because everything was fine.
Nothing was wrong, and everything was fine.
Agent Willner breathed.
“Thank you for taking Site 19’s 72 hour Virtual Reality defense test.”
The woman’s voice came from all around them. Robotic. Calm. Why was she so calm? Ben looked up, fear in his eyes, then realization, then relief.
“The time is 8:00 AM. The date is July 6th. You have failed your mission. Live count: 3. Dead count: 76. To be placed in the field, you must contain your breach with a live count of 45. Your headset will be removed in a moment, as well as your IV. When you no longer see your surroundings, please exit the tank.”
Simon squeezed his eyes shut.
And opened them.
The scent of dirt and bodies and blood faded away to the sterile laboratory material of his tank and the face of one of the techs at the training canter, putting a bandage on his arm. Simon immediately looked down at his leg. Nothing.
“A little shaken up, huh?” the tech laughed and undid the latch on the door. “That’s alright. Clef threw a lot at you guys in the program. I think he’s at a meeting right now, but once he finds out only three of you guys were left…”
Simon didn’t respond. He felt sick to his stomach. Oh, god, that was awful, and so many people died and there was so much blood and it was all too fast and—
"Hey, if you're gonna hurl, at least get out of the tank first. These things are a bitch to clean."
Agent Willner looked at him, then went for the exit, crawling out of the tight space like he had done on night two to try to fix the power. That’s right, they had gone a day without power. What kind of attempt was that? Day one, minute one: always make sure there’s power on site.
The Virtual Reality room was more real than he had felt in 12 hours. Ben was waiting for him outside his tank, leaning on the cold metal, probably trying to resist a smoke. They were indoors, after all.
Simon gagged, then bent over and pressed his eyes shut, holding back hot acid in his throat.
"Easy there, buddy." Ben patted him on the back, then went back to not caring. Simon knew that was as much sympathy he was going to get from someone like Ben. He swallowed hard, then accepted the fatigue that came after, the extreme ache in his bones that came with his mind working nonstop for the past three days. You couldn't sleep in the Virtual Reality tanks.
Agent Willner swallowed again, testing the waters, then tentatively stood all the way and waited to see if he would vomit after all. After a few seconds, still nothing; he breathed a sigh of relief, and looked around. There were about 100 or so more metal tanks in the long room around him, connected on an overhanging balcony to a large computer that Clef had decided their fate on as trainees. He blinked. It was all so… real. So… palpable.
“They took ‘er down to Glass’s office. She was pretty shaken up.”
“Well, yeah, I mean… good lord, what was that thing?”
Ben shifted, putting a piece of gum in his mouth to repress the urge, then leaned back against the tank.
“I talked to Shelly just now- she died on the first night, but was watchin the feed off her laptop-“ He smacked his gum, “anyway, she said it was model 45. Said we missed step 26, and it had a huge blind spot.”
Simon leaned with him. Against the tanks, against what had been his horrifying reality for the past three days. “A blind spot…”
“Yup.” Ben laughed nervously. “After all that…it had a blind spot. We could have saved those rockets if we knew.”
“We could have saved some people from dying if we knew.”
“Aw, Simon, ain’t it the same thing?” Ben punched him in the arm and smiled. "And they're not dead. They're just dead in the test, remember? Hell, that's probably them right now." He gestured to the big window across from them. Sunny. Overlooking the forest and the main containment centers. A few people were throwing a Frizbee around.
What a nice day it was outside.
Agent Willner breathed.