I looked at it hatefully.
"This is all your fault!"
I attempted to throw the mug at the Arbitrator, to smash it, to let go of it.
Nothing of the sort was possible.
I flailed left and right. The mug did not budge. I could not let it go, no matter how hard I tried. It was as if it were glued to me with a strange static-like substance. It rolled between my fingers and from one hand to the other, but it was as if I were made of iron and the mug were a powerful rare-earth magnetic bearing coated with oil.
Why can't I let go of the mug?!
Did the Arbitrator's reconstruction of my organs have anything to do with this?
Upon giving up to prying the mug out of my hands, I turned to the Arbitrator and spoke.
I made my case calmly and clearly, pressuring various facts that my DNA couldn't possibly be on the mug and that I looked nothing like Captain and that it might as well scan my memories for evidence or something of that sort.
"EVIDENCE IS PRESENT! OUR SCAN REVEALED YOUR SECONDARY FACE INSIDE YOUR SPINAL-BASED COMPARTMENT!" The arbitrator boomed, the interior of wherever the hell we were in, shifted when it spoke.
It was as if I were inside an enormous lung composed of soft, mobile crystals.
I had no clue what it was talking about.
My backpack. It was still on me. Right.
I pulled the strap down and unzipped it slowly.
Perhaps there was something in there that could help my case?
No. NO. NO!
Captain's perpetually smiling face stared at me, mischievously taunting me, as I held it in my hand.
This simply didn't make sense. Why were captain's mask and scarf inside my bag?
There were supposed to be supplies in here, cans, bullets, medical adhesive strips and other useful items.
Why?! What?! Where did they go?
Was I Captain?
My mind cracked, spilling out memories, an array of imagery rising from the depths of my nightmarish past, rewinding the tape of my life backwards with an imaginary cranking sound.
Did I imagine Captain being there, on the ice?
How could that thin ice possibly take Captain's weight? Was the water so thin that it seemed like Captain's boots didn't sink in it at all?
...that it seemed like walking on water?
When I lost my favorite rifle, did I... pretend that captain was there next to me?
How could someone only a few inches taller then me be completely unaffected by the thermonuclear explosion of the Alien vessel that flung a cloud of debris and my body across the street?
Was I simply talking to myself when that phone booth rang? Did it even ring?
Oh god. Oh no.
Did mutants ever pay attention to Captain? Did the hideous "Photoshop" worm ever try to eat my mad commander?
I tried to recall such an instance and I could not.
It mostly ignored Captain... and so did all the other beasts of the wasteland. They usually went right after me, I had a smell and I was incredibly delicious to all sorts of deadly things.
Did I imagine Captain standing over me all those times when I woke?
Did I commandeer Pilot, all while dressed up as Captain?
Did Pilot even exist? Did Engie? No, they must exist. I can't question everyone's existence now.
The little straws of unexplained things that always happened to Captain chipped away at my sanity and snowballed into a hideous, confusing pile.
- - -
When I was lost in the dead zone, crawling in the ashes amidst the irradiated rubble of Eureka, knowing that I no longer had a home, knowing that my squad, my science team and my tourists were done for, knowing that there was not a living soul left anywhere for thousands of miles, knowing that I was about to die myself from exhaustion and lack of food, did I simply find a mask and imagine myself as Captain to give myself something to cling to? Someone to tell me what to do, no matter how utterly ridiculous, to distract me from the horrible hopeless existence of knowing that everyone I knew was dead and it was all my fault?
A friend, someone to talk to, someone that wouldn't ever give a crap about what I did in the past?
I tried to recollect that day. The day I met Captain...
The day I finally lost all hope. My dead zone crawler had run out of gas and I'd been walking for countless hours in circles trying to find anything useful, anything left intact, afraid to fall asleep, afraid to miss a sound, a voice.
The city was dead, the Zone had won, just like Dr Gromov feared.
What was it that Gromov offered humanity?
Immortality in the machine, your mind preserved forever on the servers, incapable of feeling sadness or pain, only if you absolutely supported the Good Directorate and bought their products, surrendering all your thoughts to them.
Death and suffering in the hellish, frozen wasteland if you don't...
I was too late, I missed the war, or the conflict, or the last stand, whatever it was.
Did the 1% finally initiate their promised plan of blowing up ANNET's towers one by one?
Did I start the war by wishing for a better humanity, or by continuously sabotaging ANNET's servers in my hateful spite for their nonacceptance of my person, for all of those bastards calling us soulless?
I did passionately hate that term, but had I finally snapped and sabotaged ANNET's core before I left to the Zone for the last time?
I tripped on the massive tracks that a humongous war-machine must have made. The tracks rammed across several office buildings, toppling them in the process. More tanks like this one were frozen solid, glittering far off in the distance, their electronics wiped out by the electromagnetic blasts of the nukes.
This was it, I realized. I had nobody left. There was no strength left in me to get up. The gray snow, intermixed with ashes fluttering from the sky, had begun to cover me. The bitter cold was eating me alive. I was dying from exhaustion and I knew it, giving up.
I squinted, my eyes closing.
A tall, capped figure appeared in the snowy mist.
I blinked. It did not vanish, but it made no sound of footsteps as it marched towards me.
The figure reached out towards me, offering me a hand, loudly proclaiming, "Bonjour, monseigneur, zee weather is rather lovely this spring, don't you find? Why, you look rather shabby! Do you fancy a taste of bourbon? No? How about an exquisite job opportunity with partial dental benefits and potential chances of advancement in zee ranks?"
Did I imagine that strange moment in time of meeting Captain? The unexpected angel of mercy that found me when I needed it most?
I tried to grasp at the totally insane string of logic that lead me nowhere.
The world stopped making sense, ever since they'd installed those cursed ANNET broadcasting towers to copyright, to take control of, the last vestige of humanity - our thoughts.
The towers were shattered and inert now, but my perception must have remained slightly warped even when I was no longer in broadcasting range.
The unexplained anomalies we'd discovered in the Dead Zone on the surface of the frozen, receding ocean were clearly not meant to be understood by human minds.
They were something from another world, a place that no longer belonged to us, something that the war had unleashed, or perhaps something that came from other worlds like the Arbitrator, or perhaps something made accidentally when the Directorate began to lose control of their reality-bending projects?
We wanted absolute power over our universe and in our careless reach. In our quest... we broke the world.
We wanted to find or to create God and so we did. It even spoke to me, whatever it was that they called it?... "Anomaly 441", "God of the Wishing well", "Satan's Arse", "The black star"... It promised me that all my dreams would come true.
That was the first thing that spoke to me that I chose to ignore... and yet I still continued in my persistence to ignore things that talked, things that should not be talking... like the damned ceramic heart mug that clung to my hand.
The "Anomaly of God" broke my team, drove them mad with its absolute power, turned them against each other like the "gold rush" of a long forgotten era of Earth's history, and so I must have killed them all, and it must have driven me to that ultimate moment... to becoming something other than myself... to being Captain?
...to leading other hopelessly lost souls across the wasteland on an endless series of epically pointless quests.
- - -
I was at a loss. Lost in my thoughts. Lost in my past. Who was I?
My name is Charles Snippy!
MY NAME IS CHARLES SNIPPY!" I chanted to myself, focusing.
The Arbitrator monstrosity stared at me, judging me, evaluating my frantic movements, as I shakily tried to stuff Captain's mask back into my backpack. I must have have thrust the mask back too quick, it flung the scarf outwards and now it oddly wrapped around my neck.
This was not making my case of not being Captain any better.
The scarf!? It moved on its own! It was alive!
I recoiled in terror, pulling at it.
Flesh made of metal, metal made of flesh.
The thing Captain dubbed "CANCER".
It was the unspeakable horror of my nightmares that pierced my body and invaded my spine.
It was real. It was here, with me. It followed me! How did I not realize what the Captain's scarf was?
It was cold, paralyzingly cold like instant frostbite.
Its glowing, red flesh flowed in my fingers and felt oddly enough like a pantyhose filled with sharp and heavy sewing needles.
Wherever it touched, I felt numbness spreading, my nerve endings surrendering their warmth and control.
Flowers and fleshy twines intertwined, twisted and formed themselves into an animal-like skull.
The face of terror looked at me and uttered in a reverberating hiss:
"Claim... diplomatic... immunity!"
The room changed again, the Arbitrator spread its limbs, resounding:
"YOUR ORDINANCE LICENSE HAS BEEN SUSPENDED FOR...
TEMPORAL MALPRACTICE AND AVATAR MISCONDUCT!"
I had no idea what it was shouting on about.
Was it talking to the fleshy scarf?
"THE RUNAWAY AVATAR AND THE INSUBORDINATE
AI PLANETARY DEFENSE NETWORK WILL BE DEALT WITH."
"WE HAVE MADE THE DECISION TO DISMANTLE
THIS PLANETARY BODY!"
Now... that didn't sound nice at all.
"A DARK MATTER DROP HAS BEEN RELEASED INTO THE ORBITAL EXOSPHERE!
ONCE THE SINGULARITY DETONATION CONSUMES THE PLANET...
WE WILL RIDE THE EVENT HORIZON TO UNIVERSE COMPENDIUM!"
It was going to open a black hole in Earth's atmosphere!?
My poor dead, radioactive world, so this was to be its end... and only I knew of why it happened.
Lines of light akin to comet tails shot out from the Arbitrator's black, sparkly limbs.
They intersected and converged around me, forming a strange, pulsating, hexagonal web.
The cocoon of intersecting beams pushed my arms and legs together, towards my body.
"EXCUSE THIS TEMPORARY CONCENTRATION OF YOUR PERSON...
THE DETONATION OF YOUR WORLD MIGHT CAUSE YOU MINOR DISCOMFORT.
PLEASE MIND YOUR APPENDAGES AND POSSESSIONS!"
The spidery space-monster rumbled at me. I was its delicious butterfly.
The Arbitrator had made up its mind.
There was no use convincing it of anything else now.
Where was it taking me? Did it plan to lobotomize me in some sort of space-court?
The Earth was doomed. I was doomed.
Here and now according to all evidence, I was... Zee Captain.